We caught up with Adam Derradji, a member of the 2023 PARSE cohort, to find out more about his journey as a tech founder.
Tell us a bit about your company, and your role, in your own words.
Studio Nefce is a startup dedicated to solving some of the problems associated with digital technologies for young people. Their time is exploited, and their potential wasted through hours of doom-scrolling and overconsumption. Our thesis is to use the forces that underpin addictive products for good – to change unproductive habits and encourage intentional usage and a balanced lifestyle. Our team is building a mobile crafting game that encourages neurodiverse undergraduates to focus on their life priorities and ignore tempting tech distractions. Counterintuitively, we’re building a game where you progress the most, by not playing.
As the founder, my role evolves depending on the stage of our development. I’ve worn many hats such as user researcher, designer, programmer, grant writer, recruiter, product manager and project lead. I’d say the stuff that gets me the most excited is talking to potential users, and thinking of ways to meet their needs.
What was the inspiration behind setting up your business?
I caught the entrepreneurial bug at University after leading a commercial team whose goal was to fund a social enterprise project through selling beneficiary-made products. After attending a few startup weekends and working with some developers, I started learning to code so I could solve my own problems. At the same time, I nerded out on the design of digital products and the psychological frameworks employed to keep users engaged. It reminded me of my last semester, where I struggled with stress and anxiety due to being unexpectedly overcommitted to so many things – uni work, final year project, group projects, volunteering, part-time work, futsal. I didn’t know what to focus on or how to manage my time and often ended up on time-sinking sites. About five years ago, I started using a few half-decent productivity apps and felt they could be drastically improved using the insights I’d learned.
Last year, I won the Young Innovators Award, which mainly afforded me the time to be quite meticulous in my user research, so I could intimately understand people’s experiences with digital technologies and their effects. Last summer, we successfully went for another Innovate UK grant (worth £50k), funding our small team of three. Prompting me to set up the company officially in order to properly compensate my staff in accordance with the grant guidelines.
Why did you decide to take part in PARSE, and what are you hoping to achieve from the experience?
I think when I first heard about PARSE, I’d just started my Innovate UK project and recently onboarded my team, so I felt like it was the perfect time to be part of the cohort. I wanted to share what I was doing with the Leeds ecosystem, grow my network and connect with other entrepreneurs. I’d never led a team or launched a product in a professional setting before, so my thinking was I’d learn a lot from folks with more experience than me. I thought it would provide me with a rare chance to talk openly about the realities of running a business and source feedback from my peers.
I’m hoping to gain access to unfiltered insights about players in the market and hear different perspectives on my challenges. I wish to build relationships and earn people’s trust so I may lean on their domain expertise and networks when needed.
From your experience so far, what has been the most valuable thing you have found within the Leeds tech community?
I’ve found the Leeds community to be vibrant, supportive and open (both in tech and in gaming). There’s lots of big companies, exciting startups and loads of projects and talent. People are kind, and willing to help and give you their time when you get in front of them. There’s a lot happening here, with loads of events to attend. One pre-pandemic event that jumps to mind was a Startup Weekend, where I featured on the winning team and really cemented my belief in wanting to build a startup.
What’s the biggest challenge you face as a Startup currently?
Aside from the financial problems most startups face, our biggest overarching challenge is around adopting the correct product development framework to support an idea that is both a game and a productivity app. We generally follow an approach called Game Thinking that helps us identify and work towards product milestones – yet it can be tricky to prioritise what features should go into an alpha release, for example. Currently, our ambitious plans to creatively meet our audience’s needs and develop our compelling user journey have to be reconciled with our limited resources.
Looking forward, what are your hopes and ambitions as a company over the next 12 months?
We’re super keen to exploit the research and product milestones we’ve achieved so far through public funding. Our primary goal is to privately release a playable alpha for our early adopters to playtest and give feedback on our core engagement loop. Our plan is to tune the core loop to make it more engaging, add content and features that connect the game to our users’ IRL goals, and develop an onboarding flow that is framed as the game’s tutorial mode. Naturally, we’ll be looking to grow our team so we can seed a community of advocates and test marketing and monetisation strategies.
How do you personally define success?
I gain great satisfaction and fulfilment from helping people and solving problems. These have been a running themes through my personal life, volunteering and even the services job I’ve worked. I’m very hopeful the same will be true for my current project. I’d feel very satisfied if people succeeded after interacting with our business, whether by working with us or by using our product. Many smart people approach these problems from different angles – from education to top-down regulation, but my opinion is behaviours and habits greatly impact outcomes. If we can use our knowledge and creativity, we can empower folks to sustainably solve their problems and make progress towards their goals. What excites me is doing this at a scale where our community could make a material contribution to society. When that happens, I’d be keen to follow mental health trends and would define success as observing a reversal of the current trajectory.
Who, or what, has been the single biggest influence on your working life?
I definitely get my grittiness and work ethic from my mum, she persevered to overcome numerous hurdles – including relearning medicine in a foreign language – before reaching her goal of practicing psychiatry in this country. She’s also been one of my biggest supporters. I’d say reading Zero to One fundamentally changed the way I think about entrepreneurial projects, and I would recommend that book to anyone with ambitious business aspirations.