Finn Fitzsimons is a creative self-starter and former graduate from Vega Cape Town whose innovation in the field of information design has found him establishing his business footprint in Bulgaria. Describing himself as just “a person with ideas” he is currently mastering the art of turning his ideas into a reality as he continues his path in entrepreneurship. Definitely an exciting interview we’ve been trying to do for a while, we caught up with the talented young South African to find out more about what it takes to be a self-starter in the field of creativity and the unseen.
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I grew up in Cape Town and moved to Bulgaria after I finished college at Vega. I used to sail a lot. Now I live with my fiancé Dessy and daughter Vivian in Sofia and have a start-up called NumberPicture. We make applications for people to visualize information and are part of the Eleven Accelerator.
How did you become interested in the creative field?
When I was at college I started finding really awesome infographics on the net. Information Is Beautiful, Infosthetics and Good Magazine were a few sources. I liked the way that even if the infographics were displaying very mundane things they could still captivate your attention and imagination for ages.
How did NumberPicture come into being?
NumberPicture was a logical progression from my interest in data visualization and infographics. I was at college at the time and when I needed to make presentations and reports I wanted to make them as infographics – but there weren’t any tools available for doing so. I looked for somebody to help me make a tool for a while but without reputation, experience and irrelevant education it was quite tricky convincing anybody to help me out! So I eventually gave up and decided to teach myself how to code, and about six months later I launched the first NumberPicture beta – which was a web app where users could copy and paste their spreadsheet data and make interesting looking charts from it. Charts that were different to ones you could make in Excel or any other software.
So as a self-taught coder, how important do you feel it is for young entrepreneurs and self-starters to be skilled in the actual offerings of their business?
Well, I think it depends on who else you have in your team. When I started it was just me so I literally had to know everything – from design to coding to business admin. But I know some start-ups whose founders all have very different skill-sets and for this reason they do well. Each one brings something special to the table. But to answer the question: all investors I know are looking for at least some domain experience in a start-up, and I believe for good reason. Faking it can get you up and running but it can’t sustain your business.
What challenges did you face in trying to specialize in such an unexplored space in the way that you have, especially in another country?
Hmmm… Come to think of it, we didn’t have many challenges. The biggest challenge I faced was lack of experience especially when it came to running a business. We still face a challenge in finding a publisher for our book DATAVIZ. Also it can be pretty tricky gathering the right team in a foreign country, but I have been very lucky to collaborate with some outstanding professionals.
What have been some of the highlights since having started NumberPicture?
Right after I launched the first beta, I got contacted by a British company based in Bulgaria that wanted to buy it from me. I couldn’t believe what was happening at the time – fresh out of college, hacked together some experimental website, and was jetting off to Bulgaria with a very good job offer. I bought the website back again a few years later. Another highlight was being featured in a book by IdN about data visualization. But, probably the biggest highlight was being accepted into the Eleven Accelerator program and getting funding.
Who are your main inspirations as a self-starter in design and data visualization?
David McCandless, Mike Bostock, Golan Levin, Moritz Stefaner, Joachim Sauter are a few. But there are so many more! Have a look at the line-up for the Resonate Festival for an idea of what I mean. Dessy also runs a contemporary art space here in Sofia, Hip Hip Atelier, where we now work and through which I have met many really amazing artists and illustrators on the global scene.
What do you think is the greatest misconception about entrepreneurship?
That it’s glamorous! It’s a lot of hard work and can be quite stressful. But when you eventually do succeed in some way, it feels really good because you made it. That’s the real thing that keeps you going.
There are currently avant-garde thought leaders such as John Maeda who believe “innovation is born when art meets science”. As someone in design who admits to having an aptitude for geometry, does this train of thought influence the way you position your business and craft in any way?
We are living in a time when modern tech is making it possible for us to create almost anything we can imagine. It is becoming extremely easy for things to be hacked together and prototyped and for us to test hypotheses without much risk at all. NumberPicture I guess you can say is applying art to data and riding the wave of technological advancement. And it is positioned here because this is what forward-thinking businesses are demanding. I think any business should be positioned based upon a real market need – the way it meets the need is where things can get creative. And tech is the enabling factor.
Otherwise, what does a creative entrepreneur do in his spare time?
I like spending time with my fiancé Dessy and our daughter Vivian. In our basement there are two bikes, two snowboards, an off-road pram and a braai. That should say it all!
Any chance we’ll see you back in South Africa setting up shop in the coming years?
Maybe. The internet is very slow though. Bulgaria has a very vibrant start-up scene with two accelerators, Eleven and LAUNCHub. I’m not sure what it’s like in Jo’burg but I know Cape Town just isn’t there yet. Let’s see what happens in the years to come.
To anyone wishing to start their own business, what advice would you have for them?
Before you make anything, speak to at least 20 people that you think would use your product. You’ll realize things you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Build it LEAN and don’t hesitate to share and discuss your ideas with others. And a good idea is only a small part of a successful business – the rest is a lot of clever, hard work.