Last week I took part in Seedcamp Paris and presented the demo of Livesheets.
The format is a 3 minute pitch by each company followed by a series of mentoring sessions with 4 or 5 mentors at a time.
The pitch went ok, but in a few of the mentoring sessions I found myself trying to explain basic things about Livesheets and finding it really hard to get my ideas through.
The problem was this: the mentors are super-smart but it’s a long day, they see a lot of pitches and they have no patience for complexity. A room full of people with different backgrounds listened to me carefully and heard what I said, not what I thought. I hadn’t realised how extraordinarily important it is to keep the pitch simple. It is a lesson which applies to investors too.
Simplicity is important in life; it’s at the core of what Livesheets is about. But ironically, I had failed to apply it to my pitch.
I failed to realise that simplicity is more important than polish in the pitch. If you worry about polish, you focus on the wrong things. If you get the pitch clean and clear and simple enough, it’s easy to sound polished anyway.
My journalist sister-in-law explains it well. She uses the ‘Pictionary test’: go through every sentence and think how to draw it in Pictionary. If you can’t draw it, it’s not visual enough and you need a better way to say it.
And if you don’t get it right, nobody is trying to see through it to the deeper meaning. If you sound confusing, people think you’re confused. Contradiction screams out. Unwanted implications stick like glue. You simply don’t get a second chance to explain.
Ask someone who doesn’t know your product to listen. Record it and get their views sentence by sentence. Every single sentence must be blindingly, screamingly clear. When you get that right, the pitch seems to fall in to place. And I think the mentoring sessions would too.
Overall, the event was amazing. I took away hugely valuable advice, great insights, amazing contacts, introductions, and some fantastic offers of help. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all is to keep it very very simple.
Legal documentation is a problem for companies.
Forming legal agreements is a cost of doing business and in particular a cost of forming new relationships. It’s problematic not just because it costs time and money, but it also strains relationships during a time when you really need to be focussed on making friends and turning new business relationships in to long term ones.
The problem is often exacerbated by lawyers, who tend to draft documents which are very much in favour of their clients. This benefits them because there ensues a period of negotiation which can get strung out, to the benefit of lawyers on both sides.
Strong legal documents help us because they enables productive business relationships without having to depend on such a high level of trust. It just needs to be easier to get those documentations in place.
One solution I have been trying to nudge people towards is a register of standard documents which are robust and fair to both sides.
I think a system like this is used in the Netherlands, and perhaps in France as well, although I can’t seem to verify it (if anyone knows, tell me!).
It seems a system like this is not going to be mandated by Government in the UK any time soon - so I am wondering whether we can create it for ourselves.
What I would like to have is a central repository of Open Source Legal Documents. A wikipedia for legal documentation.
Every kind of legal document could be stored there - contractor services agreements, employment contracts, rental contracts, NDAs, whatever. People could add them as required, discuss them, and evolve them over time. The benefit would be huge:
I really want to see this happen, because it will improve my life and improve the world.
So here are the questions: Can it work? Will people contribute? Will people find it useful?
And most importantly - can anyone help me make it happen?
I look forward to hearing your views.
If you follow me on Twitter (@DanielJMaxwell), you might already have seen some talk about Guerrilla Mapping.
Our Guerrilla Mapping campaign was a project to come up with an entirely new way of mapping underground stations and to then sneak into stations, stick maps on the ceiling, and run away. Luckily, the station we chose (Old Street), has a cafe underground, so we can then dash in there and watch whether and how people use the maps (and ask them afterwards).
It is an attempt to solve a couple of problems.
1. When you emerge from a tube station, you have no idea where you are. The maps on the walls help a bit, but not enough.
2. Mapping - in general - doesn’t feel to me like it reflects the way your brain understands geography.
So here are the solutions.
The first idea is this:
Place the map horizontally. You can then orientate it to the surroundings and immediately know which way you’re facing. The floor isn’t great because people will be standing on it, and presumably tables would take up too much space; so why not put maps on the ceiling?
The hope is, it would give you a worm’s eye view of the street above, so that you can see quickly, easily and intuitively, where you are.
The second idea is more drastic:
Change the perspective to give you the information you need.
Your understanding of a place includes a lot of information about how it fits into the rest of what you know about the world. Details nearby are important to you, further away it’s just the big picture that matters.
For example, you are standing on a pavement in the middle of London:
Whilst details nearby are important, further away you want the big picture about what’s over the horizon. But when you emerge from a station, you don’t know a thing.
So as well as placing it on the ceiling, I wanted to create a map which uses a logarithmic projection to get the right combination of detail nearby and big picture further away.
I thought I’d be able to work out the equation for my new projection, plug it into GIS software, and be done. Sadly, it wasn’t that easy.
Open Streetmap data is freely available, but software doesn’t seem to be there to process it the way I wanted.
Instead, I ended up having to download a series of image files, write code to process each in turn and patch the resulting files together. This works at small scale, but at large scale it breaks down because the images have already been subjected to a projection, so are slightly distorted to start with. As you increase the scale, it gets increasingly difficult to patch the images together.
However, this work with images created results which give a general idea. I would love to see something like this used for GPS, where not knowing the wider context of your location is a big problem.
The examples are surprisingly intuitive to read, as long as you’re looking at the top of the map (but that’s ok, you can rotate it, right?).
Here are the examples.
Upper Ground, London (near the Oxo tower). St James’ Park, Green Park, Hyde Park, and Regent’s Park are all visible to the west and north-west:
And here’s one of the whole of the UK, centred on Old street, London. You can see Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the main motorways heading out across the UK:
What I want to know is this: Can anyone take it further? It needs a way to process data openstreetmap data directly, it needs a nice way to scale features by distance and decide what to include, and it needs to work fast. I invite you to try.
Here’s a mobile app idea for London.
Anyone who did it would probably have a window before Google build such a thing into their bog standard navigation, but I suspect that window could be quite long.
Also it would depend on good enough API access to the navigation functionality in Google maps, which may not be there.
Here’s the problem : You want to navigate from one place to another by Boris bike in London. This requires several steps. 1. Use Google maps to look up where you’re going. 2. Switch to a Boris bike app and find the same location visually. 3. Look (visually) for its nearest docking station and check whether there are any spaces free. 4. Go to your current location, find your nearest docking station, and check there are any bikes free. 5. Remembering where your nearest docking station is, go back to Google maps and navigate there. 6. Remembering where your destination docking station was (if you don’t remember, go back to the Boris bike app and find it again), use Google maps to navigate there. 7. Leave the bike. 8. Remembering where your final destination was (perhaps having to go back to the calendar again to find it), use Google maps to navigate there on foot.
If all this could be automated it would save a lot of work. Or more likely, it would actually make Boris bikes usable for unfamiliar trips.
Anyone who can achieve this will become a hero to the hundreds of thousands of users of the scheme. And it might even make some money!
Anyone care to take up the challenge?
A lot of start-ups put all their effort into creating new markets, offering their products directly to end users. This squanders opportunities to help companies who have ready made customers and channels to market. These are people you need on your side and often they are far better positioned to make use of your idea.
Two companies I have come across recently take a more intelligent approach by offering platforms which enable existing companies to enhance their service. This gives them fast access to a large customer base and aligns them with other people’s interests.
The first is WalkExplorer. This mobile application by Wasim Juned offers city walking tours on a pay-per-tour basis. This is a brilliant tool because it is solves this problem by offering itself as a platform. Instead of competing with existing providers, they offer existing providers the opportunity to upload tours of their own and sell them through their app.
And there are so many reasons people might want to create tours. Existing tour companies can offer interesting and engaging tours: although they lose the personal touch they can reduce prices, win more customers, and enable people to go at their own pace; there are tourism agencies who might want to offer free walks, and there are local businesses who might want to offer walking tours to bring people past their businesses. The 50% fee taken by the company is probably a bit steep for mass adoption at the moment, but my guess is this will fall over time.
The second interesting tool is Zuztertu by Gerlinde Gniewosz. This is a teach tool which doesn’t offer its own content but enables teachers to create their own material class-by-class. They can upload photos, teaching material, games and tests, all of which their students can read and complete on their phones. There are obvious obstacles: They will need to know that all of their students can access the material so it must work on every phone and probably also be available via a normal browser; there may also be a few questions about whether it is good that it encourages children to complete homework on the bus or in front of the TV. But this idea is well worth experimenting with and I would imagine could see a huge market in the future.
These are nice business models which are easy for market encumbents to embrace. They win friends of the business rather than enemies. And in a startup you can never have too many friends.
About two weeks ago, Jason DaPonte launched his new iPhone app TubeTab, which applies on your behalf for refunds on delayed tube journeys. A week later, an episode of Dragon’s Den (at 29m30s) featured Safiya Hussain unsuccessfully pitching her company NoParkingFine.com (who challenge your parking fines on your behalf).
Both companies help customers assert their rights.
Following a previous proliferation of more general consumer-power businesses such as Tripadvisor, it seems to show an increasing appetite amongst consumers for empowerment.
It is easy to see potential in other areas for businesses such as these - most obviously with train and rail journeys. But perhaps where this sector gets interesting is if the company can combine data from multiple customers to achieve greater leverage than customers could achieve alone.
For example, what if you wanted to be better able to assert your rights against your ISP? A company could offer software which monitors your speed and applies for compensation for sub-standard speeds. But what if the problem is more subtle?
A service which combined data could identify packet shaping or other patterns which would be too well disguised to be identifiable from an individual connection. A company providing this service could identify a problem, provide the proof, put victims in contact with each other, or perhaps even pursue class action on their behalf.
We could see any number of companies springing up in future which help people assert their rights collectively.
It would be nice, for once, to see data being collected purely for the benefit of the customer.
Short Stories by Ruth Maxwell: The Map -
“Grandma, you have so many lines on your face!” Susan’s fingers softly caressed my cheek as she wriggled slightly on my lap. “Your face is like a map.” I smiled bravely, “Well, perhaps it’ll lead you to the hidden treasure” She giggled. “Oh, that’s easy. That’s right here.” And she…
Reading the news you are forced to filter nonsense press releases from real news. It’s a job we might have hoped our press would do on our behalf.
Last week a story ran across the media stating that IE users have a lower IQ than users of other browsers. I ignored it because almost all stories that headline with a ‘fact’ come from PR companies or are commissioned research for the purpose of PR.
Obviously it didn’t have much basis in fact. That was clear from the beginning. But what makes this interesting is that the BBC later pulled the story because it turned out the PR company which released the story didn’t exist - proving it to be a hoax (as opposed to a made-up story invented for the purpose of marketing).
I’m not sure why they draw such a distinction between the two. It seems to me that neither deserve to be published; and if anything the PR story even less so.
To the BBC’s credit, they did actually check with two separate experts (Matt Parker of @standupmaths fame and David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk) but why they failed to take their advice that the story was conspicuous nonsense is a mystery.
Plenty of other news networks ran the story with out a moment’s thought of checking.
It shows how little faith we should really have in our news networks to feed us reliable and accurate news.
Here is a discussion about it on @timharford’s More or Less (Go to 23m50s): http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b012x12m/More_or_Less_05_08_2011/
We have started organising Lean Startup Practice 2. It’ll be within the next 2 months. Details coming soon here and on the PreStart site…