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LESSONS FROM A FOUNDER: The Secrets to Simprints' Success

last modified Nov 04, 2018 09:39 PM
We met up with Simprints co-founder and CTO Tristram Norman to ask his advice on growing a business from 'a year of Sundays' project to a team of 25.

Tristram Norman is co-founder and CTO of Simprints, a non-profit tech startup building identification tools for the developing world. More specifically, Simprints are currently manufacturing a small biometric fingerprint scanner that hooks into a platform allowing NGO’s and governments around the world to identify people in really rural, remote locations. The idea is to reduce the number of people globally without formal identification and in doing so, improve healthcare provision.


Tristram was based in the ideaSpace City office back in 2015, along with co-founder Toby Norman, and other members of the team. They now reside at The Chesterton Tower on Chapel Street in Cambridge. Simprints is now at scale-up stage and are growing their team from 10 to 25. We had a chat with Tristram to find out what he has learned while being a key part of a not-for-profit startup.


So how did Simprints start?


Simprints originally started as a hackathon idea organised by the University of Cambridge in early 2014. Toby and two others pitched their idea of a fingerprint scanner and won! I was studying for my masters at the time, but somehow felt that wasn’t enough and was looking for a side-project – and this was it! The others were studying for their PhDs, so basically Simprints started as a year of Sundays – pulling together ideas, conducting market research, building a prototype. We eventually gained some funding along with some startup grants and decided this needed to be a full-time idea.


What would you say has been the company’s biggest challenge and how have you approached tackling it?


One of the biggest challenges for Simprints is making sure the device can work offline in the field for extended periods. So how to work around the volatility of android to move data across to a network. The team are looking at Google’s new platform, Firebase which can move data incredibly quickly and could potentially help solve this problem.


What would you say are some of the key factors to your success so far?


I’d say we have really tapped into the knowledge based ecosystem and sharing culture of Cambridge. For example, we have called upon hundreds of volunteers for much of our engineering work by organising regular hack nights. But you have to keep them motivated. We aim to do this by giving meaning to the work the volunteers are doing, and in some cases the opportunity to go out to the field to help deploy the technology. We offer learning incentives, for example by matchmaking volunteers with mentors to help grow their skills.  One of the key benefits of using volunteers is that people from different backgrounds come along, offering a range of perspectives.


You have a clear company culture in place. Have you drawn any inspiration from other companies in your approach to this?


We actually stole an idea from Spotify called ‘Squads’. The platform is broken down into teams of volunteers called Squads – a methodology Spotify call ‘loosely coupled but tightly aligned’. The Squads are largely independent so they have a degree of autonomy over their own processes, development cycles, testing etc. They can also develop their own sub-cultures. And the role of the team above them is to make sure the Squads move together in the same direction. Simprints have used this as a blueprint for managing their volunteers and assigning roles based on different skill sets.


We also borrowed an idea from Google called ‘objectives and key results’, which helps to keep the team focussed on our mission and goals. We also think it’s really important to take the team away from our offices every 6 months or so in order to review and re-visit key goals and objectives. It’s important to us that everyone feels able to have their say about the bigger picture.


Do you have any books or resources you can recommend?


It’s a cliché but ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ is a must read for advice on team management.


Any final advice for our readers who may be starting their own business or are thinking about it?


Never be afraid to reach out to people –  if you ask for help, advice, or resources, most people will be willing to do what they can. We emailed the Lego foundation asking for free Lego as a learning resource for our engineers - something fun. After just two emails we received a package of about £1500 worth! Just ask, it’s worth a try!

Tristram Norman, June 2018. 


Check this out:

Simprints have just been mentioned as 1 of ‘5 startups that prove tech can solve the world’s biggest problems’ in Forbes magazine.


Find out more about Simprints at

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