Newcastle based company Komodo Digital have come a long way in twelve years.
Early practitioners of responsive web design, the agency, led by MD Andy Greener, also recognised the clear opportunity presented by a booming mobile app market and moved swiftly into the world of app development ahead of most of the competition in the North East. In doing so, the agency quickly caught the attention of big clients like ITV.
By focusing on finding their niché and staying ahead of the curve, Komodo have gone on to develop products that make a difference. Examples of which are ITV's 'Signed Stories', an app that helps children with hearing impairment learn sign language skills and vocabulary through interactive story-based content. Another, an app for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, improves working practices for the safe handling of explosive remnants of war. Komodo specialise in diverse projects delivered by a team with a passion for how technology can enable people.
To find out more, we asked company MD Andy Greener to share his thoughts on how to succeed in an overpopulated marketplace, how start-ups should approach working with big clients for the first time and why you should work with a deeper goal in mind...
Web design is a very popular market – what’s the key to survival and standing out in the crowd?
Newcastle and the northeast is a very competitive marketplace with some great talent in it. We have been surviving and thriving within this hotbed for a long time and I put it down to a number of things including our approach, professionalism, quality and thirst to learn. I think these elements are a pre-requisite. Also, if you haven’t got a basic ability to deliver and get on with something, listen to people and understand what they want, then you’re not really going to get far.
For us, a key part of our DNA is our team’s curiosity and our willingness to take on and learn new things. As an example, we were very early adopters of the mobile application development market. We were one of the first places to have in-house iOS development capabilities, several years ahead of most agencies.
Every website should be responsive now but again, we were very early to the market as responsive web design practitioners which is a core trend in the marketplace today. I think having the ability to see what's going to happen next and make sure you have the right skills to meet that future demand is key to growth. We continue to invest heavily in R&D and looking at new ‘next big thing’ technologies and trends.
Is the ability to take a gamble important to surviving as a small business?
It is, particularly if you’re involved in the technology sector but the same can be said for any industry. You have to be aware of what’s going on and what’s happening next because what’s happening next is ultimately where you are going to create your revenue and if you’re not preparing for it then you’re always going to be playing catch up with early adopters. It’s easy to get wrong too which can be costly.
What advice would you offer a small company about to work with a big client for the first time?
Be different. Have something special. Once you’ve got something that is genuinely different from what larger, more established agencies offer you have to look creatively for ways to get an 'in’. Small companies have a great advantage over big companies – agility. In my experience it’s about using this agility in your proposition and approach and then finding out exactly who you need to talk to and go make it happen.
Working in this field, is it important to be aware of new technologies and brands?
Absolutely. We are constantly looking at new technologies and identifying trends that we feel we would be able to move into easily i.e. those that naturally compliment but extend our current skill set.
People come to us with their ideas and it’s our job to help bring them to life. A good example would be the ITV 'Signed Stories' app that Komodo have been working on for well over two years. The big idea of the app is to assist children with hearing impairment and potentially other learning difficulties learn how to sign and build their vocabulary so they can communicate and interact more effectively. That's done through the great content that ITV create. Taking classic and modern children’s stories, the ITV Signpost team animate them and provide a professional voice over as well as a signer who signs the story. Komodo designed and built the application that enables this idea.
The signer, audio and video can all be customised and set to a child’s individual needs. The signer can be switched on or off and available in British Sign Language or American Sign Language, subtitles can be changed in terms of size, colour and background to make it easier for visually impaired users and all titles are bundled with games that assist learning. From a tech point of view, we did all of the design work as well as the mobile development.
It’s hard to put down in a short sentence but basically what we do is take an idea and make it real, make it happen and make it work.
Is Newcastle a good place for creative companies at the moment?
Yes, it certainly has been over the last 15-20 years. It’s a highly creative city with a huge personality, you only have to look at some of the cultural spaces up here like BALTIC and Sage to see that it punches way above its weight compared larger cities.
Are there any local companies or events that we should be keeping an eye on?
Yes, there's a really good community here with lots of networking events especially with Creative England and the Creative Cities event that was held in Newcastle recently. We are lucky to have the Thinking Digital Conference that is hosted every May and is now in its eighth year. I've already booked my ticket for the 2016 event. There's also Ignite 100, which is a hot start-up incubator and accelerator. A start-up that is really going to fly in my opinion is a company called SoPost. It’s a great team of people with a great idea and a great product; and from what I have heard they are really gaining some big traction in their market. The North East is and always has been a hotbed for creativity and technological innovation.
You’re working with the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-Mining (GICHD) to track and deal with unexploded ammunition. What can you tell us about this?
Explosive remnants of war are essentially everything that is not a mine that has been fired, shot or dropped from some type of platform such as an aircraft, ship or artillery, or a stockpile of ammunition that has been abandoned. These remnants are often left for years until they are rediscovered; the UK is littered with unexploded shells from World War Two and in developing countries where there has been recent conflict, it’s a bigger problem because of lack of infrastructure to safely deal with it.
There’s currently no unified way or protocol for the removal and making safe of these objects so the GICHD have drafted the Ammunitions Safety Manual (ASM) to provide a simple but effective safe working practice for ammunition technicians to deal with explosive remnants of war.
How have you assisted their work?
We have been developing an application with the GICHD over the last year and a half. There have been several phases; the first one was to simply digitise the ASM into a format that's accessible through tablet devices which makes it portable and easily searchable and referenced. The app also contains a toolkit of resources including posters and signage that ammunition technicians can produce and place where they need to.
It has evolved in to a much more sophisticated record keeping application now, with interactive forms that allow technicians to file reports, display what has been found and how it has been dealt with, along with information about where it has been transported to so that they can start tracking the movement of this material more effectively. It’s essentially giving people the tools to manage the remnants safely, effectively and more consistently.
So your product could potentially be saving lives?
Saving lives, I’m not sure but if it makes it safer, prevents people being put in harm’s way and helps people to understand the risks they’re taking, that's really good. I tie it back to the ‘Signed Stories’ example; the Ammunitions Safety Manual app is a big idea that we have helped to make more accessible and usable. The guys at GICHD had little to no experience of mobile technology and how it can be leveraged and we work very closely with them to make technology fit their needs. It’s a big idea that we helped bring into the real world and it’s not just a website or game - this has some deeper meaning to it.
It goes back to what makes us different: we like ideas that have a story to them, where there’s a deeper goal.
How do you feel your involvement with Creative England and the funding you received has helped change or shape Komodo?
The funding we received, first and foremost, helped us to hire new staff, so it has been massively influential in terms of increasing our headcount. We have also been able to increase our additional individual skills, allowing us to increase our competency and capabilities, do more research and development, and focus on developing our products. Ultimately, it led to us winning work and having a certain ‘know how’ about mobile workforces and productivity which made us more competitive in that space. The investment has been massively beneficial in terms of helping the company grow and keeping us ahead of the curve, as well as looking at new technologies and how we can apply them. We’re also developing other products and talking to other potential clients. It has been really good and the relationship has been really supportive. We’re very grateful.
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