End-of-Placement Report

Last month was the end of my placement at Northumbria University’s Business Start-Up Hatchery. To conclude my time there I was asked to complete a series of tasks, which included writing a reflective report as well as creating a poster to encourage other students to consider the option. What follows are the finished articles.

In reflection, my time on placement has made me encounter some significant achievements and difficulties. As a mature student of Computer Games Design & Production, I was interested in the possibility of exploiting the new wave of interest in virtual reality (VR) and how a start-up could fit into the industry landscape.

It all began with reading The MOM Test (Fitzpatrick, 2014); getting into customer conversations and applying what I’d learned about lean start-up. The approach given in the book helped me overcome my personal anxiety of seeking validation for my idea. I made sure to get perspectives from customers, but also from people working in the industry, to be able to compare as many perspectives as possible. Insights from these conversations gave me a few ideas I could consider and this first practice of asking customers questions without leading them has served me well throughout the placement.

I began systematically and proactively approaching businesses with my market researched proposals. Reached out to every business associated with the VR and games industries. This gave me my first interested parties, in the form of a games retailer and a computing college. Then I moved on to building experiments that would prove or disprove the routes to market I had hypothesized through the business model canvas exercise. Two of the significant failures were with the retail and education focused business models.

Despite being able to organize and run a successful promotional event, I was perhaps too quick to put this together, as it seemed retailers were not interested in paying for such a service – either outright or through commissions – which left me with experience under my belt but having wasted a week of time. I would recognize this while reflecting upon the venture in my personal blog. This was critical as it helped me plan to avoid this type of mistake in what would be an upcoming seminar and workshop work for a college.

This, while being a great experience, more planned, communicated and thought-out than my first attempt; would too be a failure masquerading as a success. After many months of rescheduling and reworking planned material for the three-day event, it was finally postponed until the following academic year by the client. This time it wasn’t that they hadn’t agreed ahead of time to pay for the service, no. They were very keen to, but uncertainty around their availability and access to equipment for the group sizes they wanted caused them to cancel at the last minute. What I did learn from this was not to invest so heavily in one project, as this left me without that expected source of revenue at a time when I would need it to invest back into expanding the business.

At that point, again, I had realized that I had not executed the true lean methodologies that I had been studying and instead had let a desperate confirmation bias guide my decision making. I needed to do deeper market research and revise the focus of my business model. I felt there was something there and that I had gotten close, but perhaps I was looking at the wrong customers.

While I needed to take time out to hone my idea I found some success with freelancing contracts from the university. After completing one pro bono I was soon after offered multiple paid assignments. This was a result of my initial networking and gave me the promise of a stable, reliable source of income while I worked my idea. However, further down the line I would find that my client had delayed paying my invoice and so I had to begin chasing the outstanding amount. This, along with a freelancer not doing work he was contracted to, has created a well of uncertainty which has affected my ability to grow the business and delayed my plans to begin testing my now refined business model canvas.

The model I have arrived at by this point is important, as it is an acceptance by me, because of the evidence and feedback I am getting, that the current state of the VR hardware available and its low market share means it would be too risky to develop applications and games only for that platform. For example, in my spare time, I continued to develop three prototypes and measured the barriers I would have to overcome in the design limitations of VR to create a groundbreaking prototype to break even – considering I could not afford additional resources or staff because of the pre-revenue state of the business. VR would become part of the business, not the central focus; that would become open source video games.

I gained more than that realization though. As I developed I found that I was furthering my skills in programming, a crucial component of work that is used in my course and invaluable in the industry I am in. I also got noticed, getting myself additional co-working space access at the VRTGO Labs, a regional center for emerging technology companies such as my own. Getting into VRTGO Labs and mingling with similar businesses has given me an advantageous position which should help me validate the new business model quickly, or at least give me opportunities to pitch myself as a proven developer and potential employee/intern.

Though I could have chosen to take a safer, work based placement with a game developer, I feel I have made the most of the placement year by taking this opportunity to test my ideas in relatively safe conditions. Having attended the placement seminar in the first week of my second year I knew that I was prepared to seek out further information and I knew who to contact for that. Along with strong messaging and easy to find placement website I had no worries that I could find a suitable for the year.

Despite being a student of a creative and technical course, with no background in business, I found that I could manage relatively easily with a few adjustments. The business aspect of a games company always seemed very different to the game design and production elements I was training for, but I managed to reconcile them as two sides of the same coin. With similar methodologies and tools, such as: lean and agile approaches being applied to iterate through ideas; project management and risk planning; and using customer feedback to create better products and services.

I am a mature student with a long work history. By having me look at the industry as a whole – discovering and analysing problems, then proposing solutions – I have a greater appreciation and understanding of how a game developer functions in both the creative and economic realms. Having had to summon, first-hand, the dedication, discipline and drive that is required to stay focused and motivated through the difficulties, I feel more adaptable, resilient and wise. This is crucial to my personal goal, which is to carry on developing the start-up I incorporated, so I can apply the knowledge I gained on my course, as well as that which I have gained through the learnings on this placement. Learning to communicate, network, problem solve and consider different approaches has not only helped me see the opportunities available in my chosen field, but also in the larger tech industry. I have a deeper understanding of how my chosen role interacts with the many, complex elements that make up a game development company. This knowledge strengthens the foundation of my previous years of study and gives me the in-depth, practical experience which I am confident has developed my professional skills beyond that of my peers.

What was not intuitive to me immediately was the guidance given on trying to provide services before creating a product. As I had the idea that I would be spending my year working away at producing a prototype which I could take to investors. This was not what I expected but I came to understand why this is done; as developing a product takes longer, whereas service-based businesses can be set up relatively quickly.

Other than this the placement did not fail to meet any of my expectations. In fact, the amount of support available through the mentors exceeded my expectations, as I did not envision so many links to successful and sage business advisors; especially not for free.

Weekly meetings with my supervisor, as well as completing the monthly and quarterly development logs, gave me a place to solidify my thoughts and really helped me maintain a velocity and direction that felt manageable. In contrast, the lack of co-ordination on the universities part regarding the assignment of my placement tutor, was frustrating. As I had to be assigned a different person after my original contact was unavailable for some reason. This was quickly resolved however and I was put in touch with an excellent visiting tutor who was, after the delay in the exchange, rather attentive and punctual.

I would like to see more resources being given to the Business & Enterprise Team by the university to support students who choose this option, and a greater promotion of this placement option to second year students who may have missed or forgotten the option for whatever reason. Since the placement is unpaid it wouldn’t hurt to perhaps raise some funding – or even, in some way, get the students to – so that students who encounter financial hardship can be supported. For me, I found that the risks and burden of running a business soon ate into my income and savings, especially when I was expecting a contract to pay at a certain time. Having to provide for my partner and baby boy exacerbated this, but I was left out in the cold when I asked the university if there were any support options.

This year has started me on the right path in regard to my career. The initial worries of setting up a business and failing have been addressed, as I have spent this time doing just that. While I have not been exclusively tackling video game related projects and tasks, I have been developing my personal abilities which if not directly related are in some ways valuable in their transferability.

Identifying the need to drop VR as the central idea through rigorous revision of the business model canvas and was the result of a year-long journey exploring how this nascent technology is being used by businesses to create value for its customers. Every step I have taken to get here has – including the set-backs and difficulties – in some way, exercised and expanded my skills, given me a taste of what running a business is like, made me more humble, honest and realistic in my approach to the final year of study.

Spring Report

For this series of entries I will be explaining the steps I take in developing my startup during my placement year at the Northumbria Business Startup Hatchery. This entry is a reflective summary of my achievements and the difficulties I have encountered, in the form of a quarterly report. This includes identifying new skills or competencies I have acquired as well as explaining which existing ones I have applied or developed. To conclude I will end this series with a general action plan for the future, which I will use as the basis of my activities going forward.

Achievements & Difficulties

My main goal for this final quarter was to generate my first revenue. The most promising way to do so was to work towards the milestones of the Virtual Sunderland project.

I worked on communicating my ideas with my client, Northumbria University‘s VRV department, as well as their client who commissioned the work, Sunderland Council. This meant getting storyboards and draft renders complete, so we could reflect on the creative direction of the work and make adjustments as necessary. In particular one part of the project, a site on which I had limited information, would need reworking to cover a larger area. I re-budgeted my time for this and found that I would need to seek additional help to realistically meet the clients final deadline, at the quality level I was aiming for.

Looking at my list of contacts I knew one person in particular would be suited to the task. Though while initial talks went well – he had the skills, experience and time – I would find out a month later, after slowly losing touch with him, that he was unable to work on the project for personal reasons. This was an unexpected setback and has made me re-evaluate what I need to look for in a freelancer. Despite having an agreed budget with targets, as well as an open line of communication through the chat app Slack, I was unable to keep him on-board.

Prior talks with the councils Urban Design Team Leader, Idris Balarabe, led me to consider presenting the data in an interactive, VR format. However, due to the setback of losing the freelancer, I would later have to drop this to focus on another project I was offered at around that same time.

The other offer of work came later in the quarter, with Emine Thompson of Northumbria University‘s VRV department briefing me on Newcastle Council‘s Digital Economy project, part of the Great North Exhibition . The budget was not finalised, but I had reached a milestone on the Virtual Sunderland project, so thought little of taking the risk of increasing my workload. This would give me two paid projects that could fill a working week. However, I knew I would need a freelancer or two working on these to be able to focus on expanding my business.

Getting dedicated, reliable people to work on these projects for me. That is what I needed to address, if I wish to be successful in my second goal for the quarter; building a team.

This would come to be a secondary concern however, as once I had invoiced my client to open up funding for the payment of such help, I found myself battling to get a payment authorised. A back and forward between my client and their finance department has left me without a clear date as to when I will be paid and therefore seek those qualified to bring in to work for me.

As that remains outstanding it means that I have not been able to fully complete my objectives for the quarter. This has not dampened my spirits though, as I continue to run the business but focus on my own projects until this is resolved. However, I am very wary that outstanding accounts receivable is something that can destroy a business quickly. Therefore I have created a cash flow plan that allows me to continue working the business in the event of an unpaid debt such as this. This is one of the steps I have taken to ensure I meet and overcome the challenges and barriers to enable success; my third target.

It was one of the things I had learned from working with TyneMet College, who had been in long term discussions with me about hosting a three day VR event. I had planned to have this done early in the quarter, with: rooms and equipment being booked; software purchased; time given to creating custom presentations; tailoring the activities to the students skill level; testing everything in advance. I was called the weekend before the scheduled date and told that they would not be proceeding but may be interested in the next school year.

At that time I had planned to invoice payment after the event and knew when it would be paid. Receiving an unexpected cancellation made me think and act on having a plan in place that would mitigate risk in the future, if I was going to be relying on a clients payments.

Outside of this, I made sure I did not miss out on networking, events and workshop opportunities as they arose. Many of these were focused on the VR industry, such as the VRTGO events, though most were start-up oriented. I knew that I still wanted to learn from others, to avoid mistakes but also to get fresh perspectives. One such discussion at a business event led me to getting additional business coaching from an established director, Stephen D. Slater of RMT Accountants & Business Advisors Ltd.

This type of one-to-one coaching has helped me understand how I can get the startup ready for investment, what kinds of people I should look to bring in to my team and how to prepare for some common pitfalls that early-stage businesses can fall into. From this I took the steps to incorporate the business, consider a shares or incentive structure and outline some basic groundwork, open a business account, etc.

All of these decisions were made with a new business model in mind. Using the business model canvas and my initiative I had worn down the problem statement, pivoted, tested, trailed and engaged all of the customer conversations and feedback I could find. The result of which was a lean business model I could act on, that focused on a variant of an open-source business model called open core.

Currently, I have commissioned artwork from a freelancer to help me gauge interest in this idea. From this work I created a landing page which is used to capture the e-mail addresses of consumers and developers who are interested. Going forward I will be looking at the reaction to this from the industry and public, then adapting my plans accordingly.

New knowledge and skills learnt:

  • Strategies to mitigate risk – how to develop a ‘risk mitigation plan’.
  • Setting up an incorporated business, share types and the importance of a founders agreement.
  • Different open-source software models and their uses, benefits and disadvantages.
  • Managing freelancers; workloads, deadlines and negotiating pay.

Existing knowledge and skills being applied and developed:

  • Creative media production: camera animation and lighting; rendering; video editing and production.
  • Conducting customer conversations, primary research and developing a business model canvas from real-world feedback.
  • Networking and seeking relevant contacts.

  • Pursue the validation of an open-core video games company.
  • Build a team willing and able to grow the business.
  • Publish a polished prototype which can be used to attract investment.

Winter Report

For this series of entries I will be explaining the steps I take in developing my startup during my placement year at the Northumbria Business Startup Hatchery. This entry is a reflective summary of my achievements and the difficulties I have encountered, in the form of a quarterly report. This includes identifying new skills or competencies I have acquired as well as explaining which existing ones I have applied or developed. To conclude I will explore areas for improvement, plans and actions for further work (e.g. learning, tasks, projects, etc.) which will inform my action plan for competencies and activities for the following quarter.

Achievements & Difficulties

With the range of activities I undertook this quarter I have been unable to complete development of a client/public ready VR demo. This was one of my main goals from the end of my summer report, which has continued to roll over due to the scale of the tasks on the critical path.

I did put time into this in January, adapting one of my existing portfolio demos to include support for the Oculus Touch controllers. In the process I also reprogrammed my prototypes functionality in C++. One sticking point was the development of the enemy AI. This led to a discussion in February with Jiaojiao Zhao at Northumbria University, on how I can use tools such as Caffe and TensorFlow to exploit advancements in machine learning and AI (artificial intelligence) to create intelligent characters for my VR demos. I found that it is not a small task, so I look to tackle this area at a later date.

Reflecting on the progress of the development I can predict that I should have a demo’s, maybe two, ready by the end of summer at the latest. This is based on the length of time I have given to this task already and my current schedule which includes commitments to clients and this placement itself. While this is a set-back from where I wanted to be at this point, I would have had to of made sacrifices in the quality of my client work, which I feel is more important to me at this time.

One of those clients, TyneMet College, wish to have me run two workshops and three seminars for their level 2 and 3 Computing students. This involved taking time to make a proposal for a bespoke workshop, details of my services and their pricing. It meant drafting my own freelance contract, which would allow me to submit an invoice for the work.

However, at the end of the quarter I found out that they do not have the necessary facilities to run the workshop I had planned. At the moment I am looking to see which alternatives are most suitable, given the needs of the college and the limited resources at my disposal. I hope to borrow a room at the university, instead of hiring the equipment at extra cost, but must wait to see if my personal lecturer can arrange this. Having not considered such a situation, I find myself with a difficult problem that impacts how I plan these types of activities in future and the size of my potential customer segment for this service.

My creative media service however, has not met any barriers so far. Infact, I have a returning customer, Northumbria University‘s VRV department, who wish me to collaborate with them on a project for Sunderland City Council. At this stage I have been creating storyboards, which will be used to explore certain development sites in their city. It is a more significant value job but it is stretched over a longer period of time and is generally outside of the scope of the business I wish to focus on. However, I am looking to change this by discussing with them the possibility of using VR as a medium through which I can also deliver the project. Talks are planned and I am looking forward to seeing how interested they are in such an idea. If it goes ahead this would be my first external VR assignment. It would be very important to me and a significant milestone in the development of my startup.

Outside of my client work I have been making moves to increase my exposure across my services customer segments. For example, I have been contributing to my online presence through including my business in freelancer networks, such as Upwork and Freelancer. I found these websites are too competitive, as a lot of BRICS countries are able to consistently underbid me on proposals.

I have also been maintaining my website and blog with regular posts, which help improve my sites ranking on search engines. Thought I had wished to launch an AdWords campaign during this time, I have found this is currently too expensive to maintain to gain any significant impact.

After passing my driving test I have been contacting more colleges with the full details of my services and pricing, to try and increase the area covered by my services. I have not received any responses at this time, which signals to me that the service may not be scalable as I had hoped.

Secret Sauce were also looking for speakers at their VR in Education event in February, but after initially agreeing to speak I had to turn down this opportunity as it ended up clashing with an important client meeting. This wasn’t a complete waste however, as it opened a door at an upcoming meeting I arranged.

As I began planning the short and long-term goals for my startup – to become a virtual reality game design studio in the local area – I reached out to Gateshead Council, who offered me access to VRTGO Labs co-working space until their Center for Emerging Technology becomes available later in the year. They were interested in my work and were connected with Graham Batey, my placement mentor, and the management for Baltimore House and VRTGO Labs.

As a result of my efforts I now have a place where I can continue to develop my business outside of my home, after my hatchery placement ends. I consider this a great win as it surrounds me with the most active, local companies involved in the VR industry, with prominent businesses such as ChroniclesVR, Hammerhead VR, Vector76, and Wolf & Wood. I had wanted to get more involved in the VRTGO cluster and this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Giving me the chance to work around and possibly with some of these big names.

It seemed like perfect timing too, as the NU Enterprise seemed to deliver a new opportunity for me every day. Further Grow Your Business events that provide expert advice and guidance on topics such as what a scalable idea looks like, investor readiness and business planning. As well as the upcoming Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Award to start preparing for, I am not short of things to do and learn in the next quarter.

This period has been the most productive in terms of networking and contract work. Besides the conversations I’ve had with the likes of TEDCO Ltd and the Sunderland Software City. I am again happy with my progress, despite the setbacks, and am going to start honing my services into one cohesive vision moving forward.

New knowledge and skills learnt:

  • Advanced programming (C++) techniques used in game AI and how I could implement them.
  • How to write a contract terms and what is necessary and relevant for my purposes.
  • Using digital channels to find customers, their strengths and limitations.

Existing knowledge and skills being applied and developed:

  • Valuing the cost and worth of my services then making proposals and negotiations based on this knowledge.
  • Networking, discussing my needs and identifying useful opportunities to develop my startup and ideas.
  • Using digital channels to find customers, their strengths and limitations.

  • Generate my first revenue.
  • Meet and overcome the challenges and barriers to enable success.
  • Attract more people to my idea, getting them onboard to help raise the profile of the business and allow my startup to grow.

Autumn Report

For this series of entries I will be explaining the steps I take in developing my startup during my placement year at the Northumbria Business Startup Hatchery. This entry is a reflective summary of my achievements and the difficulties I have encountered, in the form of a quarterly report. This includes identifying new skills or competencies I have acquired as well as explaining which existing ones I have applied or developed. To conclude I will explore areas for improvement, plans and actions for further work (e.g. learning, tasks, projects, etc.) which will inform my action plan for competencies and activities for the following quarter.

Achievements & Difficulties

In this quarter I made significant progress towards achieving the goals I set out in my action plan in Summer. However, I didn’t manage to get as far as I would have liked with some of them. Though I still have time to do so this year.

First of all, I dedicated time to create a more professional web presence. Since I had done some work for clients last quarter, I thought it would be best to advertise these services with testimonies, instead of using the single-page portfolio style format I had developed. I also took the advice of Chris Simpson, whose event I digital marketing seminar I attended in December. Chris encouraged me to implement analytics into my design, so I could track the demographics and behaviour of my audience, to better plan and analyse my digital marketing strategy.

Using the skills and tools I had at my disposal I managed to revamp my domain, infinity27.com, though this was not without it’s difficulties. I went in-depth into this in another blog post, but in brief, I found that I needed to spend a day learning the methodology and vernacular of multiple Google products before I could implement a working digital marketing campaign that uses analytics. Looking back, it is evident that this is an invaluable exercise that will help me monitor the success of the goals I want to achieve with my website. A quick glance at the analytics tools gives me insight into how my visitors view and interact with my website. For example, I can now see if the links I include in my e-mail campaign are being visited by the recipients and how effective the landing page for that service is at convincing them to enquire about my service.

This bring me onto the second goal I set last quarter, to secure regular paid work which an sustain my startup full-time. Despite not being able to contract recurring work, I have been able to begin attracting clients who wish to pay for my services. While I continued to trial and develop the VR for Education service with Gateshead College, I created a list of local education and training providers who could benefit from the service and sent them proposals. This led to interest and negotiation with most of the higher education colleges I contacted.

At first I found it difficult to price my services, using the method I had for the VR for Retail service. After consultation with my mentor and a detailed breakdown, I arrived at a selection of flexibly priced services that are tailored towards the customer needs and are offered in a modular structure. Looking at the cost of similar services, such as speakers and workshops, I feel I am able to offer this at a very competitive price, which should be attractive to potential clients.

Outside of this I have completed a pro bono media production project for the Northumbria VRV, titled Newcastle 2065, which I also wrote about separately. This gave me the opportunity to prove my existing skills on a live brief for them and the arrangement worked well for us both. I now have evidence and testimony for this service on my website and they have a quality production, to their specification, delivered to a short deadline. On receiving positive feedback they also mentioned that they are going to be getting back in touch in the new year with paid opportunities, working on other projects for their clients.

Another of my production goals for the quarter was to develop a VR prototype that I could use to attract clients who are interested in an emerging technology product. Since this is the basis of my startup, I looked to make time outside of my other work to focus on this in particular. I had mostly put this off, due to my other commitments, but also because I knew that Oculus Touch – controllers designed for VR – would change the course of development. Therefore I didn’t get around to developing my prototype until the start of December.

Unfortunately by that time I struggled to find the availability in my schedule I needed to produce a demonstration which I could package and present to people. In the end I had spent only ten hours on this task. So, I have decided to carry this forward and make it the primary focus for the next quarter. I have decided to do so as I feel this is the keystone which will attract the regular paid work which I am most passionate about. Having an impressive, finished example of a VR demo that reflects my abilities, knowledge and creativity should go a long way to convincing the right clients of my capabilities.

One good thing came from this setback however. From the time I had exploring my prototype and the ideas I had for it, I was able to identify a dissertation research topic that interests me. Locomotion and movement; how players move around in a VR world/experience. This isn’t a neglected topic, and multiple solutions have been developed and utilised with the aim of tackling the issue of VR sickness (often referred to as motion/simulator sickness).

For the needs of my designs, I need something different. A solution that closely resembles the freedom players have in traditional first and third-person control schemes, but one that also reduces or eliminates the dissonant feelings that manifest when using VR to experience the content. To aid me I will be keeping a diary of any issues, ideas and solutions I identify during my development and production activities. This should give me a solid basis in addressing the issue in my final year dissertation at university.

New knowledge and skills learnt:

  • Implementing and using analytics to track audience behaviour online.
  • Proposal writing.
  • Providing information, advice and guidance on careers in the industry.

Existing knowledge and skills being applied and developed:

  • Speaking, delivering seminars and workshops.
  • Project management, planning and time-allocation.
  • Animation and character design.
  • Compliant and responsive web design and development.
  • Pricing services and identifying customer segments.

  • Complete development of a VR prototype and follow on to produce a demo that can be distributed to the public and potential clients.
  • Contract enough paid work to break even until the end of the academic year.
  • Increase my exposure across the customer segments in which my services target.
  • Solidify a short term and long-term projection for my startup; activities and finances.