Like many parents, Alan Jones saw how his children were using messaging apps and was concerned for their safety. Unlike many parents, Alan is a technology entrepreneur. He saw the problem as a business opportunity, one he recently explored on CyLon’s cyber security accelerator programme (which Nominet sponsored).
For over a decade, he envisaged “a messaging platform that worked like those messages in Mission Impossible that start to burn the minute you’ve read them,” he explains. “I wanted to create something that gives the power back to the individual – you send a message but leave no legacy.”
The idea seems to have been made for our current climate of big tech backlash and concern about digital footprints, yet Alan has nurtured his idea for over a decade, occupied with other start-ups and waiting for the right technology to be ready.
He watched Snapchat arrive – which operates on a similar premise with messages that disappear – but considers it “more of a gimmick than a privacy tool.” In 2017, facial recognition became a usable technology and he saw how his idea could finally be realised. “You can register your face, and then messages can only be read by the intended recipient,” he explains. “If someone looks over your shoulder, the message disappears.”
It isn’t just the technology that has now come of age for YEO (your eyes only) Messaging – the world’s first global messaging app for confidential communications for businesses and personal use. His daughter Sarah Norford-Jones, herself a successful entrepreneur, is a co-founder.
“I just loved the idea immediately,” says Sarah. “Through my previous work in branding, I could see how important Yeo would be to help brands protect their intellectual property.” She also had no qualms about working so intensively alongside her dad. “We trust each other completely, and we challenge each other, which is important.”
“It’s great to not intimidate your co-workers as the CEO,” Alan adds. “Sarah is the CMO and we can read each other’s moods and be as blunt as we need to be.” He also relishes the influence of the younger generation and their mindset, both from his daughter and the other young founders at CyLon. “Now I’m older, I listen more – there is a real power in listening,” he says.
CyLon has helped them “refine the diamond”, as Alan puts it, guiding them in how best to pitch their idea and introducing them to potential partners. Their experience so far has been positive: “We’ve had a 100% hit rate with the businesses we have spoken to,” says Sarah, “they totally get it and want to use it, but we want to slow down a little and make sure we tailor the product to each industry depending on their needs.”
Banks, for example, could use YEO to send out a pin number securely, while doctors could share confidential medical notes or test results via the platform, with an option for the recipient to hold copies if previously agreed. “Privacy is the absolute backbone,” Sarah says, “and we won’t be commercialising the data.”
This will be music to the ears of the many who are frustrated with social media platforms and their targeted ads, and Sarah and Alan have high ambitions. “We want to walk into a room and know everyone has it on their phone,” says Alan. “Hopefully it will become an adjective: ‘I’ll YEO it to you’” adds Sarah.
When we speak, Sarah was just about to have her first child (she subsequently had a healthy baby boy) but was quick to reassure that she had no plans to step away longer than she medically needed to. “I just can’t see maternity leave happening for me. I’ll be wanting to check my phone, respond to emails, be involved.”
Her father is more cautious about her new child coming second to her business endeavours, considering his own experience. “I have some regrets about not being there when the kids were young,” he says. “I’ve started five businesses in my life, and I sacrificed a lot. I missed a lot of important milestones in my children’s lives because I was trying to make things happen.”
Sarah, however, is quick to put him straight: “I had the best childhood. We grew up in Silicon Valley, which was amazing. Dad was so creative and my Mum worked too, so it was ingrained in me that I could chase my own dreams. It ignited a passion for creating something of my own, of owning something and watching it grow. I could never go back to a 9-to-5 now.”
There must also be an incentive in knowing she is building a messaging platform that could help protect her own child online, just as her father strove for the same securities for his children. Alan says, “It’s almost like the sugar addiction – we’re slaves to modern communications platforms and they are not secure. We need to think more about what we’re doing.”