Aberystwyth, a small town on the west coast of Wales, is renowned for its holidaymakers, pebbled beaches, Victorian pier, promenade and cliff funicular railway. It also has an impressive castle ruins, an old college building, an arts centre and the National Library of Wales, which houses the first ever book printed in Welsh and the first Welsh bible translation.
But Aberystwyth is also a place for inventors and, among the pretty views the hilly town has, there are quite a few entrepreneurs. The local university, for example, has its own Dragons Den-style competition, the InvEnterPrize, which awards students £20,000 to make their business idea work. The scheme was launched in September 2012 to encourage entrepreneurship and stimulate new ideas for products and services. It is open to all Aberystwyth University students.
For Greg Dash, a camera maker who lives in the town and was a finalist in this year’s InvEnterPrize award, Aberystwyth has always been a place of meaning to him, having visited the town on family holidays when he was a child. Greg, who also works at the university part-time, says he always wanted to study in the town and came to Aberystwyth to do a PhD in wind energy. It was while studying that he made his first camera, in 2012, and he has been living in Aberystwyth now for three years.
Greg is currently working on his newest camera, the Rhianna, a digital camera that can take Instagram-style photos. The camera has special features such as vignetting and high contrast pictures, a bit like the Diana camera produced by Lomography. The camera will also have a video option for filming retro-style videos.
He has now made three cameras in total and sells them on his website, Cyclops Cameras. He funds each project through Indiegogo campaigns, which enables people to sponsor and donate money to his ideas. Each camera has a limited edition of 1,000 units. Limiting what he does make, Greg says, is what drives him.
He says: “I think it’s funny to tell people I’m not making any more, because they don’t get it. I quite like that.”
Making cameras has enabled Greg to pay off his university debts, which he did with the sales of his first camera, the Cyclops. The camera made a £64,000 turnover, enabling him to also fund further camera projects with the money.
Greg’s foray into camera making happened quite by chance; he never intended to pay off his debts in this way. He built himself a fisheye camera because he simply couldn’t afford to buy one. He says, “I made it because I wanted one. I wanted a fisheye camera and so I made it using the parts of other cameras.”
Once he started using the camera in public, people took an interest in the product and Greg thought he might be on to something. He put the project up on Indiegogo and it took off.
He says: “I thought, ‘I’ve got a chance now to pay off my debt’.”
It was a far cry from where he was at the age of 23, seeking financial advice about bankruptcy. At the time he had nowhere to live and no money, and even now is afraid to go back into that debt. Paying his debts off has been one of the best things about making the cameras and his aim now is to live debt-free.
He continues: “Now the pinnacle of existing is to live debt-free. That’s what I’m trying to aim for.”
I paid off my university debt with the sales of my first camera.
Greg, who is originally from Mountain Ash and lived in Edinburgh before moving to Aberystwyth, designs the cameras in his flat. He occasionally employs freelancers if there is a problem that he cannot fix and sends the cameras to be assembled in a factory. They are then sent back to him to post to buyers.
Although the cameras have been a huge success, Greg doesn’t want to make a business out of them. Part of that reason is because he wants to concentrate on his PhD and continue with his research into wind energy, but he also says that he doesn’t want his camera ideas copied by others. Keeping the cameras to a small number means this is less likely to happen.
“It’s a tactical strategy”, he says, “because it’s just me working on the business and also because people can copy them really easily. I can’t compete with the prices that would come out of China. The way I do that is by limiting the amount of stock I produce.”
The good thing about only producing a small amount of cameras is that Greg also has a personal relationship with his customers. The personal aspect is very important - Greg knows every buyer.
“I know them all. I know their names and I chat to them on email. We talk about photography and they send me their pictures. I don’t want it to be like a transaction. I don’t want to feel like I’m a machine pumping out cameras. I want people to know that they’re buying and engaging with a real person. That’s what I want. I want to build a relationship rather than a transaction.”
This means that he has been able to maintain all control over his cameras and can also refuse to sell to people if they are rude.
A hackable camera
Greg also works with local people, such as fellow Aberystwyth creative Elysia, an artist who designed the camera packaging and made his first t-shirt. The ability to work with local people, Greg says, is another positive of being in Aberystwyth.
The cameras have been featured by the BBC, ITV and technology blogs, although Greg does admit it has been hard to get recognition for his work, and he thinks this is especially hard for Welsh businesses.
He says: “It’s quite difficult for creatives in Wales to get press recognition.” However, he does believe that any limitations can be worked through and sees the benefits of working in such a beautiful town: “It’s a nice place to live. I always think ‘this is where people come on holidays, I live where people go on holiday’. That’s quite nice.”
Greg’s future plans include the Rhianna launch in November and working on the next camera, which will be hackable and enable people to experience what it’s like to make their own camera.
He is also hoping to work on a project with a local gallery, using cameras to explore the countryside, and is working on a book with some of the people who backed him on Indiegogo for the first camera.
He says: “Every person will get a page and they can put their pictures on it. It will be a page of their experiences with the camera.”
A gap in the market
Sam Hunt, another finalist in this year’s InvEnterPrize award, found his gap in the market when he was a student. The idea for his creation, Bytedrive, an online cloud backup and file-sharing service, came about after speaking to friends about how little storage space there was for students.
He was studying at Aberystwyth University at the time and, although there was a small amount of storage backup available on the university’s shared drive, one problem that he and his friends encountered was that they were unable to store a lot of work on it. Sam also found that students often needed to transfer work between different computers and devices.
He says: “You can’t sync your files between all your devices and view on your phone, for example. Obviously this is really important, especially when you’re a student, due to how much data you store and having your files on you wherever you are. Having that is really beneficial.”
Sam found that there wasn’t a product on the market catering specifically to the needs of students and priced low enough that they would pay for it, which is how he created Bytedrive. Users pay for a backup service specific to their needs. There are different options for each type of user, ranging from £5 a month for 1TB of storage for up to three computers, to £11 a month, which gives users unlimited backup and up to 2TB of sync storage where they can drag and drop files to their own account.
Focusing on the customer
Sam, who is originally from Solihull, is the founder and managing director of Bytedrive and set up the company in May. His initial idea, he says, was to target the product at students and give them a personal, U- based, user experience. He says: “There’s actually a face behind the company and more customer satisfaction at heart.” The fun design for the Bytedrive website appeals to a younger audience: “You can engage in it and it looks cool. Hopefully people will like it.”
Everyone associates backup as a dull and tedious task but when you’ve got an application to hand like Bytedrive, it just makes it easier.
Although it started off aimed at students, Sam says Bytedrive is accessible to all and the service has already had some interest from businesses in the UK and abroad.
Sam, who moved to Aberystwyth to attend university, studied for a Masters in Software Engineering. He didn’t intend to work for himself and applied for jobs in London, like some of his friends did. Instead, he found he had some time on his hands and decided to focus on making his idea a business. He explains: “I thought ‘I might as well give it a go now. I’ve got nothing to lose’.”
Sam found that there were quite a few grants for business start-ups and he was fortunate to get four different grants in total. One of those was the Ceredigion Micro Business Investment Fund, a grant for local businesses to enhance or develop new ways of creating income and jobs in the area.
He says Aberystwyth, with its strong student presence, is the ideal place to test the waters for his idea. However, he admits that marketing his product from the Welsh town is still difficult. “It’s really hard doing what I do here. There’s no real industry, there’s no real tech-savvy business around really. It is quite niche, I guess.”
Despite this he has had some interest through social media, such as Twitter, and earlier this year he set up an Indiegogo campaign to market Bytedrive. In response, one company, in California, has offered its help in publicising the service over there. Sam hopes that by marketing the product further he will get more sales, but he has enjoyed the process so far.
He says: “The best part has been the whole learning curve and setting up a business from nothing. The whole learning experience has been really exciting. I suppose when it’s something that you’re passionate about, it’s great to just go for it and then try to figure it out yourself.”
In the future, Sam hopes to expand the service and the website by creating video content, an FAQ page and a blog. This, he says, will hopefully increase the audience and bring more subscribers. For him, it’s about making the experience a lot better and clearer for the customer and users are at the heart of the experience.
But he has even bigger plans than that for his future: “Maybe a few years down the line, I’ll sell it to Google and see what happens.”
Alongside the beaches, promenade, library and university, it seems that Aberystwyth is a place full of business inspiration. With the rise of businesses such as Cyclops Cameras and Bytedrive, it is clear that, despite being a town small in numbers, Aberystwyth is holding its own and even excelling in the business world. Who knows what might come out of Aberystwyth next?
The Rhianna camera costs £65 plus delivery costs and is available to buy from Cyclops Cameras. Cameras will be sent out ready for Christmas 2014. They will also be stocked exclusively at the Photographers’ Gallery.