Insider Stories from Product People

Birmingham’s very own Canvas Conference is just over a month away, and after a two year gap since the last in-person event, us IRIS folks can’t wait to get back amongst it with the product community.

It’s all change for 2021 with a brand new venue, and insider stories from Gymshark, Monzo, Bumble and Lego amongst others, to look forward to. Here’s a sneak preview…

I managed to grab Canvas’ Event Director, Ollie Disney, to get the lowdown on what we can expect from Canvas this year, and how the conference has evolved from its humble roots in the second city ten years ago.

The skinny on Canvas

Canvas started out ten years ago as an event for developers, and now it's a product conference. What's been the driver for change?

The world constantly moves on, and we felt that Canvas had legs to grow from just development into the emerging world of digital products. When you look at the biggest companies out there, digital product is massively important to them, playing a huge role at strategic levels within business and a shift to focusing activity on customer, rather than just the business. Different methodologies, different approaches, and diverse businesses manifesting products in the public realm, and all coming from very different start points - we thought there's some interesting journeys there. It's given us a lot of opportunity to look at the different verticals within product as well, from UX to Strategy and Product Thinking, and still be relevant to the development community.

“One of the reassuring things for our audience is that they are not alone in their problems…”

Your community has grown, with many delegates coming back every year, and either speaking or enjoying the stories on the stage. What do you think has been Canvas’ enduring appeal?

So for Canvas x, for example, we've got people from the world of sports apparel, FinTech, content streaming, looking at reducing homelessness, eliminating food waste, sustainable mobility and property in place. So we've got a really wide range of categories and sectors. But actually, there's some very common problems across them all. And it's one of the reassuring things for our audience is that they are not alone in their problems. They exist at all levels of businesses, in all different sectors, and all different areas. And the more I speak to our speakers, our partners and our delegates, there’s a constant theme - that everyone's making it up as they go along. And that's not a bad thing, no one's an expert in all of this. They're trying stuff out, failing, testing and iterating on behaviours. Interestingly, one of our speakers told me that from the outside, it looks like they’re running sprints perfectly, and their stand-ups nailed to a tee - but it's not the case at all. That's just the external perspective. And this is where the insider stories at Canvas help you look behind the curtain and reassure you that people are making mistakes out there. And that sort of vulnerability is really important.

What’s your favourite memory of Canvas in the years since you’ve attended?

Back in 2017, Hyun Zang, who was director of Microsoft innovation at the time, talked about about how they're using digital products and different ways of thinking and research to solve real human problems. And there's a particular part in the talk where there wasn't a dry eye in the house. She talked about a young designer who had been robbed of her passion because of early onset parkinsons, and she couldn’t hold a pen still due to tremors relating to her condition. So they developed a device that attached to her wrist to counteract the shaking, so she could still draw and paint like she used to. So applying digital product thinking to the physical world, and supporting research, to solve a particular human problem. And overcoming that problem enabled the designer to still pursue a passion. This talk has stuck with me the most, because it showcased creating real human value through product, not just customer value.

You ran a digital event back in the spring for the first time. What did you take from that experience?

We thought long and hard about doing a digital event, as we didn’t want it to be a day-long zoom session. We knew there was an appetite for it, but we wanted to ensure the content quality and delivery was up to the standard our community deserves. So we set a film crew out to pre-record all the talks in 4K in our speaker’s homes, then had live fireside chats and panels to compliment. Also, we programmed it so our content was over four days, clustered around lunchtime to help our community access it without blocking a full day out of their diary. Having the digital proposition also helps us accelerate lowering the barriers to entry to the digital industry, because there are some really high barriers out there. For the physical event, we gift a digital ticket for every retail ticket sold. These tickets are given to somebody who couldn't get access to Canvas, and we picked some charity partners to distribute that through, such as Code Your Future, and other charities that are involved in increasing diversity within tech. And we’ll keep this initiative going, and continue to give more people access who otherwise can’t be with us.

“The sound system, the lighting, a huge IMAX screen, the seating comfort, the ability to have multi screen - the opportunities seemed endless.”

Canvas has taken place at some of Birmingham’s iconic venues, such as the Town Hall and The Rep Theatre. But this year you’re heading to Cineworld. Why the change and what can delegates expect?

We wanted something that was going to be a big step change from where we were. There was nothing wrong with those venues, but when you compare it to a cinema screen, with a fully integrated sound system, the lighting, a huge IMAX screen, the seating comfort, and then the ability to have multi screen - well, the opportunities seemed endless. It gives us different access points, and the opportunity to go multi-track in the future, with different content playing out simultaneously across multiple screens.

And then there’s just the experience of going into the cinema. We have an exclusive on the venue for the conference so there’s going to be a lot of space for us all to move around. There’s also a Starbucks, and the the experience of IMAX for everyone to consume Canvas content - its going to be really up there!

The speaker line-up is incredible. I'm personally really excited to see talks from Gymshark and Lego. Who are you particularly excited to see? Anyone likely to share a story that will really surprise the audience?

I’ve walked through the talks, and clearly the Gymshark story is incredible, starting from delivering pizzas to now being a unicorn, and they’re based just down the road from us too. So for us, that’s amazing. Jo from Zoopla has found a really interesting angle and will be taking about the similarities between parenting and running product teams. I'm not gonna say too much more, but there is a theme emerging about demystifying what's going on in these big organisations, because they’re not as brilliantly organised and run as you think.

If I have to be drawn on one, it is Arrival - they are changing the entire way we think about commercial vehicles. Alex and his team are looking at the entire life cycle of vehicles that contribute up to 25% of urban air and noise pollution, building them from the ground up and making them zero-rated emissions. The more people spend time at home, the greater reliance there is on commercial vehicles to get products to their houses. So there’s a massive impact Arrival can make, through changing the way the commercial vehicle industry operates.

“Speakers sharing insider stories, and actionable insights you can takeaway and embed in any workflow the next day - that’s massive!”

Having been an audience member, and now running the whole shooting match, is there one part of Canvas you most look forward to?

Literally the moment when the content starts. I love just sitting there, switching off and opening my mind to what I am hearing. And then getting feedback at the afterparty from the community, because it then gets me excited about the planning for the next event.

For someone on the fence, why should they come to Canvas this year?

Honestly, I challenge you to find a line-up and experience at the same price point, with speakers sharing insider stories, and actionable insights you can takeaway and embed in any workflow the next day - that’s massive! You’ll see that, actually, everyone's making it up as they go along, and that is ok! You'll definitely come away with lots of reassurance, and inspiration. And it feels so right for it to be taking place in Birmingham, the city is buzzing right now with lots of energy and investment. There’s large employers coming in, such as Goldman Sachs and HSBC. They recognise the deep pool of very good digital and tech talent in the region, and that’s hat’s off to the existing businesses, educational institutions and organisations which help develop it.

Let's look far ahead to 2031, when Canvas turns 20. Any bold predictions for what Canvas looks like in another ten years time?

The future lies in our community. To put it into context, some of our audience in ten years time are probably doing their GCSEs or A Levels right now, and I think the principles of us supporting our community, giving people access to industry - that's actually where it should be. And continuing to open up people's minds in all things digital and tech, that's what we'll be doing. It will still be through a conference, but you’ll probably have a year round relationship with Canvas too, helping people at different points in their career and supporting others to develop their craft and network. We've actually been working with some of the Future Media students at Birmingham City University to really understand how they see the world of product community, and how to develop it through their eyes. This has been so helpful. So for me, its ensuring those steps that we make over the next ten years are meaningful to our community, to support it properly, and add value where we can.

You can buy tickets at, and look out for me and Natalie Lomas at the conference! 

What’s inspired me recently...

I’m a few years late to the party but James Silver’s book, Upscale, is exceptional. Tearing down insights from Tech Nation’s accelerator sessions, there’s a tonne of tips from familiar brands and companies I admire on how to cope with aggressively scaling a tech company. Absolutely essential reading before you take a leap into the unknown.

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Glen Duncan

1st October