Tom Parslow

10 Skiff Tom Parslow_mixdown
[00:00:00] Caroline Beavon (host): Hello and welcome to Tales from the Engine Room where we meet the people who make up The Skiff, a co working community in central Brighton.
[00:00:07] Tom Parslow: Lockdown happens and I know some people just put a head down and worked on their main product but I didn't really feel like I could do that because it felt like I didn't even know if it was coming back.
[00:00:16] Caroline Beavon (host): I'm Caroline Bevan, I turn information into things and I'm a member at The Skiff too. Across this series of interviews, we'll meet freelancers, remote workers, solopreneurs and small team leaders, asking the question, what are you working on today? This week, we meet big thinker Tom Parslow, who runs Buzzshot, a company that makes software for escape rooms.
[00:00:39] Tom Parslow: This morning, I came in a bit late. Today, I'm finishing off a feature. I've been replying to emails. I just made a slight tweaks to the code so I could reply to an email with like, Yes, of course you can do that, but rather than like, No, actually that doesn't work.
[00:00:53] Caroline Beavon (host): So let's get into the word ' feature' ... Because your software is, it's escape room software.
So tell us a little bit about that and then we'll get into the features and how it kind of grows and how it's grown over time.
[00:01:03] Tom Parslow: So the software is called BuzzShot and it's made for people who are running escape rooms and it does kind of handles the before and after game guest experience. So before the game, people usually want the guests to sign in, and they collect some information, some parts of the world they, do a, do a waiver, have people sign something, and my software handles all that.
After the game, I take a team photo, my software handles, like, putting graphics on it, and we, we can do, we can do some really cool stuff and, like, make, make the photos look good, look all cool. Nice. Put stuff, sort of, from the game on, onto them, and then afterwards it handles, kind of, contacting the players and, giving them their team photo, giving them an opportunity to leave a review for the escape room.
Nice. that kind of thing. So how long
[00:01:46] Caroline Beavon (host): have you been running Bushshot? How long has it been an entity?
[00:01:50] Tom Parslow: I started it in 2016. Okay. and it was, it was a side project then. I think it sort of became my full time project maybe a year or two later.
[00:02:01] Caroline Beavon (host): You said it was a side project. What was it a side project to back in 2016?
[00:02:04] Tom Parslow: I was a freelance developer, so I was building all kinds of things for different people, building apps for people. Building bits of installations for people, yeah, lots of web software, oh yeah, lots of things.
[00:02:16] Caroline Beavon (host): Obviously as a freelance developer you were kind of doing a lot of problem solving, a lot of clients coming in saying, we need something that does this and you would go away and you would create it. Does BuzzShot kind of tickle the same, bringing us back to the idea of features? You're constantly having to kind of talk to clients and see what they're after. Is that sort of how it works?
[00:02:33] Tom Parslow: Yeah, yeah. So I mean, yeah, freelance development I enjoyed because it was, building lots of different things for people. I was usually doing fairly short projects. someone would have a thing that they needed and, you know, figure out how to build it. And yeah, and I, and I enjoyed enjoy the variety, with BuzzShot obviously it's been like the same product for the last few years.
Whenever, whenever we have a new sign up for the software, we always do a, a demo call. So, basically it's just a call where we take people through the software, show them how to use it. For the first few years, I did all of those. That, that was always really, really useful because that's the point where you hear what gets people excited. What, what they see and they go, Oh my God, this is going to save me so much time.
What they're less interested in, that kind of stuff. And, and that's always really driven, how, how things develop.
[00:03:22] Caroline Beavon (host): And also, I guess the points where they go, Oh, does it do that? And you go, no, but it could.
[00:03:26] Tom Parslow: Yes. Yeah.
[00:03:27] Caroline Beavon (host): So what prompted you to do this software in the first place? Because were you an escape room? Is that, that doesn't seem like the right word. Sounds like it's a drug. were you a participant? Did you go to the escape room?
[00:03:39] Tom Parslow: Yeah, I played a few at that point. Not a lot. my dad's got a job in an escape room as a games master. He's retired. He... It's quite outgoing, likes a bit of sort of acting type of things, so it was, it was a, it was a great job for him. Yeah.
[00:03:57] Caroline Beavon (host): So is he one of the people that kind of goes, Welcome to the escape room! Do the thing, here's what to do, don't do this thing. Is he kind of one of those, one of those people?
[00:04:03] Tom Parslow: Yeah, yeah. and this particular escape room was very immersive, so, so, you know, he was a, he was a character. He was called, he was Gabriel.
They, they had, I think they had business cards they handed out to people after the game. Right. And he was asking why, you know, you have this, the software that kind of contacts you after you've been to a hairdresser, there's software, there's, there's all kinds of, you know, different, different things like that.
And I want, why isn't there something that works here? So I kind of, I built a an early version of it, which wasn't very good, but just good enough that you could see that if it wasn't so bad, it would be good.
[00:04:38] Caroline Beavon (host): It was the seed of a good idea
[00:04:41] Tom Parslow: it showed that the idea was reasonable, it just needed a decent implementation.
One of the things I had at that first escape room was I assumed they'd have Wi Fi and they... did but it was terrible and it didn't work most of the time which actually ended up being a really good long term for the company because it meant that the first version of the software was all about working very well when the we've when the wi fi goes down that's not important to all my customers now but everyone's wi fi goes down sometimes And some people's Wi Fi goes down quite a lot. and that's been a competitive advantage we've sort of had all the way through, that the software is really good with handling that.
[00:05:17] Caroline Beavon (host): So I guess also with the nature of summer skate rooms, they might be in weird places, like basements or attics or castles or, you know, just weird places that wouldn't necessarily... Plumbed into amazing internet. Yeah,
[00:05:30] Tom Parslow: exactly. It really it really depends, you know, some places are purpose built facilities And everything everything is hopefully working fairly. Well, these first ones I built for were rooms above pubs So yeah, very much not
[00:05:45] Caroline Beavon (host): So have you always been a sort of a problem solver?
Has this always been something that sort of tickled your brain, even from a, from a
young age?
[00:05:52] Tom Parslow: Yeah, I like, I like, I like building things. I like making, making stuff. I'm quite clumsy, so making physical things is always a bit, a bit more of a challenge. so yeah, definitely once I, once I discovered computers, that was, that was very exciting.
[00:06:08] Caroline Beavon (host): So when did you discover computers? When was that moment?
[00:06:11] Tom Parslow: Probably when I was around 10 or 11. My dad brought home a Mac SE with HyperCard on it. It was very exciting. The thing that drew me to it first was that in HyperCard you start off with a big white screen and some painting tools and you can draw stuff.
So you can switch to another card and draw some more stuff, that's quite cool. But you can hit the... Arrow keys and switch quickly between them. So if you draw things on successive cards and hit the arrow keys quickly, you get an animation.
[00:06:44] Caroline Beavon (host): Okay, this is really interesting. So, how? Because you could have so easily gone down the animation route. So what took you down the kind of building things and not going down the kind of more visual arts?
[00:06:56] Tom Parslow: I think my dad probably showed me that, you could click on the button and there was a text box and you could type, I think it was just like, next card, I think it was just a command, something like that.
And I would cut and paste that into each successive frame of my animation, and when you went to each one it would, like, wait half a second, then go to the next one and you didn't have to press the button anymore.
[00:07:12] Caroline Beavon (host): So it was the, it was the mechanic of creating the animation as opposed to the animation itself that was in that interested Yeah.
[00:07:18] Tom Parslow: I mean, I, I, I, I did really like doing that. I, I also at one point did like little, claymation animations with, with Plasticine in the animations as well. I was, was always quite interested in making things move. Yeah. Didn't, didn't have much ability to draw. Mm-Hmm. . So that, that was, you know, that kind of limited that
[00:07:34] Caroline Beavon (host): because I know, 'cause we have, an art sort of collage club, an arc sketchbook clip here at the SKiff and you, some of your creations. All of your creations are the weirdest collaboration. One of the joys of collage is you can put like a tiger's head on a fish. But you take it like way beyond just putting two things together. You just create such obscure, weird worlds. And I'm fascinated to know how that kind of fits in with how you problem solve and how you build things.
Is it just a case of what happens if I smash these two things together? What does it, how does your brain kind of piece all these bits together? Or does it just have fun and see what happens?
[00:08:12] Tom Parslow: I don't know. I mean, I usually just have a feeling for like what, what I kind of want. And then I just sort of, yeah, try, try pushing things together until, until I start getting that.
[00:08:23] Caroline Beavon (host): And you enjoy it and you can see, I know, especially when you're doing art, I can see your, your eyes are just like. Smash these things together. It's amazing But didn't you also have and correct me if I'm wrong. You had a brief academia spell where you were doing a PhD for a while
[00:08:38] Tom Parslow: I ended up going to university like maybe not not not that much later like late enough That was a mature student, but like it was only like a couple of years late So I'd I already I already had a job But then I was, I was a, I was, it was the sole programmer at a design agency.
And sort of decided actually maybe I did want to go to university. So, so got onto the Computer Science and AI course which, I kind of got to the end of that. So I, I'd always been like a bit frustrated by the kind of classes and things. But I, I enjoyed my final year project. I built a robot kind of control system for it. Okay. I think my supervisor that I thought recommended me to some other people and I ended up getting offered to do a PhD without having to do the master's first, which is quite nice because I kind of didn't want to do more classes And I just wanted to work on something cool.
[00:09:27] Caroline Beavon (host): Right, so it sounds like a PhD that was perfect because it was just All the time that you need to build something interesting that interests you.
[00:09:34] Tom Parslow: Well, I thought so.
[00:09:37] Caroline Beavon (host): There's a tale here, I feel.
[00:09:38] Tom Parslow: Yeah, I mean, spoiler alert, I didn't actually get the PhD. So, um, yeah, I worked on that for a few years. And then realized that I just got very, very bogged down in minutiae. And a lot of very uninteresting stuff, because it was, again, was to do with robotics, and I spent a lot of time just sort of making things work.
Right. and I, at some point, I realized I just wasn't, I hadn't learned anything for a while, I hadn't done anything interesting for a while, I was just kind of pushing through, and that...
[00:10:10] Caroline Beavon (host): You're just an engineer by that point.
[00:10:12] Tom Parslow: But like, a terrible engineer. Working on my own. My supervisors were lovely, and really, really nice people.
Really supportive. But, someone who was running one of the courses asked me to do a guest lecture on their course. It went really badly. I mean, there were only like four students there and they were just staring blankly. But then I was trying to try to make it sound interesting and just realizing that I don't think this is interesting either Yeah, and I was like wait a minute. Why am I doing this? So so I quit
[00:10:43] Caroline Beavon (host): Any regrets about having quit, or was it the best?
[00:10:45] Tom Parslow: Oh, absolutely not. I should have done it earlier. Wow.
[00:10:48] Caroline Beavon (host): So, going back to the AI part, obviously AI is huge now. Yeah. But you're kind of ahead of the curve a bit there.
[00:10:53] Tom Parslow: Yeah, yeah, so I was really, really interested in AI. One of the other things, going back to why I got interested in computers in the first place, was I'd read a book called, Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstetter. Dad gave it to me when I was about 11 But it absolutely blew my mind. Right. so it's, it's this book about consciousness and intelligence. He's trying to connect, the music of Bach and the art of Escher and, the maths of Gödel together.
[00:11:18] Caroline Beavon (host): Okay, that sounds really interesting.
[00:11:19] Tom Parslow: It's, it's a really, it's a really cool book.
I've been interested kind of in AI from the, I think the first proper program I wrote was a, was a chatbot. Because I had heard about Eliza and I, and I obviously couldn't get a copy of Eliza. I had to write my own. Sussex University was, was, was really good for, for that kind of stuff. And I was always very into, neural networks and the, and sort of connectionist type of things. and those have really gone out of fashion and were really, really uncool. Here at Sussex, we think these things are cool, but I just, I missed the, you know, like a few years later, the, the whole like AI renaissance, which is all new, all neural networks, because suddenly people discovered that you can actually train multi level perceptrons with lots more layers, which I was taught you couldn't do.
But I think that probably the initial stuff was happening while I was there, but it hadn't spread to where I was.
[00:12:09] Caroline Beavon (host): I want to touch on how the pandemic affected what you're doing, because I know that you... Pivoted and came up with a thing during the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Yeah, yeah.
[00:12:17] Tom Parslow: So it's obviously like the pandemic was, was a Yeah. A big thing for everyone. it was really, really bad for people running escape rooms, paying lots and lots of rent. they put lots and lots of money into it. They had employees, and very suddenly like, you know, lockdown happens and, you know, most escape rooms over the world within the course of a few weeks kind of shut down, so
we don't lock people into contracts with my software because I don't like doing that. I like, I like, I like people to always be using, using things out of free will. I like to always know that all my customers are there because they want to continue being customers.
So we sort of immediately see. It's, pretty quickly sent out an, email saying, to everyone saying, like, Oh, we know you're probably all shutting down, you can all pause your subscriptions. Very quickly built, built some tooling to, to make that work. But yeah, the, the result of that was, was lost about 90 percent of the revenue in about a week.
It's a little, a little bit scary. That was, at that point, I was full time on it. So, well, there was, there was the full, full income. At that point, I also had, an employee as well. Yeah. Someone who also needed to be supported. I just scaled everything down. I just. It was just like, got rid of anything we didn't need. I started taking less, less, less salary. Carl, who is an employee who I'm working with, was amazing as well, and was just, you know, like, well, yeah, we'll make this work.
But, I felt like I needed something to do. I know some people just, just put their head down and worked on their main product during the pandemic.
But I didn't really feel like I could do that. Because, like, it felt like I didn't even know if it was coming back. So, I, I was, I was interested in, what my customers were going to be doing. Because obviously they were in much worse situations in general. And, one of the things I got really interested in was, was this idea of what later became to be called live avatar games.
So, like, what, what if you went into your escape room with a camera and then people could be at, play over Zoom. Right. and you could, like, be their avatar and, Yeah. And I, I thought that was a really cool idea. I started a Facebook group for people to, to discuss it. Yeah. I, I made, I made a website to, to, to list them where people could find, the games, like live video escape
Yeah. Although that is largely defunct now, I just wanted to get people interested in, of course. And get people to finding 'em out about these things. Yeah. that I, I'd seen that people were doing these games with the video, but like often you needed some way of like, you found an object. And they're showing you on the camera.
But you can't, you want to see it closer. So a lot of people were trying to do inventory systems. Right. A lot of people were using photo galleries, like Google galleries and things like that. There were all kinds of weird solutions that people came up with. But basically you'd end up with a gallery of photos in another window, you can look through them and see like, oh this is the thing.
So I built a tool for doing that, I called it Telescape. It was just basically a photo gallery, but a photo gallery, that was, live updating. one of the things I wanted was to kind of encourage people to be, when everyone's playing together, but all in different places, make, encourage people to feel closer to the, to the, because that's, I mean, that's the one thing we really needed at that point.
so I added things like you could see other, other, other players cursors. So, you could, you, you'd all be talking on Zoom anyway, but you'd be like, look at this thing, and you could see where their cursor was pointing. It was a very, very simple thing to start with. But I got a little community of people using it and paying for it.
I ended up pricing it quite low because again, it was a bunch of people who were, who were in difficult circumstances. And this was like a way of, of them, like, surviving this.
[00:15:49] Caroline Beavon (host): And you're not there to cash in at that point. You're there to supporting a community and trying to keep that community going.
[00:15:54] Tom Parslow: One of the really nice things is that people have since said that that was what saved their, saved their business. So that's really, really nice. I did that. People started using it for more than I expected them to. People started trying to build puzzles actually in the system. So the system wasn't designed to build puzzles in it.
The system was designed to show you stuff so you could solve puzzles on the Zoom screen. But I added a way of like having hotspots you could click on, so you could say have a scene and then you could click on stuff to get a closer look at various things. And then people would just start stringing together loads of those and like making a whole puzzle.
And I just kind of ran with that, so it felt very collaborative. You know, I'd have someone, someone would do something. Crazy, with that. And I'd be like, oh, that's really cool. What if I added this? You'd be able to do more. And they'd be like, oh, that's cool. So yeah, I'd add, I'd add more. And I was working a lot at this point.
So, so obviously I was stuck at home. And my, my response to that was just to work. Sort of 12 hour days every day. It ended up burning me out. But, at the time was like, I just, yeah, I needed that, I needed something to, to do. It ended up sort of turning into this whole kind of game building software, this kind of drag and drop game development thing.
One of the things I, I always really enjoy was sort of as I added more and more stuff, that I felt was like, kind of programming stuff, you know, like you can set sequences of commands, and you can set conditions, and you can do all kinds of things like that. And seeing people who would never consider themselves programmers and who, who would claim that, like, they would, they are not, they could, they could never do anything that was coded, anything like that. Yeah. just taking this and then making the most complex things.
[00:17:28] Caroline Beavon (host): But you're, you're giving them the tools to do it, right? Yeah. They've, they've got the ideas and they've got the, ooh, the question of what happens if we, can we do something like this? And you're giving them the, the gateway to do it.
[00:17:38] Tom Parslow: Yeah, yeah, and just think, seeing people do stuff where I just, I can't figure out how you did that. Mm. you know, I, yeah, they have people explaining to me, like, like, oh, that's amazing, like,
[00:17:47] Caroline Beavon (host): How did you use my software? Yeah, yeah.
[00:17:49] Tom Parslow: I've just, I've just seen some people just produce things of just like the quality levels that really blew my mind, really nice graphics, really, really smooth looking things, and, yeah, just, yeah, really, really cool to see people do that.
[00:18:01] Caroline Beavon (host): So what's the future for Talkscape, do you think? I mean, I know, I'm sure you wouldn't have predicted where it is now from when you first started it, so what do you think, where is it kinda heading, do you think?
[00:18:10] Tom Parslow: Nowhere is using it for live avatar games anymore because basically no one is running live avatar games. I can think of a couple and they are very specialist doing very, very cool things. yeah, shout out to Project Avatar in Ukraine. Who, have just an incredible thing that they're doing. Amazing. But, but what people are doing now is using Telescapes as a game builder to make a, like, a little web based game.
Some people are using it to make games that are multiplayer, so using it as kind of collaborative features. Some people are making single player games with it. and yeah, there's definitely, it's definitely not being used as much as it was during the pandemic at all, but it does still get used.
People are still building really cool things on it, in it. I have plans for it for the future, but, I've sort of been focusing on BuzzShot. Of course. For a little while now.
[00:18:56] Caroline Beavon (host): So how does that make you feel when you see people take Telescape and kind of run with it and just create this, this amazing stuff? That must be, must be an awesome feeling.
[00:19:05] Tom Parslow: Yeah, yeah, no, it is, it is really cool. yeah, I mean, there's companies like, there's a company called Hourglass Escapes in Seattle, who, yeah, just made absolutely incredible things, with, with, with Telescape. It's, yeah, it's just really, really cool. And then, you know, then they've got multiple, like, Telescape developers. Very skilled people who, who build stuff with that software. That's, that's pretty cool.
[00:19:29] Caroline Beavon (host): That's incredible. That's incredible. I wanted to talk to you about, you, so you mentioned earlier on you have an employee, Carl. And that's somebody that you met here at The Skiff. And I want to talk about, so how long have you been a Skiff mate?
And how does that fit in with you kind of getting your, getting your job done?
[00:19:44] Tom Parslow: So no, The Skiff has been absolutely essential to, to what I've been doing for, yeah, for the last, uh, 12 years, I think. I think, I think I've been at The Skiff about 12 years. so I, that was, I quit my PhD, I decided I was going to be a freelance developer.
So I spent about a month, like, sort of, at home, not really, not really with having any work. I realized that you kind of have to tell people if you're a freelancer otherwise, otherwise maybe they don't know. Yeah, so I, so I kind of just started going to basically every event in Brighton that I could find that seemed interesting.
So, yeah, Async. js, The Farm, Brighton Pie, yeah, a bunch of other stuff. And, one, one of the events was held at The Skiff. So I think Async, was held at The Skiff. Seemed, seemed like a really cool place.
at the time, my girlfriend Emily was working shift work. so she would often come home sort of mid afternoon after a 12 hour shift. And we're living in a small one bedroom flat and she come home and naturally she wants to watch some daytime tv and chill out because she is absolutely destroyed after 12 hours of doing very, very hard work. There wasn't really the space in that flat for us both to be be doing those things at the same time.
There wasn't that much, in Brighton at that point. There was the Skiff and the Works. I did a trial day at the Works. Didn't really speak to anyone. Came to the Skiff. I spent a day there and chatted with various people. And it just was a much more comfortable place. And I immediately signed up.
It's been the place I've gone to, to work, ever since.
[00:21:17] Caroline Beavon (host): It's a community, isn't it? And it's nice that we do a lot of sharing, of sharing of ideas and, and...
[00:21:21] Tom Parslow: The Skiff has always got the people who I, who I bounce ideas off of, and, lots of people who I've worked with at various times, you know, a lot of work stuff has come from, from the Skiff.
I've, I've worked with people at the Skiff. Skiff working for me and things. it's always been incredibly useful at all, all stages.
[00:21:42] Caroline Beavon (host): Well, I've got a couple of questions, quick, quick fire questions to wrap up with. So, we're heading into lunchtime, what's for lunch today?
[00:21:49] Tom Parslow: Oh god, I have absolutely no idea.
I make, make Emily pack lunches every day and then I come, come and buy sandwiches myself. I really, really should start making myself pack lunches as well, but it's, it's harder, it's harder for me. Less motivation.
[00:22:01] Caroline Beavon (host): And who knows what you will want in four hours time, or five hours time, you know? Exactly,
[00:22:04] Tom Parslow: exactly. And I do, I go, out for lunch with people quite a lot. We'll usually go out and bring something back to the Skiff and that's quite a nice social thing. But yeah, I don't know, I might go to the Real Patisserie, I might go to Sainsbury's for a slightly disappointing sandwich. There's always the poke bowl place.
[00:22:21] Caroline Beavon (host): Keto Keto.
[00:22:21] Tom Parslow: Keto Keto. That's a Friday treat. It is more of a Friday thing though, yes.
[00:22:25] Caroline Beavon (host): Okay, so it's, so it's, we're heading into lunch and we still don't know yet. This is very exciting what's going to happen. Who, who knows?
if you didn't live in Brighton, where would you live? That's really hard to say.
[00:22:35] Tom Parslow: I've basically been very boringly been in Brighton all my life. and I kind of like it here. I don't know anywhere else enough to know if I definitely want to live there. Like Bristol seems cool. I enjoy that when I'm there.
[00:22:49] Caroline Beavon (host): But Brighton is your place. I'm the same, I love Brighton. If I had to answer this question I'd be like maybe Paris for a week but then I'd want to come back to Brighton because I miss it too much.
a final question if you could earn the same and have the same security and the same setup doing any job in the world? What would you do?
[00:23:08] Tom Parslow: Boringly, it would probably be building software in some way. it'd definitely be building something. I, I, I might, I, more kind of stuff with hardware. I, I've always enjoyed kind of working on like hardware projects.
I've helped out a friend who does sort of Kinetic art stuff quite quite a bit and yeah so so maybe maybe some more maybe some more of that stuff but yeah I don't know I think I think by you know had all the money in the world I'd probably quit for for for a month and then be like I really want to write some code.
[00:23:38] Caroline Beavon (host): And you can find out more about Tom and Buzzshot at buzzshot. com.
If you're interested in working alongside people like Tom and myself then head to theskiff. org and don't forget to subscribe to Tales from the Engine Room and we'll see you next time.

Tom Parslow
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