XR Games: The future of VR in gaming

At a glance

Name of business: XR Games

Industry: VR Game Development Studio

Key learning points;

Bottom-up development

Developing an existing game on a new platform isn’t about adapting existing mechanics – it’s about having the expertise to review the original game, and being able to understand which core elements are suited to the new platform – you build from there.


Allowing time for innovation

“A game is all about input and output – you need an interface you can rely on”

The classic twin-stick navigation system which is now commonplace on consoles was around for 10 years before becoming the mainstream norm. VR is still a new medium, and so it’s interface design requires the same time for innovators to develop and refine the way it controls before developers have a standard interface to rely on.


Killer app required

“There’s a whole bunch of things required before VR gaming can become mainstream, but we’ll know it when it happens because there’ll be a VR game that everyone’s heard of.”

Not going to lie people, I’m excited to share this one. Before we get into it, I recommend reading Virtuality 2.0 as it links directly to this interview. If you don’t have the time, you can check out the brief recap below.

Recap from Virtuality 2.0


With so many huge businesses investing heavily in developing VR and AR (as I talked about in my original Visual Trends: Virtuality article), I’m so interested to learn more about what the future of VR looks like from businesses working within the industry.

Despite skepticism that a busy company would be willing to answer questions about the wider VR industry from the owner of a small blog; I asked XR Games if they’d be willing to answer questions about and beyond their recently released game.

To my pleasant surprise, XR Games said that wider questions on the industry would make for a better article and were fully on-board to answer whatever questions I had!

The Interview Header

To prepare my questions, I WhatsApp’d friends and asked what they would be most interested to read about in an interview with a VR games developer.

I took every one of the questions they suggested, grouped them together, and emailed them across to XR Games.

Read their answers below.

Chqpter 1

As I understand it, you were asked by 3D Clouds to create a mobile VR game that mirrored their console and PC game ‘All-Star Fruit Racing’.

How did you approach the process of streamlining a full console/pc game and what was your process for optimising it for VR controls?
We approached it the other way around. It’s not a matter of streamlining a console game; it’s a process of determining what gameplay elements support a mobile VR game, and building up from those.

We started with the control system, as the majority of games rely upon their control systems for fun – certainly driving games. The rest of the design emerged from the needs of the control, which was designed specifically for cardboard VR. 

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How did you decide which components of the console game were most important to maintain in the mobile version of the game which you developed?
The strong needs from Fruit Racing (beyond the vehicle and fruits) were those which supported the light, arcade-y ‘kart racing’ feel – pickups, jumps, speed boosts and so forth, as opposed to a more serious driving style.

Pickups were clearly important, but the format of our game (30 second perfect-able courses, predicated upon the use of the cardboard headset) meant that a kart racing power-up system was redundant, so we used a simple scoring system instead so as not to unnecessarily multiply features. 

Pretty much everything else that reflects Fruit Racing is in the visuals, and we had a lot of fun deciding on which fruits the tracks would be themed by, what colour schemes would be appropriate, and what scenery would complement those fruits.

I feel like racing games are one of the most enduringly successful genre of games on mobile.

With so many great racing titles out on mobile, did any provide a source of inspiration during the development of XR games?
I’ve always been suspicious of racing games on mobile, as the tactility of control is less satisfying on touchscreen or using tilt.  

However, the racing game is one of the great standards of video game, as it combines accessibility of control with real-world applicability (driving is a universal concept), and a clear goal state. It’s natural that some version of this form of play will quickly arise on any new platform.

All inspiration for Fruit Racing VR was taken from classic early 3D racing games, specifically Sega games (Virtual Racing, Daytona, Sega Rally) and Namco’s Ridge Racer series.  

These games define corners so well, and encourage perfection through exacting control.

The game definitely pulls no punches with its difficulty level – do you have any developer tips to improve people’s driving skills in the game?
Small games require a level of challenge. In addition, the major satisfaction of cornering games is in finally perfecting the line, meaning that score targets must be quite harsh to require that level of perfection.

This is especially true of Legend mode, which is difficult enough to challenge the people who made the game. But hitting the perfect lines feels so good! 

To play Fruit Racing VR well, the driver must turn early into every turn. Only by perfecting one corner can the next be approached properly, and so practice is required to learn and chain together all the corners. The pickups show which lines are expected (and which are most satisfying to perfect). 

Oh, and use a headset, because the game controls better in VR.

What aspect of the finished ‘All-Star Fruit Racing VR’ game is the team at XR Games most proud of?
The overall polish and sense of purpose the game achieved feels great. It’s a small game, but it’s been played a lot, and so for players who can play it as intended, it punches way above its weight.

It was also nice to deliver a unique control mechanism designed specifically for cardboard VR, rather than compromise. 

Chapter 2

 Is it more of a challenge to develop games tailored to VR than it is to develop more ‘traditional’ games?
The VR form is very new, and so there’s not been the depth of interface development that we’ve seen over 50+ years of screen game design. A game is all about input and output, and developing content-rich games is easier if some standard elements of interface can be relied upon.  

For example, twin stick first person control developed from before Doom through Descent, Turok on the N64, and finally Halo on Xbox, before accreting into a standard form learned by millions of players. That’s a decade of evolution before the form even became stable. VR interface design is in its infancy in comparison.

Developing good games is a challenge in any format, of course. Devs work hard.

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As developers of VR games, to you, what is the most exciting aspect of VR as a medium for creative design?
Interface.

The goal of contemporary game design is to make the pleasures of play accessible to the largest number of people. The primary barriers to play are difficulties in learning game rules, and difficulties in operating game interface.  

The Nintendo Wii took steps forward in this area by supplying control mechanisms that mimicked real life, allowing more people to play (Wii Sports also used culturally familiar game rules, which helped increase accessibility).

VR should help a great deal in that interfaces mimic reality, allowing for transparent operation practices. But it’s early days yet, and there are plenty of barriers to VR use for a mass-market audience.

Chapter 3 header

We’ve seen huge pushes for widespread adoption of VR enabled devices by tech giants like Samsung and Google in the last 5 years.

Social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook have also played their role by allowing the easy sharing of 360 content whilst Snapchat is almost solely responsible for a huge surge in popularity for AR technology.

More recently, Sony has attempted to push VR gaming back into the mainstream with the release of Playstation VR, which they announced as having passed 3 million units sold just last week.

With all that movement on VR and AR tech, it still seems as though VR is still a niche in the UK tech market. For example, I know many people with a PS4 but none of them own a Sony PSVR headset.

Given the above, what are your thoughts on the current state of VR, and other forms of virtual media in the UK market and what do you think the future of the VR industry looks like in gaming?
Digi-Capital provide some of the best insights into the current state of VR and thoughts on the future – such as this article.

I hope there’ll be a steady expansion of hardware sales, leading to enough development to crack certain core problems, as a prelude to an explosion of sales.  

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How do you see VR innovating/growing over the next few years?
Incremental improvements in hardware, specifically accessibility and comfort. Incremental improvements in game content and interface, as designers work out how to make VR interface that’s easy to use.

We need generations of software to allow designers to feed off each other and draw inspiration from previously successful design solutions. And for users to get used to VR as a standard interface option.

What do you think needs to happen to make VR gaming more mainstream?
The single most important thing is a killer app. This needn’t be a game – smart phones exploded the market for games by supplying everyone with game-ready devices that were nevertheless bought for other reasons.

Then you need an Angry Birds or Candy Crush – culturally visible, high-accessibility games spread by word of mouth – to promote games as an entertainment form to the phone owners. There’s a whole bunch of things required before VR gaming can become mainstream, but we’ll know when it happens because there’ll be a VR game that everyone’s heard of. 

Leeds is a increasingly digitally-focused city, with amazing innovative entrepreneurs and businesses throughout.

Does that sense of a growing Leeds community working on cutting edge technology translate to the gaming industry? Are there a number of businesses operating in the same field as you or do you feel that XR Games is at the exciting forefront of the industry within Leeds?
A feature film called “The City Talking: Tech In Leeds” best summaries all the great tech companies in Leeds – it even features XR Games’ Founder and CEO Bobby Thandi, while he was VP Digital at Dubit.

Also, we’re lucky in Leeds, and the surrounding area, that great gaming studios such as RockStar Leeds, Team17, Sumo Digital, and Dubit exist. Not to mention the other 40+ gaming studios in the North.

Meaning there’s a number of options for folks who want to get into the industry, or progress their careers. And that’s the most important factor for more great games to come from the North.  

Finally, what exciting things can we look out for in the future coming from XR Games?
Easy to use, fun games for everyone – in VR.


Interested in keeping up with XR Games?

Follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

Fin.

Castle: Revolutionising real-estate in Canada

At a glance

Name of business: Castle

Industry: Digital Marketing

Key learning points;

A modern approach to finding co-founders

Many attribute their motivation in business to having successfully found, built or integrated themselves within a community of likeminded individuals — but for many this is can be challenge, and for others an impossibility.

ENTER THE INTERNET *trumpet sounds*. 

Community based platforms like Reddit can be exactly the tool you need to find the perfect business partners. This was the case for Castle, which was started from a single post on a University subreddit group.


Start with structure

The success of any venture is completely dependent on how much time the founders are willing to invest in it. The founders of Castle agreed from day one that they would meet for four hours every week, and stuck to it. This ensured consistency within the team, with each member staying motivated to keep working efficiently— no easy feat in the early days.


Creative marketing: demonstrating value rather than stating it.

Effective marketing in an overcrowded industry is cutting above the noise in order to get your voice heard by the people who would benefit most by hearing you. That’s exactly what Castle did when they decided to introduce themselves to prospective clients by sending them each a unique, completely bespoke website to show them what they could do. By doing this, instead of sending a bland campaign email, they impressed many and secured leads which became customers and revenue.


Diversify your communication


Your ability to successfully sell a product to your customer is dependent on your ability to build trust with them. While emails have their place, you will find yourself much better equipped to build that trust if you’re willing to meet someone face to face and befriend them.

I love Reddit.

With such a huge collection of highly-engaged communities, it’s so easy to connect with amazing people by just joining in on conversations which interest you. That’s exactly how I got to meet Leo, one of the co-founders of Castle.

Leo and I got talking after I posted a call for founders willing to be interviewed on r/startup after the launch of Inkbike.

A few people responded to the post but among them, Leo immediately stood out to me. It wasn’t just that he was personable, but that his focus, dedication and passion were so immediately apparent as soon as he got talking about his business.

Even though I was nervous about interviewing someone over messages for the first time (every other time has been a recorded face-to-face discussion), I was confident that Leo’s experience would make for a fantastic interview and that there was an incredible opportunity to learn from his unique experiences.

I was absolutely not disappointed, and I’m incredibly excited to share Leo’s experience with you as a fascinating insight into creative marketing and carving a space for yourself in a niche digital market.


Introduction header

I’m Leo, a student at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and I co-founded Castle – an atypical digital marketing agency for real estate agents.

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We differ from our competition in that we provide Realtors with a fully customised website using a monthly subscription offer instead of a major one-time fee like traditional web design agencies.

We did this to solve the big issue with the one-fee model, where you might hate aspects of your website only a few months in after you spent $5,000 on a normal agency. Technology and design standards change every few months, and you’re therefore left with a website that looks obsolete.

By opting for a subscription model instead, your website benefits from continuous development and support by the same dedicated team that built it for you from scratch.

What I’m most proud of in Castle however, is the way we provide another service that is so far unique.

We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended

On our website / web app, we list realtors and provide each with a comprehensive profile that pulls all types of personal information (bio, awards, testimonials, language, ethnicity, niche neighbourhood etc.) from external softwares into a single profile. These profiles rank #1 for each agent name on Google.

Homebuyers and home-sellers can then visit this page and filter through the list using different criteria to find the agent that suits them best.

We started Castle 6 months ago, when I partnered with 2 other university students I met through Reddit. We know our work is leading to something much bigger than what we intended. We strongly believe we’ll become a unicorn company sometimes soon, but we also settled with the idea that we needed to build stable revenue before doing anything crazy.


I love that – the platform you’ve built to profile the realtors is something I’ve never seen done before and it feels like it actually humanises the process of finding property online, which is absolutely something I’ve never seen attempted before. I’m glad to hear you like it! It means there’s a market fit for our idea.

You phrased it perfectly with “humanise the process of finding property” because there are 15,000 realtors in Vancouver alone (where we are), which makes no sense given that they all do the same job. I mean, why choose one over another?

One way to go about it as a seller is finding an agent who’s transparent, fits your personality and specializes in your niche (e.g. Millenials in West Vancouver). That’s already a challenge in itself as for many, realtors have such a bad reputation.

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Brilliant – I couldn’t agree more.

Another part of the Castle story that I really love is that you met your business partners through Reddit – what’s the story behind that happening?
That was actually the result of my partner publishing the below on the subreddit for our University.

20 people commented on that post, 6 followed up and 3 actually met. That’s us. Since then, one other person has joined our team.

WebCreative Reddit Post

With regards to our relationship, it’s very special. We have very different backgrounds, stories and interests, but I guess what unites us is our passion for experimenting with, and building a start-up.

We got to work on the very first day we met up, without having discussed any ideas beforehand. Since we’re all quite serious, we quickly settled on holding a weekly meeting – Sunday 10 am to 2pm – which was mandatory to attend.

This was a success and everyone attended each meeting every single weekend for the first 4 months.

In that time, we settled with the idea of designing, coding and maintaining fully custom websites for Real Estate agents in our city of Vancouver, Canada. We saw this idea as being a niche market since it uniquely combined:

  1. being a realtor;
  2. being in Vancouver;
  3. seeing value in design and having a custom website to stand out (most realtors use templates, and in fact 3,7754 agents share the exact same website template in Vancouver alone).

So the concept was defined. The next step was finding out whether there was demand for it. That’s the tricky part.

Chapter 2 header

In the course of this adventure, I learnt that a great marketer is the foundation of any start-up. We were new to business and there existed huge competition (the real estate marketing market is saturated – last time I checked Google Keywords, the ‘Top of Page Bid’ was $22 for “real estate website”).

In the beginning we didn’t really pay much attention to whether we were actually able to deliver the product – we thought we could without major issue.

So our first step was marketing the product we didn’t have. And if you have no proof of work (like us), you either pretend like you do or you simply bring price down (the rule of offer vs demand).

Therefore, we started selling websites at $400 when the same website (if not worse in design) was selling for $5,000 by companies like MyRealPage or Brixwork.

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It felt terrible to know we had to start this low and pay ourselves a $13/hour divided between 3 co-founders (that was painful to calculate) but we thought this tactic would create buzz, and it certainly did.

Another marketing tactic we used was to write a program that, at night, crawled through public lists of real estate agents in Vancouver and passed out the information it found back into an Excel sheet in an orderly manner.

Most people ignore the power of automation

A week after we ran it, we had compiled 500 emails addresses. We were already very happy about our trick (we honestly felt like hackers), but we’re most pleased with what we did next.

We designed a website template of which the content changed function based on whom we sent it to. For example, if we sent that website link to John Joe, the website header would display something like “Browse John Joe’s properties”.

We applied that same formula to all the other contacts we’d amassed using our web-crawling program and then displayed them on our website.

Artboard Copy 27

In other words, on a regular Monday morning ‘Joe the Realtor’ received an email from us out-of-the-blue, entitled “I did something for you”. When he opened it he found a bespoke website built to his name that was ready to be used.

Most people ignore the power of automation. So the majority of the people who received our email believed we put tireless hours into building a website that we were giving to them for free.

That honestly worked out to be one of, if not the best thing we could have done. We sent out the first 30 emails and within 48 hours 17 people had clicked and we had received 9 answers. The standard click rate for the creative industry is 0.7%.

They were mostly people politely thanking us for the effort and letting us know they felt bad about refusing it, but it also gave us 3 serious leads. Out of those 3 serious leads, we started working on 2 websites.

It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.

That gave us our start.

Unsurprisingly, some of our first few clients did try to take advantage of us by asking for changes so regularly and over such a long period of time that we began losing money.

However, it gave us the opportunity to perform some root-cause-analysis of issues in our early business model so that we could make corrective actions early on in our business’ life. We learnt to filter clients and work only with the best.

In the following 4 months, we changed our pricing model three times and renewed our approach to marketing by incorporating social media as a service. It was hard, but where we are now has meant that it was worth it.

Chapter 3 header

And how did you go about organising the work between yourselves?
We agreed early on about the way we would divide up work. One person took care of the technical part (programs and website development). They coded the websites from scratch and did an awesome job for what we were getting paid.

I’m talking a fully custom website with all kinds of features. For example, few UI / UX details that matter a lot to the eye but which most agencies don’t provide at all (animations, shadows, transitions…)

Soon after, we realised we needed better design, so I taught myself how to do web design. I also manage marketing at Castle — which includes client prospection, business development and social media.

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The third co-founder helped around on both the technical and marketing front. Since then, they’ve played a pillar role after learning to code entire websites.

Our last recruit is a friend of a friend. They’ve been our head of photography taking beautiful portraits of agents over at @realtorsofvancouver and helping with some websites.

Heading 4

Give up on some clients: we are still getting absurdly low traction for the value we provide. Most agents don’t see any benefits to our services. Those same agents generally happen to be above a certain age and tend to have relied solely on connections to sell/buy houses.

We quickly learned to give up on these people, and instead to address the agents who leveraged social media and valued design: young real estate agents.

Make friends: another lesson we’ve recently learned is to meet with potential clients without selling them anything. Fixing a single face-to-face meeting with an agent every week was our most recent and yet most powerful tactic.

We’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself

We take the opportunity to know them better. Once you’ve invested that time, explaining to them our services and converting them to paying clients is easy.

Discuss money with your team – I never thought money would be a major factor in our everyday work on the start-up. I’ve always imagined doing it for fun during my free time as a student. All these thoughts rushed to our heads when we landed our first client.

There was a celebration, and then few days of: “wow… we can actually make money building a cool product for society. This could be big if we stick to it“.

A post from WebCreative's Instagram page

An example post from Castle’s Instagram page

Ultimately, we settled with the idea of reinvesting all profits without cashing in a single dollar for the first $4,000. Discussing these topics early on will help avoid unexpected obstacles (e.g. a co-founder leaving and taking his equity or intellectual property).

What have you learnt since you started working on Castle that you wish you knew at the beginning?
I wish we had approached marketing differently and made connections in the professional / adult world earlier on. We should have approached real estate agents as students and asked them genuine questions. Instead, the first contact we established with them was as a business looking to sell our services.

Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail

As a result, we’ve had to rely solely on email campaigns and social media outreach to put our name out in Vancouver.

All this to say that we’ve learnt that people value customer service over the product itself. They value the experience, the connection and how comfortable they feel with you as their new digital marketer. Once you’ve built trust, the price at which you sell your services is only a detail. They will trust you in fixing the right price.

Secondly, I wish I had tried harder. Sometimes I feel proud of what we’ve accomplished but I cannot stop imagining how things would be if we had done things differently. It’s a very human thing to do. I should have put more effort at times on Castle.

For example, I looked back and wonder if I had called that client (instead of emailing her like we did), would we have reached a deal? Or if I wasn’t too shy, and have pitched our services at that major real estate event, would I have doubled the sales from our business in a single evening?

When you miss opportunities like these, you can only blame yourself for not trying harder. It’s a matter of priorities. I guess that if I was starving, I wouldn’t think twice about trying harder.

What were the most important tools for you when you were getting your business off the ground? (i.e. what tools/hardware/software did you find relying on most during the earliest days?)
Fiverr
was brilliant as it allowed us to outsource basic tasks cheaply. That saved us a ton of time and we found people with more experience able to solve some basic mistakes we had made.

MailChimp was greatfor blasting out personalised emails. It tells you things like ‘how many people opened your email’, ‘how many times they opened it or forwarded it’, ‘which link they clicked on’ and more.

So I used it to find the best email pitch possible. I like to compare it to a game of gladiators. You send out 2 different sales pitches and you keep the one that worked best. You take the winning pitch, draft a second one changing few variables (more polite, more links, without price…) and send both out again. Repeat 20 times and you get the perfect email pitch!

Spotify; because if you’re going into entrepreneurship, you’re gonna need that 1am music. Plus, Spotify’s algorithm suggests some really good stuff – you can listen to our startup’s playlist here.

Also, I know it’s a mainstream answer but most people underestimate Instagram‘s power. If you’re good at crafting visuals and targeting your audience, you have the secret sauce to marketing. I’ve enjoyed Instagram so much as it resonates really closely with our startup’s vibe and so I started experimenting with ads.

I used the same gladiator tactic that I described with MailChimp, and after having done the work I can now guarantee a serious lead for every $5 I put into my ad. Our basic product sells for $99 so that’s a huge return on investment (check out Castle’s Instagram).

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The best tool though? My co-founder Daanyaal. Shout-out to him for putting up with my personality. You need a partner you can count on for working at 2am and partying the next day.


Incredible right?

If you’re as big a fan of Castle as I am after reading that then keep up with what they’re up to on their blog and Instagram page.

Fin.

North Star: How the first coffee-roasting company in Leeds is changing the industry forever

At a glance

Name of business: North Star

Business Type: Wholesale & coffee

Key Learning Points


Business as a tool for change

You don’t need to be a social, non-profit organisation to be able to make a difference. Rather than write your business values just to have a corporate social responsibility, you can build a business that is sustainable in everything it does and still be profitable.

North Star is proof that you can create an incredibly successful business that tackles critical issues in supply-chain responsibility through promoting awareness and simply refusing to sacrifice ethical responsibility for profit.



Don’t carry out all of your market research from your desk

Make your market research a practical exercise. Where possible, find and speak to people in your field. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much people are willing to share with people that are starting out.



Take the time to create a business plan and write your values

The direction that your business can take in the future can feel uncertain as new opportunities present themselves.

Taking the time to understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term, and the goals which are most important to you can make difficult decisions easier.

Spending the time developing your core values can help anchor you to the path that you originally set out to follow without risk of getting lost along the way.



Social media can be more than a marketing tool

More than a tool to promote your company, the impact that social media can have on creating a supportive community for your brand can’t be overstated. When it was time for North Star to expand their operation, they looked to the community they had grown for support.

Through a Kickstarter campaign, North Star were able to raise an incredible £20,000 to buy a larger coffee roaster to keep up with growing demand.

I accidentally arrived 30 minutes early for my interview with Holly at the North Star Coffee Shop in Clarence Dock, Leeds because it was the second interview I’d run and so I was super paranoid about being late. You don’t get a second chance at a first impression right?

I‘m glad I did though, it gave me time to just sit and admire what founders Holly and Krag had created. To my right is a large glass wall – through it you can see a massive coffee roaster opposite a stack of burlap sacks filled with freshly imported coffee ready to roast. Behind me are huge windows which look out across the Clarence Dock boulevard and floods natural light into the large open café space.

The overall effect of the space is overwhelmingly calming and pleasant. I know I’m not the only one that sense it sense the space hums with the sound of happy conversations and laughter from the tables around me.

After a short while, Holly heads over to the table and we begin our chat. What followed was an incredible interview that I’m incredibly excited to share; not only is Holly one of the most knowledgeable, insightful and friendly people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, but what she and her partner Krag have created is nothing short of incredible.

They are people that are using business to tackle the bigger issues that matter to them, and more than any other company I’ve seen it shines through in every single thing that they do. This interview is a must read for anyone that wants to carve out a niche in the market that previously didn’t exist using passion, knowledge and hard-work.


Chapter 1: Getting into the market and finding a gap

So I was wondering if you could start off by describing, to anyone unfamiliar with the brand, what North Star Roast is.
Holly: North Star coffee started off as a wholesale coffee roastery, but I would like to say now that it’s become an all encompassing coffee company that really gets behind the values of quality, ethics in the supply chain and just elevates coffee to be something more than a daily wake-up call.

Those are the kinds of values it stands for and now we’ve opened up a venue, we want people to be able to come in and get let into the world of coffee in general, from bean to cup. That’s what North Star is all about, celebrating the supply chain from seed to cup.

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That brilliant, and so everything we’re drinking here, is that all coming straight from next door?
Yeah, this coffee shop is kind of a unique concept. In terms of the coffee supply chain; we’re involved in every step of it.

Most other coffee shops would tend to buy their coffee from a roaster and brew it in their coffee shop whereas here we have the supply chain tied up. We’re involved in the sourcing of beans, working with farmers and finding new producing partners across the world.

We then bring the coffee back into the roastery and learn how to get the most out of it from trying different roast profiles [and everything else]. Then it’s literally delivered from next door to here.

Absolutely every bean that has come through the grinders here has been sourced, perfected and roasted all by the same company.

That’s amazing – getting that off the ground, I can’t even begin to imagine what that process would look like. I mean were you already involved in, or had knowledge of supply chains before?
Yeah so my background is in green coffee. My first ever job having left uni was as a trainee green coffee buyer.

The way that Krag and I, my partner, got into coffee and starting North Star was through our final year dissertation at University. I studied the effect of fair trade coffee farming on social and economic development for small coffee farmers in Kenya, and whether it had been a positive factor or a negative factor.

Krag looked at the slave trade – he did a history degree – and we both chose dissertation topics around something that would allow us to travel to get our research.

So we both spent about 3 months in East Africa between second and third year and 6 weeks of that was spent working with rural smallholders – tiny, tiny smallholders with farmers who had like a half-hectare of trees in their back garden.

We were just interviewing them and collecting qualitative data on how they felt about the effects of the coffee industry in their country, their own economic development and what they were able to do through getting access to the fair-trade premium.

North Star Holly and Krag SA

Founders Krag (second from the left) and Holly (third from the left)

Before that, I’d never really had any insight into the supply chain so it was really that trip which opened our eyes to the amazing people which were involved in the supply chain; the number of people that are involved and the number of things that can go wrong in it.

So that’s how our interest was peaked to the point where we both left uni certain that that was the industry that we wanted to work in.

Really? So by the end of that dissertation you…
– yeah we just knew that this was what we wanted to do. And being in the North of England people can always says that jobs are scarcer – particularly in fairly niche industries like this but actually the North of England has a really established coffee scene with the likes of Taylors of Harrogate and some fairly big coffee companies up here.

So that was my natural pathway from graduating with a degree in sustainable development and I looked to try and get into coffee using an ethical route in terms of how it could be used to develop economies.

I managed to stumble across a new-start company that worked by importing green, speciality-grade coffee. I did an unpaid internship with them for 3-4 months and learned how to taste, how to roast and I was sending samples out to roasters all over the UK.

That internship turned into a paid job thankfully. Because it was a really young and developing company, I was thrown in at the deep-end and so my own, personal & professional development occurred at a much quicker rate than if I was at a larger, more established company.

Within a year I was in Central America buying coffee, doing taster qualifications and things like that, so it was really about learning quickly on the job.

Through doing that role, I was selling green coffee to all the other roasters in the UK at the time and I realised that there was no one doing that in Leeds. There were 60+ roasters in London; there were 14 in Bristol and Bath, 7 in Edinburgh and things like that.

So there were pockets of really good quality coffee all over the country and then Leeds was just this barren, wasteland of bad coffee at the time *laughs*.

There were a couple of key venues that had been set up and were doing things really well; there was Lanes espresso which was set up over by the train station in 2011 I think – they were buying from a roaster down in London. There was also Opposite which was set up over by Leeds Uni and again, buying from the same roaster in London.

Then everywhere else was just a bit crap. There was just a real gap between the people who were doing things really, really well and everyone else who was just a bit terrible.

Really?
Yeah the supply just wasn’t there locally and people’s knowledge and training regarding how to work with coffee was just a bit all over the place. Everyone was doing things slightly differently depending on where they’d learnt things from – there was no set standard in place.

It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

At the time we were both living with my parents, and Krag had a part-time job working as a chocolatier for 2-days a week which was a pretty good job to be fair *laughs*, he wasn’t complaining.

But the fact is that we were in the position to be able to take a jump into doing something with the thinking of ‘well if it works, it works, if it doesn’t then it doesn’t’.

And so we started looking into how you get started as a coffee roastery and we tracked down a 5-kilo roaster from an old donkey hut in Wales.

Chapter 2: Getting things off the ground

*laughs* that’s amazing.
Yeah this pensioner had started to roast coffee in his retirement. He did one batch on this machine and realised that he had enough coffee for about a year.

So his hobby didn’t last too long but we managed to get a really amazing machine that had barely been used for a really good price.

How did you go about finding it?
There are catering machine companies, people that sell things like deep fat fryers and refrigerators and stuff. Coffee roasters get listed along items like that so we just kept an eye out and managed to get a machine in place.

We managed to get a unit with the council down at Meanwood on an industrial site and that was it. Krag was sent off to learn how to roast from some really well known roasters down south who I had some really good connections with through supplying to them.

North Star Krag Roasting

It took about 6 months into it for us to get to a point for us to think that the coffee was good enough to start selling. It’s a really steep learning curve that’s just based on trial-and-error. I was tasting and saying thing like, ‘well maybe you dropped it in too hot there’ or maybe ‘the development time wasn’t long enough’ and things like that. Really trial and error.

I have to say though, it sounds like every step of the way you guys were having a good time with it – all of this sounds like you were having amazing fun.
Yeah it was great, and the reality of setting up a business is that it’s definitely exciting but it’s really hard work and we didn’t take a salary from the business for about 2 years.

I think that was particularly hard for Krag at the time. I had another job and he didn’t. North Star was his life and he wasn’t able to go out with people on a weekend or buy clothes.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high.

It was a really tough period getting on the road with samples. Krag was only 22 at the time, and so going into restaurants which had been operating since before he’d been born and trying to say ‘this is really good coffee, you should try it’ was challenging.

Getting people convinced was a different matter as well, we were going against roasters that could offer much cheaper price because they were selling commercial-grade coffee rather than speciality-grade.

When Krag was able to get a few key customers on board we quickly realised we’d done the right thing because the demand for freshly roasted, locally roasted, ethically sourced speciality-grade coffee was really, really high. We experienced that classic rocket-growth from year 1.

North Star Coffee Stock

It just felt like we got to a point where we felt like we were supplying every coffee seller in Leeds and it was amazing. That in turn creates a good problem, but still a problem whereby people want something different and unique, and so you don’t want to be ‘too everywhere’.

You also have to ensure that your coffee is in the hands of people who are going to look after it and show off your brand accurately. So that presents a whole host of other problems.

I imagine in the first year you’d think that things would be tight and so to be in that situation would be so unexpected.
Yeah, it is – you have to say ‘yes’ to everything at the start to make sure that you get beans through the roaster and money through the door to pay your costs.

As a roaster we have to purchase all of our raw products through our suppliers when we know that we won’t get a return on that until months down the line and so at the start you can’t say no to anyone.

Then you find yourself tied into relationships that aren’t really complementary with businesses that aren’t on board 100% with what you are trying to achieve and you end up agreeing to ridiculous things like ‘yes we will deliver your coffee to you free of charge’ and end up driving a 2-hour round trip to deliver one order.

Just things like that where you learn from your first year to where we are now where we’re much more structured and have clearer supply terms in place.

We were in unit that was really not very pleasant. It was window-less and there was no heating, a tiny roaster and just the two of us. We were both just doing absolutely everything from building a website to marketing to actually operationally roasting, packaging and delivering the coffee.

Chapter 3: Market research, marketing and expertise

There are a couple points there that you touched on which I just want to swing back to. Through the process of conducting market research, how did you go about finding everything you needed to out?
When you get into the coffee industry you realise it’s a very open industry where you know of everyone that’s operating.

Also the good places tend to really shout about who they’re working with because it’s the thing which distinctly sets them apart from the rest.

So it’s actually quite easy to find out who people are supplied by?
Yeah. It was just very much about visiting venues, spending time with people, drinking their coffee and taking it from there.

A huge part of it is social media, that’s been a big part of our development in the early years for sussing out who’s who, and who’s operating in which cities.

North Star Coffee Machine

And then with the marketing as well, initially I can imagine it’s difficult because you’ll be pitching to people that already have suppliers and are in a position of having to say ‘I know you’re using these people, but you should be using us instead and here’s why’.
Yeah you do have to put yourself out there for sure, but particularly in the independent industry that we work within, it’s really not your typical sales technique at all, it’s very gentle. We’re not salesy at all. As individuals it would feel completely unnatural to us to act as typical salespeople. But it was definitely difficult.

It was easier in the early days because we were doing something that was very unique, there was no one else really doing what we were doing and to put it simply, we really just let the coffee do the talking.

We’d invite people into the unit for tastings, we would send out to potential clients a supply for a week just to see how they got on with it and take on board the feedback from the customers.

It was very organic really, a huge part of our business is the relationships and traceability that we can offer to our customers in terms of the suppliers that we’re working with and knowing exactly where that bean comes from.

It’s definitely becoming more and more difficult as the market gets more crowded. There are a few different roasteries in Leeds now, a few in Manchester and Sheffield. So there’s more competition locally but it’s a really strange industry. I wouldn’t strictly class it as competition as it’s more people helping to promote what we’re doing.

When it was just us it was harder to shout about why people should spend more on their coffee or buy from a certain supplier when it’s just you saying that. So having a few more people makes what we’re doing seem less abnormal.

That’s a brilliant takeaway as well. When I’ve spoken to others and competition has come into it, people have gotten a bit cagey – but what a positive takeaway to have from what is essentially a growing market.
Yeah, we started out with the aim of trying to convince as many people as we could to convert to speciality grade coffee because we firmly believe it’s what has to happen for the industry to maintain growth and for it to still be there.

We have to wake up to the fact that if we want to get the same great quality coffee year in and year out, that you have to look after people now. There’s a lot of customers and coffee companies out there that are just buying for the present and not necessarily building that sustainable approach into their business plan.

I think from our perspective, yes we are a business and we’ve got to see some growth but I think we also appreciate the growth of similar businesses in our area because it’s important to the industry as a whole that more people are getting on board and buying that type of coffee.

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That’s something I wanted to touch on as well; the passion you have for coffee is so evident in the blog on your website which is absolutely amazing. Your approach to writing on it could almost be described as academic in the level of detail included. Was that level of detail something that you looked to include from the beginning to give you an edge?
Yeah, I think that we always wanted North Star to represent the knowledge and expertise that it has as a business – the core team that we have in the roaster has very distinctive skillsets and experience to the point where we’ve become elevated to that level in the industry.

My personal experience is in sensory analysis and sourcing, I’ve got very unique qualifications in that field. Krag is very much the head, master roaster – he’s got an amazing breadth of knowledge and natural feel for roasting coffee. Ollie who works for us has amazing barista expertise and so he has an incredible knowledge of the consumer side of the supply chain – machines, equipment, brew recipes and things from that perspective.

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So I think for the website, those are the things that keep us in coffee – growing our knowledge and, not mastering an element of it but certainly being able to give a considered, constructive perspective. So that’s come naturally to us as a team and when writing about something; not just going to be saying something for the sake of it but rather a considered article that’s intended to help people out that have those same questions.

I think we have had to adapt as other roasteries have opened up around us, it’s been about cementing ourselves as being as credible as possible in the knowledge that we have.

That’s part of the setup of the coffee academy, and being able to offer specialised courses where other roasters coming in and get their coffee diplomas here. It’s a key part of that side of North Star in terms of creating a real centre for excellence.

I wish you’d been around to work with some of my earlier employers. I remember working in pubs around that period where all pubs started to offer coffee and so places just bought machines but never really taught staff how to use them or make coffee with any degree of skill.
It’s a classic case. We get approached by people who’ve had a similar experience and it’s a really terrible situation for us to walk in on because of what we train people to do. If you haven’t had any training before, it can seem totally ridiculous.

You’ll see here the baristas weigh out all the coffee they use. You’ll see scales at every work area where people are weighing how much coffee is coming out of the grinder, how much coffee is produced by the machine, timing it and so it’s a very scientific approach which really is what’s needed with coffee to guarantee the consistency and quality and ensure it’s being shown off at it’s best.

Making Coffee North Star

So I think when you go into venues which have never had that or it’s a completely foreign concept, then it makes it difficult to try and say to people ‘no, you need to do this for good coffee’.

We always wanted to be really approachable as a business. Not your usual London-hipster, exclusionary type business where coffee is almost a bit intimidating.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

But we have had to adapt how easily we take people on in terms of wholesale relationships because the brand has grown to a point where we’ve got to work hard to protect that.

To make sure that quality is being maintained in the way that coffee is served here and served at Cha Lounge (for example) to make sure that everything is consistent – to make sure that people aren’t having a great experience of North Star at one venue and then somewhere else it being terrible because of how the coffee is being made…it’s a challenge.

chapter 5

Absolutely – although I’m curious, how do you go about ensuring that? Say a new company approaches you and say’s we’d love to have some of your brilliant coffee and you start trading with them – is there an agreement where you say you have to make it in a certain way? I imagine that’s a really difficult thing to enforce without having a presence on-site.
It is and it’s difficult for us as people – you never want to give the impression of ‘oh, we’re too good for you’.

There’s a couple of things that we do; where we have minimum supply terms in place where you have to have a minimum standard of machine and grinder in order to trade with us.

They have to have an automated grinder, not a manual one like a paddle grinder where you can’t control how much is coming out and the machine needs to have temperature control. A lot of cheaper machines at the lower end of the market, they just jump massively from anywhere from 82C to 94C which has a massive effect on the coffee’s flavour in terms of how much is extracted from the bean.

So that’s the starting point, if people have that machinery in place then we’ll talk with them extensively – particularly if it’s at the early stages of them setting up, we try and be as involved as we can be from day 1 to ensure things like they’re getting the right cup sizes, the right milk jugs, using the right milk…

What a customer experience! I can’t think of anyone else doing it they way you guys are.
It’s really labour intensive; we take a really engaged approach to wholesale relationships.

We don’t just sell someone coffee and never talk to them again – we have to vet them to make sure that they’re going to appropriately serve it and so we visit them once every 3-4 months. Sometimes we let them know we’re coming and other times we just pop in and just have a quick scout of the machine to check if it was clean, if the coffee was tasting good and we also have monthly wholesale events where we invite all of our wholesale customers to come down here and learn about an aspect about coffee.

When we take someone on as a wholesale customer we make it our responsibility to help grow their business as well in terms of how much coffee they sell, how well known they are in the industry and so we do whatever we can from that perspective.

I think our customer base is extremely loyal and proud, I think, and that’s probably been one of our proudest achievements – to see the relationships that we’ve developed with businesses across the region.

We don’t tie people into contracts and don’t force people into relationships where we say things like ‘if you buy our machines then you have to use our coffee’, we don’t do any of that.

We’ve approached it in the most Yorkshire manner that we possibly could, hopefully very down to earth and approachable – especially to people who genuinely come to us with an attitude of wanting to learn more.

We want people to buy from us because they want to buy from us.

I think the relationships we have are really solid. We’ve worked with most of them for years, since we’ve started and we’re happily seen their coffee sales double and triple because their quality is better and they’re becoming known as a coffee destination.

I mean yeah, I can attest to that from Cha Lounge – it’s the first time I’ve ever gone to somewhere which sells drinks where they go into detail about where they get their coffee from. It’s not a conversation I’ve ever had before, it just shows that you’re giving them something to shout about.

It must be rewarding as well to come away after this process of development and see that enthusiasm come off on the people you work with; even after this conversation I feel really enthusiastic and just like I want to be drinking loads more coffee!
It’s strange, some people have that experience where their eyes are opened up to this whole new world that coffee can be really amazing and interesting and other people are really business focused and if coffee isn’t their main product – say they’re a pub or have food on offer or something like that where coffee isn’t their main push then from a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to approach it in that way.

North Star for us was always a passion project in the sense that we never did a business degree, we never thought that we wanted to start our own business and for us to be someone’s boss is a horrible idea, we never wanted that.

So generally, we tend to find ourselves gelling with business owners who have opened businesses from a similar perspective where they want to do things as well as they possibly can rather than people that are solely focused on the bottom-line profits.

Just, this being a passion project for you guys and working with people where that’s a similar case and everything about that makes the whole process seem so much more enjoyable.

I imagine there are frustrations and concerns during the process of starting a business but it just sounds like every decision you guys have made comes from a place of you guys enjoying what you do – you do the things that you enjoy and have turned that into a business rather than starting out with the goal of earning money.
Honestly, the downside of having your own business can occasionally far outweigh the perks and I think that if we didn’t live and breathe everything that we do here then the business wouldn’t keep going.

People always assume that coffee is a really great business to be in – there are coffee shops opening up on every corner and people are always talking about the margin that you can make on a cup of coffee and everything and the fact is that if you come at it from a quality perspective where you want to be ethical then it’s really hard to make money in coffee. Really, really hard.

You have to sell a lot of coffee and I think if we were coming at it from that perspective then we would have given up a long time ago because you need to love what you do to be able to continue getting out of bed every day.Chapter 6Reading the blog and reading more about how closely ethics ties into your values, sourcing coffee in the first place how does that value tie into your process of finding and working with new suppliers
I think that lots of the relationships that we have in place now were established when I had my previous role as a green coffee-buyer and that was what I did 7-days a week –

This is probably going to sound like me being really simple but…‘green coffee’?
No, not at all. Green coffee is the term for raw coffee before it’s been roasted. So a green coffee buyer is essentially someone that sources coffee. My job was to go and find new producers that were producing coffee in a way that paid homage to the quality and the surroundings that it grew in.

There are certain areas and farms in the world that have better growing conditions then others so it was very much a case of maybe having a connection with a marketer or an exporting agent and then just flying to Guatemala and saying ‘let’s check out this farm’.

Then when you get there someone tells you ‘oh, my brother has a farm just over that way that’s 1800m above sea level and he’s experimenting with a new way of processing it’ so you think to yourself that you’re definitely going to go and check that out.

Then you just start a relationship by receiving things like samples which we roast here and then we taste them and if they meet our scoring guidelines – to be speciality-grade coffee it needs to score 80/100 based on different attributes like acidity and body.

Is this something you do in here or do you bring someone else in to do that?
No, so I’m a qualified Q-grader, so it’s kind of like a sommelier but for coffee. Like a coffee taster.

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The coffee taster’s flavour wheel – there’s a giant print of this image on the wall of the North Star Classroom!

And that’s how a relationship starts really, if the samples are good and it tastes good then it means that we can buy it because we only roast speciality-grade Arabica coffee so if it tastes good then it’s up to us to ensure that everything’s in place for us to buy coffee from that farm.

From an ethical standpoint, we developed some guidelines which are based on some of my experiences in my past employment for sourcing coffee and an understanding that just because a farmer grows quality coffee, it doesn’t mean it was produced ethically.

A lot of people just assume just because something tastes good that it must come from someone who really cares about the plant and the people they work with and it’s just not always the case. So we developed some guidelines which dictate that we have to buy from rainforest alliance certified farms in Latin America that are like larger estates.

What that certification says is that it has to run in-line with international labour law, so there has to be a minimum wage and a minimum age in place, different accommodation for men and women, first-class protein in every meal which is provided by the producer to the workers and the environmental guidelines that are in place are in line with sustainable agricultural networks so there are safety signs, evaporation ponds in place to remove any of the coffee processing water and by-products in the water.

If we taste a sample and there’s no certification in place then we basically don’t do anything until we can arrange a trip to go and see it. So if the coffee was that good, and it’s something that we were looking at creating a long-term partnership with then it means going to see the farm and checking those things out for yourself and making that call when you’re out there.

And if something wasn’t or didn’t feel right, then we wouldn’t pursue a relationship with that producer.

For the producers we work with, we pay a price that guarantees to cover the full cost of production and at least a 50% quality premium on top, which is way above the minimum Fairtrade price which is set.

We like to work with farmers that are innovative and aware of the challenges that are going on around them. So we work with a lot of farmers that put time into working with different varieties of coffee to get around disease and things that can be brought on by climate change and things like that.

We invest our own money into projects which will improve quality and therefore increase the price that we have to pay for the coffee in the long run if that makes sense.Chapter 7 headerAbsolutely brilliant, so what advice would you love to go back and give yourselves now with the experience that you’ve built up since then?
I think that we’ve always waited too long to bring someone else into the team if that makes sense? We’ve always been super, super cautious. I don’t feel like we’ve ever really taken a massive leap outside of starting the business in the first place, when it was established we always tried to run ourselves as if we’re a big organisation when we’re just two members of staff.

There was definitely times where if we’d brought someone in earlier, the business would possibly have been further on in terms of what we’d have been able to offer with the resources we’ve had.

We’ve always just been so aware of the responsibility that you have when you bring someone else on when you’re paying their salary and it’s someone else’s livelihood in your hands really.

you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term.

I think if you feel confident in your offering, approach and structure in terms of your pricing and margin and things like that then I would advise people to go for it and just take a leap at times and not overthink things too much because I think if you feel confident in your knowledge, experience and offering then that will in turn create good.

We’ve also always written a business plan, always. That’s a real practical piece of advice, always have goals for each year. Whether you do one each year or a 5-year plan in terms of what you want to achieve, I think that’s really important to track and help you understand which decisions to make and keep you on track.

That’s something we’ve had from day one, there’re several parts to the business which present several opportunities for growth whether that’s wholesale or education or retail – you have to really understand what you want to achieve as a business in the long term. It helps you understand which opportunity might be the right one and when it’s not. So that and spending time working on your core values because that has made it easier for us to never stray.

Yeah, like to define who you want to be.
Yeah, we’ve had approaches from things like supermarkets and really large, corporate chains who’ve expressed and interest in working with us but we’ve …you know, sometimes those opportunities can make you think ‘Oh my god, this could be the one, this could be the thing that transforms the business’.

But one things that’s always helped us make those decisions is our values or quality and ethics so if something comes along which makes us stray from those ethics or compromise either the quality of the coffee that we buy or the ethics in how we source them then that’s when we know it’s not right for us.

Having those brand values from day one and making sure that everyone agrees makes sure that everyone’s very much on the same page when making decisions. That helps you stay on track with what you’re doing when competition strikes up, so you’re not looking around at the competition and thinking ‘oh god, they’ve got this and maybe we should do this’, you’re able to stay really focused on what you want to achieve.

That’s a great tip! Thank you.

The next question is, what were the most useful tools for you when you started to get North Star off the ground? The things that you’d find yourself relying on most.
I mean Excel spread sheets played a massive role in everything from stock control and counts to customer lists like a CRM system so, Excel was a key part of what we did.

Most important would be social media as a platform. That was something that really enabled us to speak to our customers and create a real brand and create a message about what we do right from day one.

North Star Roast Cafe Image

It’s a great free resource at your fingertips, so we utilised that as much as we could. We didn’t have a set social media strategy or someone that was taking care of that, we just made sure that we kept in touch with our customers and provide them with bits of information that would be interesting or supporting them and shouting about them in social media as well.

That really played a massive role, we’d hit a point in 2015 where we’d run out of capacity for the roasting machine that we had and really needed to invest in a bigger machine and so we run a kick-starter campaign to fund it which raised £20,000.

Sh*t, that’s amazing!
*laughs * Yeah, but that was done really off the back of the social media following that we had and the community that we had created with people that had been popping down to Meanwood to buy their coffee on the weekend since when we got going.

I think that’s had the most influence on our business to date, that goal we purely achieved by using those platforms really.

Fantastic, and the final question I’ll wrap up with is…I’m trying to think of a better way to phrase this question because it always comes out so rambly but one thing I try and do with Inkbike is to try to create value…I was wondering if there was any area which you might not know too much about which you would love to learn more on to help you with the running of things or any kind of personal or professional development which I could go away and research and write about.
That’s a really good question, I wish we were asked that more. I think one thing that’s been really difficult with setting up the retail side of the business is the sudden explosion of personnel which we’ve had. We’ve gone from a team of four, to 16 literally overnight. So that side of things with HR and staff management, the legal requirements of having staff.

We have those things in place before with employment contracts with holiday entitlement but I think it gets to a very different scale very quickly when you have that kind of expansion. That’s something we’ve had to absorb into our job roles. I’ve spent hours looking online for guidelines from the government on different types of contracts and statutory obligations.

We’re not quite at the stage where we can afford a full HR person or office manager but if that kind of information was…not more accessible, but more understandable – written in a way that you can understand without having to Google every single phrase – that would be useful to a lot of businesses which experience the same journey we’ve had.

Things like music licences, insurance, suppliers of plumbing or electricians, all of that information. If there was something local, like a resource that people could share and utilise…that’s been a real headache. Things like who to contact if the electrics go down, or who to contact if the drains back up.

I’m sure there are other businesses around here that maybe have used one company which have been extortionate and another which has been reasonable and reliable and it would be good to get to the point where that information is shared.

That would be a benefit to a lot of people.

It’s sounds like one of those things where unless that is literally your business, it’s not something that anyone would have time to start.
No, exactly. It needs to be a dedicated forum where people can share experiences and things.

We’re going to start a ‘How to start a coffee shop’ course because it’s just things like that that we’ve learnt by doing things ourselves. Trying to get information on anything, what music licences do I need to get, does it need to be PPL or PRS, what do you need to do to get an alcohol licence and just things like that. It was agonisingly difficult to figure that out from different resources.

Hopefully we’ll get that on the curriculum going forwards because I think people would benefit from.




I hope you found that interview as useful as I did! Keep up with what Holly and Krag are up to on their blog, Twitter or Facebook. To do the same with Inkbike, you can check out the below;

Email: kaeyo@inkbike.com
Twitter: @Inkbike
Facebook: @lnkbike
LinkedIn: Kaeyo Mayne


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Gem Turner: From blogging in bed to joining stars on the red carpet

At a glance

Type: Blog & Content Creation
Blog Name: gemturner.com
Key Learning Points:

Write as you speak

First off, it makes the whole writing process a lot more enjoyable if you’re able to write comfortably, and without second guessing whether the tone or language is ‘how it should be’. Also people love personality, it’s personality that will build a following of readers.


Don’t get hung up on the name

As a natural consequence of building a website or blog, you’re forced to name and label it immediately, before you’ve had a chance to fully realise it. Don’t worry about this too much, this isn’t permanent and it’s easy to change later by purchasing a new domain.


Images are important, but good content is key

As Gemma puts it, the sad truth of current online trends is that it’s hard to keep a reader’s attention throughout blocks of text without having images to break things up. While it’s easy to be put off by the work of professional bloggers like Zoella and their photoshoot worthy images – remember that the content is the most important thing.

As long as you have a decent camera on your phone and a good eye, you’re set. Don’t bother with big expensive cameras unless you’re sure that blogging is something you enjoy, and intend to do long-term.


Just start the thing!

You don’t need an expensive computer, the latest gear or anything like that to get started with blogging. Gemma is an award-winning blogger with an international readership but she built her website and wrote her first article entirely on her phone! If you want to start, just start! You can figure things out as you go, and your readers will love watching you explore things as you do.



Get your nearest and dearest to spread the word

It can feel a little bit cringey at first to ask the people you know to share your stuff with their friends, but everyone has to start somewhere and it’s a great way to build an initial audience.

I’m starting this boldly – Gemma Turner is not only my favourite person I work with, she’s without a doubt one of my favourite people I’ve met. She’s one of those people that just lights up a room when she comes in, causing smiles from even the rustiest of cheeks in the grumpiest depths of our office (usually mine). Her brilliant humour and positivity radiates from her, and this absolutely shines through in the interview.

This is also the most useful I’ve personally found an interview so far, and is an absolute must read for anyone looking to start a blog. I was really, really at pains to trim the interview transcript down as there’s so much useful stuff in here – but I was worried 10,000 words might be too long (let me know how you get on)!

This interview focuses on Gemma’s blog, gemturner.com, which is a fantastic, witty and honest account of Gemma’s day-to-day life and interests – plus it’s only gone and won Gemma a Blogger of the Year award as well! Read all about Gemma’s brilliant story for creating and keeping up with the blog below.

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Let’s start off at the top – for the wonderful readers out there, could you describe what you’ve created with GemTurner.com?
My blog…say you met me in a lift, and we had a bit of small talk, it’s like that.

So, if we were to speak, I might say, ‘oh my god, you’d never guess what happened to me…’ and it’s just that but in weekly or monthly snippets of my life. It can be anything from conversational stories, advice, life or reviews of what I’ve been up to. But yeah, like this is what happened, how about you.

Just a conversation.

The thing that I love most about your blogs is that the way you write is just so natural with such a great sense of humour. It’s the same way you speak and when I’m reading your blog, I’m hearing it in your voice and I love it.

 

But I was wondering how you found your writing style and your digital voice?
Ok so, it all stemmed from people having a certain expectation of me when we first meet, they might not know whether I can speak or might not even speak to or look at me at all because they don’t really know how to act around me.

So when I first meet people, I’m purposefully like ‘Hiya, you alright?’ because it’s like a slap in the face. It’s like me saying ‘I can hear you, I can see you, so come and say hello‘.

I get a thrill out of changing perceptions in seconds, and I wondered how I could  do that on a larger scale. Obviously you can change individual perceptions by talking to people, but that’s a slow process and you can’t change the world one conversation at a time.

So I decided to start blogging and I figured that the only way I could show who I truly am is to write how I would speak, and I think that that’s one thing that readers have consistently fed back – that they really enjoy the tone.

So I just think the more real you are, the more believable it is – and the more believable it is, the more people will listen to what you say.

Did you find that writing in that way felt natural from the start, or is it something where you  had to consciously think about while you’re writing?
See when I was at school, that was the negative feedback I used to get from my teachers. They’d tell me ‘you’re writing like you speak and I can tell it’s you when I’m reading your work‘.

The tip they used to tell me that I needed to write like I was a 50-year old and I was like ‘I don’t know how to write like a 50-year old, because I’m not 50’.

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But now, it’s a positive because that’s just who I am.

When you say it’s difficult to change how you write but with, for example, your website, I wouldn’t change the way you write for something else because then the people [who knew you] reading it would be like, ‘well that’s not you’, do you know what I mean?

So you just gotta do what you do and it’ll come across.

One problem you get is that you look at people like Zoella and all them massive bloggers and you just think, ‘oh I couldn’t do all’ that but the point is that we’ve all been there, we’ve all been at the beginning so don’t let that put you off.

Great point. So with it in mind, is there much editing involved with your writing?
I mean yeah, I can turn over blogs in an hour, so it doesn’t take that long because it’s just like me, as we are now, having a chat – but I do have to be careful because I can write too much.

What I do is write on a Saturday and then I sleep on it – I really think about it, because whatever I blog, my dad….because my dad works in a factory, his workmates read it and then they all talk about it in the canteen.

Like my dad will just be like ‘yeah we were chatting about your blog at lunch yesterday’ and I’ll be like ‘DAD!

So I’ve really got to be careful, because whatever I write I’ve got to think ‘I’d show my dad, I’d show my mum, I’d show my grandparents’.

That’s intense! Was it like that right from the get-go?
No, that built up so…luckily from the job I used to have, I had quite a lot of friends who I could share it with so that helped to build it up.

From there it’s just grown and grown…that’s one thing about blogs, you can’t just expect an audience straight away. Like you have to build it and build it, it’s like a snowball…but like a really small snowball.

You’ve got to just keep building it and your audience will grow every week but it just takes time.IMG_0544

That’s a great point. What would you say are the manual steps you’ve taken to build the snowball?
I’d say that when you’re first starting, it’s all about the content. Like don’t worry about what it looks like, don’t sign up to like £100 content packages because there’s just no point.

Before that, you’ve got to make sure that you want to do it and it’s actually something which you enjoy. For me it’s just a hobby, and it’s like having a chat every week.

So mines on WordPress. I just got the free version of WordPress, signed up, literally put my email in and off you go.

And, oh god this is so cringe, I called it shortsparkle.com, because I use the word ‘sparkle’ all the time. Not just for like young and naive, but for me the energy you bring…like I want to make sure the energy I bring into a room is the best it can be, do you know what I mean?

Then as I grew it, I realised that if I wanted to build it people aren’t going to be like ‘oh that shortsparkle…’ and also I didn’t want people to call me shortsparkle because that’s weird, so I called it Gemturner.com.

But it’s just things like that where you might start with one idea, but then you think about it and grow and it might change, so I think don’t be afraid to just sort of develop the blog as you go along.

I like that point – changing the name partway through also, because that’s something that I’ve been concerned about. You know when you build your website for the first time and before you do anything, you have to choose your domain, and it’s like…before you get started on anything else, you have to name it?
Yeah.

And it’s a difficult thing because, it forces you to name it before you’ve started working on it or know what it really is? You start off with an idea and then very early in the process of developing it, you have to stick a name on it. I’m pretty unsure about the name ‘Inkbike’ so far – is changing the name difficult to do?
Erm, well…for WordPress I’ve still got Shortsparkle.wordpress.com but I could add a domain on so now I’ve got gemturner.com and that’s the default one, but shortsparkle is still there. So if say, a reader read it when it was still shortsparkle then they’d still be able to get to the page. It’s another address.

Oh ok, so they both point to the same place? You can enter either and still get to your blog?
Yeah.

But that’s another thing, don’t get to that point where it overwhelms you because then you’ve lost. You’ve just got to do the project and if you change it, then you change it and you just move the content over.

And I know I’m speaking from a little bit of privilege because I was able to pay to change to Gemturner, but if you’ve got the means then it’s easy to change the name but…it was worth it for me.

Did it cost much to get the domain?
Erm, I was trying to think about this last night, I think it cost like £20 for a year – then obviously you have to pay for each year, but then I found that I wanted to do it because it’s worth it.

Yeah definitely. And how was setting up the website in the first place?
Mine was so basic. Like when you look back, oh god…I mean it was so pixelated and because I used to do a bit of design before, and I tried to do it myself but it wasn’t great.

But again, it’s not the be all and end all, it’s what you put in it. And just to get the subjects out there for now and then you can build on it. But yeah, I used to just take random pictures, you know like Facebook profile pictures and use that like the profile picture…it wasn’t fancy.

One problem you get is that you look at people like Zoella and all them massive bloggers and you just think, ‘oh I couldn’t do all that‘ but the point is that we’ve all been there, we’ve all been at the beginning – don’t let that put you off. But it is difficult, and I did eventually get a camera because I did want to compete with everyone..

That was actually something I did want to ask you, because all of your pictures are so crisp.
It is one piece of advice I’d give to anyone starting,  images are really key.

And it’s so annoying, but if you get a really good quality picture as the feature image of your blog – so when you share it and stuff, it just makes [the post] so much more visible and that’s just the way it is at the moment.

If it hasn’t got an image on it then it’s really hard to push because people like to see instantly what it’s about. If I get my wheels out *laughs* then there’s more engagement which is a bit weird but also, if people are looking for articles on disability, then it helps if they can identify right away.

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Do you have any tips for structuring text?
Yeah, I usually do between 300-700 words – but I don’t hit 700 and then automatically stop, it depends what kind of topic it is. But structurally, I always introduce a topic, then have a story.

If I talk about something that happened, I start with a question, then put a story angle on it and wrap up with a joke that tries to answer the question I raised at the beginning.

I always found that really easy because I’m not a very structured person and I think ‘How would I talk about this in a conversation?

I’d start it with ‘So guess what happened today?’ then I’d tell the story and finish with something like a ‘…so next time you see someone, don’t do that.’ Do you know what I mean? But it took me ages to get that.

But you’ve just got to do it, you’ve got to learn yourself and then figure out what’s popular, what isn’t, what people like and don’t like.

A tip I would give is to not do loads of uninterrupted text. Because people will just scroll and scroll and scroll, but if there’s no picture they’ll just go off.

But this is all just my way of working and it might not work for someone else. Someone else might do the Buzzfeed type thing where it’s a title and five things listed underneath, like people work in different ways. But I just like doing stories really.

That makes sense, to find the way of telling the story which suits your personality.
Yeah and like, if you can’t read it back and laugh (if it’s a funny blog) or if you don’t enjoy it yourself then don’t post it.

That’s what I stick to. I know it sounds really big-headed, but I like to look back on my own blogs, because it’s like a diary of my life as well.

But if you do and you don’t enjoy that then something’s not right. So you just need to write something where you can look back and be like, yeah that was a good one!

Yeah and I guess that’s something that helps you keep going as well. If you write about something you enjoy writing or reading back then it helps you keep moving on to the next topics.
*Laughs* If you can’t read it yer sen then don’ write it.

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So you mentioned building up your readership, I noticed that at the bottom of your articles you have a section saying ‘Reach out to me’ or ‘chat to me’ and I really like the way you it’s phrased.

Rather than just ‘follow me on social media‘. When I saw it I just thought it was so simple but so impactful and I loved it. It makes things instantly personal.
One of the first reasons that I started the blog was because of a lady called Stella Young.

She had the same disability as me and she was a massive activist and blogger. At the end [of her posts] she used to say ‘Come and chat to me on social media’ or like you know, find me here or watch this YouTube video.

And I just thought, if there are any other people with brittle bones that wanted to have a chat, then I’d just want them to message me.

I think, if you say ‘follow me on social media‘ then that’s like a one-way thing. Instead I want to reach out to the people who don’t have others like them. I wanted them to be able to reach out to someone as well, it’s part of the reason why I started the blog.

if you say ‘follow me’ on social media then that’s like a one-way thing whereas I genuinely want to reach out to the people who don’t have others like them

Growing your following to the point where you had people engage with you, how did you start that process?
For me, it was about doing different subjects – like I didn’t know this until it happened and it kinda just blew up – or not blew up but it grew. One day, one of the biggest ones I wrote about the weird things that people ask me, so I think it was with international people with disabilities and because a lot of people reached back and said ‘I get this too’.

And I think it was one of my most popular posts, like it got maybe a thousand views in a day and I was like ‘Oh my god I’ve made it ahhh’ *laughs*.

So that’s where I think that started and I realised the more I talked about my life personally then the more it grew. Which is good but it’s also a little bit dangerous so you’ve gotta be careful.

And then in the next one I talked about disability in kids and then that went on mumsnet because that one’s talking about parents and y’know, being a mum and all that. So I realised that with different audiences it’s different things, and different subjects are really key.

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That’s incredible – and did you know it was going to be featured?
No, they just got in touch with me and asked if I minded if they put it on mumsnet. It ended up being one of the top blogs of the day. It was only on for a week for but for that week I got my highest viewing which is 7,000 in a week and I was just like ‘whaaat?!’.

And it’s just stuff like that where you can’t plan it and just someone will really enjoy it and share it and they’ll share it and it’s just that kind of thing you know?

And would that just be people finding you naturally? You wouldn’t be plugging yourself on social media and things – more that they’d just find you?
I retweet…I cringe retweeting myself but I do it because I just think you’ve got to be a little bit bold and just think, someone might catch it. If it’s going to go out there then it’s going to go out there and just make sure that you hit different platforms.

I only just recently started doing paid adverts like two months ago? Like paying Facebook to push a blog which is like…you can pay £1 a day, so I paid like £3. But I just felt personally that I was paying for something that…it’s such a niche subject that it’s really difficult to push.

Like you can put disability and things like that but…I think one person liked it and messaged me and commented saying ‘I’m a disabled blogger as well, I’d love to collaborate’ so that was really good. So it’s like you don’t pay for mass, you pay to find individuals who really are interested.

So yeah, I really am just sort of dabbling with different stuff, like you never really know what works, you just have to keep trying different things. Still I don’t really like paying…

You’re a brand now – gotta get that brand out there!
*Both laugh*
I know but…I still feel really weird about it, but you gotta try it – and I’d never pretend that I hadn’t and be all like *posh voice* ‘oh no, it’s all organic’ because its not.

So before you did your paid ads, would it just be you posting to social media platforms and parking it there?
Yeah exactly, and basically just relying on other people sharing it because I do think that when other people share it then their friends are more likely to read it. Like if their friend’s have enjoyed it then they’ll read it rather than you having to be like read this! Like if your mate when ‘look at this, it’s well good’ then you’ll be more likely to read it.

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So then, on starting your blog in the first place, I was wondering what motivated you to take it from the idea to ‘I’m doing this, I’m getting on it!
Ok, if you want the honest answer…I had broken my hip and I was in bed. I’d had a week off work and was fuming at life. I think it was January so it was the start of the year and you always get that ‘I’m going to start something really cool’ thought, and I literally just started it on my phone.

I had the idea that this is one way to communicate and reach out to people. I’d been wanting to do it for so long and I just thought I might as well…I’ve got a bit of time on me hands, and I just did it!

I remember thinking ‘oh god, I’ll post it on my Facebook and see what happens‘.

I love that! Were you just writing out like a text? Like on your phone keyboard?
Yeah I just wrote it on my phone, I thought ‘Ahh I’ll just do it on here and it’ll be fine‘.

Ahh I love that!
Yeah but that’s what I mean, it just shows you that you don’t need an artist or whatever, you just gotta…it’s not gonna happen straight away, you just gotta keep working on it. Like a drawing, it don’t just happen, you just work at it and work at it and you never really have a finished product because there’s always something more that you could do.

So yeah I wrote it on my phone in bed and posted it to Facebook and I remember being amazed by how many people liked it. So that gave me motivation, and from there people shared it like ‘My friend’s doing this and somebody might like it’ and that really helped. So yeah, that’s how it started.

So good, getting help from your friends to spread it is such a cool thing.
Yeah, and I think that networking personally with people and saying ‘I’ve just started this you know, if you enjoy it, could you share it?

And it might sound a little bit ‘ugh’, but if you believe in it and you like it then it’s not ‘ugh’, it’s just what you’re doing.

Since you started it, have you found there’s any technique to keeping yourself motivated to write?
See I’ve got a rule, if I can’t think of anything to write then don’t write it. Like don’t just pull something out because it’s not real…or it might be real but for me it’s like, because it’s about me and everyday life, if it’s not worthy then don’t write it.

Like I’ve gone a month without writing and some people will be like ‘omg no, consistency is key’ but if it’s consistently rubbish then it’s not what I want.

I know that some people get so caught up on ‘I’ve not blogged this week’ and you do feel a bit guilty, but I just think that a really good post will compensate the few weeks where you haven’t written.

It sounds like the way that you do it is a much more pleasurable experience as well because when you’re writing you’re actually motivated.
Yeah deadlines, I hate deadlines. If someone gives me a deadline then I don’t do it because of principles. On principle I won’t do it because someone’s given me it. So if I’ve given myself a deadline then I’m not doing it.

*laughs* So you’ll rebel against-
-myself, yeah *laughs*.

I remember my neighbour once said to me ‘it’s Sunday, I’m ready for your blog later…’ and that really freaked me out because I hated the idea of being so consistent with when my posts came out. So even though I was going to post that Sunday, I did it on the Monday instead just to make a point.

The magic happens when it happens.
Yeah it’s true though, it’s not a job. At the end of the day if it was a job, then I could totally see why people would panic and you know…if people rely on views and stuff. But when people don’t rely on it then you just do it when you want to do it.

 

Do you ever go back and amend some of your posts from the earlier days to try and make the content on your website consistent?
No, let it evolve naturally, but maybe that’s my personality type as well.

I like that ‘What’s in my bag’ post I made in the first year has a terrible picture. It’s literally a black background with my bag…it just looks awful but that was where I was at at that time and I want to show that it’s grown.

The only thing anyone’s ever said to me is, ‘so where’s your blog this week?

And I have to tell them that it’ll come when it comes, but inside I’m dying. Like I feel really embarrassed, but then I just think; where’s your blog? You haven’t got a blog, where’s your post today? *laughs*

So in my experience, not many people put pressure on you, but when they do just don’t let them ruin your experience for writing because then it’ll just become a chore.

 

Great point! Ok so looking back since you’ve started, are there any particularly fond memories you have or where the blog might have created opportunities for to do cool things or anything like that?
I think when I get comments on the blog I love that. I get comments from parents of disabled people and they’re like ‘Yeah, we experience this as well, so glad you’ve said it’ and then you get people who might be ignorant of certain things and they might say something like ‘I’ve never even thought of that before’. 

That’s an amazing feeling because then I feel like I’m achieving what I set out to achieve originally with the blog.

But also when it just gets recognised and creates opportunities for me. For example, I’ve been able to do adverts on my blogs that I’ve been paid for and I’ve been offered theatre tickets this week to the Yorkshire Play House; so it’s stuff like that where I’m like, well if I hadn’t started the blog then I wouldn’t have had that before.

And obviously the awards was just the icing on the cake.IMG_0546Well I’m glad you mentioned it….so with that, I was wondering if you could go through that whole process.
Ok, so it all started with the founder of diversity in media awards, I already knew him from when I was young I wanted to be on the telly. He was on Channel Four, we just met in a workshop and he offered a chance to audition for the Paralympic Games to be a presenter.

So I just auditioned. I didn’t get it, but it was just cool to be asked, and we just knew each other from there. That same person created these awards, and I heard I was nominated.

So I’ve gathered that he’d put me forward, but we’ve always kept in touch on Twitter and stuff, so that was all really him. But it just shows that it’s who you know sometimes…

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Yeah but it’s also that you put yourself out there to network in the first place is how that opportunity came about..
Yeah well it was just, like it wasn’t an audition for disabled people so I’d really felt like I was out on a limb.

And then I got nominated and I found out on Twitter. But I didn’t think anything of it because it didn’t say shortlisted, I just thought it was a nice thing so I posted it on my personal Facebook and retweeted it.

But THEN, I got invited to the awards. I thought they might be doing it because of tick boxing – you do think that sometimes, but I shouldn’t have.

The event was hosted at the Whaldorf in London, and I brought my friend along who has always been really supportive.

We decided to get a room and make a good night of it, I was just like, ‘we probably won’t know anyone, but we can just use it as a networking thing, see what happens and if we don’t know anyone then we’ll can have a couple of drinks and go’.

But we got down the lift and there was like a red carpet and flashes which was absolutely not what I was expecting.

We followed people onto the red carpet and I turned around and saw Nadine from Girls Aloud was right behind me. It was about then I realised that this wasn’t the night that I was expecting.

We got into the room and to our table. Opposite me was my childhood love, Harry Judd from McFly and I think, I just turned to my friend and was like ‘I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this’.

Long story short, we saw Lily Allen and saw loads of huge people there and then I thought, ‘well I’ll just clap when it’s my category, have a drink of wine and it’ll be fine, won’t win, it’ll be cool‘. Because there was another blogger there who was like, a really big deal, like I knew them and had read their blogs so I thought I definitely wouldn’t win.

And then they announced my name and I was like *mouth drop* and I still couldn’t believe it. So, I got up on stage, but the weirdest thing was that earlier my friend got called to do something but I was just so like, Harry Judd in front of me, so I wasn’t concentrating.

It turns out she got asked to test the ramp out on stage because she knew I’d won and she didn’t tell me. And so all the way through the dinner, she knew I’d won and didn’t tell me!

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That’s such a dream moment. But terrifying to have to get up on the stage completely unprepared and completely off-guard!
Wine really helps. And you just gotta be genuine, as long as you’re yourself then it doesn’t matter but it was the best night ever and I was on such a high, like Whatsapp-ing my mum and dad like ‘I’ve actually just won’, so yeah!

Everyone was really lovely and it was just one of those nights where, because it was focused on diversity, it felt like there was a good sense of community where everyone was there for a common passion.

I genuinely love the topic of diversity; I talk about it a lot and it was a huge part of my old job so if there was one award I could of won, then this one is just the greatest.

It was just one of those nights where I’m like…I still think now it’s incredible now to say that I’ve won an award and it just means it feels now that it’s something.

Yeah, I mean you’re a professional blogger now!
I know, it just…it doesn’t feel like it….I don’t know, you don’t have a badge or…it’s just a hobby and that’s all it is really.



So just to wrap up, one of the sections that I try and include with every interview is a takeaway for people who might want to get started in the same field…so are there any tools which have been particularly useful in getting things up and running with the blog?
Ok so, WordPress is the first one and the others are free photo editing apps, I’ve got an android phone and so I use photoshop just to brighten my images.

I would say that images for me, the brighter the better but just making it as bright as possible just makes it look a little more professional erm, and I just try to lower the warmth (that’s just me).

And I’ve now got photoshop on my computer so I blur the background but obviously when you’re first starting, you don’t need to do that.

Otherwise just photoshop on your phone which is free did you say?
Yeah, definitely recommend that. And when you’re first starting out, like using your phone is absolutely fine for writing and taking pictures…you know, just depending on what phone you’ve got (i.e. smartphone or not), but definitely don’t be afraid to use that.

I think that’s it for tools, I mean you don’t need…like I did it in bed, on tramadol and so if I can do that then anyone can start. It’s so easy to start if you’re physically able to do it.

Brilliant. And the next one is…with every interview that I do, I try and ask if there’s any subject that you feel like you might want to learn more about that might help you with your blog, because what I do is I got away and I research that and create that as a separate post to be as helpful as possible.
OOOH, I think for me it’s that I’m still learning and I’d like to learn how to work with brands because I’ve got my own spin on blogs and that’s not really what I do with blogs at the moment, I’ve not started out with that, so just to learn how to move into that field. Because sometimes I think it can be a bit ‘who you know’ urm, so yeah.

More like, using products, so like I love make-up and technology so if I can show people that I enjoy it then you never know. I don’t do it because of that, you gotta do what you like but so yeah, more like working with brands to promote things that’s out there because I do like to go out there and buy things and try them out, especially with technology.

So I want to know how to reach brands and be noticed against all the other blogs out there!

Thank you so much!


Now you can’t tell me that that wasn’t inspiring! This is one of those articles where as soon as I finished editing it, I felt so motivated to keep working on the website for hours!

Like I said up top, if you haven’t already, you should definitely read Gemma’s blog and if you want to keep up with what’s she’s doing (wholeheartedly recommended) then you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

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Simplee: How three friends are reinventing credit cards for a whole generation

At a glance

Name of business: Simplee

Business Type: Financial Technology (Fintech)

Key Learning Points

Don’t let distance put you off of working with the people you want

If you’ve had an idea for starting something, and you know there’s someone in particular that you would love to be a part of it with you – don’t be put off if they don’t live nearby.

It can be hard finding the time to work together on something when you’re a couple hours away, it can be even harder when you’re working timezones apart – but it’s not impossible and there are free tools which can help


Asana

Asana is a project management tool which you can access for free. It allows you to; access and comment on documents simultaneously, assign tasks to teammates and plan stages of work to progress through in order to complete a project.

Hernan’s listed it as one of his most useful tools for organising work loads keeping people productive and keeping his team motivated – if you’re working in a small team, it could do the same for you.


Making a good idea a great idea

Starting a business means you’re relying on the fact that whatever you produce is something that people want. Assuming that from the start without doing the market research to prove it could be the difference between you have a good idea, and a great one. Find ways to get feedback, whether that be a capture page or putting yourself out there by asking business owners if you can buy them a coffee in exchange for some feedback.


The perks of being an alumni

I absolutely didn’t know this, but you can still request access to your University’s library of academic journals even after you’ve graduated. This is an excellent way of getting your hands on some hard science to perform some market research without having to spend any money…apart from any crippling student debt you might have already accrued of course.

Didn’t go to University? Not a problem, if you have a willing friend that did then ask them to request access and borrow their account to access the papers you need.

 

The man, the myth, the legend – Hernan Dieguez. From the very first day we met seven years ago as fresh-faced 1st year students at Lancaster University on an unusually warm October afternoon, Hernan has always been an ideas man.

He’s that University friend that you’ll just be hanging out with that just thinks of some “great plan” out of nowhere. Fast-forward 4 hours and you’ll be wasted thinking  ‘how the hell did we end up here?!‘ snow-boarding down some snowy hill using your bed headboards (which you had to spend an hour finding the right screwdriver to unscrew from the wall) at 10pm on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter .

Although some of his ideas were hair-brained, many of them were brilliant and every single one of them was amazing fun. Now while you’re unscrewing a make-shift snowboard from a wall you can’t help but get to talking, so it wasn’t long before I counted Hernan as one of my closest friends.

That being the case, I was wicked pleased to hear that him and some other friends had gotten started on a new business called Simplee. While it’s not yet a fully realised idea – read below for some inspiration on getting things off the ground during the early days.


Chapter 1

Waddup mother f*cker
Hernan: Waddup dawg!

*Laughs* So starting things off, I was wondering if you could tell me about Simplee in your own words
Ok so, the idea behind Simplee is that we want people to start using their credit cards more because credit cards have so many benefits.

A lot of people in the US, and other markets – they use credit cards for pretty much every purchase. And I think in the UK, this isn’t so much the case.

I think it’s largely because people are afraid of getting into debt or there might be a lack of education – so the idea behind Simplee is that it will connect your credit card to your debit card.

Then every time you make a transaction on your credit card, we’ll automatically deduct a matching amount from your debit card so you can keep track of your money in the same way you do in a current account. Then, at the end of the month, your credit card bill will be paid off using the money collected throughout the month.

And then you’ll still get all the benefits related to a credit card without any need to worry about missing a credit card bill.

Nice! Where did the inspiration come from?
My dad has always been a big credit card user, and he’s always been going on about all the benefits he got from his credit card. He’s one of those guys that is aware of all the miles, and the points and all the stuff that you can do because we travel quite a lot.

So he was always hammering on about how we should get credit cards as soon as possible. And then my older brother was always saying that he’s constantly worried that he isn’t going to pay [his credit card bill] in time and so he always said that he wished he could make payments like…instead of him paying at the end of the month, that he could pay it every day. Like every time he made a purchase that he would pay it back straight away.

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Then I thought that wouldn’t be too difficult to code out and so I started looking into it – at the time I was trying to learn how to code, and I was like ‘Oh, I’ll try and put something together’. And it went from there, and I started thinking ‘oh maybe I could do this properly, maybe there’s a market for that’.

Yeah, I remember you telling me you figured out pretty quickly that you wanted to get other people involved or have other people who might know a bit more about different areas involved – I’m thinking Sean here – so like, how did you go about pitching the idea to people, and how did that go?
So I’ve got two friends from Uni, and we’ve always kinda spit-balled ideas around – one of them is Seb and one of them is Sean.

Sean  studied computer science and he’s really skilled in that area. Seb has pretty much been working in and out of start ups since he left University.

So we’d always throw ideas around and when I had this idea, I talked to them and told them the idea and they really liked it. Then Sean liked the…*laughs* I think this is the first time that Sean liked an idea of mine. Seb would always like the ideas and I think Sean was a little more critical.

So Sean thought it was interesting and so we decided to try and build something together.

That’s awesome, and so they were both pretty up for it when you explained the initial idea – there was no arm-twisting or anything like that?
Yeah, I think they both kinda liked the idea and they were both up for the challenge – but  obviously we all questioned certain aspects of it. I think that’s always just a good exercise to do, even if you do really believe in the idea just to try and find flaws in it or identify what’s going to be really challenging or things you need to consider further.

Seb especially is really good at that; I think he has more experience from working for a couple of start-ups from when they were really young. From literally being two people to being bought out by big American companies…so he really had that philosophy of really questioning things on all points. I think it’s just a useful exercise to do.

Chapter 2

Oh nice, definitely a pro-tip! And, one of the other challenges I know you’ve experienced is being spread out across two continents. So how’s it been for keeping people focused on developing Simplee?
When I originally had the idea when I was living in Brazil, Sean was in the UK and Seb was in Colombia. So that was like 3 hours difference with one and 2 hours difference with the other.

That made it tricky to organise meetings – with the time difference as well as us all having jobs. So if it’s hard to balance when you’re all in the same city, then it’s even harder when you’re all abroad.

But the good thing is that when you’re all together, it forces you to be more organised. So from very early on we would get all organised – like we would have all these project management tools we would use just to be able to have meetings that were really productive.

Then, whenever we would do a Skype call, there was always an aim to it – something we were going to accomplish by the end of the meeting. I think that’s really important to have.

I think a lot of people just do meetings for the sake of doing meetings. I think you need to have a clear aim for what you are trying to accomplish and then give that time, y’know? So that was a useful exercise.

But it was tricky. Now I’m in London, Sean is like a couple hours from here and Seb’s in Colombia and so it’s still tricky. But what we try and do is allocate tasks and stay on top of each other.

We try to allocate tasks that we don’t necessarily have to be working on at the same time – so that the time difference, and location difference doesn’t affect us as much.

It sounds like you guys were great at staying on top of things. So you mentioned that you use project management software to stay on top of different jobs – what kind of software were you using?
So we use Google drive mostly, to keep everything organised with everyone having access to everything. Then the tool we find really helpful for us is Asana – it works really well.

You can assign tasks and keep track of where everyone’s updates are, you can message through it, we can comment on each others jobs and get feedback on stuff that we’re doing and then it connects directly with Google Drive so all the stuff we have on it we can use. So far we’ve found that really useful.

Nice – sorry what was that called? Asana?
Yeah it’s a company which is big with start-ups. I think it was Seb who initially introduced it to us as they’d used it in a start-up that he’d been working for at the time. But yeah, it’s quite a popular project management tool for small teams.

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Example image of Asana in action

Did you have to pay money for it?
So no, I think there are premium services we’re only 3 people so we just use the free version of it. It’s worth checking out.

Sweet – nice tip! Has it been tricky keeping people motivated at all?
I think at the moment – like we were talking about this the other day – in order to do something like create a business, you have to really, really believe in your product and at the same time, have that hunger to succeed.

Currently, I’d say we don’t consider it a full-time thing that we’re working at – like for us it’s more of a side-project. The reason just being that we’re all pretty happy with our jobs and that in itself is a huge challenge. So that keeps us pretty motivated.

So Sean’s happy with his job and so is Seb…but it’s something that we enjoy working on, so it’s not that much of a struggle to do. Kind of like a hobby right? Something you enjoy doing.

But it is sometimes maybe hard to focus, because it’s a side project sometimes we might not give it the importance that we should. So that’s the tricky part and maybe sometimes when I have time to work on something, maybe Sean doesn’t have the time or motivation to work on that particular area. So it’s more about the timing for different people.

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So what was your market research process before you decided to create the capture page?
So as I said, the idea came through my brother who said he wished that he had [something like Simplee] which encouraged me to think ‘Oh I wish I had something like that too’.

From there, I thought ‘ok, I’ve had this idea – is this just something that only me and my brother want, or is it something that maybe more people want?

So the first thing I did was just ask around a couple of friends who were around the same age and were likely using their credit cards in the same way as us.

I tried to ask people that are naturally critical to see what they would say but yeah, at the end of the day they’re still friends and so I wasn’t sure how much they were agreeing with me because they actually like the idea or just because friends are naturally supportive.

People forget that names are something where the value comes after your product becomes a product and your brand becomes a brand.

I started doing some secondary research – looking into credit card usage in the UK in particular, and some other markets. Then we compared that with debit card usage and did a little work trying to figure out why people weren’t using credit cards as much in the UK.

The main reason seemed to be fear of incurring debt and so we felt like we might have something in our hands. At this point though, we started to feel that what we were carrying out was secondary research when what we actually needed was primary research – something we could just get by going out and actually asking people.

That’s where the idea of building the landing page came from.

So you were saying there that you were looking into academic articles, how did you go about finding those just for anyone who might not be sure?
For this, Google’s your friend. I also found out that you could request access to academic materials through my University as an alumni.

Whaaat?
Yeah, so I emailed my University and explained the research I wanted to do and if there was the possibility of getting access to academic articles. They agreed, and now I have portal access to be able to access digital materials from the library whenever I want.

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Once I found out that that was possible, I contacted a couple of friends and asked that they make the same request to their University so I have access to as wide a pool of information as possible.

Holy shit, I never knew you could do that.
Yeah so that was really good and then, I’m lucky just because FinTech (Financial Technology sector) is so popular at the moment.

Since 2008 there’s been a really really big interest in FinTech, especially in the UK so it means there’s a lot of material out there which was lucky for me researching this.

That’s awesome – I can’t believe they offer that to alumni and I had no idea, that’s really good. Who did you email for that?
I think I just got in touch with the University library and they put me through to the right people and just found their information online.

There was also a portal specific to the business school and so I emailed them and explained what I was doing, that I was an alumni and they were quite supportive. There’s even a program that they pointed me to which offers mentoring and even investment potentially, which was quite good.

So follow up with your Uni if you went to one for material to perform market research – that’s a great tip.
Yeah.

Actually another thing I did to validate my idea was to reach out through my network. So because Seb is my co-founder and works in start-ups, he knew people in the FinTech area – people like CEOs or founders of similar things in the industry.

Obviously they have loads of experience which can be useful. When I was in Rio, I asked Seb to arrange a meeting between us and some CEOs where we’d just meet up for coffee and have a chat about the idea.

A couple people were up for it, so I pitched them Simplee and got their feedback which was super useful as well – with their experience, they were able to ask questions on subjects which highlighted to us the kinds of areas that we needed to go back and study further. Also to get validation on your idea from people like that just gives you a huge amount of confidence.

Wow that’s amazing, it shows that you have to be bold and just put yourself out there from the very beginning. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. A lot of people would just think ‘man, I don’t want to ask a CEO, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing’ but you managed to get their time just from going for it.
Yeah, I just think, look through your network. You’re likely to know people in those positions even if you don’t realise it straight away. So it’s always good to reach out and see if you can find anyone that might provide use.

Screenshot 2018-03-08 21.26.55

So then with the product itself, what’s been your plan for bringing Simplee to life? What kind of stuff have you guys done so far and what kind of stuff do you have planed for the future?
We have the idea, but we didn’t want to start building something before we had confirmation that there’s a market for it. So we looked for stuff out there – we think there’s a market but we are very much of the philosophy that the sooner you get feedback the better.

Rather then going out and building something and getting it all polished up, we’d rather do as little as possible in terms of development and start by seeking the feedback first.

So what we did is we designed the concept landing page which shows what the app might look like and shows the benefits of the app. We got that ready, so now we want to start pushing that and start getting visitors to the page and get people signing up.

Screenshot 2018-03-08 21.30.19

The Landing Page

So basically our plan is to see if people are interested and whether they’d be open to having a chat with us, and then we’d give them a call or send them an email or whatever and just try to understand like: ‘How do you manage your finances?’, ‘What kinds of products do you use?’, ‘Why did this seem interesting or not interesting to you?’, ‘Why do you think this will help you and how would this apply to you?

If there’s not much interest then we’re going to have to reconsider, pivot or maybe scratch the idea altogether, and I’m ok with that.

If they do like the idea, then I want to try to understand what would make it a great idea..

Just try to understand how people use financial products and whether people might be interested in this or not. And if they’re not, just try to understand what we could do and if they are, try to investigate which features exactly they would want.

Essentially we’re using it as a tool to try to start a conversation, and the sooner we have that conversation, the better. Just to make sure that we don’t build something that ends up being something customers don’t want. I’d rather wait to make sure we know what people want before doing anything else.

If there’s not much interest then we’re going to have to reconsider, pivot or maybe scratch the idea altogether, and I’m ok with that. If they do like the idea, then I want to try to understand what would make it a great idea – getting feedback ensures that people get something that they want and that they would actually find useful.

So then in terms of your process for creating the capture page – how did you go about that? I ask because I remember the first thing I said when I looked into it was ‘Holy shit – this looks really good and really professional’. How did you make that happen?
The idea for the page was essentially to do a couple of things; the first thing was express that we had this idea and describe what we think are the benefits of using Simplee. So the page is very much orientated around that; the potential benefits of the product.

I want to understand if people see those benefits, if they understand them, and if the app makes sense. So the page is to confirm that, and then we added a sign-up option so people can sign up to indicate to us the level of interest in the product.

So we might get like a thousand visits to the page but then if no-one signs up…. the views are not necessarily an indication that people like your page. So we’re looking at things like how long people are spending on the page and whether people are signing up or not.

Screenshot 2018-03-08 21.34.01

In terms of the design and the looks, pretty early on we started to look at other financial apps, other financial products and then the interesting thing was – I’m really interested in psychology and sociology and so it was interesting to see – how people think of certain colours and how certain images might influence their decisions. We found that 90% of banking apps use the colour blue – so the first decision was, we are not going to use the colour blue.

So the idea is that we are creating a product which is quite different from your typical finance app, we want to do things differently –

– demonstrated by saying ‘WE ARE NOT BLUE’ *laughs*
Yeah exactly – f*ck blue. *laughs*

And then we all agreed on purple because it’s different and stands out quite a lot and you wouldn’t expect any – or at least I wouldn’t – expect that of a financial company.

Also it’s a nice colour which is different, so then we started with that. And then we wanted the whole thing to be quite casual; we didn’t want to present a really formal product because our target market is millennials.

But then we didn’t want to seem unprofessional, and I think with financial products you want to pass off as being fun but you also want to demonstrate to people that they can trust you with their money – so we tried to strike a balance between that. So yeah, we went from there.

Nice, and with the graphics I remember you telling me that you found a resource which let you use graphics for free but I can’t remember exactly what you said…
Yeah so no-one in the team is a designer. We’re probably going to need someone to help us with that at some point, but yeah. We also didn’t want to spend any money or any time doing the webpage because this is very early on and so we just wanted to get it out there quickly.

So we used a bunch of graphics from Flaticon and then we credited the designers.

Yeah, I think that’s awesome. I think a lot of people can forget that you can search around and find those types of things for free…
Yeah, and I think especially early on – like you just want to get things done as quickly as possible right?

And the most common pairing of founders for a start up is a business-minded kind of person and a tech-y person and even though you might think you have great taste or whatever, you have to remember that you are not designers and never will be *laughs*

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So it’s good to get a designer on your team, just to help with that kind of stuff. But if you don’t have someone and can get it for free, that’s great. And never forget that this is the very first version, so you’ll always be able to make changes later on with a proper team if things evolve.

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Absolutely. That’s something I wrote about recently in an article – one of the first things you have to do when you make a website is choose your domain name which is terrifying because you think ‘holy sh*t, I’ve not even made this thing yet and I have to name it?

It’s intimidating – especially when the name is generally the most powerful piece of branding which most companies will have – and I had to reiterate the same point which is that you can change the name later on. When you’re just trying to put something out there – just put it out there and figure the details out later. You’re not stuck with whatever you put together first.
Exactly, we went through it as well – everyone does – where you’re wondering ‘What’s a good name’ and you feel like all the good names are taken. People forget that names are something where the value comes after your product becomes a product and your brand becomes a brand.

Google is a great name now, but when Google first named Google they probably thought ‘this is sh*t’ or like Yahoo or Facebook or whatever. Those are great names now because of what the company has become – it’s not because of the name.

Yeah exactly, especially when you consider things like Facebook was called ‘The Facebook’ originally and they changed it later on – these companies evolve and people move on.

One of the other questions I wanted to ask was; starting a new thing is pretty exciting – what have you enjoyed most about the process so far personally?
I think it’s just pretty exciting to build something. You know, like something that didn’t exist before but now exists. Also just building something that you think is going to help people is exciting.

I think with finances in general, like finance management – especially for young people, it’s something that’s scary and is something that they’re not sure how to do…just anything you can do to empower those people is great.

And I think the use of credit cards and use of credit responsibly is super, super important so anything we can do to help – even a little aspect like that is quite exciting.

The final question I wanted to hit you with is if there’s a subject which would be useful for you to learn more about which I can go away, research and create an article on? The idea is to provide some valuable information for you, and anyone else who might be in your position.
The next challenge for us is to try and drive traffic into the landing page we’ve created and to start having conversations with our users. So any advice on how to do that successfully would be very much appreciated.

Essentially, I think our needs will go through many changes in the future but right now that’s our biggest challenge – trying to start those kinds of conversations.




Thanks so much to Hernan! I want to try something different with these chaps, and so I’ll hopefully be starting a recurring segment which keeps track of Simplee’s progress.

The idea being that by keeping up with Simplee, readers will get a continuous, inside look into the life of a tech start-up, and their struggles and many victories along the way. What do you think – sound good?

If it does, then I’m pleased to announce that this marks the end of Part 1 of our conversation with Hernan at Simplee.

Once again, if you would like to be a part of the conversation and have the chance to provide feedback which will have a direct impact on the direction of a tech start-up, I know the guys would love to hear from you.

Join me in signing up to their contact list; no spam, just the chance to shape something awesome.

Follow their story on;

Facebook: @getSimplee
Twitter: @GetSimplee


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