Taking the stage.
From a field of 40 exciting and innovative ideas Usable have made it through to the final 6. We’ll be presenting “Requirements” to a panel of experts, and hopefully we’ll make it through to present our product on stage at to the full conference. It’s incredibly exciting.
Congratulations too to the other 5 companies. We’re up against some very tough competition. Fingers crossed.
Two days at DIBI
For two days in April a large group of designers, developers, business people and creative thinkers gathered to share ideas at DIBI, the North East’s “Design It, Build It” conference. With two tracks, one about design for the web and the other about coding, a couple of hundred people got together for workshops, lectures and talks on just about every aspect of building internet technology. Usable were fortunate enough to be in attendance.
Day #1 of DIBI focused on workshops delivered by tech experts in a variety of fields. We attended a FuelPHP session with Phil Sturgeon (contributor to the FuelPHP framework, Code Ignitor, and part of Bloo.ie‘s core team) and a session on Node.js with Tom Hughes-Croucher, one of the core Node.js developers. Both sessions were fascinating and useful. Phil’s FuelPHP introduction took PHP coders with from no experience of the framework to a working “Instagram” clone with Twitter OAuth login, image uploading and some creative image effects. The power of the Fuel framework was obvious, and Phil did a tremendous job (despite the IT infrastructure doing it’s best to thwart him). The Node.js workshop was equally good with a brilliant intro to the language that reminded us of some of Node’s core features. All in all, the workshops were very worthwhile.
As the conference is split in to two tracks Alex and I decided the best approach for Usable was to divide and conquer, with Alex following the dev track while I followed the design side. The design talks were fascinating. Paul Annett and Tim Paul from gov.uk started by introducing the design principles that they have been devising for the new government website that’s replacing direct.gov.uk and Business Link. They outlined the thought processes they used, how they’re implementing them, and they managed to use the word “agiley” which was fun. Their list of principles is available online. Following on from that we heard Susan Weinschenk on the subject of what designers need to know about the way people think. Susan’s “Neuro Web Design” book has been a go-to reference on my bookshelf for a while, so hearing her speak was a treat. We took away some new things, such as the fact humans can’t really cope with more than 4 options when they’re making a decision. It was all very interesting.
After a short break for lunch (which was delicious) we headed in to talks about HTML5+JS and the dangers of “shiny” versus “inclusive” design. Rob Hawkes delivered a great summary of HTML5 technology and how it can apply to much more than just developing online games, from simple things like being able to lock the orientation of a browser on a mobile platform to using WebGL to accelerate 2D performance of web apps. Some of the tech will no doubt find it’s way in to our Requirements application in due course. Chris Mills and Bruce Lawson from Opera gave an equally engaging performance dressed as an angel and a devil (seriously) to extol the virtues of best practises writing web sites. From fundamental things like accessibility and usability to simple additions like using the correct form for vendor specific CSS tags were covered.
Paul Boag, a web designer with almost 2 decades of experience, then spoke on “Client Centric Web Design”. Paul is clearly very passionate about giving the most he can to his clients, and delivering the most he can in the websites that he builds. He rallied against the prevailing notion that clients are the worst part of design, and gave a great talk outlining how to build a relationship with a client that goes beyond a business transaction to work together on making something amazing. The ideas that he described resonated with us, and seem to be something that Requirements might actually aid web designers and developers achieve.
Ted Roden gave a talk on the going solo, and how you can quit your day job to launch your own company on your own without needing investors. A large part of the appeal of the conference as a whole was hearing and learning from the personal stories of the people speaking, and seeing how their experience and ours’ aligned.
The two final talks that we heard were from Dan Rubin about how we should push ourselves harder and strive to do better things, and the closing keynote from Cameron Moll about the mathematics of creativity and how we really build on the work of others to create original things. Both talks were motivating and exciting, and left us raring to get back to the office to work on building our first product.
Before we could though, there was the matter of the closing party. It was a lot of fun, especially meeting loads of people new and old. I’m sure we managed to catch up with practically everyone in the North East tech scene, and we met stacks of amazing new folk too. Coupled with beer, pizza and an impromptu trip to the new Newcastle branch of Brewdog it was pretty damn awesome.
All in all DIBI was absolutely fantastic fun, very entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring. A huge thanks go to Oli Wood and Elspeth Lawson for their hard work organising everything, to all the workshop people and speakers, to the sponsors and to everyone we met that made the two days so much fun. We’ll see you again next year.
0 to 100… What we learnt on Ignite.
From the outside looking in, life in a tech accelerator must seem like a lot of fun. A group of about 30 young, enthusiastic, motivated entrepreneurs are shut away in an office suite for a few months to tear down, analyse, and develop business ideas around the things they’re all passionate about. And they get money to do it. Sounds pretty good.
The truth is though, it’s actually far, far, better.
Winning a place on the Ignite100 accelerator, part of the TechStars network, was a huge opportunity without which Usable would probably not be in the position it’s in today. That’s not to say it was easy. It wasn’t. Life in an accelerator is an intense, stressful slog with daily challenges and no free time. Giving up time with your loved ones, your friends, your hobbies and even the time to read a book or get a decent night’s sleep isn’t easy. But you cope. You have to.
Having people criticise your ideas is difficult too. Something that you genuinely believe is a million-pound winning strategy that could change the world is absolutely worthless if you can’t engage with other people to enthuse them and make them believe in what you’re doing. You soon learn that you’re not as good at doing that as you think you are. Sitting across a desk from a successful business owner who has done what you’re doing, often without the support that a programme affords, and hearing them say that they don’t think you’re right is painful. Again though, you deal with it. You cope. At first that coping takes the form of not believing them, perhaps even telling them that you think they’re wrong. But then you learn. Sometimes they are wrong, everyone is. Often they’re not though because they’re not talking about theory – they’re talking about their experience. The opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes is incredible. For these mentors to volunteer time and knowledge is amazing.
It’s not just the mentors that help you pull your idea apart either. Being in a highly-focused environment with a group of other entrepreneurs means you get to see what they think about what you’re doing too. You comment on what they’re doing. If you’ve tried to explain your latest thinking to someone for 20 minutes and they’re still not getting the point you know that there’s something wrong with your message. If your new friends are bouncing around positive and excited about what you’re telling them you’re doing you can be reasonably sure you’re on the right track – they’re getting it. That’s another important feature of an accelerator – friends. We’ve met some fantastic people through the programme, people we now consider to be firm friends. These people run their own companies, work for other people’s companies, they’ve helped us run ours, we’ve helped them, and we’ve all ended up in the pub occasionally. The friends we’ve made on Ignite are awesome people, without exception.
All of this time on an accelerator culminated in pitching for, and ultimately winning, £100,000 in investment for Usable. Frankly, applying for the programme was the best decision we’ve ever made.