ThirdEye Labs is a London-based tech startup and one of the many groundbreaking companies we invest in through Octopus Ventures. Using super-smart AI-powered software, ThirdEye helps retailers drastically reduce shoplifting without needing to continuously monitor CCTV cameras. We spoke to co-founder Raz Ghafoor about the highs and lows of being an entrepreneur, as well the way his company is evolving to help retailers in the wake of the pandemic.
Tell us a bit about what ThirdEye does…
We created software that essentially watches CCTV cameras for you, helping large retailers such as Sainsbury’s spot shoplifters. It’s a really clever, AI-based system that understands when someone’s shoplifting and, in real-time, alerts a security guard.
Sounds impressive! How does the tech work then?
Time to give away the company secrets. Essentially, we’ve trained the AI model to pick up ‘stealing behaviour’ – things like not scanning an item at a self-service checkout or concealing an item. It was painstaking work, gathering thousands and thousands of images of people stealing from shops, and teaching the software to recognise these behaviours.
How did you come up with the idea?
As part of my engineering degree, I learnt a lot about machine learning. My co-founder and I both realised this technology was going to change the world and we wanted to be part of it. Neither of us knew much about retail specifically, but we just knew this technology could have a big impact on the industry. So, we set ourselves the really big goal of detecting crime on CCTV cameras. We talked to a lot of people and got some traction from large retailers and realised if we didn’t do it now, someone else would.
Is ThirdEye purely used to reduce crime?
We started out thinking solely about reducing shoplifting, but we soon realised the technology helps out in other ways too, such as alerting the store that a queue is forming or that stock is running low. With COVID-19, we’re looking at ways the technology can help monitor social distancing in store. Hopefully, our software will be able to take the guesswork out so that shops can optimise the number of customers allowed in while still being safe and reducing queues for customers at the same time.
How effective is the software?
ThirdEye helps reduce theft by 50%. We hear a lot of stories from customers about how the software makes a huge difference in stopping thieves. One big store near Birmingham caught a thief stealing a whole trolley full of goods that were worth thousands. There was even a security guard who received an alert while on the toilet, who managed to dash out and stop a thief from stealing £400 worth of products!
It’s such a brilliant idea – why hasn’t anyone done this before?
When we started four years ago, the technology was so fresh it barely existed. Luckily, we got enough funding to keep going in the early days while we built the software, but it just wasn’t scalable or profitable. It’s only this year that we’ve got to a point where the software is accurate and lightweight enough that it can generate decent returns for stores signing up.
What have been the big challenges you’ve come up against as an entrepreneur?
Raising capital was a big one. I’d only been out of uni for a few months and had only had one job, then suddenly I had to persuade people to believe in me. But when we did get investment, it felt great.
How essential is investment to your business model?
The first few years would have been totally impossible without it. Without capital, companies like ours could only ever be started by really rich people, which is how it was a hundred years ago. I found working with Octopus Ventures particularly refreshing because of how diverse the team is, rather than just being made up of lots of people who all come from a similar background.
What kind of reaction do you get from investors when you show them what ThirdEye does?
In the early days, the technology was so new that there was a lot of jaw-dropping and investors were pretty overwhelmed. But now there’s a lot more awareness of machine learning and investors are convinced that this is going to change the world – it’s just about which applications they believe in the most.
Have there been any real lows along the way?
My co-founder decided to leave after the first round of funding, which was a blow. That was before we had the software up and running so we didn’t have any actual customers yet. At that point, my confidence took a knock. Everything was suggesting it might be time to stop. I took a step back and asked myself, “If I had previously been given the opportunity to be in the position I am today, would I take it?” The answer was absolutely yes, and I’m so glad we carried on.
How big is your team now?
We’ve got twenty people, several of whom have been with us since the beginning. It’s a good feeling to share the journey with them. I know that many of the team could easily get jobs with big tech companies, but they really believe in ThirdEye.
What advice would you give to people who’d like to start their own business?
Prepare for the long haul. Things always take much longer and are much harder than you expect. You need to go in with the mindset of, “I believe in this so much that I’m going to do this for the next five years.” The early days are all about making people believe in what you do, so you’ve got to really, really have faith in what you’re doing.