Fifty coffees in London

Having coffee with fifty people is a great way to get input for a new project, startup or career move. I first wrote about the fifty coffees idea in Inc Magazine and it was based on an insight from Silicon Valley investor Mark Suster. Personally, I’m a bit shy so meeting fifty new strangers was a great project for me.

50 coffees

I had coffee with 50 strategists and leaders working in design, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Last year, I wanted to immerse myself in London’s design and innovation scene so I had coffee with fifty people working in the industry. I learned a lot from their advice and even more from the questions that they asked me. I asked them about the future of innovation, design thinking and how different companies are adapting to social media. It was also a good excuse to check out some new cafes for my coffee blog the Coffee Hunter.

Digital product design

  1. James Haycock told me about how innovation agencies are helping big companies act like small companies. His team are focused on helping their clients become more creative (while also delivering on digital product projects at the same time). James and I first met on Twitter. He’s one of the sharpest and most inquisitive people I know. In fact, James is so bright that he can be slightly exhausting to hang out with. Adaptive Lab were one of the agencies that inspired my startup-as-a-service blog post.
  2. Noam Sohachevsky and I talked about how digital product agencies are balancing their own product work with client work by running more hackathons and sprints. Noam had read my startup-as-a-service blog post and had some tough questions for me about my take on design agency business models. While Noam is notionally a tech guy, he’s a really sharp business thinker. We had a good natter about how Mint Digital is different to the other digital product design firms in London. The coffee at Brill Cafe in Exmouth Market was excellent (as always).
  3. Scott Ewings told me about how important company culture is inside an agency (especially when you’re trying to build things that people will want). Scott has moved from Fjord (now part of Accenture) to UsTwo which is probably the hottest digital product agency in London. It’s hard to put into words how much Scott inspired me. His humble but incisive manner reminded me of Tim Brown from Ideo and Keith Yamashita from SY Partners. I want to be like Scott when I grow up.
  4. Johanna Kollmann invited me on Twitter to sign up for one of her “open office hours”, which is a publicly available system where you can book a walking meeting with Johanna. We talked about her take on lean, agile and User experience design. We walked to the new Ace Hotel in London which had pretty untrained baristas but is such an amazing venue that it was worth braving.
  5. Nick Bowmast told me about how the New Zealand design scene is maturing and about the early days of UX design in London. Nick was working in user experience design well before it was called that. He and I knew so many people in common that it was a bit weird that we hadn’t already met. We talked a lot about Lance Wiggs’ startup investment fund, which was raising funds at the time. We started off at Flat White in Soho and ended up walking around Soho doing a cafe crawl, which is like a pub crawl but with more pastries.

Startups and investing

  1. Gabbi Cahane told me about how creativity, capital and commerce are merging into what he calls venture marketing. Gabbi is an excellent hustler, thinker and doer. He was early to the content marketing game because he stated out as a design creative inside a PR firm. Gabbi had read my startup as a service article and knew most of the people in it personally. He’s a real dynamo and I’m looking forwards to seeing what he does next. The coffee at Shoreditch House was overly bitter and sedimenty but the rooftop location is awesome.
  2. James Clark told me about how large brands are getting involved in startup culture through corporate venturing. James is a top bloke and had a lot of advice for me on the business side of creativity and marketing. I helped him move from Blogger to WordPress and tidy up his website (which has several excellent articles on tech marketing). The coffee at Fernandez & Wells Somerset House was a bit too hot but tasted perfect. We’ve since become mates because we both have a tendency to get into anti-jargon fights on Twitter.
  3. Sean Obedih told me about corporate hackathons and helping big companies be more like startups. Sean is writing a book on innovation so we talked about new models for funding creative projects such as crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and hackathons. We met at Workshop and instantly hit it off.
  4. Richard Hughes-Jones told me about blending business thinking and creative thinking into more integrated strategy. Richard is a talented skier and had spent a season living in a van beside the slopes in the Alps, which has always been one of my dreams. We met at Look Mum No Hands and ended up walking all over Shoreditch.
  5. Luke Vincent told me about how brand strategy and startup culture are influencing each other. Luke has deep FMCG experience so his take on brand strategy for Startups is grounded in how to make things scale. The coffee at the Design Museum was horrid but the waterfront location was excellent. We ended up getting takeaway coffees and turning it into a Thames-front walking meeting.
  6. Jordan Schlipf told me about how angel funds are evolving into making their own startups. Jordan is an entrepreneur-in-residence at an investment fund and is kicking some serious ass. He’s also an advocate for ‘customer development’ which is a specific way of doing market research to validate a new startup idea (without using leading questions or getting useless responses). We had instant coffee at the Innovation Warehouse but it was a good location for plotting to take over the world.
  7. Hamish Forsyth told me about the New York startup scene. Hamish is a New Zealander who has lived in the UK and is now in New York. We once competed in a university debating tournament against each other but it was so long ago that we’d both all but forgotten it. Hamish’s startup is all about making professional connections and encouraging links between startups and big companies so we had lots to talk about. We met at WeWork which has a cafe attached where the staff knew Hamish’s coffee order by heart.

Design and innovation

  1. Tom Hulme told me about how large groups of people can collaborate over large distances to crowdsource innovation. Tom is one of my big inspirations and I was lucky that Tim Brown gave me an introduction to Tom. Tom is a humble and quiet guy, but he’s super smart and has managed to build a whole new software product offering alongside Ideo’s consulting business. Tom is pretty focused on their new innovation crowdsourcing platform so we talked a lot about how selling a big software product is similar but different to selling a service. We went to Prufrock, which has one of the best flat whites in London. I was so nervous that I had to go for another coffee after the meeting to calm down.
  2. Tom Weaver gave me the lowdown on his new payments startup and gave me some good tips on applying user interface design to business problems. Tom is a piercing listener and very insightful. The flat white at Nude Espresso in Soho was as good as when I used to go there every day while I worked in PR.
  3. Natalia Talkowska and I talked about role models for women in the London tech scene. Natalia and I met on Twitter through a shared interest in how design contributes to entrepreneurship. She had lots of stories for her time organising TEDx Square Mile. We meet at a random Italian place in Hoxton that had surprisingly good cappuccino.
  4. Mauricio J Vianna told me about how technology agencies in the developing world are leapfrogging straight to mobile and social by using design thinking and gamification. He wants to expand his business in London so we had lots to talk about in terms of how UK clients choose their agencies and buy design services. The coffee at the new Caravan Kings Cross was tart and acidic but somehow still yummy.
  5. James Parr told me about how innovation and creativity can be applied to social media content planning. James has a startup product (social media scheduling for big agencies) as well as doing creativity consulting. The coffee at the Hospital Club tasted like it came from a Nespresso machine but the ambience was very funky.
  6. Luiz Futterleib told me about how design thinking is being applied to a wider and wider range of industries in New Zealand. We walked along the wharf to Barabra Cafe and had Belgian biscuits that made me whistful for the fun times that we had in the early days of the Better by Design Programme at NZTE.
  7. Haiyan Zhang told me about how in-house teams can innovate just as fast as agencies (if they have the right people and the right environment). We went to Fernandez & Wells in Soho and sat in the courtyard. Haiyan asked such piercing questions that I didn’t have much time to drink my coffee. Haiyan is a truly empathic design thinker and futurist. She’s been experimenting a lot with quantified self, human interfaces and even robotics.
  8. Johan Brand updated me about bringing Norwegian startups to the UK in collaboration with Mother at the Trampery. Johan and Jamie Brooker are partners in an education startup creating software for classrooms. We talked about balancing client work with building one’s own IP. We had coffee at a random Swedish cafe in Hoxton.
  9. Dan McLaughlin showed me some of the prototype ideas that he’s working on and told me about life at the Royal College of Art. Dan is part of a new breed of entrepreneurial designers who can take an idea all the way from concept to market. Dan is another design thinker originally from New Zealand. We had coffee a few times but the flat white at Notes Covent Garden was a highlight.

Advertising and marketing

  1. Neil Perkin told me about how advertising agency planners are approaching digital transformation and using agile methods to innovate faster. Neil is well known in the advertising planning world and it was great to finally meet him. Neil has built a great reputation in London through speaking and organising events. I’ve learned a lot from his blog over the years. The view from the Southbank Members Loungue was great but unfortunately the cappuccino was burnt.
  2. Paul Armstrong and I discussed the way that media buying agencies are starting to think more broadly about social media and community building. Paul has recently started his own agency so he had good advice on positioning a service in the social media space. The coffee at Soho Hotel was pretty average, but we were having such a good chat that I ended up having three of them. Paul helped introduce us to Mindshare, where we ran our first workshop about corporate hackathons so I owe him several more coffees.
  3. Trevor Hardy told me about how advertising planning has converged with business strategy and brand valuation. Trevor is a strategy badass and it was an honour to have coffee with him. The flat white at Liberty of Norton Folgate was a bit lukewarm but tasted perfect. The lemon drizzle cake was ridiculously good. Trevor had read my article in Inc Magazine and contacted me to talk about it.
  4. Matthew Don told me about how B2B agencies are using social media to influence large ticket transactions. Matt has been helping me with my book Tickle and gave me a challenging but worthwhile reading list as homework. We had perfectly harmless plunger coffee in his office canteen. The Eton mess for dessert was amazing.
  5. Bruno Vincent and I talked about why content marketing is putting advertising agencies back in the storytelling game. We had coffee at Timberyard despite both being coffee connoisseurs and hating their coffee. It’s just so good to find somewhere where it’s easy to get a seat, so we keep going back there despite ourselves.
  6. Jonathan Horner told me about how ad-agency style creativity is increasingly being used by PR and communications agencies. In the middle of the year I helped Jonathan move his advertising industry blog from Blogger to WordPress so I was proud to see it growing and getting traction during the year. We had lots of coffee together in 2013 but the now closed, Polish cafe in an abandoned railway arch in Farringdon was the highlight.

Public relations

  1. Craig Le Grice and I talked about how public relations agencies and media agencies are fighting their way into the innovation consulting space. Craig is one of my top favourite people on Twitter and I secretly covet his content-rich personal website. His CV reads like a shopping list of places that I’d like to work. The coffee at Ozone Roastery in Shoreditch was excellent. The service was efficient, but a tad brisk.
  2. David Clare told me about how public relations is being transformed by social media, the quantified self movement and digital content. David is one of the young new breed of post-digital PR professionals for whom digital channels are second nature. David and I caught up a few times in 2013, but the coffee at Shoreditch Grind was a highlight.
  3. Bryce Keane told me about how equity crowdfunding for startups is changing and maturing as the industry expands. Bryce is super well connected in the startup scene and knows just which PR levers to pull. Bryce is part of the high profile Three Beards posse so I was a bit nervous about meeting him for the first time. We had a quick salad at Boxpark in Shoreditch.
  4. Simon Glazer shared his take on how B2B and technology public relations firms are adapting to social media. Simon has recently started his own agency and is working with some interesting tech startups. I’ve learned a lot from Simon over the years so it was great to touch base. We met at Fleet River Bakery where the carrot cake was so good that I had to stop myself from ordering a second one.
  5. Eb Adeyeri and I had a long chat about how marketing, communications and public relations are all using content marketing to build communities. Eb is a sharp thinker and a strategic heavy hitter. We ordered takeaway flat whites from Shoreditch Grind and held an extended walking meeting. We made it as far as Fix Cafe on Whitecross St where I had a coffee and nougat bar and proceeded to embarrass myself by accidentally smearing my face in nougat.
  6. Luke Brazier told me about building communities of fans by partnering with interesting community events. Luke and I have had some good chats in 2013 and he helped me with ideas for the book. We had coffee at Workshop Cafe in Clerkenwell, which is my local.
  7. Dan George told me about how big PR agencies are using more cross disciplinary teams. Dan is a good bloke and I like his relentless positivity. We met at the Innovation Warehouse where I made my own aeropress coffee.
  8. Sallie Bale told me about how public relations and entrepreneurship are evolving. Sallie is a talented networker and I’ve learned a lot from how she works the room at business events. We met up at Look Mum No Hands and went for a walk around Shoreditch.

Social media

  1. Ralph Varcoe told me that the ‘niche of one’ approach in my book had been around for years in the tech marketing world as ‘account based marketing’. Ralph is trained in NLP so he looks into the deep human motivations and issues that impact a company’s performance. We met at Workshop.
  2. David Taylor told me about how social business is bringing together owned, earned and paid media. David is an author so we shared some good laughs about the writing process. We met at the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs which has a chilled out brick warehouse vibe and great coffee.
  3. Andy Bargery updated me about his B2B social media projects and the success that he’s had with organising events as a way to build a network. Andy knows everyone in the social media space in London and introduced me to several interesting characters. We had coffee at Dose Espresso which is one of the first independent cafes I found when we arrived in London.
  4. Barry Fleming and I had amazing pasta in a hidden little Italian place in New York and traversed everything from mathematical models of social media sharing to geopolitics and chaos theory. Barry has explored Zen Buddhism so we talked about how the communications industry influences and reacts to society and our perceptions of reality. Barry is one of the brightest people that I’ve had the fortune to meet.
  5. Jim Gunson shared some really practical growth hacking techniques to promote my book. Jim is a former lawyer so he brings a tactical sharpness to how he thinks about social media. We met at Kokako in Auckland, which was my local when I worked for a brand design firm.

Brand strategy

  1. Anas Hassan told me about how brand strategy agencies are using more and more business strategy tools. Anas always asks me hard questions and called me out on clarifying my own value proposition. The flat white at Taylor St Baristas in Richmond was surprisingly good.
  2. Fulvia D’Ippolito told me about how the events industry is converging with strategy and innovation consulting. Fulvia is Italian and had lots of advice for me about coffee and even generously lent me a mini-moka pot that I’m using to try out making stove top espresso at home.
  3. Jonathan Good told me about how the worlds of management consulting and Silicon Valley startups can inform big brands. We caught up at Somerset House and took our takeaway coffees for a walk across Waterloo bridge.
  4. Ceci Joannou told me about the commercial side of fashion and intellectual property. Ceci is a former intellectual property lawyer and has a great eye for business strategy. She had some great insights into how technology is changing the fashion industry. Like me, Ceci works in Clerkenwell so we met at Workshop.
  5. Rachel Ginsberg and I chatted about how brand strategy plays out at in the different steps of the fashion supply chain. We met on Twitter while chatting about the New York Tech Meetup, then we had coffee in Battery Park just off Times Square.
  6. Bruce Hurd shared some intense stuff about depth psychology and asked me tough questions about what I wanted to achieve this year. Bruce is a software developer, entrepreneur and adventure coach so he’s great fun to talk with about life, the universe and everything. We met at Coffee Works in Angel and walked along the canal.
  7. Julian Smith updated me about the leaner, more open and modular approach that his team are taking to brand strategy. Julian is super passionate, diligent and has a good soul. Catching up with Julian reminded me just how world-class the strategy work that we were doing at BRR is. We had green tea at BRR’s offices.
  8. John Chal and I plotted how to bring better social media to law firms in the UK and Australia. John and I went to law school together before both leaving to see the world. We had coffee in Soho and Shoreditch.
  9. John Hatrick-Smith told me about the changes happening in the Better by Design programme. John is a family friend and has been a valuable mentor to me over the years. We had coffee at the Bistro in the PWC building on the waterfront in Auckland.

In a single list, fifty people looks like a lot of people to have coffee with. But during the year it was simply a matter of scheduling one coffee a week and doing two or three a week occasionally to catch up when I fell behind.

I’ve counted one or two friends towards the fifty, but most were people I had never met before. I found them through introductions, mutual acquaintances and serendipity. Twitter has been great for this because I can connect with people that share common interests.

When I first started the project I wrote myself some notes on how to get the most out of doing 50 coffees. I tried to keep the meetings short, friendly, productive and focused. The hardest part was when people asked me “What do you do?” because my answer has been in the process of changing. Overall, it was a great experience and I now feel much more connected to London as a city and the design and innovation scene.

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4 thoughts on “Fifty coffees in London

  1. This is a great way to learn vital insights from a market you want to understand in depth.

    As I commented it in my LinkedIn post, the ’50 coffees tool’ should be taught in every MBA course on Strategy, Innovation and Start-ups! Well done.

  2. Hi Peter, I see you’ve found my “50 Coffees in 50 Days” facebook page. I was thrilled to see your first facebook post was about the 50 coffees you’ve had. My challenge is up on Saturday 8 February, so I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences after that point. It has been such a wonderful experience. Regards, Eve

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