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4 weeks of Forge, Hammer and Anvil

It's been 4 weeks since I officially took over Hammer, Forge and Anvil, so I thought I'd write up some notes on the experience, things I've learned and encountered along the way.

The beauty of this acquisition was that there were already a fairly healthy bunch of users already using the platform, and some of them were also paying for the service. Before I set about writing a single line of code, I wanted to learn as much as possible as I could about how people were using the products, so I did a few things:

Communicating With Customers

By setting up Hootsuite to manage the Social Accounts

Each of the products has its own twitter account - @getforge @hammerformac @anvilformac. Along with my own personal twitter account and the new Twitter account I created for Beach (since Beach replaced my old service company Double Digital), this is setting up to be a Social Media Management pain in butt.

We don't employ anyone to manage our own social media full time, so it means we typically do our own social media pretty poorly. With Forge, there's a number of ways to communicate with our customers, but with Hammer and Anvil, it's much more difficult as we don't know who they are.

So, Twitter is a very important channel, until I can establish Forge as the main platform for all of our customers to use with whichever Beach product they are using.

Using Hootsuite at least gives me a fighting chance to keep on top of @replies and mentions, support requests and product feedback.

It was particularly useful when Forge went down a few times, to relay important platform status information and therefore limit the customer support requests that would inevitably come in.

 

Getting to Know Our Customers

By installing Intercom into Forge

One of my favourite products, one I've used on all of my products since way back in 2012, is Intercom. The first thing I did on Forge was install it and start talking to customers directly. I made sure I was on hand to respond quickly and thoroughly to all users of the service, to really understand what they thought of Forge and what their concerns were. 

 

The main support requests I received related to Deployments getting stuck. Sometimes this happens and users would just see the endless spinner syndrome - not a great experience. Most of the time, it's due to something fairly innocuous in the uploaded archive, but also the deployment just fails sometimes and can easily be fixed with an intervention on the technical support side.

Forge is actually doing quite a bit of work behind the scenes whilst the site is deploying, and it's great that this is invisible to users most of the time, but when things do go wrong, it's also really important to provide enough information to be useful in understanding what's gone wrong and how it can be fixed. Watch out for some improvements coming in that area soon, including some slightly more elegant logging and console tools.

 

 

Understanding Our Value

By creating a survey on Typeform

I issued a very simple customer survey via one of my favourite products of the moment, Typeform. This gave me a very impactful way to understand the challenge ahead of me. I wasn't really sure how existing customers felt about our products right now and I felt I needed some insight to better approach the future.

The feedback from customers was very consistent. There was a genuine love of the products, the design and simplicity of how the products went about their business. It's shown me just how important it will be to keep this guiding principal as I start to evolve the products.

There was, understandably, an overall tone of frustration. People were on the cusp of giving up all hope that these products would still be alive in the days or weeks to come. So, I was met with some scepticism, but genuine optimism at someone new stepping up and taking these products over. People really loved Hammer, and I think, would really like to love it again. 

 

Championing Our Customers

By creating a customer showcase

There are some super smart, incredibly creative people people using our products to do amazing things and that makes me so proud. I'm a big fan of championing customers, making them the stars of the show.

My first step was to reach out to those I'd identified and invite those who felt they related to the idea, to showcase their profiles on the Forge website. It was fascinating to understand how they use and love our products in their daily workflow, some relying on all three - Hammer, Forge and Anvil, whereas others really only relying on just one product. That's fine, but it's crucial in my eyes that everyone is celebrated for the great work they do and to inspire others.

The first 4 went up last week and I'm build out applications from many more customers, all of whom I'm incredibly envious of their talents.

I'll be publishing more in depth interviews and profiles on each of them very soon on the Forge blog, which will be the main resource for updates and news about each of our products.

 

Working on the Roadmaps

By creating public roadmaps on Trello

I've always been a fan of bringing ideas out into the open and sharing in how those ideas evolve and get implemented into products. So, it was a no-brainer for me to firstly establish the principal of public roadmaps for these products. Trello is my go to choice, since I already use it daily for managing internal product development tasks.

The feedback I received from the Customer Survey and from directly talking to people through Intercom, all goes into these boards, starting with the one for Forge.

 

Users and Customers are free to add ideas, comment and vote on others which helps me to understand demand and prioritise our workflow. It always takes a bit of time for people to get into the habit of contributing directly here, but is an area I really hope will build out organically as we gather momentum.

In August I'll be releasing the Hammer roadmap for people to contribute and stay informed on the progress.

 

Learning About Our Business

 Using Stripe, Chart Mogul and App Figures

We use Stripe for processing payments on Forge. For Hammer, we rely on the Mac App Store.

Both of these services are very well served by some supporting services that provide a way of looking at the data to get a better understanding of the nature of your business, instead of purely looking at timeline transactional data, but looking in terms of your key metrics.

Until I figure out what our "2000 Users" killer metric is, I'm really interested in understanding how new customers find our products (funnel), which product they choose to buy (pricing model) and how long they stay for (churn).

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 13.24.16.png

 

I found that Chart Mogul is a great service for making the most of Stripe data, though I also quite like the native Stripe apps. Chart Mogul provides information in relation to churn rates, and when I get deeper into this, I'm sure will provide much more value still.

The App Store data via iTunes Connect is typically crappy, so I'm using AppFigures for tracking the performance of Hammer. Despite the obvious frustration since stagnating the development, people are still downloading the tool and still love it. So, I'm really hopeful that when I get into the next version development, we can re-establish the trust and passion for Hammer that it once showed such promise for.

Through this initial research, I made some quick decisions on evolving our pricing model. I felt that the free version was too generous and creating too much of a comfortable zone for new users to exist in. Instead of the 5GB limit, I reduced it to 1GB. 

The $10 plan, I felt was also not driving enough value to prompt people to take that big step of putting their hands in their pockets to pay for the service, so I doubled the number of sites that can be created from 5 to 10.

I didn't think there was then enough of a significant difference in value from the basic plan to the paid plan, so I took a big step to remove the limit on sites entirely - you can create unlimited sites with custom domain for $50 per month.

A big feature of each of the paid plans is the Customer Support. It was never something that was really part of the feature set, but hopefully I've made a successful attempt to establish my intention to ensure that we really focus on supporting our customers, through all of the tools that we have available.

 

Tackling the Crooks

Using Intercom and Rack::Attack to block the crims.

All of a sudden, Forge went down. Panic. Was it something I did? I'm still figuring my around the stack, did I botch up the CDN settings? Did I knock out an EC2 instance? Arrghhh.

Turns out, no.

As I was getting to learn about the Forge user base, I discovered that there were around 100 accounts registered on the platform with Nigerian locales. On deeper inspection, it turns out that many of these accounts were using Forge to create suspected phishing sites and Amazon weren't thrilled about it.

Once I figured this out, I went through and removed offending accounts, sites and established some rules for new user signups to prevent this type of thing happening again. 

One way is simply to monitor the new account registration activity, this is time consuming, but a very important exercise to understand how people are using Forge. Intercom is a great tool for this, particularly when I have it setup to fire notifications into a dedicated Slack channel.

The other way is to maintain an active blacklist of IP addresses, using Rack::Attack.

I have a feeling this wont be the last we see of this issue, the virtues of a free account service, but we will monitor and do our best to prevent breaches of our terms of service.

 


So, that's an overview of some the main aspects of what we've been working on the past few weeks - I wont bore you with the drudgery of actually managing a transition of tech from one party to another.

I'm very excited that we're now starting to pick up the challenges of some of the Forge roadmap, from stabilising and updating the underlying technology, improving performance of existing critical features and starting some new shiny things too.




Why Forge, Hammer and Anvil?

Today is a great day and I am very happy.

I quietly announced that my company, Beach.io, has acquired three small products: Hammer for Mac, Forge and Anvil, from the guys at Riot.

A few thoughts on Hammer

Back in 2012, Hammer was born with a flurry of excitement. Back from the initial commit by Elliott to the Hammer server-side repo on June 10 2012, up to the announcement pretty much bang on 6 months later that the app was flying

People loved Hammer. It was a breath of fresh air for Mac-touting front end dev's everywhere.

I know this sentiment very well. I wasn't the first user of Hammer - in fact after signing up for the initial BETA, I didn't quite understand what it was for until I really got stuck into the first release.

It was a REVELATION to me

I wrote this guide to Hammer back in September 2013.

Since then, I haven't done anything static that didn't involve Hammer.

  • I prototyped new UI concepts for Currys / PC World
  • I used it to build Brand Swatches and Style Guides for Breast Cancer Campaign
  • I prototyped early static screens and clickable prototypes for Nourish Care
  • I built and ran value proposition experiments and lead generation for Ferticentro
  • I built product websites for Nuwe, HealthHackers, Nutribu, Beach, Double Digital
  • I used it during Hackathons
  • I converted many themeforest themes into Hammer templates just so I could use them without drowning in long HTML files...
  • I converted the Startup Framework into Hammer templates

2 years after Hammer's first release, I'm still an active customer and user of the product. But the world of Developer Tools moves so fast. We've seen the rise of javascript libraries and frameworks, from Backbone to Ember to Angular to React and Mithril. We've all been struggling to keep up, to place our bets on what will stick and what will fall by the wayside. 

In this time, we've seen other tools with similar promise to Hammer rise in popularity as the products have continued to adapt as the development technologies we use have evolved. Codekit, LiveReload, PreProc, CactusCrunch and Koala to name a few. [Editor: See additional notes at the bottom of the article]

I've tried them all in this time, but there's something about Hammer that keeps me coming back.

But, it seemed something was not right with Hammer, the updates stopped coming. New releases were not made. All was quiet. Meanwhile...

A few thoughts on Forge

Having been a Hammer user since early 2013, when I found out about the new service from Riot, called Forge, I was keen to dive in. In October 2013, when Forge opened its doors, I was right there to give it a try.

I had been having a torrid time with basic hosting, using Fasthosts VPS. It had caused me no end of bother, considering I didn't really want to be doing hosting in the first place, but when you're running client projects, it's something you end up just doing to avoid the inevitable hand holding of a client-managed hosting setup.

So, as soon as Forge came out, I moved a number of my simpler static sites straight over. That wasn't before I'd also wrestled with Amazon S3 for static site hosting, and found updating S3 buckets, configuring permissions and Route53 settings to be a pig of a job for something that should be so straightforward.

That's exactly what Forge was. Dead, dead simple. Drag, drop and forget.

I remember getting so pee'd off with the whole thing, I even ran a couple of demo sites straight out of a public Dropbox folder, I mean, jeez - so when Forge released Dropbox (and Github) integration, I was like "...are these guys reading my freakin' mind?"

Forge is like a bit of a secret weapon for me. In a way, I never really wanted to tell people about it, like they would discover my kryptonite or something. I've hosted everything from coming soon pages, to single page web sites all the way up to a rather nice React app with Parse.com integration on Forge. It's not as "static" as you might think.

I always thought to myself, I'd love to have some products like these, Forge and Hammer are just awesome - amazingly well executed, beautifully designed, simple propositions which really do have an impact on the way developers work.

Since Forge was released, we've seen a number of other static site hosting services, none more significant than Github's own pages service. Then there's Divshot, BitBalloon, Roots, Netlify, Site44, Paperplane and Brace (acquired by Squarespace)

Once again, as I could tell that Forge was not progressing at the velocity that I had hoped, I tried all of these services, but somehow, kept finding my way back to Forge.

A few thoughts on Nuwe and Me

I am CTO and co-founder of a startup, named Nuwe, which we founded in 2014. I have a small tech company, a bit like Riot, called Beach and we specialise in web and mobile app development, mainly focussed on products.

At Nuwe, we are building a developer platform which provides a Platform as a Service for people making new mHealth apps and services. I love ideas with real Social Capital.

We were recently accelerated by Startup Bootcamp, as part of the Barcelona IoT and Data Cohort of 2015.

I come from a rich background of experience in running large and small projects, from PHP-based web apps, e-commerce and CMS builds to more recently, the last few years focussing mainly on Ruby (rails), Node.js and native iOS projects. I'm a developer, product manager, team leader, entrepreneur.

I have 2 small boys, 2 basset hounds and a very understanding wife.

With Nuwe, we've been helping 20 or so companies to build their mHealth apps with significant cost and time savings, during our closed BETA phase. What I've seen in this process up close, is that although the technologies we use to build products vary massively (a huge challenge for us being truly platform agnostic), that the real problem and barrier to growth comes with the understanding and application of the skills required to build and iterate on new ideas from the ground up. Those aren't technical challenges. They are a mindset barrier.

I've seen, first hand, the tendency to assume too much, to believe our own instincts and write feature requirement after feature requirement - often forgetting the real people who you want to buy the product and drowning behind the desk in the belief that what we're building is the right thing, the thing that people want. I've seen it with startups, indie developers and with large multinational corporates.

A big challenge for the creators of new Health services, apps and services in general for that matter, is in obtaining and practising better product development processes and that starts even before we even lay down one line of code on our product.

One of the best parts of the accelerator process for us, was to disconnect from the need to build software and reconnect with our audience. We designed, tested and iterated our value proposition over and again until we found something that resonated - in language, tone, style and structure. 

Doing that somehow free'd us to build later, faster and in a more targeted way. All we needed was a website, a view of the problem and way to communicate the solutions we had in mind.

Through all this, I knew we needed to help educate our customers to maximise the use of our platform and that we'd need to invest in the content and the tools to provide this.

The Convergence of Pathways

It was a chance conversation between myself and Elliott over twitter, since I knew of his move a while back to Dropbox, to ask him what his plans were for Forge, in particular, when we started talking about the future of these products.

Within a few hours we were talking about a deal that would see me take over the on going management of Forge.

And within a couple of weeks, we'd struck a deal for me to take over the ownership of Forge, Hammer and Anvil.

You see, Elliott and I have similar visions for the products they originally created. Elliott still has unfinished business for sure and so I was delighted when both he and Hector agreed to stay close to the products as key advisors and to share in any future success as the original creators.

There's a number of things that need to be addressed quickly, in my mind as a customer of the products and I'm sure you'll agree with those.

There's many routes that these products could take, and I'm sure we'll become more divided on those ideas as we progress, since the landscape is evolving all the time.

One things is for certain, these products don't deserve to end up on the crap pile. They're too damn good, too damn valuable and have too much bloody potential as yet unfulfilled.

My Simple Manifesto

I think that it would be rather premature to tell you what I plan to do, so it might make more sense to outline what I believe in.

Customer Service is Top Priority
One of the things I want Forge to be known for is Amazing Customer Service. It's going to be hard, we're a very small team to start with, but I see the potential for this product and I will do everything I can to make sure the service you receive kicks the cr*p out of the larger, less personal and more sales-driven companies. The service will be personal and the best way to reach us is via the new Intercom tool in your Forge admin area. Look out for this...
 

forge-intercom

Openness, Transparency and Collaboration
I'm going to bring openness and transparency to the roadmap, I want all of our Customers to have a say in the way that Forge takes shape.

Build and Enable Great Products
I believe in Products. And whilst Forge itself is a product, the customers using Forge are also building and promoting their own products. So I think Forge is a tool for creating better products and better businesses and this will guide what we do with Forge.

Simplicity Is Beautiful
I love simplicity. And that's why I love Forge and Hammer, it really was the easiest way to host and build my websites. Even so, some things are still not as simple as they could be and there's lots of things I'd like to add. Remembering this value will be crucial.

Social Capital is Really Important
I like working on things that provide an amount of Social Capital. If you're in Education or you're building products for Health, then I'd especially love to hear from you to see how we can help you further.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the products, ideas you've been mulling over and waiting for over the past couple of years and your own visions of the future.

Follow Forge on Twitter

Follow Hammer on Twitter

Follow Anvil on Twitter

 

 


Edit: Thanks to @TheLoneCuber and Bryan Jones (@bdkjones) from Codekit for pointing out the potential for interpreting the article in a way that I hadn't intended.

It seems it could have been read that I was suggesting Hammer was the first tool of its kind in the market - that wasn't the intention. I was merely trying to make the point that since Hammer was released, other apps have continued to evolve and establish a place in the market and Hammer has not evolved at the same pace over recent months.

To clarify, and as both had pointed out, Codekit (thanks to Bryan's exhaustive and often entertaining public release notes) actually went live into Public Beta in November 2011 and according to the project's repo, Hammer's first commit wasn't until summer 2012.

 

 

 

Why Do We Need Apple?

Why Do We Need Apple?


Why we need Apple?

It’s no secret that I’m an avid Apple fan and user-  Apple Ipad, Apple Ipod, Macbook Air and Iphone. I have never been a fan of any other system such as Android, Windows etc, I find them too cluttery and a bit all over the place. My first smartphone was a Samsung Omnia and it was awful. The windows system, then, was in no way as good as the simple Ios from Apples 3G model. So I can safely say I couldn't be happier about Apple’s latest announcements. Why? Because what Apple does affects us all.

There’s a tendency in the tech world- and especially as it relates to mobile OS-es to believe that the tech giants operate independently from each other. Apple makes its products, Google makes its operating system and any overlap is copying at best, and theft at worst. This view fails to take into account a lot of the complexities of how tech operates.


Apple Has the Scale to Reach Millions of Users

Perhaps, the biggest reason that Apple matters is it's distribution scale. Apple isn't the only one who puts good ideas into their products. But making a good phone doesn't matter much if you can’t put it into the hands of the people who want it. Some features (like NFC payments) only really catch on if a lot of people are using them. Apple is one of the few who can put phones into millions of hands.

When Apple launched the Iphone 5s last year, it initially launched in 11 countries, reaching a total of 50 countries by November 1st. This is possible due to the massive infrastructure that Apple has devoted to its one product line.  According to reports, Foxconn- one of Apple’s biggest suppliers- is able to crank out 500k Iphone's per day. Thats a 24-hour work cycle (bogged down with human rights violation problems. Not that this is unique to Foxconn or Apple), but for context, at that capacity, Apple could make 45 million Iphone's in 90 days. One quarter.

Compare this to a recent up and comer: Motorola. After Google purchased Motorola, it made a huge sweeping overhaul to its management team and cranked out a product that, while not impressing spec geeks, was still more than good enough for most people. Allegedly, it sold 500,000 in 90-days. Even if those sales numbers are inaccurate, though, Motorola itself claimed it's Texas facility-home of the customised Moto maker handsets- could only make 100,000 handsets per week. For context, for a 90-day period that would be roughly 1.28 million units. Thats still about 43.72 million units behind Apple. Motorola pioneered customisable hardware which could have shaken up the mobile industry, but because it couldn’t  deliver that to more than one country at launch, almost no one noticed.

Samsung is the closest non-Apple products to have the same scale. In Q2 2013, Samsung pushed 71 million smartphones, compared to Apple’s 31.2 million over the same time frame. Not all of those are flagships but the fact remains that Samsung is the only Android manufacturer that can compete in this arena.

To push a new type of consumer tech, you need consumers to actually use it. Unlike fan favourites such as HTC or Motorola, if Apple wants to make a device popular, it has the means to do so. Retailers need a reason to upgrade their systems to support NFC payments. Apple can give them 45 million new reasons every quarter. No matter how much their fans like them, HTC and Motorola can’t do that.

Apple Has the Cool Factor to Gain Mindshare

Whether you call it high quality hardware or reality distortion field, the fact is that Apple makes products that millions of people really love. Not everyone, but enough. Enough people, at the very least, to nudge consumer mindshare into a direction Apple chooses. Like wearing a computer on your wrist.

We saw this happen to a certain extent with voice commands. Despite Google now being just as good as (and sometimes better) Siri, the latter is the one that became a brand unto itself. Voice command jokes maybe useless, but they give, what is otherwise just a smartphone feature, personality. Simply put, no one’s asking whether or not some day we will have meaningful relationships with Google.

Does this mean Apple is the only one making cool features? Definitely not. But fashion matters in tech. Arguably, Google Glass’s biggest failure from what I have seen personally and read isn’t the tech, or its practicality, or even its oddly invasive camera. It’s that Glass simply just looks silly. Maybe it shouldn't be. People wear glasses in their every day to day life. But when you attach a bright orange camera to someone's eyeball, it puts people off. Coolness matters and, for the time being, Apple is still pretty damn cool.

Wearables is another big area where coolness is going to matter. Smart watches have been around since before the pebble, but they still have the perception of being very silly. There are no guarantees in tech, but Apple may just be able to make the smart watch cool. The category certainly needs the push, and after the announcement of the Apple watch, they might have gotten it. Not only will it become more socially acceptable to wear them, but Android users will probably have more (good) models to choose from if it catches on.

Apple’s monopoly on cool isn't totally absolute, of course. Google’s software design has arguably become much, much cooler in recent years. Bigger phones have become cool enough for Apple to follow suit. But Apple does still have a lot of cool collateral in its coffers. More importantly, as stated before, it has the manufacturing capacity to back it up. Quite frankly, despite pushing the same number of units, Samsung doesn’t have the same fashionable factor. This puts Apple in  a unique position, particularly in terms of appealing to a key, influential demographic.

Gold Iphone 6

Apple Has a Wealthier Target Demographic.

Apple products aren’t necessarily overpriced. They’re just expensive. The same goes for the price of a good quality laptop from a different manufacturer.

The difference with Apple is that “expensive” is the only price point they reach. There’s no budget iPad for £200. The cheapest Mac you can get is £899. The lowest price for a laptop is £749. The new Apple Watch will cost around £250 for the smaller screen watch, which is nearly twice the cost of the early Android wear devices. For any other company, this would be suicide. In fact, for Samsung's smart watch, it sort of was.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but it means that Apple necessarily excludes poorer demographics (and countries). The Moto G is sold in foreign markets where a £600 phone is prohibitively expensive. In fact, arguably, Android was only able to get to where it is today because it’s able to cater to more than one price point or type of market.

“Android is popular because it is cheap, not because it is good.”

With exclusionary prices, though, comes status symbols. And status symbols, by their nature, are more often owned by the wealthy. Money shouldn’t necessarily buy influence, but it often does. Businesses with cash to spend will invest in technology they think is worthwhile.

Countries with more money will determine what devices will become more popular. That is why the US and China are important first launch markets, while Haiti doesn't come up too often in conversations about mass market appeal. It’s callous, it’s insensitive, it marginalises some groups, and it’s true. People who sell things need to find people with money to buy things in order to survive. And Apple, by its very nature, appeals to people and businesses with more money.


COMPETION-1.jpg

Competition Matters, and Apple Is the Biggest we Have

None of these factors are exclusive to Apple. However, the just-right combination is pretty rare. This means  that, even if you don’t use a single Apple product, the company probably has some influence over the technology that you use. Android wear, as an example, might be an excellent product. But without a company like Apple to make wearables fashionable, it’s not entirely certain if they would catch on. They’ve certainly struggled so far.

Not to mention, there’s other little competition. Without Apple, the entire Android world might get over run by Samsung (arguably already has). Without Apple, there’s almost nothing competing with Windows. Without Apple, the “who’s better than who” discussion will die out almost entirely. Even if you hate Apple, that rivalry drives us to do more.

That type of competition will always drive companies to out-do and borrow from one another. It’s possible that Android wouldn’t have worked on Project Better if not for Apples smoothness, in the same way that Apple might not have made its own notification shade following Androids lead. One lends itself to the other. It’s the circle of competition, and we’ll all benefit from it.

Of course, no one’s saying Apple’s the only one that drives competition or the only one who comes up with the ideas. But it does popularise many of them. No one is giving credit solely to Apple for inventing all technology. Just because Apple prefers a walled-garden approach to tech, though, doesn’t mean it actually lives in one. 

 

 

 

Links to Resources 

http://appleinsider.com/articles/13/11/11/apple-store-sales-fall-3-as-iphone-ipad-distribution-network-grows

http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2013/09/23First-Weekend-iPhone-Sales-Top-Nine-Million-Sets-New-Record.html

http://appleinsider.com/articles/13/11/27/foxconn-building-500k-iphone-5s-units-for-apple-per-day-with-nonstop-production-lines

http://www.cnet.com/uk/news/motorola-to-shutter-texas-factory-building-moto-x/

http://www.dailytech.com/Motorolas+Moto+X+Assembly+Plant+in+Texas+to+Close+by+the+End+of+2014/article34986.htm

http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2352262/samsung-warns-of-poor-q2-due-to-slowing-galaxy-s5-sales

http://bgr.com/2013/07/23/samsung-smartphone-sales-q2-2013-iphone/

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/02/apple-watch-smartwatches-and-the-wearables-fashion-gap

http://www.style.com/trends/fashion/2014/fashion-tech-problem-silicon-valley

https://www.apple.com/uk/

http://www.pcpro.co.uk/features/389782/apple-ios-vs-android-vs-windows-8-whats-the-best-compact-tablet-os

http://uk.pcmag.com/tablets/3869/feature/how-to-choose-the-right-tablet

http://www.knowyourmobile.com/mobile-phones/apple-ios-8/22240/ios-8-vs-windows-phone-81-best-bits-both-examined

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jimmy's Iced Coffee

Jimmy's Iced Coffee

I love to celebrate innovative, fresh business ideas - especially where technology is used to scale, distribute and optimise the customer experience. In particular, I'm very keen to support local businesses, in Poole, Bournemouth and the wider Dorset area and show the world that this part of the UK Countryside can mix it with the big boys.

So, I sent Ben to meet Jim Cregan, founder of Jimmy's Iced Coffee - based in Christchurch, Dorset.

IN THE BEGINNING || Jimmy's Iced Coffee

jimmys logo.jpeg

SO, LIVING HERE ON THE SOUTH COAST OF THE UK, I GET TO MEET SOME FASCINATING AND INTERESTING PEOPLE WHO HAVE SOME FANTASTIC STORIES TO TELL. ONE OF THEM BEING LOCAL SURFER JIM CREGAN.

Jim Cregan, a Dorset lad who spent his childhood growing up along the coast, watching and surfing the english channel most of his life and becoming quite a well known character in and around the area.

However Jim, like most of us Brits at some stage or another, had enough of our poor winter climate so decided to jet off to the other side of the world where he and his lovely lady Sophie would travel around Oz for a year. They bought a truck, converted it into their new home on wheels and hit the road. Magic. Loaded with boards, camping kit, stoves, music, wood and fire in their hearts they made it down to their favourite place in the world, Tasmania.

Alongside the wonders of the land, sea and adventures was a craze. The craze, "Iced Coffee". Jim fell in love with the stuff, consuming it when ever he could, after surf, while driving, as a hangover cure and for a lot of other occasions. He realised this epic product didn’t exist in the UK so he began contacting the Iced Coffee Companies in reach that he could franchise it. (although saying that, he had no idea what franchising meant).

After their mission and returning back to the UK to nothing but sweet and sickly iced coffee, he decided enough was enough. Jim persuaded his older sister Suzie, an endurance motorbike riding, charity fund raising legend and cafe owner to take part in the escapade to bring proper Iced Coffee to the UK. They both used her award winning cafe as a late-night laboratory, concocting all types of brews under the Iced Coffee umbrella until they found the right flavour.

jim cregan.jpg

Since the first lab session on that cold November morning in 2010, they have created Jimmy’s Iced coffee which you can now find and enjoy today. They sold their first carton in Selfridges London on April 7th 2011 and now have listings with Waitrose, Ocado, Welcome Break petrol stations, Budgens, WHSmith and a heap of wonderful cafes and delis across the UK.

I was lucky enough to get in contact with Jimmy himself about sponsoring me for my Longboarding and other activities that I get up too. I sent him over a couple of images, and Videos of myself and mates skating and he was quickly on side to provide us with a bunch of stickers, and a few crates of coffee for races and general riding.

thefamily.jpg

                                                                                  www.jimmysicedcoffee.com

Since then we have stayed in contact via social media and he’s a sucker for a good sunrise picture, so I occasionally drop him a photo of the sunrise in Poole harbour for his social media pages.

On Friday 31st I had arranged to take a trip over to the factory in Christchurch to catch up with Jim and to collect some more Iced Coffee for the up and coming races. The weather on this day was start of another storm on the way to the UK, heavy rain, strong winds, and traffic. I made my way over there and arrived at Jimmy's office and was greeted by his assistant (sorry can’t remember her name) she was busy doing accounts.

Jim got off the phone and we chatted about what I was now up to, where I was working, my longboarding, surfing etc.. We then got onto the subject of the company, and the next big step for them is to start shipping abroad.  He met a guy, who has sorted him out a container to ship in oversea’s. He has already shipped out to South Africa where the people there can buy his product.

As soon as the weather starts getting better, the plan is to head over to Christchurch and Mudeford where Jimmys is based and start filming some mini longboard edits and to get jimmy involved skating hopefully in his jimmy's iced coffee carton. RAD!

It was only a quick catch up as he was waiting for Dorchester Council to turn up for a meeting.

So, keep an eye out for his products on your local super market shelf, take a photo and tag @jimmysicedcoffee or #jimmysicedcoffee. He’ll appreciate it.

 

Schoey

 

Fidgetstick - Under New Management

As you may recall, I sun-setted my social network for adventurous people, Fidgetstick, after a few years of trying to figure out how to build a business out of a verticalised social network.

The lessons were plentiful, the mistakes were hilariously obvious, the product was crap, the intent was genuine, the execution sadly lacking.

Mobile technology was nascent, social platforms were not so widely adopted. Timing was wrong. I didn't have the technical, design or product skills I have now. I didn't truly connect with the market.

But I have some unfinished business, and to address that I realised that someone else would need to continue my mission - their mission, with some help and guidance. 

I'm pleased to say that someone will be my younger brother Ben

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He's a young, passionate adventure sports enthusiast - kayaker, climber, activity instructor, long boarder. He's a little illiterate (excuse his text speak, I will knock it out of him). Mostly, he's passionate, honest and determined and for me that's good enough. Everything else can be learned.

Ben inherits an existing community of 12,000+ adventurous people that are on Facebook and will reignite the activity around curation and distribution of the best adventure-sports related content from around the web, topical discussion and leverage the power of community to return value to its members - through exclusive offers, discounts, prizes etc. that community members will delight in.

As Ben gathers insights from his own experience and from interactions with the community, we'll start to plan what the next version of Fidgetstick should become... 

A community hub?
A store?
A micro-site?
A tool?
An information repository?
A media sharing site?
A product?
An app?
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Right now, we're not guessing. But we are hoping that by restarting the conversation, getting excited about the outdoors, being adventurous, pushing the boundaries, scaring ourselves, trying new things with new people, we'll figure out what challenges lie ahead. and how technical solutions can help.

If you have any thoughts, tweet @fidgetstick  or 'like' the facebook page and join the conversation.

 

The Surfer - An Analogy of Entrepreneurship

Sergio Mottola is a good friend, an inspiring entrepreneur and has a wonderful eccentric Italian flair for a good analogy. I'm actually on a skype call to him right now, starting to type this post before I forget it.  I've embellished his analogy in my own way, for the purpose of an original yet inspired post.

Here it is.

Being an Entrepreneur is like being a Surfer. 

At some point in my life, I simply have to grab my board and hit the sea, hoping to catch a wave. 

I'll enter the water with bravado and intent, a vision of my perfect wave etched in my mind.  Clasping my board under my arm, I stride ahead into the shallows before lunging onto the board head first. The icy cold water gets into my collar, first the trickle down into the small of my back,  across my chest and down my legs. At first it's shockingly cold, and I wonder why I decided to get up out my nice warm bed at 7am and hit the beach.

I'm still feeling the bite, as I glide across the frothy white shallows and into the first set of small breaking waves, slipping past surf-schoolers, body boarders, stag weekenders, newbies, the too old and the too young. I get mixed up in the noise, dodging the oncoming traffic, distracted by the odd hello, even less small talk and wetsuited beauty to frequently to efficiently push through.

But eventually push through I do and as the wetsuit is starting to warm up, I've cut through the initial reticence and I'm optimistic about what lies ahead. There's a little spray off the surface and the sun is starting to break through the morning mist. Life is good and we're pushing on.

And WHAM! 

I'm hit with the first of a new incoming set. It's a different experience to the smaller frothy white stuff I'd seen others happily satisfied playing around with in the shallows. No, this wave had a presence and a sense of raw power that, although you expected, you are never quite prepared for.   

I'm initially knocked from the board. and I feel the leash pulling against my ankle as I hope there was no-one behind me and feeling the repercussions of the surprise attack that took me completely off guard. It's ok, no lasting damage. I regain control of my board and lunge atop, square myself up and paddle head on into the oncoming breaking set.

This time, I'm a little more ready. I spot the wave a little earlier, it's bigger than that the last, but at least I'm prepared. I pull my body forward and push down on the nose of the board, as the wave tries to lift me and duck down into it gathering body of water. I feel the pull, it lurches me and I'm a little off balance, but I'm able to relax, retain control and surface the other side of the wave, keeping forward momentum and pushing on. 

This time I'm totally ready. I spot the wave early. I'm carrying good speed across the water. I've timed it perfectly to duck dive as before, finely adjusting my body position based on the feedback I'd received from the last dive to further improve my hydrodynamic qualities.  

Just as the wave approaches, I spot out of the corner of my eye, the fast approaching outline of someone rising from their board, taking to their feet and settling into an attacking stance. I turn to get a clearer view. This throws my body off balance slightly and the board lurches to the side. Still the oncoming board approaches and headed in my direction. I start to panic as I continue to lose balance whilst trying to calculate the course and trajectory of the surfer headed straight toward me.  

I take decisive action. I grab the board and turn sharply to the right, as the surfer gathers onto me and before I know it has carved straight past. Side onto the wave, my board gets hit full force onto the widest part and it forces me off and tumbling over with the wave. I can't fight it, I let go and again, feel the snap at the ankle as the leash once again gets its tensile strength tested.

Eventually, I regather, realign and press on. I'm much more adept with my duck diving. I can spot the on coming traffic more readily and take earlier action to avoid or deflect the uncontrollable instances of those ahead of me choosing to take their shot and come straight towards me. They're not aiming at me, they;re taking their shot. They've waited, they've been through the same waves as I have. They've earned the right. 

And now, as I break through into the calmer swell, hanging out the back of the onslaught, I take a moment to catch my breath. My shoulders ache from the paddling. I need some time. Time I now have.

Watching the horizon, I have a picture of my wave still in my mind from the moment I set foot into the water. Even through all of the turmoil and tribulations, it's still there. And now I wait.  

The first wave of the new set gets me excited. I paddle hard as it approaches, keen to jump straight on and ride it all the way back to shore. I forgotten the battle that I had to get out here in an instant and all I can think of is how I'll paddle hard for 10 seconds, rise triumphantly to my feet, gather speed as my board and I descend the face of the wave before leaning onto the right edge of the board and carving back up the face to the crest.

I'm still paddling hard as the wave rolls quietly underneath, not enough to even think about grabbing me and the board and taking us forward. I stop paddling, cuss myself of the naive over exuberance, turn and reclaim the distance I'd just lost out of pure innocent excitement.  

There's quite a few more instances of misjudged, misaligned, frustration-driven attempts to catch otherwise seemingly suitable waves but for whatever reason, weren't the one. Some would pick me up enough to get a quick thrill, others continued to roll innocuously underneath the board. 

And then, after all the waiting, the failed attempts. It's here. It's really here. This is it, this is the one.

Everyone else around me is getting excited, they sense it too. The change in expectations is palpable. Readiness in unison and boards turn, bodies lie flat and assume attack positions. Peering over shoulders, the wave forms perfectly behind us and we start to paddle. We're jostling a little, trying to get our right of passage, the etiquette of the wave in place early to avoid conflict. For others, no matter. This is an opportunity not to be missed. 

It's coming... 

I start to paddle hard, my shoulders feel strong and I quickly gather speed. The adrenalin is overcoming the fatigue of all the earlier attempts. All the pieces are in place, these are the perfect conditions - the perfect wave, I have it all planned out. I'd rehearsed it over and over in my head. This is my time, my wave, my destiny. No one was getting in my way. 

Shit. 

Just as I start to get gathered up by the wave, I feel the leash gather around my ankle. It feels awkward, but I think I can still carry on. I'm on the wave, now's the time to stand up and be counted.  

FUCK. 

The damn leash is not only wrapped around my ankle, it's caught on my board fin. I can't stand up. I'm half up, I'm off balance. I'm holding the board one foot is up, the other off the back of the board, flailing mercilessly behind.  I'm off balance, but the sheer perfectness of the wave takes me on, gathering speed as I battle in ungainly majesty to stay on the wave. But, I'm doing it. I'm still here. I look a sight, but I'm heading towards the shore. I've got one leg tied up, I'm off balance, but I'm riding the wave.

It's hard, but the velocity and raw power of the wave takes me on.  And on. 

I must look frickin' ridiculous. 

As the wave finally comes to a rest, I gather myself, untangle my foot from the lead, unstrap myself and raise the board up under my arm. I walk from the water, tired, excited, thankful but somehow unfulfilled. It could have been better. I can improve. 

Just then, the wind picks up. A gust of unnatural energy blasts through. The cute blonde who is trying to elegantly and swiftly change her swimsuit under a careful placed towel comes a cropper, as the towel blows away down the beach leaving her exposed and embarrassed. I smile and walk on, thinking about the next wave I want to catch and how next time, it could be even better than the last. 

 

Nutribu - a simple, social language for Nutrition

Nutrition and the broader health tech industry is HOT right now. 

MyFitnessPal raised £18m in VC money from Accel and others
Fitbit Raises $43 Million From Qualcomm Ventures, SAP Ventures, And SoftBank Capital
Jawbone Acquires BodyMedia For Over $100 Million To Give It An Edge In Wearable Health Tracking

And that is just great. Because you may recall, that I have a bit of an interest in this area. From my tinkering and slight addiction to my Nike Fuel band, tracking my activity on a daily basis and monitoring against my goals - to the extent that I built my own little Fuel Band dashboard which you can see here.

But really, my interest in the space goes much further. You may recall this post, from back in March, where we took the Nutribu API and our nifty little iOS app Feedo to the Launch Festival in San Francisco. 

Since March, the team have been hard at work figuring out how best to go to market. We've been around the garden, in the pond, over the fence, back into the house and back to the garden again. We've talked about, mocked up, spec'd out and subsequently parked a number of different applications.

We've talked enterprise apps. 

We've talked API-only models.

We've talked consumer apps. 

We've talked products for SME's.

But, through this process one thing has really proven out. A lean approach to product development, a constant and relentless testing of hypotheses, fast decisions and challenging of specification to achieve the MVP (minimum viable product). 

Our founder and CEO Sergio Mottola has really grown in his role as an entrepreneur, particularly within the technology / software domain. His relentless pursuit of an ideal, a proposition to the marketplace to simplify and socialise nutrition to the extent that normal people understand it, to the extent that they actually talk about it openly and even compete to be "better" in the context of what they eat. 

And that's a very key point, which took me a little while to understand. The key is not to be better at eating more or less. It's not about eating less calories or any other single measure or macro-nutrient. 

It's about 1) understanding your personal nutritional requirements and 2) about being the best at eating the most balanced diet you can according to those needs. 

You see, the Guideline Daily Amounts that you see all over products are frankly nonsense. They're based on a standard profile of person who is not you. This is drummed home to me, when you look at a box of cereal, which is what my little boy of 2 eats, and the GDA's are based on a 35 year old! 

So, we resolved to build an application that would help people to understand their personal nutritional needs and easily, quickly track their consumption and performance over time with simple, clear measurements.  

 Testing the Nutribu app sharing via Instagram

Testing the Nutribu app sharing via Instagram

These measurements become objects of conversation and interest among peers, as we compete to build the most nutritionally balanced versions of our dishes and over the course of a day, week, month, year or lifetime, be more balanced and conscious of what we're eating. They are visual, social and engaging - not overly complex, scientific or boring as we see right now. 

So, as we prepare to launch the Nutribu app in the next couple of months, it's clear that we're in the right space, that interest is high, capital is available and at the end of the day, when we ask ourselves "should this exist in the world and does it make a positive difference" we can confidently answer "yes". And that's a pretty damn good place to be.

 

Learning Ruby on Rails Development - My Progress

Learning Ruby on Rails Development - My Progress

As I took the very easy decision (albeit painful, lonely and stressful at times) to create Braindu I also undertook to learn some new technical skills.

Braindu is a complex web application that uses a number of cutting edge web application development technologies, which I've discussed briefly before.

On the server side, the platform is built using the now popular and impressive Ruby on Rails platform. My development team are extremely experienced Rails developers, but for this project, I wanted to get stuck in myself and learn to code Rails apps from scratch.

I've talked before about how I'm sudo-addicted to online learning platforms, such as Code School, Codecademy, Treehouse & Lynda.com.

But alas, with everything you have to take in, everything you come across from tutorials, courses, videos, documents, articles, e-books, plugins, gemfiles, extensions, frameworks, libraries... it opens you up to a whole world of information that you need to navigate, store, manage, curate and constantly refer to on a regular basis as you advance your practical knowledge and experience with a framework like Rails - it's a frickin' nightmare.

 How I Learn Ruby on Rails with Braindu

How I Learn Ruby on Rails with Braindu

Fortunately for me I've got Braindu. The product that is encouraging me to learn Rails is also the app that is helping me to learn rails (and many other companion technologies, such as SASS, HAML, SVG, CoffeeScript) and now I cannot live without it.

Now I know I have a slight conflict of interest, but seriously, my learning process has been transformed.

And with Braindu, I can share with you my collection of resources - a live and organic repository of information relating to my mission to hold my own at developing web applications and software. Amazing considering that I couldn't even build a website but 4 years ago.

 Sit back and Browse with the Read View.

Sit back and Browse with the Read View.

I've got a long way to go to be able to have at least a modicum of technical credibility among the experts that I work with every day, but the ability to get closer to the technical team's challenges through better technical skill development and knowledge is already paying dividends.

Right, back to a brief coffee break and a dabble with the Evernote API via the new Codecademy API pathways. How I've changed.

From Startup to Stay Up - Bournemouth Uni EBC Event

From Startup to Stay Up - Bournemouth Uni EBC Event

Tonight I attended what I hope to be the first of many more local events aimed at Entrepreneurship, Technology, Business, Startups & Digital Media. This particular event, held on the 7th Floor of the Executive Business Center of Bournemouth University, fits into the category of general business advice.

Steve Taylor talks about his theory of Systematic Business Innovation, a subject that he has covered alongside well known startups & creative industry organisations like NESTA, Creative England & the British Council in helping entrepreneurs throughout the UK and in developing economies such as China and India.

The talk itself covered a lot of general issues faced by all new business owners, without focus on any specific category or industry sector. Though, Steve was explicit in defining the particular stage of company, characterised by the number of employees, where he particularly specialised.

Start Up to Stay Up - 10/12 employees

Stay Up to Grow Up - 30 / 35 employees

The Startup to Stay Up phase of a company (hence the name of the event) is where Steve concentrates his expertise and experience. It is at this stage where signals of stress on the company will culminate in the prevention of growth - something that Steve says can be overcome through a strategy for Systematic Business Innovation.

The key steps towards such a strategy, in Steve's words are;

  1. Benchmarking - a real and honest look at the business' position today.
  2. Draw your Vision - the ability to visualise your vision in a graphical format
  3. Build an Integrated Roadmap - a systematic view of the business and interdependencies e.g. see Disney example
  4. Bake Innovation Skills into the Management Team - the learning process of innovation skills 
  5. Apply Innovation Across Business Model & Engine - treat the innovation of business processes in the same way you did the original idea / product / concept
  6. Get Management Information Flowing - real, useful business data (which many companies just don't have or use) is imperative to quality, innovative decision making.
  7. Develop the Entrepreneur's Business Skills - As the business grows, the demands on the entrepreneur means that often the need to grow business management skills outpaces the actual growth.
  8. Develop a Senior Management Team - A top level strategic cluster that can effectively step out of the operational activities and apply strategy in the face of the day to day demands of the business.

Now, I know I've missed or consolidated some of the main points, but I think illustrates it well.

 Braindu Chart of notes, links and additional sources.

Braindu Chart of notes, links and additional sources.

My opinion on the content of the talk was that it was a bit fluffy, in general, skirting around areas which could have been better served with real examples, definitive and specific applications of the theory instead of vague associations. Not sure if this was due to client confidentiality reasons (Steve is, I gather, a paid consultant), a dumbing down of the content for an incorrect perception of the audience or just room for improvement next time.

The Q&A was a little cringe worthy as Steve struggled to answer with clarity and conviction, and instead resorting to slightly off topic answers that didn't really address the question asker's need.

Nonetheless, done so in a light hearted and not too dissatisfying way, in that the general underlying subject of the talk provided some significant value - being able to step outside the day to day of the business, visualise and communicate a vision, create a strategy towards that vision that can galvanise a small company to work towards a cohesive, common goal (albeit a very fluid and iterative one).

My feeling is that a day's session with Steve would be very useful to get a crystallised sense of your vision or make you realise just how different the path's of you and your co-founders are on. Be warned.

My Event Score:

Venue ****

Refreshments ***

Content **

Networking **

Into the eyes of the VC

Into the eyes of the VC

I created an Import feature for my old MySpareBrain charts to be brought into Braindu. One of my favourites is my curated collection of information about London VC's - notes, contact info, backgrounds, portfolios, office maps etc.

 London Venture Capitalists

London Venture Capitalists

After the import, I was cleaning up and adjusting the icon images via the Braindu image adjustment feature, when I came to zoom in on the guys from Accel Ventures. Most of the images positions had defaulted to just show the eyes and some small additional facial features.

I found myself staring at the collection of eyes, wondering to myself what story they told, which eyes would I trust, which eyes would be welcoming to my story, which eyes offered a balance of critical thinking and supportive encouragement, which eyes would I want to stare into at a board meeting or over coffee?

Freak huh? Look at your VC in the eye and see what it tells you...

Take a look at my London VC Chart here if you like...

The "Thomas the Tank Engine" ethos to creating products.

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Many of you will now think I've finally lost the plot. Probably a fair assessment.

For those of you, like me, with a 1 - 6 year old - you'll know exactly what I'm talking about before I even start talking about it.

The lesson I have learnt, from reading the same damn books a thousand times over and over again, listening to the same set of stories again via sky plus over and over again, is one overarching rule of thumb that I think we would all do very well to remember in our pursuit of technological and entrepreneurial greatness.

"Be a Really Useful Engine"

It really is about ensuring that the thing you are creating is ultimately REALLY useful for someone. Just one person. Hopefully a lot more people, and if it's really useful for one person chances are it's going to be such for a number of others too. Then, the only question is how many?

Thomas and friends frequently find themselves spewing off onto a tangent, normally driven by the pursuit of fun, a short term, short lived thrill-seeking journey that normally ends with some form of disapproval from the one Sir Toppum Hat. It normally is followed by the wrong-doing engine putting right, by remembering that whilst it's fun to: 

  • Play tricks
  • Speed along the tracks
  • Annoy farm animals
  • etc.

It's even more important to be a Really Useful Engine.

So next time you think it's a great idea to build another geo-location checkin app, a facebook for chefs, an airBnB for dogs... ask yourself. Is it REALLY USEFUL?

Nutribu, Feedo and the Launch Festival

"What's that thing called where you take picture with your phone and then convert it to data? That would be cool, huh?".

Around 4 weeks ago, that was the brief conversation I had with one of my long term clients, Sergio Mottola from Ideando. It was in reference to what became a very exciting, very intensive project build that involved a number of new technologies, techniques and things I'd not done before - mixed in with some things that we are already very well versed in.

A Brief Recap:

2 years ago, my team was hired to build a fully custom web-based ePOS till system for a flagship restaurant in Soho, London. For a more information about this particular project, see this link. Owning and running an operational store was my clients way of realising his vision for improving the quality and cost of food, whilst setting a new standard in nutritional information transparency.

The software we built was the result of being able to deliver on Foodsecret's requirements for a full integrated till system that would be able to act as the interactive touchpoint for staff and customers, operational administrative system for stock management, reporting, staff incentives and a marketing / promotional engine, with integral loyalty schemes and discounts built in. To complete the cycle, this was also integrated with an optional public e-commerce platform - for the store to sell direct to customers outside of their four walls. 

As it turned out, they came to realise that it didn't take making and selling food, running a kitchen, paying rent on an expensive prime-location retail outlet to realise the vision, but instead to take the smarts of their nutritional algorithm out to the wider industry.

The ePOS system was rebranded as NutryPOS, and is set to be made available to restaurants and fast food premises that want a fully baked, web-based till, administration and e-commerce platform with the ability to deliver transparency of nutritional information to their customers  - an increasingly conscientious consumer who cares about what is going into their bodies and a society that is increasingly demanding to have clear, honest transparency into the supply chain at the point of sale.

Nutribu is Born

NUTRIBU api.png

So, it was time for a strategic review, the result of which was to understand the key value proposition that made most sense for realising Sergio's vision.

The key was to make sense of the complex, difficult to understand and not very fun world of nutritional data and make it readily & easily available to the industry, through application developers, own-built products and partnerships in order to create a common language around nutrition that is social, competitive and fun.

Nutribu is an API that makes complex and fragmented nutritional information available to developers, in order to build useful and intriguing applications with nutrition at their core.

Just like we did with NutryPOS.

nutribu-active-docs.png

So building on that work, we broke out the nutritional components, raw database, patented algorithm and logic into a standalone, centralised database with an interface for application developers to register, gain access to various methods to use the data, handle developer access, commercial options, analytics and performance metrics.

3rd Party API Proxy or Build Your Own

One early decision we had to make, was whether to reduce the amount of investment in API software development required to have an operational platform, by paying for service such as those offered by popular 3rd party API proxy providers like Mashery or Apigee.

Given the tight project parameters (budget and timeline - more on that in a minute), but with an eye on the future, we were looking for a solution that would offer a good mix of low barrier to entry, in particular, by way of small or no startup costs. Mashery doesn't make pricing public, but after a couple of calls to Boston and San Francisco, it was clear that although their service is probably the most slick and with some top clients on their roster, it wasn't going to be an easy or quick process to negotiate a suitably low starting agreement.

Apigee, however, was free to get started and that was attractive, coupled with the fact they are a top provider once again, with some high profile clients. I'd met and heard Apigee Vice President Strategy, Sam Ramji talk at the Power of One conference back in 2011 and was interested in their service. But one issue that stuck in my mind, was that whilst their pricing tariff is simple - base level FREE, paid upgrade $9000 per month. That's quite a hefty jump and I wash't convinced that was right for us.

After a fairly in-depth research and review, I was struck by a number of posts on Quora by staff at another API provider, 3Scale, based in Barcelona. Their answers were particularly interesting, in that they came across as genuinely helpful, impartial and seemed to offer the type of solution we were looking for:

  • Free to get started
  • Provision of services we needed, such as developer token management, analytics etc. but;
  • Allowed us to keep control and ownership of the proxy and traffic to the API - reducing overhead and latency (I suppose) for the service.
  • More granular pricing tariffs gave me a clear roadmap of costs versus traction of the API over time.

So, we set about building the API. And quickly. Clock ticking 'n-all.

As I mentioned, timing was critical as we decided that the new brand and product would be great to promote and relaunch at the Launch Festival in San Francisco - just 3 weeks later!

But alas, an API is not really very interesting from a demonstration perspective in it's own right. Sure, there's some nice tech in the background, but no-one knows about or understands that (well, outside of the developer community). So what would make a great demo for an event like this? Well, we could present NutryPOS of course, a fantastic example of how Nutribu can be used to add value to a market and product that needs to put transparency at his heart.

But still, we weren't convinced that this would make the best demo. It is after all, a multi-faceted product with lots of components and sub-components specific to the operational requirements of running a restaurant. Not a consumer oriented technology event. We needed something else, we needed something tight, clean, intriguing and an innovative use of Nutribu API.

Feedo

So, as if 3 weeks wasn't tight enough to build an API from scratch (with everything that comes with doing that), we deciding to build a native iOS application, called Feedo.

Feedo is a an app for capturing a recipe with your mobile device, analysing the ingredients list and returning a personalised nutritional calculation to the user.

This introduced some very interesting challenges - we needed an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) engine (along with some ways reduce the inherent errors that exist within these technologies). We needed an interface for isolating and selecting the ingredients from the image and we needed a working API to process and validate the ingredients, generate products and return our Nutribu score.

I'll follow this post up later with more on how we did that, and some of the more specific product and technical challenges we faced - but needless to say, we're very happy with the result.

So, as I write this, I'm sat on the plane following a pretty amazing team performance to design and build the new database infrastructure, identify and produce the necessary API methods, API portal, branding, product website, event launch materials. Well done team.

As well as my technical team doing a blinding job, a big mention to our designer, Alfredo Violante, who worked on the Nutribu and Feedo brands, the website and iOS designs in a very very short space of time. I think you'll agree it looks fab. You should take a look at his work, he's the don. Thanks Alfredo.

Braindu - Hacking the Project Management Workflow

As you may or may not be aware, the last couple of months have been all about the Braindu. In some ways, a bit of quiet time over Christmas was welcome so we could really concentrate on creating, completely from scratch, a brand new product that built on the work I was doing at MySpareBrain and taking it to a whole new level.

Many of the core concepts of Braindu are driven by the same vision I had for MySpareBrain and obviously, from a standing start, the basic product features - the ability to add information as objects on a flexible workspace, within which you can store notes static content and optionally extend the information to 3rd party services, but that's where the similarities - such as those similarities with other such services, like Pearltrees, Mural.ly, and the tens of mindmapping services are put to bed.

Braindu is so much more. 

I'm very excited about many of the features I've shoe-horned into the first release, stuff I've wanted for ages in my own app and own workflow and managed to convince the team that it's for the greater good.

First up, the extended 3rd party add ons include Dropbox, Google Drive and now Odesk. Add my choice of Project Management system and Code Repository and my agency workflow can all take place within Braindu - awesome! I'll be able to track all my core apps for each project in one chart, along with the supplementary info, documents, notes, files that are stored everywhere else in no end of different apps.

Here's what my project specific collection of apps used to look like, regardless of project size or specification.

  • Dropbox folder, with Templated, Nested sub-folder structure for files, assets, copies of docs etc.
  • Lighthouse Project
  • Odesk Assignments - team members reference projects by project number and PM system task number in their time tracking. Additional team members recruited and added according to special project needs.
  • Beanstalkapp (for private projects) GIT/SVN Repository
  • Google Drive Folder & Documents - Project Budgets, Team Time-sheet Reconciliation, Receipts, Project Specifications / Briefing Documents
  • Smartsheet / Gantter - Project timeline / GANTT Chart

Then there's the casual apps

  • Campfire - Developer Team Room
  • Skype - Client / Team 1 on 1 Comms
  • Wunderlist - To Do's / Task Reminders
  • Evernote - Notes

Not to mention all the project specific research, tutorials, articles and other resources.

In some pretty unscientific testing, I reckon that I must touch at least 75 different root applications and resources per project regardless of size. And for complex projects, such as building Braindu or the API / iOS app that I'm building right now, it's more like 200 - 300 apps and resources at least.

Now that takes quite some managing. Not only that, it takes quite some time to actually setup, most of these apps require some sort of administration before you can actually use them, which involves (hopefully) remembering your login, setting up a new project instance of whatever the app purpose is serving, adding some information and then adding more information as the project progresses. You only have to do that on a few apps and there's a morning gone. Sure some of this is integral to a solid project management process, but there's considerable management wastage and inefficiency aswell.

This is compounded when we approach projects from a team perspective. We rarely work entirely alone, whether we are part of a larger agency-side team of project managers, designers, developers and/or working with our clients to provide the best service we can - we are part of a group dynamic. But our tools, even the most collaborative one's like Dropbox, Google Drive and project management systems like Basecamp or Lighthouse, are not designed to enable a fully collaborative workflow - they focus on very specific use-cases. 

As such, from a team perspective, there are huge inefficiencies within the project process when it comes to the collecting, organising and managing of information. A high percentage of duplication, information that never leaves the individual's own information repository and therefore is a lost opportunity for the project team and the inability to find or retrieve historically stored information that may be useful or pertinent in the moment.

My ambition is to reduce the amount of time it takes to setup for a new project to a third of the time. To reduce the amount of unshared information in a project team by 50%. To reduce the number of tabs you need to have open in the browser on a day to day basis just to track your live apps by a third.

So far the signs are good. Actually they're better than good but they're not quite great and that's the focus right now.

Consider that nearly $1 Trillion of cost annually is attributed to the US economy due to information overwhelm and that at a very localised level, as individuals, we spend up to 50% of our working day just managing information, you can see just how significant a problem this is and how attractive the solution could be. 

I hope Braindu will be able to help you, like it's already helping me, my teams and my clients.

Double Digital - Brand Refresh

In some spare moments over Christmas (there really weren't that many), I took the opportunity to give my "freelance services / boutique consultancy" website a bit of a facelift. First thing was I've moved to a new URL - www.doubledigital.co, from the previous domain of www.doubledigg.com.

home.jpg

It's weird, because I actually have very little to say about name itself - other than Doubledigg was always short for Double Digital.

When I recall back a few years, it started as an attempt to build a kind of freelancers platform, similar to elance or freelancer, but using the globally sourced developers, designers, seo-ers, administrators and researchers that I had personally vetted - worked with, trained, developed, learned from and gave experience to - and make them available to a network of my own.

I didn't really persevere with it, because I preferred to work closely with my global remote-based teams rather than just stick profiles on a system and let people dive in and help themselves. It's very difficult to make remote working work well - there's lots of horror stories which I'm sure you've heard before and have scared you off of outsourcing to places like India, Russia, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Argentina... well let me tell you that it's because people don't understand the process, the mindset, the compromise.

Truth be told, the other reasons I went for the name Doubledigg at the time were kind of funny. First, Digg.com (remember that?) was kind of a big deal then and I though the similarity in the name could piggy back some sort of brand association, misguided searches, that sort of thing. 

Also, my friends at the time had just started out in business on their own - a retail marketing agency (and I must say, they've done brilliantly since - if you are responsible for creating stores with wow factor, you should give them a call), called Double Europe. I figured, if I built something remotely interesting, they may want to buy it or bolt it on to their business some day (still waiting for that to happen).

Anyway, when I started consulting and doing work for clients, building websites, SEO, strategy, project management, I just used that name as the website was already setup, I had built a bit of a Twitter following and Facebook Fan page like-count, so just stuck with it. 

Is it the best name in the world? No, sadly it's not.

Do I care? Not really. I have thought about rebranding to something really cool like my friend @fuel-digital or the guys @riothq, but what the hell. What about some of these names? Could I name it after someone who screwed me over like the guys at THE BANK did? or what about HIGH HEELS & BANANAS? Or hang on, what if I was to name my office the Embassy of the Republic of Moosylvania?

But, what is cool?

Well, I decided to make a statement. I've spent too long on the train back and forward to offices in London, not really existing here or there. Well, I decided to sing loud and proud, I live and work in a stunningly beautiful part of the world which I take for granted. Super talented photographer and friend Jake Moore has given me the ability to not forget that fact, by providing some glorious images of the surrounding area where I get to come home to, from wherever I've been travelling.

portfolio.jpg

There's a pretty cool portfolio section, which I'll flesh out and add some more details too the case studies in there shortly (just images for now), but there's some more in depth write ups on this site in the Projects & Portfolio sections in the meantime.

Anyhoo, that's done. Back to saving the world (or at least the economy) from Information Overwhelm!!!

Braindu - Collect, Organise and Share Information to Learn.

Well, I thought it was about time I show you what I've been up to for the past 6 weeks or so and I'm very excited to show you because it's been one hell of a ride.

Ever since I wrote this post, updating you on the changes at MySpareBrain, it's been all about the new project. Braindu was born.

The Braindu Product Website

Braindu continues and builds upon the work I was doing previously, but takes a more refined and targeted approach to providing a platform for collecting, organising, managing an sharing information - not only as an individual, but collaboratively.

The key here is balancing features and functionality with simplicity & elegance of design - a constant trade off that we must remain cognisant of.

I'll follow up in more detail about some of the new technologies, new features and functionality as they are added, as we build up to a more publicly accessible product launch. But here's a little teaser of the new application's core interface.

Building a Startup Team - Build a better you.

You may have heard me explain my philosophy for building teams before. If you haven't, it's fairly simple.

Identify the resources I need, define & allocate roles and then hire people that are better than me to fill those roles.

As a startup entrepreneur I know that at the beginning, I need to fill multiple roles and show competence, heck even some degree of excellence, at more than one of them at a time. This applies to design, sales, marketing, finance or product development - all of which I have done myself or recruited/outsourced for.

I also have a clear understanding of where my abilities do not come up to scratch and I am very cognisant of my shortcomings. So, hiring for some roles has been easy, such as in engineering for example, as the benchmark I set was pretty low.

It was only 4 years ago that I didn't have a clue how to create a website. I shudder at my lack of knowledge as I blindly blundered my way into building a social network with only my passion for adventure sports and ability to learn quickly to guide me. 

It wasn't hard to find someone better than me then, in fact anyone was better than me.

But since that time, I've progressed. I've built things. I've built teams that have built things. I've learned so much that has helped me understand the difference between a good developer and a great developer. Who can build products, who can do tasks, who can create and manage infrastructure. These are all potentially different people.

So, I have tried to be a better non-technical founder. I've tried to be interested in technical issues and understand the background processes to making technical decisions. I've been trying to learn to code. I've experimented with lots of different languages, markups, libraries and frameworks. I am still a master of none, and I don't intend that to necessarily change (at least currently).

If I am working with clients, I want the solution to fit the need, not to fit my own limited abilities. If I'm working on an internal project, I want the project to further my understanding of different technologies, not labour on perhaps my outdated and under utilised knowledge of a specific technology.

But, whilst many techies may believe a little knowledge to be more dangerous than beneficial, I have certainly found that a broad understanding of technical principles, scripting languages, markups, processes and methodologies has helped me in a few key ways.

  • Raising the benchmark for team members - as I improve, so does my team and knowledge of building teams and recruiting specialist talent.
  • Embracing new technologies - my naivety has proved successful in opening up new pathways that may not have been obvious before, rather than the (often frustrating levels of) fear that more established devs may have of new tech (I've seen it).
  • Building relationships - The improvement in my knowledge has had a direct correlation to my improved ability to establish and maintain positive relationships with my technical teams. A better understanding of the issues, the challenges, the motivations of my developments teams helps foster a much more dynamic and mutually beneficial working culture.

Resources that have helped me

Codecademy 50th Achievement

I will shortly publish a very full and extensive list of resources that I use, but I find that blog posts really aren't conducive to doing that in a way that is truly useful, so I will avoid it for now. Needless to say, I am working to solve that with my latest project. and you'll be the first to hear about it.

In the meantime, I will share a small milestone with you. I have been playing with Codecademy off and on this year. In typical fashion, I've varied my learning, from the grass roots Fundamentals of HTML, to CSS, to Javascript and in particular, the JQuery library, to the programming language Ruby. I just hit my 50th Achievement on the learning platform, which I think is quite nice. I'm waiting for some more Ruby courses to be released and in the meantime will continue with the Javascript courses.

Startups: Rise and Fall and Rise Again

November and December have been TOUGH, work-wise. I'll tell you why, as it's something which we, as entrepreneurs and startup founders, will have to face, draw inspiration from and persevere.

First, I'll give you the background.

MySpareBrain

If you know me, you'll know that for the past 12 months, I have thrown my energy and passion into a startup project, called MySpareBrain (MSB). MSB was a web application, which was built as a proof of engineering by Tim Meadowcroft - a very talented  and experienced software developer who built some highly noteable and complex products, including i2's Law Enforcement and Fraud Prevention systems (now owned by IBM after £450m  acquisition in 2010) and SwapsWire (now Markit).

As Tim's wife once said to me, "if Tim doesn't know how to do something, he'll read about it until he does". That's Tim.

I met Tim when he applied with his initial concept to pitch at one of my events, This Week in Startups London Meetup, when Jason Calacanis came over last year. I had been looking into the space for a while beforehand, having worked with complex projects, copious web applications and spent an unhealthy amount of time online drowning in information -  so immediately connected with Tim's mission. The product was a little raw for the event, but after a number late night telephone conversations, failed skype calls, GChats discussing the software, suggesting improvements to the design and user interface, features and other such things that I wanted to see as a user, I had bought into the concept.

Tim and I met a few times for dinner and pints, and I was really pleasantly surprised to see how reactive Tim was to early suggestions - implementing new features and integrations seemingly at will and pushing them straight up to the app, which was in an invite-only closed BETA phase.

We decided to team up, and in March 2012 we incorporated the company and took the product to the Launch Conference in San Francisco. Having applied for the main 1.0 event. I was disappointed that, in the build up to the event, we weren't able to significantly advance the product enough to be considered. Sure, our technology was great - but you need a certain sex appeal for these competitions-slash-penis-parades that we obviously hadn't mastered in time.

Instead, we took part in the Demo Pit, among a hall of other startups vying for attention of the judges to get selected to go up on stage anyway. Frustratingly, I spent the two days chasing ghosts, as the Judges tasked with picking out the startups they liked seemed to miss out our table - I don't recall speaking to one of them with the product at hand, and when I did, was told that the baton had been passed to someone else - argh! Anyway, we did get to demo our butts off to fellow entrepreneurs and investors to extremely positive feedback.

This is one of the Coolest Things I’ve Seen!
— Adeo Ressi, Founder Institute
One of my favourite startups at Launch
— Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider
“Mysparebrain was perhaps the most impressive start-up I encountered at LAUNCH. Let’s stay in touch.”
— Brandon Adams, Pro Poker Player

We were in SF for just over a week, as after the event, Tim and I headed down to Mountain View to hang out with other startup folks, check out the scene and hopefully meet some investors. It was during this time that looking back, I think my relationship with Tim took a strange an unexpected turn.

Whether it was homesickness, frustrations from not achieving perhaps what we'd set out to at Launch or, as Tim suggested at the time, frustrations of not being "productive". I think that meant, time not coding and adding new features, fixing bugs - to be honest, I don't know what it meant but I really should have found out, because it was clearly bugging Tim. Tim turned from a helpful, thoughtful knowledgeable guy, to an overly aggressive, impulsive, hot-headed, know-it-all for a period, and was clearly getting agitated by things.

I put it down to missing his son, being away from home and I acknowledged it, but decided to push on regardless.

Post-Launch

After the Launch Conference, the plan was to use any momentum we had gained to work towards opening the app up and securing some late seed stage investment. By that, I mean raising circa £500 - £700,000 in venture capital.

We met with numerous VC's - from Accel, Balderton, Eden, Hoxton. I value Hussein Kanji's opinion and took the opportunity to get it when I could. I met with the true seed stage fund, Raj Ramamandi's Number One Seed and received a lot of interest.

The VC's, who supposedly did early stage, all wanted "traction". None could define traction, or even their own version of it, but they wanted it. They wanted a graph that shows a familiarly and frequently banded growth trend - "el hockius stickius".

What I took from that, was that they wanted to get on the Cruise Ship just after it left the dock, fighting with the other people who had done the same thing and pay a premium price for someone to give them a left on a posh speedboat or helicopter ride to catch up. Lesson learned.

So, I went back to the product and to business development to try and drum up some customers, some users. Anything we could do to show user adoption, activation, engagement, retention.

I spoke at Josh Liu's first Unsexy Startups meetup, and talked about the startup's dilemma - consumer or enterprise? and how the lines are greyer than ever before.

MSB could be a great individual consumer application. It worked great for individuals, privately, securely, there and then. Right now. But, it would work even better as a collaborative tool, where users could co-invest in the process of collecting, gathering, organising and interacting with information like they have never been able to before.

MSB would equally be a extraordinarily useful tool for teams, groups, departments, companies to collectively share information around organisations - cutting the huge amount of cost, wasted time and inefficiencies that searching for information and information overwhelm has caused the economies of the developed world.

But, as a team of two unfunded founders, where do you start? Is it a leap of faith? Go with your gut? Or can you collect some data? Qualitative? Quantitative? What type of samples do I need?

On the train to London one day, I was preparing a deck for a meeting and a guy got on the train and looked at my Macbook's screen from across the aisle.

"SpareBrain? I could do with one of those!". That was a common reaction to the brand.

For the next two hours, the man and I spoke in depth and excitedly about the product, my vision, and his failed attempts to find the right solution for the University where he was Dean and Head of Faculty.

I met up with the man, more politely known as Professor Oren Leiberman from the acclaimed Arts University Bournemouth, many times after that and in September 2012, we ran a pilot of MSB with his Masters Architecture course.

Through this time, I became convinced that this product would be great for students, academics and teachers to interact with information. But, something was missing to make this viable from what we had right now. Users needed to be able to collaborate. 

This was reinforced to me when I visited the Business Faculty at the University of Winchester (where I studied). The investment and advancement in facilities was staggering and all geared around collaboration - collaborative spaces, large screens with communal study/seating, connectivity everywhere. Collaboration is key.

The other reason was economics. I could spend 2 to 3 months researching and courting higher education Institutions to sell our product. I would invest that time because I know that by securing an advocate, the product would organically proliferate to the rest of the internal-community. through natural, useful, organic collaboration. But alas we didn't have it. Instead, I would have to sell once to get a point of entry, then sell again to every individual to convince them to use the solution - not cost effective, not sustainable, not viable.

Tim asserted that although collaboration was on his roadmap, it was a significantly complex feature set that wouldn't be done anytime soon and made it clear that it depended on the securing of VC funds to enable it.

So, I changed tack and investigated the consumer play.

It was much harder to get any meaningful data here, other than emotional, qualitative responses of our early users (circa 200) and their reactions, feedback and thoughts on the product. This is one example:

“First of all, I was already impressed with the demo, but once I opened up the live, beta site and saw your chart of “tools, libs, references” the lightbulb went to super-bright. It all came together as I browsed your chart. Wow – I can see how that must have really helped a lot while organizing the MySpareBrain tools and resources! I immediately started thinking, “What do I have that I can organize?” ;-)
...{clip}...
As you can see, I’m a “try stuff out before reading the manual” type of guy, and I was constantly impressed by the fact that things I tried out “just worked”!

I love the app! You guys have done a terrific job, and I hope the app does really well when it is released. I’m getting addicted to it, and I’m even trying to find things to organize/brainstorm just so I can use the app :)

Thanks again for the access to the beta - It has been a pleasure to experience what you are working on!”
— Brian Hannah, Software Engineer

I was convinced, based on my own use (I came to depend on the app and my 100+ charts, 1000's of nodes of information, notes etc.) and from feedback like this and more of it, that at a consumer level, this product had legs.

I wanted to see how we could move from Private Individual App, to that plus more socially integrated publishing tools. I had a vision of people using MSB as a way to publish their "workings" of the different information resources they collect around a particular subject. MSB allows the free-form visual layout flexibility that makes information tactile, expressive and allows for freeform creative thinking. You may use it for planning projects, gathering source material for writing essays or blog posts, researching the competitive landscape, gathering tools and libraries for building websites - all sorts.  

The time invested in curating that content, adding one's own unique notes and annotations, adding meta information, assigning relationships - both explicit (via links) and inferred (by placement, color, size, clustering, chunking) is extremely valuable, but notably, the output can be damn useful to other people interested in the same topics.

I could see full charts (a collection of objects or nodes of information) being shared on social networks, individual objects being shared from the context of the chart. I could see charts being embedded along with the blog article, essay or report for a deeper look at the sources which, keep up to date with active information in real-time.

To do this, again would require some evolution of the MSB product and more development. It already had the ability to distinguish Private and Public charts. But the interface for sharing Public charts was far from optimised for such purposes. It was just an interactive view of all my Public charts displayed in the app, which to someone who had never used the app before, is a very daunting first experience and not one that is geared to immediate understanding and subsequent adoption.  

But, that's what I had to work with, so I ran some tests. I picked up on some topical and popular conversation threads via the Open Coffee forum in London. One of which that kept appearing was the subject of Explainer Videos - who much do they cost? how do I get one made? how can I guarantee quality? how much traffic will I get? does anyone know a script writer/motion graphics artist/animator/illustrator/voiceover artist?

So I spent a couple of hours preparing a chart of information on the subject - prices, research, tips, techniques, agencies, freelancers, sample videos - you name it - it was in there.

I shared that chart with the small community (remember, in a not ideal format) and that resulted in 10 registrations for the pre-launch BETA and activated accounts. I did that few more times with other subjects to similar results. With some proper optimisation, and putting relevant contextual information into the right places, I could get 50 registrations per chart published. That's me, with no real reach or influence, particularly in some of the topics for which I was publishing curated content.

If I could get influencers in their domain to do this, with a well designed public facing interface for sharing charts, I'm convinced that the viral co-efficient of the product would be epic. There is no better way currently - other apps and tools fall short, way short.

I explained this to Tim, when I got chance (Tim had become much more difficult to speak to, contact, get response from - meetings were fleeting and usually resulted in raising voices, frustrations and differing opinions), but similar to the Collaboration issue, Tim wasn't budging.

On the other hand, Tim felt very passionately about solving a particular issue - people saying "I don't get it" when receiving a cold intro the the app. It was true that, as a new interface for the web browser, it could be confusing - especially when you see someone else's chart full of information laid out in a way that is meaningful to them and no-one else. 

And he was right, there was no point opening up the app only to have a sky-high bounce rate right at the entrance to the funnel.

So we did set about designing and building an interactive demo page - a step by step walk-through of the interface, core features and user benefits. We built it over 4 or 5 weeks, and tested it with new users to some success.

The Beginning Of the End

By this point, it's summer and Tim had taken a contract with an investment bank which started as a part-time thing and quickly sucked up all of his time. Any contact we had before this basically reduced to zero - zero response, zero input, zero action. The interactive demo page which was supposed to enable us to open up the app remained in the background, tested but not implemented to the live app. 

Frustration was growing as time drifted by. I decided to try different tacks for getting Tim to do something, anything, to progress the product inline with my vision. He held all the keys to the product, he stood in front of all the gates. To him, it was his product, his code and although we were equal shareholders, by this time it was clear who was calling the shots and those shots were to not do anything. We were now acting slower than a lumbering blue-chip.

Tim's responses to my requests were becoming increasingly aggressive, like a parent talking to a stroppy teenager. And I may well have been acting like one - have you ever tried telling an entrepreneur that he can't do something? At one point, Tim told me:

“No.
I’ve already said no to you on this.

It’s not important, it’s not priority, and we’re not doing this now.
Leave it alone.

Please don’t make me repeat myself.”

To which, hugely offended and frustration reaching boiling point, I responded with:

I’m Done

He then asked me to clarify what I meant by that. What I did mean when I wrote it was, "that's it, I've had enough, I quit". But after a few deep breaths, I brushed it aside by saying that I was done asking about this particular task.

I decided to persevere with the Biz Dev opportunities, hoping that developments on the Customer side of things would help reinvigorate Tim's motivation and desire to get back to building - base don not what I said I wanted, but what customers and users said they wanted.

The pilot for AUB was setup to start with a talk / intro a gave on the 1st October. I requested some invites to be setup in bulk for the students, via Oren's account. This required Tim to flick a switch - nothing more. I got not reply to my request. I went to the meeting without this in place which was embarrassing and hugely frustrating. At this point in time, I knew that was it, I'd lost Tim or Tim had decided to lose me - either way, it really wasn't going to work out.

Eventually, we setup a management meeting - the first in months - where I thought we'd be able to discuss the issues, iron out the problems and get back to aligning our vision and agreeing a way to move forward together - driven by our common goal that joined us in the first instance.

Instead, after some small talk and niceties exchanged by Tim and I, whilst we waited for Tim's wife Sam, also a shareholder (minority) in MSB to arrive, I was coldly and succinctly told that Tim intended to stop our venture together, dissolve the company, take his product (the source code - in it's crudest definition) and basically do whatever he wanted to later on. I, on the other hand, would be left with nothing for my efforts.

Well, not quite nothing.

After quickly deciding that there was nothing more to be said there and then, somewhat  taken by surprise by the ambush, upset by the outcome, surprised by the coldness of the situation, I retreated and took a walk around London to think and clear my head.

I knew I'd have to seek legal council, as I was unclear as to my position - something I really should have had contingency for.

I spoke to my Lawyer, who having confirmed as I expected that having never got Tim to assign IP rights to the company for his source code from prior to our incorporation of the company and our dual input, I had little option. I could sue him, or I could suck it up and crack on.

I'm not going to sue anyone. I hold no grudge against Tim, on the contrary I have huge respect for his knowledge, his character (I saw the side of Tim that shows just how considerate and kind a person can be) and in hindsight, it was absolutely the right thing to do. It clearly wasn't working out for either of us and a decision had to be made. That decision was never going to be easy, but it could be dignified. I'm sure I was not faultless in whatever the causes were. But I know that I tried the best I could with the resources that I had. I truly hope that Tim and I can be professional, even friends as we presumably set out to realise our own visions which may or may not cross paths.

A week or so later, I was due to give a talk on the subject of the realities of entrepreneurship, and in particular, the importance of work experience. I nearly didn't go, but a few words of support from my wife I drove the hour to King's School Winchester, to unexpectedly, be met with an entire assembly hall of year 10 students who probably wanted to be anywhere but. To say I meant every word I said and how I said it was an understatement and it was refreshing and invigorating to get the feedback from these young aspiring business people.

I benefited in many, albeit less tangible ways from my time at MySpareBrain and working with a talented software engineer like Tim. 12 months ago, I could never have dreamed about building something so complex, so cutting-edge. My knowledge of the information architecture required to build such a product, for a non-engineer, is not insignificant.

And ultimately, I had to remind myself that being bound to MySpareBrain and being associated with Tim was not the goal* - the goal was to create a product that people love, that changes the way people manage and interact with online information and with each other using technology.

And it remains and always will be the driving force.

*initially, it was part of the goal. As a non-technical (well, non-technical-ish ,depends who you are asking) co-founder in a hi-tech internet startup, everywhere you'll read, from all the usual commentators, investors  and commentators-masquerading-as-investors that you need a CTO. You need a great geek. Well, I found one and went into partnership with one. Tim had all the credentials, Tim had built a solid early stage prototype. Tim could talk the talk and walk the walk. But that, in and of itself is not enough (in the UK, anyway). The technical conversation was lost on all the investors we met and never did anyone probe deep enough to understand the deep technical rationale and philosophy behind the product, the evolution of the market and the insights we had. So, it didn't matter - having a CTO is not important, at least not for raising money, unless not having one also precludes you from investment, but I don't think so. It is important for someone to take control of the technical implementation of the product, but not the product itself. The product is defined by the market and the market, or more specifically, the customers - and in turn they define the investment case. You have customers, there are more customers to be had (a lot more), you are growing - you get investment. No customers, get out of the fucking door and come back when you do.


The Rising

So, with a fresh, clean slate. A new project opened up in my code editor. A new and evolved set of tools and resources. An exciting, talented, technical and creative new team. The relationships and insights from talking with real customers who are just craving the product we know they want, and the knowledge that customers are waiting to pay for it and use it. Fresh designs and no restrictions (well some restrictions, but none that will stand in my way), I set out to build the product and the Global Technology Company that I, my family, friends, colleagues, customers, investors and peers will be proud of. 

Because that's how I deal with set backs. That's how I take failure. That's how much I love being kicked in the nuts. I'm back in the game, I'm all in. I'm funding it with whatever I can get my hands on - credit card debt, limited spare cash. But now I'm driving and in control.

We will build something that we love, and I don't think you and I are that dissimilar. Oh, and we will build it very soon (hint: Christmas will be very busy).

Merry Christmas One and All. Here's to an amazing 2013.

Disclaimer: I officially resigned as Director of MySpareBrain Limited on 6th December 2012, following consultation with Tim and agreement of the restrictions (there are none) of my business activities. This is my side of the story from the best of my recollection, and I expect anyone mentioned to have the right and privilege to express theirs accordingly, should anyone care to read it.

King's School Winchester - Talk on Work Experience & Entrepreneurship

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Yesterday morning I was at the King's School, Winchester - a specialist Business school down the road from where I went to university to give a talk on my life experiences, how decisions I have made and how my outlook on work experience and entrepreneurship have guided my life and my career to date.

I wanted it to be an open and honest discussion, a warts-n-all account. I wasn't there to tell these 15/16 year old students that it was easy, that you'd get rich quick. This was all about the realities of being an entrepreneur - having an unquenchable thirst to do something you believe in, take risks, invest your time & energy working alone, making huge sacrifices in the pursuit of your goal.

In Winchester, as is the case in other particularly affluent areas, there is a feeling that a certain arrogance towards work, a complacency towards the realities of post education working life and a certain entitlement on completion of (formal) education that means they don't have to worry about it. That getting a great job is owed to them. Now not all think like this, but the symptoms are there and they need addressing.

When I arrived to what I thought was going to be a small, intimate conversation with a group of a dozen or so students, I was somewhat surprised to be greeted with the entire assembly hall of the WHOLE YEAR!

Not one to shy away from the challenge, I feel the talk went well. There was no heckling, no walking out, no falling asleep. A few laughs (in the right places) and a round of applause at the end. So, not bad.

The presentation deck itself was a very simple Prezi I put together in about 10 minutes the day before, mainly to remind me what I was talking about.

The loose transcript (it was more of a guide than a script and I improvised a bit) of the talk is below, if you're interested...

Intro

I learned to love to learn in June 2001.

I remember it clearly like it was yesterday.

It was a turning point for me, but at the time it was a pretty difficult lesson to take.

I had completed my 2nd year at University, having blagged and skived my way through the course for 2 years - a solid 3rd looking likely. In Yr 2 you had to pass all of your core modules and that was something I was aiming for, except I failed. I flunked one of my assignments, something I really didn't expect and I had to RETAKE! I wasn't so worried about failing, it just seemed pointless that I had to do the essay twice! Instead of enjoying the start of my summer.

I spent time working more closely with my lecturers and found that in doing so, I discovered that I enjoyed the collaborative process of learning, I learned how to structure my opinion in the way that the lecturers required and I aced the retake. I learned that I couldn't avoid research, as I had done throughout my school life.

And then I aced the next essay. And the next one. My dissertation got the highest grade in the whole of my year, across all subjects and was put forward for publishing in the Journal of Sports Sciences. I'd cracked it. What was most important, was that I had learned to fail, to analyse the results. It was my first enlightened taste of validated learning.

I found a way to learn that wasn't in any text book I was given at the time, and wasn't taught.

Fast forward a number of years and I'm still applying those lessons every single day and it's what I want to talk to you about today.

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Who Was I?

In my last year at University, I decided that my goal was to run my own business. My dad had run his printing business successfully for 13 years and I was inspired by him, he worked extremely hard, people respected him. I didn't know what my business would be, but I knew I'd have one. So - I resolved to learn all I would need to in order to be successful, when the time came.

During university, I paid my way by doing various bar jobs and as a security guard - in each case I tried to be the best barman (fastest pint or stacking the most chairs at close down, tackling the most hippies on stonehenge or doing my patrols at Calshot activity centre faster than anyone else).

When I left, I went to help my Dad out, but little did I know how bad it had become, in the Printing industry and for him. My first job as a graduate was to work for no money, for 20hrs a day to save the ailing business and eventually, tell 14 people who'd worked for my Dad for 10 years that they were out of a job. Talk about a baptism of fire.

From there, I set about trying to balance earning a wage and collecting the skills I needed for my goal of running my business. I did customer service, I did account management, I did sales, I did finance. I worked my way up the ladder. 

In 2007 I lost my Dad. I was sat in a factory in China watching these guys churning out MDF furniture to make it look like antiques and I thought, "what the hell am I doing?". My way of coping with the loss of my father was to throw myself in to action sports. Anything with adrenalin. But it was expensive, so I hatched a plan to do it for free. I created a website, and would approach activity providers about joining their activities and I wouldn't CHARGE THEM! I would write up a review, take some photos, interview the business owner... and people were reading it online.

That blog turned into a social network for adventurous people with over 10,000 members. 

So I decided to leave the security of the day job and take a HUGE risk in a new industry (technology) as a first-time entrepreneur.

It didn't work. 4 months in, at the back end of 2009 no-one was willing to invest in a first time entrepreneur working on a niche social network, just as the bottom had fallen out of the world's economy. 

I had enough money to pay the bills for about a month. Do I get a job?

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What Changed?

Before I talk about what happened next, I think it's interesting to reflect on what I learned through all of that. 

1. That actually, it wasn't the be all and end all. It was part of the continued process of learning, trying, failing and trying again. What I learned was how to understand the process better, to think more scientifically about the process. I recommend you read, if you haven't, Eric Ries Lean Startups.

2. All Work Experience is GOOD. If you make it good. What I mean is, just doing any work is only useful if you have a bigger picture. Whether you're just learning how to work in a team more effectively, whether your learning a technical skill, if your learning how to compete, if you're learning how to talk to and listen to clients. There are so many skills to be learned from any work experience that can't fully be taught in school or learned in books. It's important to take work experience seriously and apply yourself, be professional, be critical and learn quickly. 

3. So, logically, we should always be learning. And recognizing what we've learned and how it contributes to our goal. Make that part of your life.

4. Find Great Mentors (and run away from moaners). Finding other people who are excellent at what they do and tucking yourself under their wing will serve you greatly. I've done this throughout my career and learned from experts. Conversely, you will find certain people in the real world who are Eee-ores. Moaners. They bring everyone down and you must avoid them at all costs.

5. Fail Fast. This is something we struggle with in the UK. Or at least, we struggle to accept the first bit (sign of weakness) and we then compound it by battling through because of our fear of failure, and as a result, we take ages to fail and the cost is great. Instead, we must learn to test our hypothesis, try and prove it wrong, then move on.

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Who Am I Now?

I'm still just a little person swimming in a huge ocean, trying to make a difference.

But, I hope I'm getting better at learning how to make a difference through the products I build, the people I work with. 

So, in the words of my dear old mum - Steve, what do you actually do?

Well, I didn't go and get a job when I realised the Social network was not going to work out - I think you could say I had had a taste of freedom, and I liked it. Instead, the people I was talking to about investment liked me, liked how I did things and had companies they wanted help with. So I started consulting, and built a team of web designers and developers. I created an agency in a completely new industry, from scratch. And it was quick enough, that I didn't have to go back into the job market with my tail between my legs.

By doing work for clients, I have much more control over my time and with my team, can now focus on building internal projects that we believe have potential for the longer term. 

I have developed a very simple process for deciding  what these projects could be and whether we invest resources in working on them:

1. Is it a big enough problem?

2. Is the market aware of the problem?

3. Can I add Value (through technology)?

As a result, we are now working on some very exciting projects, including a piece of web software for managing information in a better way and freeing up your brain to focus on being creative and finding solutions to problems, a mobile music app platform for children and parents and a mobile gaming product.

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So Where Will it All End?

Well, we all dream of selling our technology companies to Facebook for $1billion or a huge IPO. Chances are, statistically speaking, that's not going to happen. Chances are I'm going to fail again. And again. But so long as I don't quit when I fail, then one day I'll win. 

No-one owes me anything. I'm not entitled to anything. I wasn't entitled to a job when I left university. I worked for my Dad's business because I had to. I won my next series of jobs by being better than I was at the previous job and proving myself constantly.

It's going to be tough because failing is tough. It's going to be a slog. The hard grind of hours spent on your own, working all hours for no money just for people to tell you your product needs to look more like iOS or someone who's watched too much dragon's den asks you what your 3 year profit forecasts are. All the while spending your own money, borrowing, risking. If I win, it'll be because I made it happen and I'll be richer and happier for it because the plan worked and I have my love of learning and the experiences of working to thank.

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Or I'll be asking this guy if he's got a spare cardboard box and a carrier bag I can borrow.

Thank you very much.

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The Realitiy of Building a Startup from Scratch: Aaron Patzer - Mint.com

It's an oldie, but it's a goodie! I can't believe it's over 3 years old now...

This is easily one of the most informative, most helpful, most entertaining insights into planning and building your startup from scratch.

A video presentation by Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint.com who built and sold his company to Intuit for $170m in just a few years.

He talks openly and candidly about the various stages of your business, what your headcount should be (and the mix of roles), what your business goals should be, what your costs should be, how much runway you should have, when you should be looking to raise the next round of finance, what your models should look like.

Aaron presents in a light hearted, honest and genuine way which is clear that as a nerd turned super confident CEO, there is a by product of success that is arguably more powerful than the economic rewards (which maybe great). That as CEO's we develop as individuals to people who are respected and that we can respect ourselves.

Watch the video. Bookmark it. Watch it again. Come back to it later as well.

Video SEO: Simplified

Video SEO: Simplified

According to video SEO experts, Simplified.TV,

Video is the richest, most engaging form of online content. It transmits the most information in the shortest amount of time.

Given a choice, most people prefer to watch a short video over reading a long page of text. With steadily cheaper equipment for production and ever greater bandwidth for delivery, online video content will represent 90% of web data by 2014.

What you probably didn't know is just how powerful video is for great SEO. Now think about , we want to appear high up in Google Search rankings, right?

We know Video SEO is powerful - Videos, properly submitted, are 53 times more likely to generate a first page Google ranking than traditional  SEO techniques, according to a (not so) recent study by Forrester Research.

We know that the powers that be have a vested interest in the success of Video - Google owns Youtube, well, you knew that, right?

My Tip - make sure your videos and the pages on which they reside are indexed and submitted to search engines properly.

You should submit an XML sitemap for both your content permalinks and your videos which are identical (same title tags, descriptions etc.)

It's hard work keeping up to date with the ever changing world of SEO, video SEO, search engine submissions, video hosting. So, if in doubt speak to someone who is doing it - not experts - but people who are learning the lessons the hard way, through experimentation, testing, breaking things and measuring the results.