So what’s your background, what kind of kid were you?
Sort of like I am as an adult, I can’t sit still without understanding everything about a subject . I have to know how it works or why it does things in a certain way. I used to take things apart and then put them back together. I was also into building with stuff with Lego and Meccano.
I was into cars and art and was a really good illustrator. I remember at school being known for drawing really well. I was a really big Power Rangers fan and I used to draw all the enemies. I used to love how futuristic they were.
“… there was one class where we used a piece of software called Microsoft Frontpage.”
When did you first discover the internet?
Comprehensive school in an IT class. Usually it was stuff like Access databases and Excel spreadsheets, really boring crap. But there was one class where we used a piece of software called Microsoft Frontpage. A proper old school website builder. I just started playing with that. I had that software on our home computer as well so I’d take it home with me. That was the first time I would have ever made anything ‘digital’. One of the tasks at school was to make a website and I ended up coming up with a brand, a website, everything. I remember showing the teacher and he was just blown away by this year 6 kid who’d come up with this stuff.
So it’s always been my mentality. For instance, and this will make me sound really sad now, but we’re doing the garden at the moment. Me and my partner were discussing grass and whether to seed it or turf it. So I went on this big research piece, probably about 2 or 3 hours researching how grass seed works and how to care for it. I do it all the time and I can’t not do it. I think that’s why I’ve ended up doing research focused work.
I did digital media at college and later game design but decided it wasn’t for me. Then when I went to University I studied multimedia but didn’t think I learned a great deal. It did however encourage me to learn outside of university.
You’ve worked for companies like Technophobia and have freelanced for the last four years, what made you start Paper?
I really enjoyed Technophobia but I wasn’t really able to grow and develop. I wanted to enter the research and user experience (UX) side but couldn’t get an opportunity to do that there so I joined a company in Leeds in 2012 as a UX designer.
At Technophobia I didn’t agree with the separation of “UX” with the rest of the design team. UX isn’t one person’s responsibility, it’s a team’s responsibility, it’s the developer’s responsibility, it’s the client’s responsibility.
If you have this idea in your head that it’s one person’s responsibility then that causes conflict. The developer should be writing code with the user experience in mind, making it fast, accessible and unobtrusive. Also the client has to look at their business and change the way they do things to improve that user experience. That won’t happen if they think user experience is the responsibility of one person in the corner.
“We make that very clear to clients from the start, the user experience is as much their responsibility as it is ours.”
A lot of the time we say yes to a piece of work because we know we can add value by challenging the assumptions of the project. When someone comes along and say’s “we need it like this”, we say “why?”.
There are three co-founders at Paper, how did you know you could work together?
Before Paper we worked on a project and Cam brought me in to consult. I worked on a proposal and a brief and I think he was a bit surprised with what I’d come back with. It was a very different way of approaching a project, very user-centric.
The client gave us a question in the brief and I knew everyone would go away and do fancy mockups but I said “we’re not doing any design work”. We are going to try and understand what the need is. What we presented was mainly storyboards and that was what ultimately won the work. They didn’t care that we’d not done any visual design as the story had been thought about.
So we won that and worked on it for three months. We gelled so well because we’d done something so different. Ultimately Cam and Jon decided they wanted to work like this on every project and approached me to setup Paper together. So we set up, all three of us equal.
How were you funded?
Completely self funded, no grants, no loans. All personal risk and savings. We all put in a lump sum each and that’s what has funded the business for the last 7 months. It’s not run dry but it has run low at various points. It’s been worrying at times but we had faith.
We’ve now paid back all the business loans we had given to the company so Paper is debt free and profitable. All in 8 months.
“I don’t ever want to be sat in a ninety strong company in an office on the 5th floor, not speaking to anybody.”
Where do you see Paper in five years?
Still small but with a team behind us. As a designer I think sometimes you need other designers there to collaborate with. Trying to do that and run a business at the same time is difficult. The two conflict. You can’t do all the work, manage a project as well as run a business. We’ve found that out the hard way.
Recently we’ve gone from full throttle on a piece of work to zero, because we forgot we were running a business. We got to the end of the project and thought “Shit, we’ve not lined any other work up”. We had lots of people making noises but because we’d not put any effort into it, nobody was saying yes.
We have learned and realised we need to plan this better. Next time we look at that pipeline of work we can make sure it doesn’t run out.
That was one of the reasons I said yes to the opportunity to set up Paper. The opportunity to see how that side of the business works. As a designer normally, you’re pretty far down the pecking order. You’re below the senior management team who think they know best. At Paper we didn’t want it to be like that, we wanted a completely flat structure. The designer is at the same level as the directors in terms of clout.
I don’t ever want to be sat in a ninety strong company in an office on the 5th floor, not speaking to anybody. I’d hate it.
What have been the hardest things to get right so far?
Definitely that balance between working for the business and working on the business. But apart from that, not over-investing in projects. Because there are only three of us, when we estimate a project we might estimate a week’s worth of one person’s time. But we will then all feel like we need to work on it, so we end up actually tripling the time we spend on it. We are aware that if we keep doing that we will fail.
One of the Principles of Paper is to take (on average) one day a week to work on R&D or charity work. It’s difficult to do that and run a business at the same time so we’ve slipped a bit to concentrate on building a business. When we employ though they will have the opportunity to work on their own product or charity work as an opportunity to learn.
This idea of taking time out to work on charity or other special projects, where did that come from?
It was Cam and Jon’s baby really. It was to not sit on client work all the time. Four days a week you would be on client work and that would pay the bills and the salaries. But for that one day a week you get the opportunity to learn different stuff, try out a new idea or work with that charity you know doesn’t have the money to do this kind of work. I think it gives you a different perspective on the industry. That’s why we kicked off legup.social. It doesn’t have anything to do with marketing, as we’ve passed ownership on to the community. It’s all about learning new stuff.
There’s no agenda behind it, it’s borne out of a desire to do different things. You can get bored doing client work every single day. If you’ve got a burning idea in the back of your mind it allows you the freedom to say “let’s just try it, can we do it?”
Thats where the Kev chatbot came from, we saw a problem, did some research and came up with a solution. The solution didn’t really go to plan because the business we did it for didn’t really support it but it was still a good learning experience. We did it quick, failed fast and moved on. I think that is very valuable.
I think future Paper employees will find that valuable too, you’re not just a bum on a seat that we charge out for as much as possible, it’s written into the business model that that time is protected. It’s not to be hip, or cool or different. It’s just because we want to fucking do it.
What has Sheffield been like to start a business in?
I think it’s a bit early to say. We’ll find out when we try to hire I think because I don’t think there is a business like ours in Sheffield, there are one or two similar but the way they’re structured is very different. The location is good and it’s a low cost city but it’s also got a really thriving digital scene.
What’s a product you admire?
I like companies like Monzo and Atom bank who are trying to reinvent an industry like finance and banking. I’ve been using Monzo a little bit and have kept my eye on it for the last year. The fact they are building a bank that is digital first from scratch, I can’t see how it’s not going to take over the whole industry.
I don’t think you can put sticking plasters on stuff forever and compete anymore. With an experience like Monzo you get alerts when you use your card, you get your expenses broken down, you can customise every aspect of your experience.
I think it’s brilliant that it’s a UK company and I’m watching the industry closely to see what happens.