View from Steel city: Sheffield tech firm is a survivor that shows how hard it can be

Of course, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Sheffield's Dotforge Accelerator supports very early stage tech companies through a three- month focused programme of building, testing, business development and funding support.

But following the fortunes of a tech start-up from Sheffield over the last three years proves it’s not for the fainthearted.

Family history site is the sole company still operating from a six-strong cohort on the very first Dotforge Accelerator scheme in Sheffield in May 2013.

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It’s a sobering statistic since the founders – two or three people per company – had to give up everything for 12 weeks.

Dubbed a ‘bootcamp for start-ups’ they worked ridiculous hours, seven days a week to write code – some had a product, some were starting from scratch – and brainstorm the future of their business.

The scheme, backed by Plusnet founder Lee Strafford, came with experienced mentors who injected regular doses of reality. It also came with funding from local business angels, which helped pay the start-ups a stipend. And, as ‘bootcamp’ suggests – there were sergeant major figures and there was some shouting.

But it was all for a good cause. Dotforge aimed to give people a year’s experience in four months.

And it allowed them to ‘fail fast’. If they were on the wrong lines, the decision to change tack came sooner rather than later.

Twile, founded by Paul Brooks of Doncaster and Kelly Marsden of Hebden Bridge, started out as a timeline for fitness instructors, to allow them to log clients’ workouts, diets and progress.

But during Dotforge they ‘flipped’ and became a secure photo-sharing site with timeline for families.

Paul said they joined Dotforge with a vague concept, but after two months of market research realised the best response was from young parents who wanted to record their children growing up.

But even that idea didn’t last.

He said: “Because we were also young parents, it felt like the perfect direction. We built Twile into a private photo-sharing timeline. We had some early traction, but struggled to differentiate ourselves from the much larger competitors who were trying to solve the same problem – Microsoft, Google, Dropbox, Apple…

“After two years, we decided we needed to change direction before we ran out of money. We carried out user research and found most of the people who were using Twile were sharing old black-and-white photos to tell the story of their family history, rather than adding recent digital pictures.

“We pivoted virtually overnight to integrate a custom family tree and the concept of milestones into Twile including births, marriages and deaths.

“We’ve never looked back – it took two years, but we had finally found the perfect market, product and business model – a clearly-defined group of customers in a very large, under-served market.”

In January Twile won two awards – and thousands of dollars – at RootsTech, the world’s largest family history festival, in Utah.

Then it announced a deal with one of the world’s largest family history websites – opening the door to 18 million customers.

Twile received ‘significant’ investment from Findmypast in a deal which allows the genealogy site’s 18 million customers to display their family tree on Twile, which charges £29.99 a year.

Users can also access Findmypast’s database of eight billion records including census, parish, military and newspaper data.

Twile now employs five people including Paul’s wife Caroline and two developers, hired in July.

Paul said investments by South Yorkshire business leaders Neil MacDonald, John Cowling and Julie Kenny ‘allowed them to fail’.

“Their support has been really important to us, allowing us to experiment and fail a number of times while we worked to develop the product and the business.

“The key for us was staying lean – making our money last as long as possible so we had the time to experiment and change direction.

“We went about the business in the wrong way.

“We already had a timeline and were trying to find a problem we could solve it with.

“Making the most of our cash meant we had the time to go the long way round.”