Interviews

The headache a double-decker bus can bring your business

8 min read

07 November 2016

Ed Cooke and Memrise use a double-decker bus to create video content for its app, but the bus created a few issues that needed creative solutions this year.

September is always a very energetic month at Memrise. The team is back in full force after August holidays and double-decker bus adventures (more on that to come), learners are flooding back into the apps after their own summer breaks, and – as ever – there’s a mountain of stuff to accomplish. So I’ve been in a state of almost uninterrupted activity, trying to keep a handle on the hundreds of things needing doing: on the product road map, in recruitment, catching up with everyone, with investors, with budgets, with high level strategy.

This happens every September, but this year has been especially chaotic. Perhaps the main reason is that it’s coincided with the homecoming of our Membus (a 1978 double-decker bus) along with its numerous crew – all fresh from their epic four month road-trip round Europe.

By way of a bit of background, the reason we sent a double-decker bus round Europe was to help us create the world’s first video dictionary – a compendium of short videos of native speakers in context using words and phrases. The bus carried the film crew to the native speakers of nine languages. The videos they captured are key to our plans to make language learning joyful. They contain all the fun and variety of real speech, gesture, culture, etc and they’re a big part of our plans.

Now, the expedition has been fairly epic. Since they set off, our double-decker bus crew members (a mixture of filmmakers, linguists, and community-sourced volunteers) have travelled 12,000 miles, collected 25,000 videos, and created mini-video dictionaries of nine different languages. I’d rather hoped that the project would be winding down post completion of video-collection, but in fact it’s been winding up to a spectacular climax, adding some rather colourful “operational” issues to my month.

For instance, we hear at the very last moment from the Esbjerg-to-Harwich ferry company tasked with bringing the Membus back into the country after her last leg in Denmark. “Unfortunately we are unable to get you on our sailing. They is no other places available until possibly next month. Sorry.” But that’s not acceptable, because we need the Membus in London to make an important public appearance at SOAS University to celebrate the European Day of Languages. A series of indignant phone-calls eventually resolve the issue, and the Membus safely returns.

The European Day of Languages Day goes awesomely, with SOAS hosting us in style, and our content team of 12 running around all day collecting extraordinary footage of all the languages spoken in London. But the journalist who’d promised to come cover the event in style in a national publication is ill – a flurry of phone calls, and we struggle to find a replacement. Frustrating, it’s such an interesting and joyful story, so emphatically positive towards Europe, languages, bringing learning to life.

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The next problem follows soon after, this time trivial. We can’t find the Membus double-decker bus a cheap parking spot in London. This time, the generosity of the people at the Hackney Ash Grove Bus Depot saves us.

All this is working up to the end-of-tour celebration, to be attended by everyone on the team (doubling as our end-of-quarter celebration) and also investors, journalists, people from across the London startup community. But my beloved CTO Daniel bans me from hosting parties in the office, after the last one was (unjustly) closed down by the police and some of our equipment got lost, so we need a new venue. But we have no budget.

A not un-obsequious email to our munificent investors at Balderton yields a splendid venue. The managing partner is looking forward to attending – excellent. Music? Happily it’s possible for Smitty’s Big Four to play: they’ve played every party we’ve had since our 100,000 user celebration years ago (we now have 13m), and it’s a thrill they can make it: the best swing band in town. But La Roux can’t perform, it turns out, which is a shame: she’d have added to the élan, but perhaps that would have been over-kill.

On the subject of over-kill, I’m reviewing the finances. And what’s this I’m finding? I spy £200 spent on a 3D printed cake? What on earth? I make enquiries on Slack. Marie pops up beside my desk: “Hey Ed, that’s a cake for the Membus party. It’s going to be delicious. It’s a to-scale 3D replica of the real thing.” I ask Marie why she feels that this was a responsible use of company finances. “Oh please,” she says, “you encourage autonomy and creative decision making. You need to learn to live with the consequences.”

Perhaps we do. In fact, it’s something we’re thinking about constantly. The last week of the quarter is full of planning meetings with the management team. It’s great fun, there’s a wonderful balance of personality, and a very rewarding level of creativity and intelligence playing out between Kristina, Ben, Daniel and Michaela as we map the quarter to come.

We find ourselves especially considering the processes and the org-structure, questioning how they can enable the right kinds of autonomy. We want to marry with optimal harmony the creative freedom of our designers, engineers and content creators with the constraints of the broader goals of the company. Such a tricky balance! We’ll never get it perfect, but it’s enough to constantly try to improve, and we’re pleased with what we’ve cooked up, just in time for the final quarter of 2016. It looks like it’s going to be no less colourful than the last.

This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.