We’re passionate about side projects here at Tyk. After all, Tyk itself started out as our CEO and founder Martin’s side project, so how could we not be keen to support and promote other innovators’ new ventures?
Each year, the Tyk Side Project Fund rewards and recognises founders working on inspiring projects in their spare time. One of this year’s winners was Shayne Kasai, founder of Sparel – an interesting new platform for problem solving.
We checked in with Shayne to find out all about Sparel and how he plans to make use of his side project funding.
Tyk: Let’s start at the beginning. Please can you describe your side project?
Shayne: It’s called Sparel. It’s a platform designed to help leaders and strategists solve problems – problems that don’t have simple solutions.
Problem solving is really hard because we’re constantly fighting things like bias and ego, so I designed Sparel to unravel these, and give people a consistent, science-based structure to find better solutions.
As you build the problem out, Sparel starts to look at different metrics… different connections or themes around your problem. Then it will give you insight into possible approaches.
Tyk: What kind of problems are we talking about?
Shayne: Right now, I’m really trying to satisfy leadership problems that might have more than one solution like, should we refactor our software? Or how do we shift to a remote work culture? Or what is our north star?
In reality, I think the problem-space arose from my own experience.
As a senior developer and lead, I’m always trying to help the team work through decisions around architecture, choice of algorithm or establishing new processes. We’re constantly facing fear, uncertainty, constraints… which is totally normal, but can often lead to blocks or bury really good ideas.
In the last two years, I’ve also been a part of a core strategic team that recently succeeded in saving 49 hectares of grizzly habitat from clear-cut logging. There was a lot of uncertainty on what approach to take, who to connect with, and how to tackle the massive amounts of governmental regulation and law behind land acquisition and forestry. The uncertainty, fear, and bias were on par with what I felt as a senior developer.
This is where I think Sparel shines. The idea here is that it’s okay to have uncertainty, opinions and fear – we can give ourselves permission to turn these into models, experiments and research, to answer and eliminate the unknowns and find gaps in our mental model.
Tyk: It sounds like one of those simple ideas that you could apply to literally anything! How are you approaching it?
Shayne: It is quite challenging. Every industry has a set of unique problems so I’m trying to focus on a single set of users. But I’m finding that there’s a lot of crossover, regardless.
At the end of the day, I’m hoping Sparel will give people a consistent structure. That’s not to say that all problems need a consistent structure. Some benefit from a creative, flow type structure. But Sparel isn’t here to replace existing tools – it’s meant to be so light that it can fit in any workflow.
I’m looking at existing, established resources around mental-modeling to help drive the insights. My goal is to find the right balance so that people can look at a problem and find alternate perspectives or approaches.
I hope I’ve done a good job of explaining it!
Tyk: Where did the Sparel name come from?
Shayne: (Laughs) I think I just put it in a random name generator! I forget which keywords I put in. There’s no real reason for it… in fact it’s probably going to need a name change at some point.
It IS pretty close to the word “spiral.” If you think of one of those maple seeds spiralling down from the tree, I do see the link between looking at a problem from far up in the air and then coming down to a much narrower solution. Actually, I’m pretty sure “spiral” was one of the keywords I put in.
Tyk: What led to the idea for this project in the first place? Was there one particularly thorny problem that inspired it?
Shayne: Well, Sparel is my side project. As a day job I work for a company that organises retreats. They had two platforms, one a marketplace for retreats, the other for all their back office and administrative work. They were disparate platforms and we were looking at how to make them work better together.
We came up with so many different ideas. The one that stood out was the idea of potentially combining the two platforms. We didn’t have a particularly solid structure for solving this problem. We were using lots of different tools to map everything out, but it was like trying to find beauty within the chaos.
I really wanted to hone in on the essence of solving that problem. We had other problems that were similar too, so it evolved through that.
Tyk: How did you validate the concept, and get feedback to give you the confidence to run with the idea?
Shayne: I’ve focussed more on validating the concept behind the idea than on the app and the interface itself. It started as a flat Notion doc. I’ve asked friends and colleagues questions around different problems and seen how solutions start to form for them.
In my industry there’s this thing where somebody asks for help with a problem, and all you need to do is stand behind them and support them, and the solution just seems to emerge. That’s the kind of magic I’m trying to hone in on. How does that happen? Why? It’s usually because you’re asking more questions, and you’re having that dialogue.
Tyk: What kind of challenges have you faced with your side project?
Shayne: Quite a few! As it’s a side project it is challenging financially, especially with the pandemic. I’ve been working from home, which isn’t leaving much time for side project stuff.
I’d also say it’s hard to connect with the people I need to help form the insights engine. I live in a very small town – going out and finding somebody who’s built a rocket ship just isn’t going to happen here. People I’d love to interview are generally very busy and working on critical things. Finding people with spare time can be very tricky.
Tyk: What are your next steps going to be?
Shayne: My biggest priority right now is to talk to people. I really want to understand what problems people are trying to solve with Sparel, and what it would take for them to actively use it.
My second priority is to make it incredibly lightweight and effortless. I don’t want people spending hours figuring it out, so I’m putting a lot of effort into moulding it around the different kinds of problems people are working with and making that as fast and painless as possible.
Tyk: What difference has the Tyk side project funding made for you? What are you going to spend it on?
Shayne: In addition to the general costs of hosting, backups, and processing, the funding will certainly help give me a runway to spend more time talking with people about their problems and how they are solving them. I think this will also give Sparel time to grow and build an audience.
Tyk: Stepping back from the project, what are the values that drive you personally? What’s important to you?
Shayne: At my core I really love helping people, so I think I see Sparel as an extension of myself in that respect. It would make me very happy to see Sparel used by everyone, working out how to solve really huge global problems. That could mean environmental, ethical, social – anything.
I see this as my way of making a difference. It’s a bit of a cliché maybe, but that’s where I see this going.
I was also thinking the other day about how more and more people are advocating for critical thinking. People could use the tool a couple of times, realise that problems often have multiple solutions, and then apply that thinking more widely. I like to think that could lead to better, sustainable long-term results.
Humans are often driven by things like fear and uncertainty. In my work, time is a constraint. Sometimes you’ll pick the wrong solution because you only have two hours. If you’d had four you could have come up with something better.
A friend said that the app gives you the permission to spend time on a problem.
Tyk: What tips would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own side project?
Shayne: Always ask a lot of questions and stay curious. Talk to people before you build it.
I built it first, and Sparel used to be a much larger app, with various tools and integrations. But I realised I wasn’t really solving the problems people have.
In short – empathise with people and ask as many questions as you can.
Tyk: Where will Sparel be in five years’ time?
Shayne: I would like to see it at a point where people think, “I need to solve a problem, so I’m going to load up Sparel to do it.” I’d love people to see it as a natural extension to use when they have a tough problem to solve – freeing people from roadblocks and barriers.
I’d also like to see it giving deeper insights. I don’t have experience with AI and Natural Language Processing. There’s a small amount of NLP happening already, but I’d like it to do more of that to find deeper connections. Right now, I’m only scratching the surface with language and sentiment but there’s so much more than can be done with AI and machine learning.