Sheffield software firm builds UK's biggest track and trace app

A Sheffield software company which helped dozens of hospitality firms survive lockdown has ensured its own future after building the UK’s number one track and trace app - in just five days.

Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 9:40 am

Airship Services gave away software that allowed 1,100 shuttered pubs and restaurants to make money selling vouchers and switch to home delivery, including Rafters and The Beer House in Sheffield and the Devonshire Arms at Middle Handley, which raised £25,000.

It then ‘cleared the decks’ after Boris Johnson announced pubs could reopen on July 4 - as long as they took customers’ details - and built a track and trace app in five days.

Today ‘trck.to’ is used at 8,500 venues and has logged 10m people, making it the biggest in the UK. Customers include Pret a Manger, Costa, Wetherspoons and Subway.

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Dan Brookman, entrepreneur boss of Airship.

The decision to drop everything was made by owner and chief executive Dan Brookman who mulled the reopening announcement and then committed the 22-strong company to the challenge.

He said: “It’s been incredible, for the last two months it’s been our biggest seller.

“The rules came from nowhere, no one had a product for it. A lot of tech companies raced to get it live for the Saturday when pubs reopened.

“Track and trace has helped to ensure we will survive and provided a source of future customers.”

Stephen Evans, Dan Brookman and Sophie Nadin at Airship on South Street, Park Hill.

Airship merely processes personal data and does not own it, or see it, he added.

The team had downed tools to focus on urgent projects five times in previous months and only twice was it worth it, while being incredibly disruptive, he admitted.

He added: “In business you take risks, you’ve just go to go with your gut sometimes. I’ve made a ton of mistakes over the years.”

Mr Brookman’s instinct has been honed by 25 years of working for himself in Sheffield.

Airship, South Street, Park Hill.

Aged 17, he devised a Monopoly-style board game based on the then new Supertram, with shops and cafes and venues on the route.

But while Supertram was keen, shopkeepers hated the idea as much as they hated the chaos that construction had caused.

Pitching to hostile traders at Middlewood shops is an experience that has stayed with him for 30 years.

His next attempt went better.

Co-founder Dan Brookman took over as Airship boss two years ago.

Aged 22, he bought the boarded up Hillsborough baths and turned it into The Deep End music venue, raising an impressive £500,000 investment from a bank.

The Art Room on Campo Lane followed and then a £250,000 fit out to create Bar Rocket, a premium venue in Chesterfield. It turned out to be his downfall.

But before disaster struck he launched Seraphic records on Paternoster Row and gave record deals to a couple of bands including the Lazy Dollies, which also went on tour.

In the end he had “seven or eight” companies and employed 90, all before he was 30.

But Bar Rocket came back to haunt him.

He said: “On the first night, the first punter’s first words were, ‘What’s your cheapest drink?’ It was seen as just another circuit pub.”

It failed to thrive, partly because he was spread too thin, and before long all the firms began to run out of money.

In 2003 he closed the last one, the Art Room, and walked away from them all, burned out.

“I was very inexperienced. My biggest error was not bringing in people who were better than me. The team at Airship are ten times better than me. But it was great fun, I gave the ball a decent kick.”

Down but by no means out, in 2003 he co-founded a business sending bulk text messages, primarily for club nights such as Ministry of Sound and Gatecrasher.

PowerText would send 25,000 texts at 5p each, making them a “nice margin.” That went great until the first iPhone killed the business overnight - since it sent emails free.

The company became Airship and he took the reins two years ago, switching it from an agency which did clever things for hospitality firms to a company that sold software so they could do it for themselves.

February was its best ever month, thanks to strong sales of its customer relationship management product.

And then the pandemic struck.

He said: “Sales disappeared over night as clients disappeared over night. There was panic. I had clients ringing me in tears. This is a very passionate industry, people love it and live it and breathe it.”

Airship made four redundant to survive. But took them back on when the furlough scheme was announced. But while that was a good thing, he has reservations about Eat Out To Help Out.

“Sales have dropped 15 per cent since it ended. Customers are only loyal to the discount. Continuing it, as some are, is counter productive.”

Coronavirus will kill 30 per cent of the hospitality trade, he believes.

Last year, Airship, based on South Street, Park Hill, received a £500,000 investment from Mercia via NPIF. They are on a trajectory to exit the business in a few years.

At which point Mr Brookman, aged 47, says he might move into investing in and mentoring start-ups in Sheffield.

He added: “I have invested my life in Sheffield, it’s my home and I’m not going to leave it. If I could invest in start-up businesses in the city, that would be an incredible thing to do.”

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