Product data giving you a headache? Here are 3 reasons to relax.

Whether you’re an ecommerce manager, product manager, or CTO, if you work in e-retail it’ll be a cold day in hell before you go a week without worrying about the state of your product data.

And if today’s one of those days when your wonky data fields have inadvertently turned all your sofas into fridges, and all your tumble-dryers pink, fear not. Here are three reasons to relax.

1. It’s not as bad as you think it is

It’s natural to compare yourself to others, but while it seems everybody else is living in product data heaven, remember you’re only seeing what’s Instagram-ready. We’ve got decades of experience in data science working with all manner of organisations, and the first question we’re often asked is “what if my product data is so low quality that you can’t get any value out of it?” So if you think your product data’s bad, you’re not alone.

2. You can always get value

No matter how ‘bad’ your data is, there’s always value to be extracted with the right knowhow. We’ve worked with ‘Data Lakes’ that are, we kid you not, a grey filing cabinet filled with photocopies inside Manila folders. And mainframe systems without email fields, because, well, email wasn’t so big in the 80s. So however patchy your product data is, you’d be surprised what can be achieved with some natural language processing, significance analysis and learning vector quantisation. In other words, that sofa of yours that’s 60 centimetres deep and 3 millimetres wide? We can recognise that inconsistency programmatically, and adjust the dimensions so they make sense.

3. It’s not your job anyway

OK so if you’re the Data Scientist then you’re not completely off the hook – it kinda is your job. But the point is, if you’re a retailer, then your job is to retail. You’re in the business of selling whatever it is you sell. What we’re in the business of doing is helping retailers like you to sell more, by doing cool stuff with your data. We’re not surprised when we get the ‘what if our data is bad?’ question, but that’s precisely what we’re here to help with. You don’t turn up to the dentist and apologise for having toothache.

If there’s one thing to take away, let it be this. Waiting until your product data’s good enough is like joining a queue for the latest trendy pop-up; you’ll be waiting forever. There’s so much that can be done, and no time like the present, so if you want to see how we can help your customers discover your products, no matter the quality of your data, then find out more about us. Once you’ve done that, why not leave your email address below and we’ll get in touch with you – or you could even sign up for a free trial.

6 weeks into the TrueStart Accelerator programme….

 

Sorry for the radio silence in blog land, we were accepted onto the TrueStart Accelerator Programme in mid-June and have been consumed in a whirlwind of activity ever since. I thought I’d share a quick 6-weeks into the programme review.

 

TrueStart Application process:

The initial application process for TrueStart was slightly less onerous than some of the other Accelerator Programmes running in London, quite a small number of questions on the form and the chance to submit a pitch deck/business plan. I was expecting that the next stage would be the ubiquitous 15 minute Skype interview (which I will never understand the point of) and was initially delighted to find out that this wasn’t part of the TrueStart application process. My delight was somewhat short lived when I realised that it was replaced with a 4 minute pitch to a panel of judges in what turned out to be an unfitted floor of an office in the amazing ZigZag building in Victoria. The bare concrete floors and loose wiring had me absolutely convinced that Luther was about to jump out and chase a suspect through the office (yes, I know that my obsession with Idris Elba is worrying). Thankfully the adrenalin from my conviction that we were about to be attacked by well dressed gangsters was funnelled into the pitch which went well, and after being asked a few very polite questions we wrapped up and left the session feeling positive and being told that we would hear one way or the other within 24hrs. Fast forward 72hrs later to a Friday evening and I think that Barny and I were probably the most depressed we’ve ever been, as we assumed no news was bad news. I’m fairly certain that we did quite a good job of drowning our sorrows that evening… And then I woke up on Saturday morning to an email saying that we were through to the next, and final, round of the process which was a 3 minute pitch to 300+ retailers and industry leaders at the R:Evolution conference! The conference was fantastic, and the pitch went well, it was just amazing to have that level of exposure to Retailers. It also absolutely convinced us that TrueStart would live up to the hype; it bills itself as being unlike any other Accelerator in Europe due to its connections to the retail sector, and I have to say that these guys are seriously connected … seriously connected. Before the R:Evolution conference I had visions of having to beg for introductions to Retailers, I think by the end of our second week on the programme we had met with at least 10 retailers and had a diary stuffed full of meetings.

 

The programme:

As part of the programme you get 4 months of access to the TrueStart office space/innovation hub in Victoria. Barny has declared that this is the nicest office he has ever worked in, and I’m happy as it keeps my record of only ever working in Land Securities Buildings in London intact. Here is a photo of our desks.

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The other startups in the hub are incredibly diverse and inspiring; everything from Veg Water from JF Rabbit (http://www.jfrabbit.com/)  to sensor driven Smart clothing labels from Appaparel. We have carefully positioned ourselves opposite Casso Cocktails (http://cassococktails.com/)  – unlimited access to lovely cocktails that come in glass jars, what more could you want? It is really fantastic to have access to a ready made bunch of Founder Friends who are all going through a similar journey to us and always have time to help, give us advice and chat.

 

The other major plus of the programme so far is the access to the mentors, and especially the wonderful Entrepreneur in Residence Rich Anson who is definitely one of the friendliest and calmest people I have ever met, and has so far managed to dish out excellent advice in our weekly meetings on topics ranging from setting up Employee Options schemes, to getting a Customer Support function up and running.

 

Any complaints?

Not really! There could be better internet in the hub (it has been a bit inconsistent over the last couple of weeks), and a bigger fridge in the kitchen would be nice….

 

So are we enjoying it? And is applying to an Accelerator (and the scary pitch) worth the effort?

Yes, and yes. Get your application in for the Winter Collection (but please bring a small team with you, as I’d like to keep my desk after our 4 months are up!).

2 months in: what we have learned so far ….

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To celebrate 2 months of official Hullabalook existence here is a list of some of the things we have learned, (business and non-business related), so far:

 

Bryony’s List:

  • Grey squirrels carry a disease that kills red squirrels
  • If Barny is sad he can be cheered up with the application of cake
  • A quick way to make Barny sad is to laugh when he says “elastic beanstalk”
  • How to use wordpress
  • Google own my soul, or at the very least 75% of it
  • How trademarks work
  • You can freeze egg yolks
  • How complicated font licencing is
  • 2 great websites for free images (www.pixabay.com; www.unsplash.com)
  • How to edit videos
  • Remote teams can work really well, but VOIP has a long way to go
  • Walking is a good thinking aid
  • Barny can break all but the most robust furniture
  • The value of a video in conveying a message is amazing
  • Barny isn’t very good at reading scripts. This was a total surprise and still feels a bit mysterious.
  • Height differences are awkward when filming/skyping
  • Screwfix sell 1 billion screws a year!
  • Mothers are the most reliable blog readers/analysers
  • How to create a pitch deck
  • The science of colour
  • What incognito mode is (I really am shockingly naive)
  • We can achieve a huge amount in a short space of time when freed of the restrictions of corporate life
  • On a more serious note the single most important and surprising thing I have learned is how willing people are to help us; friends, family and complete strangers. I’ve been blown away by the support that we have received and find myself in awe of the good heartedness of humanity. Thank you to everyone – I am hugely grateful and aspire to show such kindness and grace in helping others.

Barny’s List:

  • Bad image choice is the best way to slow down your website loading
  • Boris buses have a lot of seats that face backwards, which isn’t very enjoyable
  • When I only have one phone the battery lasts until about 3pm (I always had a separate company phone before!)
  • Remote development actually works pretty well
  • Some people own such fragile furniture, I am surprised it’s lasted more than a few months…
  • Most good ideas come from walking around
  • Ocado sell 15,000 non-food items
  • Managed web-hosting is not very good value for money compared to AWS
  • It’s possible to get elastic-anything now
  • Google are monitoring everything, all the time
  • Taking Uber several times a week is not actually necessary if you plan ahead
  • The difference in enthusiasm from explaining the same concept badly, and elegantly cannot be underestimated
  • Bryony can think of an off-the-wall comment on almost any topic (ie. in any meeting) given only a few minutes

We’d like to post joint blogs more often; so if you can think of any topics you would like both of our opinions on please let us know.

Leadership stereotypes

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership recently; and the various types of leader that I’ve encountered in my corporate career. Here are some of the stereotypes often spotted in the corporate wilds:

 

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Military leader – Style, a lot of style. These people reverberate with power and gravitas. They are the centre of the business universe. They rule with a degree of fear, they are certainly the most likely to scream at their employees, but also seem to bring a judicious amount of calm and will arbitrate in a logical manner. You often feel that you don’t understand their decisions or what is motivating them but you are swept up into their orbit and sense that as long as you remain on their side they will protect you. You find yourself desperately wanting to please this individual, but find it difficult to understand what they are trying to achieve, and suspect that you disagree with quite a lot of their personal beliefs and politics. They like anything which can be construed as momentum or forward progress – graphs with lines trending upwards will be very much appreciated.

 

 

derby-148046_1280Jolly Good Chap(ess) – This is a uniquely British (or possibly English) leader. They are almost always exceedingly clever, well turned out, deeply political. They are without exception careful with the words that they use, and for those not in the club interpreting the code word ridden language they talk in can be a challenge. A challenge which you deeply suspect is purposeful and if you can’t understand it then you are by definition not welcome in the inner circle. They play into the psyche of the deep rooted English class system. They rarely discuss their personal lives (apart from the picture perfect photo of their wife/husband – they are always married – and 2.4 children that they keep on their desks). They never seem to actually go home, but you are certain that they live in a lovely house somewhere in a nice part of the home counties. Their success is a slight mystery, but they have the midas touch and if you can just break the code and make it into the circle then their elite golden touch will surely spread to you. Be warned, they seem to be the perfect gentleman/woman but have a vicious streak, more Sir Humphrey than Downton Abbey.

 

ghost-303833_1280The Turnaround Guru – Quite often has a background in finance. Always enters a company as an external hire to sort out a specific issue the Board has identified. Will not often be seen in the office. The grim reaper follows in their shadow as the (often deeply needed) changes they will make to the company will inevitably leave a body count. Not a leader in the traditional sense of the word, they are difficult to get to know and being too closely associated with them might make it awkward with any remaining colleagues after they have departed (which will be sometime between 18-24 months after they start). Conversely not being someone they “know” is probably also not wise. Employee one or more of these stratagem; find something long term and indispensable to do, keep your head down, formulate an exit plan.

 

star-1139372_1280Shiny, shiny star – This job is a way-station on the route to the next one. This person is always younger than average and has a glittering career. Often this person is fantastically personable, seems to genuinely care about the people in the business and will be motivated to help other bright young things. However, they have an agenda with a single item point – success. They will quickly prioritise one or two things that they are going to make a success, will identify the fastest possible strategy for achieving their goals and will charge full speed to realise their ambition. From the moment that they enter the company everything that you do needs to help them, or at least be phrased in a way that makes it sound like it is totally on strategy. Be critical to their success and you will be rewarded. Whatever you do don’t get in their way – you will be run over so fast that you actually see stars.

 

owl-307957_1280Dumbledore – The wise (often older) company guru. Insightful and insane in equal measures. Has often been at the company since it started and knows the business inside and out. Often the original genius behind the idea or technology that the company is founded on. Sometimes these leaders appoint a strong leadership team and take on a more emeritus position as a figurehead that the staff look up to. Occasionally they are also brilliant business leaders still fully in control of all elements of their company. However sadly some Dumbledores are of the type that are less brilliant at running larger scale companies and often unwilling to let go of the business reigns and find themselves sidelined by the board and confined to a corner office where they grow bitter. Respect the genius of this individual, they will be keen to share their wisdom and often have a lot to teach.

 

In reality often leaders straddle two or more of these stereotypes; and I suspect that the best leaders can tap into the great qualities of all of them. I want to write more on this subject soon, in the interim let me know if there is a leadership type you’ve encountered that I’ve missed.

Whoa… so many buttons! A tale of the uncomfortable state of conscious incompetence.

When we started Hullabalook a few months ago I was very prepared, if not excited, to be re-entering the world of conscious incompetence. For many years I had existed in a corporate situation where at least 80% of the time I found I could do my job well without really having to learn very much that was new. I love learning, being challenged and challenging myself; so being part of a startup and being forced into realms of the unknown was deeply attractive to me. As anticipated I now find that I have to attempt to learn new skills on an almost daily basis. Most of these tasks involve learning new applications that I haven’t previously had to use. As I’m learning these skills I cycle through the four stages of competence:

  • Unconsciously incompetent – I will be able to complete this task in approximately 45 minutes
  • Consciously incompetent – Whoa… this application has so many buttons. Just learning what a fraction of these buttons do will take me at least 45 mins.
  • Consciously competent – I have identified the 3 buttons needed to complete this task to the minimum possible standard
  • Unconsciously competent – I really want to download an extension pack for this application to give me more buttons. GIVE ME MORE BUTTONS!

What amazes me is the speed that I cycle through these stages and the emotions attached to them; from total arrogance that I will be able to complete the task in record time, to total despair and self-loathing, to happiness and minor accomplishments to total empowerment and desire to keep doing more.

 

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I wonder whether we should apply some of this thinking to the process of building an intuitive user experience for Hullabalook? Could we release a version of our application that got more complex and flexible the more that the customer engages with it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could all avoid the despair of being overwhelmed with functionality by starting with only the most essential features and then gradually adding more as we became comfortable with the application? In an age of machine learning, deep learning and AI surely it must be possible to develop technology that learns with the user?

The era of conscious incompetence and conscious competence is over. Bring on the empowering feeling of unconscious competency for all!

Blurred Lines (feat. Revolv)

It is widely believed (even accepted) that the future of software is ‘as-a-service’ the hosting, maintenance and advancement is included in a simple recurrent fee, with little or no upfront cost to the user – some of the nastiest bits of consumer (and especially business) software have been magic-ed from the buyer to the seller. This lovely illustration from cloud 53 makes shows the difference by using a car as an example:

car-as-a-service2 (1)

Now of course there is some downside to this model, unlike in the ‘old-world’ where you could continue to use a historic version of the software which you had purchased forever (albeit ‘at your own risk’) even if the product was no longer for sale or the company had ceased trading – that option no longer exists. Now the quid-pro-quo for the removal of the upfront investment is that you accept it’s just a rental – and either side can end it. This seems fair enough to me, and the growth of SaaS illustrates that the model works for many.

But what about when then models get blurred – when you buy a widget/appliance which had an upfront cost, but which depends on software which is available as a service? This make quite a lot of sense for manufacturers keen to see recurring revenues, but who have to cover costs of delivering hardware to users, the trouble is as we learned yesterday about the shutdown of Revolv from Nest (Google) when a business is acquired (or a strategy materially changed) customers can be left in the lurch having bought a device which doesn’t just not-update, is doesn’t work anymore. The software(as-a-servce) is gone, the life-blood is drained.

This is certainly the sort of thing which will serve as a cautionary tale to buyers, and make it harder to for new companies to get going – but I hope it will make avoid this sort of mix up – services may be auxiliary to a device but they cannot be essential to it. I imagine in smart homes that over time the hardware will be commoditised and users will be able to run a range of smart home apps on their systems (enter Android for home).

A VPN of possibly connected devices

Everywhere I go people are talking about the Internet of things, whether a business opportunity, a further embedding of technology into our lives, or a way to save energy and reduce climate change. Certainly these may all be legitimate, Bryony and I debated how it might transform commerce – the introduction of ordering buttons to offices would certainly reduce the likelihood of running out of printer paper, and perhaps ocado could produce some thing to add items directly to my basket?

One thing we could both agree on was the promise of smart door locks – from letting yourself in while carrying something, to allowing remote access for a cleaner they offer so much potential. At the same time a quick survey of people I knew showed that none of them were considering such a device – inevitably because of fears about their security… How would my insurance company react? Could someone attack the device over the Internet and let themselves in? Indeed I wondered whether there might be new ways to ‘brute force’ a front door – an inconspicuous widget that attempted to gain access while you were out and then called it owner-burglar to let them know the coast is clear (another ‘thing’ on the Internet).

My personal concern was the apparent ongoing dependency on the manufacturer to provide remote management of the lock… What if they went under – would I be unable to get into my house?

The trouble it seems to me is – the Internet is flat – any device can talk to any other, and so as excited as I am about deploying more of these things I am very in-excited about them being spoken to by all the other devices on the Internet. I really want my own VPN over which I can be free of long term vendor support, and quietly able to keep the dumbness (or otherwise) of my house private.

… and so that’s what I want, not an Internet of things, but a VPN of possibly connected devices. Is there any wonder Bryony thinks i’m ‘how’ person…

Living the dream

I have had many dreams.

Some I have lived (I’ll write about those another day), while occasionally I have had to let them slip away.

Letting a dream go is painful, a recognition that a thing which I really wanted to do, that I absolutely believed I could do, in fact I will never do.

On the whole there are not many excuses for allowing this sort of situation to happen, but life is complex, and so there are so many things which affect our ability to do what we want because of… (mostly) what we want to do more.

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But remembering the pain of a dream lost, is all the better for driving towards a new goal – of climbing over the mound of inactivity, out of the trench of fear, through the bog of procrastination and actually doing it.

At some point a couple of years ago, I realised that I would never qualify to compete in a particular sports event. I had reached the point where I needed to have done more training for it, at a suitable club when I was younger and I was no longer going to be able to overcome the deficit. It’s not that I was really that old (probably about 27) but I hated the feeling enough that it strengthened my resolve not to feel like I was in that situation again.

And so I looked out for opportunities to start this company, it would not be easy I knew, favourable circumstances of finances, co-founder and family life are not often achieved so when they all aligned, I knew that it was time to get on with it. So here I am – living the dream. 

Changing Conditions

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Everything around us changes, but perhaps nothing more than the weather. As we have got underway at Hullabalook we have spent considerable time planning, and yet knowing that we are planning often with very limited information, and therefore the plans will at some level be ‘wrong’ and we will need to change them quickly. Yet the process of thinking through what we want to do and what might affect it is very useful in itself. It was put best by Eisenhower:

Plans Are Useless, But Planning Is Indispensable
— General Dwight David Eisenhower

I often find it useful to think about parallels between work, and other parts of life to see whether tricks which I have learned elsewhere could be transferred to a business situation I am now in, in this context I remember sitting at school learning to plan hiking expeditions for my ‘Duke of Edinburgh’ award – we were taught about the importance of always knowing when we would switch to taking an ‘bad weather route’ which would get us to the same destination but along a lower or less exposed route, we had to consider what the route would be, and what the last moment when we could switch would be. This has proved to be a great life lesson, which I have applied to any number of adventure sports, from skiing to sailing. Most of the planning time must be put into the main plan for the day to have the best chance of getting to the intended destination – a bit of time put in to thinking about minor alterations which might serve you better depending on the weather – but still get you to the same destination (just with a bit more comfort than the original route), and then some time on being aware of alternative destinations so that if it becomes clear you can’t safely reach you planned destination you get somewhere ‘good’ and can try again tomorrow. There seems to be a good deal of parallels between these tactics for a great day in the outdoors and the basis for planning in a startup.

Random musings from the last week

Rather than writing a post on a particular topic I thought I’d share a collection of half thoughts and random musings I’ve had this week – maybe at some point I’ll turn this into something more enlightened or well thought out, or maybe it will become a series of half ideas that I share on a regular basis.

 

Why are web pages so full of rectangles? Circles and curves are so much more natural, inviting, eye-catching why do we persist in putting things into boxes? Here is a post I recently found from way back in 2012 that shows some great website design using circles:

http://speckyboy.com/2012/08/27/40-examples-of-using-circles-in-web-design/

 

Why do e-commerce sites not default to loading all of the items at once rather than putting them on several pages? Whenever I’m browsing any e-commerce site pretty much the first thing I do is click the “Show All” button. Am I alone in doing this? Or have retailers not updated their sites since the age of images loading so slowly that you would want to limit the amount that you were downloading in one go?

 

How does Idris Elba manage to make a tweed coat in Luther look so good? Seriously – who else can pull off a grey tweed coat? And how are they filming it so that the colours in the series are so flat and monochrome but the textures of the fabrics and the buildings are so evocative? We seem to accept as fact that texture is impossible to accurately portray on websites but there are so many examples of cinematography which counter this fact.

 

Are robots the new zombies? I watched the below video this week and then spent some time reading about AI and the advances in robotics. It seems somewhat inevitable that robots will at some point become a part of our daily lives. I’m not at all anti this happening, but I do wonder if it is also inevitable that at some point a robot takes an action that leads to some harm coming to a human. Instead of chatting in the pub about what we would do if their was a zombie apocalypse should we be forming our Robot takeover survival plans?

Do you have strong views on how we can make texture a better experience on websites, or maybe some good tips for Robot takeover survival? Let me know on one of the social media links below.