DUO – Singapore

As followers of this blog, you’ll know I am passionate about architecture and enjoy taking photos of great architecture when I travel.

A few years ago on a quick trip through Singapore I discovered and photographed the following building:

I was reminded of these impressive buildings when The B1M published an article regarding the buildings:

THESE twin towers have been awarded the “Urban Habitat – Single Site Scale Award of Excellence” by the Council on Tall Buildings Urban Habitat (CTBUH)

The B1M

The article highlights how these buildings have rejuvenated a part of Singapore and how architecture can achieve much more then just creating buildings to occupy, but also outdoor spaces that contribute to a wider population.

Read the full article here.

Ship It!

When developing software, there is always more you can do, more features you can add, more bugs you can fix, more improvements to existing tools.

This can quickly spiral into a situation where you want to do “just one more thing..” before you release.

This is a slippery slope and one the requires discipline to avoid.

Don’t get me wrong, no one wants to release low-quality bug-filled software, but it comes down to focus and prioritisation as with everything.

There is always an endless supply of ideas when it comes to new features and improvements, but again you can fall in the trap of releasing features customers don’t want.

This is what “shipping” is a critical part of the development process. Regularly releasing software is a habit and forces you to push features out to users sometimes earlier then you want.

Shipping regularly is hard but worthwhile.

The pay-back though through the user feedback loop is a critical part of the development process. User feedback is a key input for prioritisation.

Shipping regularly forces you to bite of small pieces of functionality and gain insights – pulling you back on track where necessary and avoiding wasted effort.

Shipping is a very rewarding activity. While things aren’t always perfect – and someone crashed your app within hours of release – the great thing about regularly shipping is your ability to make the required fixes and get them out into the market quickly with the next release.

While we always strive for perfection and to be better, it is refreshing to know the next release is only a matter of weeks, not months, away, which also reduces pressure on testing.

We shipped another version yesterday – and it feels good!

Focus

In my mind focus is a key attribute unpinning success in all walks of life including from a business perspective.

Throughout my time with Cadimage there were multiple times where focus was critical.

During the GFC, we needed an intense focus on the costs of running our business and making sure every dollar was spent wisely to ensure we would come out the other side. We also needed to focus on business strategies that had a higher chance of success during a very difficult sales period.

In the development side of our business following two acquisitions (spread 8 years apart) we found ourselves with a large collection of ArchiCAD Tools. When we did the maths simply maintaining all the Tools required more time then we had available. We had to be ruthless and we also had to take actions that at least in the short term would potentially upset customers – sunsetting a number of products.

This was a painful experience and while the maths showed us which Tools had fewest users it didn’t mean it was easy for those specific users who enjoyed use of a discontinued Tool.

In order to try to avoid actions like this it is critical to learn to say no – often.

It is too easy to say yes and begin things that start spreading resources too thin. Our acquisitions brought both great products and great people, and by discontinuing some of these products the team were more able to focus on our key products which ultimately led to increased customer satisfaction. 1

Learning to say no is hard, but ultimately leads to greater focus.

Building a start-up as I am currently doing requires immense focus. I have a huge range of ideas and see great opportunities dotted throughout the architecture design process. However, we are focused at this stage on a single opportunity, and even within this opportunity we need to focus on the really big issues and plan our development carefully.

In addition running a start-up requires constant attention to costs. While we are raising capital to fund the building of our business we have a commitment to our investors to spend the money wisely. Sometimes having less money helps provide additional pressure to really focus on meaningful spending. There are many stories of over funded start-ups that utlimately fold as they didn’t have the discipline of focus as a core attribute in their business.

Footnote:

This interesting article popped into my inbox today talking exactly about the Upsides to Unshipping: The Art of Removing Features and Products

Spaces – Conceptual Design for Architects

In August 2020 following six months of research, development and prototyping I founded Cerulean Labs with the aim of reinventing conceptual design for architects. This is a lofty goal and one that will take a number of years to see come to fruition.

However, today marks a major milestone in our early journey with the release of our first public beta.

As a team we are proud of what we have created to date but equally appreciate we are only just starting to scratch the surface what we plan to develop.

Spaces combines ideas from a huge range of people and investigations that have helped shape this first beta. Now we are excited to get a broader group of users signed up and using the software so they too can help shape this tool.

Spaces fills a void in the marketplace and we are focused on making it simple and easy to use.

As previously posts have highlighted creating a new venture is a rollercoaster of emotions and a constant juggling act. We could have taken a slightly ‘easier’ road and spent a few more months developing our first version before engaging with users but creating a tool that no-one uses is not our plan and we are excited to get our app into your hands and gather feedback, both positive and negative, and work hard to deliver regular updates and enhancements over the coming months.

If you’re an architect with an iPad and Pencil Sign up now for our Early access programme

Start-up Juggling Act

However, this time instead of joining a well established and profitable business we’re starting from zero.

A brief look back

I wrote the above at the end of my 2020 review and posted it to a number of different channels.

I got great feedback and many suggested that we weren’t actually starting from zero as with over 20 years in business we all have experience and an extensive network of contacts – which is completely correct and helps provide confidence when starting out.

We first began the business in August and have been primarily focused on the development of an iPad based design app. My two co-founders and I, along with some additional part time developers have put long hours into the core of our app with a view to releasing an MVP in late November.

We missed the target date but two weeks later we had a substantial release ready for Apple Approval and subsequently for our first close group of testers. This group of testers are all part of the networks I have built up during my career and they provide a great early (and friendly) test bed for our product.

However, suddenly we were now getting feedback and while we could keep our heads down for the first five months we now had a product release and we had to start juggling a number of tasks that support a product led company. The product still wasn’t (isn’t) commercialised so while we had some new pressure we didn’t have the pressure of paying customers (though I can’t wait for that!)

And this is where my comment regarding starting from zero really came into play. All of a sudden in addition to product development we needed to start thinking about websites, social media, branding, marketing, customer support. None of these things existed, and for obvious reasons nothing we had produced in previous companies could be used directly in our new business – we had a clean sheet of paper to create a branding and marketing strategy, we had no office systems.

And so began the juggling act that virtually all start up founders go through at some point. We are running a very lean development focused business until we raise external capital and to that end my role has now seen me swapping hats on a daily basis – sometimes many times a day.

While we had nothing, again previous experience allowed me to quickly start pulling things together. I have a strength in office system implementation – I have seen how integrated systems allow business to focus on their core activities – so over the last month I have implemented the core of our commercial-side business systems that are all integrated and will allow us to scale over time (you have to love cloud applications):

  • Hubspot – CRM & Marketing (Advertising, Email, Social Media, Lead Capture)
  • Zendesk – Customer Support and Knowledge base
  • Webflow – Website Design

I have longterm experience with Zendesk having used them at Cadimage over 10 years ago, but the other systems were completely new to me but they all work well together.

Aside from office systems, we’ve been busy building a brand (I’ll post on that soon), added a new director to the board to help with capital raising, started a series of lean marketing activities to start broaden our testing community and begun building a social media presence.

On the development front we’ve knocked off one major product release already and have some smaller releases coming soon.

All in all its good fun, a constant juggling act of reprioritising and trying to move each piece forward in a logical order.

I knew from the outset 2021 was going to be busy, looking back (we’re almost 20% done with the year) I can already see we’ve taken some big steps forward, I can’t wait to see how the rest of the year progresses with an official beta launch and (fingers crossed) our commercial debut!

A fresh approach to development

Developing a brand new Product from scratch can be [or is] a daunting task. Especially when you have a big vision that you know is going to take significant time to develop but you need to get something to market quickly to ensure your idea has potential.

Nearly every development decision is a catch 22, where you know you can either do things the right way or the quick way but not both. You constantly need to juggle building good foundations while also delivering features that advance the product. No one likes to know they will need to rebuild things in the future but sometimes that is the trade off that needs to be made.

When you try to couple all of these requirements to a development approach there is no single perfect approach and what works for some won’t work for others.

It was therefore refreshing to read Shape Up – Stop Running in Circles and 
Ship Work that Matters by Ryan Singer

Anyone who has followed Basecamp will know that the founders are quite opinionated and always challenging the status quo. For example the following is an excerpt from the forward of the book:

For one, we’re not into waterfall or agile or scrum. For two, we don’t line walls with Post-it notes. For three, we don’t do daily stand ups, design sprints, development sprints, or anything remotely tied to a metaphor that includes being tired and worn out at the end. No backlogs, no Kanban, no velocity tracking, none of that.

Shape Up Forward by Jason Fried

The book makes some bold statements and a lot of their ideas can be challenged but overall it was very thought provoking and has a very constructive approach to product development. Based on the success of Basecamp the approach has certainly worked for them.

The approach won’t suit everyone and we for one have adapted some of their concepts and will continue to do so as we get a feel for how the process works.

One of the big things for me is that it empowers the developers and demoralises a lot of the decisions. At the same time giving them “uninterrupted time” and “longer cycles” means they have time to research, investigate and weigh the benefits of how to implement intended features. If they feel that solid foundations are required that’s up to them, but they are also clear on the deliverable expectations in ‘exchange’ for this freedom.

Time will tell how well it works for us, buts many of the concepts resonated with my personal experience and the start of a new year is a great time to try something new.

Four digital strategy tips for SMEs

I first came across Peter Thomson when he was a Brand Strategist with Brian Richards. We worked together for around 18months or so as we redeveloped the Cadimage Brand and then more Umbrella Bradning for the entire Cadimage Group.

Peter and I always had some very interesting conversations around all sorts of topics from marketing to pricing to charging for disbursements! Since initially meeting we have kept in touch and met up around the world when we could.

Since starting Cerulean Labs I have reconnected with Peter and he has provided early advice around Lean Marketing and how to get started.

Peter discussed his approach and more recently the following four tips were published along with a profile of Peter who is currently Head of Technology at the Ice House.

Start a newsletter: Email is an under-appreciated channel for building ongoing customer relationships. No matter what your industry, starting a company newsletter will give you a chance to speak more directly with your customers

Blog the journey: Share honest stories of the highs and lows so your audience can get to know your business better

Do things that don’t scale: Don’t rush to automate everything too early. Sometimes it’s worth the effort to personally provide a service to your early customers so you get to know them better

Sweat the small stuff: Details matter with product experience. Make sure you put time into touch points like user onboarding, login pages, the password reset process and your eCommerce checkout

Peter Thomson

These four points are all very useful, number four resonates especially for me as customer focus and customer experience are both critical to business success.

A brief look back

2020 is coming to a close and for obvious reasons it has been an interesting year for us all. Aside from the obvious the year had a number of challenges for me as it was the longest period I have been without a ‘job’ since I first started full-time work over 24 years ago.

I am thankful that to a large degree I don’t need to work however I still find having a professional focus and purpose is a critical part of who I am.

It wasn’t too difficult to fill my time and for the last few months have been focused on establishing my new business.

Here is brief recap of some of the achievements of which I am both proud and grateful for:

  • Moved into a new House with my family here in Budapest
  • In February visited friends and family in New Zealand and then a conference in the UK before air travel ceased for the remainder of the year
  • Supported my family working/schooling from home
  • Went for 138 runs, covering over 1370km – my biggest year yet – though a couple of injuries prevented me achieving what I had hoped, I did manage four solo Half Marathons – my first for over 10 years
  • 177 Sessions of mindfulness/meditation
  • Read 45 Books – an increase on 2019 but down on my book/week target
  • Learnt Swift & SwiftUI (basic level) and created numerous prototypes of various ideas
  • Wrote 70+ Blog Posts (I had some catching up to do and the Cadimage Story ended up about 10 times longer then expected)
  • Continued my work with Buildmedia and helped Gareth, Tim and Mandy navigate the covid challenges
  • Established Cerulean Labs and raised early capital from friends and family and completed our first [private] release

2021 is shaping up to be an exciting year and I can’t wait to get into it

2020 – Beginning a new challenge

2020 has been an enormous challenge for all humanity and while I could write a Covid-focused post and focus on the New Year as a way to put 2020 behind us that is not the focus of this post. The challenge I refer to in the title is the new business that had the seeds planted a few years ago when I sold Cadimage Group and embarked on the next step of my life journey here in Hungary.

From my point of view life and business are both journeys and each run through various cycles of ups and downs, joy and pain. 2020 – while unprecedented in my lifetime – can be seen as another one of these cycles which brought change to all our lives in a number of ways.

At the start of the year I was very much in the frame of mind to build a new business. I’d always expected that at some point I would give it a crack and had always been searching for ideas.

January saw me, along with a couple of others, exploring a BIG idea, in fact it was probably a little too big! While having big goals is important, the main trouble we saw with our idea was it was very difficult to start with a small piece and add to it over time. For our solution to be accepted by the market it really needed to be close to 100%. I realise this simplifies things and could be seen as running from a challenge but being bold also requires confidence and whichever way we looked at things it was hard to be totally confident about the idea. (We still keep it in mind though 🙂 )

Confidence is a core value I have always felt strongly about in business. Confidence sets businesses apart and confidence builds confidence. If you project confidence to your customers, they become confident in working with you and your product.

Anyway, Covid came along and I saw my consulting business dry up so I started focussing more and more on ideas and opportunities. Prior to air travel being restricted I attended a conference which was very stimulating. Covid obviously saw a huge move to working from home, however even before Covid I knew any new business I would create would be based on a remote team.

As have many people, I used the opportunity to learn new things and taught myself the basics of iOS, Swift and SwiftUI. I started building some prototypes and exploring ideas and further refining them.

I continued to engage with my co-founders and the idea started to crystallise and we started to put the foundations in place for a new business. We established the business and set about building the first version of our product. We put in a small amount of money to help us get things moving and within a couple of months had made sufficient progress to do a very early pre-seed round to give us some runway to double down on our development. In parallel with development I started some Lean Marketing.

Building a business can be viewed like building a house, with the ground work and foundations being the first part and critical to creating a strong platform on which the rest is built. To a large extent this applies, however the actual process is probably more like building an entire town of houses. As a startup we build foundations for what we need to achieve, doing just enough of some things in order to keep going. In some cases we know what we build today, we need to rebuild (or replace entirely) down the track.

I have been involved with owning and managing businesses for almost 20 years. I’ve been involved in all aspects across building and growing businesses, developing, selling and supporting software and all the marketing, service and admin that surrounds these activities. However, this time instead of joining a well established and profitable business we’re starting from zero.

This is a new, exciting and at times scary challenge. I am confident in the abilities and experience of my team and while a huge challenge lies ahead by the end of 2020 we have begun our journey and have enough pieces in place to start 2021 with confidence.

Experimenting is essential for learning

When it comes to business, as with most things, you know less than you don’t know. So how can we shift this balance? how can we learn? how can we improve?

My approach is to learn by doing. This will also involve making mistakes, which should also provide us a chance to learn.

However, simply doing, isn’t quite enough. You need to come up with an idea of what you think the answer to the question is and then test that theory. And then test and test and test some more.

While at Cadimage we introduced a [paid] student version of Archicad and over a number of pricing experiments we ended up providing the student version for free and finally reached the point where student usage took off.

At the time we did this, it wasn’t necessarily as formal an approach as designed experimentation, but early results were a failure so we tweaked and tweaked until it worked.

In hindsight the answer is as clear as daylight and ultimately providing free student versions, free training for staff and students, and then sponsoring the NZIA Student Design Awards was seen as way of building the commercial side of our business – why we tried to sell something to students is beyond me but the point is the 3-4 years of trial and error led to the answer and not only solved its own situation but had a far broader impact on our business. In my opinion we could never have foreseen this outcome as our focus was very narrow.

Technology has come a long way since we did these early experiments, and there is a huge range of software to support conducting and analysing experiments and the data they generate.

Our Student pricing can be viewed as a fairly simple experiment, but equally I think that is also key to being able to learn. Don’t try to test everything at once. Focus on pieces that will appear to have the biggest impact.

When experiments became automated via technology they began as A/B Testing – ie testing two options. Software allows many more options to be tested simultaneously but I think A/B testing truly encapsulates the approach to take.

Obviously you can experiment with everything from pricing to email subject lines and contents. But stay focused – especially if you are a small team – and don’t experiment with everything just because you can. You simply won’t have the bandwidth to assess the results.