Sketching with Code

Stop Feeding the Beast

I got my first experience of the web quite early in its life. Back then I was connecting BBSs (bulletin boards) via a dialup phone line, and mainly using it so that as a schoolkid I could get hold of interesting fonts.

When the web arrived, I volunteered to do some work at the Science Museum on their first exhibition on the subject - The Internet Superhighway Exhibition. I was a “Surf City Lifeguard” – the front-of-house staff who’d demonstrate what the web was all about to visitors. The volunteering pilot I was part of was researched and published as a book by Sinclair Goodlad and Stephani McIvor. As part of the enrollment we were each given a crash course in HTML. It was 1995 and something of a revelation to me.

That experience inspired me to get into web development, and I freelanced through university, forming a loose collective of people around the brand 3form (No longer in existence), which latterly turned into a web development agency that I ran for several years.

The model was straight-up “time for hire”. Clients who wanted a website would commission us to work with them to design and develop it and we would attempt to charge them for the number of hours we spent on the work. It’s the classic professional service model - lawyers, accountants and others have been working this way for years.

I got into it through passion, but in order to scale the business up it became more and more about pitching for business and “feeding the beast” than about that passion. I was increasingly becoming a suit, and not the designer/developer/practitioner that I wanted to be. Networking and pitching can be great fun, but in Birmingham (where we were based) at that time, the kinds of projects that were available were quite uninteresting sadly. We’d started off doing some really good work for Vivienne Westwood (good creatively, but not for the bank balance, sadly!) and ended up building quite straight-forward, well-executed, only marginally-profitable websites for local customers.

We’d won a handful of awards, and were getting lots of feedback reinforcing this direction. Back then, Birmingham was in the middle of a public sector funding bubble about “The Creative Industries”, and we fell into the trap of being poster-boys for the agenda around supporting small creative time-for-hire businesses.

The trouble is, in all but a few cases, time-for-hire business just don’t scale - you’re constantly pitching for work from others, the IP generated often sits with the client unless you can replicate a business process about servicing many clients or white-labelling some software and applying it to a number of projects.

I grew tired, so I slowly scaled the business down and looked for something that was more exciting and offered a better opportunity for growth.