As rise and falls go the story of Abdul Alim and Shahzad Mughal reads like a film script.
Back in 2014 the duo from Greater Manchester were looking for inspiration for a business idea when they decided to watch the 2002 sci-fi movie Minority Report.
“There’s a scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise walks into a shopping centre and all the boards start to change and begin talking to him,” recalled Alim. “We thought ‘wow, if we could build that, it’d be amazing’.”
Within 18 months the pair had launched OfferMoments (rebranded as Bidooh in 2018) and embarked on a journey that saw them meet the Queen, travel the world, raise millions of pounds in investment and even spark talk of being the next unicorn.
This week Alim and Mughal were back in the headlines again – but for altogether different reasons. The duo admitted to cloning the business after six months of legal action brought against them by the very company they founded.
The deception, which went back months, was played out in legal documents filed at the High Court of Justice in London and Alim and Mughal have until April 29 to pay Bidooh’s interim costs of £80,000.
“I dreamt of building a multi-million pound company,” Alim (pictured below) told BusinessCloud. “Now I’ve got nothing.”
What’s unusual is he doesn’t dispute any of the facts of the court case. He admits to going behind his investors’ backs and cloning the business he co-founded with a view to going into partnership with a new third party.
He even admits to sending offensive messages on WhatsApp about fellow Bidooh stakeholders. “When your blood is boiling you say things out of line,” he said. “I regret some of the things I said.”
All of which begs one question: Why did they do it?
To answer that we need to back to the beginning.
At the outset I should say I’ve never met Mughal and haven’t spoken to him. Alim has always been the frontman and given the fact he used to drive a gold-painted Rolls Royce it’s a role that came naturally to him.
Alim, now 38, has taken part in many of the panel discussions I’ve hosted and he paints a very compelling and popular story.
He left school in Oldham with no qualifications but aspired to be an entrepreneur. One day he was sitting in his garage watching Minority Report and eating popcorn with his friend when the idea came to them.
What if you could use technology to bring billboard advertising to life? Put simply, as somebody walks towards a billboard the technology would use the information from their social media accounts to target them with relevant offers. And so OfferMoments was born.
Presentation is everything and the pair invested in a computer-generated video to demonstrate what the future could look like a long time before the tech was ready.
In 2016 OfferMoments won the People’s Choice Award at the prestigious [email protected] competition, which was set up by Prince Andrew to give budding tycoons the chance to meet people who could turn their business dreams into reality.
Winning added rocket fuel to the company’s profile and even led them to meeting the Queen at St James’s Palace (an image of which Alim proudly displays as his LinkedIn profile picture).
Fast forward to September 2017 and the news broke that OfferMoments had raised £1.5m to fund development and launch a new marketing product which would ‘revolutionise outdoor advertising’.
The investment was led by Michael Edelson, a director of Manchester United since 1982, who had been instrumental in floating numerous companies on the AIM stock market including ASOS. According to his Wikipedia entry he even played a part in introducing David Beckham to his future wife and Spice Girl Victoria.
Investors in OfferMoments included Paul Althasen, a mobile industry veteran who founded MPC and sold it to Vodafone, and Apadmi Ventures, the investment arm of leading mobile technology group, Apadmi.
Apadmi was founded in 2009 and have built apps for the likes of the BBC, X-Factor and The Guardian. They’re well respected and well liked.
Howard Simms, CEO of Apadmi Ventures, said at the time: “After hearing about OfferMoments’ unique business venture, we’re convinced that it is going to be a game-changer. We’re looking forward to working with the team and seeing what we can achieve together.”
Although the concept behind OfferMoments was ingenious there were some obvious flaws. Not everyone liked the idea of their personal information being captured and shared so it made sense to tap into the expertise of an established company like Apadmi.
That’s why no-one was surprised when Garry Partington, chairman and co-founder of Apadmi, was appointed CEO of OfferMoments, Edelson became chair and Althasen and Simms joined the board as non-executive directors.
According to the press release Partington was tasked with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the business in readiness for the launch of its new product.
“As the business continues to grow, we now have a strong management team with expansive business experience to help lead the way to success,” announced Partington.
The following year OfferMoments changed its name to Bidooh.
Explaining the new name Alim said: “It’s meant to be a bidding platform out-of-home, hence the name Bidooh.”
The tech focused on allowing advertisers to publish an ad on specific digital billboards within minutes and accurately measure who had viewed each message.
The tech picked up your demographic profile, such as age and gender, and curated the advert in real-time to match it. The advert allowed advertisers to choose what they want to market to different demographics.
Alim explained at the time: “If a male aged 16-25 walks past the billboard and the temperature is more than 16 degrees, the billboard may automatically advertise a pair of male shorts at a nearby shop to them. This type of targeting exists in the online world, but it’s very rare to find it in the offline world.”
They also decided to pivot the business and use blockchain to ensure greater transparency and allay privacy concerns about ‘Big Brother’ watching.
It seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Bidooh was seen as one of the rising stars of the Greater Manchester tech scene but by 2018 the first cracks had started to appear.
Needless to say there are two sides to the story and it should be made clear Alim and Mughal lost their recent court case.
Alim told BusinessCloud: “Our contract stated that we would be the highest paid members of staff and we were on £32,000. We were told once we raised more money they would put our salary up.”
Edelson agreed that the co-founders were originally meant to be highest paid employees but added: “As circumstances changed the company had to adapt and all changes in salary and new appointments were approved and agreed to by Abdul and Shahzad. A salary increase of more than double their rate at the time, as well as a large bonus, was offered if the target fundraising was achieved, however the target was not reached.”
Alim said he made 14 trips to South Korea and secured significant new investment of between $2m-$5m through the pre-sale of its cryptocurrency DOOH Token, which could be held, redeemed or traded for advertising space.
By then Bidooh had signed a contract to install 2,000 screens over a two-to-three-year period across the Czech Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovakia.
In January 2019 Alim said he went back to the board for a pay rise and claimed he was told his and Shahzad’s salary was going to be reduced to £17,000 – something Edelson strongly denies.
“I couldn’t survive on £17,000,” Alim told BusinessCloud. “I’ve got a mortgage. We were working all hours and we wanted that to be reflected.”
By then Alim and Shahzad’s equity in the business had been diluted down to less than 20 per cent each and the cracks in the relationship between them and the rest of the board had widened.
Alim said any hopes of a reconciliation ended when the pair found out Partington had registered a new company called Promokio at Companies House in February 2019.
Promokio is a software-as-a-service platform which, according to its website, “manages, publishes and tracks promotional messages to a network of promotional kiosks”.
Alim claimed Promokio and Bidooh were too similar, something Partington refutes.
He told BusinessCloud: “Bidooh’s USP is using a camera to demographically target individuals to display different adverts. Promokio is built on a different platform and is aimed at small groups of people like in a football hospitality box or in a restaurant to take an order. There’s no camera involved in Promokio. You can’t target individuals. The two businesses couldn’t be more different.”
However for the co-founders it was the final straw. “I felt we’d lost it all,” said Alim, who decided to set up a rival business. “100 per cent we were wrong to do that. We should have gone down a legal route. I regret going behind everyone’s back but felt we had no choice.”
What happened next is not in dispute. In August 2019 suspicious activities were discovered by Bidooh’s software engineers. The team tracked and traced the activities of a cloned site, Flydooh, which was using the IP stolen from Bidooh.
When it was revealed that Alim and Mughal had cloned the facial analytics software with a view to selling it on to third parties, Bidooh sought and obtained an interim order from Mr Justice Arnold, in the High Court of Justice in London on September 11, 2019.
This interim order granted Bidooh’s representatives entry to Alim and Mughal’s premises in order to seize and secure evidence of any wrongdoing. The court order also granted Bidooh an interim injunction to halt the activities of Alim and Mughal pending full trial.
Further investigation found Alim and Mughal’s deception went back many months and included engaging with existing Bidooh partners and clients to sell their cloned product.
Bruce Jones, head of intellectual property at Kuits Solicitors, who acted for Bidooh, said: “In over 30 years of legal practice I have never before encountered such flagrant infringements and abuses.”
A series of offensive messages relating to Bidooh employees and stakeholders were also found on their devices.
“I regret the comments but you have to understand the circumstances in which they were made but it doesn’t excuse it,” said Alim.
Alim and Mughal were due in the High Court on April 15, facing claims of copyright infringement, misuse of confidential information, breach of their fiduciary duties as directors and of their shareholders’ agreements.
Rather than return to court, the pair admitted to all claims made against them and consented to judgement being entered for these claims.
Alim and Mughal are now required to pay Bidooh interim costs of £80,000 on account pending a full assessment of the overall costs to which Bidooh will be entitled to recover from them. Both have now accepted that they will sell their shares back to the company for a nominal fee.
“We couldn’t afford to go back to court,” said Alim. “It would have been money down the drain.”
Today Alim no longer drives the gold-painted Rolls Royce and is working on a new tech start-up.
“I lost control of the company. I accept that some of the things I did were unacceptable but I’ve never behaved like this before and I hope people understand that,” he said. “I’m hoping to make a fresh start.”
And what of Bidooh? Currently nobody is employed by Bidooh but it still has a board.
Edelson aid: “Overnight, Bidooh lost its largest overseas partners due to Alim and Mughal’s actions and they destabilised the platform in the process. A lot of time has been invested to justifiably fight this case and rectify the damage. The Bidooh software was targeted at retailers and due to Covid-19, this sector, as others, is facing a very tough time.
“As such, Bidooh is proactively having to reassess the product at this time in light of this current lockdown situation. The board believe now, as they did at the start, in the software and the opportunity it has in the OOH market and like other businesses, will work to ensure it survives these exceptional circumstances.”