Two tales from start-up Britain
Last week I launched what I described as an occasional series of profiles of interesting British technology start-ups. I asked for some more examples - and was deluged with suggestions.
So I thought I would give you two this week - from different ends of the UK. I've also asked each entrepreneur to give me a brief "elevator pitch" on video. (Please note that we're not endorsing their businesses - just giving them a chance to tell their stories.)
Six to Start
This London-based games developer is a good example of that old maxim, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Or rather, to use a fashionable term, pivot. That's what Adrian Hon did last year four years after founding Six to Start with his brother Dan.
They began by developing games and apps for other organisations, including the BBC, but late last year decided on an ambitious venture to produce their own running game for the iPhone.
The result, Zombies, Run!, is an app which involves plugging in your earphones, setting off for a run and being immersed in the unfolding story of a post-apocalyptic world where you are pursued by, guess what, zombies.
Adrian Hon and his small Zombies, Run! team may well find that keeping ahead of the competition is just as scary in the real world as in their game”
There was a new approach to funding too. After an early grant from the Nesta venture fund, the company had lived off its own resources for some years. But it turned to the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to raise $12,000 towards development costs, and ended up with more than $70,000 (£44,000).
What is interesting is that Six to Start chose to charge a hefty price, by app standards, for the Zombies experience - $8 in the United States, £5.49 in the UK - when there are plenty of much cheaper or even free game apps. "Everybody thought it was crazy," admits Adrian.
But, having invested in actors and quite a sophisticated production process, and taken money from Kickstarter investors, he needed to get a revenue stream pretty rapidly. And the gamble seems to have paid off, with thousands of downloads per day in the week after the launch at the beginning of March.
The game has got as high as number 14 in Apple's American chart of top grossing apps, and there's obviously a lot of excitement in this small business about its success, with plans for an Android version, in-app purchases, and multi-player capability. But revenues are still modest, there is no guarantee that they will grow, and with the whole future of the business hanging on this one game, Six to Start still has plenty to prove.
The likes of Rovio - whose huge hit Angry Birds came after a string of relative failures - have shown that a tiny firm can build a multimedia empire from one blockbuster game. But Adrian Hon and his small Zombies Run team may well find that keeping ahead of the competition is just as scary in the real world as in their game.
In what was once an anatomy laboratory at Glasgow University, Michael Newman hopes to prove that you can build a successful global technology firm far from the home of most venture capital firms.
His start-up, my1login, is entering quite a crowded field - helping people with dozens of different passwords and logins to store them securely and use them with ease. Just like Zombies, Run, the service went live at the beginning of March, but its founder has been on a rather different journey from Adrian Hon.
The next challenge for Michael Newman is to get his company known and prove to customers that it's better than what its rivals offer”
Michael Newman was the classic teenage bedroom coder, going on to university to study electrical engineering before rising through the ranks as an executive at major communications firms in Scotland. "Largely I've been involved in management not coding," he says, "but once you've done it, it's in your DNA." Four years ago, he had an idea for the business, and started working on it in his spare time.
He only left to go full-time on my1login last November, and much of the development of the product has been funded from his own resources. "I paid developers out of my own pocket," he explains, "remortgaged my home, pulled in money from all sorts of places."
Mr Newman has tried to get venture capital firms interested, but until a product was out in the market it proved difficult. The fact that most are based in London was also a factor - "the geographical barrier was quite significant" - though more positively a community of angel investors in Glasgow and Edinburgh and the presence of a cluster of technology businesses proved helpful.
But the flipside to the Glasgow location has been the availability of public money. Without a £250,000 grant from Scottish Enterprise and free accommodation in disused offices at the university under a city council scheme, this start-up would have stalled. "Now that we're out of the traps and have proof of concept," says Michael Newman," we'll be going back to London for second round funding."
My1login now urgently needs to start earning some revenue, from advertising in its free product and from persuading users to upgrade to a more sophisticated paid version. A quick scan of the web finds plenty of similar services offering secure ways to store your passwords, and my1login did not come up when I searched for "password manager".
So the next challenge for Michael Newman is to get his company known and prove to customers that it's better than what its rivals offer. Creating a buzz around a start-up business is all important - and it's still easier to do that in Silicon Valley, or even London's Shoreditch than in Glasgow.
UPDATE 09:10 BST
As someone has pointed out the money that Six to Start got from Kickstarter was in the form of upfront payments for the game, not equity. So the people who contributed are in effect customers, not investors.