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.