An entrepreneur from his teenage years, Adam Hildreth has built from scratch one of the world’s leading online safety companies that serves blue chip brands. He spoke to Mark Casci.
For most people, collecting your GCSE results is an event that sees you arrive at school extra early alongside your family and friends to see how you have fared.
However, on that fateful day, Adam Hildreth had more pressing concerns.
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“I got a phone call from the school asking me where I was on GCSE results day,” he said.
“I was actually walking into a meeting with HSBC in London to pitch to them.”
Barely out of his school days, Adam was already managing director of his own firm. Alongside some like-minded friends he was running Dubit.com in Leeds.
The Halifax-born entrepreneur hit on the idea early in his life when the thirst for running his own business sank its hooks in to him.
“My experience with schooling all the way through was a classic rocky one in the respect that I loved sport and really did not like being told what to do,” he said.
“You never know something is missing until it comes along.”
Adam had hit on the idea that there needed to be a credit or debit card to allow teenagers to be able to shop online during the dot.com boom.
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He set up Dubit to essentially carry out some market research in order to make his business plan more credible to banks.
“Dubit was essentially what I would call the first social network,” he said.
“There was no such thing as a social network then but it was the first site where kids could go on and interact with each other through user generated content.
“It allowed users to post pictures, chat and comment on things.”
The firm quickly grew some serious legs and had 250,000 active users within the first few weeks.
Articles about him being the UK’s youngest managing director quickly appeared and the firm was profiled on The Big Breakfast television show.
Soon, Adam found himself paying salaries to people far older than he, all while living at home. Soon his business was working with some of the world’s leading brands who wanted to engage with children online to market themselves.
However, rather quickly he and his customers began to notice something sinister going on that led Adam on the entrepreneurial journey that has led to his running one of the world’s leading online security firms,
“We started to notice there were adults on this site that should not be on there,” he said. “We saw that in some cases there were attempts at online grooming. This was all new and the laws did not exist, it was not illegal.
“I worked with the Home Secretary’s task force on child protection to draw up these laws. I went to the Home Office and was there with all these senior police officers. I felt like I was on a school trip.”
Seeing that there was a huge opportunity to keep people and brands safe online, he decided to go off on his own and in 2005, Crisp was founded.
He spent a year formulating a business model, one that would see him target internet search providers. A series of deals with ISPs were signed and all of the market research showed that parents, naturally keen to safeguard their children online, would willingly part with money to do so.
Crisp developed a series of downloadable tools to this end. However, it became clear quickly that something was not right.
“We had a great concept, research telling you everything is great, we have done all the deals with UK ISPs. And the product wasn’t going anywhere.”
The decision was taken instead to work with brands directly. Crisp acquired a US competitor and soon Adam was spending a week a month in America pitching to the world’s leading brands.
“People can post online and affect brands and society,” he said.
“Nowadays we call it the weaponisation of social media and the first thing we did was develop some of the first algorithms around the detection of online grooming.
“We have artificial intelligence with, on top of that, human intelligence.
“Our USP is that we have created extended intelligence to have those two work together,
“AI does the heavy lifting, we then verify that with humans and take action with humans.”
Today Crisp is employing 200 people out of Leeds, and is working across 50 languages for thousands of the world’s leading brands, predominantly in the United States.
From Leeds it runs a 24-hour-a-day crisis centre. If it detects something happening which is damaging its operatives will put a call into a COO or chief marketing officer at all hours of the day to stop the spread.
Crisp works to counter any mendacious activity online, ranging from terrorist-relating activity, child abuse, product complaints and more lately, the spread of misinformation via the likes of fake news and deep fakes (doctored videos showing people saying things that are not real).
Adam relates one example of targeting that hit a baby-based brand. Someone created a fake video of a mother opening up a nappy that had shards of glass in. This video went viral online but it was five days before the brand found out.
By the time the dust had settled its stock price and market capitalisation were harmed by financial damage in the hundreds of millions.
“Our goal for something like that is to find out about it in minutes and make sure they know about it in minutes. They can’t stop it but they can at least put out communications to say it is not true.”
The process is, as Adam puts it, “a constant battle” and much of the personnel Crisp employs come from military and security backgrounds.
“The game changes on a daily basis. This is why everybody struggles in this space. They are used to solving problems and it being solved forever. With this you never actually solve the problem, there’s always something new coming out.”
It is far cry from where he started, but not even 35 years old yet, Adam’s career is just getting started.
“I love working out where we go next. You just push forward to where you are going.”