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  1. Technology
May 3, 2011

British firm TestPlant pioneers robotic test tool: a Q&A

Firm wins US patent for GUI testing, sees 104 per cent sales growth in 2010

By Jason Stamper

George Mackintosh testplant

George Mackintosh, CEO, TestPlant

British-based TestPlant recently announced that its robotic test tool product, eggPlant, has secured a US patent for its method of controlling or testing a system from another computer using a communications link such as Virtual Network Computing (VNC). CBR editor Jason Stamper caught up with TestPlant CEO and serial entrepreneur George Mackintosh to hear more about the testing start-up that grew sales 104 per cent in 2010.

Q. I know from your biography that you are a former racing driver and that your family produces Extra Virgin cold pressed rape seed oil…

A. [Laughs]. Absolutely. I was brought up on a farm and I guess I had a choice whether I liked the animals or I liked the tractors. I liked the tractors.

Q. How did you come to be chief of a testing firm?

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A. Jon Richards [now TestPlant chairman] and I had been working in the telecoms market and had seen the commoditisation of minutes in the telecoms space. We had this idea that we should look at enterprise software but it had to be a niche, a product rather than a service, and while we looked at a number of areas we decided it should be a tool. We didn’t want to hit IBM or HP head on.

We believed that software is going increasingly mobile and that the viability of applications was going to be key. We thought a tool to satisfy the needs of these changing software environments – whether on phones, tablets, wearable computing devices and so on – would present a great opportunity.

We came across this tool called eggPlant owned by [private equity firm] Gresham, and we took it on. The eggPlant team was based in Boulder, Colorado, but was owned by a London company that saw it as non-core. We then created TestPlant as a vehicle to do the acquisition of eggPlant, and to be funded to do the necessary sales, marketing and development.

Q. Where did funding come from?

A. It was funded by me, Jon Richards and Seraphim Capital [an early stage venture capital fund that invests between £0.5 million and £2 million into high growth early stage UK businesses] which put in around £1.5m. But that was about 10 days before Lehman went bust, in September 2008! Let’s just say 2009 was ‘difficult’.

Q. But things started to pick up?

A. Yes; so in 2009 we found clients either saying ‘let’s not buy anything’, or if they did they hammered down the terms. But in 2010 we started to see a real rebound – companies needed to buy this stuff – and they realised we were selling a product that was good and different. We grew the business 104 per cent in 2010.

Q. And you have kept this sense of dual nationality – a firm owned in the UK but with most of its development staff in the US, in Colorado?

A. Yes, I call it a ‘micro-national’: 80 per cent of our revenue is from outside the UK and our staff is equally split between the two locations.

Q. So tell us a little about what makes the eggPlant testing tool unique?

A. Well it’s completely graphical so doesn’t require coding, and focuses on the user experience.

Q. In which markets are you seeing traction?

A. Defence, GIS [geographical information systems], media and gaming, healthcare, finance. The BBC tests its iPlayer service using eggPlant for instance. Angry Birds [the addictive puzzle game developed by Finland based Rovio Mobile] is a client. Skype found during the evaluation of eggPlant that they had a serious problem which meant they just had to buy the product. It stresses the system repetitively to make sure it is working correctly, under load.

Q. How many clients do you have altogether today?

A. We have around 500 customers internationally, mostly in the US but also in the UK, India, China.

Q. As you know there are plenty of testing tools out there from the likes of HP [which bought Mercury Interactive], IBM, QualiSystems and so on. I’m still not clear how eggPlant is differentiated?

A. Because we can test over VNC we don’t have to touch the back-end systems. We don’t have to load anything onto the device itself. That also means we can do GUI testing for almost any device. We can test the GUIs of Mac, Linux, Windows, mobile devices.
But we can integrate to something like HP Quality Center, so HP doesn’t really feel like competition. We have an informal integration with Rational that enables us to output eggPlant data into Rational too.

Q. Is the firm profitable yet?

A. This year we anticipate over 50 per cent growth and to be cash flow neutral.

Q. With the integrations you have described, and if you are to be believed that TestPlant has something the larger, cash-rich rivals do not, then presumably it is only a matter of time before TestPlant is acquired?

A. It’s an obvious question. I’ve sold businesses before. But we are in no rush to sell. We are moving forward very nicely, we’re doing well. All of our sales are subscription based – £5k per annum per seat – so we have a nice, predictable pipeline.

TestPlant was recently granted patent number 7,870,504, which allows eggPlant to ‘see’ the screen on the system under test recognising icons, buttons, message boxes, prompts, text, backgrounds and colours. "This patent recognizes the innovation in how eggplant works and secures our position in the market as the leader in GUI testing," said Mackintosh. The technology was developed by Jonathan Gillespie and Doug Simons.

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