Froware Origins: Gary

I’ve always been a community builder. When I learnt the basics of web design in my Computer Science A-Level, my very first personal project was a website called the “G-Spot” (it’s not what it sounds like, officer!). One of the key features I created was a basic, plaintext blog which I coined “The GunnShop” (every page name started with a “G” — that was the theme. Allow my life ?). This area served as virtual arena for my friends and I to engage in the verbal banter online that we typically did (and still do) in person.

Despite the bare-bones functionality, we were creative enough to come up with ways to produce simple ASCII art to enhance our cusses against each other. Our online sparring started to draw attention and the GunnShop became a popular social spot for many of our friends, acquaintances and even strangers until I eventually closed the site down.

In 2004, I was introduced by a mutual friend to another young developer who had built a black youth social network called BlackPeeps for his university final project. I started out helping him to improve his code and eventually we became partners; acquiring 18,000 members through word of mouth alone (remember; pre-Facebook, pre-Instagram).

A year later, I created another site intended to be a private online hangout for my circle of friends — appropriately titled Da Mans Dem — but like BlackPeeps, this rapidly grew beyond it’s initial scope and became a real-world social community of over 300 members (pre-Meetup), where we organised regular social meets, day trips and entertainment events.

Then in 2007, I co-founded a consultancy which specialised in building digital communities for enterprises, charities and other organisations. In my head, I imagined it would enable me to build a team that could then deliver the vision I had for my two networks, but in reality, it simply sucked all of my time and attention and both of my personal projects came to an end. I spent the next 10 years working on client projects; all the while, harbouring the desire of returning to my own projects to benefit my own community.

I eventually walked away in 2016 and spent a year working with an early start-up that had ambitions of helping young black people get into the tech industry. While it didn’t work out in the end, it gave me an opportunity to re-connect with the community and helped to remind me of the need to find a path back to community-building. I have a bigger idea that I’ve been incubating mentally for years and I initially started working towards that, but a chance conversation in a geek chat group led me to re-think my approach.

Is there some sort of forum for black British tech heads?

The group determined that the answer to this question is “no” — or at least “no” to any well-known, easily accessible ones. Spying an obvious problem, I felt the typical impulse to go ahead and create one. Over the course of a few weekends, I set up a forum application and then invited my fellow group members to check out my handiwork. They logged on, had a look around and basically said “OK, this is cool — what now?”

If at first you don’t succeed… …try another way

At that point, it struck me that my earlier projects (BlackPeeps and DMD) had both failed to some extent because neither was ever built with a commercial pathway in mind, so when they both grew in popularity, there was an eventual brick wall due to increasing costs versus a lack of revenue. Realising that I was about to potentially throw myself off the same cliff for a third time, I had to step back to reconsider what I was truly trying to accomplish and how I could develop a sustainable business model for it.

What is the problem I’m trying to solve?

Whenever I work with clients in developing a digital strategy, this is always the question we start with; I realised that this had to be my own starting point, too. As I started to think through my observations and experiences, I was able to identify not just one, but four core challenges that face myself and the wider community:

  1. Connectivity — As black professionals, we work in an industry where we’re essentially scattered in isolated pockets. We can all identify with the stories of being the only black person in the room floor building village; this enforced separation means that it can be difficult to connect and build relationships with our peers.
  2. Accessibility — There are an increasing number of programmes, networks, events and facilities available to support us individually and collectively, but without the right connections, these resources can often be effectively invisible to large parts of the community, simply because we don’t know about them.
  3. Opportunity — Whether we’re employed, contractors, consultants or founders, there is a constant demand for opportunities enabling us to improve our financial outcomes through career progression, lead generation, brand building or business development.
  4. Competency — Despite the constant lip-service being paid to the notions of diversity and inclusion, the reality is that we all still face significant discrimination across our industry. When our skin colour is often perceived as a disadvantage, we can’t afford for our skills to be taken as another.

These challenges are ones that I believe can all be impacted by building Froware into an effective community of sufficient size and they’re reflected in the core goals set for the project. The focus of this initial iteration (v0.9, as I think of it) is accessibility and connectivity; our first target being to aggregate as much high-quality content produced by and for our community in a single space, followed by developing an active community around that.

There’s a long road ahead to fulfilling the vision, but I’m looking forward to the journey and I hope you, dear reader, will join me on it.