Thursday, 24 March 2016

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Friday, 26 February 2016

Immersive experiences roundup at MWC 2016

A quick look through my favourite virtual experiences at mobile world congress 2016.

So the single best thing for me at MWC 2016 was the fourth of Nokia’s OZO demos by a Finnish band called Husky Rescue.  Forget the GearVR chicken wire, and only 30fps capture, those things will get there in time (more of that later) this is one of the best things I’ve seen which showed what a virtual experience can be like.

It’s a very simple, short piece, the lead singer pulls you in on a rope through the musicians, hands you a balloon (yes, it's Scandinavian cinematic electro pop…) then sings to you with really evocative eye to eye contact. 

It delivers indications of how to do so many of things that are often missing in 3D360 content:  The tracking shot adds movement and helps you explore the space;  The singer utterly sells the experience and offers an otherwise impossible to get view inside of the track, within the band, the sound, and the space and a truly personal one-on-one experience.  The rendering and stitching doesn’t jar, and everyone is at a fairly similar focus distance so it’s really comfortable to look round in as well.  It’s a really great experience that makes that piece of music much more special than seeing it on TV or headphones on the tube.  Well worth 3 minutes of anyone's time.  Unfortunately you can’t download it yet though – I’d love to see the full thing in a Rift (Nokia please release!).  However it was explained that they want the first content news splashes to be from dedicated content producers who are starting to receive the first OZO units. 
The other content on the Nokia demo I was also not so keen on so this is probably a good thing.  The Husky Rescue video had the most time spent on and it showed.  The pirates suffer from looking fake and staged.  The band on the roof was OK but very static and felt a lot like being separated a TV experience, the stitch behind you and by feet wasn't great either.  The NASA control tower and space suit water testing area  was a good example of what sort of content could be cool, but not a lot happens, also there are a lot of near field and deep field objects and it’s not totally clear on what is interesting to look at. 

But thoroughly good work  Nokia, you had the camera there, and real stuff for people to see on the sort of Gear VR headset that people are likely to consume those sort of short, powerful experiences on.  Getting out there and getting it done.

Elsewhere there were so many things which were all converging on solving those frame and resolution rate issues to up that level of presence.

Qualcomm were showing their new 820 chip with a 1k x 1k per eye prototype phone and headset set up.  Content was a dragon flying around in a dungeon at a stated 60fps.  Screen door wasn’t bad and it was a convincing display of hardware acceleration.  But that really isn’t going to be enough for VR, pushing up towards 8k looks like the target, and everyone wants it without wires, so that means portable limited devices with batteries and power consumption issues.

8k really is awesome, I stood for quite a while outside SK Telecoms 8k live encoder on a giant Samsung screen showing nothing more interesting than basketball (not my game to watch).  I love the argument against headsets being able to give the impression of something the size of wall, just to make something the size of a wall!   But it’s so much energy, materials and cost – headsets will win but they’ll need to be lighter and more like glasses than goggle – which they will become.  However something that big certainly impresses.

Getting there is going to need software, hardware and fundamental improvements to render above that sort of 1k/eye res CV1 / Vive will bring and get the weight and energy down.  If Qualcomm were showing some of the hardware helping in that direction, companies like TheEyeTribe and Imagine were showing some of the rendering cleverness which will help us get there.

TheEyeTribe were showing 2 camera, 5 led rigs for eye tracking integrated into a GearVR and a Rift.  Eye tracking is very cool, allowing difficult to spoof authentication, user identification, and foveated rendering: putting in the most rendering effort where you are actually looking.  They have been specialising for a while in limited device formats, getting the power consumption right down and there is a lot of interest in the device manufactures.  I don’t know which eye tracking company will come out on top, but I see this getting built into the Gen2 headsets to offload some of that rendering workload, and I liked TheEyeTribe’s approach a lot.

Imagination were showing their PowerVR Wizard real-time ray tracing on smart phone power level applicable chips.  How about putting that with eye tracking and getting next gen localised rendering with ray tracing? That’s the sort of thing that will help take us to where the VR experience needs to go.

Today's wires will have to go – whilst I loved the Yellow Submarine display, and they integrated the look and feel of the umbilical cords well, SK Telecom’s display seemed to spent at least half of its time closed with a maintenance sign outside and the glued on leap motions to the front weren’t doing anything.  But full respect to SK Telecom, they had a really fun stand packing a lot of things into a sensible amount of space.

That sort of Leap Motion hand sensing technology will quickly have to become built in.  I absolutely loath the touchpad on the GearVR, it really breaks presence, fumbling for a control on your head with a motion you never do otherwise.   Eye tracking, voice control, contextual understanding, gestures – basically interacting naturally is the way forward for VR experiences.  

Games have control pads which have been well refined and gamers are used to them – they work well and don’t break the experience. But shopping, bands, events, a wider audience - you need something more natural.  

Intel was showing their ‘1.5’ version RealSense prototype with twin depth trackers and cameras on a smartphone prototype put into a headset.  It’s not there yet, you can only see you hands at more or less full reach, close to the headset the cameras can’t get a read, and collision detection was a bit slow, but it’s enough to give you your hands back in VR and I really like that.  Looking forward to v2.

Qualcomm’s depth sensing demos had also come a long way since last year, I was pretty impressed with the speed of creating this render of this gentleman.  Definitely something you can start bringing into the retail environment.

Samsung were doing a great job of selling GearVR in general.  There wasn’t a big Smartphone release this year and I don’t think it can be long before they are looking at depth sensing, stereoscopic cameras and hand detection as big differentiating features for their flagships assuming enough people with Galaxy notes buy (and use!) the GearVR. 

Even the Telcos were starting to realise the impact that content from VR was going to have on them, particularly in terms of the bandwidth the content requires and including that in their 5g demos, last year I just got blank looks trying to explain that.  

Anyhow, looping back to the start, Nokia were streaming live (near live?) content from their OZO at 15-20Mbits/s in their launch event via Wifi.   A bit tricky for 4G consumer speeds, but well within some of the capabilities of the test ultrafast 5G networks like the one near me in Bristol.

Fancy a go at a Telco live stream to many GearVRs Nokia?  I know a couple of UK Telcos that would be interested...

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Pact and Nespresso pods review

So I broke my espresso machine.  The baskets handle had already snapped off discouraging its use and the pump decided then to give up the ghost.  I looked how expensive a new one, well a new step up new one, was going to be and put it on the back burner, going back to some of the other coffee brewing methods in the back of the cupboard. 

The emerging hero from this has been a nice glass V60 (my plastic one was very unloved).  I’ve dialled back the fineness on the grinder, got patient with letting the coffee bloom before fully brewing it and been really enjoying it.  The smell during the bloom of the coffee of fresh, freshly ground coffee is absolutely great, very different to an espresso, but great.  The coffee black or white, smooth and easy going.  It’s also very quiet for those early morning starts. 

Around then Pact launched their kickstarter for coffee pods.  I’ve long been of the “coffee-pods-are-evil”. point of view because

  • Vendor lock in
  • Lots of additional waste
  • Small amounts of coffee in each pod
  • Small amounts of very expensive coffee in each pod
  • Small amounts of very expensive stale bad coffee in each pod

However I end up in hotel rooms often enough which have one and somehow I seem to go through all the pods.  Its mess free, operable regardless of how early it is or how bad you feel, and just so  convenient.

So when Pact launched their Kickstarter for Nespresso compatible pods and I read a bit about they were thinking of doing, and still being till without an espresso machine I thought it was worthwhile giving pods a proper try out.  So I backed. 

The pods turned up recently.  Shortly after I got a good deal on a nearly new Krups Pixie Nespresso machine and I’ve been giving it a go.  

How many of those five things were addressed?

Vendor lock in

Well the fact that there was a Kickstarter gave hope that there was innovation and change coming to this format.  Mainly enabled by Nestle in 2014 agreeing to “lift the barriers to entry and development” after losing a court battle in France.  1 down.

Additional waste

Nespresso official pods are made from coated aluminium material which is difficult to recycle, however they have launched a recycling scheme where you can drop them into 5 shops in the UK or book a collection when you order new ones.  

These new ones from Pact are a much stiffer all plastic (polypropylene) pods with an aluminium foil lid.  After letting the pod bin fill up it’s not very much hassle to go through five or six in short order using the handle of a handy teaspoon to excise the foil from the pod, scoop out the dead grinds for composting and stick the plastic in the recycling.  There are instructions for this in the box.  Peeling off the foil properly is a little fiddly.  Polypropylene is a recyclable material and several waste management companies near me deal with it.  I’m not entirely sure whether in the mixed green bag recycling it will get recycled or not, one of my things on the to-do list to find exactly what happens to that.  Pact don’t have a matching return to sender recycling scheme so its very much up to what your local council recycles.
But in either case then, both types of pods can be recycled with a little bit of effort.  Better recyclability was part of the brief originally for the Pact pods, I hope it is better, but can’t see definitively it is.  Either way you still get a lot of waste with pods, and this is the thing that still most puts me off.

Coffee Quantity

I weighed an Official Nespresso pods and Pact pods on a 0.01g scale and then carefully opened washed and dried it (avoiding losing any aluminium), and had a look at how much coffee was in there.
My measurements were
Nespresso          short, 5.1g    long 6.3g
Pact pods           short, 5.1g    long 5.4g

Pact also wrote kindly to confirm that they aim for 5.2g in a short and 5.4g in a long (constrained by the plastic casing).  I’ve read online Nespresso go for about 5.0 in a short and 7.0g in a long but couldn’t find a definitive reference.

That’s not a lot of coffee in a pod, when I hand grind espresso or for my V60 I’ll grind and tamp about 16g of coffee for a double espresso.


Pact pods are 14.95 for 40 shorts (single espresso) so 37p a pod

A Pact bag is 6.95 for about 30 single espressos, or about 23p a shot.  

So pods work out about 50% more expensive than bags.  

On the other hand the Pixie Nespresso machine was £65 second hand, the espresso machines I was looking at around 250-900 second hand. So that pays for quite a lot of pods.

Official Nespresso Single Origin pods are 33p a go, (there are cheaper ones but these seemed the best comparison) so Pact is working out a bit more expensive there as well.

Coffee QualityFreshness

So one of the things I was really interested in was getting fresh coffee in pods. Pact confirmed that like the bags “the pods are sealed within 7 days of roasting the beans at Pact HQ.  The coffee is then left to degas for 3 days (this helps reduce the acidity in the coffee) before being ground at the last moment and sealed in the casing.”  The pods are produced in small batches, and sold in 40 pod units.
Opening up some Nespresso and pact pods you could really tell the difference in the smell.   The coffee also has a nice grind and the usual not-too-dark roast from Pact.


Left to Right  Nespresso Dulsao Short Pod, Nespresso Vivalto Lungo, Pact Short Pod, Pact Long Pod.

Long pods or Lungo

So when using the ‘long’ extraction on my machine I didn’t think were up to much using the Pact or Nespresso long pods.  There was a very long extraction in not a lot of coffee. It still got a crema, but then I wasn’t sure that was what I wanted in that sort of coffee.  It certainly wasn’t a patch on a bit of time with the V60 or Chemex for a long black coffee, and definitely not for an espresso machine for a double espresso.

Pact, to be fair, do recommend for a double espresso using two single short pods into the same cup one after each other, this works Ok, but the bottom one has stood around for a while.  I tended just to have two shorts in quick succession, in fact this turned out to be generally the way I drank things from the pod machine.

Trying the longs as shorts and the shorts at longs didn’t seem to make a significant difference in either extraction mode. 

Short pods

In short, the Pact short pods were surprisingly good. 

As a baseline I cycled through a bunch of the Nespresso ones that came in the taster pack (the machine I bought was a customer return, it came with all of the trials unused).  They do definitely taste different from each other according to their labelled flavour but generally feel a bit artificial, a bit flat and with no way of telling how old they were.  The single origin (slightly more expensive) Nespressos were noticeable better, the Brazil and Columbian espresso tasting recognisably like I’d expect them to.  Some of the others I was really not keen on.

The pact ones are definitely better.  They made a coffee that smelt fresher brewing, a lot more individual, and had a very nice smooth finish. 

With either I found I tend to chain two, but then the machine made that very easy. 

So not a replacement for an espresso machine for me, but with the Pact pods still a coffee you could be pretty proud to serve anyone who came to the house. We had a play date with 4 parents, and a double short with water and milk went down to good compliments.  It was also really easy, which is the killer feature…


Oh, this is too easy.  It’s almost impossible to make a mess. Compared, for instance, to the number of times I’ve forgotten to put the paper filter in an Aeropress and flooded the worktop.  The footprint is also tiny – so easy to fit in a kitchen.  I think a lot of these will go to small flats.  The clean-up is easy.  The repeatability and consistency is good, even if you are really bleary eyed your coffee isn’t going to be noticeably worse. In fact everyone of my (extended) family has long since refused to try and make me coffee (this is fine with me), but now with this, anyone can do it.  Even my 2 year old made me one (it was under supervision).    

Round up

So that’s about it.  I think that with the Pact pods it comes into an acceptable range of quality with a much cheaper machine entry.  I think they are going to be very successful.  I still think though it’s a lot of waste and not convinced how many will get recycled.

A couple of things I think would improve the Pact offer, these would be my suggested tweaks.

40 Pack is too big

Unlike the great packaging on the Pact bags, this is very long (40cm) and may well struggle to come through your door.  It is a nice thing to open, but if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit (it doesn’t fit through our door or parcel box).

It also means there are too many pods in there.  A normal pack of coffee is about 30 coffees, these are more like 40 and  last me more than 3 weeks.  Really I want coffee fresher and more often than that.  

If they came in 20s, these fit in the same size bag as previous, would cost approximately the same, and I’d be able to order about as regularly.  Here is an example of 20 pods put into the standard size bag.

Shorts and Longs

Currently the pods are identical externally, Pact are working on having printing on the foil to fix this.  Internally though they are very similar.  I can’t really tell much of a difference

In Summary

Really convenient, a fresh as the bags and generally a good cup of coffee
More difficult to get delivered than the bags, and still a really expensive way to buy and make coffee.
Still a worrying amount of waste.

(I am aslo now looking for the smallest footprint espresso high quality machine possible.  I really did love how small the Pixie was)

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

UCC & Make Decent Coffee: I don't think that they get social

So I feel a bit sorry for Matthew Kay at Klood, he'd done a good job at managing me, getting my review, and then coming straight back and following up when I wrote it.

I'm not sure UCC really get social though - this was the reply from Dan McGrath the Marketing Manager at UCC to my review after Matthew chased him, I've included it in full with my reply at the bottom, as I didn't get any response.

I agree with Dan that yes, the fact that MakeDecentCoffee is a part of UCC is noted on the MakeDecentCoffee's website, you can find it tucked away subtlety in the privacy policy and the terms and conditions but you certainly won't find it in the about or the manifesto.

They do have a small team doing a good work rate of synthetic posts on their facebook page, lots of easily accessible stories and images pulled from the internet, and nicely made graphic design based posts that doesn't actually require a 'real' coffee shop (which is how the page tries to feel).  

This on the otherhand is the facebook page for Stag coffee, they opened in Cardiff February/March this year, run by the same people who do the Men's grooming place down the high street.  If you want to see a 'real' coffee shop Facebook page, have a look: it's full of random stuff going on, real pictures of what is being prepared in the shop, and reviews posted that they have read and loved.  You can see real food in there, what they are living and doing, and and more importantly it works: my wife dropped in there this week and it was absolutely rammed. For owners that said when I saw them at opening that 'they didn't really get twitter and social' they are doing a darn fine job.

It's not about being slick, it's about being authentic.  If your operation is meant to be super slick in the real, then your social operation should be super slick.  If you're an ex pub manager who REALLY wanted to run their own coffee shop, then just putting out there the food you are trying, and trying to keep coffee fun is spot on.  If your social is super slick, and not matched up in the real, it'll quickly become vacuous. 

So my recommendation to UCC is not to make out like you have a friendly local coffee shop based in  a big industrial park in Milton Keynes (which incidentally is where I grew up).  It's not wrong, but it is spending a-lot of effort blowing things into the blogosphere that people will very quickly filter out and ignore.

Could be anywhere

Only made here

----- Original message -----
From: Stephen Broadhurst <>
To: Dan McGrath <>
Subject: Re: Make Decent Coffee
Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2014 09:09:34 +0100

Hello Dan

Thanks for taking time to write, I'd love to come down to MK and have a cup of coffee and a proper chat, I'm back in the UK from 13th of October and have relatives there so it's pretty easy for me mid week, would sometime that week or the next work for you?



----- Original message -----
From: Dan McGrath <>
Subject: Make Decent Coffee
Date: Wed, 10 Sep 2014 12:51:24 +0000

Hi Stephen, 

Thanks for taking the time to review MDC on your blog. I’m glad you enjoyed three of the coffees and appreciate the detail you went into. Thank you also for your feedback - we appreciate this and it will be considered as we review and improve our website and products.  

Make Decent Coffee is part of UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. There is a small team dedicated to Make Decent Coffee and we believe in the mission. We want people to experience great coffee at home and our goal is to teach people how they can achieve it and to sell to our customers the materials required.

We don’t intend to mislead anyone with Make Decent Coffee - the fact we are operating under a trading name is noted on the website.

Our THREESIXTY range has recently been listed in Waitrose, which means it is no longer exclusive to Make Decent Coffee. However, we are currently working on adding new additions to the range that will only be available on the website and at Make Decent Coffee events. A festive one should be available before Christmas.

I hope this helps clear up any of your concerns, do let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.


Dan McGrath
Marketing Manager

T : 07917 045727
W :

            The Total Coffee Solution
UCC COFFEE UK LTD | 2 Bradbourne Drive | Tilbrook | Milton Keynes | MK7 8AT | United Kingdom
Registered in England No 2159182

UCC Coffee UK Limited trading as UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. This email message is confidential and intended for the exclusive attention of the addressee(s) indicated. It may contain privileged or confidential information. If you have received this message in error, please notify the originator immediately. All information or opinions expressed in this message and/or any attachments are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UCC Coffee UK Limited trading as UCC Coffee UK & Ireland. Although this email has been checked for viruses and other defects, no responsibility can be accepted for any loss or damage arising from its receipt or use

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Pact Coffee Visit: musing on startups and social business

So back in February I reviewed Pact coffee’s subscription service, and was pleasantly surprised in March when I got a phone call from Stephen Rapoport the founder, thanking me for the review and asking whether I wanted to come down, try some coffee and have a chat.  I managed to do this in April, and am now finally getting round to writing it up.  The visit was really interesting, a mix of a start-up working hard and fast, overlapping a lot with my day job in the way they were presenting themselves online: socially and using data, and a lot about the coffee.  I got a lot of time, from both Pete Sivak head of their community and Stephen and was able to ask a lot of questions, which I was pleased to take up.  So this entry isn't really a review or an exposition of Pact as a coffee service, but really just a collection of things from that day which I thought were interesting, and from a company I thought was getting a lot of things right in a difficult space.

So to start mainly on coffee: one of the questions I asked was, who Stephen saw as Pact's competition.  Answer: the Supermarkets.  He was really clear, they aren't going to be able to compete against ultra gourmet coffee internet suppliers – there are some very specialist people out there in supply and very particular people on the demand side.  However they think they can convince the public that getting freshly roasted coffee this way makes such a big difference that they can convert a lot of people away from supermarkets to buy by subscription.   I’m currently just back from the States, and I’m always surprised how many of the supermarkets have grinders next to the beans.  I think that’s the risk I’d be worried about if I were Pact; one of the big supermarkets deciding to give some of that shelf space, currently taken up by bags and bags of very similar (ground-ages-ago) brand coffee, to recently roasted specialty wholebean, and offering to grind there and then.  

It was a nice place when we went in, lots of people busy, lots of coffee on the side, and a friendly welcome.  The side bar packed up with coffee equipment, and Pact and other people's coffee being tried out.  Stephen had a long espresso in a handle free cup, Pete and I some pour-over whilst having a chat.

So on talking about roasting and grinding: Pact’s roasting approach is a balance, and one which I got to ask some good questions on.  Pact were actively thinking about their roasting schedule, (currently weekly with a commitment to less than 7 days old) trying to balance hitting:  the largest number of orders for the key weekend fresh cup;  allowing people the flexibility to change their order up to the last minute (something which I use a lot); maintaining reliability of delivery, and roasting more often to have more recently roasted coffee.  So that’s it pretty much right there, they aren't staking their reputation on something like Twodaycoffee with ultrafresh very small batches, and that’s what my review pretty much found,but they are trying to deliver convenience and fresh coffee, and being open about how they are going about it.

There is too much bad coffee out there, and I think Pact does a good job bridging that gap.  Frankly having gone on through the year trying coffee services, Pact works out a little bit more expensive; you’re paying £6.95 including delivery for each standard bag, and that’s a flat rate over the different types (with a premium for specials which come along every so often).  If you look online, you can probably find the same sort of coffee, roasted more regularly, from specialists from around £5 plus £1.40 shipping, and maybe if  you shop around less than that.  But in Pact you get a slick mobile enabled service and good delivery (reliably in my experience to date) so it’s not a big difference.  Pact are trying to do something different and reach a wider audience regularly, I did hear some people at my work joke that they couldn't move through our office without finding one of their £1 first free bag cards.  They are pressing hard but I think it’s a good way to see if more freshly roasted coffee is going to be better for you, and if it convinces anyone to leave the supermarket ground, and try out a bag, I’m all for it.

It was really nice to head over with Stephen and Pete to see the coffee packing, and actual bags of coffee leaving via a room full of very busy people, grinding, and measuring, and matching up with orders.  The original grinder from when Stephen was running the company as YourGrind from his kitchen (not being used now) was there 

and some new kit in the form of a large measuring machine that was in constant use.  I was really surprised to find that over 60% of the shipped bags that day (and pretty typically) were ground.  This really surprised me, but kind of fitted as we talked through - most people are converting from buying supermarket ground, and just going fresh is enough of step up along with the convenience.  If you are signing up for Pact, or any other freshly roasted internet service, you’re going to notice a difference, but I’d really encourage you to go whole bean and grind your own – you’ll notice a difference again.  Just a simple decent ceramic burr hand grinder if you’re prepared for some arm work will make another jump in your coffee.  It’s also a nice thing to do and makes a great smell leading up to your coffee.

One of the reasons for the visit, had been some coffeegeek forum questions about the Pact roasting method, and who did it.  I did ask some of those questions and got great answers, but actually got a lot more side tracked by other interesting things to talk about: what startups feel like, what’s important to get right, and the strategy which Pact were following.  Actually Pact had already done a better article than I can document here, in responding to the forum.  So if you'd like to know Stephen’s forumresponse back in Feb, then the roasting article on the blog shortly after my visit , and more recently following up on roast depth for more customer feedback.  So if you want to know how they are roasting it’s pretty easy to find out, and they are very approachable, with a lot of good events, including the India Biba coffee tasting and others like coffee cocktails recently if you'd like to go and talk more.

One of things that you have to get right if you want to create a socially led brand, is to be transparent, consistent and authentic.  If you get there, then you have to also listen – social is not just an outbound broadcast channel.  People will be telling you what you are doing right and wrong, if only you are listening.  I think that Pact shows a number of really good examples of that, and my visit really struck me as one of those:  something had come up, people asked questions in forums and socially,  they invited people down to see it in person and meant it, and replied through all the same channels.

One of the things Stephen said he’d really like to have was a coffee shop attached to the office, maybe through a big glass wall, but a way in which when trying out something they could just go and ask what real customers thought quickly and honestly.   It would cut out the abstraction, enable being able to talk to people actually buying and enjoying your product then and there, and ask them what they thought about something new.  I love that immediacy of working with startups, when we had visited the grinding room, one of the recent developer joiners (with the baseball cap), was just testing out the barcode scanner integration that he had been up late the last night writing.   Here was the first working demonstration: he checked with a package that it was working in the background whilst we were talking, saw Stephen and showed the Founder scanning the next packed package off of the desks.  Stephen checked it appeared on screen over the shoulder of the person who normally had to tick off each order manually, and that was it.  It was signed off for use, and that person previously entering that the order had been packed didn't need to do that any more and could move onto the next problem.  That’s agility, and the sort you only get when you’re hands on, being totally over what’s going on in your business and you trust the people working for you.  All credit to the developer (apologies I didn't catch his name) for the on the spot test, and the fantastic corrugated cardboard stand for the smartphone running the integration you can see in the picture.

Trust, customer feedback and agility came up a couple of times.  Pact were running a big survey of all their customers at the time, well designed enough, and I’d filled it out, but I've always found those very hard ways to get meaningful data you can act on, unless you are asking very carefully crafted questions.  Also often if you do that careful crafting, what often comes out is that you learn something telling you that there was a different carefully crafted question you should have been asking.  However the data guy was finishing processing the results, and they had some initial outcomes and been able to run it quickly,  but it was that immediacy of feedback that a coffee shop would afford, and listening through social that Stephen already found gave most of the answers they needed.  Stephen talked about the challenges of where they were at as a start up and, what really rang true for me from working with other startups, was him saying that the biggest challenge for him and Pact right now "was not working out what to do, it was working out what not to do"; they could improve and work on any number of things: but what was critical? what was going to move the company forward? and what did customers actually want?  Stephen was clear that they weren't like Facebook (move fast and break things) - they couldn't afford to break too many things and they couldn't afford not to move fast - so being able to go through that feedback loop quickly was extremely important.  So longer term, having an in house roaster would be great, but was that the most important thing right now? or was it scaling with automation to meet the volume of daily shipments (as I’d seen being worked on), or was it looking at the roasting frequency? – back to that question of what did people want? even fresher coffee, or was reliability of delivery and flexibility of the subscription more important?  That’s the fundamental challenge that faces start ups all the time; we know everything we want to do, but what are we going to next?

There were three things on the walls at Pact I loved, and I’d recommend for any business, but particularly at this sort of stage.
                Get shit done (quite possibly my favourite coffee based photo of the year)
                The customer before everything
                Data helps us win (didn't grab a photo)

There is something incredibly powerful about having everyone in a room, having a brand that has formed around some key people, and some key ideas, and then getting up and writing them up on the walls.  All credit due.

Especially with a social, Omni-channel approach, you have a real challenge as a company grows, rapidly like Pact is, maintaining the ‘rightness’ of the people you’re bringing in and continuing to give them the same freedom and autonomy that you had at the start; you need them to wield in order to move as fast as you have to.  So I’d been really impressed at all my touch points with Pact – it all felt right and the same tone, from the forum response, to the tweet responses, to the blog, to ordering on web and mobile, to email, to Stephen’s phonecall, to the visit.  That’s a lot of channels to deal with and a lot of touch points to get right.  There is no way you can afford in something the size of this to be using something like Hootsuite (good though it may be) to be vetting each of your employees tweets before it goes out.  You've got to have faith that you've brought the right people in, that they are doing the right thing, allow them space to do it, and if you or they make a mistake, put your hand up and fix it.  Pact were on top of this well, a good example here with the V60 offer for new customers in August, it had really annoyed some existing customers: but the Founder takes time to write, writes personally, includes the actual social info, says it wasn't good enough, says what they are going to do.  Listening, reacting:  it again feels right and consistent with the rest of things I saw on the wall, and through my other interactions.

I asked specifically about how they were handling the social side, and finding the right people needed to maintain that as they grew.   Stephen thought it was an interesting challenge as they continued to get bigger, but at the moment most employees tended already to be a Pact customer and had taken up one of the additional interaction opportunities with them: they had done a bit more than just buy coffee and that was a good start point.  Then they needed to talk to three of key people founding/running the business, and if those three people agreed then the fit was reliably right enough. 

As a complementary example when talking about the most common problem that people might complain about (which was unsurprising typically an occasional delivery being wrong or not hitting the right day) most people in the office had at one time or another delivered coffee to people by hand on their way home.  That’s a great thing to have happening at your office, and talking through it, it turned out was a really nice thing to do both for the person getting the coffee, and the employee as well, because normally the person receiving it were delighted.  OK so that only works in London (or wherever you are based), but I think it’s a great litmus test of whether you are maintaining the right attitude on your floor: if people are doing that for you, they are probably going to be actively promoting you well through their other personal channels.

Of those social channels, I just don’t think we can underestimate the ‘real’.  Social, Virtual, Immersive, Web, Mobile, Video, Audio.... are all good and customers are very happy to use them when they are quicker, cheaper and easier to reach you and your products.  But it’s too easy to send out spam through all of those, or just make them much harder than old fashioned ways where as they should be easier for you and your customer.  If you can’t back up what you are putting out into the socialsphere, with high value, real people, real places, actual doing interesting things, the public will just edit it out of their introspective feed.  It’s clear to the savvy audience we have now, what is lip service, what is synthesized, and contrastingly what actually feels like a place you might want to interact with in person even if you never actually do it in the real. Having a base and real face to face opportunities is crucial to maintaining your authenticity.  One of my colleagues went down for a cocktail evening at the office, and I had a great chat to him about what that felt like, why I hadn't gone (I’d got an invite), who he’d talked to and what he thought.  That conversation is going to have generated far more powerful advocates than just another how-to-brew-coffee youtube video.

So often you can tell a company’s health (startup or otherwise) from the feel on the floor, and oddly with startups you often find in the most uninviting of the most of inviting and friendly of companies. So what was visiting the biscuit factory like?

It's in a part of town that's a bit intimidating: people going to the cocktail evening where a bit worried, luckily it was summer and so light evenings.  
But on the other hand this was the free tote: 

one of the staff had designed and was given out to some other customers before last Christmas, and I think I received the last one, as we talked about Hario putting origami in their packages, and other companies putting gummy bears in and what it meant or felt like to the customer.  Best of all, getting lost looking for Pact initially, I found this view round the corner from the office (still inside the biscuit factory).  It pretty much describes to me the London start up scene, from re-purposed industrial startup space, looking up to spiraling shards.  Pretty inspirational view.

So a long write up, and a bit disjointed, mostly just full of things which I thought were interesting, but an important part of catching up with the subscription reviews, and looking forward to restarting some of those.

But oddly I didn't expect to still be a Pact customer at this point, my plan was to signup, do the review, and leave.  But actually I still am.  Generally I’m swamped in coffee, I get given it for free fairly often, I’m trying out a number of places and coffees at most times anyway,  why do I need a fortnightly subscription?  Well in turns out that a fortnightly subscription is really not what’s it’s turned out to be.  I got in a good groove with one of Pact’s Brazil mix espresso blends, when I got bad coffee or ran out elsewhere, the app took moments from the phone in my pocket to hit deliver and good coffee came through my door, reliably and when expected.  I’ve only actually had 6 bags since this visit, and that’s because the delivery reschedule function works so well and doesn’t stop you saying "next bag in six weeks" or whenever.  So I’ve never ended up with coffee I didn’t want: the email warnings on dispatch are good.   I’ve just delayed those orders out, or hit "NOW" when I needed it.   So to date, whilst it's not the absolutely best coffee I’ve found, I’ve found very good coffee I like, a really good service and company I feel very happy with, particularly good delivery format, and it’s the only one so far I can reliably order the next bag from one handed with my phone whilst waiting for extraction.  It turns out that that’s a winner.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Dropping the nose-to-tail from the blog

So I've dropped the nose to tail content (the blog posts are there, but now un-indexed) of the blog.  We are still cooking nose to tail, the brawn is still waiting to be done, and I did some great potted cheek and oxtail recently, but the writing didn't work out.  Mainly the photographs all looked the same, and the internet is full of bad food photography which I didn't want to add to.  There are people out there doing it way better, I like in particular.

So the content adding something, and from the analytics, by far the most read is the coffee and hifi, so I'm sticking closer to that, and more making it more of an outright blog with what is going in on with me.

The posts for the next three articles finally proof read by my better half, and scheduled waiting to be published this week.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

MakeDecentCoffee: A synthetic social brand for UCC

Review over four packs of the MakeDecentCoffee service, 2nd in the series.

Writing had recently completely stalled, and so I am making a concerted effort to restart and catch up.

Unfinished Hasbean, and Two Day Coffee reviews, and a Pact follow up on-site interview after they dropped me a call after the last review have been skipped over to cover MakeDecentCoffee.  This was the first coffee company that reached out and asked for a review, and as they were sending me some free coffee I thought that made them top of the list to see the review up.

I was unexpectedly uncomfortable having had been sent two bags of coffee for free, and it made reviewing the overall service a bit hard, so I ended up buying a further two bags and registering on the site to make sure I could do the same format end to end as I’d planned to do for my other reviews.  I thought it would be a very straightforward thing after that, but despite keeping trying to write it, something didn’t quite ring true, and so the review ends up deviating considerably from the originally intended thinjetty coffee format, but proved interesting none the less.

MakeDecentCoffee: What do they say they are they about?

So MakeDecentCoffee have a manifesto, it’s not very long, so I thought worthwhile repeating in full here, as whilst the coffee was fine, I don’t think some of this manifesto rings true at all, but when I asked what they were looking to come through in my write up, this was what was copied and pasted in by their social media consultant, so it seems like the best place to start.

“Whats this all about then?

We're glad you asked - allow us to enlighten you.

Make Decent Coffee is an idea, a movement, a message. It's a collective of everyday coffee enthusiasts & the occasional coffee guru - keen to share ideas, knowledge & experiences that are centred around alternatives to instant coffee in the home, office, family picnic …just about anywhere really.

Our mission is to educate & make decent coffee accessible for all through simplifying coffee brewing methods as best as our collective experiences allow. Coffee is a labour of love, a little more time spent can really make a huge difference to your coffee life.

We'd like to challenge the idea that we all need to settle for bland, 'burnt-toast' tasting instant coffee as the only option for a quick coffee. We need your help & experiences to see this ambitious idea gain a foothold - lets get the phrase 'decent coffee' into the everyday vanacular.

We view the achievement of our coffee ideals as an on-going process & the content of this little web-space will reflect that. So please take a look around the place & let us know what you think - we need your feedback, your opinions & want to hear about your experiences to see everyone 'doing-it-decently'. 



All very noble, there is too much bad coffee out there, and moving people away from instant, and above that away from ground sat around supermarket is something I fully support.  A lot of people and companies entering this area and trying to get this through, and a lot of enthusiasts are out there, being involved and talking about it in a very social way.  I'll just use MDC (MakeDecentCoffee) going on as that's how they sign this off

What’s the site like?

So I was setting out to review subscription services as part of starting to get all my coffee through the post but MDC isn’t a subscription service. According to LiquidJolt interview with MDC this is because it leaves the customer to choose and experiment.  Fair enough.  So what though is the purchasing experience like through the site? The site is very direct, it leaps you straight to buying coffee by brewing method – clearly at the top Buy Coffee, Buy Coffee Equipment.  On offer is 360 coffee and Lyons beans from £3.19 for the Lyons up to £6.99 for the Grand Cru 360, and a good range of enthusiastic brewing method equipment, Chemex, V60, Aeropress etc.

Behind the purchase prompts, are a good set of guides on how to use the equipment, and a series of blog articles talking about enthusiast coffee topics.   It has slick produced infographic style pictures, abet from generic coffee style pictures, none of it is very personal, but it’s short and clear and generally good information on moving away from bad coffee.  MDC are pretty active at the major coffee festivals etc, hosting a lounge at the London Coffee Festival winning the “Favourite Key Feature”, they are getting out there with pop up stands, and well done for doing so

The site though doesn't work make it very easy to order from mobile devices, it renders OK but in fullsize style, so a lot of zooming necessary to get through screens which is a pain.  Ordering by mobile is important me as that’s what I have to hand when I run out of coffee, and I’m normally heading off to do something else, I don’t want to have to log on to my laptop and get distracted with work to solve the coffee problem.

What was the coffee like?

So MDC moved to weekly roasts each Wednesday for the weekend back in May 2013, I found the info a bit hard to find on the site, but it was repeated in their emails.  I was sent two bags for free, and bought two further bags.

Bag 1: Brasil Bahia

Out of the Gaggia came a Brasil and El Salvador blend I was very happy with, and this went in.  It slotted right in, straight away tasting very good, definitely fresh, good balance, good crema.  Mild chocolate notes, sweet and well rounded read the tasting notes and completely agree.  Went through normal way I test coffee , moving through the very short espresso, then a double espresso working out the right grind, turning out actually very similar to where everything was already set.  It’s recommended on MDC's iste for Pourover or Aeropress, and I tried it those ways as well as usual and it was fine, but actually I was by far most happy with the espresso machine.  (Cap was nothing special  Very happy with this coffee indeed, and happily turned to the second bag.

Bag 2: Espresso Revolution

This one's tasting notes read full bodied caramel sweetness.  Beans came out looking beautiful but very dark, not sure the picture does them justice, but all was not well. I thought I’d messed up the short espresso, and kept trying, the double still the same: both came out ridiculously strong tobacco tasting and smelling - as was the nose of the beans.  I really couldn’t get past it to make any better appraisal.  Frustrated I went back to the Brasil Bahia, and locked these up in an airtight container.  I tried again the next weekend with drip, but just opening the container put me off – too much of a tobacco aroma to stomach.   At this point I gave up as the smell just wasn’t going let me review it properly.  So unclear whether it’s just this week’s roast, but didn’t get through normal test method at all, and can’t recommend this one.

Bag 3: Italian Deli

Another very dark roast, and I was rather worried after the last, but this bag smelled good.  This coffee was really fussy with the grind level and took some perseverance, maybe four espressos before I was happy.  But then got a really reliable very European style standing outside the metro at a tiny cafe bar style espresso. Rarely does the bags advertising this sort of thing seem to deliver, and was pleased here that it did.  Tasting notes say creamy almond, I’d say more fine bitter dark chocolate, but not too bitter, and a good acid balance.  Really liked, not normally what I look for, but good.  It did though fade really quickly, I normally run a bag on a fortnightly cycle (through this test though running both of the second bags over the period) but second week this bag just wasn't doing it for me anymore.  It wasn't bad just had lost that initial flair.  Didn’t make very good drip, came out a bit bland in the chemex, a bit burnt in aero or V60. Espresso was definitely the way to go

Bag 4: Guatemala Antigua

More versatile, more suited to V60/Aeropress, I used this one extensively whilst travelling, not as much lemon as I’d have hoped for given the notes and style of coffee, but agree with the good mouth feel, and a good balance.  Not sure I’d seek out especially, but a decent cup.

Round Up

One very good, two decent, and one I really didn't like, and bar that bag all appreciably better than supermarket bought ground, and definitely better than instant.

Post and Packing

I don’t think that MDC has this right for an internet based shop.  The bags are standup style for shelf display, which when looking at putting coffee into boutique shops makes sense, but it doesn’t for selling online as they won’t go through a letter box.  The first two bags were delivered in a jiffy bag, the second two came in  this huge box – it wouldn’t fit in our parcel box  either, so it’s just lucky one of us was in the day it arrived.  laces like Hasbean/Pact, both have dedicated flat packaging that goes through the letterbox, I particularly like Pacts stiff outer cardboard sleeve round the padded single way valve jiffy,  but either works much better than this.

The second bags came with some branded chocolate scattered in the box, which was a nice touch.  Hario put gummi bears in sometime, Hasbean wrapped my Chemex in an old full size coffee sack, and a couple of other online shops but this was the first time I’d got chocolates.


So pretty competitively priced for the sort of coffee, post and packaging kept low.   You’ll pay around 50p more at Hasbean by my judging for equivalent, or £1.50 for your subscription at Pact, but it’s very dependent on exactly what you are buying and the postage charged.


Decent Coffee Roasted Weekly, but not sure what the differentiating factor for MDC is.


So I very much wanted to write helpful reviews, so the key practical things I’d suggest for MDC would be.

  1. Update the site to work with mobile
  2. Explain who they are upfront with the welcome to the site, don’t just leap into BUY – explain what sort of company it is.
  3. Move to an internet delivery friendly flatter packaging format not stand up shop style bags
  4. Make it easier to find information on where your coffee comes from, the company and the roasting approach.

Would I buy again?

Absolutely not.  

So a couple of things struck me as odd whilst getting through to this point: why the person reaching out to me was Michael Kay from Klood a search optimization and social business consultancy rather than one of the “enthusiasts” from MDC.  My tweets tagging the @name went unacknowledged, and the sort odd slightly impersonal style of the blog, and the site, and getting information being just slightly harder than I thought it shoul dbe, meant that I really didn’t get MDC as a company and went off to look at why that was.

Turns out MDC was setup in 2012 by UCC UK, in term owned by UCC WW (Japan).  Actually UCC are a pretty well laid out and transparent company judging from their website, I liked their page a lot more.
It talks about their 28 global roasteries, 11 European, Dartford and Corby roasting 80kg of coffee at a time and it covers clearly their multiple brands Lyons, Grand CafĂ©, Cooper, Three Sixty, Grand Cru, and MDC going on to talk about how UCC is Japan’s largest producer of coffee with £2bn annual sales turnover globally and 7,300 employees

Multi-nationals are not bad – far from it, there are great things about buying from a multinational, and the things that scale of company is able to do, but it become clear that MDC is a simply a branded front trying to look and feel like an enthusiast start up, and that’s highly disingenuous, and not somewhere I’d like to buy my coffee from.

The more I checked, the veneer became clearer and clearer.  If you check out most companies in this space people are proud to be part of them and list them.  If you search for the MDC employees on LinkedIn, you find out they don’t exist.  The “Team” all work for UCC - going through the three listed blog writers from the MDC site you have

Philip Smith – “Category Manager at United Coffee UK & Ireland” since 2003.

Donna Carter – “Graphic Designer at United Coffee UK & Ireland”

I think her LinkedIn blurb sums it up nicely.

“The United Coffee Studio works alongside some of the UK’s largest contract caterers, independent coffeeshops and even a high profile celebrity (Peter Andre) to create funky, engaging coffee brands.”

And then Sean Pittaway, who to be fair has come through as a barista: Notes Music and Cofee in Covent Garden, Ozone in Shoreditch, then joining UCC

So this is a cooked up social brand, reselling the main companies existing products of 360 coffee, and Lyons, and not particularly well.  Putting them both on the same site doesn't make sense to me as the blurb for the “premium” Lyons beans reads much like the Grand Cru – are you trying to encourage me to spend £3 on coffee or £7 per bag?  On 360 it doesn’t list anywhere on the MDC site the special google map co-ordinate search information that is a feature of the packaging for 360, t’s just changed a black bag to a brown paper one for MDC.   I mean just buy 360 coffee from Waitrose, what is MDC for?

The UCC site is open, clear and doing some good things from end to end training on coffee quality, helping bespoke brands and boutique coffee shopts compete, it’s really clear who they are.  The MDC site on Facebook says – Coffee Shop – but you’ll find no photos of anyone in the coffeeshop. The address is an industrial estate in Tongwell Milton Keynes it’s no sort of coffee shop you’d go to hang out in, there are just slick produced infographic style images, and then pop ups at coffee festivals etc.  That just isn't enough with the sort of look and feel this MDC site is presenting.

More importantly it is absolutely not what their manifestos states.  It is not a “movement”, it is a not “collective of everyday coffee enthusiasts” it’s a synthetic front designed by a multi-national to address social market and it’s missing the point.

          If you want to sell socially you have to be authentic.

With all the other companies in this space, they have been nothing but authentic, key people reaching out to me unpromted, wanting to engage, and proud about what they are doing.  Here is a company none of the three major writers list on their CV, and employing a social business consultant to cynically go round and try and drum up some coverage, and cutting and pasting words from the website into a email.  Here are a few of the others sites receiving free coffee about the same time as me from Matthew if you’d like to check what they think out.

I’m fine with buying coffee from a big multi-national, I just don’t want someone to try and fool me into thinking that I’m not.

This MDC vehicle for me is literally aping the enthusiast coffee movement with launch stunts with people in Gorilla suits and Peter Andre (at least he actually runs coffee shops in Brighton and NY).  That is not appreciated, and frankly I doubt will help UCC's brand very much either.