Want to be successful in the Dragon’s Den? Bring a customer along!

SoftShell on Dragon's Den
Monday night the season premiere of Dragon’s Den on CBC featured a pair of students-turned-software entrepreneurs who founded one of the more interesting companies I’ve seen this year in the online services market – SoftShell Computers (a advisors client).

The founders, Raul Rupsingh and his partner Stephen Beath did a commendable job pitching the Dragon’s on their London, Ontario-based venture. Oh, and yes, they “did the deal” as they say on the show. The dragons were clearly impressed with SoftShell.

What SoftShell is doing is very much on trend these days as it empowers a large base of seniors, giving them the ability to use a standard computer amidst an increasingly complicated set of software technologies. Operating systems such as Windows Vista™ and Apple’s Leopard™ aren’t really built for technology pessimists – many who are seniors who have no prior experience using a computer. SoftShell’s product is an easy-to-use computer interface designed to help this group of people who are becoming increasingly shut out of some very mainstream activities that their friends and family are engaging in, such as email, photo sharing and games.

SoftShell makes it so simple to use a computer that they have scored some big fans across Ontario. And much of their user base are well into their golden years. With big fonts, touch-screen, voicemail, and no computer abstractions such as files, folders or double clicks, the product has been tested with residents in 10 Ontario seniors centres and nursing homes over the past eight months, as well as with seniors living on their own.

So… back to our friendly Dragons. Just as they were ready to pounce on the SoftShell founders, they revealed their secret weapon: a lead customer. They made the wise move of bringing 84-year old senior and computer pioneer, Hazel Bruntis on the show to do the demo. Something I’ve never seen before on Dragon’s Den. A reference customer doing the demo! Imagine that.

Very powerful — and very disarming. No more fire-breathing antics. Hazel had all of the Dragons listening intently to why they would be wise to part with their cash and climb aboard as investors. Hazel had previously never used a computer, VCR or even a cash machine. She now emails her extended family regularly on a SoftShell-enabled computer. The software runs on a variety of systems and is available for free trial at www.mysoftshell.com.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. The seeds of SoftShell were planted as a result of Raul Rupsingh’s experience helping his mother connect with the extended family using Hotmail. He soon realized that a simpler interface was what older users needed. A Master of Science student in medical biophysics with an undergraduate degree in computer science, Raul had been working on medical imaging techniques for Alzheimer’s research at The University of Western Ontario. This really helped provide the user context that shaped a groundbreaking user-interface he developed with co-founder Stephen Beath, himself a Masters of Science student at Western in the same area.

Not only are the Dragon’s interested in moving ahead, but a number of corporate clients are also in the works in addition to some strong consumer demand. Just last week the company signed its first licensing deal with Revera Inc. to install SoftShell’s product in the Revera chain of retirement homes across Canada.

Are you playing the role of “unpaid tech support” for your friends or family? You may want to show them SoftShell. Stay tuned for more updates on this exciting company as Hazel and thousands of other seniors move into the online world.