Tom Harries

Designer and entrepeneur.

Intro image with quotes from Tom.

Vocal, Yena, Edinburgh Lockdown Economy … are you a serial entrepreneur?

It’s not how I would describe myself I suppose. I don’t know, I see myself as a designer first I think. I’m interested in business, and I think as a designer I’ve got a lot of the skills necessary to try things out. I think once I’m proven I might call myself an entrepreneur.

The purest kind of UX is testing the whole thing - the whole concept. Not just the button or the screen.

In roles I’ve occupied, a lot of the work you do is testing, or trying to learn about which propositions work as much as which design solutions fulfil them.

How do you divide your time at the moment? Is it between Vocal, your social ventures and YENA and the lockdown economy?

I’ve got another one to throw into the mix which is that I’m a full-time consultant for Tesco Bank. Evenings and weekends are the Lockdown Economy because that has the most demand on me at the moment. Vocal is kind of paused, if you like, whilst people are still not visiting places as much. And YENA: we actually haven’t run events either since the lockdown. I have on my to do list a virtual YENA event, but I haven’t made much progress with it yet.

Are you interested in one of your start-ups taking off, so that might be your income?

Yeah. The contracting world can be stressful as you mentioned. Just having that duration on anything you are doing means that there does become this kind of uncertain period of whether or not the contract’s not going to renew, or whether you’re going to be looking around.

I wouldn’t be pursuing these sorts of business ideas if I didn’t feel that they were sustainable and something that could grow into a business that either I could work happily at, or that I could sell on at some point. 

So yeah, there’s very much a desire to do that. I think just having had six months this year of working on something, growing it, getting to grips with press releases and promotion... there’s a whole load of that stuff thrown in and it was incredibly exciting.

I was jumping out of bed at 6am and just working full on all day and loving it, absolutely loving it. There was something addictive maybe about that, that I’m quite eager to get back to.

Spinning up a website for local businesses

Has the Edinburgh Lockdown Economy website just come about in six months?

Yeah. When we were still in a full lockdown there were a number of businesses that were trying really hard to reopen and weren’t able to. So, we tried to run local experiences, a little bit akin to Airbnb, virtual experiences. The main difference is that if they are supplied by local businesses we can get something to your front door. So, we actually ran massage workshops, wine-tasting - there was all sorts of stuff like Magician classes! We got about ten or so different things in there ... candle making. And we ran that for about three weeks and actually generated a few grand in revenue for about ten or so different businesses.

At that point lockdown restrictions eased, the weather was glorious, and everyone was like, right, we’re going to go off and do this outdoors stuff again, maybe see a few people and have a beer outside. It was so much effort to market, so we decided at that point to just pause it again. But yeah, we actually got it up and running in about a week.

The first iteration, the MVP was a weekend’s worth of work, and we had about ten businesses that we put on there prospectively just to kickstart the thing. Then we shared it on some Facebook groups and it lit the touch paper and went wild. We’ve got about 900 or so now, and the actual website has evolved over that time to match whatever our needs have been.

Was that them all signing up, or were they put on there prospectively?

It’s a combination of a few things actually. We just basically put some on there. I would say the vast majority have requested, and there have also been user suggestions where people have come along and said, “You’ve missed this business.” So, we’ve reached out to them and said “We’re doing this thing. Here’s the link. Do you want to give us some details?”. And then they’ve done it.

There’s still a huge gap. I mean, what I learnt from the project is that I had a misconception around how businesses existed even in my local area. I thought I knew what was out there, and I probably knew 20% if that. I mean, there’s a brewery just around the corner from my house that I never knew about, and now I pop in there and get beers from the local brewery.

These small businesses just aren’t reaching local audiences who potentially are going to be their biggest fanatics, you know, the type of people who are really going to support them. So, I’ve learnt a lot about lots of different things on the project and local marketing is kind of one of them actually, by accident.

So how do you do local marketing?

If you look at what exists today, most people are going out and paying for Google Ads, paying to be shown within local search results on the map, or through social channels. And actually, we did some advertising as well to try and grow the audience of the site. By God, you can spend money on social ads like it’s going out of fashion. It’s scary.

I get the principle, but how much you need to spend is a bit like ‘how long is a piece of string?

Absolutely. When we stopped spending we actually noticed that we were sort of penalised. Like our numbers just wouldn’t grow in an organic way. It felt like you’d acquire 50 and then, you know - I don’t know who’s auditing these guys on how their numbers work. It really did feel like if you stop spending they crunch you and make you feel that you’re not making any progress - and you spend with them again.

We did some research. We were really fortunate. There were a lot of people who volunteered for the project as it got press and traction. One of whom now works for Whitespace, Sam Gogolak. Sam actually conducted some user research for us. I think he interviewed about 12 or so of our users to try and understand why they liked the site, what brought them there, what problems they had when it came to shopping local or spending locally. And the stuff they were telling us wasn’t specific to lockdown. It was just “When Isearch, I have a mind blank when I try to search for something.” Or “When I do search for something it’s returning all sorts of useless results on Google.” 

And so, I think what we are aiming towards now is almost like a really well curated list of local independent businesses where their kind of story is front and centre. And the people behind them are front and centre rather than it being that kind of anonymous business listing, and just producing features that make it really easy for people to remember who they are interested in, and just quickly go back to them.

For example, say “I don’t know what to do on Tuesday night for date night, so I’ll quickly just refer to that... oh, these guys are doing this thing.” The alternative is, you just have to be incredibly active on lots of social media and follow all of these people obsessively. Which can actually be quite stressful. I personally have moved away from quite a lot of social media and think perhaps that’s a trend.

I’m personally a bit bored of social media to be honest. I mean, LinkedIn is kind of a means to an end. You do meet interesting people occasionally, but you are mainly there to look for jobs.

Yeah. Strangely, LinkedIn in recent times has emerged as more of a... I don’t know quite how to describe it for me, just a more pleasant place to share and discuss, and much less corporate than it has been in the past, but it avoids the nasty troll type characters.

It’s not YouTube is it?

Exactly. Because it’s in the professional, or semi-professional sphere, it seems to be just a bit more cordial. Certainly LinkedIn, or any social media, they are almost designed to require someone there manning reigns and producing content. So, for you to be seen in people’s newsfeeds you have to be constantly engaging, replying to comments. They are designed intentionally to suck in the kind of human resource, and that’s fine if you’re like a big business and you’ve got a team that builds the social media. If you’re a small agency or a collective like you guys are, or whoever, with only a skeleton staff it can just be such a huge time drain.

Content design for business owners

And that’s kind of what I mean I think by what we are aiming for is to offer a place that’s just really really easy to maintain for managers who are time poor. And really valuable for local people because it automatically doesn’t have the chains included. It automatically has a group of businesses that have been vetted and presented in the best way they can possibly be presented.

Image depicting managing pictures and getting funding.

The photography on Lockdown Economy is really nice. They all seem to be giving you nice content.

So this is a good segue, a good UX segue: I worked on Yell.com’s website, I actually designed the current web and mobile experience whilst I was at an experience design agency in Bristol. So, I used to work for Nomensa.

What I learned when I was at Yell.com was that they had a huge issue in that they didn’t have any controls over their content when they first started. And that’s why when you go on Yell.com the image of the business is usually something someone has cobbled together with their marketing messaging and phone numbers into an image and they’ve uploaded it. And they’ve got almost no quality control on any of that content that’s been produced. 

When we started doing the site we intentionally vetoed logos and text in images. So, whenever anybody submitted an image to me that did that, I went back to

them and said “Hi there, sorry, this is our policy. This is why we don’t do this. We don’t want to be another Yell.com. We want to showcase what you’re about, and people respond best to pictures of products, and pictures of people. That’s what people respond to.” So, we intentionally shot for an Instagram audience I guess, in terms of the way we approached content design.

Some people want things done on the cheap and for people who just do stuff themselves so there’s as little management as possible. But trying to give them the freedom to just upload any images they want and maintain some sort of editorial control and consistency has been just an absolute nightmare.

You can try: if you have placeholders on a webpage for images of a particular size you can shrink them or force them to that size, but people are uploading massive hi-res images for a tiny little image. For one project, every time I thought we’d something in place that would stop this happening someone would find a way to just break things.

It’s a bit of a manual process at the moment. I can’t share my screen with you, but I’ve got a Sketch file here that’s open, and this is just one Sketch file because they become too heavy and I have to start new ones. It’s just the business images and I will take images and I will format them to make sure they can look as good as they can possibly get. Now I know that is not a scalable solution for the long term, but I think the rules set that we apply in doing that manually for the first however many could be coded, and they could be placed into somewhere. You could write code that processes images. You’re going to lose something in there, but you could probably retain most of it. And you could probably even apply AI to filter out any words or anything that had strayed too far into that sphere too.

Although actually it's funny I mean even... I don't know if you know there's a start-up locally called Oodles? Sarah Stenhouse was the founder of that when it used to be called Pixie and I think at one point they were funded by Scottish Edge. I did some consultant work for them and they are a user generated content platform. But they will do a manual check of every image to make sure that it meets some sort of editorial standard even with a whole load of AI to help them.

Such a difference. Another example was someone I did website for years ago who was selling really fancy Oriental rugs on this website. They were beautiful rugs that were £2-3000 apiece and he had just taken really bad photos of them.

They were just bad photos of expensive rugs and no-one was going to get the credit card out to buy a three grand rug unseen, based on his photos and it was ridiculous. It didn't last long.

If the cost of the product is that great either you'd expect you could almost do consultations for people - or you know show them the rugs yourself being able to take them round the shop. It’s worth spending half an hour making sure your media is like, incredible. I guess that’s it, like the digital literacy required - you know, being a kind of web native, I think that’s something I take for granted, and then as soon as you speak to people who are trying to promote their own small businesses and you recognise that actually they don't have the skill set required and it’s a steep learning curve for them, you know on top of everything they're doing to be able to do it really well.

So actually again, we had two or three marketing volunteers help us out at our peak. But they would literally rewrite people’s pages to make the content sing and to make sure taglines were snappy and engaging, and that makes a world of difference. And it wasn't a lot of time that they needed to devote, it was maybe 15-20 minutes of just rewriting something or rephrasing something, but I think that's worthwhile for small businesses. I didn't see Yell.com doing that.

Funding

If you're adding value to all these start-ups there's probably a point in their growth cycle where they get funding if they're really good. You know, if they've got their pitch together and their business plan, and they've got a good story to tell. The consultancy I've tended to do was for little Fintechs that tend to get an influx of money and then they can hire me.

So that's quite nice and I thought that would be quite good for our collective, but then in the longer term maybe we could just back some unicorn that either give us consistent work or we can have some stake in it, a Fan Dual or one of those kinds of things. What are your reflections on that? I mean, there's obviously you’d have to really strike it lucky and you’d probably have to network with a lot of businesses, but that's my scheme.

I suppose I can speak from the perspective of someone trying to get funding. In normal times it feels like there is funding available and you get a reasonable shot at it. I've certainly felt during post lockdown, either as a combination of the money kind of drying up and the avenues drying up, or the competition and the applicants increasing, and potentially even the type of criteria that they're looking for changing.

So actually, to try to get that funding is really hard, so I suspect that if those businesses have already got funding and they're engaging you, that’s a great space to be in. You might be backing a horse there that does become the next unicorn of the area. But are unicorns becoming less probable? I don't know... I think there are some kind of schools of thought that maybe those kinds of unicorns of maybe like five years ago, Skyscanner and Fan Dual etc. I don't know whether there's more room in the market for these kinds of sustainable businesses that have longevity but don't strive for that unicorn status.

There are certainly different funding models around that tried to encourage people to add more sustainably and not just have this crazy burn rate of investor cash. I don't know, man. That’s a hard one. Obviously as an agency I think that you are trying to find someone that you can work with long term, aren’t you? It’s very difficult to identify that I suppose when you start working together.

Yeah we spent a bit of time with Momentpin. They were quite interesting, and we did a bit of research for them. They are kind of a benign Facebook, so it doesn't try and get you addicted or steal all your data to sell off.

What are they called?

Momentpin. I can link you up after this. They’re a local business and they’ve got a good platform.

I’ve seen some stuff advertised recently, which is like, all the adverts are black, and they’ve got little quotation marks and that seems to be the new social media platform that puts your privacy first and then it doesn't try to hook you in.

We need to break our addiction somehow.

Accessibility

I had a couple of suggestions for you just while we've got you. I did notice that Edinburgh Lockdown Economy has a few accessibility errors, and it could be things like images without mark-up, without an alt tag or something. I'm developing a little prejudice against Webflow and you're not the only one who says it's really great to use.

Webflow’s really great to use!

Yes see, you’re not the only one. But every Webflow site I've looked at so far has had some kind of accessibility nasty.

That could just be a result of our speed of movement I guess. Certainly, alt text for images would have had to be a content consideration from the off. I'm sure we've got it in headline pages, but whether or not we do at the business page level, I don't know. That might be the one you kept catching, but yeah, it would be great to see those and obviously try to rectify them.

I basically press the Wave toolbar and it flagged a couple of things, but I’ll send those to you after this.

Yeah, please do.

Meet-ups

If you're talking about a start-up, you know, meet up on Zoom while you're in lockdown. For UX Glasgow we found it's been really good having Zoom meet ups. I mean we get we would get between about 12 and 20 at the most at a UX meet up, but we easily get 40 or 50 people at these ones. I don't know what it is but for someone like, I mean half of us have got kids, it's just a bit easier to dial into something and stay home than it is to go out and try and work it out with your partner to get an extra night with kids so that’s something you could try. If you're looking at branching out and making Glasgow Lockdown Economy give us a shout and we might be able to help you as we’ve got a bit of local knowledge.

There is as far I’m aware a couple of Skyscanner engineers who started...I don't know if they called it the same name. Yeah they did. They built it in a different way to us. We weren't the first, there was one in Bristol and it was a friend of mine who did it, and that's where I said “OK I'm going to take that and kind of evolve into what we'd like it to be.” And we actually we made our Webflow template available to anyone who wanted it and so Fife built one off the back of us. There’s somewhere up in a region up in the North West that did, Solihull found it, Birmingham did... and then places as far as Bangalore and parts of Ukraine have also used our template so we've had a kind of weird journey over the past six months. There are some other ones that I could say about, but probably over a beer.

OK, there are a few stories there! But that's amazing you guys have had an influence like that.

Yeah, it’s been really nice actually, sort of having these people contact us from all over the place just to see how they can do it and to see them spin up their own things has been great. To be frank, we've kind of looked at them all and they've made content errors and not been able to evolve it design wise, but I guess that just shows you need to have that skill set up front for people to be able to do it.

Yeah that does something that wouldn't have occurred to me. You're helping people do good content because it comes more naturally to you than it would if you're a baker or doing fine wine or whatever business you do.

Proving the business model

So that's all the questions I had. Like l say we try and keep it snappy. Do you have any questions for us, or Iain do you have any final questions for Tom?

Iain: I think there's one thing I wondered earlier. I went to look at the Vocal app and it was Edinburgh only. Was that based on location services? I was just thinking I could have been in Edinburgh and wanted to comment on something, so I just wondered why you had made that decision? 

It's to try and ring fence our resource and time, so our intention was to demonstrate the way the app worked within a single location where there's lots of business activity and we could prove that the business model was there. So, it was partly how we build the data and it's partly how we operate the app, but it is restricted based on your location. Glasgow would be next obviously.

We’ll just run all your West Coast operations. We work for minimum wage.

You wanted to know if I have any questions for you guys, or any problem to solve.

Help Haver!

Problems to solve, or suggestions for us.

I don’t know... how deep do you want to go? I'm interested as a consultant how working as a collective is in practise, because it’s not the first time I've heard of it, but it’s the first time I've seen it working and formalised, but I've definitely heard people talk about it a lot in the kind of consulting world where they say “Ah, you're really good and you know who good people are and we canall work together. Together we can approach businesses.” And then it's like, well aren't you an agency? I think there's that sort of... where are the lines drawn and how does that actually work in practise?

Sure. Well, I mean we have only been going since March really. I partly did it because I’ve had my Fintech meet up where we kind of ran out steam because we’d run out of Fintechs to cover really, and at the same time I knew quite a lot of people who were trying to break into UX. So, I had plans to do this before lockdown, so we just gave it a try. We thought right, we’ll do some kind of magazine, we’ll interview people, and then we'll try and find kind of little projects. 

Everyone except me is kind of a trainee, so for that reason I can pretend to be some kind of expert I suppose and that's how it's kind of evolving. This way I can guide people a little bit. But apart from that, we do want to get up to the stage where it's more like an agency. To me I think maybe the difference is that agencies get paid, and we haven't been yet.

I like the idea of an agency without the directorship who just thinks skim... you know, take all the cream from the top and kind of don't pay people that fairly. I’ve worked in agencies before, and its great work but you are not paid very much. Whereas actually, if everybody there was getting the benefit of the contractual rate, but it was being coordinated and it had a legal underpinning that allowed you to work with bigger companies I think that's a really interesting space to explore.

Yeah, I mean like one thing I'd like to do (I'm going to write that down: work with bigger companies!) is kind of like do discovery projects for people, because it's kind of an art being able to run a discovery project with lots of different teams and different backgrounds. They maybe haven't had design and research before, so my contract is up in March and I was thinking about just advertising and saying, “Does anyone want to hire me to do discovery?” and I will bring in Haver people and then we can all do a kind of profit share. That's assuming we could find clients. But yeah, that's maybe something we can bring to it.  I don't think I give off the vibe of a manager naturally so that's probably another reason why it’s a collective as well.

I think, you know, consultants are not easy to manage sometimes. I don't know, maybe they are the type of people who seek that kind of independence but are happier together? Having a roster of people who you really trust from within the industry, that you can kind of draw on and pull into projects... that's really exciting. I think the challenge is: can you bring them into projects at the right time and coordinate it all?

This is really good! I’m writing all this down!

If they were kind of shorter projects, like you say, if they were kind of pieces of discovery work that were maybe a month or a few weeks. No more than a few months then maybe there’s a better chance of doing that? I really like the work of an agency called AJ and Smart, they're based out of Berlin. So, Jake Knapp, the guy who wrote Sprint, runs a podcast with the guy who runs AJ and Smart, and they're trying to get people into this kind of idea of workshopping stuff. So, you should check out AJ and Smart, they’re a really interesting agency.

I recognise the name from LinkedIn I think. 

Yes, they are really good at the marketing and productising of what they do. It’s all, you know, “Buy the book, buy the course”, and they're very savvy at digital marketing, so you probably have seen them along the way. You’ve got all the necessary keywords in your LinkedIn description.

It isn't just what they say about these kinds of hired guns, like consultants maybe. You know, they don't necessarily like a company structure. They don't like having annual reviews and all that kind of stuff. So, you do have this kind of guerrilla mentality sometimes when you come into a company.

Iain, what are you making of Haver so far?

From my point of view I've just been doing some freelance web design for about 14 years since I was made redundant at HarperCollins. I was very lucky in that I had one long term client, the safari guy I mentioned. So, I've been doing stuff for him for about 10 years, mainly because the business has never made much money and he keeps chopping and changing what he wants to do to try and make money from the business. And I had some freelance work from Collins for most of that time as well.

So, between those two things I got by, and I’d had no stress from an office job, and it was fine. But I never really... I learned how to do quite a lot of stuff with MySQL and database stuff for the safari websites, but because I've never had that many new clients, suddenly I’m noticing that my portfolio for web design work is almost non-existent. A lot of websites that did years ago either don't exist anymore or are not great. And also, I’ve never learned JavaScript. So, I’m fine with things like HTML and CSS and WordPress / Webflow, but when it gets to a bit more hardcore coding that's always probably held me back a bit. So, then I found UX, and am currently doing the UXDI Diploma in UX Design, attending webinars, and then was invited to join Haver. That seems like a really good next step just from me being on my own, just doing my own thing. So that’s my background briefly.

I’ve heard some really positive things about these kinds of bootcamp type intense courses. I'm not sure if it's the same format, but it's almost like a four- month thing?

It’s a proper diploma run through Glasgow Caledonian University in conjunction with the UX Design Institute in Dublin so it's similar but in theory a bit better if it has a bit more industry recognition. I think it's a bit more structured with an educational background than a bootcamp.

OK, although a note on the bootcamp stuff is people who are kind of switching into it, I think I found they find it really valuable because it results in a portfolio of work, and potentially live projects which really helps people bridge that gap.

So, with this one there are a lot of video lectures and a big practical project for a fictional airline company. We have done the research, competitive benchmarking, affinity diagram... all that stuff, and then prototyping and wireframing of a finished website design.

It’s even got affinity mapping and that good stuff? All the fun stuff.

Yeah, and it’s all the research stuff which is new to me.

It’s such good fun though, and it never gets old as there’s always new subject matter to get your teeth into.

I’ve got a pretty long reading list!

It's always changing. I'm very fortunate to work as a designer. I feel privileged to be able to do it.

I think it keeps your brain fresh, having to take an interest in other people and have to learn new skills is really good.

Yeah, it never seems to end. I always feel like I'm kind of the newbie at something, or joining new organisations and not really understanding finance or insurance or safaris, or whatever it may be. I actually have worked on a safari website, by chance called Red Savannah.

I know Red Savannah. They’re in Cheltenham aren’t they?

It was when I was down in Bristol, I was working for a company called Mayfly. I think they've gone out of business now, but we worked on a redesign for Red Savannah. And on that project I'd never built anything with UXPin, which was like a sort of web prototyping tool. I don't know if it's still big, but I built the whole thing in UXPin and I've never used it since. But I had to learn the whole thing from scratch to build the site. There you go – a good example of learning fast.

Small world. I did win a safari holiday out of it though.

I mean, some of the holidays they sell, they’re into the 20,000s...

unbelievable.

The holiday I won was about 20 grands’ worth of holiday, not including flights and it was bloody amazing.

One of the user personas we had for that project was the assistant of somebody. So, it was a high-flying businessperson who briefed their assistant on finding them a safari holiday, so we were designing features that would export their shortlists and they could then email them to their bosses.

My bread and butter is finance and government. Never been on safari, design wise or in reality. Right, I’ll need to chase my daughter to bed.

I’ve spoken for ages, so I'll shut up.

No, it’s been really interesting and even had good advice for us. We’ll buy you

a pint if we can monetise all that. But thanks very much. I’ll look forward to saying hi again. Then again, we might have met at a UX meet-up that Mike runs.

I keep meaning to make that one, but I don't always make every month. But yeah, that was grand, thank you. And if you've got any ideas for an image let us know, otherwise I'll get together with Iain and we’ll put one together ourselves. It could be a bit different... some people have given us a screenshot of their desk and stuff like that.

OK, I’ll have a look at the site, and I’ll see if I can find something that fits the look and feel.

Cool. Otherwise, it'll just be something predictable like playing on Vocal or something like that, and a picture of Edinburgh. Right, cool. Thanks for your time and we’ll get back to you soon.

Enjoy your evening nice to meet you.

See you later.