Business Legal & Politics Rants & Raves

Web application project, part I: In the beginning

I’m not one for giving up, especially when I’ve committed time & money to something I believe in. For over four years, I’ve been (both directly and indirectly) working on developing a range of web applications for creative businesses. Initially, much of my effort was simply thinking through the idea and looking for ways of dealing with common problems associated with running a creative agency and how some kind of database driven web application could help with a number of business tasks, such as time sheets and task management.

Over a year ago, I went through the process of exploring the various options available to me to get this idea off the ground. To say that my time wasn’t entirely well-spent is somewhat of an understatement.

The Bank

I’ve always had a good relationship with my bank. While relationship might be a strong word, I could say instead that I’ve always found the various contacts that I’ve had reason to deal with very helpful.

I first approached my bank to discuss some possible funding options. At the time, I had cash in savings and the work coming into Octane was reasonable. However, because I was at a very early stage, I didn’t know too much about what kind of money I would need to develop my software. So this was just to be a simple ‘what if’ exercise.

In the end, I left feeling dreadfully disappointed and frustrated.

After speaking to various parties since, it seems that the attitude of HSBC is no different to any other bank. What brief measure of consolation that news is meant to confer is still unclear.

Towards the end of the conversation, I said something along the lines of: “OK, let me get this straight: for me to borrow [sum of money], I’d need to have that sum of money to begin with, right?” Momentary pause followed by a slightly sheepish nod.

“So why would I be needing any money from you guys if I already had the money that I’m asking you for?”

Which still to this day seems like a very credible, logical and entirely reasonable question to ask. However, I’ve since found that like everything else in life, you’re playing a game. And like any other game, there are rules. One such rule was to become clearer to me some time in the future.

Between the months of January and March 2003, I met with a guy called Peter Wood of Venturesphere: “Venturesphere is a High Growth Start Up programme based at Sheffield Technology Parks in the heart of Sheffield City centre.”

My intention was to see what kind of initial set-up support I could expect. At this stage, I wasn’t sure whether I could just run my software venture through Octane, or whether I’d need to start up a new limited company. This is the kind of advice I would need from Venturesphere.

I was also attempting find out what kind of costs would be involved in engaging with a Marketing Manager. Based on a conversation with David Patterson, my key contact and adviser within my local Business Link, he had mentioned that I ought to be looking for ‘someone with a few grey hairs’, which appealed to me. Someone in semi-retirement would be a good fit. Someone who would be a good foil to my head-strong attitude.

On what was to be the final meeting with Venturesphere, I brought along Stuart Bull. He was helping get my head around the development side of things and would ideally be the one developing the software. He was also a former Business Link adviser in Lincolnshire, so he was a good guy to have on my side just in case things started to get complicated.

As well as Stuart, Peter and myself, there was a fourth guy by the name of Rohit Talwar. From what I could tell, he was some kind of consultant to Venturesphere. As I looked across the boardroom table, at the very end of the table and to my left was Peter, to my right on the right side of the table across from me was Rohit.

There had been a complete miscommunication of why I was there. I was looking for some insight into the level of support I might expect to see from Venturesphere, what I’d need to do next and what people I could expect to get advice from. While I felt that Rohit was pushing the conversation towards figures, numbers, sales forecasts and basically everything I didn’t have.

“So how do you think you’re going to be making £150,000 in the first year?”, Rohit questions, clearly steering the conversation towards something I wasn’t familiar with. “I’ve no idea!”, I reply with some dismay.

And with that, Rohit shuffles in his seat while I look perplexed first to Stuart, who shrugs his shoulders and then to Peter who issues a thin smile, more out of embarrassment than anything else.

I make it clear that I have not one single clue about any of the things that Rohit is asking me about and then I again reiterate the point of why I’m there. At this stage, Rohit feels like his time has been wasted, and I feel like just walking out because I feel my time has been wasted, too.

The meeting was a disaster. From what could be gleaned from the meeting, Rohit was of the understanding that I was there to enroll in the High Growth Start Up program, which at the time, I hadn’t even heard of.

“Stuart, is it just me, or was that meeting just a load of shit?”, my seething rhetorical question resounds beyond Stuarts’ agreement as we stand outside the building, me contemplating what to do next.

Nothing was achieved and valuable time & effort was squandered.

And the moral is:

  • Be clearer about what I require from a meeting and don’t let other people alter the direction.
  • Make sure that the people that I’m meeting with are the right people needed to make the decisions I need.

The Venture Capitalist

Looking back, I think David from Business Link was trying to make a silk purse out of sows ear. I was just trying establish what kind of business support I was to expect. I needed help with the financial side of things, but that was the very thing I was struggling with most. So we both forged on.

However, what I did have was an idea, and I think David had some faith in me being able to sell that idea in the absence of raw numbers. To that end, he arranged a meeting with a venture capitalist company called Just Good Business: “Just Good Business is a young and dynamic company which offers a complete range of services to transform your dreams. This may sound a bit far reaching, but the people we work with have products and ideas which are part of them and the key to their future, and we never forget that.”

We met on a Friday some time in March 2004, just outside Sheffield.

On arrival, I realised that I’d only got one copy of my rudimentary Business Plan. So I managed to blag my way towards getting the receptionist to print off two additional copies for me. So now I was prepared. After only a short wait, David led me into the meeting room and the discussion began.

I explained that this was purely exploratory and that I had no real numbers to show, but I had an idea. And it was the idea that I wanted to give an airing, just to see if there was any interest. They seemed fine with this.

I was fortunate enough to meet with two pretty clued-up guys who were both technology-savvy and able to see the outlines of what I was conjuring with words. One being the money man, by the name of Bernard McMahon, the other being the accountant, Peter Smith. As accountants go, I didn’t have to slow things down for him, he was there with me every step of the way. So all of the verbal short-hand was fine.

There were questions about the cost of the software and some degree of interest in the idea of charging monthly. They skimmed through the Business Plan and were honest about where I lacked depth and also praised the level of detail surrounding the idea itself.

All went well. Afterwards, I got the nod from David and told to expect a call sooner rather than later. Things looked to be stepping up a gear. A day or two later, I got a call from David explaining that Bernard would be going on holiday shortly, so he wanted to talk to me soon. I was expecting a call.

Some two weeks later David and I spoke. In passing, he asked how things were going with the discussions. “What discussions?” I enquire.

No call came. No follow-up and no sign of interest. All of which was to Davids’ dismay. Only a few days after the meeting, David spoke to Bernard and appeared keen on moving forward with things. On the back of this, David called them back to see what had happened.

Some time later, I got an email reply that seemed to be the complete opposite of what I’d been led to believe. No real interest at all. Concerns were raised afterwards that weren’t mentioned in the meeting, which was a big disappointment.

I didn’t feel that I’d been given the chance to reply to the concerns and that matter had been closed like a book with my hand still on page one.

And the moral is:

  • Having rudimentary figures for sales forecasts may have helped.
  • For whatever reasons, I was not able to communicate the true scale of what I had in mind.
  • I really should have been more tenacious and followed this matter up.

The Funding

Lost somewhere in the midst of time is the way by which I came into contact with the Creative Industries Development Agency, otherwise known as CIDA. I originally first spoke with CIDA some time in March 2003 through the guy in charge, Keith Evens. He explained to me the various things that CIDA had to offer.

Our first meeting was very productive: “CIDA have been making themselves useful the West Yorkshire region. They are responsible for the Mayla and the Afro-Caribbean carnivals.

Keith has made it clear that they [meaning CIDA] have an agenda to help businesses in and around South Yorkshire, with the exclusion of Sheffield for the time being, given that they have their own funding opportunities above and beyond what Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster have.

Also, that they intend working with companies to source funding. Keith sees this as a long-term relationship, more so given that Octane intended to make the software development side of things a long-term project.

We are due to meet again at some point, this second meeting will flesh things out in more detail; like what do Octane really do, and what does [my software hope to] really do.

He is keen to help where he can. There are networking opportunities, creative clustering; premises among other things.

Octane may qualify for a grant on top of other funding and help that may also be available.”

At this point, I’m happy.

Our second meeting brought forth new opportunities, and the possibility of funding to help me get my software developed and brought to market:

  • Emphasized IP and contractual agreements to protect all parties. Keith will supply some literature on IP. Will need strong contracts
  • CIDA will provide up to 60% matched funding. So, funding against the £4,700.00 Octane have put forward will mean that we qualify for an additional £5,000.00, taking our total budget to around £8,000.00
  • A provisional fee of £3,000.00 is required for marketing. Marketing help to be provided by specialists from CIDA

However, due to some strange internal political issues, CIDA went off the radar for a while and I was left in the dark. Some time in late September 2004, I got a follow-up call from Keith. We decided to meet: “Keith was monumentally disappointed that I’d not got any of the grant money. I was among the very first to apply. Since then, there’s been over one hundred and eighty members looking for funding.

Anyway, he went through the application and completed it himself. He put in the stuff the board are looking for and he feels pretty sure it’s going to go through.

I need to email the revised copy through to him to approve. He will then attempt to push that through as is, rather than having to submit a final proposal.”

This was to be the closing chapter in one of the most farcical episodes I have ever known or been a part of.

I’m told that for various reasons, CIDA aren’t able to handle the funds to which the companies they deal with are helped to make use of. This task falls to the Barnsley Development Agency. After speaking briefly with one of their business support team: “It seems that [the BDA] deal with regeneration and inward investment only, no help to businesses hoping to do something different like Octane.”

So this is clearly not a good start. However: “Okay, it looks like the situation with CIDA may be coming to a close and either way, I may well be in line for some kind of decision on whether I qualify for funding.

Carol will send out some forms for me to fill in. If it looks like I’m going to struggle with them, I’m to contact her and I can pop in and she’ll help me complete them.

They’re going to have a meeting on Tuesday 18th of November, and I’m somewhere at the top of the list of businesses awaiting feedback on a funding decision.”

From all of this, it appeared that while the BDA aren’t directly able to help me, because they’re the ones who deal with the funding that CIDA pointed me towards, they can actually help .. well, that’s the theory. But what happens when we put theory into practice?

  • Forms are sent out from the BDA for me to complete.
  • I make enquires about some of the questions (three estimates from different suppliers simply isn’t feasible.)
  • I return the forms which a number of disclaimers.
  • I’m informed that the forms have been lost somewhere between CIDA and the BDA.
  • I resend forms to the BDA.
  • I’m told that the forms have since changed and I will need to complete a new set of forms.
  • The new forms are in fact almost identical from last, with the exception of a slight change to the title and two questions changing position.
  • I send the new forms to the BDA.
  • I’m informed by the BDA that I haven’t sent all of the forms.
  • I enquire which forms are missing.
  • I explain that I was never sent all of the forms in the first place.
  • At this stage, Keith enquires about my progress with the funding, I explain everything to him.
  • He comes through to the BDA in person to complete the second part set of forms.
  • I’m told that I still need the first forms, also.
  • I explain that they have those forms.
  • I’m told that the BDA have lost them.
  • I explain that I was told by Keith that only the second set of forms were needed at this stage.
  • I resend all forms, including the original set which they lost as well as other forms that I was told were out of date.
  • I’m told by the BDA that there is a meeting scheduled to examine the candidate applications.
  • Various paperwork is still required from the BDA, which I don’t have.
  • Because of internal administrative failures at the BDA, I’m late with my submission.
  • An exception is made in light of the mistakes by the BDA.
  • I supply the documents literally hours before the deadline.
  • To be sure that they’ve arrived, I call to speak to Carol Forest, my contact at the BDA who has been at the very centre of the debacle.
  • I’m told that she’s in a meeting, the very meeting I was told was to be held at 1pm that day and not 11am, which is the time I called.
  • I miss the last meeting before the Christmas period.
  • I call Carol to explain that I feel that she and the BDA have massively let me down and I pull out of the funding venture.

When I next spoke to Keith at CIDA, I wasn’t in a particularly good mood. I explained my complete disgust at the handling of the whole situation and that I want nothing more to do with the BDA. He explains that all of the funding which CIDA offer in the Barnsley is funneled through the BDA, which essentially destroys any chance that I might have of securing future funding.

What is even more galling is the fact that I was one of the very first companies Keith met with and signed up to CIDA. Since me, there had been over a hundred companies that had secured funding. I had gone through over 18 months of nonsense, all for absolutely nothing, knowing fair well that the BDA would not accept their part in the failure.

I’ve since spoken to several other agencies who have expressed similar concerns as myself. Am I surprised? I’ll let you guess.

And the moral is:

  • At no point was I able to alleviate any of the problems being made for me.
  • Identify failure quickly and do not allow such things to continue.
  • If people are the weak point, find some way around them or over them.
  • Be prepared to cut your losses and move on.
  • I was incensed by the chronic mishandling by the BDA, and I made this known. Try not to muddy the waters too much.

Mission Aborted

The venture come a shuddering halt when David sought pastures new. He was an important part of that exploratory effort, and in hindsight, I maybe relied on him too much.

To compound the problem further, there was no one to replace him fully. Much of what he did was to be divided up amongst several other people, so there was no efficient way of picking up where David and I left off.

And the moral is:

  • Don’t rely on any one person for too much. People move on.

In Conclusion

I’ve just deleted a huge section of text detailing my feelings about what has happened to date. Most of what I had written was critical and negative.

I don’t think any of that will help and I don’t want to dwell on those matters. I’d rather put them behind me and focus on the future.

I now know and understand many of the problems that can occur, often in ways that are beyond my sphere of influence and control. I have to be pragmatic in these situations and ensure that I have built in measures to counter any direct or indirect negative forces working against me.

I am now looking forwards, not backwards. This is, after all is said & done, only the beginning…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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