Human connections are important. They’re how things happen.
Recently I visited the University of Surrey to discuss an associate lecturing opportunity with the head of their Digital Media Arts programme. A nice opportunity in itself; the chance to have another university listed on my professional profile (are we still calling it a CV?) and to expand my network and make new connections.
Tech may seem to be king, Artificial Intelligence may seem to rule, and robots may be on the increase (an uprising, if you will), but take away humans and our interactions, what do you have?
Perhaps I have grown to enjoy teaching so much because my appreciation for human interaction and exchange has developed as I’ve grown a little older, a little wiser, and a little more battered around the edges. Despite being a coder happy to work in isolation and a natural introvert (I’m an INFJ last time I checked), I now expend effort to make meaningful connections with others.
As for teaching at Surrey, we’ll see where that goes. That isn’t the focus of this story.
Instead, let me wind back the clock four years and present you with the first connection in this series of most fortunate events.
It started with a LinkedIn invitation
He was a lecturer at the NTFS in Beaconsfield. Let’s call him Jim.
He had been working with two union committee members who had been trying to develop a mobile app to help the union members calculate their pay when working on union rate jobs. In essence, a pay calculator.
I came in for a chat. I met Jim for the first time and then I met the gents from the union who also worked in “the biz”. We’ll call them Bob and Matt.
The job a was a small one but they hadn’t managed to push it over the line. A couple of students had got so far with it but run out of steam. It wasn’t a technically challenging project, but the complexity hid buried in the pay calculations.
Oh what fun that turned out to be!
Money wise, the project had nothing going for it. I’d be paid a token amount. Not quite nothing, but near enough.
I took the gig.
Why? Hard to say. A mixture of idealism, denial and hubris perhaps.
But the thing interested me. I couldn’t resist the pull of a problem where previous attempts to solve it had failed. I wanted to be the guy who solved it. Yep, my ego and my inability to say no likely contributed to the decision.
Looking back, there was no promise of future work, no larger opportunities on the horizon. It was what it was. A meagre little job for not much money. Much less than minimum wage, all things considered.
But I solved the problem. It took a while, but I got it working. I fixed up all the janky logic, got the maths into a robust state, tested exhaustively with one of the union chaps and we had a nifty little “mobile” app (which was actually just a web app, if we’re going to get technical).
This was when things started to get interesting.
Making something cool
They had an idea. What if we took this mobile app and turned it into a platform for wider adoption. Instead of being a tool for individual workers, we could build a platform to help the people running the jobs.
They had a little bit more money this time and I was keen to build upon what we’d already done together. Sunken costs fallacy? Or a realisation that they were onto something? Maybe a bit of both.
Let’s build this thing, I said.
Making something even cooler
I built the thing. It worked. It worked really well. It wasn’t particularly complex, but it filled a need for an industry seriously lagging behind technologically.
We got a couple of customers interested.
Then Bob and Matt said they had another idea. They wanted to turn this small platform into a much bigger platform. It wouldn’t just help manage Z, it would solve the management of X, Y, and Z, with a bit of A, B, and C thrown in as well.
Turns out that this has been their goal all along. Thanks for keeping me in the dark guys!
But I was on board. I was beginning to grasp their vision.
I had gone from knowing nothing about the inner workings of the TV & Film industry to having built a platform that would be used to manage hundreds of artists across hundreds of days of shooting.
Bob and Matt had a bit more cash to throw at it (not much, but something). I took equity as a co-founder to balance things out.
I got coding again.
But how were we going to make money of this thing? I could see us potentially signing up 5-10 paying agencies with some effort. We might slowly build up a passive income. But nothing incredible.
We started to reach out to the wider industry.
This time, it started with a letter
Yep, it started with a letter. A good old fashioned letter printed out on a piece of paper, stuffed into an envelope and then dropped into a letter box.
It turned out that one of the union chaps had been in a large meeting with a fairly high up executive at a large movie production company. We decided to write him a letter.
I posted it off and waited. In the meantime, I kept on coding. I didn’t expect much to come of it. As it happens, the executive has received the letter and he had passed it onto another fairly high up colleague in the production company.
This guy then reached out to me.
We set up a call.
The call was really insightful. As executives go, he was very positive and keen to help. It turned out that there probably weren’t any direct opportunities for us to work with his organisation, but he gave me a couple of other companies to contact who may be interested in what we were doing with our new platform.
I then reached out to these two companies and name dropped the exective who had referred me. The responses were immediate. I set up a meeting with both companies.
The meeting with the first company went well. It went so well that I never made it to the second company.
By the time the first meeting had finished, the owner had offered to buy us out.
A successful “exit” (but not really)
After some negotiation and lots of legal counsel, we sold a majority shareholding to the new owner who would be able to take the platform to places we would never have reached on our own.
Incidentally, I could write a whole series of articles on the process of selling a small tech company, but I’ll save that for another time!
After the sale, I stayed on as Tech Lead. I was still the only developer so this was essential to the deal and I was happy to see the project moving forward with some decent backing.
At the time of writing this, it has been over a year since the same and it has a been a smooth ride. Honestly, how often do you get a smooth ride in this crazy world?
We’re still developing the platform and it is starting to be used in a couple of live environments. We’ve begun to build a small, agile team techies to distribute the system knowledge, drive development and get our DevOps act together. Exciting times.
Overall, this has been a journey four years in the making. So when Jim reached out again after all those years to ask if I’d be interested in doing some associate lecturing at the University of Surrey, it made the last four years play back in my mind.
Conversations are magic
It all started with a speculative LinkedIn connection request and a financially nonsensical project. Funny how things turn out.
It’s a simple concept, arguably a little trite, but when you see it, experience it, live it for yourself, there’s little to argue against.
Conversations are important.
They’re how things happen.