‘We’re a very philosophical company,’ says Rish Mitra, although unlike a lot of thoughtful entrepreneurs, he's actually got the commercial success to back it up. His augmented reality (AR) advertising startup, Blippar, boasts a client list that any marketing firm would kill for - including Heinz, PepsiCo, Maybelline and Nestle. But his vision goes way beyond advertising.
Born in Delhi, India, Mitra faced pressure to focus on his studies and become a doctor or engineer, but eventually opted to drop out and pursue tech entrepreneurship, inspired by the likes of Bill Gates, and his father who was a scientist and engineer doing creative things in the renewable energy sector.
‘Having grown up in that environment I used to be hugely fascinated by entrepreneurs’ stories. To just write a piece of code and change the world was hugely attractive to me,’ he says.
He founded his first venture, an online movement for the empowerment of women, one year before Google in 1997, and regards himself as almost part of that generation of tech entrepreneurs. But after a decade of difficulties and company failures, he found himself working in insurance in the UK.
‘I personally don’t see failure as the opposite of success – it’s a feedback to success,’ he says.
It was during a session at the pub in 2010 with friend and soon-to-be co-founder Omar Tayeb when the idea for Blippar first emerged. Paying a £15 bill with a £20 note, Mitra suggested it would be funny if the image of the Queen could spring to life and ask for the £5 change.
While Mitra had had a few beers, Tayeb, who doesn't drink, later developed an app which converted the picture of the Queen, when viewed through a smartphone camera, into a picture of Mitra himself. This remains a feature of Blippar today - perhaps an indication of Mitra's vast ambitions?
While this began as a bit of fun, Mitra soon began to recognise the broader potential of this technology as a marketing tool. Point your phone at ads or products and it Blippar will recognise them and then project animations, games and other interactive media onto them on your screen.
For instance scanning a Heinz ketchup bottle creates a 3D recipe book on your phone screen (shown below) or scanning a Pepsi can in the run-up to last year's superbowl let you take a picture of yourself 'next to' some famous NFL stars.
In order to achieve mass adoption of the tech, Mitra realised he needed to get the backing of some of the world's most influential brands. He approached 107 of them and was rebuffed by 101, but the six he managed to convince were massive names – Cadbury, Heinz, Samsung, Xbox, Tesco and Nestle. Three years on and Blippar, which is headquartered in London, boasts 150 staff on three continents, millions of people have downloaded the app and it expects to turn over £10m this year.
'We're probably the only three year-old company in the world whose logo appears on billions of products on a monthly basis" he says.
From a standing start to head of a fast-growing, multi-million pound business, Mitra says his role has shifted to be focused primarily on people management rather than the tech side of things. He splits hit time between India, Europe and US, flying as much as 25,000 miles every month. That kind of lifestyle doesn't leave much 'me' time and Mitra admits that as far as he's concerned at this stage in his career, there's nothing wrong when work equals life.
'Even when I go on holiday, and I've tried a couple of them, it's generally difficult to switch off because I've got exciting ideas, there's so much more to do and you're excited about it,' he says. 'I'm not switching off, but for all the right reasons.'
His ambition for the technology stretches way beyond advertising and he says Blippar has only reached 5% of what it can achieve.
‘We’re trying to build a physical world browser,’ he says. ‘We strongly believe in the philosophy that search engines today are considered a gateway to the internet, but that doesn’t solve all the problems of finding things, because humans cannot describe what they see accurately.’