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This is Ian Ozsvald's blog (@IanOzsvald), I'm an entrepreneurial geek, a Data Science/ML/NLP/AI consultant, author of O'Reilly's High Performance Python book, co-organiser of PyDataLondon, a Pythonista, co-founder of ShowMeDo and also a Londoner. Here's a little more about me.

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25 November 2012 - 19:50StartupChile (Round 2.1) all finished, thoughts

The odd thing is that I’ve been trying to write this post for 3 months. Having started and stopped several times (including during the flight back from Chile on Oct 15th) I figure I ought to put something out. The journey was, it turns out, somewhat of a roller-coaster ride.

Early in January Kyran Dale and I flew to Santiago for Round 2.1 of StartupChile to build StrongSteam, a cloud-based computer vision API. Emily (my fiancée) also won funding and came out to build TinyEars. Sadly StrongSteam didn’t make it (my co-founder and I went in different directions, it was easier to end the project).

The goal of the StartupChile project is to bring working entrepreneurs in from around the world to teach Chileans how to build start-ups. Teaching includes running events, building partnerships, explaining lessons-learnt in prior experiences and explaining that failure/experimentation is a part of the process. In return we stay for 6 months, get a $40k reimbursement package (90% of our expenses up to $40k USD are reimbursed via a slightly torturous bureaucratic process) and are free to leave at the end. We never have to register our business our there, give up shares or pay tax on foreign earnings.

During the last 8 months I:

  • ran a pair of Python programming courses (material open-sourced)
  • started private self-mentorship groups (now an official part of the StartupChile programme)
  • built a novel AI backend with Kyran for using Optical Character Recognition to replace the need for QR codes (which is now OpenPlants)
  • won ‘best choice for investment‘ on the Jason Calacanis show This Week in Startups (ha!)
  • played with Kinects and Python for rock-sizing with computer vision for the Chilean mining industry
  • organised some data meetups
  • spoke on agile lessons-learnt
  • presented to VCs and Angel groups (and got offered $500k investment lumps in both San Francisco and Chile)
  • received acquisition offers from companies in San Francisco and Chile
  • presented at conferences like PyCon and got mentions in places like the BBC
  • wrote up demo day meets
  • finished the programme by moving with Emily to San Francisco for 2 months to continue our networking

The main upsides of the programme are:

  • time to build your idea without the need to work/consult to pay the bills (your living expenses are covered)
  • lovely group of proactive people to meet from both around the world and locally
  • supportive (if overworked) staff members who do their best to help
  • lovely people in Chile in general (warm, friendly, interested, those building companies are particularly open and friendly)
  • increasing recognition in the investment/startup community which opens doors (e.g. The Economist and others covered it recently) – a few months ago StartupChile held its first Demo Day in San Francisco to ease fund-raising
  • easy access to North America if you’re coming in from outside the US (I used it as a springboard in our final two months to head to San Francisco to continue the networking)
  • you’re encouraged to travel within Chile to teach other groups, you also have easy access to places like Argentina and Uruguay if you fancy traveling (we certainly did) and can justify it as work-related
  • other related spaces like the Santiago Hackerspace and new co-work venues are popping up

The main goal of the programme definitely seems to be working for the Chileans. In our time in Chile we saw many Chileans step forwards with either young working companies or ideas (some high-tech, many not), who then got on with building, partnering and growing their businesses. The company registration process is being massively simplified, failure is becoming more acceptable (generally it is not socially acceptable to fail – much the case in the UK only 20 years ago – and thankfully that attitude is changing in Chile).

More Chileans are traveling around the world, more doors are being opened in cities like San Francisco and more money, connections and opportunities are flowing back into Chile. Being part of a government’s experiment to change their citizens’ attitude to risk (and seeing it work) has been a very rewarding experience.

On a personal level I’ve also made some lovely contacts – people I’d work with who I consider friends who I’d never have met otherwise. I suspect that the “StartupChile Mafia” (ex-StartupChile folk) will open doors for all of us in the programme in the future too. I’ve met a few ex-StartupChile folk here in London (one by accident in the pub last week – hi Michael!) and I’m wondering if we can run a Mafia meetup before Christmas.

There are several downsides to Chile which should be considered by future applicants:

  • there’s a reason we’re paid to be entrepreneurs in Chile – the ecosystem is lacking certain things and maybe you’d not setup shop there otherwise. Make sure your eyes are open to the very young/conservative investment scene, the small tech community and the conservative nature of businesses (bureaucracy and caution->long time to get things done)
  • things that worked elsewhere in the world a few years ago will probably be successful now in Chile (e.g. people building online food services and education sites were doing well, persons trying to offer novel AI/data applications and things requiring iPads had a, well, harder time of it) so don’t assume your cutting edge idea from California will move quickly in Chile
  • the air in winter is polluted and horrid (bad news if e.g. you have asthma) but lovely in summer
  • the programme’s goals are focused on making Chile successful (and not you, per se, but that’s a nice side-effect for StartupChile if it occurs)
  • most people only speak the Chilean-variant of Spanish called Chileno (StartupChile participants and staff all speak some level of English) – this can make buying things in the street a bit of a challenge – try to learn some Spanish before you come
  • there was little explanation about the interests & needs of companies within Chile – for example it took me months to learn just how large and hungry the mining industry is for innovative solutions (and it is a rich industry)

I spoke with Mitch Altman (a founder of the San Franciscan hackerspace Noisebridge) recently and, paraphrased, he pointed out that in most places in the world (he travels a lot to promote hackerspaces) if you open the door to encourage experiments, accept failure and encourage small business and knowledge sharing then It Just Tends To Happen. I suspect that this model can be applied around the world, without big Government funding, and I expect to see many more countries try this bottom-up approach of bringing entrepreneurs in (rather than building expensive ‘innovation clusters’ that rarely seem to perform).

There are other positive and negative write-ups about the programme including Emily‘s, Liis Peetermanns‘s, another, Nathan Lustig, Maptia (lovely British team!). My posts here are under the startup-chile tag.

If you’re interested in building your business in South America then this is the go-to programme. If you need 6 months time in an interesting country with an increasing investor scene, this is not a bad choice. If you want mentorship and hands-on help or you want to deal with the large corporates that you might find in London, New York or Frankfurt then Chile hasn’t proven itself here yet (though it may, given time). What’s impressed me most about the programme is the way it keeps on improving – keep an eye on it, definitely consider it! Seek a wide set of opinions if you want to apply, lots of people experience the programme differently.

Emily and I have discussed what we’d like to see in future StartupChile-like programmes (I suspect we’ll see more, with further innovation, as Governments wake up to the positive change that can occur):

  • invite academics and industrialists to a country to work on a specific problem for a fixed time period without heavy-handed IP controls but funded like StartupChile – this could be a wonderful way to foster innovation and collaboration and to build new IP that could be exploited (perhaps with a share in the IP being owned by all in these projects)
  • setup targets for sector improvement in a country – e.g. in Chile perhaps choose to make mining more energy efficient – then invite companies to come with industrial doors opened and primed for collaboration (so many StartupChile companies could have formed local partnerships if only doors had been opened so the incumbents knew we were coming!)
  • list the problems that entrepreneurs could solve and make it public – actively seek entrepreneurs to visit to try to fix things (e.g. in Chile the winter pollution must be fixable, education is super-expensive [which led to student protests] and surely can be improved, the mining industry suffers from growing energy and mine-discovery costs)
  • encourage an alumni group so past members can easily help future members (something that’s been long discussed in StartupChile but seems to be low on the agenda)
  • work harder to jump language & cultural barriers – in Chile we were told everyone on the programme would speak English but the locals notably didn’t so the very people we were trying to help were hard to communicate with – add language & cultural lessons to a programme to ease the transition for both sides

As of now I’m back to my AI consulting for natural language processing (working with the lovely team at AdaptiveLab in Shoreditch), tinkering on the side with industrial needs learned via StrongSteam in annotate.io. If you’re ex-StartupChile and you’d be interested in meeting in London, drop me a line.

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

1 Comment | Tags: ArtificialIntelligence, Business Idea, Entrepreneur, Life, StartupChile

22 November 2009 - 13:30How I’m writing The Screencasting Handbook

Many people have asked why I’m writing a book without a publisher.  The story has interested a bunch of people so I’ll outline the basics here.

Update: there’s a related article by Marc-André Cournoyer covering how he wrote his “Create your own programming language” eBook.

I started writing The Screencasting Handbook in the middle of this year (about 5 months back).  My primary motivation was to write a useful Handbook that teaches my 4 years of skills to new screencasters.  My main goals were to:

  • Release early, release often – so I can iterate based on the needs of my readers rather than the needs I’d guess that they have (based on some support at the Business of Software forum)
  • Get the written parts out as soon as possible – I didn’t want drafts kicking around for a year before a publisher released them to the readers, I wanted the chapters out in the hands of readers as soon as possible
  • Build a community (Google Group) around the Handbook – so my readers can ask and answer questions without me acting as a bottleneck

To achieve this I needed to create a site and determine if there was demand for the topic.  I had a WordPress theme created which signs potential readers up to an AWeber mailing list (costing $20USD/month) and I setup a Google Group.

I then put the word out to screencasters, mostly through ShowMeDo and by writing some useful blog posts that were picked up by screencasting companies.

At the same time I wrote a proposed Table of Contents (August) and released a survey via SurveyMonkey (free account).  I released this into the Google Group and asked for feedback.  I iterated a few times (September) based on feedback until everyone figured that I would cover the most beneficial topics.  At this point I added the Table of Contents as a PDF to the Handbook’s homepage.

By now I had 50 or so people signed up to the list – between the silent sign-ups and the active users in the Google Group I knew that the book would be in demand.  The survey detailed all the areas that caused problems for screencasters so I could be sure that by answering those questions, others would want the Handbook.

Pricing and releasing

At this point I cracked on with writing the Handbook.  I quickly went from 1,000 words to 10,300 and in October I announced that a new release was being prepared for sale.  I announced that the target price of the finished book would be $39USD and that early-bird purchasers could get it for $26USD (a 1/3 discount).  I also offer an unconditional refund at any time.

The payment gateway is PayPal and the front-end is e-junkie, they take payment and offer downloads for just $5/month.  Integrating the e-junkie basket into WordPress involves copying over a few lines of javascript, it is all very simple

At the start of November I released version 4 into the Google Group and announced it on the mailing list, this was quickly followed by a 5th release which added a new chapter.  I’m also about to decrease the discount by $1 taking the price up to $27USD.

After purchase everyone gets invited onto a second emailing list for Handbook Updates (and they’re removed from the first mailing list).  The second list is used to mail out links to updated versions of the PDF.  I also mail out a second survey about a week after purchase to ask the reader if they found the book useful and to ask what else I need to cover soon.  The feedback from the surveys and the Google Group is invaluable.

Figures so far – in several months with only a little effort at publicity I signed up over 200 users to the mailing list.  Just over 10% of those became buyers in the first week of releasing version 4 (given that the book is only about 1/6th written I’m pretty happy with this).  Next week I’ll be writing a couple of extra chapters and then I’ll be increasing my publicity.

I’m releasing my beginner screencasts on the Handbook’s blog for free, this will help prove the quality of the Handbook and it will bring in more visitors.

Print on demand?

Once I reach ‘edition 1’ I imagine I’ll release a print-on-demand version via lulu.  Several readers have already asked for a printed copy rather than a PDF.  ‘edition 1’ is a way off yet – probably early next year some time.


I’m writing the Handbook with Google Docs, I can edit it from home or whilst sitting in Cafe Delice.

To publish a new version I download a PDF.  I use Apple’s Preview to open the PDF and then ‘print to PDF’ a shorter version containing just the first 15 or so pages.

I upload the shorter version as the Outline to the Handbook’s homepage.  The longer version goes to e-junkie (for new purchasers) and to my second AWeber list (where everyone who has bought a copy gets notified about new releases).

I’ve used Google Website Optimizer to A/B test the landing page, with the Google Website Optimizer plugin for WordPress you just copy over the javascript that GWO provides to three pages (A, B and result page) and it starts to track conversions.  If there’s interest I’ll write some details on the (few) things that I’ve learned about landing page design.

I’ve already discussed AWeber, SurveyMonkey and Google Groups above.

Having an ‘accountability buddy’ helps!

Andy White is writing Podcasting Unleashed at the same time, we’re meeting every two weeks to push each other forwards and trade tips.  We’re both using WordPress and he’s about to move to Aweber so we’ll have pretty much the same setup.  Knowing that your partner is making progress when you’re having a slow day is a great motivator to write a few more pages!

Edition 2?

I’m thinking about the needs of a second edition, I’m wondering if a book format (with a linear series of pages) is wrong and perhaps a wiki is a better tool.  It would certainly allow collaborative content creation.  I’d also like to build some tools like an automatic de-noiser and a scripting tool.

Want to write you own eBook?

It occurs to me that the above process might be useful to other people who want to write their own book, particularly those who want to get early feedback from a potential audience before committing to write a full book.

One possibility is the construction of a site that makes ‘everything easy’ for a potential author.  If you’d like to know if I push this idea in the future, make a comment below which includes your email.

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

2 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, Life, ProCasts, Screencasting, The Screencasting Handbook

4 October 2009 - 18:11Vicinity-like iPhone app for ‘nearby people I’ve met on-line’?

Another from the crazy ideas dept….

Whilst preparing for the ‘How to build a network‘ workshop last week I got to wondering about conferences and groupings of geeks (and Normals, but they need to catch-up with our tech first).

Why is it that when I’m at a conference or event, I don’t know if anyone nearby is a person that I haven’t met in real-life but someone that I do know online?  Surely there’s an iPhone app for that…

Here’s what I want – I start (proposed duff name) ‘WhosHere’ and it tells me, via my location:

  • TF people are nearby that are Twitter friends (two way reciprocal relationship or at least I’m following them)
  • NF people are nearby that I’ve referred to on Twitter but I don’t follow or vice-versa
  • BL people are nearby who have a blog that I’ve commented on (see below for details)
  • EM people are nearby who I’ve referred to in email recently (see below for details)
  • Same for Facebook, LinkedIn etc…

Probably I can mark off people that I know well so it doesn’t keep showing them to me (or maybe they appear in a separate tab?) – I’m interested in finding out when people I don’t know well are nearby as this will help me to turn weak-ties into stronger-ties.

Tieing a location to Twitter friends is probably really easy (assuming they’re posting location info). Presumably searching for people tweeting via a location is also easy (since iPhone apps already do it).

For the blog (BL) report the iPhone app would need to talk to a service that can check the Twitter profiles of nearby people, reference their blogs (or use a social graph explorer) and determine if I have left them a comment (since I’d use my domain when commenting) or linked to their blog.  I’d love to see this in an app!

For the email (EM) report the app would need to read my email (can it do that?) and look for names or URLs that are mentioned.  From these it can do a similar lookup via nearby Twitter people as for the blog report above.  Knowing that a company or individual is nearby that I’ve referred to in an email with a friend could be really interesting.

Am I barking up a crazy tree or does this idea make some sense?

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

5 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Life

13 September 2009 - 20:00Recognising number plates to make drivers’ ‘social network’?

Warning – this is a rambling mental outpouring generated during my drive home today…

Often when driving I muse on the future possibility of seeing an AR overlay on my windscreen telling me a bit about other drivers – principally whether or any of these drivers are nutters who will drive dangerously.  Sometimes it is nice to know that someone is ‘often polite’ – we’d be more likely to reciprocate and let them out of a tricky junction if we knew they often behaved this way.

How could this information be collected?  Assuming we can id the car (or better – the driver) I’d assume we could easily leave a vote for or against a driver.  The UI would need some thinking (verbal might be nice?) but assuming a simple feedback mechanism were possible, you could build some very useful information into this network.

The other obvious problem is how to identify the driver?  I’ve wondered about having iPhones and mobile devices sharing their id locally but that opens privacy worries – what about automatic number plate recognition?  Cars are normally driven by one person so if you tag driving style to a car, you’ve got a fair chance of characterising the driver.

My girlfriend and I share both our cars so the accuracy for us would be 50/50 but I think we drive ‘similarly enough’ that aggregate statistics wouldn’t be too inaccurate.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Future cars are more likely to include cameras for collision avoidance (ok, a camera might be overkill, IR distance measurement may be adequate?) and possibly for insurance claims.  I don’t see why a set of geeks wouldn’t mount a laptop with camera into a car and build their own ad-hoc drivers information network.

Any takers?

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

2 Comments | Tags: Business Idea

31 July 2009 - 17:59The Micropreneur Academy

Rob Walling has been working to build the Micropreneur Academy – a focused site aimed at MicroISV’s who want to grow their businesses into high-value, fast-growth affairs (original May announce).

He contacted me a few months back to ask if I’d like to contribute an article on how screencasts can boost sales of software products, naturally I jumped at the chance!

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first logged in.  Rob had sent me a login as I wanted to know what the community looked like, and what they’d need, before I wrote the article.  I was pleasently surprised to see a sort of mini-BusinessOfSoftware forum (i.e. friendly, helpful people who are working on cool stuff) backed by an awful lot of solid start-up knowledge written by Rob.

Knowing that I’d have to add an article of similar quality I spent time dissecting Rob’s articles.  Having worked in start-ups for 10 years and having founded 3 of my own, I had an idea about a lot of the content, but I kept finding nuggets of really useful material in Rob’s articles.

I was left wishing I’d had access to this when Kyran and I had founded ShowMeDo back in 2005!  I must also confess – I ended up using some of Rob’s ideas on market research to help plan my new eBook entitled The Screencasting Handbook.

Anyhow, I ought to cut this long story short.  I wrote the article and found a set of happy readers inside Rob’s forum.  I’m now also a mentor in his group because of my experience with on-line community building in ShowMeDo.

Rob’s about to open up the site to new membership, so if you have an interest in finding a closed group of people who are all building their own online start-ups, backed by lots of solid knowledge, do take a look at the Micropreneur Academy.

You can see two other write-ups by paying members for an idea of the value they see in the site.  Rob’s also very chatty, you can easily get in touch with him if you sign-up to ask any questions.

The following are a couple of the start-ups run by members of the academy (I don’t know any of these, but I did recommend another start-up who has happily joined!):

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

No Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, ProCasts, Screencasting, ShowMeDo

1 December 2008 - 19:00£5 App Xmas Special Listing Details

We’re plotting our 14th £5 App meet.  This, our second Christmas Special, will have a gamesy happy crimbo feel.  Picture (from a few months back) kudos to Josh:

£5 App evening in full swing

Date: Wednesday 10th December, sign-up on Upcoming please.  Location The Werks (Hove nr Palmeira Sq) – note their piggy bank for a second projector at the end of this post please.

Our very own Aleks Krotoski will lead the evening with the launch of the Guardian’s new on-line text adventure SpaceShip!

Following Aleks’ main talk we’ll have a set of shorter 10 minute demos:

  1. Lightsaber mobile phone duelling by Marko (Lastminute.com Labs)
  2. Fighting Mini-sumo robots by Emily
  3. In-development 3D iPhone game + backstory by Dominic Mason
  4. Flash 3D Snow and Xmas games by Seb (PluginMedia)
  5. Eye-controlled Pong by Ben Rubinstein (CogApp)

You’ll meet lots of local developers, freelancers and business founders including people of Farm Brighton, Girl Geeks, Sussex Innovation Centre, Inuda and The Skiff, The Werks, EuroGamer, BrandWatch, ClearLeft and Madgex.

The Ribots are sponsoring us with Festive Alcohol and (fingers crossed) Xmas Cakery.

Related – Seb’s Big Screen Bonanza Flash night is the day before ours, check it out for 200+ seatage Flash-demo crazyness.

Note – The Werks are looking for donations towards a second projector, do the right thing and support ’em here:

Click here to lend your support to: The Werks and make a donation at www.pledgie.com !

Ian applies Data Science as an AI/Data Scientist for companies in ModelInsight, sign-up for Data Science tutorials in London. Historically Ian ran Mor Consulting. He also founded the image and text annotation API Annotate.io, co-authored SocialTies, programs Python, authored The Screencasting Handbook, lives in London and is a consumer of fine coffees.

1 Comment | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, Programming, projectbrightonblogs, sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

3 October 2007 - 9:44“Set your own price” for goods?

[Update – added Kottke.org micropatron report near the end]

RadioHead have taken a bold move with their latest album “In Rainbows” as they allow fans to set their own pricing for the digital download (summary, long write-up with pictures of the process).

Except for a fixed credit-card overhead (around 45p) it seems that you can set any price you want (0p? Apparently 0p can work). Obviously this is a damned disruptive move for a large music group in the established industry, and about time too.

This is covered at Slashdot and BoingBoing and with an economics twist on The Long Tail and at the always-insightful BubbleGeneration:

“In quite a bit of recent work, we’ve been pointing out to clients that it’s a trend that is on the cusp of explosion…because it’s gonna absolutely revolutionize the economics of music.

Suffice it to say that open pricing is a strategic solution which deeply, deeply dominates the economics of music.”

I’ve toyed with the idea of using adaptive and user-defined pricing for our two commercial Python tutorials at ShowMeDo. So far we’ve settled for a fixed $10 purchase price – but maybe we should revisit a more flexible pricing model?

I particularly like the idea of letting a user choose their own price, having first established a ‘recommended’ price, and later giving the user the option of donating more if they really liked the content.

This lets people pay less than they might if they’re unsure and then come back and top-up the price if they found the information valuable. This would of course be backed by a money-back guarantee, that goes without saying.

A similar thread was discussed over on the 37signals blog for ‘Jane Siberry’s “you decide what feels right” pricing‘:

“The Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry has a clever system: she has a ‘pay what you can’ policy with her downloadable songs, so fans can download them free – but her site also shows the average price her customers have paid for each track. This subtly creates a community standard, a generalized awareness of how much people think each track is really worth. The result? The average price is as much as $1.30 a track, more than her fans would pay at iTunes.”

Jane’s site includes a page describing her approach and it contains statistics on the prices currently being paid by purchasers.

This comment on the RadioHead thread at Slashdot covers several related examples of set-your-own-price music sales.

Matt Weston sent me a pointer to Jason Kottke’s kottke.org – during 2005 he ran a fund drive asking his readers (as ‘micropatrons’) to support his salary so he could work on the blog full-time. As far as I’m concerned his blog is a ‘digital good’ for the sakes of this entry.

He reports on day 2 and got some media coverage and raised just enough money to pay 1/2 his normal salary for a year.

After 2 months he gave an informative report on the results of the funding drive:

“And finally, the answer to the $64,000 question: is this a sustainable business model for independent media on the Web? The short answer is probably no, with a few caveats.”

Along with a concluding report after a year:

“[2] Since everyone and their uncle has been asking, about 1450 micropatrons contributed $39,900 over the past year…99.9% of that coming during the 3 week fund drive.”

Jason’s case is the only micropatron experiment that I know of (thanks for the reminder Matt) – anyone know of others?

A feedback mechanism is important, in ShowMeDo we could easily show what a user paid (and donated) and a user’s profile would presumably state if they were a penniless student or the MD of a tech company. Giving people a chance to be honest, pay what they want, and be a responsible member of a community feels like a very sensible thing to consider.

Are there more examples of setting your own price for a digital good that I’ve not covered here?

3 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, Life, ShowMeDo

29 September 2007 - 12:21Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 3)

Most people are helpful and supportive of freelancers. They know that freelancers survive by being good, trustworthy and helpful and so they try to help. Do remember to tell people that you are freelancing, what you do and what you’re looking for.

Don’t bore them, just let them know what you need and they’re bound to bear you in mind when they meet other people. Always let people know if you’re about to be available, you don’t want unplanned downtime.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources.

Meeting People at Events

There are plenty of events you can go to as a freelancer to meet potential clients and freelancers. Here in Brighton we have a great set of local geek events [Sussex Digital – thanks Dave & Josh!].

OpenCoffees are a great and relaxed way to meet local small companies (I’m co-founder of OpenCoffee Sussex).

Look out for Geek Dinners and Girl Geek Dinners (boys need a girl to invite them). Here we have the Sussex Geek Dinners and Brighton Girl Geek Dinners. Each are free to attend and great places to network. We also have Vine Brighton, your area is bound to have similar events.

Brighton hosts the £5 Apps meet (I’m a co-founder) – a meetup for those that are interested in start-ups and can-do techy types. Someone presents and idea or company they founded, everyone asks questions, beer is consumed, people network. See past write-ups of our last six £5 Apps meetings.

Make Yourself Known by Organising Events

A great way to get known in a local scene is to organise events. You can offer to help run existing events but if there’s something missing and you want to see it happen – organise it!

I wanted a venue to discuss entrepreneurship, my friend John wanted a geek event to discuss projects, we created the £5 Apps as a result. After 6 months we now have a successful event, beer is funded by local companies and we have 20-30 attendees every month. We’d love to hear about other £5 App events elsewhere in the country – drop us a line if you want to run one!

Similarly, with another Jon (Inuda) we wanted a relaxed coffee morning for local tech companies so we organised OpenCoffee Sussex at the Sussex Innovation Centre. We’ve had 7 great meetings now, bi-weekly, they’re also now funded allowing free coffee, each is attended by 12-20 local companies.

Organising events takes a few hours a month and is a great way to get yourself known. In part I wanted the £5 Apps as I’m a bit overwhelmed by public speaking – running an event is a good way to get essential practice at speaking in public.

I also felt that Brighton lacked a mailing list for tech companies to talk business. Along with Ivan Pope we organised the Brighton Digital mail-list. The list is small and building a list always takes time, it grows every week and over time it will become a useful local resource. We’ve already had some conversations between local companies discussing local resources and swapping ideas.

What’s the value of these events?

As ever – you have to offer value to other people when you organise things. Your own events and mail-lists aren’t a mouthpiece for shouting about your own company, they’re just a useful way of establishing your credibility whilst providing a useful feature to others.

Figure out what is missing in your local scene and build an event around that. Find a partner who wants to share the workload, make sure there is interest and then just do it. It’ll take a few events to gather steam, don’t be put off – most people will only pay attention when something is ‘more established’.

If you’re building a new geek event then feel very welcome to post a comment here. We’d especially like to see the £5 Apps syndicated elsewhere 🙂

No Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

27 September 2007 - 11:26Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 2)

Turning yourself into a freelancer is easy – you probably want a Ltd. company (see Part 1) and you need to know what you are offering, where you are offering it (probably local places that you can travel to) and who you are offering it to.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources.

Becoming a successful freelance programmer is harder – you need a constant supply of interesting work which pays well. You also want clients who will recommend you to others as this simplifies the job of finding new work.

You need interesting work else you will get bored. You need well-paying work as you have to cover yourself for holidays, sickness, down-time when you search for new work, accountancy fees and tax.

A simple rule of thumb is that you’ll pay 1/3 of your overall salary to income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance.

Finding new Work

You’ll spend a lot of time finding new work. Sometimes you can start straight away, sometimes you have to arrange a start date up to a month in advance. You don’t want to be free-wheeling without work so you’re probably going to be working for 1 client and searching for new work at the same time.

Searching for new work normally means sending emails, knocking on nearby doors (ideally in places like an Innovation Centre with lots of close and related companies) and talking to friends in the industry.

Remember – if you run out of work then you have to work hard, without getting paid, to find new work. This is an easy way to run out of your savings and get in a panic.

This is not nice, it will happen to you, you will work darn hard at solving the problem and you’ll get out of the mess and learn from it (I did, several times). Try to avoid it though, it really saps your energy and makes life crappy for a while.

Being a good freelancer

I’m going to assume that you’re an honest and reliable person. Your friends can recommend you in a heart-beat, you can honestly say what you are good (and bad) at and you can advise a potential client if you can help them or not.

Be honest and helpful, always recommend other people who might be useful. Help the potential client to understand what needs solving (often they need an outsider to help clarify things), offer to do some free work with them for an hour or two to help get to the root of any problems. Give them confidence that they can trust you to solve their problem.

Don’t be an idiot, never avoid communication, make everything clear (including costs and hours that you’ll work) and clarify what needs delivering and required timescales in writing (e.g. an email or printed document). Life is easier if both parties agree on what need’s doing, why it needs doing and how long it should take and cost.

Showing up

Woody Allen (probably) said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”. It surprises me how many people avoid contacting a possible client due to their own fears – they literally talk themselves out of a possible contract.

Remember that if you have skills and you potential client might need those skills, they need to get those skills from somewhere! Don’t ignore that client, instead go talk to them. Analyse their problem, you can always advise them that the problem is outside of your skill set (bonus points if you can point them at a more skilled associate).

I’ve found a lot of consulting work comes because I:

  1. Talk to someone briefly about what they’re doing
  2. Talk some more, helping them understand the problems they’ve expressed and if/how you could help
  3. Offer to solve their problem

Lesson – talk to many people frequently, ask them what problems they have, try to help solve the problems. If you know people you can recommend then spread the love and help your associates – what goes around does tend to come around in your favour.

Here’s another article on successful consulting.

3 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, sussexdigital

26 September 2007 - 13:04Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 1)

Three years ago I dropped out of being a paid-employee and switched to being a consultant. I’ve had a number of people ask about my experiences as they’re interested in following a similar route. I’m going to write a short set of posts on the subject and I welcome questions.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources. First I should set the scene.

Why did I quit my job?

For five years I worked at the MASA Group developing A.I. software for ‘big industry’. Our company sat outside of the dot-com boom and bust, none of our products were associated with the web.

I was well-placed in the UK office as Senior Programmer and I ran projects between the UK and French offices, met clients and planned the technical future of our operations. Life was fun. I had however always wanted to be my own boss…

During the last year of my employment the company changed direction and the UK office was bought-out by my direct boss – the new focus wasn’t so much fun for me. The company had a tricky time figuring out who it serviced and what it offered and after a year I chose to resign and start my own consultancy.

The move was somewhat risky as I had no prior experience at being a contractor, no track record for agencies and no private client list for consulting work. I took out a £7,000 loan – enough to cover several months worth of mortgage payments, and resigned. I had no savings as I’d just bought my first property.

Lesson – you need several months worth of living expenses if you’re going to switch to selling your skills. You either want money put aside or a loan which you’ll need to repay. I opted for a 7 year repayment term to give myself plenty of room (I repaid the loan inside of 2 years) .

Freelancing as a Consultant A.I. Researcher

I founded Mor Consulting Ltd. in 2004 as a 1-man company. I needed a limited company as some of my consultancy clients would only want to bill to a Ltd. company rather than a sole-tradership.

Founding the company cost £250 via an accountant, for note my yearly accountancy fees are roughly £500 (paid after year-end accounts are completed).

My accountant (Bristow Still) made the process super-simple, I had no prior experience in founding a company yet the process was painless and completed in a few weeks with just a few things to sign. Having an account in the same town as you is convenient – visiting them to ask questions and sign forms makes life easy.

Spreading your Name (Marketing!)

The hardest things I found were the fact that nobody knew that I was:

  1. Available
  2. Skilled in certain niches (programming, artificial intelligence, leadership)

The solution was to talk to all of my friends and past associates and let them know about my change in status, my new availability and what I’d be interested in doing. Each email was hand-crafted, targeted towards their business (for past associates) and personal. Never spam your friends.

The response was very helpful and quickly I was offered various pieces of generic contract programming work, often for short term jobs (1-2 months each), all local to Brighton.

The Sussex Innovation Centre is a great example of a useful hub – 70 tech companies, all small, most hungry for extra resources. You can visit lots of related companies and obtain friendly referrals with a minimum of effort – maximising your ability to search for new work.

Spreading your name and skills around is likely to be the most important thing that you do whilst you get established (which could take a year). It is also the most time-costly – I spent 2 months spreading word around before interesting A.I.-related things came my way.

At first I had to be liberal in what I accepted – anything coding related that paid the bills was useful. Quickly I worked to accept only A.I.-related work as that would help to build my reputation, from there I never looked back.

Right now I’m going through a similar exercise with my second start-up and our new professional screencasting arm, a new part of business inside ShowMeDo.

What do you want to know?

If you’ve read this far then you probably have specific questions in mind. Do leave me a comment, I’m interested in answering questions.

19 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, ShowMeDo, sussexdigital