Friday, August 29, 2014

Off to South Africa..

Hi everyone, on Monday 1st September I’m travelling to South Africa with a team of fifteen from our church to work alongside the charity Ten Thousand Homes for two weeks. So, for regular readers, just to say that I won’t be in touch for a fortnight.

I’m a novice when it comes to charity work like this, and it’s fair to say I’m a little nervous – although my nerves are mixed with excitement. I’m trying not to have too many preconceptions about the communities and kids we’ll be working with, and hope to keep an open mind to the situations we encounter there – rather than just seeing everything through “western” eyes. I’m looking forward to new experiences! 

So I promise to do a write up when I get back, and in the meantime would value your thoughts and prayers for the team and for my wonderful family back home.

Better get packing!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Musings on.. the Just So Festival

In our risk-averse, logical and statistic obsessed culture it's easy to become so cynical and rational that we miss the simple, childlike wonder of the world around us. 

The Just So Festival is a family arts festival in the grounds of Rode Hall in Cheshire, and in many ways it's the perfect family antidote to school targets and staid normality!  It’s also a completely bonkers mix of dressing up, making things, dancing, music, and the entire creative spectrum in between – if only our schools and workplaces could capture the festival's energy and enthusiasm!

Branch tunnels in the Spellbound Forest
This year's festival was a fine vintage and a perfect celebration of the event’s fifth birthday! For us it was our second visit, and it proved even more of a whirlwind rollercoaster (or whirlycoaster?) than our previous experience (in a good way!). The programme is bursting with stimulation for all your senses: encouraging thinking, doing and learning in all ways, shapes and forms. There really is something for everyone, and it's an event to savour together - the perfect place to create treasured family memories.

Together with our four year old daughter and two year old son, this year we squeezed about as much as we possibly could out of the festival.. and we STILL didn't do everything there was to do. It runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, and rather than list our meandering itinerary I'm going to try and sum it up in themed sections. 


Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra
This year the festival organisers sent out a Just So soundtrack CD with the tickets, which we loved (and danced around to in our lounge), so we tried to see some of the acts whose songs had particularly captured our attention.

We loved the energy and smooth jazzy vocals of the Fresh Dixie Project. Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra brought an old fashioned 1930s vibe with their own North-Eastern twist, whilst the three-piece exquisitely named Goat Roper Rodeo Band provided rich harmonies and graciously allowed themselves to be interviewed afterwards by my daughter for her Arts Award (more later on that). Perhaps Contraption's version of the Oompa Loompa song is gloriously quirky, and we love their unorthdox brass playing (and giant sousaphone).

Gabby Young and Other Animals provided a perfect soundtrack for dancing the evening away, especially our favourite song of theirs "I've Improved". The last band we saw, bringing the whole festival to a close, was Rusty Shackle - their cover of Dizzy Rascal summing up our whole philosophy "Some people think I'm bonkers, I just think I'm free!". Great music to spin a four year old round to!


It seemed that at any given moment throughout the festival there was a show or performance going on. Some of the mobile performances came to you, and acts roaming the site included the bizarre but hilarious 18th Century Lady (who's theatre was her giant dress) a musical Insect Procession and the Tea Club - a pair of dancing tea ladies! 

Shows which stayed still that we caught included the colonial capers and rare-animal hunting of the Imaginary Menagerie by Les Enfants Terribles,  a whimsical and delightful production of childrens' favourite Arthur’s Dreamboat by Long Nose Puppets (I'm still singing "tippity tappity tip", and there were some great cameos from various sea creature puppets), an engaging musical interpretation of Stanley's Stick by the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and a Hunger Games inspired production by Cheshire Dance - with the opportunity to join in at the end (my daughter was off like a rocket!). 

Part of the Shadowplay installation

Over at the High Seas area, we chuckled all the way through the Zooted's Edwardian Bathing Jugglers' routine, whilst a pair of real mermaids entranced children and dads alike! Not to mention passing encounters around the site with the Gruffalo and a Blue bear (both available for hugs and high fives with small people). 

As night fell, the curious campfire was lit in the Spellbound Forest for singsongs, stories and ad-hoc marshmallow toasting (bring your own bags), whilst back at the High Seas the mesmerising steampunk Shadowplay installation (by Walk the Plank) came to life, which was well worth a visit.


Aside from music and performance, there was a plethora of hands on activities and play spaces to keep the whole family engaged for hours. You might need to bring an extra bag to keep everything you make in though! Our kids loved the mirror maze in the spellbound forest, the epic branch tunnels and the musical sheet fort, and when the heavens occasionally opened we were grateful for the numerous Field Candy tents scattered around the site which we could dive in to. These were equipped with cushions and story books, so always a good opportunity to catch our breath, open the thermos and read a story together. 

On the Friday and Saturday you could participate in making giant lanterns, in advance of the magical twilight lantern parade around the site and through the woods in the evening. 

In the build up to the festival, and at the event itself, everyone was encouraged to join an animal tribe and dress accordingly (last year we were lions, this year we chose to be frogs). Each tribal leader animal roamed the festival passing out golden stones to members of their tribe - these gave the tribe points for the tribal tournament. 

The culmination of the weekend was the tribal parade - an energetic and primal celebration of the festival - this year the fox tribe narrowly beat the owls.. in our party there was much disappointment at this news, and various little frogs and lions had tear-streaked face paint by the end. This was as much to do with the fact that the festival was over for another year (and general overtiredness) than actually not being part of the winning tribe.

There were plenty of facilitated workshops to participate in. So we stomped our feet to some good-time country tunes in the Flat Footing Workshop, attempted juggling, plate spinning and diablos in the Circus House's circus tent (more than once actually - we loved this, although it was less trippy doing it outside, as the light in the tent was very red!!). The Cardboard Harp workshop with Mary Dunsford was extremely popular (in fact everything was well attended - better that way round I think). We also enjoyed using stamps and ink pads to make our own circus style posters.

In the forest we made elaborate fern headresses, learnt about bees from the Loop magazine and Barnes and Webb (I bet you don't know how long a queen bee lives for?), you could make clay faces for trees and mushroom bird feeders with Barefoot Ceramics. In the High Seas we drew Treasure Maps and had tattoos with Sunsense, made boats for the bath with the lovely people from Marvellous, made dastardly disguises and did dressing up at Fat Sam's Caravan.

There was plenty to do in Games Tent, which also played host to the Arts Council. The festival was an opportunity to participate in the Discover Arts Award, and my daughter enjoyed filling in her special log book throughout the weekend, documenting in word and picture the different activities she'd participated in. One aspect involved finding out more about a particular artist, and on the spur of the moment we decided to interview the Goat Roper Rodeo Band after their performance. Full credit to them for being willing to be interviewed by a four year old, and I'm proud of my daughter for being so brave to do it! 

On the Lazy Days lawn you could often hear the capoeira drummers providing a rhythm to move to. The Institute of Physics were undertaking practical experiments, and there were numerous other activities including making wooden necklaces with the RSPB (a popular choice for earthy young girls and mums). In the Peekaboo area you could play with clay with Eastnor Pottery in their Clay Babies tent and much more - although we didn't spend loads of time there this year as our kids are now a bit older, and this area is perfect for festival babies.


Worthy of special mention were Bear Cereals, who I think single handedly supplied everyone camping at the festival with free nutritious and delicious cereal and fruit based snacks - certainly our family and the other families in our party took maximum advantage of this! They'd also cunningly hidden animal paws around the site to find for a prize - we found three locations quickly but it took us until late on the final day to find the last one!! 

The food and drink offering was, as usual, exceptional, with the distinctive Hoban and Sons mobile bar and a disproportionate amount of ancient Citroen Vans serving tea, toast, coffee, ice cream and just about everything else you might want to eat. Chatting to the various stalls I think they all pretty much sold out by the end, so I guess everyone must have appreciated the menu as much as us!

A final mention goes to the Naty sponsored nappy tent, providing changing space and and endless supply of free eco nappies throughout the weekend. Although our kids are/have been in cloth nappies most of the time, the nappy tent was really convenient and we were grateful it was there. My son thought it was hilarious that the change mats were directly on the grass!

So there you have it - a somewhat epic account of the amazing Just So Festival! I hope you've enjoyed reading it, and perhaps if you were also at the festival why not share your experiences too? Look forward to hearing from you!

Chillin' and thinking about next year..

(If you want to read even more, why not read the review of the festival at Festival Kidz)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Interview with Chris Eaton

Continuing my summer series of interviews, earlier this month I spent some time with Chris Eaton, an award winning songwriter well known for songs such as Saviour's Day and Breath of Heaven -  songs which have reached number one on both sides of the Atlantic. We talked for some time around a wide range of things, and I've drawn out some highlights to share with you all. Enjoy!

So Chris, people may know you for some of the songs you've written, but how would you describe yourself and what you do?

I think first of all I'm one of the most blessed people on the planet in one sense because I do something for a living that I love with a passion. I know so many musicians, such as yourself actually, who are really talented and who don’t do it for a living and I just think "what happened to me along the way?" that made it easier for me to pursue my passion and give up the day job to do it. 

I've always had music coming through me, and I think it was playing by ear at an early age, probably 12 or 13 when I started to form my own juicy chords, and playing piano I was searching for chords that made me feel good. Music always played a massive part in my life. I would say that I'm from a pretty steady middle class-ish background. My dad was also a quality musician, played the piano and sang, but he was a building society manager, my brother was a bank manager!

"I try and put the honesty of my life.. into my songs"
You're asking "who are you musically, who would you say you are"  - I'm a singer songwriter, but  I'm just someone who's honest. I try and put the honesty of my life and the way I see other people's situations into my songs. I try and interpret them with a vulnerable edge, so that when people hear my music hopefully they're moved by it in a positive way, and they understand that's why I put a lot of hope into songs, although not always answers!

As a Christian I really do believe that music's a gift, first and foremost. No one deserves it. But it's something that if we choose to ignore, we're missing out on so much joy and so much fun.  Whether you're in the bath or when you're washing up, you can be listening to music that you love and it can change your day completely. 

For me in the early days when I wrote songs I would come here and escape from the rest of my life, whether it was at school or work, if things were stressing me out I would come to the piano as a way of therapy with myself, and just play. 

Have there been significant decisions then you've had to make to step into that? You said that your family were perhaps quite traditional in their thinking - what risks did you have to take, or are there things that you remember that are key events that set your path more determinedly?

Oh definitely, I think that I was a yes man, a yes kid. when people asked me to do things I'd never say no. I'd be like "yeah great, let's do it" even it was people I didn't know of someone wanted me to sing a song at a church I'd never been to, or a coffee bar or something, I'd just do it.

I also had parents who were very supportive, so they let me play for hours on end, and often I'd bang away on the piano and  the next morning I'd say "I've written a song" and they couldn't believe it was a song! But I'd go through bits of the song for a long time to get the feel right. I'm a very rhythmical player, so I was very blessed that they didn't poo-poo my commitment, "as long as you get a proper job". Don't give up your day job sort of thing! 

I left school, was going to go to university, but my dad offered me a job with a friend of his at Eagle Star insurance company, which I took because  I was doing so many gigs at that point, at weekends with a band, that it made sense for me to have a mid-week job, get some money in my pocket, and then play weekends. So that's what I did and chose not to go to uni. 

Two years after that I'd been working with a guy named Dave Pope who was well known as a gospel artist in this area, and he knew Cliff Richard. Through playing with Dave I actually got to meet Cliff. And it was through that connection that it all suddenly turned around for me, I suddenly got hit with this opportunity and it was after that that everything changed. 

Cliff got really excited about this one particular song I'd written for Dave Pope called Sail Away, and he came up to me and said "You wrote that song, I absolutely love it, and I would love to hear more of what you've done". That alone was amazing because Cliff was huge at the time, really on top of his game, and I said "I've got loads Cliff, I've written 200 plus songs" and he said, "Well, could you just send me a demo of your best 5 songs? I'd really like to hear that". 

"I suddenly got hit with this opportunity and it was after that that everything changed"
I had no way of recording other than a reel to reel but the following week, on tour with Dave we did a concert at St David's hall in Cardiff, and the guy who put the concert on, Rob Andrews, owned a 24 track recording studio. It was just incredible when I look back that not only did I meet Cliff but within a week I'd met this guy who said "I love what you're doing, I love that song Sail Away, I've heard some of the songs that you've done, I heard you've met Cliff, and I want to help you, I want you to come down to my 24 track studio and we'll record 3 or 4 songs in a weekend. And I'll put the band together, and I'll take care of it". Just amazing. That was an incredible thing, and what happened was all of these opportunities came to me. I made this demo and was thrilled with it: 5 songs, it sounded great, and sent it off to Cliff. I got a message from his secretary saying "Thanks for the tape I’ll pass it on to Cliff, we’ll let you know". And that was it. 

I heard nothing for a week, two weeks, a month – at which point I’m starting to get a bit frustrated because it’s like everything was coming together and I was so excited and passionate about it and nothing was happening. Six months went by, the end of my tour arrived and I didn’t have a job at the end of it so I ended up driving a beer truck locally for Holden’s brewery and working in a fruit shop and as a taxi driver for six months. 

And all of that I enjoyed but underneath it all I was like "What is going on?". I was a Christian at the time and I couldn’t believe how it seemed like God had ordained this path for me, it had all worked out brilliantly, and then nothing had happened!

One Sunday night I was at my local church and I felt that God was talking to me directly, and the message very clearly to me was “If you love me, trust me, let me deal with your future, don’t try to work it out for yourself”. I went home that night and I remember praying a prayer very genuinely, I was upset, and I said “If you want me to be a window cleaner, then I’ll do it – whatever you want me to do” Nothing against window cleaners, but if this isn’t meant to be, just put me in your will, let me be doing what you need me to be doing. I didn’t get an answer, I just fell asleep and I remember sleeping peacefully  - a weight taken off me. 

Three days later I got a letter from Cliff’s secretary saying that Cliff was going to record four of the five songs on the tape, which blew me away. Two of them went on to Wired for Sound, which to date is one of Cliff’s biggest albums ever, one track was called Summer Rain and one was called Lost in a Lonely World, and they were the two of my songs that were first seriously recorded.

Cliff contacted me, we became friends and I signed a three year publishing deal to write exclusively for him, so he owned my publishing. He basically paid my wage. I believe the pivotal moment for all of this to happen was me giving it up. I don’t want to be so fatalistic to say that it would never have happened - but you just don’t know. 

"I believe the pivotal moment for all of this to happen was me giving it up"
And I’ve tried to learn that lesson a million times since that first thing happened. And it’s been difficult because there are other pressures you feel when you’re older. I’m still writing 80-100 songs a year and I might only get ten cut, and I love all eighty! You can go stir crazy if you expect the same accolade for each song, and even though they’re your babies, you’ve got to let them go - if they’re meant to land on an artist or land with someone they will. I’ve become very philosophical about that over the years.

1990 was probably my biggest moment when Saviour's Day got to number one. People would say to me "Do you think Saviours Day changed anything for you? "And honestly it didn’t change what happened within me at all, but it did change what happened around me, people’s view of me changed, “oh that guy’s written a number 1” so my opportunities were greater.

In terms of writing a great song or trying to craft a great song, I’ve tried to learn over the years what it is, trying to put my finger on aspects of writing a great song, what makes it special. Can you analyse something enough to be able to reproduce it and say I’ve got the blueprint here? And I think all you can do is work on a general template, because really its like painting by numbers with no paint! Because the paint is the Holy Spirit, the passion and the thing which makes you communicate the simple truth but it comes out blazing red or blazing orange.

I've learnt how to join the dots, but I still realise that all I'm learning is that its the initial nugget of truth that's in a song that dictates where it should go. I've always wanted to write stuff that's going to last. I've always wanted to have a nugget of truth in a song. I hear a song sometimes and think "I wish I'd written that!". For me as a writer, I'd say to any writer, whether you're a faith writer or not, whether you're a human being, you write from your heart, you write honestly, you apply creative knowledge, you apply a desire to learn from chord changes and from where melodies can lift, and go down. And the atmosphere of a song is massive to me. You create an atmosphere first out of which a song comes. If you don't have an atmosphere how can you write a song? If I'm writing a Christmas song, for instance, I have to immerse myself in the feeling of Christmas.
"1990 was probably my biggest moment when Saviour's Day got to number one"
And if I want it to be a spiritual one - if somebody asks me to write another Breath of Heaven - I mean I can't just write you another Breath of Heaven, it's impossible! But what I can do is I can look back to the things that were the catalyst to that song, and they weren't a melody particularly, they were spiritual principles. The original song I wrote here when I was going through my most painful time, and the verse was just making statements of what God was to me - it's like these are truths that I cannot feel right now but they're truths. "you are harvest, you are golden sun, you are cool rain, you are all in one, and in all my deepest thoughts, and in all my battles fought, you are within. You are crimson, you are midnight blue, you have called me to discover you". And in the song, within that moment, God broke through into me and gave me the chorus, and I knew that the feel of the verse was syncopated, that the chorus had to be like the footprints, like God's footprints on the sand, not mine, he was carrying me, and it was almost like his heartbeat, where I was in his arms, I could feel the heartbeat of God, and it was just the breath of heaven that was coming in to hold me together, be forever near me.. it was just this thing that was easy to sing and easy to feel and it was like you were being caressed by the Holy Spirit.

And the only two people that I knew who could maybe understand it were Cliff Richard and Amy Grant, and I immediately dismissed cliff because I thought he's more pop, and this has been so deep for me and someone who understands that depth is Amy, and I told her the story of how it was written, sent it to her. The next week she rang me up and said “I’m completely in love with this song, I have to record it”, and the rest is history – it’s just amazing.

Would you say that one of the harder things about your craft is holding it in an open hand?

In one sense no, I think the harder thing for me is writing on my own, it being quite a lonely affair writing songs. It’s quite introspective at the time, you enjoy it, but then it’s this weird thing getting it out to the general public. 

The minute you write a song, it’s perfect, the baby’s been born and nothing's happened to it. But the minute you do a recording of it, it can change for the worse. You’ve got a picture of how you want it to sound and suddenly the drums are on it and they’re wrong, or the vocal isn’t passionate enough, or the piano part’s wrong, and it’s very difficult – production is a whole different thing and these days the producer is as important, if not more important, than the writer of the song. 

These days people won’t even listen to it if it’s not a master, it has to sound like it’s going to on the radio. It’s not so much that they’ve got no desire to figure out what it could be like, it’s more that the old-school publisher who hears a hit in a rough piece of work, they’ve sort of died off, and the new school is more about practical about money – there’s not a lot of money in it anymore, so they want a cut. So you have to do what they call 360 degree deals now where you do the production, you do the writing, you’re the artist if possible, or you work with an artist. So there’s a lot of politics now involved in terms of share, because the apple that we share is so much smaller than it used to be. 

For people looking for a way to step into who they’ve been made to be, and perhaps to turn dreams and ideas into reality, what would your advice be?

I would say that we’re in a different sort of era than I was in - there’s a lot more reward these days for sheer hard work, because of red tape and qualification. People will say to me "I want to become a sound engineer, should I go to college?" and I’ll say yes – whereas 20 years ago I would have said no. That’s the way the world has changed, not just in music but in everything.
"Strive for excellence in whatever you do.."
For me it’s a combination of working hard and getting your craft better, whatever you’re doing, whether you’re a writer or a singer – you can sing better, you can have voice lessons, you can learn to increase your range, understand your voice more, there are a lot of practical things you can do. Play your instrument – guitar, piano, whatever it is – get better at it. Listen to music and analyse it. Take bits of your favourite music that you love and think “what is it I love about that?” Is it that funny chord created by all those weird sounds, what are those sounds, how did they do that, or is it when that song lifts to that point? Apply that to your writing, or to your thing that you’re doing and think "How can I take the level up?".

Strive for excellence in whatever you do because I really believe that God will honour that. But you cannot be excellent at something you're not even doing. A door will open if you’re meant to be doing something. If you’re trying to bang a door down, no matter how hard you try, if it ain’t meant to be then that door won’t open and all you’ll do is get frustrated.

In something less creative there’s no substitute for work – work hard and you can be great at it. If you want to be a rocket scientist, and you’ve got the intelligence to understand it then work hard, get your degree, get your doctorate, do what you need to do and you’ll get close to doing what you want to do and you can do it. It’s amazing what things can happen once you get really good at something - you will get more opportunities the better you are at it.

I would encourage people to do whatever they do authentically, don’t copy somebody else, don’t do it because somebody else is doing it, do it because you’re passionate about it. If you want be an Olympic swimmer there’s no way around it, you’re going to have to swim every morning at 5am before you go to school – that’s life! It’s the way it’s going to have to be, and again after all. Having seen the Commonwealth games, these guys, all of them, have only achieved what they believed they could achieve through incredible hard work, hours and hours and hours and hours.

There’s something about being positive, that somehow things happen when you really believe in them. If you really believe something, doesn’t matter what it is, if you’re into it, it happens. And at other times you’re like "Why doesn’t this happen? Why doesn’t it ever happen to me?" And it never happens to you because you’re always thinking it never happens to you! I think there’s something in that, something about staying positive even when things are really hard and the easiest thing in the world is just to give up and say “I’ve had it”.
"I would encourage people to do whatever they do authentically.."
I know that people could listen to my story and say "Well it’s easy for you Chris, you had early opportunities you’ve had a blessed life" – well I could tell you a million ways when I haven’t had a blessed life, when things have gone wrong – it doesn’t matter what’s going on in your career, if your private life is falling apart then it’s a complete nightmare.

Even in the music, when you feel like you’re constantly writing stuff you believe in but everybody’s ignoring it, and you’re doing it for a living, there are times when you want to give up. And just when I’m at my edge of giving up I get a letter from someone, or an email from somebody who goes "Don’t give up, whatever you do, don’t give up! You are changing people’s lives even now with the songs you have written", with something that you’ve done that you don’t even know about, and God is doing it - so don’t let God down by closing off that avenue purely because you’re not seeing the results right now. So it’s a thought.

I think when you get older as a Christian you realise that God’s dream for all of us is actually that we love him the way he loves us. That’s his biggest dream, because that’s how he made us, and it’s a work in progress getting to that point. And trying to keep that perspective when you're at your worst: at your most desperate don’t give up, but give it to God.

Chris, thanks so much for your time, we appreciate you sharing with us, and you've left us with plenty to think about!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Just So Festival... ten top tips

It’s festival season, and once again we’re off as a family to the amazing Just So festival – a creative family arts festival based at Rode Hall in Cheshire. We went for the first time last year, and enjoyed ourselves so much that we’re back for more this year!
In case you’re not sure what to expect, I wanted to share our top ten tips, so here goes:
  1.  Dress up – the Just So festival is the one place where if you’re *not* dressed up you’re the odd one out. Last year my favourite outfit was my cowboy one (I should dress up as a cowboy more often), and I was amazed by some of the other amazing outfits around. Preferably have multiple costumes!
  2. Pick a tribe before you go, then accessorise accordingly. Last year our whole family was lions, so we made sure we had some lion outfits or accessories for the Tribal Tournament. This year, which tribe to be has been a discussion point with our kids for months and we’ve ended up deciding to be frogs instead. Our frog outfits have gradually taken shape – mine thanks to some excellent car boot purchases – and we can’t wait to transform into frogs when we get there (you never know, it might be an appropriate tribe to be in if it rains, heaven forbid!).
  3. Plan the big things – this year and last year we got our programme in advance and picked out the big things we wanted to do as a family, and then worked out our schedule accordingly.. there’s so much to do.. but at the same time..
  4.  .. enjoy the unplanned things – as much as it’s great to plan lots of stuff in advance, we also found that it was some of the unplanned, unexpected activities that we did which became some of the strongest memories – making knot dolls for instance..
  5. Do the lantern parade through the woods – it’s magical. Last year you could make lanterns there, but just in case you don’t manage to, it might be worth bringing your own lanterns and poles to join in..
  6. Wear your kids. Our kids are still small enough to need carrying.. and although there are great paths around the place, we found it was much more versatile and convenient to wear our kids in carriers.. so perhaps plan without your pushchair.
  7. Let your kids stay up – there’s loads to do in the evenings, and the site gets even more magical after dark. Perhaps enjoy the stories around the fire in the woods..
  8. Dance – there’s loads of great music to enjoy as a family, and we had great times dancing to pirate bands, vegetable-related bands, ukulele bands.. let your hair down and spin your kids..
  9. Eat the lovely food – there’s loads of great food available, so grab something yummy to eat as you go round..
  10.  And finally.. book early for next year!


Thanks for taking the time to read Just So Festival - Ten Top Tips. If you've enjoyed it please share it with your friends on social media! Why not subscribe to The Potting Shed Podcast on iTunes for the audio version and much more (direct RSS feed is here). 

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Friday, August 08, 2014

Interview with Chris Whyley, co-founder of Zamzar

As something a little different from my usual musings, I've recently conducted a couple of interviews which I've found really inspiring and interesting and I hope you will too.

To start us off, this week I caught up with Chris Whyley, to talk about inspiration, creativity and his journey. Chris is the co-founder of, one of the top 4000 websites in the world (no mean feat as there are over 3billion web pages on the internet!). He and his brother Mike launched in 2006 (making it quite old in internet terms), and it now has 6 employees and converts tens of thousands of files every day.

Chris, can you introduce yourself and what you and your company does? I know that’s file conversion, but what is your role in that?

My name’s Chris, and amongst other things I am the co-founder of an internet company called Zamzar. Our company provides services that help individuals and businesses convert files into different formats. So if somebody sends you something that you can’t open, chances are that we can convert it into something useful that you can do something with. We have lots of different types of people who use our service, from teachers, academics and lawyers, to big and small businesses - a whole range of different types of people. Some people use the service for free, some people pay for accounts with the service. That’s basically the company in a nutshell.
"There are probably two or three key moments in my life that have accidentally thown me on the path I find myself on at the moment."
My job is to help develop those services. My background is as a computer programmer, my role was developing the service in the first place, and these days it’s developing add-ons, new features for the service, talking to customers, seeing what they’re interested in seeing in the service and translating those requirements into reality, into code on the page that people can then use. I also manage some other programmers who do similar tasks. I do all the accounts for the business, which is a tedious thing that needs doing and is just one of my roles, and generally in a small business you fill in and do whatever is needed at the time! We don’t have anyone dedicated to customer support so me and brother share that role between us. My brother does most of it but he’s on holiday this week so I’m doing most of it this week!

How have you ended up doing what you’re doing? Were there significant events or decisions or risks that you had to take along the way?

Yes, I would say so. There are probably two or three key moments in my life that have accidentally thown me on the path I find myself on at the moment. The first one is that when we were very little my dad purchased a computer for the family (when my brother and I were 6 or 7 years old) and I distinctly remember sitting round looking at this big shiny new machine one Christmas and thinking “Goodness me, what does this do”, but very quickly my brother and I were playing games on it, writing programmes from computer magazines, typing them in on the keyboard and making things happen on the screen. I guess that would have been the mid 80s and at that stage computers were quite new and unusual, but both my brother and I found ourselves immersed in that world and very comfortable with it very quickly. 

So from that point of view in my background there’s always been this interest in and love for computers from a very early age - it wasn’t something that I actively sought out but it just seemed to happen from dad buying that computer and bringing it home one day. 

In general my approach in life has always been to pick, as far as I can, what I enjoy doing. So when I went to university, I was really into studying history so picked this as my university course. I was fortunate enough to study that for three years and absolutely loved it, but one of the things about studying history is that it doesn’t give you a clear vocation at the end of things. It's very much a foundational degree for possibilities in lots of different areas but it doesn’t push you into one particular area. 
"In general my approach in life has always been to pick, as far as I can, what I enjoy doing.."
So at the end of University I was left thinking “What do I do next?” and it was at that point that my interest and hobby in computers came back and I thought “maybe I can apply for a job in computing”. I ended up on a graduate scheme with IBM, they were one of the few companies that were prepared to employ graduates from non-numerate degree disciplines, which I think probably helps them net some more rounded individuals than other IT companies get. So that process pushed me back into computing, this time in a professional sense. I found myself doing it for a day job, loved it and I did that for ten or 11 years.

The third key thing - I mentioned my brother before. We’d always played around with computers as kids and we continued to play around as adults. So on the side of both of us having jobs in the IT industry we did dozens and dozens of little projects and websites and ideas and one of them eventually sprang into the business that we’re both running today. So those are the few key events that ended up careering us down this path.

You’ve got to the point now where there’s 6 of you doing this, you’re a top 4000 website on the planet, you’ve had lots of ideas, but this one “took” and it’s propelled you somewhere, what’s been the hardest thing you’ve faced on that process?

I think in terms of running a company, once it's up and running there’s no single defining moment like “oh my goodness the entire world is going to end” but running a very small business, which we are, is basically a continuous rollercoaster of enormous highs and lows! 

So to give you some concrete examples there are really "up" moments like getting mentioned in some notable press outlet with really good press that you weren’t expecting. When we launched for the first time that was also a real high. The first time we had a customer pay us money for something we’d built with our own hands was amazing. Getting advertising deals, even things as small as having someone saying something nice about the service on Twitter is a real high. 
"When we launched for the first time that was also a real high"
At the same time they’re often intermingled with huge lows, so things like a competitor launching an amazing feature or new product that kills an area that you were leading in. Once Mike and I were on an aeroplane to the States, a 9 hour flight, and when we landed we found out that half an hour into the flight our website had crashed and it had been down for the 8.5 hours that we were on the aeroplane! When you’re down on the internet that's kind of a nightmare for a website! It feels like a cliché to say that it’s a rollercoaster ride but it is. There’s these big ups and big downs, but probably the single biggest thing that helps with that is running the company with a co-founder, a person that you trust because between you you can share those ups and downs - it means that you don’t get too up or too down. I couldn’t imagine doing it just on my own, some companies do work like that but I think it's an incredibly hard thing to do.

You mentioned some big highs, have the “best bits” been what you expected?

Some of them have, I mean in getting featured by the BBC or Guardian or opening up the Independent and finding your website in there is a real buzz and to an extent you can’t help but feel that’s a really exciting thing. But at the same time there are small things that are unexpected which can make your day. I remember that we got an email from a chap in Mexico, who said that he wanted to thank us for running the website – he’d used the text to speech conversion tool to convert some documents to audio which his blind son could listen to. And I remember being really touched, thinking it was amazing that I could build something in England that someone I’d never met, halfway across the world, could use it to help his disabled son. That’s not something you expect to do going into a project but it’s a real high point getting something like that. Those little moments can often trump the bigger ones, but they’re hidden ones and not something that you wish to necessarily talk about or brag about.

What inspires you and how do you stay inspired? You work in quite a technical industry but it’s also quite creative because you’re having to think of different ways to do things, how do you stay inspired?

I enjoy reading so I read a lot of fiction and non fiction books and I find that that keeps ideas percolating and circulating in my mind in a really positive way. I make sure that I get out most days and have a walk. I enjoy nature and I find that often good ideas do come in unexpected places, so I can be walking thinking about something completely different and then all of a sudden solve a problem that’s been on my mind for the best part of a week or a month.
"I find that often good ideas do come in unexpected places"
I also find that making sure I stay up to date with industry trends is important so I hang out in some forums online where other business owners and entrepreneurs mix and talk and discuss ideas and problems and possibilities. That's a good way of staying in touch of what’s going on outside of your own little bubble.

That sounds good. Has your faith made a difference in this whole process?

I would say so, thinking about this, one of the biggest areas where faith has helped me is that in all of the ups and downs of creating, being involved, being excited, being disappointed there’s always something bigger and more important outside what I’m doing. So at the times when I’m feeling particularly low or high about how things or where things are going with the business, I can step back and think that outside of this there’s a God who inspires me and who is much more important than anything that happens with the business. It also gives me a comfort to know that if the business was to fail or succeed that in God’s eyes it doesn’t really matter.

That’s good to hear. What do you find is the balance between creativity and hard graft? The adage says that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, would you go along with that in your experience - maybe it’s even more hard graft?

I think it possibly changes over time. I remember when we started this project it was just a little bit of fun on the side that was almost 100% creativity, we were literally bringing something out of nothing, giving birth this idea. Having fun creating it, and all the time we were doing that although some people may think of that was work, for me it was enjoyable. 

I think it changes as a business or idea or project matures and you start to have customers, people that you need to support, have some responsibility for. Them you need to start knuckling down and doing boring things like accounts, talking to lawyers about legal documents and making sure that your terms of service are well written and legally sound. Those things aren’t as enjoyable for me as creating stuff. But as long as I make space in any given week to do something creative I find that I can tolerate some of the more boring aspects that I’m doing.

What would your advice be to people that are looking for ways to develop their dreams or ideas into reality?

The best bit of advice I got was from a chap called Jim McNeish, who you may be familiar with. I didn’t know him very well but I went to a conference he ran and approached him at the end to tell him how much I’d enjoyed the conference. At the time I was thinking that I was doing this thing on the side and it was going ok but I didn't know whether to pursue it full time. 

He said that what you’re doing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have be 'quit the job to start living the dream'. It doesn’t have to be 'stop the dream to concentrate on the job', it’s not one or the other. He asked me what small steps could I take to push the door to this dream ajar a little bit more, were there little wedges that I could put in place to edge the door open a little bit more. 
"He asked me what small steps could I take to push the door to this dream ajar a little bit more"
As I reflected on what he said I realised that maybe there were things I hadn’t thought of before that I could do. So for example I approached my boss at work to ask about going to a 4 day working week instead of a 5 day working week to give me a day to explore this side project whilst still having a full time job to pay the bills. That was a good wedge into the dream as it wasn’t all or nothing, it wasn’t giving up everything to blindly follow an idea, it was a practical step I could take to put a wedge in the door. I think that often people have this thing about quitting the day job or making some massive decision but it doesn’t always have to be like that, there are smaller, practical things that you can do to ease into something.

As we come to a close, what you've shared has been really helpful and there’s lots in there for people to be inspired and encouraged by, and to take away and apply to their different situations. Can you recommend any good books or resources that readers of this blog may find helpful?

I remember reading a book when I was a lot younger called “WhoMoved My Cheese?” which  
I found to be an extremely helpful book. I really enjoyed it because it was a short read, not a big business tome. You can read it in a day or two, at its core it was quite simplistic in its advice but the way it delivered it was very creative. It gave me a different perspective on looking at change after I’d read the book to the perspective I had before. So for people following the blog who are thinking about change or thinking about making a change then that’s an interesting book to read.

For people particularly interested in the area of technology then were are lots of lots of one day conferences you can go to, meet other people and get a different perspective on tech. The one that I would really recommend is a conference in Brighton in September called dconstruct which has got authors, artists, bloggers, thinkers – lots of different types of speaker. It's not just aimed at a tech crowd. I’ve been before and found it a really inspirational day out and would definitely recommend it.

That’s cool. Chris, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom – there’s been loads of good stuff. I’ve personally found it inspiring and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

It’s been a pleasure Luke, you've been an amenable host!

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

"You will never reach your destination...

Don't throw stones at dogs!
"You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks." So said Winston Churchill, highlighting how easy it is to get distracted when we set out to do something!

Maybe it's just me, but there are just so many distractions that creep in to our daily lives, and which can accrue if we're not careful. It's easy to blame smartphones and social media for this, and these do seem to have introduced a whole other source of distraction, even distracting us from our sleep
"Maybe it's just me, but there are just so many distractions that creep in to our daily lives"
In the world of work I'm sure many of us can relate to the distraction value of the endless emails that keep pinging into our inbox and flashing up on our screens!

It's easy to become overloaded and distracted
In our office, we can always tell when a colleague of ours has a pressing deadline as he tends to make us all lots more cups of tea than usual! I can relate to this, and remember when I was supposed to be revising for my GCSEs making an elaborate revision timetable that took so long to complete that I was already behind schedule by the time I'd finished it!

Children and animals can also be pretty distracting can't they? A couple of times recently I've forgotten to lock the car when I get home, as it's been quite a mission getting the kids and puppy safely indoors when we get back from an outing!

Often I think we can let small distractions escalate into bad habits. As regular readers will know, we're currently fostering a guide dog puppy called Viking which is proving really rewarding (although he has added a whole new source of distraction into our lives!). 

"Often I think we can let small distractions escalate into bad habits."
While he's still so young it's important for us to get Viking into lots of positive associations as well as helping him avoid (too many) bad habits. We're not allowed to let him play with balls or chase sticks (he can have other toys though!), to reduce the chances of him being distracted as an older dog when he's working with a visually impaired owner. 

Viking loves being distracted!
Right from seven weeks old, guide dog puppies have some fun and simple tests to see how distractible they are. As I've been taking him for walks more recently, it's amazing how easily he is distracted by smells, flowers, other dogs etc. 

This is not unexpected for such a young dog, but it struck me that it's also a picture of how distracted we can sometimes be when we're trying to get somewhere or do something - as Churchill alluded to.

Sometimes we're not aware that our own distraction is affecting us - we may even think that it's someone else's problem, like the diners at a restaurant in New York who felt that the service they were getting was really slow - in fact it was the diners' own distractions that were the problem (read this!). 

This week I've been reading the book of Proverbs in the Bible and on this subject one proverb in particular struck me: 'First plant your fields, then build your barn' (Proverbs 24:27, Message translation).

One of the things with distractions is that they can affect our priorities, and sometimes we need to put first things first before moving on to the next thing. This is something that I struggle with at times as I quickly get excited about the next thing, and the next one after that! (It's my strategic-futuristic-learner-input themes pulling me on to new things, if you speak the language of Strengths Finder!).
"Sometimes we need to put first things first before moving on to the next thing."
I've learnt, however, that finishing things off is an important skill, especially at work where our client doesn't want a partially completed piece of work but the whole thing they're paying for! The old adage that the first 80% of a job takes 20% of the time, and the last 20% takes 80% of the time rings pretty true to me! And it's probably getting that last 20% done where I'm most distractible! That's the time to take stock, write a list and do all the things I suggested to Keep Calm.

Now I don't want to end this week's post on too much of a downer. I'm not saying we should all chuck our technology in the bin (not straight-away anyway) but maybe we need to have a think about our priorities and whether we really are putting first things first or not. And perhaps a detox from social media, smartphones and other distractions that bark at us might be a helpful way to start, otherwise we may find we never end up where we want to get to after all.
"I've learnt that finishing things off is an important skill!"

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