As we now roll full steam ahead into 2012 I thought I’d take the time to do a blog on Red Badger’s year in 2011.
Red Badger was formed in May 2010 with Stuart Harris, David Wynne and I investing some of our savings into building a company based on specific ideals with a specific long term strategy in mind (this has evolved over the last 18 months). We wanted to be in full control of Red Badger’s destiny and as such decided not to seek investment of any kind. We also made an executive decision that we wanted to dedicate ourselves full-time to Red Badger so decided that we wouldn’t contract ourselves out to clients as individuals to fund the building of the company. This of course had it’s implications. We all quit our jobs and for the next year we would be working in each others homes, building up the company with no income whatsoever.
As we entered 2011, the company was nearly 7 months old and we were still just 3 guys working from each others homes. 2010 had largely been about creating a presence. We formed some key partnerships, pitched to potential clients and generally got ourselves out there. In October, we also started to design our twitter app, Birdsong for Windows Phone 7. By January 2011 we had two main channels of work - we had been working on a couple of large pitches (amongst others) for 2 very big clients and developing Birdsong. By 25th January v1.0 of Birdsong was available in Microsoft’s Marketplace.
At this time, Windows Phone 7 was in its infancy having only been released in November 2010 – having been involved in developing on the platform in its beta stages, we had every confidence in a bright WP7 future. However, we knew that Birdsong wasn’t going to contribute to building the foundations of Red Badger in monetary terms and in fact didn’t plan for Birdsong to be making large contributions to Red Badger revenue in the long term as only a small percentage of apps actually make companies a lot of money. Birdsong for us was all about building a Red Badger presence.
The first half of 2011 was an incredibly enjoyable time for Stuart and David being able to focus on developing Birdsong, shipping features in response to customer demand – part of this involved creating a good customer service platform through Zendesk. We also started to do the promotional work around it, engaging with Microsoft at an early stage. The Microsoft activity is on-going but you can read the Microsoft Case Study on-line.
We knew that Stu and Dave’s time on Birdsong was going to be short lived once client projects came through so we had to ensure it was architected really well (This is a given anyway) to allow for someone else to come in, learn the code-base and take over where Stu and Dave left off. By May and over 1,000 BDD specs later, Birdsong was doing pretty well – it was on v1.4, was the leading premium social app on the WP7 platform and had gained some notoriety among the WP7 consumer base and internally at Microsoft. It was achieving what we had set out for it.
We have ambitious plans for Birdsong, were aware that it still had a long way to go and was by no means perfect but were preparing ourselves to have to leave it for a while.
The Madness Begins
In parallel to developing Birdsong we had been working hard on a couple of pitches (amongst others) for 2 really big clients for quite some time (At time of writing neither project is live so we can’t talk about them yet which gives you an indication of their size). In April, we finally won both projects with both of them due to start just a few weeks apart in May and June.
All of a sudden, we needed to build two project teams of ample size and find an office to run them out of. We started plugging into our network of people we have worked with before. We knew they were very high quality but availability was an issue. Everything we do is Agile and built on a UCD approach so we needed integrated teams consisting of a PM, UX Consultants, Designers, Developers, UI Developers and Testers.
With a lot of hard work we somehow managed to assemble two teams with the right people to work on our projects – 90% of which we had worked with before (Which eases the worry of whether you’re getting quality or not).
At the same time, another startup - Fluxx was formed in April. They are a digital strategy company setup up by a number of our friends and former colleagues at Conchango. They had just found a lovely new office in St. Paul’s that would cater for their growth expectations over the next 2 years but at the time they had ample space spare. We were in discussions to partner with Fluxx as a development partner so it made sense for both companies that we would sublet a floor in their building for 6 months.
So, with project wins in place, a new office and a staff rota of the highest quality we secured a bank loan to get us off the ground with rent, buying furniture and equipment. We moved into our new office in May, raring to go.
Both projects were very different but both incredibly challenging and innovative. One is an interactive 3D HTML5 website for a large automobile company with no dependency on Flash for modern browsers. The other is a large Government project that I can’t say anything more about. Both are mutli-platform with Web, Mobile and Cloud elements.
The first thing to do was to get the processes and systems in place through which we would run our projects – we now had clients in Germany so a cloud based infrastructure fitted perfectly (See: How The Cloud Underpins Red Badger’s Business) to allow for a remote but collaborative working environment. We also had to educate our clients in the way we approach and deliver projects.
In May, we kicked off our first project, meeting in Hamburg for 2 weeks for project planning and requirements development (Sprint 0). Once that project was underway we started the kick-off for the 2nd project.
It was a very interesting time, integrating two new teams from scratch, getting used to the new office and spending a lot of time flying between Munich, Cologne, Hamburg and London. Over the next few months we iteratively improved the processes of the projects and solidified our working relationships with both the clients and the Red Badger team internally.
Both of the projects have gone incredibly well and are both still on-going 7 months later.
The Intern Programme
With all of the above going on, it is easy to understand how difficult it had now become for us to focus any time on Birdsong development. This presented us with an issue as we have long term ambitions for Birdsong but it is very difficult to dedicate a resource to it that can be earning us up to £1,000 per day when Birdsong has only made us about £3,000 in a whole year. We decided to align Birdsong development with our plans for developing talented youth by using Birdsong as a training platform for our interns.
So, in June (Earlier than initially planned) we launched our intern programme. We advertised for a few months through our blog and a number of University job board sites. In all, we had 65 applicants for 1 position (admittedly some of these were students that seemed to be applying for everything regardless of position and relevancy of their skillset) so there was quite a lot of work to narrow these down to a final 8. We then set the final 8 a coding challenge, reviewed the code that they sent us and ended up interviewing 3. We finally offered Joe (an incredibly talented and self motivated student at Kings College) a part-time position due to start in November. (Joe’s Blog).
We have given Joe the responsibility of owning Birdsong development and support. We are investing in his long term future at Red Badger (we are investing our hopes on him joining us after graduation) so take a senior developer off of projects to pair programme with him when he is with us. This is costing us over £1,000 a week in developing both Joe and Birdsong but we think both are worth it. If we didn’t have Joe we simply couldn’t justify doing this just for Birdsong development.
Joe has now been with us for a month, has two weeks off to sit exams in the first two weeks of 2012 but is making fantastic progress. There is an incredible amount of code to familiarise himself with but he has almost completed the Trends functionality (a good feature to ease him into the dev) and will soon be able to start moving on to more pressing bits of functionality such as updating the Push Service (which we know is in need of some desperate attention). So hopefully, Birdsong users won’t have to wait too long for an update. Watch this space...
Growth, a new office and new project wins
As well as running our two main projects (delivering quality is our primary focus), the second half of 2011 has been about solidifying partnerships, trying to secure new business, and growth (which is dependent on an improving cash flow).
At the beginning of December, we moved into a new office as we were growing out of the Fluxx space (at the same time Fluxx were getting big enough to grow into the space we vacated). With so much going on it is taking us some time to get the office in ship-shape but the interior designers have been in, we’ve got water supply/drainage fitted and now need to get the kitchen fitted and let the interior designer do his work. Hopefully, it will be done within the next 6 weeks and working in a messy office will be no more.
An important part of our growth is to hire permanent staff so we have started converting some of our contractors to permanents and bringing in other new permanents into the team. Rachel has also joined as Client Services Director (blog) who is responsible for business development and marketing so this should give us the extra focus on new business that we need. We need more people across a varied skillset but finding the right quality (which is absolutely paramount to us) is difficult so that is one of the challenges we face. A nice problem to have.
As well as growing and moving into the new office we have also won new projects, most significantly with a major media corporation doing some innovative rapid prototyping using Node.js (See Steve’s Blog here). We are well shaped for 2012, with 3 large parallel projects and some smaller ones to fit in also. There’s lots of hard but fun work ahead of us.
Moving on to 2012
2011 was a year of transition. 2012 will very much be focussed on securing the future of Red Badger. We have had a great 2011 but it would be naive of us to think we are out of the woods entirely. We are still very young so our focus must be to grow steadily and sensibly and to win new innovative projects with both new clients and existing ones. The first 6 months of 2012 will be very interesting. In the 2nd half of 2012, if all goes to plan, we have some interesting product development plans to kick-off.
We of course, will continue to develop Birdsong, hope to take Joe on for a year long full-time placement in June and may potentially bring in new interns/grads in the summer to bolster the Birdsong development team.
We also will be doing a re-branding exercise and overhauling our desperately out of date website. We just haven’t had the time to do it up to now so hoping to get something moving on that this month.
Exciting but challenging times.
I realise in this (now rather long) blog that I haven’t mentioned Ravensbourne College. Ravensbourne is an innovative, creative University on the Greenwich Peninsula in South East London. They offer great support services to their post-grads and an incubation programme (with the help of a European Development Fund grant) for startups in London. This acts as a stimulus for new entrepreneurship in London. In Jan 2011 we were accepted into the incubation programme which provided us with free facilities and meeting rooms as well as an opportunity to work with other incubatees that were based there. This very much provided us with a platform from which we could launch ourselves. Our first meetings with our clients were held there and our first projects were won there. So, our gratitude goes out to all at Ravensbourne, especially Chris Thompson (Who heads up the Ravensbourne Programme) and Carrie Wootten (Head of Enterprise and Innovation).
Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2012 is as good for you as I’m hoping it is for us. I have a good feeling about it.