A different way to run your web design business

Dan James from Silver Orange talks about their unique approach to working with clients and running their web design agency.

Came across this old interview I did with Dan James from Silver Orange. I cannot believe I have not published it before!

If you are a freelancer or run a web design agency, it’s definitely worth your attention. Dan talks about the unique way he and his co-founders run their web design agency and the unusual approach they take to working with clients.

Transcription by Lee Theobald, Debbie-Jane Reyes and Shaun Hare.


Paul
: Okay, so joining us for yet another Future of Web Apps interview is Dan James from Silver Orange. Good to have you on the show.

Dan: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Paul: Now, you’re going to hate this but I feel like I need to begin by just explaining to everybody that Silver Orange was the company that Daniel Burka was involved in, because obviously people have kind of heard of Daniel because of Digg and that there’s a relationship that goes there…

Dan: …Absolutely, absolutely.

Paul: …But of course you’re a lot more than just… some attachment than… just Dan…

Dan: …absolutely… than Daniel’s first love (laughs).

Marcus: (laughs) First cut is the deepest…

Dan: Yeah, exactly it is. Although, I did welcome Kevin into the “Daniel left your company after five years club” (laughs).

Paul: (laughs).

Marcus: (laughs).

Dan: Um, yeah Daniel started… Daniel was one of the founders of Silver Orange.

Paul: Oh right.

Dan: He was one of six founders of the company, um…

Paul: Okay. So, it’s kind of a big group to start a…

Dan: …a very big group…

Paul: Yeah.

Dan: Theirs was nothing more than just a group of friends that got together who started working. And we had no other business experience other than to divvy it up six ways and start from there. Everyone told us it would be a disaster…

Paul: Yeah…

Dan: …and ten years later here we are. So, Daniel moved on to Digg and Digg was a client of ours and Daniel worked full-time on Digg for a year with us and moved over to Digg itself. But Daniel’s still very involved with the company. He checks in everyday or so and sees what’s going on. Every year he spends a couple of days with us, goes through our plans and… So, yeah…

Paul: Right. So…

Dan: He’s gone but not completely gone…

Paul: Gone but not forgotten…

Marcus: (laughs).

Dan: Yeah, exactly.

Paul: So, you’re basically… I don’t want to use the word ‘traditional’ but you’re a traditional type of web agency dealing with clients and providing solutions for those clients. Is that fair?

Dan: Absolutely, we’re kind of old fashioned that way.

Paul: Yeah… But I mean… well there’s still a lot of them around. It’s just that you hear so much about what’s going in the valley and you can sometimes get the impression that we’re a rare breed, actually. That we’re an old fashioned design agency providing solutions to clients…

Dan: Someone has to build the things that the people in the valley are selling…

Paul: Yeah, where they can rake in all the money (laughs). Or raking the venture capital anyway.

Dan: (laughs) Right. Our joke around our office is that the only people of make money from venture capitalists are business supply companies and web agencies.

Paul: (laughs) Oh, we do well then… it’s all very well. So, uh, the reason I thought it was quite interesting to get you on the show is, um, for a couple of reasons is to talk a little bit around those issues that loads of the people that listen to this show face. The dealing with the clients issues, the running your own business type issues and that kind of stuff. But the other area that’s been fascinating about you guys is the whole business model, which is frankly is …weird. (laughs). No, weird is the wrong word but it’s not …well you explain how you guys work…

Dan: Well, there’s a few… a few parts of our business model that are weird. Um, the first thing is we’re, we’re very even, no hierarchy at all. We’re all paid the exact same amount, whether you’ve just come into the company or, you know, you’re one of the founders. So, our salaries are level across the board and we’ve a whole sleuth of reason for doing that.

Paul: Can I ask a few of those? Just to kind of give us an idea because that instantly, people will listening to this and going what the heck? …They’re mad.

Marcus: …can I work for you?

Paul: …yeah… ‘cos you’ve been working for this company for ten years. You know you founded it, you put the effort in the particularly hard days when it started off and you’re not being rewarded anymore than somebody that’s just walked through the door.

Dan: Right. Um, part of it is that there’s… the really simple thing that it’s much easier for the paperwork if everyone gets paid the same thing… (laughs).

Paul (laughs) Oh yeah.

Dan: …Right, you don’t have to worry about that. It takes a lot of the stress out of office, um, where you don’t have that level of competition. No “I wonder how much they get paid” or “Do I not get paid because I’m not valued as much”. You know, so it solves that problem for us. Um, it probably won’t work for everybody but for us it solves that problem. It also is… I look at it… I’m in charge of business development, sourcing new clients, negotiating deals. I can’t do that work without the developers and the designers that work for us. It’s a symbiotic relationship, where I just simply can’t exist without them. They can’t exist, they’d have nothing to build, they’d have no pay checks if we weren’t out there selling their services, which they can’t do and I can. So, we see each other as necessary in the role of our business and because of that one isn’t more important than the other.

Paul: No, that makes sense.

Dan: So, once you wrap your head around that and really bring it into the core of your organisation, you’re going to have to start paying each the same.

Paul: I have to be careful how much I’m “hmmm-ing” and saying I agree… ‘cos otherwise my staff might start getting ideas you see.

Marcus: (laughs).

Dan: (laughs) right, right, right.

Paul: I don’t know whether we want this interview going out now do we? …(laughs) I’m not sure. Can you bleep out certain bits?

Marcus: (laughs). I’ll just pretend it’s fine. We’re not actually recording… (laughs).

Paul: No (laughs).

Dan: To be very honest, in the last, say, 18 months we’ve started to have… pains about it…

Paul: Right.

Marcus: I was going to say, this is a two sided-coin. Definitely.

Dan: Absolutely.

Marcus: It’s okay, everyone who’s new, coming in and is happy about it and I’ve been here for eight years and you know took risks early on, etc, some people might have an issue with that.

Dan: Yeah, absolutely. Um, it’s… the talks are starting at kinda the shareholder level right now on just how we feel about it. Um, I can’t presume what we’re gonna conclude but basically we’re very happy with how it’s gone for ten years. Um…

Paul: Well, it’s obviously worked for you…

Dan: Right. I can’t see any major changes happening. We do… there is a separation between how much you’re paid and ownership. So, there still is that ownership capacity. And we really like investing in real estate for some reason and in our city we own four different buildings. We actively buy, fix-up and rent old Victorian homes in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Paul: Oh really? It’s funny ‘cos we have talked about it but…

Marcus: …never actually done it. Yeah.

Dan: Actually, if you’re interested in it, the balance between working in the “fake” not real internet and the buildings that can burn down at any moment, is such a nice balance between the two.

Marcus: I’d really enjoy that, yeah.

Dan: So, what we’ve been able to do is part of the compensation mechanism is as you’re with us for longer and longer we offer you more opportunity to buy in ownership into the company. The company has real asset, so, it’s not like we’re …someday we may sell (I did quotations with my hands there). Um, so you’re actually buying into something …we’re calling it a retirement plan, basically, is the real estate part. If Silver Orange ever, you know, sells out to… Google, obviously, ‘cos that what we’re all trying to work at (laughs), all of our end game. Um, then there would obviously be some shares for everyone in that as well. We gift some shares to everyone who have been with us for more than three years and then they can buy extra on top of that, so…

Paul: Now, the other thing that Kia mentioned about the slightly unusual way that you work is in terms of your hiring practices, that you don’t… right say… here’s the job, you know, you’re permanently employed for that job. You’ve got a more staged approach.

Dan: That terrifies me, where, you know, you wouldn’t in any other part of you life, you would never do an hour long interview with someone and then absolutely commit to them, you know, in this legally binding relationship…

Paul: Yeah, I like what you’re about to say here… it’s quite appealing.

Dan: Right. So, we learned the hard way, we had some bad hires right of the bat, um, that we had to figure out a better way for us to suss someone out and to see if they fit in with us. And as you can appreciate working in kinda the same way that we do, um, you don’t really know for a really long time if someone’s gonna fit. Their work can be excellent but then culturally or socially it just doesn’t fit and when you’re working in a tight-knit team that’s probably more important than the skills themselves…

Paul: …‘cos you can teach skills but it’s very hard to change someone’s character and… yeah…

Dan: Right, exactly. And so, what we do and what we found works for us is we start off with a quick interview, the standard “Hey, how are you doing?”, “What kind of work have you done?”. We don’t look at resumes, we’ve never found those to be useful whatsoever. Schooling doesn’t matter at all, it’s basically if you’ve done work and we can see it then that’s how we evaluate you. If the interview goes well for the position. We’ll interview a few people for the position on a shortlist, we’ll then offer you a one month contract. That’s just a fixed contract, we’ll pay you for one month to do THIS thing and it’s very defined thing. And at the end of that month we see how you did, we see how we’ve worked with you. Um, we have done that remotely, where someone’s worked not in in our office but we prefer to do that where they’re in our office and even if they’re gonna work remotely in the end we still would like to bring them to our office so we can get to know them for that one month. If that goes well, we then offer them a six month contract and that becomes a little bit more nebulas about what they’re doing ‘cos we can’t plan anything in six months, anyone who says they can is just lying.

Marcus: Yes. Two months, three months, maybe, maximum.

Dan: Yeah, maximum. So, if that goes well, we usually do a check in or two during that time, like a formal sit-down, what do you think is working, what do you think is not working. Here’s what WE think is working, what we think is not working. If that goes well….people are probably like “we’re never gonna work for these people” …(laughs)… So, you’ve done the one month contract, the six month contract, if we’re still interested in you and you still like us, we’re still on speaking terms, we’ll offer you a one year probationary employment. Basically, if this year goes well and there’s no major disasters, we’ll welcome you into the team, deem you a ‘full-slice’, you know, is the term we call ourselves. And throughout that one year term we have regular check-ins, same kind of thing.

Paul: Do you find that creates a probably in terms of who you can hire? Because, for example, let’s say I wanted to come and work for you, right? I’m in full-time employment with a company at the moment so I couldn’t take on a months contract with you. So, in effect you can only hire people that are basically freelancers or graduates, can you not?

Dan: Um, I’ve never thought of that to be honest.

Paul: Ooh well, fair enough…

Marcus: …or out of a job.

Dan: Yeah. I guess you can’t work for us. (laughs) that’s too bad. Thank you for telling up front… haha… Um, yeah I guess so. They way we see it is that’s not really our problem.

Paul: (laughs)…

Dan: Yeah, it’s… the people that have come in have either been in-between jobs, they’ve just left something. We’ve done a lot of hiring right out of high school, you know, seventeen/eighteen year olds who come in and start working with us. It’s a lot of fun. More on our development side than our design side we’ve done that. On our design side, you know, we’ve worked with some, more established designers.

Paul: That’s interesting, really.

Marcus: We’re quite similar really in that…

Paul: …no we’re not! (laughs)…

Marcus: No, no, no, from a hiring developers in a… sort of straight from…

Paul: …Oh graduates… we do, do that, yeah, yeah that works well. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about you’re kind of approach to business. You know, you said a big part of what you’re responsible for is bringing in new work and dealing with that client relationship and stuff. How do you go about getting work? Is it all coming through the door by word of mouth? Are you actively going out looking for it?

Paul: Do you find it creates a problem in terms of who you can hire because for example let’s say I wanted to come and work for you right.

Dan: Right

Paul: I am in full time employment with a company at the moment, so I couldn’t take on a months contract with you so in effect you can only hire people that are basically freelancers or are graduates can you not?

Dan: I have never thought of that to be honest.

Paul: Oh well fair enough

Marcus: Or out of a job.

Dan: Yeah, oh I guess you can’t work for us that’s too bad.

Paul: Shucks

Dan: Thank you for telling me up front, yeah I guess so the way we see it is our problem.

Paul: (laughs)

Dan: You know, the people who have come in have either been between jobs, they have just left something. We have done a lot of hiring right out of high school you know 17 and 18 year olds
who come in and start working with us

Paul: That’s cool.

Dan: It’s a lot of fun, you know more on our development side that our design side we have done that, in design we have worked with some more established designers.

Paul: That’s interesting, it’s an interesting…

Marcus: We are quite similar really yeah more.

Paul: No we are not, what do you mean?

Marcus: No I mean from a hiring developers who are straight out of college that sort of thing.

Paul: Graduates, yeah yeah we do do that, that works well. OK let’s talk a little bit about your kind of approach to business, you said what is a big part of your responsibility is bringing in new work
and for dealing with that end client relationship and stuff.

Dan: Right.

Paul: How do you go about getting work? Is it all coming through the door via word of mouth or are you actively going out looking for it?

Dan: We have two main chains of business, two lines of business one is the design side and that is something we cannot even do one tenth of what comes in the door.

Paul: Right.

Dan: We were really lucky early on started working with Mozilla, we were the team that led the rebranding of Phoenix to Firebird to Firefox and actually here at future of web apps the guy who actually hand sketched
the first Firefox logo is here.

Paul: Oh really?

Dan: Yes, Steve Durroch, and Daniel was working with us in Charlottetown at that point and I remember him doing a just a whiteboard, kind of rough wireframe of what it could look like. So we really lucked out, who would have known that Phoenix would shape a few hundred thousand users would come to what is it is. So that was all volunteer when we did that but that turned into Mozilla as a client and Mozilla has been a fantastic client and that led to Kevin Rose from Digg calling us. Which led to you know we are contacted a lot for design work right now.

Paul: Yes I can imagine.

Dan: So the other side of business is one that we actively pursue and it is a very unsexy untechnology side of web development, early on in our company, it was actually very early on in our company we were having trouble getting business and, like this was ten years ago in 1999 after the bubble burst and all that and we had no track record. We were just a team who though that we were worth something, we were going after a company that was local to us and they were a large gardening company they sold seeds and flower bulbs and garden tools and they had request for proposals out saying we need to build a new ecommerce site. They had a older ecommerce site and they wanted to upgrade. So we threw in a number. They came back to us and said we really like you but your number is like six times higher than everyone else’s. So we are like well that’s what we are worth you know. We were arrogant very arrogant at the time.

Paul: A bit of arrogance doesn’t hurt too much.

Dan: Absolutely absolutely, but the client came back to us and said there is no way you are going to get this project, we would love for your talents to be involved but there is no way you are going to get this project at that rate.

Paul: Yeah

Dan: So we sat around it was kind of a crisis moment and you know necessity is the mother of invention, so I think it was one of our founder’s mothers who came up with the idea, why don’t you offer a percentage and say you will do the work for free all up front in return for a percentage of sales made via this new site.

Paul: Now this is interesting, because this is an area where we have actively resisted.

Marcus: Avoided.

Dan: Really OK, we can talk more about it on show or off show.

Paul: Sorry I am interrupting.

Dan: There are some things that, ahh I would say it all on show that’s fine. So we started thinking hey that’s interesting and we started to work out the metrics of how that would work and basically we concluded let’s do a multi year deal, 3-5 years for x percentage and then that percentage is based on how many sales they had and really we did it out of desperation just to get a project and this was literally our second project as a team and the first one was just a small fee for service you know $10,000 and build a website kind of thing. So we went into it and we built this brand new ecommerce store. There old store had a eighteen step checkout process.

Paul: (laughs)

Dan: Which like you can imagine, but they still had sales out of that so, and you’re like holy cow!

Paul: So there is a lot of potential then?

Dan: Yeah right so we saw potential there and a upside probably more so than the client did and so we spent six weeks developing it from the day before we launched to the day after we launched with no marketing at all no new announcements on the clients behalf there was a four hundred percent increase in sales and we made more money in the first year of a three year contract than our first quote to build the site.

Paul: Blooming heck!

Dan: yes right, and for them they did not care because it was a percentage their pile of money was exponentially bigger than our pile of money. So we are still working with that client. It has been like eight, nine years now.

Paul: Wow.

Dan: We have done two contract renewals with them, so we have taken that model and we started looking for, we analysed that client and said we are somewhat lucky here but what was working about this what happened here and what we was able to conclude was that from that was for us it had to be an ecommerce client of a certain size and be doing a certain amount, they had to have a beautiful product, kind of a leader in their industry, have a beautiful print catalogue that looks really good and have a shitty website.

Paul: Yes.

Dan: and no staff or skills to manage that and so you really come riding in on your white horse and save the day a for these people.

Paul: You see on that basis, what you have just described there I would not have any problem with it at all.

Marcus: No.

Paul: It is finding the right people isn’t it.

Marcus: It is which avenues you go down isn’t it we have gone down the, we started winning government work years ago. So they have the budget up front and it is set and they are sensible budgets. They are not like these guys are saying to you no there is no way we can pay you that. If we weren’t doing Government and University work they have sensible budgets so we have always gone down that route. It is which ever way you go. Your way, that what you have just described sounds very exciting
yes it does.

Dan: Yes it is fun.

Paul: and it is a very tangible return on your work you know, the better you do the more you get back from it. Which is nice.

Dan: We kind of joked, that is the real internet that is where real companies are selling real products and real customers are getting real things out of it and the next company we approached after this one that was local to us was in Connecticut in the USA, and was funny because all these people had told us these things about how you export and it turned out how you export is just pick up the phone and call someone who doesn’t live in the same place as you live. So we came into this company and they were so similar in size to what we are now we are fourteen people and they were fifteen, sixteen at the time and they are a brass reproduction hardware company they make antique brass poles and latches for hardware and for antique furniture.

Paul: Sure.

Dan: And it is a third generation family business and that is actually one of the criteria we have now that it actually has to be like a family business.

Paul: A well established.

Dan: Yes a family business that has been well established and we came in and they had a horrible website but beautiful product and I mean their great great grandfather had hand carved during the great depression these brass moulds they stamp and unbelievable quality and service and a horrible website and we came in and they said thank, and this would be in 2000, 2001 and they said thank goodness you are here no one has ever approached us.

Paul: Right.

Dan: To build a website , and I mean this company does a very good volume of sales on the internet and we were able to come in and increase their sales and take a percentage, we are on contract number three with them.

Paul: You see that is a good model I like it.

Marcus: Do you do the marketing side of it?

Dan: SEO marketing ?

Marcus: That kind of thing yes.

Dan: We have been trying to get pushed into that but we are not good at that, that is not what we do we are developers.

Paul:That’s the problem we have as well.

Marcus: We gave that up as well (laughs).

Dan: Yeah I mean there is a while industry of snake oil salesman that can take care of that, what we do do is sit down with our clients on their behalf and help them vet these people who are trying to sell
them those services because you know, we can tell when someone.

Paul: You can spot them easy.

Dan: yes, we can spot them easy.

Marcus: Real snake oil.

Paul: So there must be quite a lot of time researching possible candidates

Dan: Yes.

Paul: How do you go about doing that?

Dan: I order catalogues and products on the Internet.

Paul: Right.

Dan: We have certain types of products we are looking for ironically one of the things and we had a lawyer who worked with us in our company and was good friend of ours, he is like a beer connoisseur, he is not your typical lawyer and one of the criteria he made us put in was that they’re recession proof.

Paul: Which was very wise.

Dan: And it turned out one of the companies, this year had their best year in sixty years and it was the gardening company, they sell seeds for tomatoes and carrots.

Paul: Sure, sure.

Dan: And their sales just boomed through the roof and because our sales are tied to commission for that client, we did very well this year. the other thing that it does is make our
cashflow level.

Paul: Yes.

Dan: Because it’s a monthly.

Paul: Which is a huge issue.

Dan: Oh yes for a project to project agency that is a huge huge deal, so our cashflow has seasons but they are like the seasons of gardening and the seasons of you know brass reproduction antique hardware sales.

Paul: Do they have seasons?

Dan: They all have seasons it is amazing, right?

Paul: It is fascinating Dan, and for some it is you know the typical retails season which is November to December they do 80% of their sales and we have four or five clients that are in that side of our business
and we try and take on one every two years because it is a very very in-depth process for us it involves our entire team. We have a full time staff dedicated to just managing those clients and making sure they are happy

Paul: Really?

Dan: So it is a different business model and it is not insanely lucrative like design is from time to time but is also much more steady.

Paul: Yeah and fun.

Dan: It’s a blast because you are dealing with these people who have been running companies for … there is a company we deal with in the states, I think they are the largest flower bulb distributor
in the United States and they sell tulips and daffodils and things like that their company was started in something like 1834 and it is seventh generation family you know and those companies because it has been in their family for so long they are the antithesis of the vc funded startup that needs everything done by next week and flashy and fancy. You know the sixty year old gardener online doesn’t need to have all this flash and actually it is inhibitive for them to have all this innovative design when they are just looking to buy tulips.

Dan:
So we try and bridge that gap to bring the new technologies that are coming out and see how they can be useful to the average internet user. The other thing from an agency point of view is that it removes all those crazy barriers you have with you clients. They can pick up the phone. We get paid absolutely nothing other than our commission. They can call me and say “What do you think about this idea?” and we can say “It’s alright. It’s not bad. Why don’t we try it quickly?”. If it’s a really great idea we’ll spend significant time developing it. But they are not worry”Has he pressed the stopwatch on his desk? Am I going to get a bill for this?”

Paul:
And that’s the thing that we are trying to overcome. In an ideal world you almost want to be working like an in-house designer. You want to be a partner in the company.

Dan:
Yeah partner is a better word. You want to have some leverage where if they say we want to make our logo spin and be on fire…

Paul:
Yeah, so you can say no.

Dan:
We actually, in those agreements, say we have the final call in these list of things and you can’t overrule use. Then they have the final say on a list as well.

Paul:
That’s good. Very interesting. So going back to the more traditional model…

Dan:
Yep. The charge a fee for a service, get a contract…

Paul:
So you get an invitation to tender in, somebody wants a piece of work done. What’s your…

Dan:
We don’t replies to tenders.

Paul: Ah, OK.

Dan: We don’t reply to RFP’s. We have the luxury of not having to right now.

Paul: OK but I assume you still produce some form of proposal. What’s your sales process? That’s what I’m basically getting at.

Dan: Sales process is that we usually get an email. We prefer email over calls as do all agencies I imagine.

Paul & Marcus: Yep!

Dan: We usually get a short email saying here’s my great project…

Marcus: Phone me.

Dan: Yeah. Phone me or it’s fantastic. please sign an NDA. We try and figure out who we want to pursue and who we don’t want to pursue. And like I said this year was a little bit leaner than last year. Last year was crazy. You probably experience the same. We were getting 5 to 10 a week of serious project enquiries and we can take one a month, maybe, to do well. So we figure out which ones we want to pursue. A lot of the time you’re looking at the domain name that it’s coming from and you’re “Oh, I’ve heard of this one”.

Paul: Yeah, you do that! (Laughs)

Dan: Of course. We will then ask for more information. If that goes well we’d have a good phone conversation with them. Depending on the nature of the project and this is a new rule in the last year that we’ve set up for ourselves, a new policy, we have to meet people face to face before we do a project for them. That’s why we are actually in London for Future of Web Apps. We have a client here that we are starting a new project with. So we said “Well, we’ll come see you”. So it just makes electronic communication that much better, as I’m sure you know.

Marcus: Yeah, we’ve only had one client that we’ve never met.

Paul: Who was that?

Marcus: It was Scottish Natural Heritage.

Dan: They’re not that far away.

Marcus: Not that far away. It was a case of “Can you do this job? We’ve only got this amount of budget”, “Well yes if we don’t come up and see you”. It was one of those situations.

Dan: There’s going to be exceptions here and there. Once that happens, we often draw up a very quick deal. We’re not big into paperwork. We’re big into handshakes and general understanding. So it’s usually a 2 or three page agreement with a price, a timeline and a budget.

Paul: I bet you wish your proposals were like that. We work for the public sector. They like big documents.

Dan: We’ve got one government client in Canada. Luckily they have what’s know as standing offers in Canada. So you can do all the work up front and that same department can get you to do the work for a year or two. We’ve gone through that and it’s a horribly detailed process. So after the 2/3 page agreement, we sign it and go on. The number one rule for web design is get 50% of your money up front. I forget who said that, probably years & years ago.

Paul: We split it into threes don’t we?

Marcus: It depends on the size of the project. Again it’s the type of work we do.

Dan: Can you get your government money up front?

Marcus: Some.

Dan: Really? OK.

Marcus: I would think I’m not allowed to say this so… No you can’t. But some do.

Dan: But you know they’re good for it right?

Marcus: They’ve good for it. They are normally a bit late in paying but they are good for it. It’s normally the commercial client that you tend to be a bit more concerned about.

Dan: Right. So we’ve done similar. Get a large chunk of money up front I guess is the better way to say it. Then our final payment comes when the client is happy and done with the project. Then they send the final payment to us. In ten years of doing business, and we’re a 14 person shop so it gives you an idea of our size, I have bed debts of $4,000.

Paul: That’s impressive.

Dan: Yeah.

Marcus: I don’t think we’re as bad as that. We have 14 people in the company and I think we have less than that.

Dan: Oh really?

Paul: What about… Oh they did pay.

Marcus: They paid. We did have an issue with a client but we did end up getting paid a little bit.

Paul: But they did it.

Dan: Hey, that’s fantastic.

Marcus: We’ve never been in debt.

Dan: Yeah, we’re in the same way. We have some debt that’s attached to real estate investments, a traditional mortgage.

Marcus: There’s lot of “Aren’t we great!” (all laugh)

Dan: It depends on each agency and company when you start out. What position are you in. We were 18 when we started…

Marcus: Yeah, me too. (laughs)

Dan: If we were to start a company now, personally we need some money to live. We can’t live on credit cards and family and Kraft dinner, which is like macaroni & cheese. So it all depends where you are at. It sounds like we had similar journeys.

Paul: We were quite fortunate actually.

Marcus: We came from an agency. We all started working for a dot com company that was badly run, like they all were. It was going to make millions from advertising. Basically the directors of that company asked us to try and turn it into an agency that sold it’s services. We successfully did that in about a year. We got some quite bug clients. Then that company inevitably went under.

Paul: And took us with it.

Marcus: Yeah. Paul, myself and the third founder said “Well, let’s just carry on. We’ve got these clients that are half way through projects.”

Dan: The clients aren’t going anyway.

Marcus: We spoke to them and said we’d quite like to carry on working with you. They said “Well prove you can deliver and we’ll carry on”.

Paul: That’s how we managed to be profitable from month one.

Marcus: All but one went with us. So we didn’t start down here, we started up here somewhere. Which is a luxury. We’ve appreciative of that.

Paul: Perhaps that’s a good way of wrapping things up here would be you advice. I know there are a lot of recent graduates that listen to this show who would have been in exactly the same position as you were when you set up. What would the piece of advice you would leave them with? What is that best thing you did and what is the worse thing you did?

Dan: Are these for people starting their own businesses? Now looking to get a job.

Paul: Yeah, they want to do what you did basically.

Dan: I can pass along the best advice I got starting out. There’s a gentleman whose very close with our company, who’s had phenomenal fame in our industry, not in the web just in the company industry in general. It lucked out that he vacationed on Prince Edward Island where we’re from, at my parent’s hotel. It’s uncanny. He basically told us “Do good work and don’t worry about money”. That’s kinda been our mantra. We’re varied off it occasionally, adjust course and come back to it. But that’s held true for us. You do good work consistently and the cash will take care of itself.

Marcus: That’s been ours as well. If you keep doing good work then your clients will be happy, they’ll keep coming back to you and they’ll keep recommending you to other people. That will grow & grow & grow, until you can’t cope. (laughs)

Dan: Yeah, until you’re overwhelmed. The worse thing we’ve ever done?

Paul: Yeah. Especially in those early days. What big mistake did you make?

Marcus: It’s blotted from his mind.

Dan: Yeah, years of therapy have paid off.

Paul: And I’m dragging it all back up for you.

Dan: I’m going to have to go to the corner and cry. Um…

Paul: It doesn’t matter if you can’t think of anything.

Dan: Do you know what, there’s not much that I would regret.

Paul: No because even your mistakes you are learning from and it’s part of the process.

Dan: Absolutely. I would say, and this isn’t from my experience, it’s the converse of my experience, don’t start off by yourself. Don’t be one person starting a company by yourself. I think that must be the loneliest thing in the world to be faced by all those pressures and that stress by yourself. We had 6 guys and we’re all still great friends. Once a year the whole company gets together and it’s like a reunion more than anything.

Paul: Unfortunately it didn’t work out like that for us. We hate one another (laughs).

Dan: There’s three of you that started your current endeavour?

Paul: Yeah.

Dan: I would say find a small group of friends and start something. Sind something that you are passionate about; something that you are really into. I remember those first years when we had very little work and a lot of time we’d argue. We didn’t fight. We argued passionately about what we wanted to do. In retrospect that’s the foundation that we laid for our company. That’s lasted 10 years. We’re still solidly strong on that foundation. So yeah, start off with a few people. Don’t go about it yourself.

Paul: That is really good advice.

Dan: Oh and invest your down time. When we started we had no project and three of the guys, Daniel being one of them, decided to live in New Zealand for a year. We literally incorporated the company and three weeks later three of them move away and there were some left where we were. So we tried doing things by email but email was a pain in the ass. So we built this tool that we called the Silver Orange Intranet that was this communications platform that turned out to be quite interesting for some people. Then Jakob Nielsen, the Nielson Norman Group in 2001, named it the best intranet in the world! It beat Cisco Systems and the Department of Transportation for the United States. We were just a bunch of guys talking to each other and we spent that down time developing tools. We still use our intranet today. It’s 9 years old in its current iteration and it has 60,000 posts from just us. That platform has allowed us to build more and more value into our company. We’ve invested time into code platforms, we’ve developed out own. That’s not necessary today with all the available options but for what we’re doing it is, or at least we think it is. So invest your downtime in infrastructure or projects for yourself. That builds your portfolio too and you can say “Hey look at this thing we built”.

Paul: Totally. Really good. I really enjoyed that. Thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s always good to talk to other agencies that are doing similar stuff so thanks a lot.

Dan: Thank you.

  • Jimmy Martan

    A different ways to run your web design business …http://logoonlinepros

  • http://rolling-webdesign.cpm Theo

    This is such a great interview,I really enjoyed reading it. Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    Great interview. Really like the idea of idea of hiring scheme.

  • Anonymous

    Invest in your downtime. Good shout.

  • Anonymous

    The link in the transcription to the silver orange site is bust.

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  • pon malar

    Great interview.i really enjoy in reading it.

    http://cavinitsolutions.com

  • rinths

    Great advice and interesting on how first project came about

  • christinarule

    Are these guys still a firm? Where is their site?

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