From raising a million and speaking in Beverley Hills alongside to liquidation and the Number 14 bus to Leith; a cautionary tale from Scotland’s start-up scene

Te Next Big Ting (part two?)


If, in Internet years, we’re reaching Postmodernity then 2004 was very much the Middle Ages; Facebook was still the pas- time of a nerdy Harvard student, Twitter and Instagram had yet to twinkle in their founders’ eyes, and online dating was something only the weirdest of weirdos did. So when I registered blipfoto.

com, built a simple website and started posting a new photo every day, it was a pretty unusual thing to do. Perhaps even a little weird. I had no real aspirations for it. On the contrary, it was just the latest in a long line of nerdy online projects I’d undertaken to provide a distraction from the stresses of running a busy digital agency (the previous being a foul-mouthed swearing ver- sion of the classic eighties game Simon). Tere’s some irony then that 10

years and 3,652 photos later Blip- foto had become a full-time job for fourteen people and reshaped

my whole identity. My fledgling idea had unexpectedly blossomed into a worldwide community of daily photojournalists, who’d col- lectively documented six million days of human life. We were re- ceiving a million visits a month, we’d won a Bafta Award, I’d met the Queen and picked up Steve Wozniak as a penpal. Te British Library deemed our users’ con- tent of such historical importance it began archiving everything for the benefit of future generations. We’d raised more than a mil- lion pounds in investment, and I was jet-setting around America speaking at conferences in Bev- erly Hills alongside Tony Blair and while negotiating a partnership deal with one of the world’s biggest photography brands. Four short months later, when

a crucial round of investment failed to materialise, we ran out of cash and the board took the decision to appoint a liquidator. I suddenly found myself jobless, heading home to Leith on the


number 14 bus wondering what the hell just happened. Over the following days and

weeks, I discovered the striking parallels between a startup failing and a close relative dying. You find yourself dealing with somber suited men who’ve made unusual career choices, friends offering condolences and concern for your mental wellbeing. Official docu- ments have to be produced and the contents of neglected cup- boards sorted out. It was a hard pill to swallow but came with a very welcome side order of relief.

What unfolded with Blipfoto over the next nine months is a tale for another time, but its users eventually crowdfunded just enough cash to set up a Commu- nity Interest Company and take ownership of the product. Tey now run the service purely for the benefit of its community—some- thing I think is still unique in social media and, at least for me, a fitting final chapter. I’ve been asked many times

Celebrating 10 years of Blipfoto which, by 2014, had become a worldwide community of daily photojournalists who had collectively documented six million days of human life

what I wish I’d done differently. I’ve never been big on regrets so that’s a tough question to an- swer—but there are certainly four lessons I’ll always carry with me: l First, Blipfoto happened almost by accident—I didn’t set out to build a product or a new busi- ness. It’s never bad advice to cre- ate something for yourself if you want others to want it too (Slack being a perfect recent example) but, because we’d established a large user base before taking it seriously as a business, we inadvertently stored up some big problems. To take proper control of growth it’s vital to articulate a clear value proposition to a particular type of person. But if two-thirds of an already sizeable user base doesn’t identify with the way you position the product

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