Where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing: NESTA, Courvoisier and badabing

We have an internal all-hands weekly email here at Distilled summarising what each department has been up to. It was while writing up a bit about what had happened on a marketing / networking front that I realised the variety of things I've been involved with recently. I thought I'd do a quick write up.

It's a little light on technical advice - more a catch-up and a sorry for not writing more recently (keep your eyes open for some fun stuff coming soon). Skip to the end for the celebrity spotting!

So, I wanted to talk about three things:

###1. NESTA - Distilled chosen as a 'top creative business' (of tomorrow)

NESTA - the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts - is running a mentoring scheme for creative businesses. They selected us to be one of the companies mentored under the scheme.

We are working with John Varney (who used to be CTO at the BBC). John is now an investor and advisor to a number of start-up and early stage technology companies - many in the valley. We are working with him mainly on strategy (so far - I'm sure he'll be getting involved with some details too!).

The program is running as a pilot - an attempt by NESTA to understand how mentoring schemes should be run and to experiment with a variety of techniques. Although this means that there is a fair degree of form-filling and administration to the whole thing, the introspection does seem to be useful. In particular, I attended a full-day event recently with all the mentors and mentees which served a joint purpose of giving a lot of feedback to NESTA and being pretty valuable to us mentees. Not only did I get to learn some things about how others are getting value from their mentors, but also got to meet some mentees running some exciting small businesses as well as some experienced mentors.

I particularly enjoyed a session at the end of the day where we discussed a number of general questions in small groups rotating around the room to meet a range of mentors. I got some good bits of advice from some pretty high-powered people. I hope that the program offers more opportunities to mingle in this way.

In the meantime, however, we are focussing on getting value from John (in the nicest possible way!). He has already been pretty influential in getting Duncan and I to separate the strategy and management elements of our roles and now that we have spent some time together working on medium-term strategy, we feel pretty excited about what we are going to get to work on next. (That strategy is being talked about internally at a company meeting next week, by the way - some bits will no doubt take a while to become public, but we'll talk about them as soon as we can).

###2. Courvoisier - I am now an 'ambassador'

You may remember that Tom and I have both been named to the Courvoisier Future 500 network as 'ones to watch' (I never really know where to link when I write about this, how about here). I don't know whether the next step is someone else from Distilled being nominated or another Critchlow ;)

Anyway, through my involvement with the network (which seeks to connect the 'ones to watch' in networking situations after all the PR hubbub has died down) - including hosting a networking breakfast - I have been named one of 10 'ambassadors'. I'm not 100% sure what this is going to involve, but I have already been doing some judging for the next network announcement and early next week we're being jetted off to see Courvoisier in Jarnac, France. I'm still not quite sure if that counts as a work trip or not.

The other ambassadors include some people we already knew:

- Walid Al Saqqaf of Trusted Places - Andy Gibson of School of Everything and Mind Apples - Diana Bird of Wedge Card - Cyndi Rhoades of Worn Again

and some new friends:

- Marchella De Angelis - Sam Bompas (whose company might be the coolest thing ever - want a custom jelly?) - Jo Jackson of Beyond the Valley - Will Beckett of Underdog Group - Justin Marciano of Revolver Entertainment

The cool thing about being an ambassador from Distilled's point of view (beyond me getting trips places) is that we get the guys at Focus putting some thought into getting us all some coverage and also Courvoisier providing some pretty awesome drinks at all kinds of events.

###3. Badabing - learning about the new Microsoft search engine, bing.com

Last Friday Mel Carson (twitter) kindly invited me to join him at #badabing (that was the twitter hashtag for the day). It was great to be there with clients and prospects as well as a bunch of industry friends - Dave Naylor, Dixon Jones, Andrew Girdwood and others. We had a lot of fun learning about some of the cool stuff that bing can do (in the US! - even though I understand the reasons, I am frustrated that bing being in 'beta' in the UK means that it is essentially a rebranded live search at the moment and we have to wait until late 2009 / early 2010 for the US-style features).

I think there are a few things that could shake up elements like keyphrase research if it gets a decent market share - with the segmented search making it natural for searchers to refine their searchers in well-defined ways. By making these refinements feel more like a navigation menu than typical filter links, I think they will encourage widespread use.

That relies on getting market share, however. I think this comes from two main initiatives:

1. the extra effort they are putting into vertical search with the help of acquisitions such as farecast in the US. I hope we get to see this kind of thing working well in the UK (though I have to admit that the current Ciao and Multimap integrations don't give me a lot of faith that this will be true!) 2. their stated goal of being the best UK search engine. With Google's current UK index on an apparent downwards quality slope, this may be achievable (with their focus on local engineering resource apparently) and a true high-quality UK index would certainly be welcomed from many quarters

Then I guess it is mainly about getting people to try it - but that's what the huge marketing budget's for, right?

When the original invitation came through it asked if I wanted to go for dinner as well. I'd said yes - thinking it would be a pretty understated geekfest somewhere local. I was nicely surprised by what Mel had planned for us - not only did we get handed a goodie bag on the way out of the door (copy of Windows 7, Microsoft 'Arc' mouse that I love, Microsoft advertising t-shirt that my wife hates, miniature 'bing pong' set etc.) but we were also whisked across town to Fortnum and Mason for dinner. I didn't even know F&M had a restaurant, but they do and it's a good'un. Mel admitted after a few beers that he chose the menu based entirely on what he wanted to eat but that was fine, because I wanted pork belly with scallops too :)

The biggest surprise though came in the form of Mel's new twitter buddy, Will Carling who came along to do the after dinner speech. I was lucky enough to be seated 'on high' next to Mel and we enjoyed hearing stories all evening about the Welsh on tour from Will. We also met the tech guy, Dave Tosh who is behind Will's rugby social networking site rucku. As DaveN wrote, it was good to hear about the celebrity benefits of twitter whereby guys like Will Carling can speak directly to the public without a publicist in the way.

I wanted to end by saying thanks to Mel - it was a great day and I got a lot out of it work-wise as well as having a lot of fun. Mel, Will Carling and I at Fortnum and Mason:

Will Carling, Mel Carson and Will Critchlow

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more