Interview with Duncan Johnson CEO of Yodelay

Duncan Johnson

It’s a changeable time at Yodelay.

CEO Duncan Johnson is changing the direction of the company from website design, to focus more on the digital marketing side of the business.

What does Yodelay do? What are the primary products and services Yodelay provides?

We’re a bit of a mixed bag. At this moment in time, Yodelay is predominantly a digital marketing consultancy. And I’m working alone at the minute, so I guess by ‘consultancy’, I mean just me!

Yodelay also designs and provides mobile apps. We have 3 digital marketing apps available on Google Play and in the App store, one called “Twitter Followers Booster”, one called “SEO Rank Tracking App” and one called “Youtube Stats App”.

We started off building websites and doing website design – it’s a route to market for our company. But I felt that we were perhaps moving too much into the development side, and just building websites wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was spending more time on micro-managing staff and doing all the bureaucratic work of running a business, rather than what I’m really good at; software ideas, understanding how the net hangs together and how to build software.

We’re trying to move away from the website-building side of things now, but our idea of building software that is generally useful and valuable to people hasn’t vanished. Now we’re going to go down the open-source route. The plan is to get together and develop open-source software projects with similarly-minded developers.

Yodelay is going to continue trading – but we’re moving away from our older model. It’s being streamlined, cut down to the point where it’s mainly me working on my own.

As a company, you have a strong ethical approach. Yodelay’s mission statement is “To create a digital business with the capacity to invest 80% of its retained net profits to humanitarian causes.” Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

I always say I’m an “aspiring philanthropist”. When I was a kid, I had this concept that if every business in the world that was in profit had a compulsory 1% that went to charity, then there’d be no need for charities. Why has that never happened? It’s a very simple concept. There’s a misquote from Ghandi, I think, which says, “be the change you want to see in the world”. And that’s what I’m trying to do.

Yodelay was me, trying to be the change I want to see in the world.

In our second year, we took in a project that made about 10k profit. We gave about 1.5k of that away to a local Norfolk community foundation. We’re now moving to achieve a more sustainable profit position.

While the apps are free to download, they do have in-app purchases. No-one has been paid for the app development work – that’s real, grassroots stuff. It’s been paid for by the client work we did, by my client consulting work and from us building websites. Our ambition was, to basically build and sell software at a million times a second! We planned to make money that way, and keep the company small in terms of personnel in order to maximise profits and donations.

I’m never going to be a millionaire – but building a community and starting software that helps people, that’s going to make me happy.

I also offer free digital marketing course, as a part of Yodelay. I want to counteract some of the bad SEO classes out there. I want to show people, this is the kind of quality you can get for free. That’s a kind of philanthropy, too.

How important is research and development to your company?

SEO and social media as it relates to marketing is ever-evolving, so it’s obviously very important to keep abreast of new trends and new innovations as a digital marketer.

App development and maintenance, too, is continuous, and we use Agile development. Building our latest app, we changed it about seven times before deployment, purely because of changes in twitter. In the marketing industry, that kind of continuous R&D, research and learning new things and new techniques is an integral part of what we do.

We currently have a couple of new app ideas in the pipeline. I call them ‘Quasmosis 1” and “Quasmosis 2” It’s a contraction of the phrase“quantum osmosis”.

It’s “accelerated advancement through virtual relativity”! This sounds scary, but it’s actually simple.

In laboratories all over the world, scientists don’t really use computers to take notes. They still put pen to paper. They do their experiments and they write down their results on graph paper. And then they take that graph and they have to still have to type it up and transfer into a spreadsheet at the end of the day. The idea behind Quasmosis 1 is to create an app which can take a picture of scientists’ graph paper, use handwriting recognition, and then export it to a spreadsheet document. Obviously there’s a technical challenge with getting the handwriting recognition to work, but there have been great advances in that area recently.

It’s completely doable.

Quasmosis 2, on the other hand, is a development on that idea. Research scientists take pictures of their notes, then they’re run through a digital DNA encryption and are sent up to the server. Their notes are then securely compared against other research scientists’ notes from around the world – and this ‘digital fingerprint’ is scanned to detect similarities with other scientists’ notes from around the world. Then, if two groups of scientists are found to be researching very similar projects, or to have some of the same data, the system can ‘match’ these two groups. The app will then alert the scientists in both groups that they have compatibility and need to get in touch. This can radically speed up the process of co-ordination between two different groups investigating the same subject. It has the potential to radically shorten research and development time.

What are your views on open source? How do you use it in your business?

I’m a big fan of open source, because it’s much more transparent. You don’t rely on just one group of developers or any one organization for a product and for their eventual solutions, but instead you’re working with a global community and whoever has got the best code. It evolves naturally and organically. It’s a much more democratic process. And it allows for much easier, more open sharing of ideas. As an ethical company, that open-source ethos is one we really support.

Open source is integral to us in other ways, too. The Yodelay website is adapted from open source themes and software. We’re planning on developing our next apps that way. Even my next phone is going to be an Android, because it’s open source, and then I’ll probably put Ubuntu on it!

Is Yodelay in Norwich by accident or by design? Why did you choose to set up the digital marketing company here?

I came here for two reasons, firstly, for the relationship I was in, but also because Norwich had 3 of the top 15 digital companies in the UK at the time. Robert Starkey’s company, Online Media Group (OMG) is one of the largest digital marketing companies in the world, and they’re based right here, which is not widely acknowledged.

People do have a perception that you’ve got to be in London and have a London-based address or you won’t be taken seriously, but that’s not always true.

There is a disadvantage though, in that there’s a slight failure amongst local Norfolk businesses to recognise and take advantage of the tech companies and resources they have around them. All their clients are in London or Cambridge. There is a bed of talent here, but there’s not always a lot of uptake amongst the local economy.

What do you think is the “next big thing” in technology? What’s coming over the hill in your industry, and the wider tech world that really excites you?

One of the next big things in my view is a “decentralised internet”. It essentially removes any need for ISPs or the ability to be snooped on, it’s ultra-encrypted, and far more secure. It can work on any computer – by sharing a small part of your disk space, your computer becomes part of the ‘internet’ itself. and other similar companies are doing exciting things in this area, and it’s a definite one to watch. Anything that’s decentralised or open source, I’ve got a feeling will grow and grow.

Bitcoin, also, I think is very exciting. It, as we all know, is a genuine contender for a replacement to the financial systems we currently have around the world. We’re supposedly due for another global collapse of the currency – it happens about every 40 years, and it’s an apparent mathematical certainty that it’s got to collapse again within the next decade.

Money is virtual, and crypto-currencies offer a very real possibility for their replacement.

Words: Lucy Morris





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