Saturday 17 January 2015

Newcastle Marriott Hotel Gosforth Park

At the end of last year I was kindly invited to the Newcastle Marriott Hotel Gosforth Park hotel to try out their fitness centre. The hotel wanted to show me how much their leisure club had to offer and encouraged me to be their guest for the morning so they could put me through their paces. 

I was warmly welcomed into both the hotel and the leisure club itself by Paul, the manager. From the moment I stepped into the leisure centre, the warm and friendly atmosphere couldn't have been more inviting. The swimming pool is the centrepiece of the centre and I arrived to a bubbly and enthusiastic group of ladies and gentlemen partaking in an aqua class.

Paul showed me round and introduced me to Helen for my warm-up. I was feeling some mild trepidation about what the Gosforth Park staff would have in store for me; it had been less than two weeks since I competed in England's Strongest Woman and my training had been predominantly strength/weight-based for the previous six months. I could barely remember the last time I'd broken a sweat. 

To kick things off, I warmed up with some boxing work. It started pretty easily, with Helen brandishing pads for me to lightly punch. Just when I was starting to think I maybe wasn't completely unfit after all, the intensity quickly picked up and a few minutes later I was racing up and down the room in between bursts of punches. Working with Helen was fast-paced and had me constantly improving my reaction times, speed and agility. It was great fun and I'd definitely be keen to attend one of her Boxercise classes - beats running on the treadmill any day! 

Next up I was introduced to Mark who was going to take me through my "main workout". Based on the sweat I'd worked up in the 'warm up', I was starting to doubt if I'd make it through this main workout of which they spoke! 

Mark explained he was going to use a combination of strength exercises and bodyweight movements to create a short but killer workout. He produced a barbell and loaded it up to 30kg. I was to do a 'clean and press'; effectively lifting the bar from the floor to overhead. I felt reasonably confident; in my strength training, I do these exercises at anything up to 65-70kg… but I work to a maximum of 3-5 reps. This time, I had to do 21 reps, quickly followed by 21 burpees. The number of reps then dropped down to 15 and then 9. The aim of the workout was to do the entire thing as quickly as possible. 

The stopwatch started and so did my clean and presses. By about rep 10, I realised that even with my 'measly' weight of 30kg, it definitely wasn't going to be the walk in the park I thought it would be. My lack of cardio fitness quickly made itself known and within the first minute of the workout I was huffing and puffing like a dog on a sunny day. Mark championed me through the whole thing, keeping me motivated right down to my last burpee. By the end of the session I couldn't believe I'd only been working out for only 15 minutes or so, I felt like I'd just completed an hour of cardio. It's definitely an effective way of training and the benefits are clear. 

With my workouts done, I was let loose on the rest of the leisure club. Unfortunately I didn't have swimwear with me so couldn't check out the jacuzzi/steam room/sauna, but the rest of the facilities were amazing. The changing rooms have wonderful touches like not needing a coin for the lockers, free shower gel/shampoo in the showers, and clean towels available for all. I chatted to a delightful bunch of ladies in the changing room - all seemed to love the club and the social aspect of the facilities and classes.

All in all, it was a delightful visit which far surpassed my expectations. Thank you to Newcastle Marriott Hotel Gosforth Park for having me and to all the staff for being so wonderful and welcoming. 

To find out more about Marriott Leisure Clubs or to find one in your area visit their website or call 0800 0195 888.

Monday 23 June 2014

The Valley of Despair: In Between Success and Failure

“Do you ever hate Pillow Talk?” my mum asked me tonight as I wearily stumbled into my family home at 8pm. I was hungry and irritable after emerging from a long stint in a hot, stuffy electronics lab and I didn’t know the answer. 

For the past 4 days I have been in Scotland, staying with my parents. I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. 1) Free meals. 2) My dad is an electronic engineer and I don’t have to pay him. 3) My dad’s office has a fully-equipped electronics lab I can workout of, rent-free. Can you spot a pattern here? 

Due to an unexpected financial situation, my company is currently in a slightly-less-than-ideal place. As a result, I’m trying to do as much as I can on my own to keep costs low. It’s really hard. It is a ridiculously steep learning curve (ever tried to get your head around 3 different programming languages at once?) which results in a near-constant state of mental exhaustion. 

Today I spent the entire day in a small electronics lab. The plan was to build four working prototypes. As another cost-cutting measure, I was also attempting to hand-solder a collection of surface-mount LEDs. For those of you to whom that means nothing... imagine wielding a chainsaw and trying to neatly cut a stamp-sized photograph out of newspaper. Needless to say, it didn’t go very well. 

In a brief break from my soldering in an attempt to prevent my head from imploding,  I read a blog by Nikki Durkin, founder of 99dresses. A refreshingly honest and emotional article, Nikki talks about the experience of having your startup fail and how isolating it is. As she points out, there is very little in the public domain about how failure feels. There is a lot of media about failure and learning lessons, but very little about the emotional rollercoaster it shamelessly drags the founder(s) on. 

Reading Nikki’s post was mildy unsettling as I can already relate to a lot of her story. And the fact of the matter is, there is absolutely no way to tell if my startup succeed or fail. I want it to succeed with every fibre of my being, but the reality is that a lot of things haven’t gone to plan lately. I’m tethering on a tightrope and I could fall either way. 

This, amongst other thoughts, has rolled around in my head for the rest of the day. And the more I think about it, the more unhappy I feel with the startup stories that are shared in the public eye. The extremes are generally the areas we hear about. 

The hardship side of startup life is heroized, cheering on every startup founder as he or she struggles defiantly onwards, toiling to change the world for the better. The late nights, the empty bank accounts, the garage offices; they verge on status symbols in the ever-cool startup world.

Of course, at the other end of the spectrum is the sudden and often unexpected success. The acquisitions, the million-dollar investment rounds, the press that results in server crashes or sold out product runs. These people talk about their ‘struggling startup’ days wearing the kind of rose-tinted glasses you can probably afford when you’ve been acquired. 

But what no one talks about is the bit in the middle. As some cool-startup-infographic once labelled it, The Valley of Despair. The bit in between coming up with the idea and shipping it. Sometimes this period is weeks or months - and for some unlucky buggars (including myself) it’s been years. 

I mean, I guess no one is talking about The Valley of Despair because it’s full of people who are just getting on with it. That’s all you can do. There is no glory here. There are no status symbols. The late nights are real and never-ending, and no one cares when you’re still working at 4am. Being broke isn’t something you can laugh about when your debit card is being declined in the supermarket; no matter how much of a hero you are, that ominous feeling rising from the pit of your stomach is enough to make anyone feel nauseous. 

I am tired of being a startup. I want to be a real business that makes money. I want to ship my product. I want people to use it and hopefully find some value in it. I don’t want to slump on a beanbag or play ping pong or drink independent beer. I want my problem to be fulfilling the demand my product is experiencing... not crawling around on the floor, wondering where that 2mm square resister went. 

My name is Joanna Montgomery and I am in the Valley of Despair. I’ve been here a really long time and I don’t know when I’ll get to leave. And I have to stop writing this blogpost now, because I’ve got more soldering to do and you can be damn sure no one else is going to stay up all night doing it. Except maybe my dad. 

Friday 3 January 2014

Leaving 2013

I am typically not a sentimental person, but I cannot deny the array of emotions that accompany the closure of one year and the beginning of a new one. If you are lucky enough to know me in “real life”, you will know that I am a massive goal setter. I set daily, weekly and monthly goals - so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I also make resolutions every year. I usually uphold most of them.
Last year was a mixed year. It was frustrating in that Pillow Talk still didn’t complete its voyage to the shelves but rich in other ways. I won awards, travelled to new countries, attended outrageous parties and met people who opened my eyes and changed my life. I loved, lost, found, questioned, challenged and gambled. I watched two of my best friends get married, rekindled old friendships and made new. I joined a new gym which brought me far more than I ever thought it would; new perspectives, amazing friends and higher aspirations. 
Two thousand and thirteen gave me more challenges than I ever saw coming and pushed my mental, professional and emotional capacity to its limits. Like any good year, it gave me moments of giddy elation, heart-breaking lows and everything in between. It is the year I finally realised I don’t know everything and that everything is not always going to be okay. 
I started the year resolving to be a happier person, to try and achieve a better work/life balance, and to just... be better. These resolutions were all successful because of the people I met. To everyone who helped shape me in 2013, I thank you.
In 2014, I am making a promise to myself to do the following:
- Experience somewhere new
- Do something I couldn’t do before
- Meet someone who alters my perspective on the world altogether
- Ask ‘why?’ more
- Ask ‘why?’ less
- Love something
- Let go of something
- Fight for something
- Ask difficult questions
- Remember to look back down the mountain at how far I've come

Finally, I am going to hold onto the people who have changed me thus far and let them continue to support me as they have during 2013. I want to return the favour. I promise I will support someone the way I have been supported by so many people who entered my life last year. 
These are my personal promises, feel free to adopt some or all of them - and share with me every time you fulfill one. I want to know if I impact anybody’s life, even in a microscopic way. 

My favourite moment of 2013 was one day in March; I was in Washington DC and I woke up early with jet lag. In a moment of restlessness, I pulled on my gym gear and headed out for a run. A few miles in, having barely seen another soul, I ran up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I turned around just as the sun was rising and I can honestly say nothing has ever taken my breath away quite like it. It was one of those truly sobering moments that make you grateful to be alive and I will remember it forever.

So long, 2013, you were hard work. Thank you for all the lessons. 2014, I am ready for you. 

Tuesday 5 November 2013

The Myths Surrounding Creativity Within Business

Creativity. It comes in many forms; an ability to write well, paint a portrait, execute a photograph or compose a melody. Generally considered to be a talent, most people believe that creativity is something you either inherently posses by character, or do not. It is often seen as divinely-inspired, unpredictable and bestowed upon only a lucky few, whilst everyone else is, well.. out of luck, really. 
There are a lot of myths surrounding creativity and how ideas come into fruition, yet none of them are backed by any scientific evidence. New research has prompted David Burkus to write a book - 'The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas' - in which he aims to demystify what is truly behind the forces and processes responsible for driving innovation.
Burkus' research suggests that - with the proper training - anyone with some common sense and a good grounding in reality can deliver creative and innovative ideas. This subject is of particular interest to me as I wrote an essay about the topic back when I was at university - and it's even more relevant to me now, as a young business owner. 
(Image used under Creative Commons, from Flickr)

Apparently, the first step in "becoming creative" is to refrain from limiting your thinking. And this, first and foremost, means that several long-standing myths about creative thinking need to be brought into question. There are many, and I've seen a lot of blog topics and features on this topic lately, so thought I'd add to the noise and chime in with my thoughts.

1. The Eureka Myth - Do new ideas just appear as a flash of insight? Research shows that such insights are actually the culmination of prior hard work on a problem. This thinking, having been given time to incubate in the subconscious mind as we connect threads, then pops out in the form of new, eureka-like innovations. I can see the logic in this theory, but I'm not fully convinced everyone's brain will join up the dots in the same way - or indeed create an outcome.
2. The 'Born This Way' Myth. Many people believe creative ability is a trait held in one’s heritage or genes - but science cannot actually determine whether there is such thing as a creative 'breed'. I reckon people who have confidence in themselves and work the hardest on a problem are the ones most likely to come up with a creative solution.
3. The Originality Myth. There is a long-standing myth about ownership - ie. that a creative idea belongs solely to the person who thought of it. History and empirical research show more evidence that new ideas are actually combinations of older ideas - and that sharing those helps generate new ones. So you don't have to be original to be creative - but it sure helps.
4. The Expert Myth. Many companies rely on a technical expert or team of experts to generate ideas in their relevant areas. Harder problems call for even more knowledgeable (and expensive!) experts. But particularly tough problems often require the perspective of an outsider or someone not limited by the knowledge of why something can’t be done. Ever found an answer to a problem, from the unlikeliest person? I know I have. 
5. The Lone Creator Myth. History often attributes breakthrough inventions and striking creative works to a sole person, ignoring supportive work and collaborative preliminary efforts. Is an idea always the creation of one individual? Creativity can be a team effort, and creative teams can help leaders build the ultimate product.
6. The Happy Home Myth. Believers in this myth think that the key to fostering creativity is for everyone to get along and live happily ever after. That's why we see so many cliched start-up environments where employees play ping pong and sit around in the cafeteria in their bare feet, eating complimentary food. I'm on the fence with this one - a friendly habitat is good, but I feel this approach can be too laid back and is in danger of promoting a certain level of placidity. 
7. The Constraints Myth. On the flip side, another popular notion is that constraints hinder our creativity and that only people with unlimited resources at their disposal will come up with the best ideas. This is a completely idiotic myth, to me - how quickly can you find focus when working to a completely open brief? I know I definitely operate better within some constraints. Besides - if you consider yourself creative but you can't work within certain limitations - how creative are you really?
8. The Brainstorming Myth. We've all been made to create a mind map somewhere along our voyage through the education system. Apparently there is no evident that 'throwing ideas around' can lead to breakthroughs, but as someone who loves to map out problems, I disagree wholeheartedly. In my opinion, it takes a very uncreative person to fail to find any way forward using this process.

If you believe your company's success depends on your company being more creative, then perhaps it is worth taking the opportunity to spend some time thinking about these myths. Try and understand and nurture the key components in your environment, team and product. Can any of them be better, and if so, how can you improve upon then in a creative way? Are you being subconsciously held back by the belief that you lack the skillset?
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.
Loosely inspired by content over on

Wednesday 11 September 2013

10 Things Every Designer Should Know About People

Lately I've been thinking about, well, people. We're all so wonderfully complicated but, inherently, most of us act and respond to things in the same way. As a designer of any kind - web, product, interface, etc - our user should always be the centre of everything we do. I don't know about you, but sometimes I lose sight of that, so this week I've been trying to really hone in on my key users and what matters to them. It made me realise that there are a lot of things you need to remember about the human race in general when designing anything, for anyone.

(Image used under Creative Commons from Flickr)

1. People use aesthetics as their first indicator of trust

We all know that things that look better are more appealing. But did you know just how deep that runs? In a recent study, when participants rejected a website for appearing untrustworthy, a whopping 83% of their comments were related to design factors. We all trust our gut instincts - so make sure whatever you're doing generates a good one.

2. People can only remember about 4 things at once

Which is bad news for the other 6 points in this blog post, right? Never mind. Our brains only hold tiny snippets of information at a time. It's why we break phone numbers down the way we do. It's why a bulletpointed list of 3-4 things is more likely to stick. Don't overload people with information.

3. People are happy when they're busy

Having something to do/read/play with occupies our minds, and in that occupation, we find contentment. To keep someone 'busy' with your product or service, you simply need to hold their focus.  Bear that in mind when designing your user experience - is it engaging enough?

4. People inherently enjoy surprises

We are simple beings, and anything novel, new or unexpected can cause delight. Give your user something they were not expecting, and they will more than likely continue on, in the hope of more excitement.

5. People think that choice equals control

It's all about mind games. People like to be in control, and to help us feel in control, we are given choices. Make sure you always give people these choices. It's a common designer belief that people want the quickest and most efficient way to get from A to B, but offering alternatives - or at least an element of discovery - can also work well.

6. People become more motivated the closer they get to a goal.

Many psychology studies have shown that, the closer a human being gets to achieving something, the more focussed and determined they become. Help your user down this path and before you know it, they'll be pushing themselves towards your call to action.

7. Sustained attention lasts about 10 minutes

Still reading? Good. Just as well I'm keeping an eye on my word count.

8. People are easily influenced

If you've ever had a really bad day and chatted to a friend about it, and then watched them slump in their chair, you'll know that people almost subconsciously absorb feelings and emotions from other people. We mimic fashion, style, and decision-making based on other people too. One trend-setter can easily coax other users on board - and don't forget that your own enthusiasm for your work can also rub off on others.

9. People enjoy things the most before and after they've happened

Think about the last holiday you went on - was it amazing? And just how excited were you before you left for the airport? Ah ha, but did it feel THAT amazing when you were on it? People gain the most pleasure from anticipation and reflection. As designers, this means we need to extend the anticipation of  the action, e.g. making a purchase, for as long as possible before the event - and then leave enough time afterwards before asking for feedback. Don't hit someone with your product/website/service and ask for feedback instantly; it won't work, they'll still be processing it.

10. People don't really know what they want

This is one thing I have learned the hard way. If you ask someone what they want, their imagination will run riot, designing an elaborate, all-singing, all-dancing solution they believe to be perfect. However, if you create that and give it to them... the reality is that they won't like it. What's the solution here? Well, if you find one, let me know. The best I've managed so far is to use a combination of mass opinion and my own common sense. At the end of the day, we're apparently still the experts - and, after all, you wouldn't tell a doctor how you wanted him to perform your surgery.

Loosely but not inherently inspired by the book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. I haven't actually read the book - just the title made me think. 

Saturday 19 January 2013

My Experience of The Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards and Why You Should Enter

It was nearly midnight one evening, in January 2012, when I sent off a last-minute application to The Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards. I tapped out my entry in between mouthfuls of coffee and as I hit the big green 'submit' button, I had no idea what I'd just started. 

When an e-mail landed in my inbox a few days later informing me I had been shortlisted, I was struck by the feeling that every start-up founder knows well - one of simultaneous excitement and pressure. As I scanned the list of my fellow finalists, I spotted BrewDog on the list and felt a bit nauseous. BrewDog. Surely Scotland only had room for one trashy blonde? 

On the first day of March I headed to Edinburgh University to pitch in the eighth and final regional heat. Where I had two minutes to pitch to a judging panel comprising of local business leaders, Lloyds TSB professionals and advisors from business support organisations. Two minutes is not a very long time, so being concise and articulate was key. I had to get across where my idea had come from, what I'd done so far, and what my plans were for the future. 

When everybody had pitched, we were joined by more local businesses and other influential professionals in the region for a champagne networking reception and a three course lunch. I wasn't sure what I was more excited about; drinking bubbly in the middle of the day or having my very own Little Riot table. I mean, how cool is that?

After lunch we heard a brief speech from Fiona Godsman from the Scottish Institute for Enterprise about what define an  "entrepreneur". When it was finally time for the announcement of winners, everyone around my table wished me good luck. 

Incredibly, Scotland did have room for two trashy blondes after all, and Little Riot scooped "Best Start Up" and BrewDog taking "Best Enterprise", the award for more established businesses. What followed next was flurry of congratulations, press interviews and photographs.

As the Scottish heat was the last one, I didn't have long to wait until the grand final. Taking place in Liverpool to coincide with the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, I now had to pitch against the 'Best Start Up' winners from the other seven regions. The panel of judges this time was verging on intimating, with individuals including Kamal Ahmed, the Business Editor of The Telegraph and Jamie Murray-Wells, founder of opticians giant Glasses Direct

Having thought the regional heat lunch was impressive, I was blown away by the set up for the black tie awards dinner that evening. Sporting my first ever full-length frock, Lloyds treated myself and the other finalists (and guests!) like VIP celebrities all evening. Although, it must be said, having to eat whilst facing an Andy-Warhol'd picture of my own face was a little disconcerting!

Best Start-Up went to KwickScreen and Best Enterprise went to Yasa Motors. I was also still a winner that night, as I was lucky enough to win tickets to the Olympics in a prize draw! I met a lot of great contacts, loved every minute of socialising with other young entrepreneurs, and had a whale of a time with my Andy Warhol face.

The Lloyds TSB Awards are open to anyone who has founded or co-founded their own business, who is a university student or a graduate from within the last five years. You can check out the website and submit an application here.  You've got just under two weeks!

So why should you enter? There are loads of business competitions out there, right? What's so different about this one? This one is different because it's not just a competition, it's a gateway into an amazing networking and ongoing support. Lloyds TSB don't just give you a trophy and some cash and leave you to it, they actually care what happens to you and want to support the people they've gone to the effort of crowning winners.

What did I get from it? Of course, I got £1,000 cash, a weighty trophy and the accolade of being a winner. That is what you get from most competitions, but it was all the other things that really helped my business move forward. I received two incredible mentions in the Sunday Telegraph and the words written about me by the Telegraph's Business Editor still both humble and motivate me every day.

A few months after the awards, Lloyds TSB took all the winners to London and laid on an incredible day of workshops and training for us. We learned about recruiting people, intellectual property and how to conduct ourselves in media interviews. We had the opportunity to catch up with our fellow winners, swap stories and advice, and the day culminated with a drinks reception in the Houses of Parliament. What other competition has ever given you that?

Other benefits have included mentorship from a Lloyds TSB manager and being chosen as a 'poster girl' for this year's awards. I  had an exciting photoshoot day, the results of which are now on the business banking website and on posters and leaflets at universities across the country.

There are lots of reasons why you should enter, and if you get even a small piece of what I have from the experience, then you are a winner by any means.

(NB. This post wasn't sponsored by Lloyds - they didn't even ask me to do it - it was written off my own back and I mean every word :)

Tuesday 15 January 2013

2012 In Review

Due to ongoing problems I've been having with Google Apps for Business, I have been unable to log into Blogger for ages. Even though it is now mid-January, I'm going to reflect on 2012, as I like to look back over a year and work out what it meant to me and recognise the defining moments throughout it.

January actually changed a lot of things for me. I was in a minor car accident and although this didn't directly have an impact on my life (just my poor car!), the events that panned out in the following hours/days - and the circumstances that evolved from the whole situation - altered the way I look at a lot of things. 

One of the positive things to come from the turbulence was that I moved Little Riot into its first office - the collaborative Ignite100 loft in Newcastle. I couldn't have asked for a cooler place, or a better bunch of people to work with. And the good news is, if you fancy it, you can come too

I was also video-interviewed for a feature on ABC News New York :) 

Well into my burst of Business-related productivity by February, I was lucky enough to be asked to go along to Entrepreneur Week in Athens, Greece. I was part of a delegation along with five other young entrepreneurs, several of whom have become good friends. 

In March I won "Best Start Up" in the Scottish category of the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards. I had a very exciting day in Edinburgh where I pitched to a panel of judges, followed by a swanky lunch at my very own Little Riot table.

A few weeks later, I attended the grand final in Liverpool, during the Global Entrepreneurship Congress. I pitched to a pretty cool bunch of people and wore a really epic dress to the black tie dinner, thanks to Coast :) 

In April I continued to work really hard and also visited John in Dubai. Working hard was a lot easier with a cracking view of Dubai Marina! I had brunch in the Burj Al Arab, which was incredible. 

May was a cracking month for press. It started with a double page spread in Scottish newspaper The Courier... and ended up with a mention in Marie Claire magazine, in between a dildo and a sex chair. Sorry, mum. 

Looking back now, all I did in June and July was work flat out. It was a critical time for the company and I gave 110% and then some to make sure everything worked out. The highlight of these months was one rare afternoon when I managed to get out in the sunshine and ride my horse :-)

At the start of August I went to the Olympics, after being lucky enough to win tickets at the Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards earlier in the year. It was really cool to be part of something so huge and Lloyds spoiled me as a guest.

I also closed  a pretty big business deal which has changed my life, business and personal, in both good ways and bad.

At the start of September I visited three cities in Germany as part of a creative business exchange. Myself and Olivia from Blue Iris Films were shown round various agencies, businesses and organisations. The highlight for me was visiting the Red Dot Design Museum

I also spent some time in Scotland and celebrated my birthday early, with my best buddies :)

I turned 25 on day three. Half way to fifty, gulp. Spent the day judging the Shell LiveWIRE Awards and then had a nice, albeit bizarre, night out with people from the office. 

Visited Liverpool again as a shortlister in The Pitch and met some cool people. 

Ran my first 10k adventure run!

Had a great day in London thanks to Lloyds TSB and their ongoing support of the winners from their Enterprise Awards. It culminated with drinks in the Houses of Parliament. Lovely wine, I can see where my tax is going ;-)

I was a finalist the the Woman of the Future Awards and got to met Dame Kelly Holmes and James Caan. Little Riot was also listed in the Real Business/Wonga 'Future 50'.

I also wrote my first blog for The Huffington Post which seemed to be well-received. 

This month was busybusy and then I was wiped out by the flu in the run up to Christmas which was fairly inconvenient! December was the month I finally got to know this year's cohort of Ignite100 teams, which I wish I'd done sooner.

All in all, 2012 was a fairly positive year. A few ups and downs - as with everything - but I'll definitely always look back on it as a good one, overall. Here's hoping 2013 will continue in a similar way!