Tech North Movers & Shakers is a new series in which we profile those helping to push the tech sector forward across the North. From notable entrepreneurs to dynamic community leaders, we’ll introduce you to the people you should know across the North of England.
The most memorable people in tech are those with a unique identity that sets them apart from the crowd. Jeff Coghlan definitely fits that mould.
Over the past 15 years, his Macclesfield-based firm Matmi has worked with clients as diverse as United Airlines, Comic Relief and Lily Allen; it was an early mover on Apple’s App Store, and has now expanded beyond digital products into the physical world. But whatever Jeff has done in his career, it’s always been guided by a belief in the importance of fun.
Some may be tempted to write him off as a two-dimensional hipster based purely on his trademark hats and moustache, especially in the ‘no-fuss’ North of England where interesting facial hair is often considered mere Shoreditch frippery. But Coghlan’s not like that. His look reflects a sense of whimsy and playfulness balanced with Northern plain speaking that shines through in any conversation with him.
Now aged 43, Coghlan grew up at a time when home computers were making their big breakthrough. His uncle was a professor of computing at Manchester University, and he recalls a big moment in his early years when a computer in wooden casing was brought home. A lonely child, computers became a passion for young Jeff. “You could say my brother was my computer,” he says.
As Coghlan grew into a young adult, the internet came along. Finding it boring to build websites, he founded Matmi in 2001 as a ‘web experience agency’ that emphasised interactivity. The company had an early hit with Monster Poolside Sumo, a family-friendly, Flash-based game that saw monsters take each other on in a swimming pool.
Matmi went on to build an enviable client list based on an approach that put playfulness and interactivity first. For example, the United Airlines ‘Optathlon’ campaign saw passengers play games while waiting to board their flight in a bid to win travel upgrades.
Matmi hasn’t been afraid to launch its own products along the way, in addition to client work. Monster Pinball, launched in 2009, was an early iPhone gaming hit when the App Store was only a few months old.
Now Matmi is focused on bringing playfulness to the physical world, developing experiences that ‘gamify’ experiences. For example, the company developed a system using RFID wristbands to make part of Chessington World of Adventures more fun. In addition to enhancing the attraction, it helps direct people around the ‘Amazu’ enclosure, giving it a practical use too.
Coghlan admits that gamification is an “appallingly bad word,” but he sees it as having the potential to benefit many different areas of our lives, from meeting room booking systems to cancer treatment and beyond.
As for the future, Coghlan says that Matmi is busy developing a product that “will change the way cinema works forever.” When pressed for more details, his mouth is sealed. Spoilsport.
The bulk of attention given to the North of England’s tech sector goes to the region’s biggest cities, but Coghlan is bullish about what his often-overlooked home county of Cheshire has to offer. While some think of this largely rural part of the world as a playground for Premier League footballers, there’s a lot of technology activity going on if you know where to look.
Coghlan lists music industry catalogue management tool Beatroot (watch our video interview with Beatroot), mobile gaming firm Blue Beck and UX firm Sigma as just some of the notable companies that call Cheshire East home. And that’s not counting the healthtech and biotech work that goes on in the area.
The argument for basing yourself in the Cheshire area is pretty compelling if you embrace an unconventional approach to business. “Macclesfield is an hour and a half from London, and 20 minutes from Manchester but we think differently,” says Coghlan. “There’s a hive-mind effect in cities but here we can go out on a tangent (creatively). It can be detrimental but sometimes it works.”
To help boost the fortunes of Cheshire East, Coghlan has joined the board of Weave, a taskforce created to help develop the tech sector in the area. With a name that touches on the local textile industry, Weave wants to ‘weave’ local industry together, he says. For example, by building a bridge between biotech and the digital sector.
The ‘tech hippy’
Coghlan happily describes himself as a ‘tech hippy,’ and technological experimentation fills his time away from work as much as when he’s in the office.
He says that he drives his fiancé mad by kitting their house out with ‘smart home’ gadgets. Using Samsung SmartThings, Philips Hue, Amazon Echo and the like, he’s developed systems that bring his home to life. “I’ve got a light that changes colour with the weather – it turns blue if it snows so I know what to wear, and if someone who doesn’t live in the house comes in when we’re out the stereo makes a barking sound and a camera sends a photo of them to me.”
He says that he even has a ‘vertical farm’ in his kitchen to grow herbs, complete with Internet of Things enhancements.
Coghlan’s next pet project will be to refurbish an old Volkswagen camper van, kitting it out with an array of sensors and security trackers. We’ll definitely be up for a ride in that when it’s ready. What do you say, Jeff?
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