Sketching with Code

Back to #startuplife with Makeshift

I’m doing a new thing. It’s called Makeshift and we’re rapidly hacking on digital products that give a leg up to the little guy. “We” is Paul Birch (one of the Bebo founders, well known London angel investor), Nick Marsh (ex-design director at Sidekick) and me.

I thought I should write a little about the thinking behind Makeshift and how I arrived here, what we’re doing and why.


If you take a look at the #startuplife feed on Twitter you’ll get a rolling series of snapshots into what life is like when you’re doing a startup. I’ve done a few, with varying degrees of success. My last was Aframe and after three years of #startuplife I had an opportunity to “exit” when we completed a VC investment round, so I took it.

Doing a startup can be great, but it can also be pretty hard - finances get stretched, relationships get tested, and the 100+ hour workweeks can grind you down. You’d better make sure you really love what you’re doing if you’re doing that! So I took a bit of a break from it for a while.

But startup is where I’m best, so I gave myself until Spring of this year to get something new off the ground.

Hacking and playing

My idea in the interim was to collaborate with people, have some fun, not do anything too serious, and concentrate on “hacking”. Take a bit of a creative break from the serious work of starting and growing a company. I was given a tiny bit of research budget from NESTA and Clore (Something like £2500) but that was just the excuse I needed to throw myself into thinking about my approach to making things - a nice deadline for a short paper to be published in the Guardian (out soon I hope).

That turned into a research blog Sketching with Code. I spent most of the year attending hackdays, doing weekend hacks (did anyone know that Heroku has a 100-app limit?!), thinking about “getting good at getting fast”, and doing a hacker residency on the beautiful Isle of Eigg with Lucy Conway’s Eigg Box project.

I came to some conclusions

  • Ideas are ten-a-penny. Execution is a much more interesting area to focus on than idea generation.
  • Execution is particularly interesting when done at a pace. I got into the habit of being able to take an idea and implement the bare bones of it in two days. The “two days” became important - if something is bigger than two days you’ve probably made it too complicated.
  • Being fast is fleeting. The process of “getting fast” is what I focussed on - “being fast” isn’t a static thing. So getting fast was a habit I got into.
  • The hack is a message. Throughout my research I came to the realisation that “hacks”, the quick throwaway pre-prototypes we make aren’t that important. The message they send is what we should care about.
  • Collaborations help you learn about the team you need around you. Spending some time working out who you really need in your ideal team is very useful - I put myself in several situations as the “hacker” and learned who I need around me to make good things.
  • Being invested in your work is crucial. I gave a short talk at the first Find Better Problems event about this, but working on something that directly touches your life or the lives of those around you is crucial in making something good. Obviously there are counter-examples, but I realised I’ve often been working on other people’s problems, not my own, and that needed to change.

The search for a repeatable business model

So throughout this year I made lots of hacks, did some nice projects with decent budgets, learnt about hacking, collaboration, speed, team, tech, product/market fit, prototyping, “lean”, and all manner of things that I wanted to spend time thinking practicing before jumping into the next thing.

Here’s a quote that stuck - “A startup is an organisation set up to find a repeatable business model”. That’s been something I’ve been thinking about all year. Doing a hack and immediately thinking about how it could grow into something useful, how it could be repeatable, scaled up and so on.

But what if you were to think one level on. What’s an “accelerator”? Is it “an organisation set up to help grow organisations that find a repeatable business model”? And given that I’d been experimenting with making lots of things rapidly, and only following through on the things that were good contenders for “repeatable business model” (Type, Aframe, Flow, etc.) shouldn’t I be looking for a model that was a bit more “hackcellerator”?

Looking back to the early days of Aframe that’s kind of what I was hoping to achieve - we’d set up a “group of companies” model, but because Aframe was so hot that quickly went by the wayside and we and the investors committed to a single product.

What would it look like to build a company that built companies, though? It turned out that my friends Paul and Nick were both thinking similarly. I spent the year chatting with them, and with others, pretty informally at first, and eventually more seriously.

I looked at co-ops, places like BetaWorks, accelerators like YC (obviously), and came to the conclusion that what I wanted was to set up an organisation that borrowed from these models, but did it slightly differently.

That’s turned into Makeshift. We’re something like a product design studio - Nick talks about “the Eames Studio of the 21st Century”, it’s also a bit like an indie film production company - we’re working on a series of our own ideas, probably in collaboration with others on the “get to market” bit, and it’s also a bit like a tech incubator because of the industry we’re working in and the methodologies we’ll be using.

We get to work on our own startup ideas, in series and/or in parallel (there’s a post just in that), we don’t do “time for hire” consultancy (if we end up there, we’ll shut the company!), and we’re working fast - we aim to have our first digital product out in February.

Paul brings his experience, network, and is providing the investment, Nick is bringing design, product management and his “this not that” incisiveness, and I’m bringing the tech and hacking. It was through working together at Sidekick, and in particular our Comic Relief residency - The Exploralaboratorium - that I realised that Nick’s skills complimented mine in a way that I’d not had before. He jokes about “directing the Stef laser”, and it’s helpful to have that kind of collaborative guidance. But that’s only part of the equation. What I also needed was someone with experience in investing and growing startups, someone who’s had a big exit and who’d personally commit to the idea. That’s Paul - and I think what he’s doing by investing in the Makeshift idea is a story in itelf.

The logical progression

The way I describe Makeshift is “we’re hacking on digital products that give a leg up to the little guy”. Nick’s written a fair bit about what that means, and our principles. Essentially it’s the logical progression from my “hack, play, learn” approach that I’ve been working on this year.

The “leg up for the little guy” is very important.

I want to work on products and services that use web and mobile tech to help the people that I care about, and indeed that I am (the whole “live the future” idea). And when you think about what’s going on with the Maker movement (a bit of a nod to that in the name!), and how some people are pointing towards some kind of mini industrial revolution coming because of the DIY, self-starter, home-maker, 3d-printing, small business, local, resource sharing, tech-enabled stuff that’s going on I can’t help be excited because that’s all about the people I know and care about.

So I’m setting out on a mission to develop useful tools and services that are profitable (so I can make a living), but primarily ride on that wave of “the little guys” and help more “little guys” make a living from the stuff they love doing.