What isn’t working – Sweeble and Bubblews

What I’m listening to as I type:Nebraska

 

So, this is where the story starts. I get this email from a bloke called Mike asking if I’m interested in selling my sweeble.com domain to a client he’s got. So I says “maybe” and “what are you offering?”. So he says “$500”. So I says “No”. So he comes back with “$2,000”.

At this point I google Mike, and his employers Domain Holdings and I start thinking: “Do I even want to sell it?”

I haven’t considered it before. This is sweeble we’re talking about – my sweeble. My sweeble! It isn’t just a domain, it’s who I’ve been for the past nine years.

But I’m sitting there, in a half-built house, with two jobs, no savings and my second grandchild on the way. So maybe it is time to stop with the start-up bug. Maybe it is time to sell my asset.

I tell Mike how much the domain means to me and that my interest in selling would “start at five figures”. He offers $10k – and I start to panic.

 

Will the real slim shady…

I’m going to go back a bit further. Because you need to understand why I was panicking, rather than popping corks.

Back in 2006, I was news editor at a Northern daily and I had this idea that news shouldn’t only be something written by a journalist: people should be helped to write their own stories; their own news.

Anyway, I started working on an idea for a user-generated news website: sheets of lining paper taped to the bedroom walls with scribbled ideas that made me excited to wake up every day.

Sweeble arrived one hot summer’s evening that turned to warm rain over a jug of pina colada in my Saltaire backyard.

I left newspapers and started the first Sweeble and six years of work that would leave me £100k out of pocket but really, truthfully be worth every penny. Because it is such, such a buzz starting up your own thing.

 

sweeblehp2Anyway, Sweeble 1 did ok but not great. This was 2006 – Facebook had only just opened its doors to all-comers; Twitter was newly-born and we just weren’t the social sharing folk then that we are now.

People wanted me to write their stories for them; they didn’t have the confidence to do it themselves. For a while I got around it by doing just that, and by paying expenses to volunteer writers to deliver stories. But it was like knitting with jelly – I just couldn’t get traction.

I got a dog.

Over long muddy walks I came up with a new idea. Rather than helping people to write their stories, what about helping them print them?

The lining paper was taped to the (by now different) walls and I planned out the self-publishing platform I would turn Sweeble into.

Sweeble the self-publishing platform launched in beta in 2009.

sweeblewebpage_chosenBut it proved to be an extraordinarily difficult build and four years later I had to shut it down as the tech failed further with each new browser iteration. As I wrote at the time: “Tying my tooth to a slamming door would hurt less.”

 

Please stand up…

So, back to Mike and his $10k and my mixed feelings.

I’d said five figures but $10k isn’t five figures: I’m in the UK, I think in pounds and $10k is only £6k-ish. So I tell Mike that and ask for £10k and chuck in the .net domain by way of apology for coming over all English on him.

Mike goes quiet.

A few days later, I get an email from a woman called Melanie who politely asks me what the link is between me and Bubblews’s new app called Sweeble?

Whoa, Nelly!! Where the salt fish did this come from??!!

Google, google…

It came from here

It came from here

 

Something called Bubblews was about to launch an app called Sweeble – but on the domain sweebleapp.com (bought five days before Domain Holdings first emailed me).

Bubblews co-founder Arvind Dixit was chattering about Sweeble online; there was a Twitter profile and other stuff…

DixitSweebleI confirmed with Mike that his buyer had dropped out; created a page on sweeble.com to mark out my territory; let Melanie know, and let Dixit know.

Dixit’s reply to my first dm to him basically side-stepped the issue. He may or may not have read my post; he may or may not have been behind the earlier bid to buy the domain – either way his response was friendly but.. “We came to this name [Sweeble] because it’s like Bubblews spelt backwards in a way.”

My ownership of the domains didn’t matter. My ownership of the UK trademark, and the UK Limited company didn’t matter. My very public history of creating, developing and working with the brand in relation to user-led content didn’t matter.

All that mattered was that the owners of Bubblews thought swelbbub sounded like sweeble. So bugger off me.

 

Please stand up.

And here’s where the story is today. I’ve replied to Dixit and formally asked Bubblews to stop using the name Sweeble. I gave them seven days to respond. Ten days later they haven’t and are still calling their app Sweeble.

All they needed to do was add a random letter or stick with Swelbbub! Or Swubble, or Bleeble, or Slobble!

Anyway. Calm. Let’s just put all that emotional stuff about me and Sweeble in a box for a while. Let’s just park it.

I said somewhere near the top of this post about the domain being my asset. And it is – mine to sell, use, barter or do what I like with. What on earth’s the point of intellectual property rights if, when it comes down it, you can’t actually stop anyone from just deciding to use that cool name you thought up, and used, and bought licenses for and did all the stuff you were told to do at Seedcamp?

What happens when I decide to use Sweeble for my next project? What if I launch my own Sweeble app? Or a third company does?

Someone asked me why I’m bothered – if their app takes off, my domains increase in value. Well, only to someone who might want to own it rather than just use the name with a different domain. Either way it makes it difficult for me to use it.

Someone else asked me why I don’t just sue Bubblews?

Because real life doesn’t work like that. I’ve been quoted upwards of £30k to take them to court. Even notifying the app stores if they try to launch Sweeble in the UK will cost me time and several hundred pounds in fees.

My trademark would stop them selling an app called Sweeble in the UK but wouldn’t stop them selling it on App stores in any other country, or stop them from offering it for download direct from their website.

I’m not McDonalds, realistically all I can do to try to protect my IP is to write stuff like this and make a fuss. And perhaps that’s what Bubblews’s bosses presumed.

(“Hey Joe, there’s this woman in England says she owns the name.” “Is she doing anything with it?” “Doesn’t look like it.” “Can she sue us over here?” “Doubt it.” “Forget her. Where are we with the launch budget?”)

But I am mightily pissed off. And I’m going to shout out my rage with the fury of a thousand grandmothers.

Do not ignore me: I own Sweeble.

This is my line in the sand.

Pic credit Dean Toh

Pic credit Dean Toh

 

What works – STR Skill School and YouTubing

What I’m listening to as I type: Mojave

 

There’s a lot of guff and puff being written about YouTubers at the moment.

If you took in much of the stuff in the media this year you’d think top Youtubers arrive fully-formed, like baby seahorses, with their million subscribers and six-figure earnings. But, to borrow from JPG, the formula for YouTube success is rise early, work hard, strike oil.

Actually, the “rise early” bit might need to be swapped for “stay up late working”, but the work hard bit and the striking oil bit applies. YouTubers’ “oil” being find to the right niche, meme, trend or format and then have the talent, passion and personality to  sell it.

This way to YouTube Partner Programme

This way to YouTube Partner Programme, baby

Most of the top independent YouTubers have been slogging away at it for four plus years: Smosh eight years; SB.TV seven years; TomSka six years; Rooster Teeth five years; Dude Perfect four years.  PewDiePie, currently top of the lot, is a relative Tube baby with his three-year-old channel. These guys have had time to build an audience and to get better at entertaining it.

When Steve Roberts set up his YouTube channel  STRskillschool in 2010, he was running football coaching classes six days a week to earn a living. He thought he could use YouTube to post clips of the techniques he taught his students so they could carry on practising between lessons, but he struck oil when he realised there was a bigger audience out there for his videos:

“I was looking at YouTube and saw most of the [football] stuff was pretty poor, so my idea changed to ‘how can I reach the world with this?

“I thought: I’m just the average guy, I know what everyone wants. But then I thought, if I know what the masses want, how can I utilise that?

“There were no language barriers because I didn’t talk in the videos. So I started making videos once a week or more.

“That was 2010, World Cup year, and the site starting growing really fast. I stumbled across the right format and trends.”

One of his early successes was a video of him showing how to take a free kick like Ronaldo.

“The Ronaldo free kick was quite a trending topic at the time and still is now – four years later the video is still doing well.”

Four years later, Steve is doing well too. His channel is nudging the half-million subscribers mark and he is “living comfortably for sure” from running it fulltime.

stryoutube

His channel is the biggest independent UK sports channel on YouTube. In November 2011, he was the only UK winner in the YouTube Next Trainer programme (collecting £5k worth of production equipment); in April 2012, YouTube nominated Steve as one of their rising stars and, in August that year he was picked to produce his channel from the Olympics.

YouTube have been “really supportive” of him – when I interviewed Steve, he’d just got back from a YouTube-arranged sports event linking vloggers and sponsors and a few days later he announced a big tie-in with Vauxhall, the sponsors of the England football team.

“I’m pretty fortunate in getting a lot of offers from brands but I have to be selective. It has to be right – I have to cater for my audience. I could make all the money but if my audience think I’m a sellout then I’ll lose subscribers.

“Sports brands make sense but it has to be a natural, organic thing. It could be  something to do with food and drink, or the brand might have a player they’re sponsoring and that might be an opportunity for me to work with that player.”

Working with ‘name’ players is something he wants to do in the future:

“It’s time to bring the skills videos to the next level by including the footballer: how to learn to play like Neymar with Neymar, or Zidane with Zidane – that would be my ultimate aim.”

Also on the cards is to buy in some help. Like most YouTubers, his channel is just him – his ideas, his camerawork, his editing, his deal-making. Him replying to comments, tweeting, blogging, promoting…

“If you’re the [on screen] talent you have to have a passion for the subject and you have to be knowledgeable about it, Fundamentally you’ve got to love what you’re doing.”

Loving what you’re doing is what keeps the best YouTubers working during the early years. Steve remembers coaching during the day and staying up each night answering comments and working on his channel.

When I first started it was really hard. My children were very young and I was working late at night answering comments. I chose to answer every comment, and now it’s got a little bit more difficult to do that but you’ve got to be engaging, and you’ve got to use social media.”

strlogoThings were just getting going for him when, in July 2010, he tore his cruciate ligament in his knee:

“I thought my YouTube career was over. Even at that early stage it was growing so fast and I was shattered when I was injured, I thought: ‘it’s all over’. But the subscribers kept me going, and the support I got from them.”

For Steve, passion and expertise drive the best YouTube channels and, for him, one other thing: visual awareness.

“I’ve always been a visual teacher and learner – I was good as a coach at showing information and good as a kid in quickly picking up skills I saw. I found that works on YouTube.”

What also works on YouTube is picking the right subjects for videos and giving them the right title – not just in SEO terms but to get viewers to watch.

So, his “Insane” skills videos get double the views of his technique training videos, and his training videos with player names – Neymar, Ronaldo, Beckham, do 20/30 times better than the ones without names. More of his videos now feature other footballers, rather than just him.

“I always knew that if I could utilise other skills I could improve the channel.

“Before, when I filmed some of the [football] freestylers it was in the YouTube studio, but when I filmed Andrew [Henderson], I said ‘I can’t do this in the studio’ so we just walked around London and I would say: ‘can you do something here?’ and ‘can you do something here?’ and his talent was so good it worked.

“If someone told me to pre-plan a video I don’t think I could do it, but if I turn up at a location I can tell you exactly where to shoot something and come up with ideas when I’m there.

“Then I had to find the right song to pull it all together.”

The song – and the freestyler videos, were inspired by another YouTuber: devinsupertramp. Steve’s other YouTube heroes Dude Perfect (“the biggest channel for me”)  joined him at the Olympics YouTube fest.

It’s that understanding of how to engage his audience that works for Steve: “If I’m getting bored watching a video, I know that viewers will be so I just cut out all that extra stuff.”

In this, his second World Cup year with YouTube, he’s expecting a big bump in views and subscribers:

“The next target is half-a-million subscribers – then the key one is one million and I hope I can hit that this year.”

Nike and Adidas are “being supportive” and he’s hoping the World Cup will also help him take that next step in bringing international players to his YouTube channel. Will he be going to Rio too? “Oh, I’d love to go to Rio!”

Thanks, Steve!

Thanks, Steve!

 

What did (and didn’t) work in app launching – London Cyclist

What I’m listening to as I type: Days Are Gone

Way, way back when both me and the web were younger and altogether more excited about each other, I believed the internet would deliver The Dream Job. That one you do from your laptop sitting on a hot beach drinking something cold.

I was thinking about that when I spoke with Andreas Kambanis over Skype at the weekend. If anyone’s realised the promise of the web to deliver dream lifestyle plus dream job, it’s him.

AndreasKambanisAndreas started the successful London Cyclist blog straight out of uni back in 2010. That led him to launch a string of apps, starting with Bike Doctor, and all of that led to him building his business as he travels from Vancouver to Antartica, and back again.

When we spoke, he was in sunny Buenos Aires (“My favourite place so far – it feels like Paris, with cafes on every corner”) and I was in storm-battered Tutbury.  (Three cafes, doesn’t feel anything like Paris).

He told me running his business remotely has worked just fine:

“The biggest problem has been my laptop power failing in Buenos Aires. If I’d been back London I’d have just hopped on my bike to the nearest Apple store, buy a cable and then come back.

“Here I visited three different Apple stores and none of them had the cable,  so I had to get on a boat to Uruguay to buy one!”

Aside from power fails, finding a wi-fi connection can be an issue (“Now I just use Airbnb and rent an apartment with private wi-fi”) or he makes use of his 3G stick and phone (“crucial in Peru when we were launching the London Cyclist app“).

He launched the blog as a hobby first, while working in his first job after graduating. Launching his own business was “always in the back of my mind.”

“I wanted to do my own thing. I was working for a company for a year but it was a graduate job and I found it very frustrating.”

He picked cycling as the topic for his blog because he was cycling to work every day and saw there wasn’t much online about cycling in London.

Getting the domain – londoncyclist.co.uk, was important for search traffic then: “Back in the day it was very important what domain you had – it’s less important now.”

As the blog gathered views, he started contacting other cycling sites and blogs and monetized the site with affiliate product links.

It took me about six months to be earning about $3k a month. Then my first big breakthrough was round about the time Apple brought out the iPhone 3GS. Immediately it was clear that this was a real opportunity – with the iPhone I could have everything inside an app.”

His first foray into apps was Bike Doctor, which teaches cyclists to fix their bike.

“I contacted a developer with the idea for Bike Doctor. He did the coding and I did the marketing and brought the audience. It was a 50/50 partnership.

“The app went to the top of the category for sports apps in the UK – it did really well straight out the door.”

His next app – London Cyclist, was less successful with sluggish sales.

“I hired a developer this time and spent around £2.5k making it and got that back within a few days.

“But I quickly realised that London Cyclist could only grow to a certain stage. I made the assumption that other people would want what I wanted [in a bike app]. Secondly,  I assumed that iPhone was the right format.”

His market – his London Cyclist blog followers – just weren’t that interested in the app: “If the London cyclist doesn’t download the app, whatever I did I wouldn’t move sales very far foward.”

Andreas has written here about his decision not to invest more time and money in trying to push that app forward, but  said it was a valuable lesson:

“But with each failure you learn a lot, so now I know about creating an app that’s got location data in it and I can use that for other ideas I’ve got.”

He was already traveling by the time the London Cyclist app launched, having set off on his journey in February 2013. His next app, Caveman Feast, was also created and launched as Andreas crossed continents.

Via a contact of a contact he was introduced to Abel James, who runs the very successful Fat Burning Man blog, podcast and brand based around promoting the Paleo diet.

Andreas suggested the app idea to Abel and designed and launched it. On day one of launch it had had 8,000 paid-for downloads and got into the iPhone top ten:

Top 6 app in the Apple App Store

The key had been to partner with someone who brought his market with him. Abel’s Fat Burning Man podcast gets over 500k downloads a month.

Paleo expert George Bryant of civilisedcavemancooking.com, was also involved and recommended the app to his 90k followers. By the end of launch day, the app had made back its £7k developer cost.

“Partnering with other people that have followers is key. Making an app yourself is really hit and miss. In the past we’d have had to contact all the major media outlets and find out who to talk to and chase them.”

That pattern – of working with ‘names’ to build apps, is where Andreas plans to take his business this year.

“A lot of very successful people are very busy so that’s where I come in and I manage the whole process. I take their content and four to six weeks later I deliver the app and the launch strategy.

I never launch an app and hope for the best, I always have a plan for how to get it out there.

“A digital agency in London would charge you around £100k to produce an app but you could do it for £7-8k but you need the strategy. I really think through the app and the visual mapping of the content.”

His next app is due to launch early March. It’s a 14-day juicing challenge, again working with a ‘name’ partner. Like Caveman Feast, it’s about people  building new health habits into their normal routuine.

“I’m really interested in the intersection between psychology and healthy eating so I’m interested in how we can bring thoughtful design in an app to make healthy living easier.”

This year, he expects to take someone on to manage the London Cyclist blog fulltime while he concentrates on building his app business. But does he think about where the tech is going – what he does after apps?

“Yes. Especially in the tech world everything changes and its really tough to stay ahead. I think wearable tech is next and we’re already looking at that and looking at using Google Glass for the recipe market.”

Thanks for talking, Andreas!

Thanks, Andreas!

What usually works: storytelling

What I’m listening to as I type this: Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia

I was watching a bunch of my students pitching their ideas for new web businesses, and found myself thinking about the Great British Bake Off.

I’ve only ever watched three episodes of GBBO, and the gap between the first and third was a couple of years. But what struck me most was the style gulf between the two – the step-up in terms of storytelling.

Which is how come I was thinking about the TV programme while I was watching journalism students pitch. Because the thing I remember most from learning to pitch myself – back when I was in VC-hunt overdrive, was that the best way to present the problem your product is designed to solve, is to explain it through telling a story.  Uber-VC Fred Destin said that.

Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy – storytelling is what being a journalist is about. We “people” news stories, we add walk-you-through structure; hook-you-in intros, and wrap-up conclusions.

My strongest pitch started with the (real) story of the news story I wish I’d never put on a front page, and why that led to me launching two open publishing products. I would tell her story and show her picture:

Not saying whoIt would be wrong for me to retell her story here. But my aim was to illustrate why I was doing what I was doing and why I believed it was important to help people write their own stories.

I still believe that. I haven’t changed my view that a good journalist is an enabler of truth, not a director.

Anyway, I’m drifting away from the point here. Which is  that storytelling delivers a narrative shorthand that helps us to explain and to sell ideas.

It does so not because we’re natural storytellers – some are, some learn how to be; but because we’re natural story listeners. We learn about and make sense of the world through narrative. Perhaps increasingly so as we tell stories across more and different media.

I’m going to quote from Robert McKee’s  ‘Story’:

The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp the patterns of living, not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.

McKee’s seminal book on the principles of screenwriting was published in 1999 – ten years after Berners-Lee invented the web and the same year a 15-year-old Mark Zuckerberg (aka “Slim Shady”) launched his first website.

McKee, Berners-Lee, not even Slim Shady Zuckerberg, would have imagined the billions of stories being shared across 1.37+ billion web pages today. We present the story of who we are (or who we want to be seen to be)  by sharing what we’re doing.

Here’s another picture and another story:

TGBBO's Ruby TandohGreat British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh wrote a combative comment piece for the Guardian, about the “bitterness and bile”, “vitriol and misogyny” tossed casually at her and fellow GBBO contestants by some public and press.

Ruby acknowledged the “meticulously manufactured” nature of TV but may not have realised what “manufactured” means in terms of storytelling when the aim is to deliver McKee’s “personal, emotional experience.” When storytelling engineers an emotional response in the audience, should it be a surprise when that emotion spills over into the real world?

Boyd Hilton, TV editor of Heat magazine explained it thus:

Obviously the producers shape [GBBO] to give each contestant an identifiable personality….  It’s up to the people who make these programmes to create the stories and give us an idea of how they feel the personalities come across.

Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, in their book Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, explain the success of Reality TV as “the exhibition of the self” wherein a revelatory narrative instructs audiences in “how to manage the self” through  recognisable subjects (ie people types) dealing with personal crisis.

The need to hold our attention within the time limit of the programme leads to a narrative shorthand of confession and emotional revelation in order to convince the audience of the authenticity – the ‘reality’ – of the stories being told.

Ruby becomes the weepy one, Kimberley the automaton, and Frances – well Frances delivers “integrity” (read authenticity). Each baking challenge is a typical action-through-conflict scene, and, just as all stepmothers are witches and all Princes handsome, each woman in the (any) group can only be one Spice Girl.

If the point of storytelling is to make an emotional connection between story and listener, or protagonists’ ‘story’ and the listener/viewer, what is the point of storytelling in relation to my students’ pitches? Why am I linking the Bake Off to the pitch off?

Because storytelling – narrative – is a shorthand to making a connection with your audience. Doesn’t matter whether that audience is 8m viewers, 1m readers, three VCs, or one grandchild.

Jack TV

Jack controlling the story arc

Stories have an arc. That arc is defined as an absolute value change –  the frog became a Prince; the soldier gave his life;  eventually, she won. McKee describes the core of a good story as a “fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.” We wanted this, we got that.

A good pitch includes a value change story arc that tells us how things could be better. It also includes – like reality TV – reference to the ordinary: this is something ordinary people will be changed by; this is a product recognisable people types will use to solve a problem.

You see a real cool girl in a class and you want to know what other classes she’s signed up for so you can sign up too… students go and look up other people and find out who they know, who their friends are, what people say about them, what photos they have… This is information people used to dig for on a daily basis, nicely reorganized and summarized… You don’t miss the photo album about your friend’s trip to Nepal. Maybe if your friends are all going to a party, you want to know so you can go too…

All stories Zuckerberg told in Facebook’s early years to explain why ordinary students would use it; the problems it would solve, and the value change it would deliver. Or how about Reed Hastings’ story of the $40 late fine for returning a video that led to him launching Netflix – an ordinary event, a problem we recognise and a solution we can therefore understand.

I’m going to finish with McKee on pitching business ideas through storytelling:

The… much more powerful way [to persuade people] is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you also arouse your listener’s emotions and energy. Persuading with a story is hard. Any intelligent person can sit down and make lists. It takes rationality but little creativity to design an argument using conventional rhetoric. But it demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable.

 

tell-me-a-story

 

What didn’t work: Sweeble

What I’m listening to as I type this: Dead & Born & Grown

I’ve been putting off writing this post for half a year. Tying my tooth to a slamming door would hurt less.

This post is me saying, finally and publicly, that sweeble is over. My big publishing idea; the web-tech start-up I’ve led since 2008, is kaput. And probably always was.

Even the sign I’ve been driving around for three years is looking weary:

Fading sweeble signSweeble was (and I’m pretty certain still would be) the UK’s only web to print self-publishing platform, built so anyone could create their own proper printed newsletters, magazines and booklets. Everything was done online in sweeble; from writing stories, to laying out pages, to ordering printing. More useful than Blurb. I wanted to build a WordPress for print.

Anyway, it turns out it never really worked. Worse its browser dependability meant it never really would work without being rebuilt every couple of months.

In a nutshell, I made three fatal errors.

1. I contracted the wrong developers.
2. I didn’t manage the development process forcefully enough.
3. I got distracted by new stuff instead of being a one-project entrepreneur.

There are other bits I could have done better – like getting more publicity, or focusing on one market channel at a time, but they didn’t kill sweeble, just slowed things down.

And if the funding we were offered had panned out, maybe I’d have been able to pay new developers to build me a stable version of sweeble.

Weeping woman - Corbis
However, clouds and linings and all that, there are things the sweeble experience has taught me. So here’s my advice to anyone paying someone else to build something new:

  1. Your developers are not your friends. You don’t need them to like you.
  2. Contracts can help you think through the project responsibilities but are largely useless if it goes wrong.
  3. There are reasons why the thing you want to build doesn’t already exist and one will be that it’s really difficult to build. Expect problems.
  4. Concentrate on building the simplest, sharpest one-trick pony and don’t waste time and money adding every widget you dream up.
  5. The first time your developers miss a key deadline, stop the project (and payments) until you understand why and agree next steps.
  6. The second time they miss a deadline, start looking for other developers. Just in case.
  7.  Have a cut-off point in your head (time and money) when you’d be willing to cut your losses. Don’t keep spending just because you won’t walk away from what you’ve already given.
  8. Don’t leave project management to the developer team’s manager. Get weekly reports, daily reports if things are going wrong; ask questions and talk to the developers. You’ll never wish you got less involved.
  9. It isn’t about just getting to beta release, it’s about launching a product lots of users can use without tearing their hair out – just ask MySpace.
  10. Allow at least one third of build time for field/user testing. You need to be sure the product works when the developers have gone.

wizard-of-oz

Aside from lessons in what to do differently next time (if there is one, I’m still feeling a bit raw), what else have I learned from sweeble’s demise?

This: it’s time there was a registration authority overseeing and regulating the work of software/app developers and engineers.

In the UK we’ve got gazillions of trade bodies and quangos regulating work and standards on behalf of consumers.

There’s somewhere to go if you have a complaint against the bloke who laid your carpet or fitted your double glazing. You can check whether a dentist, solicitor or company director is OK or dodgy. You can get support if the firm that sold you your holiday goes bust or you were miss-sold a pension plan. You can find a certified gas fitter, engineer or electrician.

But you have no way of knowing, other than by word-of-mouth, whether the developer/s you’re about to spend thousands, or millions, of pounds with can do what they’re promising to do.

And, no matter how much you spend on lawyers and the contract, if the developers don’t deliver, you’re pretty much buggered.

Software project failures are difficult to prove in court (is it “goods” or “services”?) You’re looking at a lengthy process involving paying court costs, solicitor and barrister – and even if you win, the developer/s can opt for bankruptcy (or Chapter 11 protection in the US) and not pay you a penny.

It’s like me taking my car to a garage and not being able to do a thing about it if the mechanic decides square wheels would work better than the round ones I wanted.

squarewheeltruckThere are trade bodies for software engineers and developers but these are member-centered – serving the interests of the developer, not his or her customer. There are no codes, standards or regulations that can tell me, the buyer, whether I can have any confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver.

The global software industry is worth around $350bn (Lucintel). The ICT market in the UK alone is worth £140bn and software and IT services make up £58bn of that. For comparison, that’s almost three times what we spent in the UK on getting our cars fixed.

My point being that this is a big and growing industry on which other businesses are increasingly dependent for their own growth, so why is it unstandardised and unregulated?

We celebrate the scale of spend in the software industry but ignore the billions lost on sub-standard work or delayed delivery.

When the NHS scraps a £12bn software project that “never worked”, we blame the customer not the supplier. ComputerWorld’s ten biggest software failures in 2011 demonstrates even New York City and Idaho can’t get back the hundreds of millions of dollars the authorities lost on failed software projects.

We’ve known, even before Brooks’ seminal Mythical Man Month that most software projects go wrong because of poor project management but we continue to believe that can be corrected with a contract and sharing Excel reports. We need help to get what we’re paying for.

My losses were in the tens of thousands rather than the millions, but it isn’t the money that matters, it’s having to draw a line under a good idea that should have worked. That really hurts.

One of the magazine templatesRIP sweeble.

What didn’t (and sometimes did) work. Part 3: publicity

What I’m listening to while I type: Return of the Grievous Angel:

Number three on my list of  five things that make web-tech start-up success more likely is ‘Twitter chatter isn’t enough, good press and advertising last longer’.

I spend more time than is probably good for my career in the pub four doors from our home. 

Me and hubby will sit in a particular corner and, because the landlord controls the TV remote, we watch a lot of sport and in particular a lot of La Liga. Aside from developing an awe-struck appreciation for the genius that is Messi and a schoolgirl crush on the sparkliness that is Balague, I’ve also noticed just how much of Sky’s ad space is bought by internet-based businesses.

It made me think about the value of traditional press publicity and non-digital advertising to digital businesses. Or why you need old-school media to make new media businesses really successful.

Online ad spend first overtook TV spend in the UK in 2009, and will overtake TV spend in the US this year or next (depending on your choice of analyst). Yet earlier this year, analysts were pointing to a bit of a bounceback for TV advertising led by web businesses including Google. And multi-media companies like Gannett have seen a 38 percent hike in TV ad revenues, albeit boosted by the Presidential battle and the Olympics.

“The biggest way to attract mass is still television,” Estée Lauder Chief Executive Fabrizio Freda told reporters at a briefing in New York in April.

So, if you’re a web company with a product already used by a billion people, and investors eating their children to have a share of your expected future earnings, what do you spend cash on?

Telling us Facebook is like a chair.

If you’re the world’s biggest-earning web business, where do you place a third of your ad budget? Into TV. And when you’ve got a great new product no-one uses, where do you tell people about it?

Google spent $1.5bn globally on advertising and promotion in 2011, over 4% of company revenueand, along with Apple and Amazon, has one of the highest ad-spend growth rates. There’s a great infographic here.

Here’s a game we can play. I’ll run through a short list of successful UK web businesses and see if you remember their TV ad:

Wonga
Asos
lastminute
Betfair
Bet365
Moshi Monsters
Wiggle
notonthehighstreet
Lovefilm

And, while you’re thinking about advertising, had a LoveFilm mailshot or a notonthehighstreet catalogue drop through your letterbox recently? Twenty-five-percent of spend on postal mailshots comes from home shopping businesses– and if that’s not what Lovefilm and notonthehighstreet are about, I’m a monkey’s aunt.

Yes, you can grow your business at speed if you hit the jackpot on a Facebook frenzy or Twitter trend spike, but it won’t be enough for long enough. You need press coverage in the early days and cash to spend on advertising once you’re growing.

I get a spike of roughly an extra 2,000 views each time I tweet about a new post on wreckoftheweek, more if it’s retweeted. But that’s digital peanuts compared to the spike a mention in a magazine delivers.

My point being that this is stuff you can do yourself for free and that makes a big difference at start-up. Press coverage, listings, forums, social media, search-engine-optimised content. It’s about hours and hard work, not marketing magic.

Basically, you need to work out where your potential customers are, go find them and say ‘Hi’.

hiGetting the press to notice you is the hardest bit. Like VCs, they move as a pack so one tech reporter writing about you generally leads to another interview.

What works in most business start-up reporting is a positive story focused on firsts (eg your software is doing something new), or numbers(eg investors have chipped in a nice big figure) or milestones (eg hitting a nice big user milestone). And with a feelgood personal story about the founder/s thrown in. Here’s an example of all four in one Guardian story: Songkick raises £6.3m in funding round.

With my start-ups I was generally pretty ok at getting initial press interest and web chatter but not so good at keeping the interest going (ran out of ‘first’ and ‘numbers’).

However good you are at attracting free publicity and web chatter, eventually it comes down to spending money on traditional advertising. Which means making money or attracting investors. Facebook may not need to advertise for more users, but it does need to use advertising to scrape off some of that studenty-stalkery-privacy-dodginess attached to its brand.

I’m going to wrap up with something from research by McKinsey earlier this year. Note the last sentence:

The results revealed that advertising fueled about 15 percent of growth in GDP for the major G20 economies over the past decade by generating new business. While some companies launched unsuccessful media campaigns and did not recoup their costs, such failures were outweighed by the companies with strong campaigns that increased sales, attracted new customers, or improved margins. On a microeconomic level, introducing digital media to the advertising mix helped companies increase their revenues, market share, and profit margins to a greater degree than traditional advertising alone. (Notably, digital media produced its effect by enhancing the impact of print and broadcast ads, rather than by replacing them.)