Deep down I think that I’ve always been a geek. When I was about 7 years old I discovered computers – I remember the satisfaction of knowing how to access Commander Keen from DOS commands (none of my friends could do that). Those were the days…
Then I discovered Pixar and “A Bug’s Life” changed what I wanted to do. I went from an aspiring artist to computer animator overnight. As I progressed through school I continued to be equally strong in science and the arts and wanted a career that would combine those two sides of me – computer animator it was.
So I turned up to my first day of Bristol University in 2005 ready to study Computer Science. With a notebook in one hand and the brick of a book “C By Dissection” in another I walked into my first ever lecture having never written a line of code in my life. The first thing that struck me was the sheer volume of men versus women: there were 4 girls in total and over 120 boys. Then followed the horrible dawning realisation was nearly everyone else knew how to program. They’d been doing it since they were 10. They’d written computer games for their Gameboy Color, been web administrators or done something sufficiently hacky in some obscure language. Some people even knew each other by their Internet names. I hate to say it, but I had been outgeeked. That is until I found my niche: Computer Vision.
Computer Vision is such an exciting sector of Computer Science because it gives you an insight into a very simple fact: computers aren’t particularly clever. I’d go as far to say that they’re not very bright at all. You give a human baby an image and they can point at things that they can recognise, laugh at some context surrounding it and even name some items in it. Even animals recognise context (you must have seen the video of the frog playing the game on the iPhone where you catch flies. If not, give yourself a YouTube break). Your high-end laptop? No chance. To your computer an image is just a bunch of pixels, nothing more, nothing less.
I got obsessed by the idea of teaching computers to see. I’d always had the idea for Snap Fashion because it seemed like such an obvious one to me: if a person’s attention is grabbed visually then why wouldn’t we search using pictures? I realised that it was actually a really big problem in Computer Vision and that a visual search engine would be incredibly cool in the fashion industry, so when it came to suggesting a thesis for my Masters I knew exactly what I wanted it to be. 12 months later I had a prototype version of Snap Fashion complete with algorithms, business plan, a business award and (thank goodness) a degree.
(Just in case you don’t know, Snap Fashion is a discovery engine for clothing. You give us a picture of something that you like, and we’ll analyse the image to find you similar items based on cut, colour and pattern.)
When I graduated I had three options: PhD, job or starting a business. Being a fairly sensible person I decided to go for the job. It wasn’t with Pixar, but it was as a project manager for an engineering company. I learnt so much in those two years and worked with a genuinely lovely bunch of people. The only problem was that I was still obsessing about Snap Fashion, working on it in my evenings and weekends and daydreaming during my lunch breaks.
In 2011 I won funding from the Technology Strategy Board to develop Snap Fashion further. This was the tipping point that I needed. I uncharacteristically quit my job and plunged headfirst into the land of start-ups, fundraising and fashion.
I raised a seed round from a small VC firm who are passionate about fashion technology and believed in me and my idea. One tip: finding investors willing to take a risk on a recently graduated female engineer with no business background isn’t easy! The key was surrounding myself with a team of advisors to teach me, advise me and add experience to the business.
The fashion side has been great fun and I’m discovering my inner fashionista as well as my inner geek – it turns out that the two things can co-exist peacefully! There’s nothing I enjoy more than telling people about Snap Fashion, seeing them get excited, and then revealing that I was responsible for the technology behind it. It always takes people by surprise though which is quite sad – I’d love to see more female tech founders in the future to take that element of surprise away.
The future’s looking bright for Snap Fashion. We’re beginning to launch the app and website in different countries and we’re working on new products in new markets. I’ve got a lovely team working at Snap Fashion who are always coming up with new ideas making it a really fun place to work. Hopefully I can help prove that fashion and technology do mix, and that women are great at designing products for other women to use: we’ve just got to stick with science and engineering, be prepared for our career to take us to places that we’d never imagined and take a risk!