Norwich has a thriving #tech community
If you are interested in new technology, you should probably join the @SyncNorwich networking group. Their monthly meetings are a great way to keep in touch with the tech start-up scene in Norwich (and there is the added temptation of free beer, provided by the group’s sponsors). I’ve been to a few now and, while some subjects are over my head (such as “Reconstructing Traces Between Requirements and UML Class Diagrams”), the discussions are always stimulating.
The speakers on 23 October 2014 were particularly interesting because they dealt with opposite sides of the start-up story. Samantha Burton, from the Low Carbon Innovation Fund, explained how her team provided equity financing for small and medium sized enterprises in the East of England (this probably deserves a blog of its own). While serial entrepreneur Steffan Aquarone told us about his battle to build, launch and fund Droplet, a free to use mobile payment app.
I’m not going to try to reproduce Steffan’s talk here – it works best live – but you can read the story on Droplet’s site and if you get the chance to listen to him speak, leap at it. His enthusiasm is infectious and his honesty about the challenges (personal and professional) facing any entrepreneur is refreshing. Instead, I just want to highlight a few points that I think are relevant to anyone setting up in business.
Managed Serendipity is Steffan’s phrase to describe those convenient and surprising connections and insights that occur if you get out enough and retain a sufficiently open mind. They often seem to happen at times of crisis, when a project seems to have hit the buffers: this is when normal people tend to throw in the towel – and when entrepreneurs keep pushing on, looking for a way through, round or over the problem. Some people might call it luck but Steffan’s experience seems to back up his belief that “the route to happiness is to work hard and be nice to people.”
For instance, when Droplet launched in the summer of 2012 it had a different name – a rather dull name actually, with no obvious icon. Fortunately, another company had already registered a similarly dull name and threatened to sue unless Steffan came up with a new one. At about the same time Steffan happened to meet Karen Hughes, who’d been brand director for VISA Europe. Karen liked the mobile payment idea – and the team – so much that she volunteered to join the company as brand director and helped develop the new name with its distinctive ‘droplet’ mark.
Building a start-up is incredibly hard
During the first six-months of 2013, Steffan spent most of his time in Silicon Valley trying to drum up investment. This was because trying to convince traditional financiers to fund Droplet was almost impossible. “Most of the time, when you are launching a truly innovative product, no one has a clue what you are doing or talking about,” he explains.
At one point he’d lined up a £3,000,000 investment, until the supposed ‘Angel’ apparently lost his head for heights and pulled out of the deal at the last minute. With all that time invested, all those hopes raised – what do you do? If you are an entrepreneur who really believes in your idea, like Steffan, you plough on – you do what you have to do to keep the company alive.
Always be learning
That perseverance paid off and the Droplet team eventually secured further funding, although it was considerably less than £3m. However, this near-death experience forced them to reassess their business model – including the relationship between end users and the enterprise merchants. This process eventually resulted in the team identifying a new intermediary customer: the fixer – who organises events (meals out and so on) for groups of friends and ends up collecting the payments. As Steffan says, “you have to keep on learning but keep a sense of perspective too.”
Never, ever give up, ever!
Meanwhile the number of merchants and users continued to grow. In early 2014 Droplet launched in Norwich (having started out in Birmingham), where traders and customers across the city, particularly in The Lanes, have enthusiastically adopted the app. Since then use of the app has spread not just across the country but across the world (as the two maps below show) – this despite users having to have a UK bank account and only being able to make and receive Sterling payments.
Along the way Steffan has built a strong core team: “People not products drive great businesses.”
He has also learnt that building a ‘minimum viable product’, to demonstrate the idea works, is better than having a business plan. “You must be able to clearly explain the core problem your business is trying to fix.”
This got me thinking about a problem that many charities face – how to encourage more people to donate online.
Just giving it away – an idea
Although various charity donation websites exist, they all require donors to set up accounts and enter credit or debit card details. Since this takes time and effort, even if minimal, it almost certainly results in many people not going ahead with their good intentions. If you could make the process even easier – as easy as dropping some loose change in a collection tin, then charities might be able to raise considerably more money.
When I asked Luke Courtenay-Smith, who is Droplet’s representative in Norwich, about this, he explained that charities could set themselves up as approved Droplet traders. They would even get their own QR code, which people with smart phones could simply scan to send payments direct to the charity’s Droplet account. While this would work on the side of donation tins, there are two slight obstacles to this idea working online (although neither is insurmountable).
The first is that the donation sites and charities would need to sign up to the idea. I’ve been in touch with Jonathan Waddingham, JustGiving’s social and labs product manager, and while he is interested in all new payment methods, he would need to be convinced the investment (in terms of implementation) was justified by the number of potential users. The other is that the charities would still need some way of claiming gift aid (which allows them to claim back 25p in tax for every pound donated) – so people would still have to enter some personal details.
However, taking Steffan’s advice and not giving up, I have at least figured out a way of using these blogs to support a local charity called Nelson’s Journey (even if I can’t yet use Droplet to do it). You can read the details in our recent blog – or you can simply click on the button below. Remember:
- £5 could fund a teddy bear for a bereaved child
- £10 could fund a Nelson’s Journey hoodie. These are given to all bereaved children and young people who receive 1:1 support or attend activity days or therapeutic weekends
- £20 could fund a selection of bereavement workbooks for children.
Thank you Steffan for the talk – and to the rest of you for reading
Please donate today
If you enjoy reading our posts or find them useful, please give £5 (or more if you can – the average is £15) to Nelson’s Journey today. Using JustGiving is simple, fast and totally secure. Your money goes direct to the charity, saving the charity time and helping them cut costs.
We will post this donation button on all our blogs for the next year. We hope to hit our target of £99 by the end of 2015. We will then select a new charity for 2016. If you think this is a good idea – please feel free to copy it and support a charity of your choice.
Thank you once again for your support.
Wendy and Huw Sayer