SoloProtect is 15 years old!

As we approach a milestone this December, we ask the man who started it all, a few questions about the journey.

In 2002, Craig Swallow was struck by the story of a young Estate Agent who disappeared while working alone. He attended a conference led by Suzy Lamplugh Trust, the charity started in her memory, and noticed that all attendees tended to wear ID badges to prove their identity as part of their job. The thought of a discreet safety option, perhaps one that looked just like an ID badge, sprouted as his background in telecoms converged with his desire to help keep workers safe.

Connexion2 was formed in late 2003 and the original Identicom was born: a discreet ID badge form factor with the ability to connect users to 24/7 help at the push of a button. In 2015 the company changed names to SoloProtect, and in 2013 and 2014 the company began to expand to other markets including the US and Mainland Europe.

Now, 15 years from inception, and with over 275,000 SoloProtect devices manufactured, supporting lone workers in over 14 countries. We sat down with Craig to find out how far the industry has come and what the future of lone worker safety looks like.

How has the perception of risk changed since you began?

Actual risks have changed, and the perception of risk has changed. In some markets, like the US, there is a more active risk of gun violence. Other markets, like the UK, the perceived risk from knife crime is high and getting ever higher. Risks have increased and as a sweeping generalization, that’s an indicator that shows the deterioration in society’s ability to be patient and understanding with each other. It’s inherently linked to the human desire to get things done quicker. We’ve become ever more impatient as we expect things done now. If you look at a lot of the situations where you end up with verbal abuse which can, in turn, move over into physical abuse, it’s often because people aren’t prepared to be patient with each other or appreciate another person’s perspective.

When you look at physical risks that come as a result of the task that someone is doing or where they are doing it – slips, trips, falls, incapacitation – those types of risks over the last 10, 20, 30 years have reduced, not because those risks have gone away, but because employers have been held more accountable and they now take far more precautionary measures than they used to. They’ve almost turned a corner whereby from a marketing perspective it’s now beneficial to be seen as a safe employer.

Risks associated with social abuse, we’re not anywhere near turning that corner yet, but you’ve got to believe that’s the direction of travel in terms of actual risks.

Perceptions of risks have also changed. I’ve definitely seen a changing picture of how people have been willing to or not willing to accept risks in the job that they do. The common types are threats, racial abuse, and sexual harassment. We’ve all, generally speaking, become much less tolerant of that type of behavior. We’re far more likely to call someone out for that type of behavior and have our perspective listened to. The perception of the unacceptability of that type of risk, the perception that it’s damaging to someone mentally with their well-being is far more prevalent.

From a corporate perspective, have you noticed a difference in how companies assess and reduce those risks?

Yes, but I think we’re probably still on the relatively early stages of that particular curve. Big corporate companies are far more likely to have an appreciation of their brand equity and they’re far more likely to have someone or a department that has a particular responsibility for looking at business risk. 20 years ago, business risk might have been predominantly focused on financial or accounting risk. But these days a corporate risk officer, which most corporates have, has become a necessity. The appreciation from the market and shareholders is that risk heavily impacts share price. That’s a whole dynamic that has been driven by understanding and trying to protect against degradation in shareholder value.

What have been the biggest motivators for people to use SoloProtect solutions over the years?

The biggest motivator for corporate entities is the impact on the brand. Perhaps their insurers are saying you need to be more holistic as to how you look at risk and that’s brought them to the table. They’ve started to realise that there are a number of upsides to having your workforce mobile and flexible, but there are also some downsides. Characteristics like darkness and bad weather will increase the risks at certain times of the year. If you look at where we started 15 years ago in the UK, pretty much our whole focus was on the public sector - the health sector and local authorities. Those sectors were driven by a strong moral compass.

When did you start to see real success with the product?

What caused the market in the UK to take off was the level of engagement with the health sector. You can ask, well why did that happen? One reason was definitely fortuitous timing. We happened to home in on a sector that was starting to realise and understand the extent of the problem that they had. They were prepared to listen and ultimately, they believed that the deployment of a technology-based solution was an appropriate measure that they could take.

What encouraged you to make the jump from the UK into other global markets?

The issues that our solutions help resolve or make better are not UK-only specific issues. They’re issues that affect millions of workers in a great deal of countries. Only in those that are culturally and legislatively developed enough and where the public perception of the risk deems it unacceptable, it’s those markets where there should be business opportunities to grow.

What challenges has the business faced?

The biggest challenge that still exists is getting employers and employees to adopt. There’s an old adage that is applicable to all security technologies – the easiest person to sell to is the person that’s had an incident, and the hardest person to sell to is the person who has never had an incident. The biggest challenge is still getting employers to the table unless they have done the job of analysis where they understand the cost of an incident or they’ve been told they need to look at that either by their insurance or by a union or their workers. It’s often only when they have an incident that they take the full impact on the chin and realize this is something they need to be better at.

That’s true of many things, many types of insurance policies for example. There are plenty of different types of insurance policies today that companies wouldn’t have bought 10 or 20 years ago and arguably you could compare our solutions with an insurance policy – trying to mitigate that risk.

The biggest opportunity for us is to continue to innovate and invest in improving solutions that make those solutions more attractive to the employer and employee.

What do you see for the future of lone worker safety?

On the technology side, you can break that down to the device that the user carries plus the technology associated with the rest of the service. We are on the cusp of a very significant change as we move from our historical devices having been 2G and 3G cellular enabled devices with audio calls and text messages, into a world with devices moving more towards being 4G IP devices where all of the comms to and from that device are data in nature. That changes the technology on the device side and brings with it plenty of new opportunities for innovation and improvements in the experience for both the user and the receiving party, which typically would be the Alarm Receiving Centre. But we still think that for the foreseeable future, the quickest and most resilient route to raising an alert in the event of an incident is by having an audio call occur. It’s proven technology.

Another area, and one of our visions for SoloProtect Insights, is the ability to move towards a world whereby the workers and the employers are a little bit more proactive in being able to access information pertaining to actual risk and possible risk where they are. We’re moving away from the solution perhaps just being perceived as a button to press when you’re in trouble, to now this is a device to help you proactively understand what your risks may be as well as a button to press when you’re in trouble.

The third area is the Alarm Receiving Centre side of things where again technology is spurring change. First of all, the level of automation in how companies like ours could communicate with the responding parties – typically that would be emergency services – is going to get quicker, better, more automated. Certainly, from the responding parties’ perspective, I can see in the years to come the opportunity to be relaying dynamic information from the incident that will enable them to adjust their tactics in that response. That may well be the police, for example, knowing that when they knock on that door what’s behind that door is two armed aggressive people rather than two unarmed aggressive people. Or it could be triaging visually communicated medical information from an incapacitation type incident to medical response so that the appropriately qualified responders are engaged. The benefits are that you’re likely to solve the problem more quickly, the responding party is better prepared, and there is a cost-benefit as they’ll be able to allocate the right resource.

Who are the key industry stakeholders that influenced the success of the business?

The National Health Service (NHS), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), and some key unions like Unite and USDAW have become very vocal about violence and aggression at work and how unacceptable that is. They’re the ones that have really been the flag wavers to cause changes in perceptions and legislation.

In your career, who’s helped you along the way?

Looking internally, every single person in the business has influenced me and continues to influence me and that’s one thing that I very deliberately try and keep my mind open to. I still talk to every single person that joins the company and I’m really keen to understand what experiences they’ve had and what skills and knowledge they have that could benefit the business. I’m always looking for how we can do things better and more quickly to the satisfaction of our customers.

Outside of the business, and aside from our customers, there have been a number of people that helped me along the way. Originally from a market perspective, I learned a lot from the people I engaged with at the NHS. Ann Sherborne and Alex Nagel specifically. I’ve learned a lot from a technology and monitoring and standards perspective from Tony Weeks at the National Security Inspectorate. I learned a lot from Sheila Brewer at the RCN, she was very instrumental in those early days and is unfortunately no longer with us. Kim Sunly at the RCN picked up her work and was very helpful to me in understanding specific dynamics in the health sector. But the one person above all who has been instrumental in helping me understand lone worker safety is someone I’ve never met: Suzy Lamplugh.

If you could go back 15 years ago and give yourself one piece of advice, what would that be?

To be a little bit more patient. As is true of many businesses, many startups, many new ideas, things have happened more slowly than you would have hoped.

A lot of what we’ve learned from the UK market about the issues that have influenced the speed, we are using in the new markets. We now have those checks and balances to make sure that the appropriate pieces of the jigsaw are in place for the market to grow.

As the industry moves forward, what is the single biggest change you’d like to see in the lone worker market?

I’d like it to become a legislative mandate that if you are working away from colleagues, then you must be protected. You can look back now and think, well, I can’t imagine a day when wearing a seatbelt, having cat’s eyes on the road, or having life vests on a ship or an aircraft wouldn’t be a legal requirement, and that’s because we’re long past the point of understanding that having those things mean the better survival of people in a safety situation. That would be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Looking back on all that you’ve accomplished, what is your proudest moment?

It’s difficult to single one out. Making the first version of the Identicom – turning that from a concept and a series of drawings into a commercial reality – that would be one. Achieving the deal with the NHS would be another because that was a hugely complicated deal and, across all of my career, that’s the single biggest deal that I’ve ever been involved with or helped to make happen.

Being able to get to a point when we could provide funding back to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust as well – it’s just that closing of the circle. The idea was created based on a set of factors that came about as a result of an individual’s death, and since 2013 or so being able to make contributions back to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust to support the work that they do has been deeply rewarding.

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