People not boxes - a rediscovery

by Dave Barter on

I've been following the development of machine-learning avidly and it's tempting to assume that the robots are going to take over the world. However, like "The War of the Worlds" there's a fly in the ointment that will kill their domination stone dead.


Subway is a disaster for any machine learning algorithm as there are just too many sandwich options. Just getting the bread sorted would blow it to pieces before even considering the fillings. I've stopped going there as the interrogation I end up going through just stresses me out. So I'm confident that any world domination algorithm would come to a grinding halt in Subway, confused and befuddled by too many permutations. It would recurse into an infinite loop trying to find paths that worked out whether mayonnaise and chilli sauce were acceptable. And even if it did get there "Have you considered a meal deal?" would send it right back to the start.

Subway's product sounds simple. A sandwich customised to your needs. But no matter how much I rehearse my selections there's always one more question to answer. So their customisation does not work for me. But, it works pretty damned well for a lot of other people and Subway's pitch and mission is clear. When you walk into Subway you know what you're going to get, a sandwich with stuff in it. Subway know what they do and they do it as well as they can.

Late last year we asked ourselves a question. What does Nautoguide do? Seems a bit odd to be thinking along these lines as we've all worked here for a number of years and if we don't know then who does? But it turned out to be an important question. We were trying to work out how we should grow our business. Should we create a number of fixed products and focus on those or were we better as a projects company? The answer turned out to be "hmmmmmmmmmmm". We weren't sure.

Being a product company seemed to make sense as we could package everything in a virtual box label it up and sell in bulk. But were we sure of exactly what should be in our boxes? A projects company seems enticing, always working on interesting things and playing to our collective strengths as developers. But then there's the constant dread of deadline and the lean months when the projects don't materialise. We began to think "boxes" again. Let's whack something up on a website, the sales will roll in online and we can all laze about on yachts.

But we're not that experienced at creating boxes, so decided to seek some help. I met the Andys from Cohesive in a train station cafe one sunny afternoon and told them of our quest for reinvention, how we wanted to rule the world via a few boxes and could they help us achieve this? They made furtive glances towards the exit. A few more coffees and a bit more explanation saw them come round to our cause. They suggested we park the boxes for a few weeks and look inwardly. They described a process of discovery and repositioning prior to a complete pivot into online sales.

I was convinced and we let Cohesive loose on our customers and current business strategy. The aim was to first discover our "Why", why do we do what we do? what need is the business serving? and why do our customers buy from us? Having done that they'd create narrative around the business to better position the "why" and help us find new customers.

The guys were subtly telling us not to abandon our current mission unless it really wasn't working. Talking to our customers would give them a view on that. And so we let them off the leash with unfettered access to all who had paid our invoices.

The results were not what we expected:-

Why did we choose to work with them?
It was a mixture of cost, technical ability and the warm feeling of perfection that we gained from the demonstration.

Often I say "Can you do this, Dave?" and they're like, "No." And then I can be sure that very shortly afterward they’ll come back to me to say "Actually, da-da-da-da-da, I can."

If I had a magic wand? I’d make so that they were based in Portsmouth.
And a big research grant to work with them on a longer basis.

It turned out that not one of our customers ever considered buying a box from us. What they bought was "us", our experience, our enthusiasm, our willingness to commit and the technology we'd built to help us do it. We'd be mad to try and create a box product when our skills and values were all about working as a team. Teams don't come in boxes.

We continued our journey with the Cohesive guys and reworked our proposition to the market. We're still iterating it as we speak but essentially it boils down to us + a cool technology platform that we build and maintain. I don't think it's going to turn us into the next Google as "us" might be tricky to scale, but who knows what boxes we may discover along the way? More importantly it's what we all love to do. We love being part of something and take great pride every time our stuff is used. I'm not sure we'd cope well working in a detached manner.

Today we pressed the button on a revamped website that begins the process of telling our new story. I've embedded it below and there's some excellent recursion as you can read this story by clicking within ;-)

It's important to state the profound nature of our rediscovery. The key insight for us was not to focus on what we thought could sell, instead look at our collective passions and the needs they could fulfill. This is where we're going with the business and I'd thoroughly recommend the process to any others out there with the slightest hint of "not sure".

As a postscript, read this story from the other side.

People not boxes - a rediscovery

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