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UCL student launches Focalmark, a free app to connect communities of photographers

24 November 2016

Nick Smith has launched Focalmark a free app to connect communities of photographers

Forget trawling through Instagram for the perfect hashtag for #likes.

22-year-old Nick Smith, an MSc Cognitive Science student at UCL, has launched Focalmark, a free app to help photographers find the most effective hashtags and he is urging other UCL students to turn their ideas into reality.

With 5,000 downloads in the first week after launch, you’d be forgiven for thinking Nick’s success is down to serious coding expertise, data science research and years of planning. The opposite, in fact, is true. Nick didn’t know how to code three months ago, he taught himself the basics while travelling over the summer and the idea for Focalmark originated from Nick’s passion for photography and his struggles to source hashtags on Instagram.

Self-taught skills

Nick explains, “I’m not a data scientist or a coding genius, there are so many students at UCL who know more about coding and data-targeting than I do. I was travelling in America and Bali and, on a whim, I decided to teach myself coding.

“I am also an enthusiastic photographer and started using Instagram over the summer. I quickly realised how complicated it can be to get hashtags to promote photography and connect with other photographers, so I decided to use my recently acquired coding knowledge to make a tool to address the issue. The simple website I created allowed users to select a style of photography and a location, and in turn they were given data-driven hashtags to boost their work.”

Focalmark a free app to connect communities of photographers

Nick launched the project at the end of June in ‘beta’ as a website on Product Hub and Reddit. He was lucky enough to find like-minded people who helped to spread the word, which resulted in Nick getting around 800 users a day and coverage in the press through photography and tech websites.

Just as importantly, those users took the time to share their feedback. They helped Nick to make improvements and develop an app for iOS and Android, and a new version of the website, which he successfully launched last month.

Learning from mistakes

It hasn’t been all plain sailing, however. Nick adds, “I’ve learned as much through my mistakes as I have through the successes and that’s what I am keen to share with my fellow UCL students.

“Prior to launch, I was plagued with doubts of failure, but I was much more determined once I actually hit play, and launched the app. I think it’s the endowment effect – the concept that people assign more value to things merely because they own them. I had to make repeated attempts to launch the app on Reddit, a notoriously hostile community, and it didn’t get any pick-up. I felt like a parent fighting for my child, but I kept trying until my website was shared by an influential member of the Reddit community after the third launch attempt.

“I also had a bit an email nightmare when I was sending a group email about Focalmark to a group of influential people and used the CC option rather than BCC. One of the recipients, a senior person from a well-known media outlet, wasn’t happy I had accidentally forgotten to whitelist the email. It actually ended up that this person gave me some helpful advice and support, after I had emailed her to apologise, so a negative became a positive.”

It seems appropriate then that the dulcet tones of Rick Astley’s ‘Never gonna give you up’, provided the musical backdrop for this interview in the Print Room Cafe. Nick's tenacious feel the fear and do it anyway approach is something he is encouraging other UCL students to adopt.

“I would really encourage other students to experiment and bring their ideas to life. A lot of the time when we’re studying, it’s very theoretical and feels far removed from the real world. But with this project, it’s made me realise how to find solutions to a real-life problem and I can’t even begin to put a price on all the things I’ve learned!”

Nick is keen to share his experiences with fellow students and is also hoping to collaborate with students who have an interest in data science, coding and those who know how to make Android and Apple apps.

If you’ve been inspired by Nick and have questions, or would like to collaborate, you can contact Nick at @nicksmithr on Twitter/Instagram, or email nick@focalmark.com.

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