What is working: Lasting Lives and Sweeble

What I’m listening to as I type: American V – A Hundred Highways

 

Ted is dead. As is Rex and Ian and, by the time you read this, perhaps Dorothy or Kath or Eunice.

I was sitting in a half-empty pub in Newcastle Emlyn when Ted’s wife called to tell me he’d passed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. And then: “He was a real gentleman.” And I told a story about something he’d said to me, and she told another story and the conversation carried on see-sawing that way for a while, with the bar behind me hushed and listening-in.

Soon, because there was a reason Phyllis had called me on that wet August afternoon, I said:

“You should go ahead with Ted’s book. It’s almost finished and I could get it printed for Christmas. You could give it to the family as presents and it might help. It might help you to remember him as he was, before he was ill. I think Ted would want to see it finished.”

“Yes,” she said. “Oh, yes, what a good idea!” And there it was – the teeniest, tiniest chink of light; of something she could bear to do in a future without her soulmate.

Ted – and Ian and Rex and the others – had been one of the volunteer subjects in a pilot project I’ve been working on over the last year or so. The Lasting Lives project, which will eventually become part of my relaunched Sweeble, pairs volunteer journalists and writers with individuals to help them tell and publish their life story.

The focus is on capturing stories that would otherwise be lost so, in the pilot, myself and a couple of fellow former journalists worked with cancer patients at a local hospice. But we’re also currently looking at working with refugees and basically anyone with a life story worth capturing and saving for the future.

What I intend is to develop a set of standards, ethics and structures – plus publishing templates – to help writers work with family, neighbours, friends, and strangers to build a massive global archive of the extraordinary ways we all live our ordinary lives.

We have partnerships with local organisations: hospices, churches and public archives, and support from pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to. But this has to become bigger – a model that thousands of writers could use to capture life stories wherever they live.

So right now, as well as hopefully finishing Ted’s book, I’m in the middle of setting up the project as  a UK charity and finding people and funding to help me develop and grow it.

It’s all taking longer than I’d like because I’m trying to do it alongside my paid work and all the other stuff that fills all of our days. But we’ve so far published two books and have two more ready to go. Which is really what it’s about: helping one person at a time – and their family – to see their life in print and know their story will live after them.

Yes, I  did say print.

Ernest Saudi2

I still miss that smile

My father died of dementia. It took ten years – each one harder to bear than the last. But before his mind started to go, he’d begun writing his life story. Pages and pages of tight, handwritten text that my brother painstakingly copied into an electronic file, and I crafted into a book and had printed a few weeks before his death.

And, Oh my goodness, the difference it made!

In the book, our father, my mum’s husband, was back. In all his big, brave, joking, wanderlust glory days.

If you’ve seen someone fade away into death, you know how hard it is to replace those final images with memories of how they were. A book, written in their voice and telling the stories they used to tell, is so much more effective in rebuilding who they were than trawling through photo albums – real or Facebook ones.

The book helped my family get to a better place in remembering my father. Which is what I told Phyllis and why I knew – or maybe just believe – it would help her.

Every reporter who’s ever done a death knock knows why the family will usually talk to us. The reporter drinking tea in their front room, listening to them, writing things down, is making their story real. We’re saying: ‘People will read about this person you loved and understand why you’ll miss them.’ We want to have mattered; we want the lives of the people we love to have mattered.

I mentioned earlier about the project becoming part of Sweeble. I’m not going to go into the whole Sweeble/Bubblews shenanigans again, but for any of you missed it, Sweeble is the self-publishing start-up I started a few years back. Early incarnations failed, but I learned a massive amount about digital to print publishing and that’s going to go into reviving Sweeble as the publishing arm of the Lasting Lives charity.

I tried all sorts of publishing software during the pilot – from Blurb to Quark – and didn’t find anything that was as quick and easy to use as Sweeble had been. So, once the Lasting Lives charity is up and running, I’ll be rebuilding Sweeble as the publishing platform that Lasting Lives – and perhaps similar storytelling projects – will use.

When I met Eunice – whose book was the first one we published – she insisted no-one would be interested in her story:

“I don’t know why anyone would want to read about me. I’m just ordinary. I’ve just had an ordinary life.”

“Apart from the being held up,” her husband interjected.

“Well, yes. Apart from that time I was held up at gunpoint.” And she smiled such a wicked smile, and there – we were off.

 

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 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.