Cardiff Life article, early 2013 (feat. BipSync interview)

22 Sep

My Cardiff Life article, possibly March 2013.  PDF here.

The Welsh Government takes a lot of criticism for the work it does in supporting small businesses. Some of it is fair, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s arguable that we shouldn’t expect a large, intrinsically bureaucratic, organisation to be able to respond to the ever-changing, and multi-faceted, needs of our country’s startups. It’s a complex issue on both sides of the fence, and not an easy one to solve. For every company that receives a huge financial boost to allow them to grow, there will be others complaining that they don’t tick the right boxes to unlock the support, or that they just don’t have the time to work through the many forms and processes required to qualify.

One scheme that seems to have attracted almost universal positive feedback is Jobs Growth Wales. By subsidising 100% of a young, unemployed person’s wages for six months, they get that person off benefits, and the company gets the opportunity to bring in some fresh blood without having to worry about the severe impact on their cashflow. Speaking to several business owners who’ve taken on new employees through the scheme, all of them have had nothing but positive experiences. Pretty much everyone is glowing in their praise. But I thought it is probably most appropriate to give the last word to Laura Ellis, a recent English graduate that we took on here at Dizzyjam via Jobs Growth Wales.

“It’s appropriate that “growth” is at the centre of Jobs Growth Wales, because it’s exactly the word I would use to sum up my first “grown up” job. When I applied for some placements funded by the scheme, I wasn’t thinking much about what it might be like if I was lucky enough to land one of them. Even after I was asked to work for Dizzyjam I was too busy squealing about no longer being jobless (I might have done a little dance) that I didn’t stop and consider what working for a startup would be like.

It’s busy. There’s always something to do, regardless of whether it’s in my job description, and that’s what makes working for a startup different. Because everyone has to pitch in, I have the opportunity to get to know the workings of the company in a way that I don’t think I’d get in a more established business. I don’t walk past colleagues whose faces I’ve never seen before and I know how my work relates to everyone else’s.

Growth is the keyword in all of this – as Dizzyjam grows, I get the chance to grow with it. I don’t feel like I’m struggling to catch up or fit in – sometimes I feel I’m in over my head, but I’m not the only one on a learning curve. I’m not only developing myself but influencing the development of the company, too. I’m  trying not to let the power go to my head”.

  • Hello! Do introduce yourself…
    • Hi! I’m Danny Donado, CEO of BipSync.
  • What does your startup do?
    • BipSync is a secure web and mobile platform for professional investors, to help them collect, organize and synthesize their research into more profitable investment decisions. Think of it as “Evernote for Investors + Salesforce.com for Investment opportunities”.
  • What makes Bipsync special?
    • We’re one of the very few companies that focuses on making a staggeringly beautiful, user-focused tool for what many people would see as an unsexy enterprise industry. Professionals can have it all with BipSync: enterprise-caliber security & collaboration paired with consumer-level polish & usability.
  • What was the eureka moment that made you realise you had to build this company?
    • I used to be a hedge-fund analyst in New York and almost missed one of our highest performing investments due to the outdated tools and systems that permeate the industry.
  • How’s business at the moment?
    • It’s so incredibly busy, I’m glad this interview is short! We’re just closing our seed round, are working closely with beta customers in New York and are looking to immediately expand our Cardiff developer numbers to accelerate development and meet demand.
  • Where would you like Bipsync to be in five years’ time?
    • We envision BipSync evolving into an investor “ecosystem”, interconnecting a variety of industry players, 3rd party applications and data services. We get there by building products to delight our customers – an approach foreign to this sleepy industry and embodied in our mantra: “Designed by Investors, Engineered in Silicon Valley”.
    • More info URL: http://bipsync.com

Cardiff Life article, early 2013 (feat. LexAble interview)

22 Sep

One of my  monthly articles for Cardiff Life magazine. Here’s the PDF, for those that like that kind of thing.

I’ve been involved with a few bits of business-related conflict recently. Thankfully nothing that warrants fisticuffs and firearms, but unpleasant emails were exchanged, threats of legal action were flung around like so much confetti, and all in all it’s left a nasty taste in my mouth, and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I pride myself on doing business in a friendly, transparent, and honest way, but it’s just something that happens in business from time to time, no matter how hard you try. I genuinely believe I’ve acted in the best possible way, but sometimes, however you act, you’re going to come up against people with whom you don’t see eye to eye, or whose expectations you’ll never be able to manage. Nothing will change that. They become “the client from hell”, and you’re constantly on the back foot, spending a disproportionate amount of time and energy on trying to keep them happy.

And herein lies one problem with the standard contractor-client business model. You’re reliant on a relatively small base of clients, each of whom can cause untold problems for you, or by disappearing can single-handedly slash your income. Scaleable web and tech businesses flip this on its head by having thousands, or even millions, of clients, all bringing in a relatively small amount of revenue. Sometimes a matter of pennies. But that’s not a problem if you have a billion users like, say, Rovio who publish the phenomenally successful Angry Birds smartphone game.

Issues of client relations become completely different when you have thousands of clients who you solely engage with online, especially if your product is primarily a digital one. If you’re iTunes, for example, and you have an unhappy customer you can just refund them 79p, or send them a new MP3. Problem solved, and everyone’s happy. Even if you’re selling a relatively high-end piece of software for, say, £200 the material cost of uploading a new copy for an unsatisfied customer, would be less than 10 pence. The minimal cost massively reduces expectation.

Also, when you have that many users you can view them as a group, and start testing hypotheses and making decisions on them statistically. Many thousands of users generate fantastic amounts of data which you can use to make decisions. If you have only five clients, it’s difficult to get any statistically significant data from them. But if of your 5,000 users 72% are more likely to create an account when you use a red button than a green one? Then present all users with a red button in future.

Of course, it’s arguable whether it’s easier to get 5 clients worth £1000 than 5,000 clients worth £1. But the reality is that there’s probably a finite amount of £1000 clients out there for what you’re selling, or the cost to reach them is prohibitive. But if you can find something that you can sell for £1, the skies the limit when it comes to how many clients you can sign up. And you probably won’t get letters from their lawyers.


Neil Cocker is the founder of Dizzyjam.com, blogs at NeilCocker.com, tweets at @NeilCocker, and is helping build Cardiff’s startup community with CardiffStart.com.

In this month’s Q&A Neil speaks to Neil Cottrell of LexAble, another Cardiff startup making waves.

Hello! Do introduce yourself…
I’m Neil Cottrell, Director of LexAble and the creator of Global AutoCorrect, an unique software tool for people with dyslexia and literacy issues.

What does your startup do?
Global AutoCorrect helps our users to focus on what they’re writing by automatically (and accurately) correcting their spelling as they type in any program. By minimising the distraction of spell checking, our users can focus on getting the job done.

What makes LexAble special?
Our product is unique because you don’t have to change the way you work; it runs in the background alongside the software you’re already using. We also understand the importance of accuracy when writing, so we spend a great deal of time ensuring that Global AutoCorrect never makes a false correction!

What was the Eureka moment that made you realise you had to build this company?
Global AutoCorrect was born as a personal coping strategy to help with my own spelling difficulties, but soon after starting university I realised that it had the potential to help others. With initial support provided by Cardiff University I founded LexAble and launched Global AutoCorrect as a consumer product in 2009. The rest, as they say, is history!

How’s business at the moment?
2012 was a great year for LexAble: Global AutoCorrect now has a dedicated team of developers and we’ve also acquired three more staff members to help grow our customer base. In the past year we’ve also expanded from our initial target audience of university students, into workplaces and the wider education sector.

Where would you like LexAble to be in five years’ time?
Right now our most important goal is to make Global AutoCorrect the best product it can be and bring our technology to a wide range of platforms. But we’re constantly looking for new, innovative ways to help our users to save time and get more done!

Where can we find out more?
LexAble.com

Cardiff Life article, late 2012 (feat. Object Matrix)

22 Sep

I’ve still no idea which issue this come from. But here’s the PDF if you want it.

I’m sat in the kitchen of a fellow entrepreneur discussing the difficulty of growth. We both have profitable businesses that each have turned over 6 figures in the few short years we’ve been going, but still need to grow to survive. It’s arguable we could both be earning lots more, for a fraction of the time, effort and stress, by just going off to get “normal jobs”. It’s something we talked about at length, but the reality is that it seems hard to accept. Our businesses have good models, they’re scalable, profitable, and have been proven to work. But our businesses are predicated on scale and therefore need to be significantly bigger. Take Facebook, for example. Their average revenue per user is about $5 (depending on who you listen to). As a business this clearly doesn’t stack up if they only have 20,000 users. Even for Google, who reportedly generate closer to a $50 average revenue per user (ARPU), their business is only really viable when their user base hits the millions.

Not that I’m suggesting our businesses will inevitably go on to be as big as Facebook or Google, of course. But the issue of scale is relevant in both cases. Our businesses are sound and profitable, but need a large injection of users/clients to generate significant revenue. And as long as the market is there, there’s no reason this can’t happen. As ex-Dragon Doug Richard once said to me, “the number one killer of small businesses is invisibility”. In other words, if only everyone knew you were there, they’d use you. In fairness, neither my startup, or that of my fellow entrepreneur would necessarily be of use to the general public, but the point still stands. By significantly increasing our visibility there would almost certainly be a clear and demonstrable increase in our revenue.

And this is why it’s so difficult to walk away and start on the next thing, like any good serial entrepreneur. If our businesses had clearly failed to prove a minimum viable product, and weren’t so obviously founded on good business models we’d already have started something else. But we know we’re just one good client, one great piece of press, one partnership, or one generous investor away from hitting that brilliant exponential growth curve that every scalable startup dreams of. It’s like a drug that keeps you coming back for more, despite the pain it puts you through.

And because the light is always there, shining away tantalisingly at the end of the tunnel, it WILL keep most entrepreneurs coming back for more. Because if you’re the type of person who’s built a business to this stage, there’s no way you’re going to give up when success is so, so close.
Hello! Introduce yourself.
Jonathan Morgan. Founder and Managing Director of Object Matrix Ltd.
So, what does your startup do?

Object Matrix creates software to handle the storage and access of data in media workflows. Primarily we work with broadcasters, film makers and post-production.
What makes your startup special?

At 9 years old we consider ourselves an “old startup”, but we consider ourselves one of the few European storage product companies, in an industry which is dominated by the USA. We’ve constantly had to fight against the stream. However, our product is special, allowing our storage to be used in media workflows.
What was the genesis? The eureka moment that made you realise you had to build this company?

I always knew I was going to run my own companies. Everything I’ve done in my career and education has led up to Object Matrix. For this company: I had a concept of how data storage should be done. I was travelling around the world at the time with a laptop in my backpack. Much of the product design was written by a beach in Rarotonga.
And where are you at right now?

Over the past three years says have tripled yearly. Even Strictly Come Dancing is kept on our systems this season, and our system is now beginning to sell well in France.

 

What’s the key to your growth? In other words, if someone could wave a magic wand, what would you want them to do for your business?

We are constantly cash constrained against growing more quickly. I’ve had orders from blue chip companies in the past and have been unable to borrow money from the banks to even fund the equipment needed for large orders. If I could wave a magic wand it would take away my cash flow issues!

 

Where would you like your company to be in 5 years time?

For the company or for myself, my philosophy is life is what you make of it. Make the right decisions at each juncture and the future will take care of itself. Julie Meyer said something along similar lines at the recent Welsh Entrepreneurs conference: don’t look for money, if you are doing the right things, money will find you. Similarly for me, it is all about focus on doing the right things rather than chasing a distant dream. Yes, this is a growth company with a large potential marketplace, but the present comes first.

 

Where can we find out more?

object-matrix.com

 

Cardiff Life article, late 2012 (inc Timto interview)

22 Sep

I’ve completely lost track of which month this issue of Cardiff Life this article appeared in. Here’s the PDF, though, if you want to read it with pictures ;-)

Last week I spent a morning on Treforest industrial estate. Not the most glamourous of locations to be at the onset of winter, but it was more than worthwhile as I learned a huge amount from a Welsh Government funded training session about dealing with Venture Capitalists, valuing your company, planning for acquisition, and raising VC cash. Admittedly it sounds kind of dry, but it was incredible useful and relevant to me. I then whizzed down to Cardiff and listened to the Welsh Government Creative Industries team present their varied support for new and existing businesses in this space, which includes a whole host of funding and advice.

The week before I had been at the excellent Welsh Entrepreneurs conference, where founder Jonathan Morgan from Welsh tech startup Object Matrix spoke passionately from the stage about how he felt that Wales is a great place to startup. Coupled with the great quality of life I’ve written about before, there’s the aforementioned support, relatively low cost of living, and the short distance to London.

If you’re wondering where I’m going with all this, I’m kind of working my way towards saying that Wales, and Cardiff in particular, is a fantastic place in which to start a business. I know I’m sometime guilty of moaning about how far from “the action” we sometimes feel, especially with regards to the bright lights of Silicon Valley of San Francisco, and the Google Campus of America. It sometimes feels like startups in these places have easier access to the finance, better networks, more relevant advice and mentoring than we have here.

One example of the great things we have on our doorstep is ICE, a hub of innovative, ambitious small businesses (including this months’ profiled startup, Timto) that sits just over the mountain in Caerphilly, providing flexible space and support to allow them to grow. In the spirit of full disclosure I should mention that I’m a voluntary member of the board, but my involvement there is pretty minimal. The staff (and tenants, of course), have made it into an exciting place to build a business. I was there one evening a few weeks ago, and despite the near-biblical levels of rain pouring from the dark skies, there was still a great bunch of entrepreneurs and founders in the building, excitedly working on their businesses, swapping advice and ideas. It’s places like this and Indycube, whose rapid expansion across South Wales is a massive boon for small, agile businesses, that will foster an even greater spirit of innovation and collaboration.

Cardiff can’t currently be expected to compete on many levels with the great metropolises of London, Berlin and San Francisco, for pure financial, social, technological and demographic reasons. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to move there in order to be a success. If we play our cards right, and appreciate the resources at our disposal, Cardiff could be on the verge of becoming a city globally known for it’s creative & digital startup successes.

Hello! Introduce yourself.
Hello, I’m Nathan Cornish and I co-founded timto with my brother Luke.

So, what does your startup do?
We enable people to set up an online gift fund where their friends and family can group together to contribute towards an extra special present with the added bonus that their favourite charity benefits too.

What makes your startup special?
timto is the only online group gifting service of its kind enabling people to give gifts in a different way. Not only do celebrators receive amazing gifts with timto but by including a donation to their favourite charity it gives a real feel good factor to the whole celebration, which is why we call it Uplifting Gifting.

What was the genesis? The eureka moment that made you realise you had to build this company?
At my daughter’s sixth birthday party we were completely overwhelmed by the amount of presents that she received from her school friends. But a lot of them were duplicated or remained unused. It made me wonder whether there was another way to give better gifts and make every penny count with an extra goodwill element included.

And where are you at right now?
We are focused on building new partnerships with a number of significant UK charities. We are continuously improving the website and are expanding from just children’s birthdays into all different types of celebrations; from weddings to office birthday collections.

What’s the key to your growth? In other words, if someone could wave a magic wand, what would you want them to do for your business?
The power of word of mouth is extremely important as well as the use of digital media. We hope to deliver a truly memorable gift service that people are proud to recommend to friends and family.

Where would you like your company to be in 5 years time?
We aim to create a culture whereby it becomes the social norm to give better gifts together and Uplifting Gifting is an integral part of every celebration.

Where can we find out more? www.timto.co.uk @thereismoreto fb/timto.co.uk

Cardiff Life column, late 2012

22 Sep

I’ve lost track of which month these last few columns of 2012 relate to, but it’s about November sometime. Full PDF etc here.

As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, the process of seeking investment for Dizzyjam has taught me more about business in one year than I learned in the previous ten. Nothing makes you question your assumptions like hearing the difficult questions of successful potential investors.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is how much cultural naivety there is around investment in Cardiff’s startup community. I suppose it’s to be expected, given that so few local companies of our ilk have either sought investment, or managed to get an investor to open up their wallet. I can count maybe two or three creative, tech or digital companies in the city that I’m aware have been using someone else’s money to grow.

The most obvious impact for me of this local naivety about the finer workings of the investment process, is that I feel like I’ve been starting from scratch. Despite reading countless blogs and articles about it (invariably published from the financially fecund fortress of Silicon Valley), I’ve not had anyone pull me aside to whisper the dark secrets of what they learned when they went through the process. Nobody gave me the benefit of their wisdom. Nobody told me that it would be easier to raise £1 million than £100k.

Wait. What?

Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Of course, on first glance it makes no sense. But it’s true. In a search for £100k you are in the territory of raising money from “angels”, high net worth individuals who are giving you their personal cash, and in so doing will scrutinise every single penny that you intend to spend. I’ve genuinely been asked what I’m likely to be spending on phone bills in three years. However, when raising £1 million you are dealing with venture capitalists, who are very often investing other people’s money, or spreading large amounts from a pension or hedge fund across a number of different companies or investment opportunities. They care less about the tiny details, and more about the big idea. Also, the bigger the investment, the more that risk is mitigated. In other words, it’s relatively easy to fritter away £100k with little to show for it. A few new members of staff, a bit of office furniture, some new hardware, and that money is all but gone. It’s much harder to spend £1 million without having built something of future saleable value. Whether that’s building something that has inherent intellectual property, or having many staff to build a brand that has global recognition, with that kind of money you’re much less likely to be able to blow it all on poor decisions.

This is just one example of knowledge that’s incredibly scarce in Cardiff, and that would totally have changed the way I approached investment if I’d have known. Whether it’s imparted in a government seminar, or by a friend in the pub, this “inside information” is vital for the success of the startup community in general.

 

In this month’s 60-second Q&A, NEIL COCKER talks to Evan Rudowski (pictured right), co-founder of SubHub, another Cardiff start-up making waves…

Q: So, what does your start-up do?
A: We provide digital membership solutions for associations and not-for-profits.
Q: What makes your start-up special?
A: We really understand membership – how to manage member information so that associations can provide members with a better experience, increasing renewals and retention, and freeing staff from mundane manual data management.
Q: What made you realise you had to build this company?
A: It’s been a series of gradual realisations based on trial and error and customer feedback. The way we describe and
manage our business today is entirely different from what we thought when we started.
Q: How’s business at the moment?
A: We’ve developed some very specialised membership management solutions. We’re also signing larger deals, and more frequently.
Q: What’s the key to your growth?
A: Lead generation – the more people we reach, the more we’ll convert into customers. Associations are crying out for better ways to manage their membership information.
Q: Where would you like SubHub to be in five years’ time?
A: Scores of membership associations and not-for-profits will be telling us, and their peers, how much we’ve improved the way they work and contributed to their success.
For more subhub.com

Price comparison website

26 Aug

I’ve spotted a little niche for a price comparison service, and there are no competitors (that I can find). As yet I’ve no idea whether it will work or not, so I don’t want to invest any significant time or money into it, and have plenty of other stuff on my plate, but I am kind of confident it will work. 

So, my question is “how best to build it quickly and cheaply?”.

I’ve had a google round for templates, but can’t find anything that obviously solves the slightly unique setup I’ll need, and the really bespoke builders are very expensive. Or, at least, more expensive than I’m willing to invest right now.

The main functionality that can’t really be automated is the input of the supplier data, which the supplier themselves will have to do as it’s in an industry where they don’t tend to publicly publish their prices. It’s fairly basic data though, and will be be doable with a simple-ish form. 

That data will be held in a database and presented anonymously to the user based on their quote requirements (think CompareTheMarket.com but *much* simpler). Then I just need to work out how to charge the supplier for each referral. The final product isn’t sold online, so I’ll need to charge them for the introduction to the customer (maybe a small charge for each intro email sent or something). Although in the early days I may just provide the service free to get suppliers signed up.

Aaaanyway, if anyone has any thoughts on how best to go about this to get a real simple proof-of-concept hack online (or even if any enterprising developer thinks it might be worth a day or two of their time for moderate fee or a decent equity stake), then let me know. 

My research suggest there’s some platforms like Magento (and obviously Wordpess) that in theory have plugins and modules that would kind of do the trick, but it seems like you’d need a lot more tech ability than I have to make it work.

Aside

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton

21 Jun

ImageThat guy in the top left hand corner of the back of a five pound note is Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton (1786 – 1845). He looks kind of unassuming there, stood at the back in his glasses, doesn’t he?

However, I stumbled across him on a random link trawl a while back, and ended up trying to find out more about him.

So, as well as being an MP and baronet, it turns out he was a brewer, staunch anti-slavery and anti-capital punishment campaigner, raised money for those in poverty, and was a founder of the RSPCA. None of these things (apart from being a brewer, of course) would have been particularly popular at the time, so he was clearly a man of great moral character and strength.

He also said the following: “With ordinary talents and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable”.

He’s a new hero of mine.

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