In through the outfield blog

10 posts from March 2012

31 March 2012

Reinventing Shakespeare with Lenny Henry


I have just returned from a trip to the National Theatre in London to see Lenny Henry in The Comedy of Errors.

This is not going to be my attempt at a theatre review, as many others are far better qualified to do that than me.

Also, I had better get my confession to not being a great fan of Shakespeare out of the way early on too. However, I should point out that Lenny Henry himself was also in this camp until relatively recently as he revealed in his Radio 4 series, What’s So Great About…

In fact that show led to an invitation to appear as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds directed by Barrie Rutter. The Daily Telegraph reviewer described his performance as “This is one of the most astonishing débuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen.” And resulted in Henry winning the best newcomer award at the age of 51.

The point I want to make is how this very contemporary version of the play creates an unexpected new angle on something dating from 1594. Who would have expected to be presented with a helicopter rescue with winch-men descending from above within the first few minutes.

The play was set in its original location of Ephesus, but updated to a rather sleazy present day by Director Dominic Cooke, with gangster bosses, pool halls, throbbing night clubs and racy prostitutes.

It felt really quite strange to listen to Shakespeare’s words coming out of the mouths of Essex bleached blonds with estuary accents. Or watching an ambulance with flashing lights swerve onto the stage and a gang of white-coated men emerge and begin pursuing our heroes Antipholus and Dromo around the stage in a Keystone Cops style chase.

From a comment I heard on the way out of the theatre, “soooo disappointing wasn’t it, none of the gentle charm of Shakespeare”, not everyone was happy with this interpretation. But, for me it not only made for an, at times, breath-taking spectacle, it also made the sometimes impenetrable Shakespearean language alive and vivid. Once again the Bard has been re-invented for another generation to enjoy.


30 March 2012

Archiving video games – the search for the impossible

gameCity_logoOn Monday we had a presentation from James Newman and Iain Simons, co-authors of 100 Video Games, co-founders of Game City, and co-founders of the UK National Videogame Archive. And what an entertaining pair they made, switching seamlessly from slide to slide and from one to the other. They handled the great many enthusiastic interruptions from the very knowledgeable audience with patience and politeness.

They were at the British Library to talk about why the archive was created in 2008 and progress it has made since then. In practice much of the talk was explaining why it is impossible to archive vidoe games, due to their very temporary nature. Even the plastic of the early consoles is starting to degrade, ending eventually in a pile of fine grey dust.

With my background in computer science, I was expecting to hear about all the clever ways programmers are preserving the games so that they are playable on current hardware. They did talk about emulators and the good work fan programmers are doing, but ultimately their efforts are doomed to failure.

It will never be possible to exactly replicate the way the games played back on cathode ray tube (CRT) screens and 16 bit processors. And even if you could, the cultural context will have been lost. Consequently they are concentrating on preserving the experience of game-playing rather than the games themselves.

They do this by capturing live game playing at events like GameCity, and preserving written material relating to games such as Walkthroughs, also known as cheats.

They ended their fascinating and stimulating presentation with a wonderfully rude example of the challenges of completing a Super Mario Brothers level. This has had an amazing 20 million views on YouTube, but comes with a health warning as it is fully of swearing in response to the frustrations of playing the game.

As something of a failed gamer, it certainly make me laugh.


22 March 2012

The Deeley Bopper rises again for Sport Relief 2012

Deeley BopperThis evening I stumbled across a Deeley Bopper in a Sainsbury’s supermarket on my way home from work. In its current incarnation it is being used to raise money for Sport Relief 2012.

The Deeley Bopper or Deeley Bobber is one of my all time favourite ‘inventions’. I’ve used quotes because this multi-million selling innovation from the creative mind of Stephen Askin in 1981, is not actually registered as either a patent or even a trade mark.

Although I am definitely not a fan of the object itself, and you are unlikely to catch me wearing one out in the street (or in the house come to that), I use it as a great example in my business innovation work.

One of the strict rules we apply when we meet clients for our confidential Information Advice Clinics, is never to give an opinion on their business idea or invention. And the main reason for this, is however many years one might have in business, it is impossible to tell what will be successful – and vice versa.

The Deeley Bopper provides the perfect illustration. I just ask my colleagues to imagine how they would have reacted if Stephen Askin had come in for an advice session, and asked for their opinion on his latest business wheeze. I can imagine my response would have been something along the lines of; “You have to be joking. No one will buy those”.

And yet they sold in their millions in the 1980′s and appear almost as popular in their revised ‘Red Nose’ guise today. So, however stupid an idea might appear, it can still make a fortune for its creator.

20 March 2012

Product development advice

Getting good advice on developing a product, making a prototype and so on is hard to get.

The British Library has a regular programme of workshops which include "Product development clinics" by Bob Lindsey, with the next ones on the 3 and 12 April, and "What next for your invention ? Plan, prototype or protect ?" by Bang Creations, with the next one on the 5 April.

I have many one-hour meetings with inventors and designs to discuss their intellectual property and business plans. It helps a lot if the person sitting opposite me is an engineer, but they tend to lack skills in marketing. Or they might know a lot about finance and marketing, and have no idea how to protect their idea or the importance of building and refining a prototype.

These workshops, and the others on our regularly updated programme, help to fill in those gaps.

In addition, our free advice meetings can be booked on our web page. These can include business ideas where there is no hope of a patent.

19 March 2012

Another great Inspiring Entrepreneurs with Mothers of Invention

Another fantastic event this evening with a range of inspiring women entrepreneurs and their stories.

Jones_EmmaThe event was chaired with great warmth, energy and humour by Emma Jones  who launched her first business at age 27, and successfully sold it two years later. In 2006 she launched Enterprise Nation as a website to help anyone start and grow a business from home. The company has since expanded to offer online services, publications, events and finance to small businesses across the UK. Emma is also co-founder of StartUp Britain, and currently acting as the campaign’s chief executive.

Sophie_CornishAs co-founder of shopping website, Sophie Cornish has won many prestigious awards including the ECMOD Direct Commerce Award for the last three consecutive years and the Online Retail Award Prix D’or 2010. They now host over 2,500 businesses on notonthehighstreet selling 40,000 different products.

They came to the British Library Business & IP Centre early on to look at trends in Internet retailing. And worked hard on their business plan to the extent that they new their numbers inside out. Sohpie emphasised that creating a brand is the key challenge for any business.

Her tips were:

  • Own your mistakes
  • There is no silver bullet
  • Hard work is your unique selling point
  • Cash is king

Kamal_BasranFrom helping her parents prepare samosas for the English pub they ran, to setting up her own food business The Authentic Food Company in 1985, Kamal Basran indulged her passion for cooking authentic Indian food and opened a small business supplying local catering establishments with hand-made samosas and other Indian snack food.

Today, the company has over 240 employees and has a turnover of over £31 million. The company are supplying many of the UK’s top hotels, pub chains, restaurants and retail outlets with the range of quality international cuisine.

When Kamal started out in business, she was a full-time teacher, settled in a comfortable lifestyle, married with two children. While out shopping she saw some ready made samosas, but once home discovered they tasted horrible and threw them into the dustbin. This was the trigger for starting her own business. She had no idea how to start, but wonders in retrospect if this is perhaps the best way.

She began making 600 samosas a week, and grew the business to over a million meals a week.

Her tips were:

Number one priority was to organise her children.
Then, learn how to do everything yourself (nothing is too menial).
Finally, don’t listen to other people (especially your parents!)

Her reasons for success were:

  1. Target your market
  2. Grow gradually
  3. People – 25 nationalities
  4. Products – are the best quality
  5. Customers – we love our customers

Rosie_WolfendenRosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine are the founders of Tatty Devine whose distinctive fashion designs have made them brand leaders. In 2011 they had a boom year, with a £1 million turnover and kick started 2012 with opening a Selfridges pop up shop which launched their new silver label. The two London Tatty Devine boutiques are located in Brick Lane and Covent Garden.

Harriet_VineThey are independently run and design every piece, 99% of the jewellery is made by hand in their workshops (based in London and Kent). Their custom-made jewellery has been worn by everyone from Claudia Schiffer to Jessie J.

They are very proud of producing their own book on How to Make Jewellery.

In the last two years they have started letting others in to their business, such as developing a new website, to enable them to concentrate on the jewellery.

Christina_RichardsonChristina Richardson is founder of The Nurture Network the UK’s first on-demand marketing department for start-ups and entrepreneurial growth businesses. Christina has spent much of her career managing and growing FMCG brands worth in excess of £100 million.

Now she and her blue-chip trained team, work flexibly across multiple businesses – being their marketing expertise, part time or for specific projects – calling in creative specialists from their network as and when they are needed.

Her tips for new businesses:

  1. You need to give yourself the strongest foundations you can. Be distinctly different by playing a different game.
  2. Define your brand by being clear on your ‘onlyness’. Think about who your brand would be if it were a person.
  3. Test your brand out with real people.
  4. Have a vision, but with numbers. Know the future you want to create.

And for existing businesses:

  1. Marketing is everything that touches your consumer.
  2. Always think consumer first. Choose which group will be your most valuable customers. This will inform your marketing chooses.
  3. Plan with the end in mind and be objectives driven.
  4. Use everything you can do to spread your brand
  5. Bootstrap and collaborate

The evening closed with a lively question and answer session followed by some serious networking until closing time.

16 March 2012

Golf ball cleaner inventions

I came across a golf ball cleaner device the other day when walking across a golf course. Paula explained to us what it was as we approached, and as we looked at it I saw on its side that it was patented. None of us had a camera to take a picture of it, though !

There was PAT. NO. 2807037 and the words Par Aide. This patent was applied for in 1955 by Par Aide Products Company, of St Paul, Minnesota. The title was Golf ball cleaner having a tank with scrubbing means therein. Below is the main drawing.

Golf ball cleaner patent image

It works by pulling up a handle, inserting the golf ball in the receptacle below the handle, and then depressing the handle. This makes the ball go down in a spiral fashion past, as the drawing shows, brushes and (as we could hear) into water. The spiral ensures that the entire ball is cleaned.

I had no idea such devices existed. One way to find more patents on the same subject is to ask for the "citing documents", later patents where the patent examiner cited the Par Aide patent as relevant. Eight, between 1965 and 2003, are cited against it.

Another way is to check the classification, which is for devices for cleaning balls. The Espacenet database lists 287 US patent documents in that class. And that is just on that topic, and mainly post 1920: many novices have no idea how many patents there are.

As for Par Aide, they are still around, and the database lists 10 US patent documents by them. This was their first invention.

 Besides the interest for industrial history generally, these documents would be a useful contributuon to a history of the company. 

13 March 2012

Twin Creeks Technologies' invention for halving the cost of solar cells

The MIT Technology Review published today an interesting article about Twin Creeks Technologies, a startup company that has an invention that they claim halves the cost of silicon solar cells.

The company's CEO Siva Sivaram has had a pilot plant built in Mississippi. Less silicon is needed and the manufacturing equipment is cheaper. He claims that the company can produce solar cells for about 40 cents per watt, half the present cheapest price. The company has raised $93 million in venture capital.

The usual way to make silicon wafers is cutting blocks of silicon into 200-micrometer-thick wafers. This means that half the silicon is wasted. This thickness is used not because it is needed to produce the power, but because thinner wafers are too brittle and would easily break in the manufacturing process. A thickness of 20 or 30 micrometers would work as well. 

Twin Creeks' technology consists of applying a thin layer of metal to the silicon, using a huge machine illustrated in the article. The use of wire saws and other equipment is also reduced. Crucially, perhaps, the technology can be added to existing production lines. The company wants to sell the equipment, not make solar cells.

What is particularly interesting about the article is that is describes the company as "a startup that has been operating in secret until today". Not that secret, I think -- their World patent application Method to form a photovoltaic cell comprising a thin lamina was published in August 2009.

Thanks to my colleague Peter Gibbs who drew my attention to the article.

12 March 2012

Sara Blakely and her Spanx® underwear invention

Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx® underwear, has quickly become a dollar billionaire -- and much of it is due to her smart use of intellectual property.

The Spanx website is fun and colourful and personal -- things I often suggest to inventors for publicising their products. Having myself grown up in the USA I immediately recognise the razmatazz. The site tells a story, and it's a good one as well.

Blakely was a sales trainer by day and a stand-up comedian at night. She dreaded wearing pantyhose as she didn't feel feminine enough in them. She researched patents to see what solutions had been devised so that you looked slimmer and didn't make it obvious that you were wearing something underneath. She then went round the attorneys, who were apparently incredulous, and decided to write the patent herself, although she did get a lawyer to write the monopoly claims.

Equally incredulous were the mill owners in North Carolina who she wanted to work with her to make the idea work. One man changed his mind after talking to his two daughters who didn't think the idea was crazy after all. It took a year to make the prototype, as she wouldn't be happy until certain that the design was comfortable to wear.

She also worked on a trade mark, and as she liked the k sounds in the Kodak and Coca Cola trade marks, and suddenly thought of Spanks, which was changed at the last minute to Spanx to make it easier to register. It was a fun name for a -- well, fun product. The packaging was designed by buying ten hosiery products and spreading the packaging across the floor. If the same thing was in all of them, it must be legal so in it went. Bright red packaging with cartoon-like images of three women wearing the product went on the front, and at the last minute a strapline was added: "Don't worry, we've got your butt covered !" Mum loved it all, apparently.

Years of relentless marketing followed, and then success. Below is the main drawing from the original patent document -- drawn by her mother and modelled by herself, she tells us. The title is A pantyhose undergarment and method for manufacturing.

Sara Blakely pantyhose patent image
Basically the design squeezes the wearer and is footless, which is apparently vital to make it work, to give a "smooth, tight appearance when worn under clothing, without causing the user to suffer discomfort." A couple of years later there was what is presumably a refinement, Two-ply body smoothing undergarment, with Jadideah Luckham as co-inventor. These are the World patent applications.

So what did she get right ? A background in sales and comedy certainly didn't hurt, and I'm sure Blakely would be the first to say that she had a steep learning curve for a long time. She did have a good product (maybe great, I can't say I've tried it...) which met a genuine need in a large market, and surrounded it with patent and trade mark protection (she even registered her own name).

To me perhaps her best strategy was the relaxed, fun approach taken in the marketing. That, and the asset that she cared passionately about producing something that would make a difference to people's lives. Maybe not ground shaking, but users obviously appreciate it, and she hasn't done too badly herself out of it.

Blakely -- OK, Sara -- is all over Youtube, as in the delicious clip of Americana shown below.