Friday, 23 April 2010

We never set out to start a business... but this is how it started.

(apologies for the delay dog ate my homework? Well, actually, blogger ate my first post and I was so dismayed at needing to re-write everything it took a while to replace it.. I'm sure the first version was shorter, funnier and more eloquent .. but here we are)

Red Button Design was founded by James Brown and Myself in 2007, six months after we'd come up with what we thought was a pretty cool idea; a water purification product that avoided chemical or electrical components, and made dirty water drinkable at the same time as assisting in its localised transport.

The idea itself evolved slowly. James and I were, even then, both actively involved in humanitarian issues and understood the need for more sympathetic technologies. Over coffee one day we were bemoaning the need for something more responsive than taking what the capital rich R&D departments of medical and military institutions were creating, tweaking it for robustness and economy, and selling into NGOs under the fashionable banner of 'appropriate design'. With typical student arrogance and youthful naivety - we thought we could do better..

The market needed an answer. James, who at the time was in the penultimate year of the hugely esteemed Glasgow School of Art "Product Design Engineering" Masters, needed a dissertation project worthy of his skills and interests and I, only recently graduated with my second degree, this time a joint Masters in Psychology and Philosophy, was looking for a way to avoid "a real job" that was more productive than cycling back into the oppressive world of arts & academia...

We never set out to start a business... but that is how it started.

It didn't take long for the Scottish enterprise community to catch sight of our little hobby-project, and when they suggested that there were a few competitions with cash prizes for designs like this .. well. Have I mentioned my dislike of traditional work?

Our first win was the university enterprise group's "Big Idea" competition. We netted £500, a pleasing bubble of praise, a bit of publicity and a mandatory trip to the local high-street business advisory centre. They, with little more than a cursory glance, sent me off to "gather support", by which I suppose they meant conduct some market research and come back with interviews, case studies and testimonials. However, I was unsupervised (James was after-all still in full time education) and prone as ever to insubordination and grand gestures, I elected to take a .. slightly less traditional tack.

What we actually did was apply for and win a series of high profile enterprise and design awards and then, one night, about 3am, safe at home in my pyjamas, my ego got the better of me ... and I applied for the Dragons Den.

To be honest, the day the BBC phoned to interview me, I was at work in one of my many short-lived attempts at engaging with the concept of 9-5 in return for a wage. I conducted the interview hiding in the stock room and agreed to screen test 200 miles away the day after next. We had nothing. No prototype, just a drawing and some theory. I was supposed to be at work all that week, and I hadn't told James I had even applied for the Show (nor, infact, did I until we were on the train!! ..) It's a good story! :) However... it's not a story for today.

For what it's worth, we never did get a prototype together for the filming and yet the show yielded us the best deal ever seen on the programme at that time. All 5 Dragons' coming in for the full amount, for the original equity offered. Despite this, good TV is still just good TV, and off air some months later we turned the deal down. For the next year we proceeded agonizingly slowly, crippled by lack of time, money and resources.

It took a year, but when my ego finally gave in and we returned to the 'Den' to do the follow up programme we had a brand new working prototype show off. This first fully-functional unit was the fruit of James spending his 'summer holidays' hauled up in his Dad's garage with a tiny budget, a brief that industry experts said he couldn't achieve, and me 350-odd miles away. I will never know how he achieved it .. though I'm reliably assured the latter was somehow critical (!)

Thanks to a second spike in publicity we clawed in just enough support to commission a biochemical report conducted by a UN microbiologist, the last line of which, is probably the most boring arrangement of phonemes ever to have made me 'squee' with delight:

"It can be concluded from this preliminary study that the system was effective in the removal of organisms from contaminated water."

This prototype, hand built on no budget, fully expected to fail at every post, went on to pass some further stringent tests, won some more awards including one very notable scientific award from the National Laboratory Service. We were stunned. Don't get me wrong, it was not perfect and it also won us some harsh criticism. It was this polarized reaction, thought, that triggered what was to be a long hard slog to find the financial and experiential support we'd, frankly, been struggling to survive without.

It seems simple enough to say it now: "we built a prototype", "we commissioned a report", but that first year and a half was in every way the most extreme tax on our emotions and resources. By the time 2009 rolled around James and I were both, at once, ready to jack it all in and finally certain that what we had was viable.

I'll not speak for him but I will admit that there were times I had hoped that the prototypes would fail the tests, the patent searches would reveal prior IP, or that the market would be stormed by something better, and that I would be forced to step down, guilt free.

But it didn't. I haven't and that's just the first chapter.
So on to 'the now'...

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

An Update on the Update..

It's a very telling thing, but as I went to write that long-awaited update post, it became very clear that I couldn't update you without recapping where we were last time we spoke. I couldn't really say or justify where we were, though, without mentioning how we'd gotten there. How we got there necessarily involved mentioning 'why' or what the overall aim was, which I would assume you all know except that, thanks to OxfordJam and recent re-runs of The Dragons' Den, I have acquired a volume of new followers..

All in, it started to seem as if I should just start at the beginning.
So I did..
And it got long.

Too long for one post.

So, as of tomorrow I will be posting the following..

1) The Intro
2) The Status Quo
3) The Future
4) The FAQs

And if there is anything that lot doesn't cover (!) you'll be able to add additional questions in the comments section of the FAQs. How's that sound? :-)

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Lessons from OxfordJam (then promptly back to business..)

I am very aware that we're well overdue a thorough update on Red Button Design's progress. A lot has happened in the first quarter of 2010, much of it good, some significantly better than good (!) and I am genuinely eager to speak about our achievements. Rest assured, all has not stagnated - as you'll see in my next post..

Meanwhile, I'm re-calibrating after OxfordJam: the social enterprise unconference/phenomenon that I mentioned last month I was involved with launching. Broadly speaking it came to be that I was responsible for websites, wikis, social media, a little bit of planning, pr, promotion, design-for-print work and first port of call for all manner of tech and digital fitzjiggery while the event ran Wed-Fri last week. (14-16th April, 2010).

True of all the best things, I found it very difficult to limit my involvement with OxfordJam by the amount of time I had available. Rather, I wanted to limit my involvement by the amount I felt I could usefully contribute. As the amount I felt I could offer greatly exceeded the amount of 'spare' time I had, (and I hasten to add this is mainly by virtue of having little time vs. being vastly talented in this arena!), I had to make the decision to displace some of my non-essential functions at RBD in order to benefit from the experience of helping make concrete something I believe our industry needed. Controversial, perhaps, but I am glad I did. I feel like I gained a lot from the process and I wanted to share with you some of my learnings.

I cannot comment much on the content from a delegates point of view, but suffice to say that feedback so far has been abundant and extremely positive. We'll be collating all this on the OxfordJam website. Meanwhile:

10 things I learned from OxfordJam
..and think apply to all entrepreneurs and small business owners, alike..

1) If you have 'the big vision' don't sweat the detail. It's easy to get hung up on the little things, but act with the vision in mind and the details will align themselves accordingly.
2) Stay flexible. Be willing to re-evaluate everything and anything, even at the very last minute, if doing so will make a positive difference.
3) The strain of long hours and high stakes can be mitigated by working with amazing people.
4) Understand that ultimately what you're creating is not yours, it's the delegates'/customers', and be prepared and willing to let go.
5) Resist the temptation to oversee other people's work. Get good people and trust them to perform accordingly.
6) Tea. Lots and lots of tea.
7) Good communication is the lynchpin of an effective team. Have a protocol for keeping everyone updated with the latest developments, allow disagreements, and have an open line of dialogue for when things get tough. Achieving the latter is by far and away the most difficult.
8) Smart crowds can usually self-manage, and will naturally weed out their own bad seeds if you let them.
9) A little bit of praise, when deserved, goes a long way when things are stressful and spirits low.
10) There is absolutely no substitute for genuine enthusiasm. Not contacts, money, prestige nor a perfect résumé.

A tough but worthwhile experience and great lessons learned. Better still, I do not believe that OxfordJam is over simply because we're no longer gathered in The Jam Factory! I hope to continue working on the project (though at a much more manageable pace) and will propose to help the contributors and delegates build a living, open, resource that will grow alongside our learning and understanding, and that this could also provide a platform from which to begin the discussions next year* As well as proposing this, I'd like to suggest perhaps a regular virtual conference or twitter-based chat in the vein of Ashoka's #SocEntChat and perhaps even the occasional 'tweet up' for us folk for whom London is fairly accessible...

So if that sounds of interest, or for more on OxfordJam, please check out the OxfordJam blog and Twitter feed, both of which are also manned by me.

And the next time you hear from me here (very soon!) it will be with a concrete and informative post about Red Button Design's progress.
Promise! :-)

* and yes, for good or ill, one by one, the OxfordJam team and attendees all gave up saying "if we do this again" in favour of "when we do this again"!