Secular Retreat

30 May

A while back I wrote on a different blog about my belief that there should be more secular retreats. The entrepreneur in me almost said there was a gap in the market for them.

What I’m talking about is a weekend, or maybe longer, where people could come together for relaxation, reflection, and decompression. The point would be to have an environment that was free of religion and woo, which most retreats seem to be built upon. But I think some things that are often associated with woo (e.g. meditation, yoga) can be valuable if presented in a non-woo way. So this would be a weekend in an environment where your chakras don’t get realigned, and anyone mentioning homeopathy is only doing so in the punchline to a joke. I’ve no problem with spiritualism, religion, or alternative lifestyles that encompass such things, but they often seem to have the monopoly on self-awareness, reflection, and taking stock.

Edit: To clarify – this is not about anti-religion. Anyone of any faith or belief system would be more than welcome to attend, and even discuss their beliefs. It’s more that the activities and focus of the weekend (if there are any) would not be focused or founded in any religious or spiritual belief.

Over the last couple of years (3.5 since I originally wrote that blog post) I’ve been kicking the idea around in my head, mainly because it’s something I’d value. And it occurred to me that I might organise something.

It might be in a big cottage, or a village hall. It might have loads of structured activity, or it might have none. It might be full of technology, or I may confiscate all electronic kit at the door. Whatever it is, I’d be interested to know what others think. And to that end, I’ve created this very quick and simple survey, which I’d be grateful if you could fill in. It’s completely anonymous (unless you provide your email address, of course).

Oh, and yes, I am slightly regretting the theme of the form I chose below. Was going for something upbeat. But it just looks like a two year old’s birthday party…..

 

A life of simplicity

8 May

ImageI’m always thinking about ways to simplify my life (although seldom achieving it). I’m sure if you went back through this blog you’d find more than a few posts on the topic. Anyway, today I stumbled across this quote from one of my favourite books, Three Men In A Boat, by Jerome K Jerome. It sums up in a beautiful way the importance of a simple life.

“You know we are on a wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can’t do without.”

George comes out really quite sensible at times. You’d be surprised. I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life, generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is ever in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber.

How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!

It is lumber, man – all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars. It makes it so cumbersome and dangerous to manage, you never know a moment’s freedom from anxiety and care, never gain a moment’s rest for dreamy laziness – no time to watch the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows, or the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples, or the great trees by the margin looking down at their own image, or the woods all green and golden, or the lilies white and yellow, or the sombre- waving rushes, or the sedges, or the orchis, or the blue forget-me-nots.

Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.

You will find the boat easier to pull then, and it will not be so liable to upset, and it will not matter so much if it does upset; good, plain merchandise will stand water. You will have time to think as well as to work.

I must have read the book three or four times (I can’t recommend it highly enough – brilliant and hilarious), but I don’t ever remember this passage.

I’ll look out for it next time.

Mapping happiness in Cardiff

23 Feb

*Update – there’s a rough map prototype running here, or click on “Happiness Map” at the top*

Update 2 – listen in from 50 mins here to hear me talk about the map on BBC Radio Wales, and read about it and watch a short video on WalesOnline.co.uk

I’ve recently thinking about which areas of Cardiff and its surroundings that I would like to live in. I have lots of friends all over the city, and they all have varying experiences. I wondered how easy it would be to map this stuff, and also what questions to ask. And that’s where I need your help…

It got me thinking about the process of finding out where people enjoy living, and the possible automation of it all. As anyone who knows me knows, I’m not a coder, but have enough technical knowledge that I can just about operate WordPress… ;-)

So, what would be the easiest/cheapest way of mapping people’s satisfaction with where they live in Cardiff, or any other city?

It would arguably be possible to analyse social media, based on location and keywords, but that would take huge amounts of time and coding/analysis. Or you could generate an online survey to ask people about their satisfaction with where they live, and then map the results. The second option seems more logical to me, but could that be automated easily (with no little/no coding knowledge)?

I’m not really too worried about the broad socio-economic factors that contribute to a lot of this stuff. I think they’re too deep and complex. You’d expect the quality of life, and therefore broad life satisfaction, of people who live in prosperous Radyr to be better than those who live in Tremorfa. And there’s too many factors involved that I’m not qualified to evaluate. I’m effectively trying to establish how happy people are with where they live, rather than their lives in general. It’s not about happy they are, but how happy they are with where they live.

If you were to do a survey, values taken (e.g. scored 1-10) could include “How much do you like your neighbours?”, “How convenient is it to live where you do?”, “Are you happy with your house/flat?”, along with a postcode. I’m happy to do this manually if necessary, as I’m only looking for a broad overview. I suppose more than anything I’m looking for a way to automate the plotting of that data to the map without any heavy tech knowledge required.

I envisage the resulting map of the city to have some visual representation of the aggregate “scores” that everyone gave, plotted against the postcodes. One example of how it might look….

Image

So, my questions are:

  • What platforms, if any, could I use to automate this?
  • What would be the best data to collect, and in what format?
  • What simple questions (to which their could be a numerical response?) would you ask to ascertain how happy someone is with their street/neighbourhood?
  • What would make this map useful or interesting to you?

Any thoughts very gratefully received in the comments below!

Seedcamp, Tech City, and why Cardiff isn’t so far behind

6 Feb

I’m sat on a train, steaming through the dark, wet English countryside back to Cardiff. We’ve just left the outskirts of London, where I’ve spent the day mentoring at the accelerator, Seedcamp. About 20 startup teams had been subjected to a week of intense development, criticism, coding, praise, and very little sleep. The 4th day of mentoring from entrepreneurs, experts, and innovators was the penultimate session before they were presented with their final challenge: a day of pitching to potential investors.

After listening to a speed pitch from each startup, us mentors were split into small teams, and circulated around as many startups as we could fit into a frenetic five hour period. We spent time with new companies doing everything from the super technical (bitcoin payment systems and video compression software), to more recognisable problems (web checkout form analytics and cashless payment in nightclubs).

The organisation by Seedcamp was fantastic, and they’d brought together some amazing startups. The critical mass of great people (both startup founders and mentors) with fantastic ideas all in one room was incredibly energising, and made me think about our own scene in Cardiff. And I ended up dwelling upon a few key differences that stood out between London and our own small capital.

Confidence
First and foremost, all the startup founders I met believed they should be there. Even the very small number that arguably shouldn’t have been. I think too many of us, myself included, have fallen into the trap of believing that what we’re doing isn’t as good as the stuff being churned out in the bright lights of London. We assume that they’re more technically literate, have better ideas, and come up with ideas before we could. And that’s just not true in the vast majority of cases.

Skills
While it’s true that the general level of startup building skill (in business development terms) is higher in London, most of the basic theories and concepts they’re applying are things that can be taught in a day or so. With a mixture of these skills, the confidence to go for it, and the belief that they are the right person/team to bring that product to market, we’d very soon be seeing a lot more high growth tech startups coming out of South Wales. In conjunction with Cardiff Start, I’m personally making it a priority for the next 12 months to help startups in Cardiff gain these skills.

There are plenty of things other than skills and confidence that separate us, of course. Access to finance, and the opportunity and network effects that come with being in a huge cluster, for a start. But the upshot of this blog post is that there was nobody there with more talent, skill, ideas or heart than we have in Cardiff. In fact, there were one or two startups there that had great ideas, but weak execution and route to market. I can think of at least five Cardiff startups off the top of my head that would have more than held their own amongst the Seedcamp cohort and would be in with a great shout of attracting investment via such an accelerator, and therefore scaling quickly and helping put Cardiff on the map.

The previous day I’d had my quarterly meeting with the Tech City team, along with representatives of 10 or so other regional clusters, discussing how we can all contribute to the future of the UK as a global centre of excellence and economic strength in the world of tech. Most of the other regions are suffering the same pains as us, and we’re all going to have to find ways to compete in this hugely dynamic global market. And in so doing, we may have to accept that we’ll have to send some startups off to accelerators like Seedcamp and investment opportunities in other cities, where they will gain confidence and be exposed to greater opportunity. And then hopefully bring those skills and confidence back, and reinvest their time and money into the next generation of Cardiffian startups.

But the encouraging fact is that despite being much, much smaller than a super-cluster like London, Cardiff is really not that far behind at all.

p.s. My personal favourite startups on the day. Formisimo and Wodd. Both run by lovely guys with a clear vision, and great energy. Definitely ones to watch.

The coolest small businesses in Wales

18 Dec

Earlier this week Dylan Jones Evans tweeted an article that listed The Coolest Small Businesses in America.

Without wanting to get into a big semantic ramble about the definition of “cool” (do they have to be creative and consumer-focused to get the required cool-factor?), it’s clear that some of the businesses listed in that article are big hipster nonsense that probably won’t be around by the time the next Arcade Fire album is released. But it did make me wonder what our coolest businesses are in Wales.

So here’s a couple off the top of my head – it’s going to be south Wales heavy, ill thought out, and just a handful. It’s by no means meant to be comprehensive. Just a starting point. I’d love to hear your thoughts of who I’ve missed in the comments below. It would be nice to have a list of Wales’s finest and coolest!

TR_Wallpaper_basic 1024x768

Milgi

Arguably the coolest place in Cardiff to eat, drink and be merry. Responsible for a whole host of arty happenings and general fun times. And they’ve got a yurt!

Spillers
Famously the world’s oldest record store, and run with astonishing enthusiasm and knowledge by its owners and staff, Spillers is pure proof that you don’t have to be new to be cool.

Porters
An increasingly popular hangout in the capital, which hosts everything from cool networking events to themed cinema nights.

Tiny Rebel
Gorgeous beers are the staple of Newport’s only micro-brewery. They’ve branched out to taking over a venue in Cardiff (Urban Tap House).

Dizzyjam
Over 5,000 bands, DJs, record labels and venues worldwide use Dizzyjam to easily and freely sell their merchandise. Disclaimer – I founded it.

2013-09-25-12.07.23-1-207x300

From WaterlooTea.com

Waterloo Tea
A genuinely world-class tea house, with three venues across the city/Penarth. Gorgeous teas, coffees, cakes and sandwiches. What these guys don’t know about tea isn’t worth knowing.

Yello Brick
Yello Brick are an ultra-cool creative agency that creates immersive experiences, pervasive games, and multiplatform marketing for developing audiences. Worth checking out also are Make And See, who are responsible for similar stuff, and some of the coolest augmented reality I’ve ever seen. Until you’ve run alongside a virtual world-class sprinter (just so you understand just how fast those guys really are) then you haven’t lived!

Chapter
Almost as much of an institution as Spillers, this arts centre and cafe is the home of Cardiff’s media and creative set. Catch an arty movie, mooch around the gallery, then have a cup of coffee next to someone designing a website or writing a BBC drama.

Dr Zigs
Providers of giant bubbles (and bubble mixture) to some of the biggest events in the world. Really!

logo-webAnd finally, after giving hipsters a ribbing, I should include at least one Welsh business that appeals squarely to people with beards who only ride fixies. So here’s Captain Cat’s Beard Oil!

 

UPDATE

A few more that have come to mind, or that have been recommended:

Hiut Denim

Brought to us by the founders of Howies and the Do Lectures, these jeans come with a real story. Beautifully hand-made in west Wales.

Toast

Gorgeous clothes and homeware from Swansea. Thanks for the tip, Gill!

A Raspberry Pi for every schoolchild in Wales?

12 Nov

ImageAt the Do Lectures a few years ago I was lucky enough to be in the audience as Tony Davidson spoke. His talk introduced me to the acronym BHAG – “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”. He spoke of his BHAG – to build a massive 2 mile long building/sundial in the desert. It’s a wonderful, inspiring talk, full of wit and humour, and I urge you to watch it. It’s emotional, and ostensibly about his Dad’s creativity. But the importance of having a BHAG was drilled home.

Last week I was in London and had a coffee with James Clark from the British Venture Capital Association. We both sit on a UK government panel aimed at strengthening tech clusters around the country, but we’d never had the chance to chat properly. In an all too short meeting we discussed the challenges facing Wales, and how it could help itself become an important cog in the world’s technology economy. His fresh, objective, input was invaluable and over the course of the hour Cardiff’s proximity to the Raspberry Pi production facility (just 10 miles west of where I’m sat right now) was covered, and how that could be an important part of both Cardiff and Wales’s armoury.

From their own site: “The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming”. Raspberry Pi is a charity, and is changing the way children are learning about technology. Within minutes of owning one (they cost less than £25!) you can be learning the basics of computer code, and (if you’re smart) within hours can be building your first program or computer game.

So, here’s the elevator pitch, the dream, the BHAG:

“A Raspberry Pi for every school child in Wales”.

It’s big, and slightly ridiculous. But imagine the benefits to Wales in 10 years time if every kid had had the opportunity to play with one of these every day while they were in school. Imagine how far ahead of most of the world it would put Wales if every 16 year old, even if they left school at that point, had some kind of code-literacy. As if to illustrate the point, The Arts Council, the AHRC and Nesta yesterday released a report, “Digital Culture”, that states that 40% of our cultural institutions (whether that’s dusty museums or cutting edge theatre production companies), where traditionally technology hasn’t always been a priority, say they just don’t have enough people with the digital skills to fill their needs. Where are we going to find these skilled digital workers of the future? And if this is happening in the arts, imagine how bad the situation is in web, software and other associated technologies.

Of course, it couldn’t happen overnight, or without some kind of pilot project. And it would probably take the support of the Welsh Government, as well as Raspberry Pi. But by my (very quick) maths, there are approximately 40,000 kids starting school every year in Wales. To give each one of them a Pi (at an arbitrary cost price of £10 each) would cost £500,000 (if you include £100,000 for some kind of distribution). Which is about 0.025% of WG’s annual education budget.

Even if you added in three times as much again for training/workshops/developing lesson plans etc, taking the budget to £2 million, it’s still only 0.075% of the annual education budget.

Of course, there have been dissenters to this kind of idea in the past, and something of this scale can’t be rolled out without some testing, and prototyping. Critics have suggested that at least 50% would end in cupboards, or on eBay. But even if a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of the recipients went on to become young technology innovators and entrepreneurs the economic benefits to the country would massively outweigh the costs.

Of course, this is all crazy, pie-in-the-sky thinking based on 10 minutes worth of research and maths. But there’s no reason the concept isn’t sound, or that the results would be tangible, and huge. This isn’t a hard and fast proposal, and there are endless amounts of potential barriers. But it is a call to think bigger for Wales and its future, with one eye on technology and how this phenomenally fast-growing sector is vital to our future success.

Less than an hour after I met with James Clark I was at an event with Nick D’Aloisi and marveled at how someone so young had sold a tech business (his iPhone app, Summly) for $30m earlier this year at the age of 17, having raised a $300,000 round of venture capital at the age of 15. He first made money from software at the age of 12.

Just imagine in 10 years time, having stoked a lifelong fascination in technology by earlier being given a Raspberry Pi, a young girl from Carmarthen, Wrexham or Newport is able to do something similar. By his own admission, Nick wasn’t a ruthless wannabe entrepreneur. He was just someone who built something with talent, creativity and imagination. He says it was “a hobby”. But his passion and self-taught skills gave him the platform for it to become a wildly successful business by any standard.

There’s no reason the same story couldn’t repeat across Wales over the next few decades. But it will take the right conditions to enable this. And we have to start helping to create those conditions today.

- – - -

I’m trying out putting links at the bottom of blogposts, just to see if it makes my posts more readable, and allows the reader not to get distracted. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve clicked on a link in a blogpost and then realised I never went back to the original piece. Maybe you’re not all as easily distracted as me…

That Tony Davidson talk about BHAGs.

James Clark on Twitter

The BVCA

Raspberry Pi

Why a Raspberry Pi for every child is a bad idea

Nick D’Aloisio

Photo credit – Mike Cogh

Digital R&D report (PDF) - Report summary (PDF)

Cardiff Life article, spring 2013 (feat. PayZip)

24 Sep

My Cardiff Life column from April or May of 2013. Full PDF here.

April and May have been the month of “making tough decisions”. To be honest I’d known that I needed to make changes for at least a few months, but it had taken weeks and weeks for the circumstances to align themselves to make it possible for me to make the changes I needed to.

It’s been a really challenging few months, but I’ve come through the other side feeling like I now run a startup that is much better placed to grow and scale in the way it needs to.

I think I’m probably guilty of being seduced by the romance of having a big office, with a large team, and the buzz of walking into an environment that is throbbing with people, activity, and excitement. But the reality is that the maintenance of that, emotionally, temporally and financially, takes a huge toll on your ability to devote time and energy to developing a business that needs to scale above all else.

I found myself spending 80% of my day just dealing with the office, the staff, associated admin, and getting involved with the ordering and production of the merchandise that provides us with our revenue. We’re an ecommerce platform first and foremost, but we’d taken on the production of the items that were being sold through our site, which inevitably resulted in a relatively labour-intensive process.

Add all this to the almost full-time process of seeking investment, and it’s no real wonder that I found myself not having any spare time at all.  I’d come home tired from a 12 hour day in the office and realise I’d spent almost every second servicing the business, rather than growing it; doing anything that had improved our chances of being a more profitable company tomorrow, or the next day. I’d made the classic mistake of working “in the company”, rather than “on the company”.

So, what’s the future for us? Since day one our growth has been steady, and consistent, in the worst economic climate in decades. Month on month we’ve added new users, and generated more revenue. We export nearly a third of everything that comes out of our HQ,  we’ve had worldwide press, and we very rarely receive anything but glowing reviews and feedback. But we haven’t been the explosive, exponential growth we’re seeking.

By making the changes, we now have a leaner company and massively reduced overheads, which free up a relatively large amount of cash to spend solely in areas that will help us grow, something that is absolutely vital for a company like ours, whose success is partially predicated on scale. But more than anything I now have time to concentrate on the strategy, growing the business, and thinking about the future. It’s difficult to do any of these things when you’re emptying the bins and waist-deep in t-shirt printing.
Hello! Do introduce yourself…

  • Hi, I’m Simon Hodgkinson, Managing Director of Cardiff Start-up PayZip.

What does PayZip do?

  • We provide a free payment tracking web app for clubs, societies and not-for-profits, enabling them to keep track of all member payments so they know who has paid, and more importantly who hasn’t.  Our PRO version adds online payments and a sophisticated reports suite.

What makes it special?

  • Our killer feature is the reports suite, which instantly provides a wide range of information to help reconcile payments into the club from their members.  Most other payment services must be reconciled manually which creates additional work.

What was the eureka moment that made you realise you had to build PayZip?

  • I used to be a Trustee of a charity, and saw daily challenges in collecting money from our members.  I soon realised this was as widespread issue, and subsequently had the opportunity to do something about it when I joined up with a talented bunch of developers in Penarth.

How’s business at the moment?

  • We went live in mid-April so it’s very early stages.  The signs are very encouraging though as we sign up new clubs on a daily basis, and look to sustain that growth throughout the rest of 2013 and beyond.

Where would you like your startup to be in five years’ time?

  • The potential of PayZip is massive.  In five years time we want PayZip to be the go-to app for tracking payments for clubs and societies, and in the process reduce the amount of cash being handled by these clubs.

Where can we find out more?

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