“I’m an Antipodean / British hybrid; born in New Zealand but educated mostly in the UK. I was really dyslexic as a kid and struggled at school in the early years. This was back in the days when dyslexia wasn’t really a thing, so my teachers just assumed I wasn’t that bright. My incredible Mum wasn’t having any of it, and worked tirelessly to make sure I got the support I needed and thanks to her (and some amazing teachers and friends), I managed to get to university. My mum and dad cried the whole way through my graduation, I can still see their faces now – it gives me goose bumps every time!”
After graduation, Pip (now 37) looked forward to carving out a similar path of her fathers. Surrounded by creatives as a child she shared a passions for creating and fostering better ways of doing things; ideas that could make lives easier and do so creatively. “I was lucky to have a father who worked in the Creative Industries and extensively across Europe, Asia and Australasia, so we spent much time travelling and experiencing all the amazing things that go with discovering new cultures and people. We were never living in one country for more than four years; and maybe goes to explain why I’m endlessly curious, love meeting new people and embracing change – it was ingrained into me during those early years.” She said with a shy sigh, that after graduation she joined the UK Government thinking of ways to inspire on a larger scale. After years in shifting paperwork, she stuck to her creative ways and decided to position herself in a creative outlet, MTV.
MTV said to inspired The Dots, and allowed Pip to learn how to find talent, work within a budget and market grand ideas with only pennies to spend. Talking to Pip we come to find that creating a product is much more than just a design you upload to Invision. It is about the thought process behind it. And she tells us that the up’s and down’s during the journey is what makes the product at the end of the day so much richer, (like thickening chocolate):
Do you remember a particular time when you knew that Creativity and contributing to the web was something you wanted to enter or pursue? Thanks to my father, I had this wonderful upbringing surrounded by creatives – it was our shared passion and my family just assumed that I’d follow the same path. However, my (slightly strange) rebellious nature led me to do an Economics degree – maybe I wanted to just prove that I could make it on my own. After university I joined the UK Government as a fast stream economist as I had somewhat naive aspirations to change the world. However, I quickly realized that an economist’s role in Government is often to produce results that justified political policy, not inform them. So I jumped ship and followed my passion (the creative industries), working first for the Brit Awards in London then in various roles at MTV around the world.
Did working at MTV or another employer provide the experience you needed for creating The Dots?
Absolutely, it was MTV that inspired The Dots. I joined MTV Australia when I was 24 and only two years later they relocated me to Auckland as Head of Marketing to help launch MTV and Nickelodeon into New Zealand . It was both terrifying and exhilarating! We were this group of twenty-something-year-old kids running a TV channel! In a way it felt like a young startup, just that we were part of a major international brand. There was no real budget, just grit, determination, and passion. Within two years we’d turned it into the most profitable MTV channel in the world by margin. It taught me the importance of branding and strong creative strategy, how to build relationships, and how to be entrepreneurial.
I was constantly on the lookout for talent to work on projects, but existing networking platforms just weren’t working for me. As with most other creative businesses, the easiest way for us to find full-time and freelance talent at MTV was to hire friends and friends of friends. The inevitable result was a lack of diversity in thinking, skills, and background. Our creative output became predictable. That’s when a colleague and I came up with a ‘LinkedIn for the creative industries’.
Our vision was to create a platform where everyone involved in the creative process could promote themselves online but most importantly – to connect them to something that helped their careers– be it a new contact, client, collaborator, freelance opportunity or job. There are plenty of places to show your work online these days, but what I’m most passionate about, is helping our incredible community connect to opportunities and businesses they really love. Not just showing, but connecting.
How did you start the development of the application, conceptually? To be honest, I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I just wanted to solve this problem, and the product developed out of that mindset. When we started the platform in Australia 6 or so years ago, there wasn’t really a startup scene and we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. These days there is an amazing wealth of startup advice online, great books, mentor programs and incredible tools like InVision (prototyping), Jira/Trello (project management), Xero (accounting), HotJar (Heat mapping) etc. But back then it was all trial-and-error, before hit-and-miss was a thing (!). So we’d often just have to make it up as we went along.
We started by mocking up the idea for the platform; doing wireframes in Illustrator and then sticking them up on my (then) business partner’s bedroom wall! We’d sit there for hours trying to work out user flows and piece together how the platform would work. We briefed this into an agency via a pdf with annotations, and it took us 9 months from concept, to design, build and launch – which looking back on it, is completely ridiculous. What we should have done in hindsight is build a Minimal Viable Product – but the term hadn’t even really been invented then. We funded the project out of our life savings (which wasn’t much as MTV salaries weren’t great!), but it was so much fun.
In the first weeks of launch did you use a particular source of social sites? How did you first market the application? Did this strategy work? We wrote a strategy, but it evolved constantly. Initial growth came through friends-of-friends and we tried loads of promotional ideas; mainly online via Facebook, Twitter, SEO, content, PR etc. as they are easier to track what worked and didn’t. I don’t believe in just throwing money at advertising, unless it is showing amazing results. I was lucky to have a background in Marketing (thanks to MTV), so I’d learnt how to promote things on a bootstrap. MTV’s marketing budgets were tiny.
These days, I’m a complete data geek when it comes to marketing and community building; using great tools like Tableau that pulls in data from our various sources including Google Analytics, our backend, Facebook, Twitter, our accounting software Xero etc. This helps us track what’s working and what isn’t, and to tweak things accordingly.
Within a week of launching in Australia, I got an email from a freelancer, saying that they’d landed their dream job on the site. I can’t tell you how amazing it felt – to not only launch something – but that it was working!. I’m really chuffed when we get emails like that – it gives me goosebumps every time.
The business your started in Australia is called The Loop and here it’s called The Dots, why the change? In 2014 I hit a classic startup hurdle in Australia, with my business partner and I wanting to take the business in different directions. My sights were firmly set on global expansion. So I made one of the hardest, but in hindsight, best decisions of my life. I exited the business in Australia, acquired the global technology rights and moved back to the UK to start from scratch. I sunk everything I made in Australia and started the business from Horace our Houseboat – and The Dots was born! The Loop and The Dots each now operate as completely separate businesses.
It has been the most insane roller coaster ride, going from startup to scale-up, back to startup again. But boy, it’s been worth it! It’s so rare that you get a second chance on the same business. All the mistakes I made in the first version of the business, turned into valuable lessons that helped accelerate The Dots.
The Dots boast a diverse team. Can you expand on the early creation of finding people that were equally inspired by connecting creatives as you? Is your team mostly remote or under the same roof?
Team is everything when you start a business. Many founders focus on culture but I came to realize that only hiring for culture fit isn’t the right way to go about it. When you only hire for culture fit, you invariably hire people that you’d like to go to the pub with. This can lead to team homogenization, with a lack of diversity of skills, background and thinking. In the end if everyone thinks the same, how can you innovate? There is endless research out there showing that diversity is good for business. A Harvard Business School study found that teams with workers from different backgrounds and experiences come up with more creative ideas and methods of solving problems. Another study by the London Business School found that more gender-balanced teams better promote an environment where innovation can flourish. Work by McKinsey & Company found that the most racially and ethnically diverse companies are more likely to have better than average financial returns – the list goes on.
So when it came to building a team, my focus is on hiring people with shared values, not culture fit. Shifting your focus to hiring people with shared values acts like a glue that connects the team and aligns them around common goals. Our business values are Creativity, Diversity, Collaboration, Purpose, Curiosity and Positivity – with positivity being the most important of all. Starting a business is an insane roller coaster ride of highs and lows. I found that the trick to weathering the hard times, has been to hire happy, positive people that naturally focus on solutions not blame. It’s an inherit characteristic that I don’t think you can teach and leads to a very productive working environment.
Most of my team work here with me in London, but we also have team mates that work remotely including my SEO god in Leeds, Lead Curator in Byron Bay Australia and backend developers in Sri Lanka. I’ve been so blessed that a number of my team from the previous business in Australia, relocated to London to start up again. In the end, when I find good people who share my vision, I do everything I can to keep them – and if that means they’d prefer to work remotely, then I’m super open to that. When it comes to finding them, well that’s the joy of having a professional creative community at your fingertips – I just use The Dots 🙂
The Dots underwent a redesign to the platform, could share any difficulties in redesigning the platform, was it outsourced, all in house or a hybrid of talent. I inherited the technology from my previous business in Australia, so the code base was old and needed updating. No one really talks much about what happens in a post-agile age; with two, three or even four years of continuous design loops under your belt – I can tell you what happens – it’s like SPAGHETTI in a bowl! You change something over here, but everything breaks over there. Improving and iterating the site became increasingly hard.
We’ve grown so fast in the UK, that the site was really creaking under the strain of new users joining. Most problematic of all, was that we didn’t work well on mobile. No-one wants to look for a job on their screen while at work, in case your boss might see!
So at the end of last year, we raised money to improve our tech, in an investment round led by advertising legend Sir John Hegarty. We did the entire project in-house with a mix of full-time staff and some incredible freelance contractors. In order to really address the next evolution, we went right back to basics and took the time to research what our community loved (and also didn’t love) about the site. We then kicked into design sprints, doing rapid prototypes and testing those prototypes. We then worked through UX, UI and more and more (and more) testing. Before undertaking a beast of all data migrations.
I think the biggest challenge was the migration; transferring all the data from the old site to the rebuilt, new site. We had to map 100,000s of users, over 2.5 million pages of content and endless interactions like who has followed who, who liked what project, who applied for what job etc. It still fries my brain to think that that actually we pulled it off!
Finally, what is next for Pip and The Dots? What are you currently getting your hands into, is there any new surprises for the redesign? It’s been magic watching the new platform spring to life. Our community has always been hugely diverse; not only in background, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference but skills too. Up until the re-launch, we did a good job of looking after the pure creatives (designers , photographers, illustrators, motion graphic artists, UI designers etc), but we also had a huge community on The Dots that weren’t necessarily “on the tools” and creating visuals but were fundamental in coming up with and executing on creative ideas (strategists, marketers, planners, creative producers, UX designs, and copywriters). All portfolio sites to date are focused on the shiny, beautiful output at the end, but creative projects aren’t just about how pretty something looks – It’s about the ideas, creative process and teams that make the ideas happen!
So we decided to reinvent how a portfolio works online, by allowing people to tell the story and case studies behind their work, their individual contributions to a creative project. They can then tag the people, team, brand and suppliers that were fundamental in helping bring those projects to life. In essence we have created a giant living wiki of the greatest creative projects; how they were made, and the people and teams that made them.
Our industry creates incredible work all the time, but there is no living archive of human creative endeavors documenting why we created things, how we created things and who is creating things – a way for everyone to get credit for their work. What’s been magic to watch, is that since the re-launch, The Dots is quickly becoming a place where work (and the people that created that work) will live on forever.
This is just the beginning of the journey to roll the product out globally. What is so exciting, is that we are entering an age of automation. Soon machines will drive, serve customers, do our accounts and legal paperwork. Over the next twenty years, whole waves of traditional industries will almost disappear as they become increasingly automated … finance, accounting, manufacturing and more. But there is no algorithm for creativity. So if we want our children and grandchildren to have jobs and our economies to thrive, we need to support the Makers, Doers, Fixers and Dreamers that bring creative ideas to life. That is what The Dots is all about; connecting, supporting and championing the people, teams and companies that make ideas happen.