FidlLeaf co-founder, web developer, and musician Adam Alton explains how he single-handedly taught himself computer programming, built a career in web development, and decided to found an online personal wellbeing platform.
Adam Alton of FidlLeaf
Do you want to shift career but you’re worried you don’t have the skills or the resources to go back to school? With the right mindset and the abundance of courses and resources available online today, the information is there to enable you to change your career to whatever fulfills you.
Adam is the co-founder of FidlLeaf, an online wellbeing, and personal development platform. After studying and working in music, Adam’s need for a website for his band gave him his first glimpse into the world of computer programming. Largely through trying (and failing) to build a revolutionary train ticket website, he developed the skills to start a career in web development and fell in love with it. He went on to spend 10 years working on projects for organisations including Google, the BBC, banks, and UK and US governments. He now combines his knowledge of technology with his love of personal development in his new company, FidlLeaf.
Adam shares his shift from music to computer programming and how he came to realise that entrepreneurship would provide the development opportunities he needed.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- [0:47] Adam explains the concept behind online wellbeing and personal development platform FidLeaf and his role in it.
- [2:24] He narrates his background in music and how the necessity of building a website for his band led him to website creation.
- [7:54] He explains how he started to build websites and how he developed his knowledge through readily available resources.
- [13:52] The similarities between music composition and computer programming.
- [16:00] How Adam built up his own skills and experience before landing his first job as a web developer without specific qualifications.
- [21:55] Why there will be a demand for computer programming skills for many years yet.
- [28:00] Adam’s realisation that he had outgrown his position and wanted to found his own company.
- [30:36] Adam explains how he met his FidLeaf co-founder and worked to create a minimum viable product to take to the market.
- [33:28] Adam’s goal of growing the company and helping people rather than positioning it for a future sale.
- [34:45] How Adam and his co-founder regulate their relationship and how they’re now dealing with the critical stage at which FidlLeaf is now at.
- [36:13] The vision and goals of the FidlLeaf platform in its first year of existence.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Please note that some of these are affiliate links and we may get a small commission in the event that you make a purchase. This helps us to cover our expenses and is at no additional cost to you.
- Arctic Monkeys
- Franz Ferdinand
- Team Rubber
- General Assembly
- Simon Sinek
- Innovate UK
- Mozilla Developer Network
- Episode 8: No Education? No Experience? No Problem! – with Austin Belcak of Cultivated Culture
- Episode 55: How to write the perfect resume – with Doug Levin of JobStars (and don’t forget to use the code changeworklife10 to get 10% off any JobStars service)
To see the resources recommended by all our guests, visit the Resources page.
Episode 65: Finding your limits, building your skills and knowing when to move on - with Adam Alton of FidlLeaf
Jeremy Cline 0:00
If you feel like you've outgrown where you work, what do you do next? That's one of the things we talk about in this interview. I'm Jeremy Cline, and this is Change Work Life.
Jeremy Cline 0:24
Hello, and welcome to the Change Work Life podcast, where we're all about beating the Sunday evening blues and enjoying Mondays again. This week, I'm joined by Adam Altman, who is the co founder of FidlLeaf, an online personal development platform which helps employees manage and improve their well being and performance. Adam, welcome to the podcast.
Adam Alton 0:42
Hi, good to be here.
Jeremy Cline 0:43
Can you start, Adam, by telling us a little bit more about FidlLeaf? And what's the name about?
Adam Alton 0:48
Yes, so FidlLeaf is an online well being and personal development platform, and it gives people a self awareness tool, which is based on a piece of Nobel Prize nominated science which has actually been around for years, which we've adapted for well being. So you take self awareness assessment, and it then gives you an overview of 10 different areas which underpin your well being, and then provides you with tools and content in the form of podcasts, articles, videos to help you develop and strengthen the areas which aren't as strong. The name, FidlLeaf was thought up by my co founder, Sophie. It's actually the name of a plant. So there is a fiddle leaf plant which is a type of fig, which apparently is notoriously difficult to look after. So she thought that a bit like ourselves, and we are often difficult to look after, it would be good to name it after that. But we've shortened the name down to FidlLeaf.
Jeremy Cline 1:45
I like that. You mentioned you've got a co founder, so what's your role in FidlLeaf?
Adam Alton 1:50
My role is the technical side of things. So with my background in coding which came after my background in music, I've been developing the platform from the technical side so doing all the coding on it. And then Sophie's role is she brings the knowledge of the science that we use in the self awareness tool, and has a background doing lots of well being stuff and personal development things with that.
Jeremy Cline 2:13
You mentioned the background in music before the background in coding. So when you decided to study music, what were your thoughts at the time about where that might take you?
Adam Alton 2:25
Possibly naive is where my thoughts were with that! I played the drums since about the age of nine, and continued that all through secondary school. And then I had an amazing music teacher in secondary school who just really encouraged me with that. And she transformed the music department in our school and put on lots of concerts and created lots of opportunities. I really got into it, and I really enjoyed it. And I think with her help, I got better at it. She pushed me into learning the other parts of music that you sort of miss out on playing the drums - the melody and harmony theory, that kind of stuff. And so I ended up on this path where doing music seemed both exciting and seemed to make sense. And I think my idea when I went to music college was probably that I would either earn a living as a session drummer, playing on recordings, that kind of thing, and maybe bits of teaching or being in a band or managing to make a career out of that.
Jeremy Cline 3:20
So what changed?
Adam Alton 3:21
I think several things changed, and I think I had realisations along the way. One realisation was that as I looked at successful drummers that I really looked up to and looked at how they earned their living, I realised that actually a lot of it was music teaching, as well as their session playing and that kind of thing. And there's nothing wrong with teaching drums for a living - I did bits of that in the past, and I really enjoyed it. But I realised that lifestyle wasn't quite what I'd imagined it was. And then in terms of the band side of things, I was in several bands at university and ended up focusing on one of them, and we were doing quite well, we were starting to get a bit of attention. And then - classic story - our singer left and went solo and actually signed to a record label, he signed to the same label as the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. So he went off and did that and the rest of us were like, Okay. I guess it was around that time that I had started to get into building websites, initially because I had built a website for our band, and that was my very first introduction into the world of making the web. So those things overlapped slightly and as that band died down and the remaining members looked at do we get another singer, do we try and carry this on for a while and we explored that for a bit, and as that sort of faded away, I guess the web stuff started to pick up and I started to get other people coming to me saying, Oh, you can build websites, can you make a website for me? And there was just this demand for me to build websites for people. There was a much greater demand than the demand for me to play the drums with people, so I guess it naturally started to transition.
Jeremy Cline 4:55
Just digging into this a little bit more deeply because often people look at especially something like music - it's tough to get into. And you said that a lot of session drummers and successful drummers do teaching on the side. But I wonder whether that is something which inevitably happens. And it might be a small proportion don't have to supplement their income with teaching but can do it solely on being booked for gigs or sessions, or whatever it might be. Does any part of you think well, maybe if I'd given it a go, I might have got into that percentage and not have to have done the teaching? Or do you still think No, this was the right way to go?
Adam Alton 5:35
I think that might be the case. But in all honesty, I'm not good enough to do that. I grew up in Devon, fairly rural, and you can be the sort of the biggest drummer in the school as it were, and then you go to music college, and you meet all these other people. And you're like, Alright, Yeah, they're really good, aren't they? And you get put in your place a little bit. I think as much as I really enjoyed music, and I love playing the drums and that sort of came quite naturally to me, I don't think it was any kind of exceptional talent. And I think I sort of realised that. Maybe if I was exceptional, making a living just down to playing the drums would be a possibility. But I think that's not the case for me.
Jeremy Cline 6:15
When it came to designing the website and building the website for the band, how did you come to be the person who did that?
Adam Alton 6:22
At my university, there were essentially five courses you could do. There was music, technology, dancing, acting, theatre technology, that's going to be six, and then music and arts management. So we actually had a couple of people working with us with our band as our managers, booking gigs and doing that kind of stuff. And one of them said, I'm going to build you a website. Actually at first he said, one of my friends is going to build your website. So we kind of waited several months and nothing really happened and kept on asking about it, and he said it's happening, it's happening. And then after a while, it changed to Oh, no, I'm going to build your website. And he said he was going to do a web design course. So we waited again and waited and waited, and eventually we just got really frustrated. And I just went, how difficult can this be? I'm just going to try and do this myself. And I went round to a friend's house who used a program called Dreamweaver - for anyone in the web world old enough to remember that! - this program is sort of like a visual website builder. And he spent several hours with me showing me the basics on how to use it, and gave me a pirated copy of Dreamweaver. And I just went back to my student bedroom and started building our website with very little idea of what I was doing, but enough to get started.
Jeremy Cline 7:36
How much is involved at this time? You mentioned that this was a visual builder. So presumably, you didn't have to at that stage know HTML, CSS, Java and all that sort of thing in detail. Is this something that was the precursor to the website builders like Squarespace and Wix and that kind of thing, or more maybe WordPress?
Adam Alton 7:55
I think, actually now you ask that I realise how fortunate it was that that program worked the way it did, because it gave you this visual tool where you could just say, Oh, I want a red box and I want to put an image here and I will have some text and make it bigger and whatever. But then it had this code view. So you could just toggle between the visual view and the code view. So you could actually just select a piece of text, change its colour, switch back to the code view and see what it had changed. And it really allowed you to look at exactly what the programme was doing. Okay, if I turn that into a link, what has changed in the code? And so it actually allowed me to learn HTML and learn CSS by looking at what this program was doing. And then over time as I understood it better, I started to see that actually the programme wasn't always that clever. So if you selected four lines of text and made them all blue, it would go and individually wrap every line of text in a thing saying make this text blue. Well there the four lines, just wrap the whole thing in one block and make it blue, don't wrap every one individually. So I would then go in and start to edit the code to simplify it or improve it. And so over time, I spent less and less time in the visual view and more and more time in the code view. And eventually, I just sort of ended up in the code view and didn't really use the visual bit anymore. I think it really helped me, it was really fortunate that that was how the program worked, and it allowed me to learn it almost by accident really.
Jeremy Cline 9:19
What do you think led you to be interested in looking at the code view? Because I can imagine a lot of people would just use the visual. Certainly today, it's relatively easy to build a website. I mean, I built mine, and I know nothing about coding. So what led you rather than just relying on the visual element to actually go into the back end and understand what's going on with the code?
Adam Alton 9:41
Good question. Possibly a little bit of frustration in that the program probably wasn't that advanced and I would start to find things that it couldn't do or wouldn't do and I would get frustrated with that. And maybe also just a bit of pedantry, I want this to be better or I wanted to fine tune it. Maybe a bit of curiosity as well.
Jeremy Cline 10:02
You mentioned that other people then started asking you to design their websites. Were these people that you know, or were these people who just happen to come across your website?
Adam Alton 10:12
They were mostly people that I knew. There was another guy at university who was starting up his own musical director business, and so he asked me to make a website for him. Then some family friends who have a string quartet who asked me to make a website for them. So initially it was people that I knew. And I guess that then started to push me into a bit more of the coding side when it came to things which I didn't know how to do and which would eventually push me out of this Dreamweaver program because it was too limited. Actually, this started with the website for my band. We wanted to have a mailing list, so we wanted a box in the website where people could enter their email address, and they could subscribe to our mailing list. And I could see in Dreamweaver how you could put the box there - the text input - but what do we do with email address? Now what happens when you click the button to subscribe? And I just had no clue how this would work. I was expecting to find it somewhere in Dreamweaver - surely there's a mailing list thing in here somewhere. And eventually, I spoke to one of my friends from school who'd gone to a different university, and he said, Oh, you need to learn a programming language. And you need to have a database to put the data into. So you need to learn PHP, and you need to get this database called MySQL. And I was like, okay, write these things down. And I went to the library, and I got a book out on this programming language called PHP. And I remember starting to read this book, and really enjoying it I think for two reasons. Partly because as I started to learn about the logic of programming, I was like, Oh, this makes so much sense to me, I really enjoy it, maybe the beauty of the structure and the logic in it, and sort of thinking, Oh, this is a little bit like how my brain works. And then at the same time, realising that it was unlocking the world of computers, which up until this point in my life I'd only ever used as a user - you get a mouse out, use Windows, click the buttons - with no idea of how this thing worked under the hood. And it was like someone had lifted the bonnet on this machine I'd had in front of me for years, but I've never understood. And suddenly, I was just reading this book thinking, Oh, this is how computers work! I found it kind of fascinating and somehow it kind of made me happy. And so then I started trying to program these things into websites. So I'd try and make this button for the mailing list so that when you hit submit, it would save something into a database, which is incredibly simple and took me hours and hours and hours and lots of swearing. And going back to the book and what have I done wrong, and that kind of stuff. But I really enjoyed it. And I then got into the thing that I years later realised is actually slightly addictive about programming, which is this piece of problem solving. You try to do something, you've got halfway there, but this bit doesn't work. So it's this sort of challenge, you have to try and solve. And then you fix that and you get a dopamine hit because you've achieved this next bit. But now you want to do something else with it. And so you've got another challenge. And it's this continuous series of little challenges and little dopamine hits as you solve each problem. And I loved it. I got addicted to it and kept on doing it.
Jeremy Cline 13:20
Do you think any of this ties back to music? Listeners to the podcast will know that I am an amateur musician myself. And I did do bits of theory and I can see how particularly when you get into some of the theory, people are surprised how logical it is. Particularly if you get into things like jazz theory, it does get quite technical with the chords and the harmonies and all that sort of thing. So do you think there's a mental link between the two that made you being particularly attuned to the one helped you with the other?
Adam Alton 13:53
Yes, I think they are, I wouldn't say very closely linked. But I think there are a lot of similarities between particularly composing music and like you say the theory side and computer programming. And I can think of as well as myself, two of my other friends who studied music at sixth form or went on to do music degrees in different places are also now web developers for a living. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think there's something in the slightly mathematical logical structure of music that actually is quite similar to programming. And music is made up of very simple building blocks. Essentially, a piano only has 12 different notes on it before they start repeating again, and in programming you essentially have some very simple instructions for the computer. And yet, in music we still haven't exhausted all the possible pieces of music that we can write, there seem to be infinite pieces of music that we can create out of these 12 notes. And in computer programming, there seem to be infinite apps and websites and programmes that we can create from the simple building blocks. So I think there is something quite similar in them. And maybe, I guess they are both in a way a sort of combination of maths and creativity. I think we often look at music as being purely creative. But actually, like you say, when you start to dig into it and get into the theory, particularly more complex parts, this gets into physics and bits of maths and the way the different harmonies fit together and why they sound good together becomes quite mathematical. And I think maybe computer programming is almost the other way around - we look at it as being this very kind of dry, scientific mathematical thing. But actually, there's quite a lot of creativity in it. And there's a lot of problem solving and having to come up with ideas and think about things in creative ways. Yeah, I think there's a lot between them.
Jeremy Cline 15:45
Having graduated and now having started to build websites, where did you go from there? Did you go into a job as a web developer? Did you decide that you were going to carry on designing websites for other people by yourself? What was your next step after graduation?
Adam Alton 16:01
After graduation, I went to university in Liverpool, I moved to Manchester with one of my stepsisters, and was still kind of trying to carry on the band thing at this point, but with a different singer. And I was doing a really boring job that I hated in a call centre to earn money. I wasn't on the phones, but I was listening to answerphone messages and having to type down people's addresses, working in this call centre, which was really dull. And I came up with this idea that I wanted to build a website that would let people search for cheap train tickets. Certainly at the time, in the UK, if you wanted to find cheap train tickets, which as a recent graduate I often did, you had go onto the trainline.com website and pick a specific time that you wanted to travel at, and if there weren't any tickets available, you had to go back and search a bit later, and then go back and search a bit later and search a bit later, in this really tedious process. And as it still is now I think. It's often cheaper to buy your journey in two halves. So going from Liverpool where I was at university to Devon, it was often cheaper to buy a single to Birmingham New Street, and then another single from Birmingham New Street to do the other half. And I just thought this is crazy. Surely I can build a website where you just put in I want to go from A to B anytime between Tuesday afternoon and Friday morning, and it will just search everything and find you the cheapest way of doing it.
Jeremy Cline 17:22
You're not about to tell me that you were involved with Money Saving Expert are you, because they had a tool which was intended to do that, I think?
Adam Alton 17:28
No, I wasn't, I was probably pre that. But with not enough knowledge or expertise to actually get that far with it. But I essentially set about trying to build this website, and I just went 'This must be possible'. And I started trying to do it with my at the time very limited programming knowledge. I was really just on the basics at this point. And looking back it was quite ambitious, maybe a little bit stupid. But I just tried to do things. I went right, I think I need to connect my website to the train line website in order to pretend to be someone with a web browser. So I can do a search and get the results back. How do I connect a website to a website? And I just went on Google and just started searching things. And I would somehow through searching on Google discover, oh, I need an HTTP connection. What's an HTTP connection? What's HTTP? I ended up reading quite a lot of Wikipedia and going onto the Wikipedia page for HTTP. This is hypertext transfer protocol, which is a protocol that sits on top of TCP IP for transferring hypertext documents. What's a hypertext document and what's TCP IP? And so I would follow the rabbit hole down in Wikipedia and learn about or try to learn about TCP IP, and then that would lead to something else and something else. And eventually, you could kind of work your way back to the first article and go, right, okay, I think I roughly understand what HTTP is now. And I would do this again and again, whether it was trying to kind of pull results back from the trainline website, whether it was I need a cookie so that it knows who I am from one request to the next. And what's a cookie back to Wikipedia, back down some rabbit holes, vaguely understand some things seven articles later, come back again, try things, fail to make it work. And it took me months of doing this and I eventually managed to build a prototype where you could put in the station you wanted to go from, the station you wanted to go to and it would then connect itself to the trainline website, do a whole load of searches and crazy logic, then come back with the tickets it had found listed from cheapest to most expensive. And it was totally illegal because it's against the trainline terms and conditions, but it sort of proved the concept and I'd accidentally taught myself a whole load of programming things in the process, which I didn't really realise I was doing at the time. I just wanted to make this website.
Jeremy Cline 19:44
So where does this take you? At what point does this become something from which you have a job or a business or earning money? If you're doing all of this whilst doing the call centre job which you hate, when does it transition to - I'm loath to use the word proper job but you see what I mean!
Adam Alton 20:00
Yeah! So at some point during that I packed in the call centre job, I actually went back home to live with my parents in Devon for a while. And I actually spent several months without a job at all, sat in this little sort of annexe at the back of my dad's house, just trying to build this website. And eventually, a friend of mine actually put me in touch with his uncle who's really well connected, lots of business connections. And we tried to do something with this website and tried to get in contact with different train companies and see if they wanted to take on the idea but nobody did, essentially, partly because that's all kind of wrapped up and nobody really wants to change it. But I think as I realised that I wasn't going to be able to do anything with this prototype that I built, but I had gained these skills, I then thought maybe I can actually get job doing this. And after doing a couple more websites for friends and family and things, I then moved to Bristol, and I just started applying for places that were taking on. And there was a company called Team Rubber in Bristol, or certainly they were called Team Rubber at the time. And I went for an interview with them. And I think they just saw that I was able to learn things. And the programming language that they were using was a different programming language. But they said, Okay, here's a bit on this programming language, have a read over the weekend, come in on Monday. And I owe a huge amount to them. I guess they just saw that I would be able to step up and learn things and they took me on when I essentially had very little knowledge and gave me a job.
Jeremy Cline 21:27
What's the recruitment market like at this time? So if you're going into something like coding, web development at the time that you did, was there generally an expectation that people would have studied some kind of computer science or programming degree as part of a university course and have qualifications and you were an exception? Or was it much more of the case that you could do this in your spare bedroom, build up a portfolio and then go and say, hey, look what I've done, even if I don't have the bit of paper to say, I've done xyz study?
Adam Alton 21:58
Yeah, I think having a computer science degree is probably the majority case. It's by no means a rare exception to not have that degree. And I guess especially people of my age, being 35, for most of us this - as in computer programming - wasn't taught in schools. I think for quite a lot of us, it's something that we've picked up somewhere else along the way. For some people, it was like a hobby that they had, some people were lucky enough to realise it early enough on to go and study at university. But I think for lots of people it's something that they've picked up later in life and I think that's perfectly well accepted. And you can see now with things like General Assembly which is an academy for learning these skills, and there's another one - the name of which I can't recall right now - where they're almost whole companies set up to teach people these skills later in life, which I think is a reflection of both the demand for programming skills, and also the fact that so few people have actually studied it at university.
Jeremy Cline 23:00
Is there still a demand do you think? Because it's one of those things where on jobs boards every second post seems to be about doing some kind of coding boot camp, which kind of makes me wonder whether we're getting to a saturation point. Is that something that just because you see it lots of times, it doesn't mean that there's not still the demand?
Adam Alton 23:15
As far as I'm aware, there is still a high demand for it. I don't think we've exhausted all the apps and websites and things that the world wants to build yet. I think the world of software development has at least decades left to run on it before we run out of new things to build. So I can't see that demand going away anytime soon. I think maybe as is always the case the technology is shifting slightly. I'm seeing more things in machine learning and artificial intelligence and that kind of stuff, but it still requires programming. In terms of is it saturated with people who've got the skills - I don't think so, not yet. Maybe that will change a bit more with the current Covid situation and more people working remotely, that suddenly that opens the world up a little bit more. So it's no longer Oh, we want you to be in London, or we want you to be in San Francisco for this job. So maybe that is opening the jobs market up a bit wider, which will balance it out slightly in terms of supply and demand. But I certainly can't see the need for these skills going away anytime soon.
Jeremy Cline 24:17
How do you get from Team Rubber to founding FidlLeaf? Was this something that you started to look into whilst still at Team Rubber or is there an intervening stage?
Adam Alton 24:27
Yeah there's a big intervening stage. I was at Team Rubber for about a year. And then I learned a lot more while I was there and that enabled me to then get few other jobs afterwards. So I sort of freelanced at a few different places after that for probably six months, and then I moved from Bristol to London and got a job at a place called Potato, which is another name naming story, isn't it? I don't really know why it's called Potato! I think it involved a pub. So I started at this company called Potato when it was really small. There were five of us and it still is a web development agency that builds web applications for various different companies. And one of the biggest clients is Google. So building lots of both internal tools for Google and other public facing sites. And I started there, it was really tiny and we grew very, very quickly. And I was at Potato for just over nine years in total. And my job there kind of evolved as the company grew. So when I started, I was eight hours a day writing code. And then as we grew, it was kind of like, Oh, we need somebody to almost like manage this project, because there were seven people on it. So I ended up doing technical leadership on different projects. And then as the company grew from further I moved into what you'd probably call management type roles, and overseeing different people and different teams, or overseeing the people who oversee teams. And that then got me into mentoring, which I really, really enjoyed. And as the day to day work meant that it was very difficult to still be doing hands on coding, I actually found enjoyment instead in helping people to develop themselves and helping people to grow and helping people develop public speaking skills, or whatever it was that they wanted to develop in themselves. So then, as I started to think I've been at Potato for a long time, it was really good and I loved every moment there, but I realised I wanted to do something new. And so then when I met Sophie and she was talking about this personal development platform, it kind of brought together this thing of mentoring and helping people to grow with my coding skills. And I guess also my own love for personal development and developing myself. So it just kind of all fell together and made a lot of sense to me.
Jeremy Cline 26:40
So am I right that you met Sophie at a founders event or meet your founder or something like that?
Adam Alton 26:46
Yeah, we always joke that this is the equivalent of meeting on Tinder or something! It was a co-founders networking event, which I think we both went along to with a reasonable amount of scepticism, thinking it was just going to be people with ideas for Tinder for shoes, or that kind of thing. We both went along separately and met each other. And there were lots of people there presenting different ideas for startups that they wanted to do, but Sophie's idea I think, really sort of caught my eye because it was something good in the world. It's helping people with their well being and helping people to develop themselves, but also it's got this Nobel Prize nominated science that is based on - so it's not just something like fluffy, it's something that's got lots of research behind it, and seemed like, okay, that's actually got some substance to it. And it seemed like something that could actually be commercially viable as well. So we got chatting, and just got on really well with each other as well. And so we've started FidlLeaf.
Jeremy Cline 27:45
How did you come to be at a co founders event in the first place? You mentioned starting to think whilst you were at Potato looking for something new, when you say something new, were also thinking something new, and also something where I am the founder? So you were seriously thinking about switching from employee to business owner and entrepreneur?
Adam Alton 28:05
Yes, I was still at Potato at the time when I went to that networking event. And I wasn't in a hurry to find something new because I really enjoyed working at Potato, but I knew I wanted to do something else. And I think having seen Potato go from being really small and seeing it grow - it grew from about five people to more than 100 people in the space of five years. So I'd had this taste of growing a company, and I guess I wanted to go and do it again but do it myself this time. And I'd probably have ideas that I'd be able to do it better. And I'm sure all those ideas would go out the window once I realised how hard it is. But yeah, I definitely had a desire to kind of do something myself and be a founder.
Jeremy Cline 28:43
Were Potato aware of your thought process at this point, or did it come as a surprise? Do you still work there? Or have you since handed in your notice and gone full time?
Adam Alton 28:53
No, I handed my notice in. No, they didn't know that I was looking at the time. But I'm not sure it was a huge surprise to anyone just given that I'd been there for a long time. And it was probably not necessarily obvious but clear that at some point I would want to go and do something else. So don't think it sort of came as any great shock to anyone.
Jeremy Cline 29:11
And there wasn't opportunity to do something within Potato? Because a lot of tech companies put themselves out as being quite entrepreneurial and they appreciate having people with an entrepreneurial mentality working for them who can then go and try different things. You didn't think that that was going to work for you in that environment?
Adam Alton 29:31
Yes, so Potato does do things where it almost tries to spin off little sub companies on its own. They're actually doing something called Fictioneers at the moment where they've partnered with Wallace and Gromit and some augmented reality games companies to create something that's sort of spun off as a separate business. So I knew that there was a possibility to do something like that, but I guess I maybe just was impatient and I'm like, I want to do this sooner, and it could be ages before the right opportunity like that came up in Potato. And I remember actually, when I said to the CEO and said, You know, I found this thing I want to do so I'm going to hand in my notice, and he was kind of like I'm gutted, but also, I'm not surprised, because you should be out there doing something like that. So I'm gutted, but good on you. Which was a really nice thing to hear.
Jeremy Cline 30:15
You mentioned meeting your co founder, and being attracted to the idea that she had, but there's a fair distance I would have thought between liking an idea and deciding that you're going to work with this person to create something. So can you talk a little bit about how you made the decision that not only was this something you wanted to be involved with, but this was the person that you wanted to be involved with?
Adam Alton 30:40
Yes. So we initially just spent time talking about it, talking about the idea and how it would work. And through that, we also spent time talking about our ideas for how we wanted to run a company. And we both had a like of Simon Sinek as being someone who seems to have a business mind but also very sort of empathic and I think has really good morals and a good approach to things. So we ended up just talking about things like that, people like that, our approach to how we would want to run a company, and what our vision was in that sense. So there was a lot of time just chatting together doing that. And I think the more that we talked, the more we realised we were on the same page about a lot of this stuff. So that was one part of it. And then something came up, which was the government's innovation grants. So the UK Government have a Department called Innovate UK who give out money to people doing innovative projects. And so we looked at applying to get a grant from this. And we actually went through the process of writing the grant application, which forced us to write down concretely lots of things about the project and about what we were intending to do. And in the end, we didn't get that grant. But then when we didn't get it, in fact, before we didn't get it, we put the application in and we were waiting. And the more we thought about it the more we were like, is this actually the right thing to do, because the grant had some caveats and limitations on it, such as you weren't allowed to make any money or have any income from it in the first 12 months. And yet it was encouraging you to take all this money and spend it, so hire lots of people and spend the money before you've got anything coming in. And we were thinking but why would we want to spend like hundreds of thousands of pounds on building this fully finished thing with every feature and every bell and whistle we can think of before we've put it into the hands of users and got them to try it and give us feedback? And we thought actually, the limitations of that grant probably aren't that good for us. So when we didn't get it, we were actually kind of happy and went we should go down a different route, which is to do this ourselves with just the two of us and build what we call the minimum viable product and take it to market and then get feedback from people and add more features later based on what people actually tell us they want in the feedback. So we decided to go down that route. But having written the grant application, we had then spent lots of time discussing exactly what it was we intended, and it really made us put our thoughts down on paper. So that grant application process really helped us in defining what we were going to do.
Jeremy Cline 33:14
Where do you see FidlLeaf going? What is your - if you have one - five or ten year plan? Is this something that at the moment you think I'm going to work on this forever? Or is this something where you're thinking, no, we've got a clear plan to get it to blah, blah, blah, and then there might be an exit event or something like that?
Adam Alton 33:32
I think we're both clear that we don't want to sell the company. We're not interested in the venture capital 'Let's get in some massive funders, give away ownership of the company to investors, and then have some exit strategy or IPO'. I think for us it's important that we create a platform which actually helps people, and that delivers value and that is meaningful. And our intention is for it to grow so that we can bring it to more people, and so that it can be successful. And hopefully we'll make some money out of that along the way. But our ambitions are what's the most we can do with it? Rather than can we be the next Facebook or something. Over the next five years, we're essentially trying to just grow it from where we are, get more companies on board on the platform, and really turn it into something successful.
Jeremy Cline 34:20
You talk there about your agreement with your co founder. How much of your relationship with Sophie has been sort of formalised or codified? I mean, have you gone into this on an Oh yeah, we rub along together, or I know some people go into this kind of partnership almost like they do with a marriage and have a pre-nup agreement. Well, hopefully this will work out but if things do go wrong, then this is the mechanism, this is the process. This is what we're going to do at the end of it. What have you done in that regard?
Adam Alton 34:50
Before we'd actually created the company, we had an agreement to create a company document, which put down our intentions to kind of put our various bits of intellectual property into the company and how that was going to work. We then created the company which we've very deliberately done on a 50:50 split, so we each own half of it. And I think that's actually really important at this stage, because we are each sometimes putting in more or less work than the other one. And I think when we're doing this at this stage, Sophie's still doing bits of other work to bring in income and having to balance that and sort of transition from her existing job. It's never going to be a completely even split of time at the beginning, I think. Rather than try to say, oh, you're like 47% and I'm 53, just call it 50:50 and deal with the inconsistencies for the moment, accepting that in the long run that's going to come out in the wash.
Jeremy Cline 35:47
At the moment is this your full time thing or are you also involved with other projects at the moment?
Adam Alton 35:53
Yeah, at the moment this is my full time thing. So we're in the sort of dangerous stage of now having created this first version of the platform now trying to get it off the ground and get as many companies as possible on board in that we can sort of lift off before the end of the runway as it were, before the savings account runs out?
Jeremy Cline 36:11
And what's your timeframe or your criteria for making the decision Yes, this is something that is worth carrying on with?
Adam Alton 36:17
It's a good question and it needs a continuous review. We're trying to get 1,000 customers on board within our first year. That's essentially our target. And if we achieve that then we're happy that we're going to continue and do the next year.
Jeremy Cline 36:32
Is that 1,000 individuals or 1,000 companies?
Adam Alton 36:35
Yes, 1000 users. It could be one company with 1000 users, or it could be 100 companies with 10 users or however that is made up. And we've actually opened the platform up to individual subscriptions as well. So we initially intended this to be a purely business focused platform for companies to use for their employees. And then as we started talking to people about it we had several people saying, I don't know if my company would pay for that for me, but would it be possible to just buy myself a subscription? So when we looked at it, we realised actually there wasn't a huge amount of change we needed to do to the platform to make that possible. We've actually also opened it up to individual users as well.
Jeremy Cline 37:14
This sounds absolutely fascinating and I've loved hearing about your story. I think in the future, I'd actually like to speak to you again, more about the content of FidlLeaf, the 10 tests, the Nobel Prize winning research, and all that sort of thing. So that's something that we can put a pin in and arrange for the future. In the meantime, during this journey, are there any particular tools or resources, books, websites, quotes, anything that has particularly inspired you or taken you further forward in your journey, which you can recommend others take a look at?
Adam Alton 37:45
I think there are lots of different things which have really helped me in this journey. As I mentioned, Wikipedia is one of them. I donate money every month to Wikipedia, because I think it's such a wonderful creation of the human race to have that resource free to anyone. And I was using it when I had no income. And it certainly helped me to create my career, essentially. And there are lots of different resources like that. There's a brilliant website from Mozilla - MDN, its the Mozilla Developer Network, which is just reference material for HTML and CSS and other bits of web coding. But I think it's really difficult to give one resource and say to people go and read this or go and look at this, particularly as there are lots of different programming languages, and there might be one resource that's good for this language, and one that's good for that language. I think what I would say to people is try to build something. If you want to get into coding or web development or building apps, come up with an idea, however simple it is, and try to build it. And in trying to build it, you will discover the things that you need to know. And maybe mix that with do some tutorials and some getting started things so you're not just like entirely like I want to build Facebook, where do I start? But essentially, if you don't try to build something, you'll never put the theory into practice. And you'll never find the things that you really need to know. So whether it's just a website that has photos of squirrels on it or whatever you might want to create, I would say get your idea and just go and try to create it. And then there are so many tools available online. So much of it is freely available. There are forums where you can ask for help from people. There are conferences, many of which are now being broadcast online. There's lots of open source software where you can have tools to build things for free, lots of resources. So yeah, I would say start with building something and see where that takes you.
Jeremy Cline 39:39
Adam, where can people go to find out more about you and more about FidlLeaf?
Adam Alton 39:45
Best place for me, probably my Twitter account, which is AltonPowers, and then FidlLeaf, you can find us at fidlleaf.com.
Jeremy Cline 39:57
I will put a link to those all in the show notes. Adam, I'm really looking forward to finding out how FidlLeaf does as a venture. So thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.
Adam Alton 40:05
Thanks, Jeremy. It's been a pleasure.
Jeremy Cline 40:07
Okay, hope you enjoyed the interview with Adam Alton of FidlLeaf. One of the things I really liked about this interview was how it kind of validates what Austin Belcak was saying way back in episode eight - yes, episode eight! If you go back and listen to that episode, you'll see how Austin described how if you don't have qualifications or experience in a particular area, then you don't necessarily need to go back into education and achieve any particular qualification if you can effectively build up a portfolio of work, which you can then take to an employer and use to show off that you've got particular skills. Now, I'm not a computer programmer, and really don't have any interest in going down that route. But it was quite interesting to hear Adam say that he really thinks that there are going to be lots of opportunities for programmers, software developers in the future. It's one of these things certainly that I do see an awful lot of people saying, Oh, yeah, there's this boot camp and it's a great area to get into. And then people start to think, oh, everyone seems to be talking about it, maybe has the ship sailed on this? And what Adam was saying was quite reassuring, really - that he thinks that even if a lot of people are talking about it, that doesn't necessarily mean that we're really at a point where it's saturated and this is going to be an area which people are going to have trouble getting into. Certainly when I've had an idea and I start to see that other people are also talking about it initially tends to give me a bit of a sinking feeling, thinking Oh no, I've missed the boat on this one. But actually the fact that other people are talking about it is encouraging - it means that there is something to it, there is interest out there in whatever it is I'm thinking of doing. I'll put a link to the FidlLeaf website and Adam's Twitter profile and all the other links and resources that we mentioned in the show notes for this episode, which will be at changeworklife.com/65. And whilst you're there do go back and check out Episode 55 with Doug Levin, Doug is a professional resume or CV writer and he's got some brilliant tips about how you deal with the current recruitment environment where so many CVs or resumes are first reviewed by an artificial intelligence system before they get looked at by a human reviewer. So Doug's got some great tips about what to put in your CV or your resume so that you stand a better chance of getting your CV picked under both systems. And if you're interested in working with Doug you can get 10% off, that's 10% off for listeners of the Change Work Life podcast. If you go to changeworklife.com/jobstars that will take you to Doug's website Job Stars USA where you can select one of his services, and if you enter the code, changeworklife10 then you can get 10% off any Job Stars service. There'll be another great interview coming along next week and I can't wait to see you there. Cheers. Bye.
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