5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My SaaS: With David McKee of Slingshot Simulations

Do you know your business could be much bigger than it currently is, but aren’t sure how to get there? I can help!

Get the team right! Build the right team, with the full understanding of what’s involved. They have to have the understanding of these points, and must be invested in the business. You cannot just hire someone that’s not suitable for your first 4–10 people. You need all-stars who are phenomenally good at what they do. You’re competing against companies with 50, 500, maybe 10,000 people, and you need to deliver the same amount of work.

As part of my series about the “5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My App or SAAS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing David McKee, CTO and Founder of Slingshot Simulations: The world’s first Simulation-as-a-Service provider using a NO Coding approach to building digital twins.

Before forming Slingshot, David worked at the University of Leeds leading on the research and development of Cloud simulation platforms, where he gained over 20 academic publications.

As a Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise fellow, David also keynotes at tech conferences globally on topics related to simulation and smart cities.

A few years on and Slingshot’s platform has been applied to domains of logistics, cities and transport, and even bioscience. David’s vision is to create an Internet of Simulation platform that is faster, easier, cheaper and a model that anyone can use to create simulations in minutes (not months) that can run at any scale in real-time.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Slingshot Simulations was formed as a spin out from the University of Leeds, based on seven years of Research and Development (R&D) with PhD students and post-graduates, and £3m from the UK government.

After that, a patent was filed in summer 2019 building on our research with some of the world’s largest tech companies — Google, Rolls Royce, Alibaba. Since 2013, I was leading as the Chief Architect and doing my PhD at the same time as my primary supervisor left the university halfway through my three year PhD, and so we progressed the technology further and faster. Over that time, we slowly started to gather the people who are now part of the team, officially forming the company in 2019.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

The aha moment was during the first two months of my PhD. I realised I needed to simulate data centres, and although we had world leading experts on how to analyse them here in the UK, we didn’t actually have any big data centres! When you’re doing research, that’s a bit problematic. I didn’t want to fly to China every week!

Typically researchers would spend 9 months building simulation models and then several months running them. I didn’t want to waste 12 months building something that may not work as 1 year out of a three year PhD programme is a long time to commit to something that may not produce results.

So I built a completely new abstract platform, which was a simulator, and delivered Version 1 in six weeks. After two months, I had run large scale data centre simulations on a larger scale than my colleagues. Since 2013, we’ve come a long way.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Giving up is never an option, that just doesn’t enter my mind, and never has. The hardest points are twofold: trying to solve technological challenges, and finding investment.

When you come across a technology challenge, you have to stop and think about why it is not working. It’s the standard engineering life when you try to run things on scale — at the moment, we face this 2–3 times a week because we are doing things with technology platforms that they’re not designed to do. Whether game engines or new computer languages, we’re pushing them to their limits, which introduces an interesting challenge. It’s always a fun challenge, but when where you are banging your head against a table, it can hurt.

As you go through the journey of forming your company, you then hit the element of fundraising too. Biggest challenge for us was that the first Venture Capitalist (VC) we interacted with couldn’t grasp the technology. The initial investors didn’t want us talking to anyone else but couldn’t get past the complexity of the tech so we had to get them to say ‘no’ before we go to another.

After six to nine months of frustration, we knew they weren’t going to understand. That was a big learning lesson for us because we quickly realised that people get it or they don’t. When you talk about digital twins or simulations, what that means depends on who you are talking to. For 50% of the community, it’s dashboards — and they aren’t new, they’ve been around for 30 years — and for the other 50%, it’s high engineering systems.

But there’s a middle ground between these which is huge from a business perspective, and there’s only a small community actually in it. There are maybe a handful of companies in the UK that are in this space, maybe three or four — and globally, probably only 20. When a VC doesn’t get it, you may as well walk to the next meeting, because no matter how much you talk, they won’t get it.

It’s been interesting to learn this: it’s got nothing to do with qualifications, as we’ve worked with people from all backgrounds and all walks of life, from high engineers to warehouse managers. It’s a fascinating challenge, because you need people who have the imagination beyond the possible to attempt new things. It was a big frustration for our journey — but when we talked to the right investor, it was a relief!

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

In summer 2019, we raised investment of £750,000 as seed funding. £500,000 of that came from Northern Powerhouse funding, and £250,000 came from the University of Leeds. We have grown the team, from September 2019 when it was just me and one other person, to four office staff, two executives, and two interns.

We’ve grown quickly in 5 months, which is exciting and terrifying! With every new member of staff there is a change in dynamics, we’ve recently moved into a new office, and we are enjoying new opportunities. Leeds City Council took us to Barcelona to the Smart City Expo to be a showcase company, which was a big opportunity for us.

Only this week, we were selected to represent the Leeds and York region in the MIT Regional Entrepreneurship Acceleration Program (MIT REAP). Only Slingshot Simulations and one other company were selected to present as a showcase, and while the other company is also a spin out from the University of Leeds, that was 17 years ago and they now have a £300m turnover!

We’re now at the point where we’re securing clients and moving forward quickly.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

We don’t make mistakes! Seriously though, I think there’s always the question of ‘Have we bitten off more than we can chew?’ Sometimes we hit that point but we’ll do it anyway!

The funniest moment is actually not a mistake, but interactions with people from more traditional office environments: We have a pool table in office, and many people do not understand why we have it as they consider it a distraction.

I sit on the other side of the debate, and insist that a lot of team meetings around the pool table. Having such a different approach creates an interesting, creative and productive dynamic, and while we are growing a reputation for having a ‘Google cool’ office, many people still don’t understand it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We stand out for sheer bold madness — we approach everything with ‘Of course we can do that’.

Our value proposition and USP is about doing things much faster — 20x faster than any of our competitors, which involves the ability to build digital twins in minutes or days rather than months/years, and then running them in real time. That terrifies people!

And we go a step further, because we do that without writing a line of code, it’s all through a flow chart — that’s often a surprise to people. It’s why I focus on the storytelling of ‘we can deliver this’. When we simulate a city centre, we’re not talking about mathematical models. They are already there, but it’s far more interesting and meaningful to talk about a 3D model of your city.

Somehow we promise to deliver in days, when it should be 9 months. There is an aggressiveness about how we go about it, and we are very brash — which helps us stand out. It’s a simple fact that you need to deliver on that brashness. For example, yesterday we started on a new simulation looking at a Park and Ride system, and we nearly finished the first iteration in a day. That should be 6–9 months of work.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Part of it comes down to what I talked about earlier — the lifestyle in the office, whether it’s a pool table, or every time we have a success, making sure we celebrate with a meal or champagne. It’s an important part of our lifestyle.

We have to make sure we are having fun with what we’re doing. Even if we are banging heads against the table, we are enjoying the challenge. You also need to know and accept that the business will have peaks and troughs of busyness and then quiet. In this industry, you have to move incredibly quickly.

Know your industry: if you look around, you have traditional simulation industry that has been around 30 years, and the digital twins industry didn’t seem to know that the simulation industry existed! They never talked to each other. When you are moving into a space, recognise that the industry has probably solved some things already. Learn from that, even if it’s called something different with a new buzzword or jargon.

You also need to focus on your ‘So what?’ Everyone talks about smart cities, but why? I’m selling smart solutions, and I still ask potential customers, ‘Why do you actually need this? What are you trying to measure, what is your objective, why trying to do this?’ The industry doesn’t ask, but you should be. When you’re working with a wide variety of stakeholders, from city councils to town planners, that conversation isn’t currently being had.

There’s a big cavernous void between the end users of these solutions and the people who are providing them, and it’s incredibly obvious within five minutes that there isn’t much effort to bridge that gap.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Different people have helped and been involved at different points along the way. For us, it was the Royal Academy of Engineering who sponsored us for 18 months, provided mentorship and training, and that led to investment. We’re still involved with them which has given the business a huge boost.

I’ve gained from mentorship from the founder of Cambridge Silicon Radio, which was acquired by Qualcomm in 2007. Within the team, there are people still working at stupid o’clock, getting demos ready for investors or clients. And of course there is my wife, who proofreads everything I write to ensure it actually makes sense to anyone other than me!

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We onboarded our first user in November 2019, one of the world’s leading bio research institutes. We’re making it really easy for them to use, just giving them the bits of the solution they need. In this case, they only have access to our flowchart editor, and they don’t need more.

With our logistics and supply chain clients, it’s all about making it easy to use whiteboards, and so we onboard and engage with them on paper. With many of our clients, until 6–9 months down the line, they won’t see a digital solution, which is really important. They don’t relate to digital solutions yet, so you’re keeping it in a format they understand, and then transitioning them to the same solution that was on paper, but is now on screen. That’s when they can make the jump.

The other thing is visualisation: for clients such as local authorities and data institutes, the output of the first phase could be by video or animation, which is phenomenal PR which they can use. Whatever we deliver, there must be storytelling at every level, from the CEO to site manager, and everyone in between. Everyone has to engage, otherwise it is a waste of their time.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

We deliver pilot projects which run as a 3–4 month consultancy, then transition to a large consultancy project that will be 9–12 months, and then flip to a subscription model on a SaaS basis.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know before one wants to start an app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

Don’t do it unless you are ready for some really hard work! We hear about the overnight success of Facebook or Twitter but what we don’t hear about is Amazon Alexa. That was initially a UK startup in Cambridge that enjoyed great success…after 15 years! It was not overnight but a result of a decade of work which no one saw. Companies will slog away and you have one breakthrough, and that’s the bit that everyone knows about. Our chairman always says “work ten years for an overnight success.”

You have to know your market otherwise why are you doing it?

You cannot develop your technology in isolation — you have to know the limitations of what you’re building, and then push yourself a step further. Don’t wear blinkers, because you have to know where your boundaries are — and potentially choose to collaborate with your competitors. We’re working on that, but talking to your competitors could be your biggest opportunity.

You need to understand the value of the business’ organisational aspects — team structures, understanding IP, cybersecurity, which all may seem insignificant, but are the things which could kill the company at any point. They are all vital.

Get the team right! Build the right team, with the full understanding of what’s involved. They have to have the understanding of these points, and must be invested in the business. You cannot just hire someone that’s not suitable for your first 4–10 people. You need all-stars who are phenomenally good at what they do. You’re competing against companies with 50, 500, maybe 10,000 people, and you need to deliver the same amount of work.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Something around the re-education of lower skilled workers to use advanced technologies such as AI, deep learning, data science, simulation, digital twins etc. How can we make deep tech usable by all workers who feel as though they will be penalised for adoption? We need to be clear that the technology is there to help you not replace you, and then work out how to make it accessible. This is a real social challenge, and there’s an educational piece around the interaction between society and technology. Whether it’s deep tech or autonomous vehicles, it all has the same issue.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can visit our website (https://www.slingshotsimulations.co.uk/), follow us on Twitter (https://twitter.com/SlingshotSims), follow us on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/slingshotsimulations/), and watch our videos on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmrB_K_zttI).

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the author:

Mitch Russo started a software company in his garage, sold it for 8 figures and then went on to work directly with Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes to build a $25M business together. Mitch wrote a book called “The Invisible Organization — How Ingenious CEOs are Creating Thriving, Virtual Companies” and now his 2nd book called Power Tribes — “How Certification Can Explode Your Business.” Mitch helps SaaS company founders scale their own companies using his proprietary system. You can reach Mitch Directly via [email protected]

5 Lessons I Learned When I Created My SaaS: With David McKee of Slingshot Simulations was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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