Life at a Startup : Building a Startup

I have been nice and busy since leaving Buying Butler and RightIndem. Along with my co-founder, we are setting up a new FinTech startup called Ladder Pay. LadderPay is an innovative payment platform that unifies Business to Business, Business to Consumer, and Consumer to Business payments into one product with an emphasis on security and compliance backed by blockchain technology. I can’t write too much about it just yet as we are still working through a lot of details, but I am very excited about it. We have 3 potential customers who will use the platform first, so we are getting things ready for that.

LadderPay : Unifying Payments
LadderPay: Unifying Payments

My main role at the moment has been developing the backend platform so I have been spending most of my time coding, which has been really nice to get back into full-time. The product is being developed in Microsofts .NET Core 2 platform and deployed onto Microsoft Azure. I will write more about this in the future, it’s a little too early to reveal too much at the moment.

Working from home on LadderPay
Working from home on LadderPay

I am mostly working from home on this at the moment, but we are looking for an office to work from. We have found a place we like, but are still sorting through the details. I always found working from home difficult, but since working on LadderPay, I have set up in my dining room and have a really nice setup which is nice on a sunny day as I can open the doors to the garden, so I am really enjoying this at the moment.

Whilst I am doing LadderPay during the day, I am also continuing on my Pluralsight courses in the evening. I have signed up for a new course that is all about the algorithms that are used to build up blockchain. A challenging but very interesting course. I can’t wait to share more details.

I will share more details soon…

Life at a Start-up : My Next Chapter Starts Today

Today I start the next chapter in the Life at a Startup. I have made the decision to leave Buying Butler and RightIndem to go solo. I have been contemplating this for a while, but I have now decided to make the jump. So what does this mean? What will I be doing? Well, lots of things. First I want to spend more time of making Pluralsight courses, speaking and training. I also have an idea for a small tech startup that I want to explore, so I will focusing a lot of time on that too as I am pretty excited by it.  I have been preparing for it for a while, and now is the time to become a free agent.

Last Day in Office
Last Day in Office

That doesn’t mean the life at a startup series is dead. It will just be a different startup that I talk about.  Well, a mix of startup and the trials and tribulations of working from home. I am not ready to reveal what the startup idea is yet, but over time I will do that once I have explored it more, so not too much detail in this post, other than I am taking a different path, and a path that means I am my own boss, working on the things I want to work on.

Part of me is sad to leave Buying Butler. I have helped hand pick a great team, and I am leaving them on very friendly terms. Nothing negative in the slightest. I have made many friends there and I will be in touch with many of them.

More soon to follow soon. I have a new desk at home to setup 🙂

I will follow up again next week with my experiences of remote working, maintaining focus and much more.

Life at a Start-up : Structuring teams for growth (NDC Oslo Talk Video)

As well as being the head of development for Buying Butler and RightIndem, part of my role is speaking at technology conferences around the world. I speak about many subjects around technology, but I do this as a representative of the company, which helps us spread the word about what we are doing.

In June I went to Oslo in Norway for the NDC conference where I spoke about restructuring teams using techniques that were first described by Spotify. We have tried to adopt something similar in our company, but as with everything Spotify’s technique is not one size fits all. The main message from my talk is that you have to adapt the model to fit your own companies structure and requirements.

In the talk, I discuss how Spotify have done it, and also how we have tried to implement it.  The key difference is that Spotify is a B2C (Business to Consumer) company and we are a B2B (Business to Business) company.

I am thinking of writing a more in-depth article on this, but for now, I will leave you with my talk from the conference. It is the first time I have done the talk, and it seemed to go down very well with people. I had lots of people come and see me afterward to ask me about it in more detail.

Life at a Start-up : Exploring the Microsoft HoloLens

Over the last week we have been working on something quite exciting. At BuyingButler and RightIndem we pride ourselves on being a very technology focused company, and we love looking to see where we can use the latest technology to solve real problems. We have been doing just that with Microsoft new HoloLens Mixed Reality headset.

On Thursday 12th Jan 2017 we had a good friend and fellow Pluralsight author Lars Klint fly over to the UK for the NDC London conference. Before the conference he came up to Nottingham  for a couple of days to work with us around some use cases for the Hololens for RightIndem. I can’t discuss what those use cases are at the moment openly, but they are quite exciting and complement one of our project modules nicely.

If you would like Lars to run a workshop for your company, you can see the details on his workshops page. I highly recommend him for the Hololens workshop or his Winning at Life workshop.

First though, what is the HoloLens. Below is the brief description taken from the HoloLens website.

Microsoft HoloLens is the first self-contained, holographic computer, enabling you to engage with your digital content and interact with holograms in the world around you.

When wearing the headset, you still have an unrestricted view of your surroundings, but you also see holograms that are placed in the room that you can only see with the HoloLens attached. These holograms are aware of their surroundings and can be placed on walls and tables. This is achieved by the HoloLens doing spatial mapping of the environment around it. You can then interact with these holograms directly whilst walking around your environment.

The HoloLens is a Windows 10 device which is untethered, which means you do not need a cable running between the headset and a powerful computer like you do with a Virtual Reality headset like the Oculus Rift.

Lars Klint Demonstrating the HoloLens
Lars Klint Demonstrating the HoloLens

With Lars visiting our offices we had 2 goals to achieve over 2 days. On the first day Lars facilitated a brain storming session with myself and the rest of the companies management team. We already had some ideas of where the HoloLens could be applied, but the purpose of this session was to work through different ideas and walk away with a rough plan for a series of minimum viable products we could build. This session went very well, and everyone involved had the opportunity to try the HoloLens for a good amount of time. This was important as people need to understand what the experience feels like in order to understand the constraints posed. Off the back of the session we have an idea for 2 technical spikes we want to try and a prototype product to build with it. The cool thing is, we already have a company we are talking too about partnering with us to deliver a HoloLens solution.

Life at a Start-up : Assessing and Appraising our Development Team

In this series I have written about  our hiring process, but now I want to talk about what work with developers once they are at the company. Once developers, or indeed any staff member starts at your company, you have  a duty to develop them over time. Buying Butler is no different. I have worked for many companies both large and small and seen some good examples of staff development, but also some terrible examples. Naturally I want Buying Butler to be a  good example.

Life at a Startup - Buying Butler / RightIndem
Life at a Startup – Buying Butler / RightIndem

I run the development teams across both Buying Butler and RightIndem, so I am going to be talking about how I work with my developers specifically, but anything I say here is just as applicable to any type of skilled knowledge worker. Like most companies, we conduct 1 to 1’s with our staff. We use these as a way to give feedback but also offer some coaching if required and to see how developers are progressing with objectives. When giving feedback, I feel this should generally be positive in the 1 to 1. If there is anything bad that you need to bring to their attention then this should have happened prior to a 1 to 1. This meeting shouldn’t contain any bad surprises in my opinion.

Life at a Start-up : We are Hiring

The rate of growth we are experiencing at Buying Butler has been staggering. When I started in May we were 4 people sitting in a small room. Now we are almost 30 people in a nice office in the centre of Nottingham. Because of the amount of work coming through and the next round of investment landing we at the next phase of our growth, which is really great.

I really pride myself on the fact we run an excellent and motivated development team working on challenging yet exciting projects that solve real world problems. In the short time that we have all been working here we have been working on 2 exciting projects, Buying Butler and RightIndem.

We are hiring at Buying Butler / RightIndem
We are hiring at Buying Butler / RightIndem

For RightIndem, we have launched several successful pilots of our platform with various huge insurance companies for Motor Insurance and Marine / Cargo Insurance. We are now looking to roll out more pilots with more huge companies against different industries and different geographies.

For Buying Butler we are very near the launch of version 2 of our vehicle concierge buying platform. Both products are looking great and we have so much work that we want to do. To support this, we need to grow the size of our team.

Life at a Start-up : Team Trip to Web Summit

A few weeks ago, a group of us from Buying Butler flew over to Lisbon for the Web Summit conference. 9 of us went over, who were the initial team that built the first version of our insurance claims platform, RightIndem. The trip was an incentive for us completing the first version on time, and also an opportunity for us to show off our platform to the world as well as pitching to investors.

We all met at the office on Monday morning for work as normal and just lunch we got into a couple of cars and set off to Manchester airport. The trip to the airport was reasonably quick and before we knew it we were checked in and though security. Naturally we went for a pint in the bar before boarding out flight.

After arriving at Lisbon airport, we went straight to the Web Summit registration tent to get our conference pass. This is a great idea to register at the airport because the conference is so large that it would be chaos to do this on the day at the conference itself. The hotel was about 20 minutes drive from the airport so we jumped into taxi’s. Once we got checked in, we got changed met in the bar and then went for dinner at a near by restaurant.

RightIndem visiting Web Summit 2016 in Lisbon
RightIndem visiting Web Summit 2016 in Lisbon

After the restaurant we went back to the hotel and ended up having a large group coding session to finish our competition website for the conference. It was pretty much done as the guys back the office had been finishing it whilst we travelled, but there was still some work to do to get it finished so we took the night shift to get it ready. We ended up having a mini codathon until 2am. I used to love doing this when I was in my 20’s. Now that I am 40, staying up late like this is really hard. I prefer early nights with a nice cup of tea, so this made the next day quite tiring after about 4 hours sleep as no matter what time I go to bed, I always wake up around 6am.

Life at a Start-up : What is it We are Building?

In the last few posts in my Life at a Start-up series I have talked about how we want to work as a company, our hiring process and the office environment, but in this post I want to talk about the 2 products that we are building here at Buying Butler and RightIndem. On initial inspection they may look like two completely disparate products, but there is a link between the two that makes them a very attractive proposition. First I will explain what the Buying Butler platform is and then I will talk about what RightIndem is about. I will finish up by covering why these 2 products compliment each other.

Buying Butler

Buying Butler is a platform that allows a customer to make a complex purchase with the help of an expert. We are focusing on car purchases at the moment, but we can expand the platform to include any type of purchase that requires a lot of research to buy like laptops, bikes, white goods etc. The way the system works is like the following. You specify your requirements using plain language search parameters. For example you may specify that safety is more important than speed. You need plenty of boot space, or you might want a smaller faster car. The Buying Butler engine will take your requirements and using our algorithms select a series of cars that you can then refine your search with.

Buying Butler
Buying Butler

Once you have a good idea of what you want you can then proceed to a tendering phase where your requirements are sent out to dealers who are signed up to the platform. These could be within a certain distance boundary that you can specify. These dealers can then make offers against each other anonymously. So, for example, one dealer might say, that they can’t come down on their price but they could throw in some extra fittings. Another dealer might not have the car in the colour you originally specified but they can drop the price by £500 etc. Once you have picked an offer that you like you can then arrange a test drive and follow through with your purchase.

Life at a Start-up : Making a Great Working Environment

Working at a start-up can be challenging and is certainly a lot of work. The people we employ might be required to take on many different roles and tasks if we don’t have all the people we need, so it is important to try and create a nice working environment to work in. We want people to enjoy coming into work and we do this by providing challenging problems to work on with modern technology.

We also want to create a nice office environment and a culture to fill it.  Something we have started doing is a monthly event called Thirsty Thursday. This is where on a Thursday we stop work  a little earlier and go out for some drinks and food. These sorts of events are important as they allow us to blow off a little steam and socialize. With moving to an office in the centre of Nottingham we are really spoilt for choice for bars, pubs and restaurants.

Thirsty Thursday Team Drinks
Thirsty Thursday Team Drinks

Another monthly event we are starting up soon is Massage Mondays where we have a professional masseuse come into the office to offer massages to anyone that wants one. As well as these events we are also making the office a fun environment. We are part way for making a recreation room that has a pool table, darts board, arcade machine and a small kitchen area with a nice coffee machine. We are calling this area the park as we are getting the carpet removed and Astroturf put down instead. This created a nice area where people can go for a break to get away from the screen for a bit.

As well as good recreational facilities we are putting some effort into the decoration of the main work area and meeting rooms. We have lots of inspirational quotes from famous people on the walls and lots of white boards for people to collaborate. The meeting rooms are themed around cars. The small meeting room we call the Mini Room. This is painted in Mini racing colours and has a big decal on the wall of a classing mini car. This room also has no chairs in it, but instead there are 4 large bean bags.  They are very comfortable and I normally tend to do my phone interviews from there.

The larger meeting room is themed around Jaguar cars and even has an old dashboard and wheel in the room. Not quite sure how we are going to fit those to the wall!!

Buying Butler - Typical Developer Kit
Buying Butler – Typical Developer Kit

The office is starting to look very nice, but all this is meaningless if our staff don’t have the right tools to do the job. We try to provide people with great kit to work with. Every developer gets a high spec laptop. Our current build is a Lenovo Yoga 900 convertible laptop with 16gb Ram and a fast I7 processor. Designers and people who will be involved in mobile development are working on Apple Macbook Pro laptops. Each developer also gets 2 large 27in widescreen CAD monitors to work from. These are mounted to the desk with sturdy arms. Having very good monitors makes a lot of difference when you spend a lot of your day staring at them. I really don’t get why a lot of companies skimp on these essential items for developers.

To help developers stay on top of the latest technology we also provide all developers with a full Pluralsight license. This isn’t just because I am an author with Pluralsight, this is because they offer the best training platform in the industry. The best way to describe it is like Netflix for training. We have already made some technology choices for our tech stack based off of content we watched on Pluralsight.

To summarise this blog post, I really wanted to highlight the environment we have created, the events we offer and the tools and training that are available to our people. All this plus very interesting projects means our staff enjoy coming to work. We don’t want it to feel like a job, a standard 9 to 5. We want Buying Butler to be a place people enjoy coming to work with like minded people on products that solve real problems for real people.

Life at a Start-up : Hiring Developers

In a previous post I said that at Buying Butler and RightIndem we have been growing quite rapidly across the board, but in this post I want to talk a little about our hiring process for developers. Hiring good people is hard and Me, and our CTO Steve Weston, have worked at many companies that have had horrible hiring processes, so we are keen to not replicate some of these other companies.

Interview Preparation
Interview Preparation

When we hire developers, and if you are due to interview with me and have landed on this post as part of your research (hello), there are 4 main things we are looking for in a developer. These are

  • Have you got the base skills to come in and be productive straight away?
  • How passionate are you about software development?
  • What is your approach to learning and picking up new skills and technologies?
  • Will you be a good cultural fit for the company?

By knowing this bit of insight you are not cheating our recruitment process, but by understanding these 4 areas you will be in a position to wow us in the interview. Lets cover these off one by one.

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