Number 24 on this year’s Northern Tech 100 League table, ZeroLight has been disrupting the automotive retail sector since 2014, with their multi-award winning car visualisation software.
The Newcastle-based company uses their game development knowledge to create immersive customer experiences for the automotive industry. By working with ZeroLight, clients such as Audi, Pagani and VW have changed the way their cars are specified and purchased.
In his own words, CEO Darren Jobling is on a mission to bring the automotive industry “kicking and screaming” from the 1950s and propel it into the future. Fortunately, he is already well on the way to doing just that.
Today, Darren leads a team of 100 people who are using 3D graphics to transform the way people choose and purchase vehicles.
Gamifying car buying
“We see games as highly engaging consumer experiences – that’s all they are,” says Darren, sitting by a window at ZeroLight’s riverside offices in Newcastle.
“Buying a car is one of the most expensive things you can do after buying a house, so why shouldn’t that be an engaging consumer experience? It should be a pleasurable experience to buy a car, and that’s what we set out to achieve.”
With the Tyne Bridge visible behind him, downriver from the glistening roof of The Sage, Darren reflects on the moment that he stepped away from game development after 20 years in the industry.
He recalls: “IBM approached us and said: ‘We’ve sold a Jaguar F-Type configurator to Jaguar and it’s the Paris Motor Show in three months’ time. Sony recommended you — could you help us?’
“That’s how we got started in the industry and it just gathered tremendous momentum.”
Darren and the ZeroLight team took a bold step into the world of motoring, but they were armed with hard-earned experience.
“We had dealt with the automotive industry over a number of years,” says Darren, whose easy-going demeanour belies the furiously innovative spirit of his company.
“But we were on the other side of the table, licensing their intellectual property to go into games like NASCAR, Formula 1, and Ferrari Challenge. We were familiar with automotive but we weren’t experts in the people we were dealing with.
“It was an evolution of our relationship but not a revolution.”
Solutions from another planet
At the heart of that evolution was ZeroLight – a piece of software that made perfect sense to Darren and his team but was completely alien to some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers.
“Sometimes it can seem like your solutions are coming from another planet,” Darren says. “It can be hard for them to think that something that was a manual process can be totally automated by software.
“They’re a little bit suspicious of how we can do this.”
Despite meeting with suspicion from automotive traditionalists, the impact of ZeroLight’s immersive visualisations quickly delivered results for firms like Audi, Volkswagen and Toyota.
The software’s performance now speaks for itself, and Darren’s job is to ascertain who will listen.
He explains: “Audi has been public in saying that if you use ZeroLight, people spend more on a car. The data is there and manufacturers have got an appetite for it, but it is quite a mindset change for those who are used to doing everything manually.
“It’s like the way they used to build cars prior to Henry Ford inventing the automated production line, and car manufacturers are going through that revolution now in digitisation. They are getting that from all areas at the moment – every part of their business is being disrupted.”
He adds: “Some people aren’t quite there yet. They say: ‘Look at our beautiful static images’. To me, it’s a bit like the Mona Lisa versus the Shawshank Redemption. The Mona Lisa is a beautiful image but it can’t hold your interest for two hours.”
A commitment to innovation
ZeroLight’s rapid success and growth has been fuelled in no small part by the ambition of its leader (“Whatever your forecasts are, you should multiply them by 10”), but also by an unswerving commitment to innovation – even when it fails.
“We give people a lot of time to be innovative and we don’t try and prescribe or say: ‘This is where we are going,’” says Darren. “What we always say is: try and build trust. If there’s a circle and you’re innovating at the edge of the circle, you need to make sure that people are there behind you and have got your back, because innovation works sometimes but not always.
“If the innovation doesn’t work you’ve got to celebrate that lack of success as much as you’d celebrate the success, because it means we learned it didn’t work and we’re going to do something about it nice and early.”
With four years under its belt, ZeroLight is gearing up for expansion into new territories in 2018, having signed its first deals in Japan and the USA.
While cars remain the focus for now, other markets are opening up as the software becomes more flexible, versatile and user-friendly.
Darren’s confidence in the product is obvious and well-founded, and he has a tendency to bring discussions about its strengths back around to a team he rightly feels proud of.
“Augmented reality will deliver on the hype of virtual reality,” he states, assuredly. “It’s easily accessible – you don’t need to wear a headset to see what a car would look like sitting on your drive. It’s going to be huge. The team here is brilliant and it’s all down to them – I just see myself as the conductor, not the key driver. They’re driving it forward.
“We’re definitely not complacent but we’re definitely optimistic.”
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