Author Archive

15
May
2014

The first London Spree Commerce User Group

by Cain Ullah

We have just held our first London Spree Commerce User Group so I thought I’d write a brief blog to quickly summarise.

Red Badger have been working with Spree Commerce over the last 5 months on a commercial opportunity which resulted in me going over to New York for SpreeConf in February. I was literally blown away by the enthusiasm of the community. There was a genuine excitement about Spree from everyone there. On my return to London, I looked to join a Spree Meetup and realised there wasn’t one. So, decided to start one in London.

We’re genuinely excited about the platform and think it could help to change the retail landscape in the UK. So, hopefully through this User Group we can help build the community, build more open source extensions and all collaborate to make the platform better.

 P1040992

The presentations

We had 4 presentations for the evening:

First up was Josh Resnik, COO of Spree Commerce who had flown in from Washington DC to help kick the user group off. He presented on 2 key themes. The first was Spree as a company. Given the acquisitions of Magento by Ebay and Hybris by SAP, a few retailers have been nervous of Spree going down the same corporate route. So Josh covered this topic in his presentation. Second was where Spree fits in the marketplace and why you should choose it as your platform.

The second presentation was by Joe Simms, CTO of Surfdome. Surfdome are currently re-platforming to Spree Storefront and Spree Hub and will be the UK’s largest implementation on the platform. Joe covered why they chose Spree, their experience to date, what they are currently working on (specifically some really complicated stuff around pricebooks) and what they would like to work on with the community to improve the platform.

Third, David and I, both founders of Red Badger, talked about a hackathon that we did recently to build a store for a target client based on Spree in just 2 days. I discussed the process we went through during the hackathon and David discussed what was needed to build the store before presenting a demo of the end product.

Finally, Peter Berkenbosch a Spree Software Engineer based in the Netherlands, did a presentation on the Spree Hub, the new Spree Hub User Interface that has recently gone live and then did a demo of the Spree Hub, building webhooks, events and flows as well as how you debug.

Summary

I think overall the first event was a great success. We had a turn out of about 40 people which is not bad for a first user group. The people that were in attendance were really enthusiastic and interested in the presentations and the buzz about the Badger office was great.

It was awesome to have commitment from Spree to help us kick this off with Josh coming in from Washington DC and Peter from the Netherlands. With support from them, we should be able to make this User Group a success.

Our objective is to build up the Spree Commerce community in London.

Next Steps

Given that we’ve just started this user group we’ll keep it quarterly for now so that we can ensure quality content. So, we’ll look to get the next one ready for early September.

If anyone has feedback or has general ideas about what we should do with the next user group, please contact ideas@red-badger.com.

I’d like to look at different possibilities, perhaps doing a hackathon to build new extensions to Spree etc…

We will also be looking for presenters so if you are working with Spree already and would be interested in doing a talk, then please do get in touch. We don’t have to stick to the 20 minute presentation format so can accommodate a number of 5 minute lightning talks as well.

For all future event news, check the meetup page here.

The stream of the event is now also live on our Youtube channel.

 

17
Mar
2014

Spree Commerce – The future of E-Commerce?

by Cain Ullah

SpreeCommerce

Red Badger are always looking at new ways of working with regard to our tech stack as well as our process engineering methods. Our focus is on helping our clients to realise benefit as quickly as possible.

We’re always looking at where different business verticals have big problems that need to be solved in a smarter way. One such problem that is obvious is the retail sector. Retailers spend a fortune on implementing their e-commerce stores and are often faced with huge problematic programmes that go-live in a big bang release that goes wrong from day 1.

John Lewis spent £40m on a new e-com platform based on ATG Oracle delivered by Deloitte. This took years to implement with a big bang approach at the end of the project. When like John Lewis, you are selling £1bn revenue online, that is a long time and a lot of expenditure before you can start to realise value.

John Lewis CIO Paul Coby said the new platform is considered to be one of the default choices for his industry. “ATG is one of the two or three standard platforms for e-commerce in retail.”

“It will give us nothing fundamentally different initially, as we want a smooth transition. The aim is to give us another 10 years of upward development. For example, how we then integrate mobile and social media and new search engines into the site is going to be key.”

TEN YEARS!! And £40m that gives you nothing fundamentally different.

Delivering these programmes are also not without big problems. £40m for John Lewis’ website is expensive but at least that was what the programme was budgeted at. Another large (to remain nameless) retailer ended up spending six times their original budget for their e-com re-platform onto IBM Websphere Commerce resulting in a cost to date of several 10′s of £millions.

This is quite typical of retailers. Go with what everyone else is doing, feel the pain and spend the cash (because it is seen as the safe bet). Paul Coby is delivering what will be considered a very successful, large scale project that may also be the perfect solution for their organisation. However, for many scenarios, surely there is a better way to deliver E-com solutions?

New Technology (and Open Source)

In recent years the speed at which technology has improved has been incredible. The development of open source software has been particularly impressive. If you speak to Stu he has some strong thoughts on this. His opinion is that Github has been massively influential in how people develop software and the speed at which it is developing as a result. The biggest companies (Oracle, IBM et al) just cannot adapt at the speed at which the collective open source community can (The speed at which things are moving takes a lot of effort to stay on top of the latest greatest. But, it’s worth it!).

Large companies are starting to embrace open source. Several of our clients have allowed us to develop large enterprise applications for them using a modern open source tech stack (Node.js, Ruby, Elasticsearch, RabbitMQ, LiveScript, Component etc, etc…). Walmart are now building all of their mobile commerce applications based on Node.js. They are making a strategic investment in Node.js transitioning from a core Java solution with a vision of revolutionising retail through technology.

Unfortunately Walmart are certainly an exception to the norm in retail. The attitude of using a “default choice” for e-commerce seems to be the norm and with it comes all of the pain and expense.

An opportunity to do things correctly

We have recently had an opportunity to deliver a complete re-platform of a heritage retailer’s e-commerce website. This retailer had no desire to use a huge monolithic solution such as ATG or Websphere Commerce. However, they have been looking at the following options as serious contenders.

  • Magento – Magento is (was) an open source platform built on old technology (PHP) and is incredibly slow. It has got so large (8.2million lines of code) that it has ground to  a halt. It has only 8 open source contributors. That’s 1 million lines of code per contributor! Back in 2011 it was also acquired by Ebay effectively incorporating it as a standalone venture. Who knows what is going to happen to it but if it is to make a comeback, Ebay will need to invest heavily in product development to effectively rebuild it from the ground up.
  • Hybris – Is a Java based (Spring Framework) and has now been bought by SAP. With SAP focusing on a B2B model and immediately hiking the license fees for Hybris, the future of Hybris as a platform for retailers is unknown.
  • Demandware – Built using DMS Script, a proprietary code base based on JavaScript. If you use Demandware, you have the problem of vendor lock-in as it takes specialist skills to manage and update. It also has a license model of 2-3 % of your website’s annual turnover. Depending on the scale of your business, that can build up to a hell of a lot of money over a long period of time and isn’t great if you have a CAPEX oriented business model like our potential client does.

Looking at these three options, we quickly discounted any of them as a viable platform for the opportunity that was on our table. We wanted to do this right with modern, flexible, scalable technology that could be delivered quickly and cheaper to provide the client with real value, allowing them to realise benefit as soon as possible. The client was open to suggestions. They wanted their new solution to enforce their brand, and bring it firmly into the 21st century by being innovative with both technology and delivery methodology.

As a result, we did lots of research around e-com platforms to see if we could find something that fitted our criteria. During our research we came across Spree Commerce.

Enter Spree Commerce

IMG_3723

Kicking off the Spree Hackathon

Since finding Spree Commerce, we have been delving deeply into research into the platform (we have just finished a 2 day weekend Hackathon building a store from scratch. More about that in future blogs) and like what we see. Spree storefront is a Ruby-on-Rails open source application. Here are some quick at a glance facts about Spree:

  • It has nearly 500 active contributors to the project which puts it in the top 50 open source projects in the world (out of approximately 3 million total)
  • It has approximately 50,000 lines of code to date (about 100 per contributor)
  • There are already over 20,000 stores on the platform globally
  • It’s had over 225,000 downloads
  • Any Ruby developer can modify the software to meet their store’s exact needs — no proprietary programming skills needed
  • The storefront supports responsive web design out of the box for a great user experience. It also has a complete feature set across Product Catalogue, Marketing & Promotions, Payments, Shipping, Site Management & SEO, Checkout, International Features (such as multi-currency) and Analytics & Reporting.

Spree Hub

As well as the Open Source Spree Commerce Storefront, Spree provide a managed software as a service Spree Commerce Hub. This is basically a message broker that integrates seamlessly with the Storefront. It effectively decouples your Storefront from complex back-end integration and automates all of the logistics between the two. There are lots and lots of out of the box back-end integrations and they continue to grow.

The Spree Hub is fully managed as a service by Spree Commerce so comes at a cost, albeit a very competitive cost. It’s also a yearly license fee that is fixed, so the cost doesn’t escalate depending on the scale of your business (like Demandware).

The Storefront combined with Spree Hub is a very, very compelling option for how to deliver e-commerce platforms smarter. After this weekends hackathon, Red Badger will definitely be recommending it as the way forward to our retail clients.

We are excited by how we can approach building enterprise scale e-commerce platforms, delivering them at a fraction of the cost of other platforms and delivering it incredibly quickly using methodologies such as Kanban and Continuous Deployment. We’re looking forward to using Spree to integrate to the likes of Elasticsearch and then contributing our code back into the community. We’ll be using The Spree Hub as a message broker too. Our clients tend to be large and have the usual complex back-end systems such ERP, Logistics and Fullfillment. In general the integration of many systems is made much easier through Spree. The API in the storefront will allow us to easily integrate native apps as well as a responsive web front-end because they will effectively just be consuming the same data.

The proposal is compelling. At Red Badger, we don’t think there is a better E-com solution than Spree Commerce out there at the moment.

Spree Conf

As part of my investigations into Spree Commerce, I went to SpreeConf in New York in late Feb to meet the community, find out more about the platform and see who is using it and how (I’ll write a separate blog summarising the conference itself so will keep this section short).

At the conference I was blown away by the enthusiasm and energy of the community. Everyone is genuinely excited about what they can do on the platform.

Two key speeches that I’ll mention now were from Antonio Silveira – VP Engineering at GoDaddy (who have just announced their partnership with Spree) and Andy Dunn, CEO of Bonobos who are replatforming to Spree but have also just released their female clothing line Ayr.com in just 96 days for first release.

GoDaddy have a platform upon which 60,000 E-com stores are based. This is on an aging tech stack that is getting a complete overhaul. At the core of this will be Spree Commerce. Interestingly, Antonio stated the following as the key factors in GoDaddy choosing Spree Commerce as their platform:

  • Community – Their activity on Github, how many people are committing etc…
  • Quality – Spree’s code base and Ruby-on-Rails being higher quality than the competition
  • Amazing feature set
  • Vision

Andy Dunn shared the vision sentiment. Basing most of his talk on why E-com is bad business he finished by saying “Spree is here to save the day in transforming e-com”.

Both of these are very compelling views from the guys that are already doing it with regard to Spree Commerce.

Summary

As a company Red Badger are very excited about Spree. We feel we can bring something new to the table for our retail clients, both present and future, to help remove the pain and cost that is typically felt by using a “default choice”.

The Spree community is incredible. Spree clients are customising Spree to fix problems they experience (be it an integration to Elasticsearch or a CMS) and with the help of Spree Commerce these are finding their way back into the product. Companies that could be seen as being competitors are sharing their code and their learnings (We had a developer from Rails Dog join us for the Spree Hackathon at our offices this weekend) in true open source fashion. All of this results in a great product, that is improving rapidly and everyone benefits.

Watch this space on updates on our Hackathon and more blogs about our learnings with Spree Commerce.

We have also started a London Spree User Group at our offices to see if we can generate more interest in the open source community here in London and to share war stories.

Hopefully we’ll be delivering our first projects on the platform soon so we’ll keep you updated on that too. We’re looking forward to getting involved with the community, contributing back and making e-commerce a much nicer space to be playing in.

Ref: Spree Commerce Sites

See below for some examples of some nice Spree Commerce sites that are live. I think you’ll agree the user experience and design of these sites are delightful and all are responsive.

18
Feb
2014

JLT World Risk Review – Rapid Innovation

by Cain Ullah

Afghanistan Country Dashboard

We have recently delivered a project for Jardine Lloyd Thompson (JLT) to re-design and build their World Risk Review website. We’re currently in the final hardening sprint, doing some bug fixing and UAT. We’ll be able to talk more about the benefits in a case study, once the site has been live for a while and we can look at the analytics. In the mean-time I want to discuss some of the great bits of innovation (both tech and process) we have produced in delivering this project, which was just 8 weeks in total with only 6 weeks of development. 

What is World Risk Review?

World Risk Review is a country risk ratings modelling tool that JLT founded in 2006, providing corporations, banks and other organisations involved with international trade and investments with an assessment of short to medium term country risk. This allows users to build well informed strategies to manage political, security and economic risks. 

JLT is the only Insurance Broker to have invested in this capability in-house so they required a really modern website that would allow users of World Risk Review to have an intuitive and highly informative experience when consuming JLT’s expert advice.

What did we do?

World Risk Review is made up of three key areas – peril ratings data for each country, key insights (articles, insights, reports and blogs) and news. Red Badger’s role was to make these three areas easily accessible, engaging and informative. With more and more devices being used in the financial services sector, it would also need to work on tablet and mobile. So as well as being visually rich, the site would also need to be lightweight with regard to page size so that it remains speedy on mobile devices.

Heatmap

We designed the site using a visually rich set of dashboards to allow users to consume the data in a really intuitive way, compare different types of data and perform country comparisons. This is underpinned with easy navigation throughout the site via the dashboards and a flexible and fast search function.

How did we do it?

The site is effectively made up of two applications. The main website and a custom built admin console which consists of an analytics section as well as a custom built content management system (CMS) that provides the ability to do inline editing of content, preview of changes and deployment straight into the live environment.

I am not a techie, so I’ll ask the developers of the site to produce some more technical blogs with more detail (They promise me these are to follow!). However, below is a brief outline of how we delivered the project.

The tech

For the visual dashboards we used D3.js. D3.js is a JavaScript library designed to bring data to life using HTML, SVG and CSS. It is based on web standards. It is efficient, flexible, lightweight (which means it is fast) and the animations and interactions look and feel beautiful. The front-end is then underpinned by a Node.js server application stack (Any JavaScript run outside of the browser is run on Node.js including the admin console, APIs and Livescript – see below) and a powerful search function built using Elasticsearch. We have built an incredibly fast search based on tags, allowing flexible filtering of data with some advanced features such as “did you mean” suggestions.

My co-founder Stuart is a huge fan of Component (read his blog) so the website is built using components in almost every way you could use them, from just packaging bits of JavaScript, through custom UI elements (such as the autocomplete tag field which we vastly improved – public repo can be found here. We also improved the datepicker component – public repo here) to whole pages being rendered by a hierarchy of components. All client side JavaScript we use in the website is packaged as components, including the visualisation code. The benefit of building a site in this way, is that it is ruthlessly efficient and every bit of code that is contained in the application has a use. You build lots of little tiny modules that are great at doing one thing and then you hook them all together.

We also switched from CoffeeScript to Livescript to compile our JavaScript by writing in a functional way. The developers on the project find it really nice to use. It has tons of little tools for the typical boring tasks you do all the time and also has a lot of functional programming features, including the amazing prelude-ls, which make it ideal for data processing, such as the static site generator (see below). 

Last year we re-built red-badger.com as a static site. We loved the results so decided to follow a similar technical architecture for World Risk Review. The static site generation architecture deploys the site at the time that content is updated so that when users access the site, they are accessing a very simple static page rather than requesting content from a database for each action. The result is a website that is more secure and can serve pages much faster than traditional Content Management Systems (such as Drupal). The site is deployed to an Amazon S3 bucket and distributed via Cloudfront to 51 edge locations around the globe. Originally we were using Docpad as our static site generator (as we had for red-badger.com) but we found it started to really slow us down so we built our own static site generator which brought down the time it takes to generate the HTML from the source markdown documents and Jade layouts from about 90 to about 6 seconds . This allowed us to work much faster and also enabled us to build a CMS where you could preview your changes almost in real-time. Having tested the application around the globe, it is incredibly fast wherever you are, with as little as 10 milliseconds and no more than 300 milliseconds to the first byte.

We have also set-up continuous delivery using Travis CI and Ansible. This is incredibly important for how we develop software but it also underpins how we have architected the CMS. Using continuous delivery allowed us to commit changes into a staging environment many times a day and made them available to test immediately. In the production environment, once the project is live, the content editor will be able to deploy their changes in the CMS straight into the live environment. The custom CMS is built on Git. An administrator can view the site as if they are a user, but can edit any element on the page, save it and then review comprehensive line-by-line changes to each document (or add new documents such as news items). Once they are happy with the changes, a publish button will commit to Git and will deploy into live. It allows multiple users to edit the site at the same time without stepping on each other’s toes and merges their changes in a smart way, so content management is not a race of who saves first anymore. In order to build in-line editing we were looking at a number of options such as CreateJS. However, we again decided to build our own editing tool using Javascript components for YAML and Front-matter.

The final piece of the puzzle and by no means the least important, was to build in analytics. Using the power of Elasticsearch, we built a tag based analytics tool that allows JLT to monitor user behaviour on the site. They can add custom tags to each user (such as “watch list”), filter, sort and search. This gives JLT a quantitative view of customers behaviour to allow them to adapt their future strategy around what their customers want.

The process

Given that we had only 8 weeks to deliver the project of which 6 weeks were for development, we decided to use Kanban as the methodology of choice, reducing as much friction in process as possible and allowing the developers to do exactly that – develop. The backlog was tightly managed by Sinem (the project manager) and the product owner from JLT who was deployed full-time to sit with us in our office every day. I cannot stress how important it was having the product owner integrated into the team full-time. We managed user stories on a Kanban Board and although physical boards are great, the developers managed all tasks in Github. This reduced duplication of effort, increasing productivity. Stand-ups each morning were held around the Kanban board, talking about what we had been doing at story level and we were focussed on getting stories through to delivery as soon as possible so used WIP limits to streamline the process.

To ensure quality control, we used Github flow to manage the process of building new features, ensuring that no piece of code is deployed without first going through code review by a 2nd pair of eyes. There are some simple rules to Github Flow: 1) Anything in the master branch is deployable. 2) To create something new, you create a new branch off of master. 3) You continue to commit to that branch locally until your feature is complete. 4) When you think your feature is complete, you raise a pull request. 5) Another developer then reviews your code and upon sign-off it can be merged to master. 6) Continuous Deployment then deploys your changes immediately.

When delivering a project at this speed, it is paramount that your features are tested properly. To do this, we integrate a tester into the team and get them to test as soon as a feature is deployed. In the past we have used separate tools such as Youtrack as our bug management system. However, in this project, we switched to Github issues. Having one central place for the developers to see all features and bugs together in Github has most certainly helped productivity of the team.

Summary

In just 6 weeks of development we achieved an incredible amount. We had an integrated team of Project Management, UX, Design, Dev and Test, all dependent on constant communication to get the job done. We built an exceptionally well designed, useable site on a really innovative tech stack. The use of Kanban, Github Flow and Github Issues proved to be an incredibly productive way to deliver the project. It was a very intense environment of rapid delivery but was lots of fun too. JLT were a great client not just in allowing us to be innovative with our tech and process, but also in the efforts they put in to make this collaborative. We couldn’t have delivered so quickly without their constant involvement.

As always, there is room for improvement in our process and the tech team are looking forward to new technology emerging such as those contained in the Web Components spec. Our project retrospective has highlighted some areas for improvement and we will continue to iterate our process, always pushing to try and provide our clients with better value. We have loads of great ideas about how the World Risk Review site can be improved in future phases but after 8 weeks, it is currently in a great place to deliver a far improved experience for both JLT’s customers and their admin staff.

 

15
Feb
2014

Haller – Releasing potential on the web

by Cain Ullah

Haller

I’m very excited about a project that we are currently working on for The Haller Foundation and want to take this opportunity to talk about the amazing work they do and what we are doing to help.

The Haller Foundation

The Haller Foundation was setup to continue the work of the environmentalist, Dr. Rene Haller. Its fundraising branch is run out the UK with all funds focussed on its efforts in Africa, mostly in the rural areas of the Kisuani district. Haller’s focus is on helping farmers to realise the potential of the land beneath their feet by training them in life-skills, ultimately leading them to build better self-sufficient and sustainable lives. Their programmes include education, water, farmer training, health, alternative energy, nano-enterprise and the Bustani Urban Garden, an education centre that shows people how to use rural farming techniques in small urban spaces.

To meet the volunteers who make this happen and to see what they are achieving is a wonderful thing. We’ll be going out to Kenya to see it first hand in the next couple of months, something we are incredibly excited about.

What are we doing?

Alongside Haller, we are working very closely with Pearlfisher, a London and New York based design agency (Jonathan Ford, founding partner of Pearlfisher is a trustee of The Haller Foundation) to build a mobile web site that will support the activities of Haller in Africa. There is a surprising amount of mobile devices in Kenya, which as a country has a great deal of disruptive digital innovation (Research by RIA shows that over 60% of Kenyans use mobile phones as a method of payment). With so many mobile devices in the hands of Kenyans, in both urban and rural areas it makes perfect sense to utilise the potential of mobile to create a web application that works across multiple devices to put the power of Haller’s content into the hands of the people.

The Haller Foundation, Pearlfisher and Red Badger are working together to produce an application that provides real value that helps Haller to distribute digital content to as many people as possible. Taking key learnings from the existing Haller programmes, the project objective is to increase the reach of the Haller techniques and bring even more economic security to poor, small-holder farmers. With Pearlfisher building the vision and content strategy,  Red Badger are providing the user experience, visual design and development of the application.

AndroidDesign1    AndroidDesign2

How are we doing it?

Being a charity that is run mostly by volunteers, the investment available to hire a consultancy to build a web application is limited. So we had to be creative and look at ways in which we could afford, as a small tech consultancy, to free up resources to be able to run this pro-bono project. Using a mixture of senior resources we have also supplemented the team with part-time junior resources that are still at University. An opportunity arose with this project to use it to develop junior resources, preparing them with key skills once they graduate. Haller are fully supportive of us using junior resources on the project and are relaxed on delivery timelines. So as well as building an application for a great cause, we are also using the project to develop young developers, providing them with new opportunities for a career.

Next steps…

There is lots of work to do. We are making great progress with the first version of the app. We’ll also be going to Kenya to see the Haller operation first hand, to meet the farmers and to do some usability testing on the application. We’ll use the feedback from the testing and feed it in to the next iterations of the application.

We’ll be blogging on the progress of the app dev (with the Uni students talking about what they are learning), of the visit to Kenya and everything else to do with the progress of this project. 

The whole team is genuinely excited to be part of a project that could provide benefit to so many. Working with The Haller Foundation is truly inspiring. Perhaps we’ll use this project as a platform for doing similar pro-bono projects for other charities and developing young talent in the process. Watch this space…

13
Nov
2012

XPF goes open source!

by Cain Ullah

To avoid repeating what has been said in previous posts, I’m going to keep this blog as short as possible.

As announced by David in his July post, we have been planning to open source XPF – our layout framework for XNA, for a little while. Jaco Geldenhuys and Jonathan Dickinson have been working around their busy schedules to get the code ready for a public release. We are delighted to announce that this has now been completed and our Github Repository is public.

xna_thumb1

What next?

XPF is now open to everyone so please go ahead and start to play. If you want to contribute, all the details on how are up on the Github wiki as well as the repository rules and license details. Jaco and Jon will also be doing some work in the developer community to try and attract some potential contributors.

To help you to get started. the Getting Started With XPF blog post has been uploaded to the Github wiki but there are also some historical XPF posts on our blog that are not yet uploaded so you may find some of those useful.

Any new documentation and/or announcements will now be made on the Github wiki rather than our blog. This will avoid the need to retrospectively update old blog posts that are no longer relevant.

So that’s about it! We look forward to seeing how the community can take XPF forward in developing it further. Happy coding!

5
Oct
2012

Announcing our new non-executive directors

by Cain Ullah

As Red Badger grows steadily and moves into its next stage of development we are facing fresh new challenges every week. To assist our development we are delighted to announce two new non-executive directors who will provide us with the support and advice we need to help us realise our very big ambitions.

We’re very excited to announce the appointment of Mike Altendorf and Les Dawson OBE as Non-Executive Directors. Both will support Red Badger’s strategy  and help to drive business growth as Red Badger continues to deliver high quality, innovative technology to it’s current client base.

les_and_dorf

Mike Altendorf

Mike was the former founder of Conchango, one of the UK’s most successful digital consultancies and systems integrators. Mike has many years of experience in consulting services and technology, founding Conchango in 1991 and building it into a £45m+ revenue business before its sale to EMC Corporation in April 2008.

Les Dawson

Les is former CEO of Southern Water and current chairman at John Murphy & Sons. Les was also an Executive Director at United Utilities and was head of operations at Transco. He has over 30 years of experience in the industry and has a passion for driving business change through the innovative use of technology.

2
Jul
2012

Red Badger–A Bizspark Summit Finalist–Top 15 of 16,000.

by Cain Ullah

It’s just over 3 weeks since the BizSpark Summit on 7th June. I’ve been so busy it has taken me this long to write a blog post about it. So here’s a summary.

16,000 Startups

There are 16,000 startups that are part of Bizspark in Europe so we were honoured to be nominated as one of the top 15. There was a really good bunch of talented startups presenting and lots of interesting people. The event as a whole was fantastic (I have written a little about the build up to the event here). There was an incredible amount of organisation that went into the event from the event organisers Forgather, to the input from Microsoft’s European Bizspark representatives spearheaded by Bindi Karia and the coaching from Mike Sigal. It was a busy couple of weeks leading up to the event (I think I must have changed my pitch about 10 times, the last change being on the eve of the event) with a full day of rehearsals (one run through per startup) and final feedback at Microsoft’s Victoria offices on the day before the summit. Drinks and food were put on by Microsoft that evening so that all of the startups and Microsoft Bizspark folk could mingle and get to know each other.

On the day we arrived early at Ravensbourne college (where we were former incubatees) to prepare our stands before the main event kicked off around 9:30. It was actually quite daunting as there was a crowd of approximately 300 people in the auditorium and all presentations were up on a big stage. This was a definite step up for me when it comes to presenting.

David Rowan, Editor of Wired UK expertly moderated the whole day with Dan’l Lewin (Corporate Vice President Emerging Business Development) doing the opening conversations and getting the day started.  I won’t give a running commentary of the day, you can find more info on that here, but I will say that the day was expertly delivered and there were some really interesting keynotes including Bob Dorf, author of the Startup Owner’s Manual. In-between the keynotes were the three sessions for the startups to present with five startups presenting in each session. I was relieved that I was in the first session so that I could do my presentation and then enjoy the rest of the day.

My Experience

Bizspark Summit

As I mentioned in my previous blog we were slightly different to the rest of the startups that were presenting because we didn’t have an actual product to show and the day was very product focussed with a large contingent of VCs in the audience.

So, I had five minutes to introduce who Red Badger were, describe the problem, paint a vision of how our product idea would provide a solution, describe the market, the business model, the competition, the team, and finally a closing message to the VCs. It was a hell of a lot to fit in and despite lots of practice, I ran over as did most of the other startups.

It was a very good experience though. The hardest bit was painting a vision. Quite a few people in the audience (and the judges) didn’t get what our idea was trying to do. It would have been much easier had I been able to show them what we had done. However, when we were in the breakout sessions, we had a lot of interest from people with experience in the industry who completely got our vision. So, overall it was a successful day for Red Badger. I personally have taken a lot out of the day and the whole process. I have learnt a lot from the coaching, taken some good feedback on board and look forward to doing things different when I am next presenting to a large audience like this one.

The other startups

I think one of my favourite things about the whole event was spending time with the other startups. Apart from them obviously being very talented entrepreneurs with some excellent products, there were some great people too. There was a real sense of camaraderie between us over the two days. We were also all very different and although we were effectively competing against each other on the day, in the real world I don’t think there was a single competing product. The highlights for me were autitouch, theappbuilder, fittingreality & paperlit. Go check them out as I expect they’re going to continue doing great things for some time. Autitouch specifically impressed me as on the eve of the rehearsals, they had a pivot with some potentially ground-breaking research results coming through that changed their pitch at the 11th hour. Freena Eijffinger handled the change incredibly well to deliver a faultless presentation.

The future

As for Red Badger, well, we’re hoping we’re going to be around for a long time too. We continue to innovate, building up a solid foundation and providing great products for our clients through Consultancy. Product plans are afoot however, so keep an eye out for us in the future.

28
Jun
2012

BBC Connected Studio–HPSN Pilot here we come!

by Cain Ullah

So, you may have seen our recent blogs about the BBC Connected Studio for Homepage, Search and Navigation – Creative Studio and Build Studio.

So far the experience has been an incredible one. The BBC have run two fantastic events that have been very well organised and almost militant with their timing. In brief, the Creative Studio had 32 teams presenting which was then whittled down to 9 for the Build Studio.

It sounded like the BBC judges had an incredibly hard time in choosing the finalists to go into the funded 6-8 week rapid prototyping Pilot phase because there were some incredible ideas amongst the 9 participants.

We are really pleased however, that we have been chosen as one of the three teams to go through to the Pilot stage. The other two are Kent Lyons and Goss Interactive so congratulations to both of those as well.

Our original concept in the Creative Studio combined a number of ideas including a time based homepage combined with varying levels of manual and automatic personalisation and the semantic web. In the Build Studio we had 2 days to focus on one idea and the BBC wanted us to explore the timeline view. It was a bit of a risk but the team chose to rebuild the prototype for the homepage from scratch using Node.js (rather than using the existing PHP codebase that was provided)  in the 2 days allocated.  This was integrated to real BBC data and demoed at the end of the 2nd day.

timeline_v5b_1_bucket

So, in the Pilot we will more than likely be taking the timeline view further and making it production ready. We haven’t yet defined the requirements for the 6-8 week project and it going ahead is subject to some business case analysis and agreement being reached on costs, deliverables and timescale. If it does go ahead however, once we have built it, the pilot will be live to the public on the connected studio site so the BBC can gather some real feedback before making a decision on whether to implement it into bbc.co.uk.

So far the Connected Studio has been a great experience. We have given the opportunity for a a number of our staff to be involved (the team for Build Studio was entirely different to Creative Studio) so it feels like it has been a real team effort. We’ can’t wait for the pilot to begin.

23
May
2012

Red Badger – BizSpark European Startup of the Year?

by Cain Ullah

Microsoft are entering their 8th year of doing the BizSpark European Summit which provides an opportunity for some of the best startups in Europe to present their business ideas and products to a panel of investors and expert judges. I’m presuming that if you are reading this blog, you know what BizSpark is.

Red Badger has been a member of BizSpark pretty much since it’s inception in May 2010. It has provided us with an excellent platform to grow our business by not just providing us with free Microsoft tools but also providing our business with key support through networking, events and key advice (particularly through Bindi Karia).

Anyway, back to the summit. We are incredibly pleased to have been nominated by Microsoft as one of fifteen startups in Europe (and one of two in the UK) to present our business ideas at this year’s summit to be held on 7th June. You can see who all of the other nominees are here. On the day there will be a number of keynotes and panel discussions with the day being MC’d by David Rowan, editor of Wired UK. Presenters and participants include Bob Dorff (co-author of the Startup Owner’s Manual), Professor Jerome S. Engel, last  year’s Summit pitch contest winner Alessandro Rizzoli (CEO of Mobapp), plus Microsoft’s Dan’l Lewin, Corporate Vice President, Strategic and Emerging Business Development.

Startup Coaching

In the afternoon the startups will get their opportunity to present to the 250-400 investors, expert judges, and other guests. They will get a slot for a 5 minute lightning pitch followed by 5 minutes of questions. This is not a lot of time to sell your business idea so Microsoft have provided all of the training and advice to make sure our presentations are as sharp as possible. This includes some high level coaching on our presentations from Mike Sigal, an entrepreneur and startup coach who has been performing this coaching role at the BizSpark Summit for the last 3 years. Having gone through the first iteration of advice from Mike (the second iteration is to follow), I can say his advice is very inspirational. Combining this with the constant coaching from Bindi and a full day of rehearsals on 6th everyone should be well prepared come the 7th. Supporting the coaching is the PR activities surrounding the event being co-ordinated by Maxine Ambrose and Daisy at Forgather ensuring all the startups are meeting their several deadlines leading up to the event.

Our Pitch

What we are pitching is an interesting question as we are slightly different to the other nominees. From what I can gather, the majority of the other nominees have a fairly mature product for which they might be asking for investment for. We are slightly different in that we have a product idea and ultimately want to move in that direction and fairly soon. However, we are currently an early stage product company. What I mean by that is that we want to self fund the product arm of the company through profits made from the client services arm with the two running side-by-side. We’re just not quite there yet. So, our pitch will be geared toward presenting what problems our idea will solve and how the world will be different once it is built. An interesting challenge.

Previous Winners

Previous winners of this event have had great success as a result, gaining lots of recognition as well as some key investment.

Stolen from this page – “In 2009, Swiss company KeyLemon wowed the judges with its face recognition technology and has enjoyed steady success since.  In 2010, the joint winners were Artesian Solutions and Kobojo.  Last year, French games company Kobojo secured over 5 million Euros of investment, has expanded into other countries worldwide and has reached over one million active daily users.  Early this year, Artesian Solutions announced that investor firm Octopus was investing £2 million in this successful young British company, which focuses on sales intelligence.

Last year’s winner is Mopapp, whose CEO Allesandro Rizzoli impressed the judges with his ingenious mobile appstore aggregation service.  Alessandro has since relocated the company from Italy to London and the company continues to grow.”

People’s choice award

This year there is an additional award, The People’s Choice. This goes out to the public vote and is entirely based on people clicking on a Facebook like button. It largely depends on how active you are at promoting your company to all of your personal and company Facebook friends. Not my favourite method of voting but if you have 10 seconds spare, do go and like Red Badger on our Finalist Page.

Summary

That pretty much sums it up. I’ve now got more work to refine the 5 minute presentation, some rehearsals and then the big day. Wish me luck!

9
May
2012

BBC Connected Studio – a fun day of innovation

by Cain Ullah

WP_000670On Friday last week (that is the 4th of May 2012 just in case you are reading this in 2013) we spent an excellent day up in the BBC’s plush new MediaCity, Salford offices with a bunch of BBC folk, other start-ups and generally bright, vibrant people. The cause was the first instalment of the BBC’s Connected Studio. First, a little about what the Connected Studio is and then I’ll tell you some more about the day.

BBC R&D are looking at innovation all the time with the real possibility that some of the very cool new tech they are currently working on not surfacing for another 10 to 20 years.The Connected Studio is an initiative to look at how the BBC can innovate just a little beyond the existing roadmap for digital. The intention is to do this in a collaborative manner with BBC staff working with invited external digital agencies, technology start-ups, designers and developers to participate in generating new ideas, concepts, features and functions . Find out more here.

The main focus areas each having their own creative studio days are 1) Homepage, Search and Navigation 2) Weather and Travel 3) BBC Children’s and 4) The Olympics. There is a reasonably detailed engagement charter detailing the steps to achieve the goal of generating ideas and moving them rapidly through concept to proof-of-concept to pilot. Each focus area will start with a Creative Studio day. This is a one day event (the first being 4th May. More on that later…) to facilitate ideas and concepts. Out of the ideas pitched at the end of the day, a number of the companies or individuals will be invited back to the Build Studio. The build studio is a 2 day innovation workshop to develop ideas and proof-of concepts much like a Launch 48 (although you already have the concept by this point). The objective is to have a working PoC at the end of the 2 days. Of these PoCs, up to five will be invited to work on a 6-8 week Pilot Build for which there will be up to a £50K budget. The BBC then has an exclusive option for a 6-12 month period to take forward any successful pilot it chooses for full product development.

There is a total fund of £1m to develop concepts throughout the year, with an additional £1m of BBC staff time.

That was a quick overview of the overall concept of The Connected Studio I’ll take you through the experience of participating in the first Creative Studio.

The Creative Studio

We were limited to 2 attendees, as I believe was every other company. So I attended along with one of the UX Consultant’s in our network Alex Ng. The Creative Studio on 4th May was all about Homepage, Search and Navigation. Prior to the day we had been provided with a creative brief so knew that the focus was to explore the potential uses of customisation and personalisation.

You have the option of booking in advance, a 15 minute closed pitch with the BBC and a third party. This is for those that already have a developed idea and want to protect their IP. Everyone else presents in an open session, the time you have to present largely depending on the number of people presenting.

Arriving at MediaCity between 9-10 for registration (I left my house at just after 5am) you get a good breakfast before getting started at 10.

The new BBC Office has lots of space that has been built to foster collaboration and creativity. WP_000669We were situated in an events space that had been segregated into a number of areas for the main presentations, break out areas for collaboration and another presentation area for some presentations by some key BBC experts that were open to all if they chose to attend.

Adrian Woolard (Project Lead R&D North Lab) got the day started, introducing us (probably about 60-70 people half of which were the BBC) to what the Connected Studio is, the vision unveiled by Raph Rivera and what was expected of us. James Thornett and Clare Hudson then introduced us to the current homepage and it’s journey to now, their strategic objectives and the challenges they face. At 10:40 we were ready to go and had a 4pm deadline to be ready for the presentations.

We had developed a few ideas into one concept on the train up to Manchester so requested a closed pitch on the day but they were full. So, it turned out soon after that we had a 2 minute slot to present in the open session in front of the audience and the camera. Not nerve racking at all! As we already had an idea we went off into our own little space to develop it further, prepare wireframes and a presentation to fit into the 2 minute time slot. Other people gathered around the “ideas wall” to collaborate with others who up to now, had only half an idea and wanted to create a team to work up some ideas on the day. Others went to speakers corner where various BBC experts were waiting to answer any questions.

Supporting the open spaces were a number of 15 minute “expert” presentations in the morning. The agenda was as follows:

  • 11:00 – 11:15 – Audiences: Simon Williams (Audience Planning Manager)
  • 11:15 – 11:30 – Market Analysis: Tim Fiennes (Senior Market Analyst)
  • 11:30 – 11:45 – Homepage Tech: Tom Broughton (Senior Technical Architect for Homepage)
  • 11:45 – 12:00 – UX&D: Steve Gibbons (Head of User Experience and Design)
  • 12:00 – 12:15 – Personalisation: Phil Poole (Senior Project Manager: Personalisation & Social Platform)

I didn’t attend all of the morning sessions as I was deep into developing our idea but both the Homepage Tech session and the Personalisation session were very useful. Both gave an insight into the current state of their topics plus a view of the roadmap ahead. Especially interesting was Tom Broughton discussing their ambitions to implement a Triplestore to allow semantic search features – something that was prevalent in the idea we were presenting.

A very nice free lunch was available from Midday and then the afternoon session was focussed around developing the presentations whilst those that had closed pitch sessions were presenting in a private meeting room. Linda Cockburn, a creativity consultant that led the BBC’s Creative Network for 5 years, did a presentation on how to present and then there was an opportunity to present your pitch back to her and real members of the Homepage audience to get personalised feedback prior to the 4pm deadline.

At 4pm we were all ushered to the presentation area where a number of plasmas, a microphone and a cameraman awaited. There were twenty-three 2 minute presentations. The whole day (as expected from the BBC) was run to strict timelines, the excellent event production team running a tight ship for everyone involved including the 15 minute morning expert sessions. So, the pressure was on to fit our presentations into the 2 minutes, some of which were cut off because they ran out of time. All-in-all there was a high quality calibre of presentations with some excellent and varied ideas produced. Some were digital but to my surprise most were hand drawn presentations on flip-board paper and there was one presentation told in the form of a story.

At the end of the presentations at 6pm, beer and wine were provided (until 11 if you wanted to stick around for that long) for all of the attendees to mingle. Some very interesting people and all in all an excellent day of fun and innovation. The next step is to wait to see if we get through to the build studio (we should hear by the end of this week). The concepts presented will be judged on, Distinctiveness, Relevance to brief, Innovation, Value, BBC public purposes and Connected Strategy (One Service, Ten Products, Four Screens – http://tinyurl.com/connected-storytelling)

Our Concept

Without doing too much of a reveal, our concept was based around turning the home page into a living thing that is more dynamic and more real-time rather than a navigation step that users spend very little time on. Less than 10% of people used the personalisation features in the previous version of the homepage and lots of people will continue to ignore it. With this is mind we introduced various levels of personalisation and testing the idea of machine learning to automate personalisation as much as possible. Once a semantic Triplestore is introduced, this could be taken a lot further.

Our key points were the following:

  • Make the homepage more useful and more relevant
  • Make the homepage more real-time
  • Surface content that uses automated personalisation as much as possible
  • Cater for varying levels of personalisation from none at all to more interactive users
  • Use the semantic web to improve the “discover” features of the site to be specific to you

Here’s one our mock-ups that we presented to give you a taste of what we were thinking:

image

Summary

I doubt we will pitch for Weather and Travel or BB Children’s creative studios due to this being less relevant to the work we do but you never know. If they interest you though, I would highly recommend getting involved in The Connected Studio whether you are a digital agency, tech firm or and individual designer or developer. It really is an excellent day.

Here’s a few links of interest: