Oliver: What inspired you to launch “Shuffle My Life” and Findsociety?
James: With Shuffle My Life, it’s kind of a long story. I’m an avid reader of the website ‘Reddit’ and on a quiet day after lectures, came across a video about a man called Jerry Gretzinger with a fascinating hobby (http://vimeo.com/6745866). He had constructed an entire model city based on tiles; the contents of which he was building, changing and destroying based on chance and a few rules. The fact that this city had a life of its own, powered by randomness, was a fascinating concept.
Around the same time, a game by Swedish developer Markus Persson called Minecraft had begun to really take off; this game was built on ’emergent gameplay’; an idea that one could create unexpected and unique experiences through random chance. With these in my head, and finding myself in a ‘rut’ in my own life, I was beginning to dream up a game designed to throw people head-first into new experiences. It began as a physical card game, hence the word ‘Shuffle’. My decision to take it online was a spontaneous move. I thought that having everything online made it far more accessible, in addition to vastly more expandable. I went through five iterations of the game to refine it and I’m fairly happy with the result now. An Android app was released a couple of weeks ago, and that’s going well.
With FindSociety, this was out of a desire to find a universal UK societies search engine based on tags, age groups, and so on. It was also a fun side project getting to grips with more PHP.
Oliver: Do you think that it is an asset or a liability that you did not study web design, computer science, engineering, etc. at university?
James: It has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, I think a grounding academically in a technology-based subject would have been hugely helpful, and might have prevented me thinking ‘it cannot be done’ when trying to figure out a solution to a code problem (which is a very difficult thing to overcome!). Having said that, I think the resources and helpful communities (e.g. StackOverflow) are out there for anyone with the willpower to pick up programming and web design. And an academic learning style doesn’t always suit everyone; I learnt from experimentation and trial-and-error. A final point to make is that many degrees at good universities provide such general, transferrable analytical and problem-solving skills that they prepare you for any endeavour.
Oliver: You started Darley Tech very recently after graduating from university. What made you take this step, so far removed from the subjects you studied for your degree?
James: My local area, after returning home from university, has a real drought in terms of jobs. I had a choice between retail work on the shop-floor or taking a risk and starting a business in something I had always had a passion and interest for (simply not academically) – and one which allowed me the flexibility to experiment with ideas such as Shuffle My Life. No doubt there’ll be more like that in the future. I think my time at university actually gave me the confidence to do what I am doing, and gave me plenty of mentoring and support whilst I was considering my future post-university. In that sense I definitely do not think the grounding in humanities was a waste of time, the skills and experience I gained from that was invaluable, and the insight into problems in society allows me to dream up apps, websites and games which are fun and do something good for people.
Oliver: You hadn’t been formally trained in web design and computer repair, what did you do to get to where you are now serving customers in your local area and providing web-design services online? What did you do to get the first few sales?
James: I was lucky; my friends and family already knew I had these skills, despite not being formally trained in them. I advertised using flyers around my local area, plus doing work for family friends, passing on business cards and networking in this respect. I also spent a long time on the website design-wise to provide a good first impression. I saw a gap in the market in the area of the city I was in; free to begin establishing my business as ‘the’ local repair company. Marketing with web design is a tougher nut to crack and I’m still in the process of researching how to differentiate myself in this area.
Oliver: There are thousands of people that sell web design services online, are you concerned about this?
James: Whilst there are a huge number of people competing online for these kinds of services, I really believe the market is huge. Everything and everyone is online these days, and there are companies out there that are perhaps not aware of the boost they might gain from having a website, especially from customers of younger demographics.
Oliver: What challenges have you come across in starting your own business and how did you overcome them? Is Darley Tech your first business?
James: Darley Tech is my first business, yes. The process of starting up was largely smooth and straightforward, thanks to the combined advice of mentors and other business owners online and offline. My strategy has been to maintain low, conservative targets each month and not get ahead of myself but think realistically. I understand that starting and establishing a business takes quite a while, and I’ve tried to plan for this.
Oliver: Have there been any surprises since starting your own business? What has the experience been like so far?
James: I was truly surprised at how many spam calls businesses have to put up with. I use a simple, basic business phone with no ability to block numbers or callers, and an automated system calls me from ‘no number’ in the early morning and towards late afternoon each weekday. In addition, I was surprised at how many prospective CVs I received, even in the first couple of weeks after starting up – at the time I had more interest from potential employees than customers. All in all though, it’s been a very rewarding experience.
Oliver: Website/app you can’t live without and why?
James: Viber. It’s a simple VoIP app (think Skype) with very low bandwidth. 14Mb of data for an hour-long, clear phone call means I can make free calls and talk easily across the Atlantic/internationally even when both parties are on data/3g. I can really see this being the future, and it makes internet-only phone contracts or hybrid pay-as-you-go services (such as GiffGaff) very cost-effective – you start questioning the need for an expensive contract with ‘700 minutes’.
Oliver: What is your typical work day like?
James: In the morning I get administrative things out of the way, such as budgets, making payments and purchases, and so on. If I have clients to serve, I may be doing this instead – but admin jobs are a high priority. As I reach the afternoon, I’m usually focusing on some major component of the business – marketing, improving services, and so on. At the weekends I turn my attention towards Shuffle My Life and other projects like this.
Oliver: Anything you would like to say to the audience?
James: Starting my own business and pursuing my own projects was the best decision I could have made at my age – especially in an area so lacking in jobs. If you’re unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job, but have an idea which could work, look into schemes like New Enterprise Allowance to support you through getting your ideas off the ground.
Oliver: What would you say are the three most important things that anyone interested in developing their own app/website should know?
James: It’s far cheaper than you think. You don’t specifically need the very latest version of PhotoShop when free software such as Paint.NET can do a good job. Many developer toolkits, such as the Eclipse Android kit are freely available, and if starting out, BlueFish is a competent HTML editor.
WordPress is free and powerful enough that you can change the layout of every page completely from within its own interface and see your results live on the site. Finally, it only costs £16 to have your app published on Google Play, which is remarkable (the iPhone is more expensive at $99 ayear).
You’re not alone. If you’re ever stuck with a bit of code and you’re confused, people over at StackOverflow and loads of other resources can often show you the way; some by fixing your code for you, others by telling you a bit about the theory and allowing you to figure it out yourself.
Oliver: Where can we find out about you and your projects?
James: They’re not entirely integrated with one another yet, but my main projects right now are my business website (www.darleytech.co.uk), Shuffle My Life (www.shufflemylife.com) and FindSociety (www.findsociety.org).
Oliver: Thank you so much for your time James, I look forward to seeing your upcoming projects and how FindSociety develops it is a great concept.
James: Thanks so much Oliver.
If you are interested in launching your own local computer servicing business why not check out or guide Technicianinabox now FREE! Click Here.