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Sunday Summary- Week 2 (a short history of Memrise)

By Memrise Blog

“This is the giant green chair where Memrise was born”

This week, the Memrise team has splintered to the four corners of the globe. I therefore thought it might be a good moment, not least since we have been oddly silent on this blog about some of the bizarre locations from which we have operated, to give a brief history of our roaming existence- it might be of amusement to the interested community-member.

A brief history of the location of Memrise

The idea of Memrise first began to get going in earnest after a conversation on a giant green chair on London’s South Bank in 2008- at which point in time the team was Greg and me. Greg was deep in his neuroscience PhD in Princeton, New Jersey, and I was living in innumerable inns and motels roaming round the UK doing talks at schools on things like how to learn. We worked on Memrise in every spare moment from that point on, and Skype was the lifeline that made our collaboration possible. It has remained completely indispensable ever since, as will be clear from the following narrative of where the company has travelled since.

It was more than a year later, while we were still many ideas and not much website, that we first experienced the joys of working from the same location. This was the summer of 2009, when my superhumanly cool and tolerant cousin Charlotte allowed us to spend a couple of months building and brainstorming from her flat on the upper-east side of NYC  (close enough to Princeton to allow Greg to continue scanning brains half the time).

“Our NYC abode provided some striking visuals”

It was a truly spectacular location for an extended two month burst of creativity, and it was there we first developed something that hints at the current Memrise.

We had by this stage been joined by Kevin Rooney, our designer, source of common sense and Facebook presence. He’s also a photographer of no small talent, and he didn’t neglect to pick up a few choice snaps of how we rolled back in those early days. The most fun element of all was that we had some super hipster neighbours, called Bernie and Dovid, theatre and marketing creatives who used to get their projector out on the roof, for some really quite picturesque late-night film viewings. No better way to un-wind after a hard day’s labour.

The first versions of Memrise live in a shared folder called NYC.

Antwerp had a different vibe

After that summer, Greg resumed the last year of his PhD at Princeton, and I went off to Antwerp, Belgium, to resume an attempt at one of my own. The next design phase of development ended up being called after Antwerp, after Kev joined me there for a week or two in December of 2009. By this stage Spencer, at the age of 18, had joined our rag-tag crew to do a bit of programming while Greg was entering the final intense phases of his study. Spencer cunningly proved himself indispensable, and he’s with us now as full-time website-engineer in chief.

(Irrelevant anecdote: when I casually invited everyone to my birthday party during one of the Antwerp group Skype calls -I had in mind people in Europe- Spencer googled Antwerp expecting it to be in the US, which for some reason he hadn’t realised my Skype voice didn’t originate from, and found that it wasn’t. Imperturbably, he ordered himself a passport. Notice was too short, alas, and he missed that epic night- which ended, in a more Memrise-related sub-anecdote, in perhaps the most inherently memorable thing I’ve ever seen: a crowded bar going into pandemonium when someone released a scuttling bag of live rats).

“Casting for crayfish at lunch during our rural phase”

Antwerp (Europe’s most under-rated city, incidentally) gave the name to the second phase of Memrise’s evolution, still found in our shared folder “Antwerp re-design”. This was where we introduced multiple mem-types (somewhat prematurely!) and articulated a road-map of features some of which we’ve still not built. We then resumed our studies and love-affair with Skype.

We carried on like that until we’d finished our studies (well, Greg finished), and we eventually got together full-time a little more than a year ago in a barn in Long Hanborough (England’s longest village, fyi). At this point in time, Ben, who’s now our community manager, joined the team to work on the Chinese. The barn was small, though, and there wasn’t room for him in it. Ben saw an easy way round the impasse, as he tends to with impasses of all kinds, and erected a Mongolian yurt in the meadow outside, into which he moved himself with his heavily pregnant wife and 2 year old child. Folders entitled “Hanborough” bear witness to this phase.

“Starting up in a barn: the European answer to a garage”

Starting a start-up in a barn, incidentally, is not, finally, to be recommended. We had figured that “the internet is everywhere, just as much in our barn as in downtown SF”. Indeed, we actually thought that the barn would be better than the centre of the world of start-ups- since it combined both the internet and the opportunity to de-tox our minds by looking after the beehives at breakfast, crayfishing at lunch or observing the social life of chickens at tea.

However, it was all a bit isolated and we still didn’t have any users, so we thought we’d better get ourselves into the thick of things, and just at that moment had the unbelievable luck of being accepted into Techstars, a start-up accelerator in Boston. So we left the barn behind, and piled off over the pond- all of us except Ben, who’d gone off to China with his legendarily adventurous wife and family- thanks again, Skype.

“Ben lived in a Yurt all summer with pregnant wife and child”

We were given about four days notice that we’d got in to Techstars before it began, and we rapidly set about searching for accommodation (never easy in a student-heavy rental market like Boston’s). The place we found, by a quite amazing coincidence, meant that life in Boston ended up with precisely the same spread of fauna as life in Hanborough.

This is because we ended up living in the family home of arguably the world’s leading roboticist, whose wife  had gone to Africa for the summer with their four children to install medical devices. An inveterate tinkerer, aside from building mind-blowingly cool robots, our landlord was also in the process of trying to invent an entirely self-sufficient food-producing eco-system for use in Africa, which involved an elaborate set-up of bees, fish-tanks, algae-tanks, flower beds and chickens, all connected together throughout the flat and its balconies with elaborate pumps and waste-disposal-systems. All of which meant, that we were able to continue communing with bees, chickens and fish, despite being in the world’s most technologically inventive city. (Incidentally, our landlord named the three chicks after me, Greg and Spencer- and I found on a recent return visit, that I’ve grown into a marvellous Cockerel, and Spencer and Greg are my girlfriends).

“The view from Techstars proved more urban”

Urban Massachusets turned out not to have exactly the same vibe as the barn, however. There was a bit more tech involved. And energy. And fun. It proved a bit of a whirlwind: twelve start-ups in one room working at a ferocious pace for three months, while being exposed to so much well-judged and kind expertise and friendship that it was barely possible to keep up- emotionally or intellectually.

“New friends at Techstars: Dave and Ralph, who make Tap City, one of the most fun mobile game around”

It was in this phase that we introduced the garden metaphor (first talked about in Antwerp), began expanding our languages, and expanded the possibilities for user-generation.

Alas, due to the intricacies of American visa law, once Techstars was over we were soon exiled to London and back to using Skype as our primary mechanism of communication.

That was three months ago. After a month or so, we began to gather a few more team-members together again in the same place, and with South London as our base, we worked, gathered each day around the mem-brain (thanks Guerilla Science!) out of my flat. Here we began to grow out the community elements of the site, with leaderboards, forums, emails to tell you when your mems are being admired and other things of that character. Evan, Dan, Eliot and Coralie had joined us at this point, in more or less part or full-time fashion, and we were beginning to hit our stride. Unfortunately, my flatmate eventually ceased tolerating the hoopla of having six permanent residents in his home, and politely suggested we find another home. So we moved out in steps to a shared co-working space at TheCube in Shoreditch, which is where we are now.

TheCube feature-blitz is on its way, and will add up to the sexiest development burst yet: we’re working on multiple fronts all at once: iPhone, improvements to the garden, settings for individual languages, more variety to learning, a more just points-system, a greater dynamic of sharing and collaboration, and sweeter navigation all round. A happy hum of activity. Can’t wait to show you all. we’ve also been enjoying what feels like some degree of stability at last.

Except, oh wait- everyone just disappeared again.

Indeed, we’re back down to two at Memrise HQ, and back onto Skype. Spencer’s returned home. Greg’s hopped off for a couple of weeks to Princeton to visit his girlfriend for thanksgiving; Dan’s returned to his own family and girlfriend, and Kev left this morning for Sligo, Ireland, to see his own long-suffering nearest and dearest. Evan and I have no romantic lives to speak of, we write investor reports and code, so we’ve remained in the office keeping the candles burning.

Don’t worry though, work doesn’t cease when we fragment like this: quite the opposite, it often increases. Greg, admittedly, reduces to 13 hour work days while travelling. Spencer, on the other hand, often rises in industry, since he finds the mental space to work as he likes best: in three apocalyptically intense ninety minute bursts that arrive at unpredictable points at day or night. Kev goes completely off radar, and often returns with a thrilling design or three.

Anyhow, that’s a quick overview of the history of the pirate-ship that is this company.

“Mem-maker Luna: so French, it’s almost unbelievable”

But this is supposed to be a Sunday summary -and yes, I do know it’s Thursday. What have we been working on? Well, lots of things, but here’s one we could use your feedback on: it’s an experimental word-set we put together with Luna, one of our more ingenious and, err, French community-members. It’s a set of French words with sub-titled videos as the primary mem. Let us know how you like this mem-style, and we’ll see whether we should try to make this one of the primary styles. Personally, I like the high bandwidth of actual frenchness, as well as memorability, you get from these. I’ve always been amazed by just how French French people manage to be, it’s one of the pleasures of learning the language, and Luna exudes so much Frenchness it’s kind of amazing. In any case- do please try it out and give us your feedback.

Here now, this is where you click to try it out.