Building Successful Businesses podcast: Adam Hildreth

Adam Hildreth, CEO of risk intelligence company Crisp and winner at the 2021 GP Bullhound Northern Tech Awards, joins us for our latest Building Successful Businesses episode. We discuss how he got his start in Young Enterprise before founding Crisp at only 20, why he thinks inexperience creates great entrepreneurship opportunities, how the likes of Twitter will monitor and manage risk in the future, and the relevance of whack-a-mole.

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Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. I’m Fiona Moore, and today, I’m delighted to welcome Adam Hildreth, CEO of Crisp, the real-time risk intelligence company and recent winners at the Northern Tech Awards for international success. Adam, welcome.

Adam: Thank you very much. It’s lovely to speak with you this morning.

Fiona: Adam, Crisp seems to have gone on a really interesting journey since you began it 17 years ago, initially designed to help identify child exploitation online to now helping a whole range of people and companies identify threats. If we go back to the start of that journey, why did you set up Crisp all that time ago?

Adam: So, the original foundations for Crisp were built on the fact that I’d set up a social network back in 1999, 2000, a social network called Dubit before we had the term social network. Well, that came a bit later on. We were basically one of the first businesses in the world to introduce user-generated content, allowing people and, in particular, vulnerable people i.e. children and teenagers, to communicate online.

And what we found in that business was because it was end-users that were generating content, they were essentially in charge of what we were publishing as a business. It became very hard, very quickly, to manage what was being said in protecting those users. So, that led me to found Crisp in 2005, so that we could create technology that would understand the risks that were posed at that time to individuals, by what we refer to now as digital chatter. And we had to do that using very sophisticated AI.
So, the premise of the business was ultimately, how could we do this at scale without using thousands of people looking at chat logs and user-generated content histories and trying to work out who the bad actors were. So, 2005 for Crisp was about how do we create technology that can understand what people are talking about and understand whether it posed a risk to individuals.

Fiona: So, it sounds like from the first moment that essentially the first social network was created, you immediately realised there’s danger here.

Adam: Yeah, because when social networks were created, and as I said, even back in 2000 we didn’t have the term social network, everything changed from being a publish and push content to people, where they’re in control of the narrative and the content that they push out to people with quite strict regulations, to now where we’re in the realm of the end-user and they’re creating the content and they can do ultimately what they want. And the vast majority of people are going to use that for positive purposes. Unfortunately, it only takes a very small percentage and a tiny percentage of people to ruin that.

When we started that was about threats, exploitation, and abuse that was targeting a generation that was extremely vulnerable. The only way to deal with that was to develop extremely sophisticated technology to understand it.

Fiona: And the services you now offer, as you mentioned, are quite vast. What was the driver behind the company broadening its risk assessment capabilities and how easy was that transition? You mentioned AI technology, was that there from the beginning, or is that something that’s evolved over time?

Adam: AI is a really interesting word because everyone uses it. You can’t be in business now, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, without using the term AI. But for us, that’s always been at the heart of what we do, which is how do we use machines and ultimately technology to understand what people are talking about and whether that poses a risk. Now at the start, that was very focused on how do we create incredibly reliable and accurate technology that understands when a child is at risk.

If you can do that, it’s one of the hardest things because if you think about the space we’re in, it’s akin to the cybersecurity world. Every time you stop a threat actor or a bad actor from doing something, they work out another way of doing it in a different way. It’s exactly the same in this space where as soon as you start to block accounts that pose risks to people, they change their language, they change their techniques, they change their MO.

So, our technology from the start was focused on one of the hardest areas to spot, child grooming. It’s illegal, but the people that do it are extremely, from their perspective, focussed on how they are going to get around the systems that are there. So, once we’ve developed a technology that understands the really hard-to-spot problems, that then naturally moved on to all the other areas. So realistically, the internet, the social world, social media has evolved from being used by a niche set of players, so kids, early adopters, to going into a position whereby everyone’s on it. So, it was a really natural progression for us to understand.

Fiona: And where do you see the future going? We have so many active users now. Everyone effectively is, like you say, an active user and with so much user-generated content, when you see the likes of Elon Musk talking about buying Twitter and the fact that actually, it should be freer, do you think companies have a responsibility to do this themselves in terms of monitoring risks, or do you think it’s going to be third parties like yourselves who end up being the people who look at those risks online?

Adam: Let’s take the two questions independently. The first one is, it’s a really tough space. The internet isn’t in a single location, so in terms of what’s legal, what’s illegal, that depends where you are in the world. So, that’s number one, and actually we’re getting better as a world at defining illegal content, things that shouldn’t happen. Where it gets harder is an individual’s definition of what’s harmful, which is, it’s not illegal, it might be illegal in certain places in the world, but it’s not illegal ultimately in certain countries, but it is harmful, and the vast majority of people don’t want to witness it, they don’t want to consume it.

We then need to then work out who’s responsible for understanding what end-users consume and what they don’t. Again, akin to the cybersecurity world, we don’t develop our own antivirus technology. We all buy it. So, the big social media platforms and enterprises and brands that are on social media, they are there to do good, but ultimately, they need to buy in the expertise, the services, the technology from third parties, just like you would, to protect yourself from cybersecurity threats.

And that’s where we fit in terms of Crisp in terms of the services and the products and the solutions that we offer.

Fiona: And you mentioned the phrase digital chatter earlier. So obviously, it goes beyond just kind of social media. Do you think companies understand the extent of digital chatter? And do you think they understand the risks associated with it generally?

Adam: They do now, or they are at least starting to do. So, there’s different levels of this. What’s really happened is that there are no new risks that have been introduced by this new online world or this new social environment. They’re not new, it’s just changed the impact of them and the speed at which they spread. So generally speaking, when we refer to digital chatter, it is anything that’s happening online that people are talking about, posting about, commenting on that will give you the earliest warning that for a business, you have a problem.

And, unfortunately, now where you used to have media monitoring services that said, ‘this newspaper’s published this’, and you had probably time to work out whether you were going to respond to it, what you were going to do about it, you probably even knew before it was even going to be published that it was there. Right now, at 3:00 a.m. Saturday morning, something can absolutely destroy your brand reputation or pose a threat to one of your executives, and it can spread like wildfire.

So, it’s just changed the impact of the risks. There aren’t really new risks. When we talk about mis- and disinformation, which is, you know, a big narrative used in the media nowadays, that’s always existed. Nowadays, though, you’ve got a platform that can reach a third of the planet in almost real-time with that. And if it does start to spread, the impact is significant. For businesses and enterprises that are concerned about risks to their business, digital chatter actually becomes the biggest signal they can use to respond as fast as possible because when any risk hits a business, we all know that speed is everything.

And that’s what we focus on at Crisp, which is we accurately identify what the risks are, but also we get there faster than anyone else. That’s our two goals as a business, understanding whether something does pose a risk and then making sure the right people know about it as fast as possible.

Fiona: When I was looking through your website, there were some really interesting case studies around what the chatter looks like and what the risks might be, whether that’s online trolling and when it becomes abuse, then there was one, where disparaging commentary about a company’s founder close to a quarterly earnings release was actually an attack designed to shock the stock of the company. Are there any projects you’ve worked on that really highlight for you the importance of having that digital chatter as part of your crisis management?

Adam: So certainly, for enterprises that we work with, digital chatter is the number one signal that they need to use to understand whether something’s going to be a risk. What you also find is if digital chatter doesn’t exist around a particular risk area and a problem, it probably isn’t a problem. Ultimately, the biggest areas we see is yes, we deal with big reputational issues where brands are being massively affected, but ultimately it comes down to their individuals and their people.

In terms of where we feel we deliver the best value, not necessarily monetary value, but value in terms of what we’re giving back to the world, it is protecting people. And ultimately, that comes back to protecting brands and protecting the enterprise.

Fiona: If we go back to the beginning of your journey, it seems phenomenal to me, and correct me if my math is wrong, that you founded Crisp when you were only 20 and you mentioned Dubit there, so it wasn’t even actually the first company that you founded. Were you just a born entrepreneur?

Adam: I guess that’s what people would say. From my perspective, I just see problems or opportunities and want to go out and solve them. I guess that is the definition of an entrepreneur, but I don’t think you set out to be one. You are what other people think, aren’t you? Yeah, we did see an opportunity. I had an opportunity at school with Young Enterprise because school wasn’t a natural fit for me, so Young Enterprise allowed us to found a business. We weren’t going to do something small. We wanted to do something big.

Ultimately, we wanted set up a bank for teenagers, which is a ridiculous idea. That led on to saying, how can we let teenagers buy online? That led on to us saying, actually, we need to prove there is a market, so let’s get loads of teenagers online to form a community, that led to essentially a social network. That then led on to us understanding this, wow, social networks have loads of problems that we need to go and solve and that became my focus, which is if the world is going to go social, how do we protect it?

Fiona: When we speak to business leaders on this podcast, they often talk about, I guess the lessons they’ve learned on the way from often joining the bottom of a company and kind of working their way up. Obviously, you didn’t really have that, having started at such a young age. How did you find running a company at 20?

Adam: It’s hard. Everyone has to go through that learning curve and every day you learn something new and you get better. And you can’t learn without making mistakes, but everyone has to go through that. The great thing about young people is they don’t see boundaries. Unfortunately, the more that we learn, we put boundaries in our way and that stops us innovating.

So, you’ve got the best and the worst of two different worlds competing, which is when you don’t know something, you presume you can just do it, which is amazing for innovation. As you learn and as you progress, which is what education is but you can be educated either by…in a formal way or just by learning by doing. And I’m a big fan of learning by doing, I think that’s the best way everyone can learn.

But if you go down that path, ultimately, you still learn all the same lessons, and then you get to the point where…and this is not related to age, this is related to experience, but you get to the point where you set some boundaries, but that also then stops your innovation, which is why you want to go back to being a 15-year-old that thinks you can set up a bank because why can’t you set up a bank at 15?

Fiona: So how do you keep yourself innovative, now?

Adam: So, in terms of Crisp and the culture that we have, we absolutely celebrate success, but we’re always looking at what we can do better and what isn’t working. Why is this not as good as it can be? So, that is ingrained in our culture. Even if everything seems to be working, you can still do things better. There is always someone behind you that wants to catch you. That’s what drives innovation, which is not thinking you’re the best in the world, but thinking that you’re not doing as well as you can do.

Fiona: You mentioned that you’d learned some harder lessons on the way as well. So, what was the hardest lesson you think you’ve learned during the Crisp journey?

Adam: The hardest lesson I’ve personally learned, and I still haven’t understood how to learn from it or how to best do it, is that not everyone thinks in the same way you do. Assuming that everyone gets your idea and assuming that everyone gets your plan is the biggest mistake everyone makes. They don’t, because there’s a load of stuff in your head that you’ve been thinking about, and if you’ve thought about something for weeks and weeks and weeks, and you brief people for an hour or two hours, how on earth are you going to get all of that thinking out in that period of time? So, the biggest lesson for me is how do I communicate effectively what we need to do without spending weeks doing it?

Fiona: Yeah, there’s millions of strategies that are great, but never get off the ground because they don’t get communicated effectively. So, you won the GP Bullhound Northern Tech Awards, which ECI also is a sponsor for, for international success. So, talk to me a little bit about that journey in terms of what was the international growth story for Crisp?

Adam: So, we’re an interesting business in that international growth for us is our business. Our research and development is all in the U.K., but we don’t really sell to U.K. businesses. We’ve always targeted the businesses that are going to benefit the most from Crisp, and at the moment, that has tended to be North America and global enterprises.

So, we go where the customers are and I think in terms of lesson learned or anyone that’s looking at how do you get international growth, that’s always been a part of what we’ve done. Here’s a big problem, here’s a solution, who are the biggest people that are going to benefit from the solution because they’re the ones with a sizable problem that makes sense. And our philosophy was target the companies that need our solution and get on a plane to go and see them.

Fiona: So, what’s next in Crisp’s growth journey. Is it just getting on the plane and convincing more customers they need you?

Adam: The world has finally caught up, right? Everyone now understands that if it’s not happening online, it’s probably not happening. But also, if it is happening online, it might not be in the sense of mis- and disinformation. So, we are all about understanding digital chatter, understanding the signals, understanding whether they pose a risk to the enterprise, to their brand reputation, to the people that they employ, or their community, as in their end-users that they are trying to create an online space for.

So, the space for us is we are continually fighting against the bad actors out there that are trying to use an amazing tool, probably one of the best things that’s ever been invented, which is the social world, for bad. And every time we create new technologies and new solutions to stop them doing it or alerting people faster, the people that are out there, those bad actors, those threat actors, are creating a mechanism to get around those things. So that’s our job, to constantly stay ahead of the game and it’s whack-a-mole.

Fiona: Yeah, and it’s not going to get easier; there will always be new threats. So, the last question from me, what advice would you give to business owners at the start of the journey?

Adam: The biggest thing I would say to anyone that has an idea, has a business or is selling to people, is really look at it from every angle. Don’t just believe because you think it’s a problem and you’ve got a solution, that everyone else is going to think the same way. Scrutinise it to the nth degree, and even when you think you’re successful, scrutinise it again.

So, a lot of entrepreneurs are very confident in their ideas. Of course, they are, but they also need the opposite side, which is why is this not going to work? And it’s one of the best questions I think you can ask anyone. I get it because you’re telling me all the reasons why it’s amazing, why everyone’s going to buy it, but why are they not going to buy it? Because ultimately, that’s how we all operate in life. You’ve got things that you want and things that you need. Are you really something that someone needs? And if not, why not? Is it really a problem?

If it is a problem and you’ve got a solution, it becomes really easy. But there’s a lot of belief out there that they’re solving problems that aren’t problems for the people.

Fiona: Adam, thanks so much for joining me today. It’s great to hear how Crisp has grown over the last 18 years. It’s made me feel like I could have probably spent my 20s better hearing how you started at such a young age. But it’s clear the way we interact continues to evolve and understanding chatter will be key to navigating that risk. So, I look forward to seeing Crisp win many more awards in the future. Thank you.

Adam: Thanks very much. Lovely chatting with you.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I take a lead on progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio, and sit on ECI’s ESG Committee. There is a huge opportunity for companies that can take a lead on areas such as D&I and sustainability, and ESG is now intrinsic to running a successful business. I also manage marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses."

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