In Focus: Dlala Studios

Aj Grand-Scrutton, 28, talks about studying Computer Science, starting his own agency and tweeting as an alien.

Aj (right) with 'partner in crime'

Computer Science at uni can have a bad rep – why do you think that is and do you have any tips for graduates looking to get into your industry?

I have to admit I am very vocal about the fact I’m not a massive fan of the education system. I think it leaves kids unprepared and doesn’t give them realistic objectives. I left uni thinking that the piece of paper was going to get me a 40k a year job straight away. I then spent 7 months looking for jobs and eventually had to take an IT Tech job at a timber merchant. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is spend time working on your portfolio. Degrees to me, and a lot of others, show that you were able to accomplish something but not that you are suited for the role. A strong portfolio is ten times better than any degree, in my opinion.

Did you ever see yourself as a CEO? When did that possibility become a reality?
I knew around 2 years ago that I’d want to run my own studio one day but I never saw it happening any time soon. I always said I’d try and attempt it around the time I was 35; for it to have happened this early was a real shock to me but in June of this year myself and Craig Thomas (long time partner in crime) started Dlala and it’s been the most amazing 7 months.

What challenges are new agencies facing at the moment?
A lot of the IT based industries are shifting towards independence now, so there are a lot of new startups and a lot of people with great talent and ability. You just need to make sure that you stand out, produce high quality work and have a personality as well as talent.

You used Twitter to promote your first game, Janksy, prelaunch. Does social media have a place in marketing games?
Social media definitely has a place, I think that companies such as Zynga have made a career out of of making ‘social games’ shows this. I think you have to do it right though, and use it not just as a viral tool but an extended part of the universe. Alongside the usual FB page for Janksy we also made him his own twitter account. We use this to post in character as him, posting his thoughts and feelings and also chatting to those people following him. You’d be surprised how many people will have full blown conversations with a non-existent alien.

Aj on Twitter, Dlala Studios and Janksy.

In Focus: OpenPlay

Sam Parton, 28, is the founder of
OpenPlay is an online sports hub allowing people to easily find and book sports facilities online. Sam was previously part of the launch team for, the world’s first neighbour-to-neighbour car rental service and graduate of the Renault UK leadership programme.

What’s the business model?
We’re predominantly commissions-based and automatically deduct 10%
from any transactions carried out through our booking system. Conventional
bookings such as by telephone are completely free, however, our goal is to help
sell the ‘excess capacity’ we find in the majority of the UK’s 101,000 sports
facilities. Further down the line we are looking to offer targeted advertising
and deals as additional revenue streams.

Who are your target suppliers, private sports facilities and universities?
Our online booking system targets anyone with hireable sports facilities,
particularly tennis, squash and basketball courts and football, rugby and
cricket pitches. It targets council facilities, schools and private operators,
particularly those with excess capacity.

How is OpenPlay growing? By location or by sport? (And is consumer
demand a factor?)

We are currently focusing on London-based tennis courts, with an initial
focus on South East London. We are moving from council to council which
is what dictates our level of growth rather than consumer demand. Like
many businesses starting out we have the ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma, but by
focusing on the supply we’re confident the end-user demand will follow.

Councils are making cuts to services, does that challenge your position or
enhance it? 

Budget cuts are actually an opportunity for us as councils and schools are
under pressure to get returns on any investments they make and operate
their facilities more efficiently. Since our system doesn’t require any
implementation costs or risk it is actually being widely received by councils.
Prior to the recession, they may have not been so interested!

You’ve been a founder before, what did you learn that you’ve brought to
this startup?

The value of PR when you are starting up. Getting yourself in any
publications and generating user stories are so key to building up your
reputation – as long as you have a good product!

OpenPlay can be found talking sports on Twitter or Facebook and if you know a startup that we should know too, get in touch!

In Focus: Startup Amp

Funding was the spanner in the works for Chris and Sam. Recent graduates, the pair had loads of ideas, student debts and determination to create their own resource. “We wanted to raise funding off our own backs.” Starting up was not easy.

It was at his day job in marketing that Sam came across the software that would later become central to Start Up Amp. The software, Prezi, features a zoomable canvas and interactive userface and it was the trick of applying these to create something informative, engaging and business ready that led to endless brainstorming sessions.

While the main objective was to solve their own funding problem, their idea hopes to solve an issue for other small companies: exposure. We caught up with the team to find out why, when and how…

What does the Prezi do for other companies?
“Prezi allows us to embed text, links to external websites, photos and YouTube videos so we thought creating a platform to showcase businesses had the potential to provide us with the funds to launch our business.
“This is at the same time as helping other companies to be seen by large audiences for far less than it would cost them to advertise commercially.”

What inspired Startup Amp?
“The skeleton of our idea initially stems from Alex Tew. Back in 2005 he successfully sold 1 million advertising pixels at $1 each on his website ‘The Million Dollar Homepage’. The accomplishment of this idea came from its originality and the press coverage it received.
“Since 2005, we have seen businesses of all sizes actively engage in social media as they interact with their customers in new ways, looking to draw interest from a wider audience and ultimately aiming to see an increase in sales. It is these forward-thinking startups and small businesses who have inspired us to take on this project as we feel they deserve a contemporary and exclusive space online on which to advertise – one which has the potential to provide them with global coverage and a return on investment.
“Like Tew’s project we offer a niche advertising platform, but we’re different in that instead of sharing only one small image and one URL, our advertisers are able to share a wider range of their information and external links, as listed in the answer above.”

Why now?
“We felt like this could be a great time for a platform like ours to flourish because of the emphasis Governments are currently placing on new business creation. They are providing funding pots and grants to encourage and allow individuals to follow their dreams. This means that more and more newly-formed businesses will be vying for attention, and we hope to help 2013 of them achieve increased exposure.
“New and small businesses tend to have a small marketing budget so a platform like the one we are creating will be an accessible advertising medium.
“Another reason for us creating Startup Amp now is because this is the first real time that we have been able to dedicate enough time to the project. In the past we have had to divide our time between work and study, meaning any ideas we had were forced to go on the back-burner, but now we are in a position to dedicate almost all of our spare time to get our ideas out into the world!”

What sort of companies feature on Startup Amp?
“Startup Amp is open to businesses from all types of industries, from iOS developers who have just launched their new app to a restaurant that has just opened its doors – from the graduate who has recently created his own fashion line to the woman looking for an alternative method to advertise her small but growing make-up brand. We welcome and encourage diversity as it will form a Prezi brimming with creativity, providing something for every viewer.”

What sort of scale are you hoping to reach? Is there a future for Startup Amp? What would you like it to grow to?
“We have designed the Startup Amp to be a one-off online advertising opportunity for a maximum of 2013 companies. Therefore, once all 2013 spaces have been purchased the project is complete and will be viewable online for everyone to enjoy for years to come.
“As opposed to other forms of businesses, we are not selling a product, only an advertising service. A project such as this works best on impact and would lose momentum if drawn out for too long or repeated year on year. In terms of growth, or ‘reach’ if we can rephrase, we would like the project to be shared globally so we receive the greatest diversity and geographical coverage of both businesses who advertise and viewers of the Prezi.
“It would be great to one day hear stories from advertisers about an increase in hits to their website and new customers they have received thanks to our Prezi.”

Find Startup Amp on Twitter.

In Focus: Raw Egg

Internships have long been an essential ingredient of our ever-competitive employment market. Entrepreneur and recent graduate Nicole New, if you’ll exclude the pun, thinks there should be another: Raw Egg.

Raw Egg Interns exclusively recruits for paid placements – but it’s more than just the money that makes a good internship for founder Nicole and her team. Even more welcome is the company’s approach to placements. ‘We work closely with our placement companies to make sure that interns make big differences in the workplace and that they get the on-job skills they need to move forward with their career path.’

Nicole’s plans to start a business came from facing a problem and struggling to find a solution. Disappointment in her own internship experiences proved there was a gap in the market. ‘I felt commercial recruitment agencies lacked passion and were rarely congruent, asking you to sell data about your friends that then are not paid for and sending you to placements that hadn’t been vetted or planned.’
At Raw Egg the emphasis is on thought-out, regulated and productive internships, based on a mutually beneficial model. A little less photocopying and more worthwhile, career-enhancing internships that are useful for both parties.

But what are other recruitment agencies getting wrong and more importantly why? ‘Leaving university is quite an upheaval, and I think a lot of commercially focused agencies throw aside good graduates just because they aren’t aggressive enough,’ she says.
Nicole also thinks it might be a lack of input from the right people: where agencies often boast of being run by the graduates they serve, Raw Egg has widened the view, being run by business mentors as well as recent graduates and weathered interns.

Their longer term commitment to each placement also sets Raw Egg apart. This is far from just a matching service. ‘We want graduates to grow and develop, and the businesses they work within to gain the benefits of these new perspectives and ideas.’ Support schemes, CV advice, interview surgeries and constant communication add to the mix of services offered to both employer and employee.
And then there’s the well-known issue of payment. Raw Egg’s view is it pays to pay. ‘[Offering paid internships] means we attract employers who can see the benefits graduates bring with them, and attract top quality graduates from a variety of backgrounds.’ Equally, it has to make business sense. ‘I don’t want a graduate to go into a workplace, do nothing and sap money for nothing.’

Interning is a rite of passage for many students looking to get into an industry; the interns themselves can seem an extension of the coffee machine for the businesses that conveyor-belt them through their doors. Work placements don’t need to follow the typical recipe with Raw Egg Interns.

Follow Nicole and her team on Twitter or Facebook.

In Focus: Takes One To Know One

Ana, 23, is founding director of Takes One To Know One (TOTKO), the UK’s first organisation focused on the support and engagement of children and adults with learning disabilities. The TOTKO network offers workshops, training, advice and information to anyone affected.

The term ‘learning disabled’ relates to a range of issues such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia (numbers dyslexia), ADHD and autism. The stats are pretty shocking, with 1 in 9 people being dyslexic.

While the main focus is on offering training and workshops, hosting events and providing information, there is a constant drive to connect people. TOTKO taps into the key buzz words in business right now – social and community. So it’s more than just a service provider, it’s a network. ‘Sometimes just sparking conversation based on anecdotes is enough. It’s something a lot of people feel very strongly about.’ Widening that community is top priority.

Is this about a campaign? There is certainly an element of stigma-challenging. Ana is proud to say that everyone involved in TOTKO, from the website developer to the marketing assistant, is learning disabled and the nature of the thing makes it difficult to separate from an attempt to prove everyone wrong. But crucially it is not completely about the changing of perception, even if it was borne of it.

Some might ask why Ana hasn’t gone for charity registration. I think the fact she hasn’t tells us something really interesting. Like lots of the startups we’ve featured, the social aspect, the underlying charitable motivations are not overshadowed or do not overshadow that here is an ambition to run a business – it just happens to want to do good.

TOTKO is a UK first. The States have organisations that group all learning disabilities and educational training – training young people is all part of their service. The rise in popularity of learning technique training in the business world means that we are more and more interested in the way people learn. This, Ana tells me, could be huge (if it’s done right). ‘If we can get companies to see that an employee with dyscalculia will work better in a communications role, levels of production could be really affected.’ TOTKO is based on peer support so if those in the creative industry are likely to have dyslexia, simple changes to their environment can be really beneficial. ‘The brain often overcompensates for these problems, meaning that the person excels in other areas.’ A quick google search brings up Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and Sir Alan Sugar as suspected or diagnosed. Add Richard Branson to the list and we start to see a pattern. ‘I’d love to commission a study into the links between learning disabilities and entrepreneurship, the superhuman breed of businesspeople’, Ana half-jokes.

The opportunities to improve motivation, self-esteem and working behaviour are clear. What is interesting here is that TOTKO do not single out the learning disabled from the non-learning disabled. They have a catch all approach: ‘the more anyone can discover about they way their brains work, about your strengths and weaknesses, the more successful you will be.’ These are not uncommon conditions. After the Paralympics, it is no longer acceptable to define anyone by what they cannot do. We have to change the way we think, so we see people for what they can do, and not what they can’t. And Ana aims to take that attitude from a primary school classroom to a business seminar.

The issues around definitions and diagnosis are also very current. As an area of research, it is constantly being updated and so are the services offered. For example, it is a demand of the law that a dyslexic person ticks the ‘disabled’ box on a job application yet diagnosis is not covered by the NHS. Diagnosis is usually done during education (if the authority recognises the problem) and there are huge inconsistencies up and down the country.

And does she think it’s Generation Startup? ‘I think it could be. Times are hard and people are looking beyond the usual job market and turning their ideas into businesses. A bit like the saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Things got tough, I didnt fancy unemployment, so I started TOTKO.’

TOTKO’s social side: Twitter, the blog and their YouTube channel.

Meetup – Bizoogo’s #CollaboratetoCreate

Back in May we featured the startup connection site, Bizoogo. For one night a month, the team take the concepts around the site offline. This week we joined them at Google Campus for the August meetup.

Bizoogo is all about Collaborating to Create. And collaborate is just the right word. The event was all about bringing people’s skills together, knowing who was good with what and what each attendee was looking for, keen to meet others who were seeking the exact same thing. Equally, the atmosphere wasn’t too pushy nor too salesy. And as ever variety makes an event stand out – there was a good mix of those at the idea stage, starting up with their business and other, more established folks. Even more exciting was the number of people who attended, even pre-idea, looking to get involved in something to which they could turn their skills; a human resource that as any startup knows, can be essential to getting a project off the ground. At Bizoogo, it’s the individual that comes first.

I have to say I tried to avoid being physically sticky-labeled with an industry or skill for as long as I could. I was outsmarted though and actually, the labels worked well as a talking point for that first introduction but also as a kind of boast of the mass of skills that made their way around the room.

Follow the Bizoogo team on Twitter for news of where to catch them next.

Meetup – Entrepreneurs in London

One of the entrepreneurs at the event

How much networking have you done this week? How many invites have you turned down? How important is networking to your business?
Knowing how much time to dedicate to these events isn’t easy, neither is finding the right one… I tagged along with one of our readers, Natacha Cullinan, to her first visit to Entrepreneurs in London.

Entrepreneurs in London doesn’t take itself too seriously. Expect a laid-back, friendly and warm atmosphere. First timers are definitely welcome – almost everyone I spoke to had never been before and were keen to chat to as many people as they could. The size of the event (just over 100 people) struck the ideal balance; somewhere between small and intimate and buzzy and crowded – not cliquey at all, with familiar faces popping up every now and then as you circled the room.

This event had something that so many lack: a chance to make of it what you wanted. Whether you were after having a drink with some like-minded people or trying out that all important pitch on someone new. The organizer, Patrick Powers, couldn’t be more right when he says “some people just want to socialize”; that’s exactly what Entrepreneurs in London offers with the chance to make some great contacts in the process.

Entrepreneurs in London is held at various venues every couple of weeks. The group is run by Patrick Powers and can be found on Meetup or Facebook.

Chatting with Chatterbox

Dr Stuart Battersby is one of the founders of Chatterbox, a conversation platform set to be the ultimate marketing tool, a platform that helps businesses manage their online presence and join in with their customers’ chat about their brand. Caz Parra met with Stuart to hear all about this startup’s first steps.

The founders: Dr Matthew Purver and Dr Stuart Battersby

University is where you make the friendships that will last a lifetime, that’s what they say anyway. However, the relationship that blossomed at Queen Mary, University of London between Dr Stuart Battersby and Dr Matthew Purver gave fruit to more than just funny in-jokes and some great nights down the pub, it saw the creation of Chatterbox, a pioneering tech startup that is looking to revolutionise the way companies market their product and interact with all the customers (and potential ones) populating the big, bad world wide web.

Stuart has spent his academic career studying the intricacies of human interaction, from the broadness of body language to minutiae of the different types of nodding and what they mean. Matthew on the other hand is a computational linguist by trade who had already been developing technology to analyse conversations, including a piece of software that was part of a version of Apple’s Siri. These two very different disciplines have come together to build a platform able to take the pulse of online conversations. The idea is to help brands identify what gets people talking about them in order to help them better manage their image.

Last month, Chatterbox won a place at Telefonica’s Wayra academy, a startup accelerator program, beating out a thousand other businesses and securing funding. But the road to success is steep and full of obstacles. Dr Stuart Battersby is more than happy to share with us a little bit of his journey with Chatterbox.

“It was a very fluffy start”, recalls Stuart. “It started with conversations between me and Matt, which led into some research”. But after pinning down the idea the duo went straight to telling people about it, which Stuart now describes as a “great error”. Their enthusiasm was met by blank expressions: “Nobody had a clue what we were talking about. So we went off and hatched together a demo that just about showed enough of the concept so people could understand it so we could get to the next stage”. The “most appalling demo ever”, as Stuart lovingly describes the very first Chatterbox draft, fulfilled its mission and secured them the resources necessary to develop a beta.

With help from Queen Mary, Chatterbox came into being. Right now, the software is in testing stage. “We didn’t want to lock ourselves in some tower and develop software for two years, think that it’s the best software ever, with no bugs and the best user interface in the world but addresses no problems in the market, so we built the beta and we launched it in private beta”. Dr Battersby is a huge advocate for this approach, explaining that it “means you can make something people care about and you can fail fast, if there’s something that’s in there that people just don’t get or want, then kill it, don’t spend a whole year developing it or push it down the development list and push something else up to the top”.

At this point I ask Stuart one of the main challenges of entrepreneurship: the fear of failure, that ‘what-if-this-is-all-for-nothing?’ feeling. “Statistically it probably won’t work”, laughs Stuart, “I’ve been scared about it for quite a while sometime so i’m kinda used to the fear. Obviously, you, as the founder, have the dream and the ambition [but] you have to be slightly realistic (…) just because this venture doesn’t work doesn’t mean that the world is doomed, there will be some positives you can take from it to go do the next thing better”.

Another common ‘fear’ in the world of startups is that of someone stealing your idea. Turns out the world of tech does not rely on patent registrations, as part of the process of patenting requires a disclosure of what you’re patenting, which raises obvious problems. Stuart explains that there is a very simple solution to this very complex problem: “We have built pretty damn good algorithms that we hide away. No one ever sees what our code is, equally, with every other service we don’t see what their code is”.

So, in a time economic crisis when ‘traditional’ job prospects are scarce, is this generation startup? “The startup spring?” Stuart asks back, “I didn’t start the company because I couldn’t get a job, I actually didn’t apply to any, I just started the company…maybe down the line I’ll go and work for someone else, but at the moment I’m not because I really like doing this”.

In spite of the economic climate we are seeing more and more startups, however Stuart points out that the attitude towards startups still needs to change, especially in terms of the ability to “tolerate failure”. He explains, “There’s just a massive difference between the US and the UK. If we can adopt the idea that we can give something a go and fail at it and you know that we can pump cash into stuff and they might fail massively, then we’ll have even more startups doing even more awesome things than we do at the moment”. And that, I’m sure, can only be a good thing.

The Mentoring Business

Ex Goldman Sachs Wealth Manager, Jonathan Pfahl, is founder and Managing Director of the Rockstar Mentoring Group which offers entrepreneur mentoring and business funding.

What is ‘REAL‘ Mentoring? And how can it be part of an entrepreneur’s quest for investment when funds are particularly tight?

REAL Mentoring is when you are seeking guidance from an entrepreneur who has GENUINELY been there and done it. REAL mentors can be used to help you get your business funded or purely through helping one achieve financial goals in their business. The average Rockstar Mentor has started, grown and sold at least one company for £18m! In nearly every sector in the UK. Having one of those mentors, from your sector as part of your team in the business plan and then having them sit next to you helping you do the pitch is why the Rockstar Funding Model works so well.

What makes a mentor?

The word “mentor” comes from the Latin word “Mentore” which means “to emulate” or “to be like”. Therefore what makes a very successful businessman or woman that other business people want to learn from to help them achieve the same level of success.

How did the experience of setting up your own business help to shape or inform the service you provide? Was it the inspiration?

Yes it was. Setting up my own successful business was done through the assistance of having a REAL mentor show me how to do it. I then, in my spare time, began mentoring other businesses years later, enjoyed it and thus created Rockstar to scale up what I was doing and give more people the opportunity to be mentored.

What was the biggest hurdle to overcome in setting up?

Getting the brand and reputation out to the number of people we needed for it to work. Unlike a lot of startups, we had a large marketing spend but learnt very quickly that even that will not work if you are not investing in the right measurable marketing strategies for the right type of audience. What we do now to market ourselves is almost completely opposite to what we used to do… This has come from trial and error with a big budget and, in hindsight, I would have done things differently in relation to our marketing than when we started 5 years ago… But hindsight is a wonderful thing! – as they say.

Do you have one tip for people looking to fund their business idea?

YES – prove you have a market! That does not include Googling surveys and statistics online. Go out there and speak to your potential customers, explain what you would like to offer them and ask them if they would buy it from you. Better still, actually make some sales before pitching. If you have not at least sold what you do to a good number of people and can prove that you have people who are willing to buy your product, then focus everything on making that happen first before asking someone else to take all the risk!

And finally, is this Generation Startup?

YES. One of the key positives that the recession caused was to drive up the number of people who are now serious and motivated to start their own business. In the 5 years we’ve been mentoring businesses in the UK, it is clear that a lot more people are wanting to become entrepreneurs.

For more on Rockstar Mentoring follow Jonathan and the team on twitter or check out their website.