What inspired me to start a web design agency

Sifting through the updates on Facebook, a question caught my attention which triggered a flash of memories right in front of my eyes: “What inspired you to start a business?” This being a Sunday, I thought I’d walk through some of those early memories once more.

What inspired me to start a business?

The question posed by StartUp Donut prompted a reply from me, but I soon started to wander off-topic, meandering into the minutia of the why and the when. So I reigned in my thoughts and decided to put them all here, on Octane.

To answer the question, I just wanted to be the master of my own destiny. The thought of working for someone else simply wasn’t (and still isn’t) in the least appealing to me.

In the beginning…

Originally, the intention was to start up Octane with a couple of guys from college, but things just didn’t work out that way. I was, in many ways, forced into the decision by circumstances largely outside of my control.

At the time, I was working in Leeds, as a new media designer, which entailed designing and building interactive CDs, web design and elements of video and 3D production. The first 3 years were excellent, but then the last 6 months became utterly intolerable. I still don’t know what happened, but something had clearly changed in the guy I was working for. In the end, I had to go.

In hindsight (which is always 20-20 vision), I should have looked for employment elsewhere and built up my network. But I didn’t. I should have waited until I had someone who could partner with me to handle the sales and marketing. But I didn’t.

At the time, web design was very, very new. So I was striding straight into a completely new market, with all the perils and potential you’d expect. And even today, what I do is still widely unknown and new to many.

I also saw a lot of confusion on the part of businesses, business owners and marketing managers, who weren’t quite sure what the whole “web thing” meant. And inside that moment of perfect confusion, a circling swarm of web design agencies were visibly preying on the the confused and the bemused.

From the very beginning, I was determined to, firstly, do things my way, and secondly, to do things right by everyone I did business with, and to be as honest as necessity would allow, without harming my self in the process. That mentality and philosophy stood me in good stead, and I began to win the respect of not just clients, but of those other agencies who, over the coming years, would see me as a constant in an ever-changing industry.

So from 1999 to about 2004, I was more a fireman and a trauma councillor than a web designer — intervening in emergencies and then tending to the people burnt by one disaster or another. While that earned me a solid reputation and won me a substantial amount of referral work, selling directly was extremely difficult because I was guilty by association and constantly walking through dirty water.

The first 10 years really didn’t hit home until after the event, sometime in late June of 2009. Again, in hindsight, I ought to have done more to celebrate the occasion, but things were hard for everyone I knew and the moment just slipped by. But I did manage to scribble together a few thoughts on my time running Octane from 1999-2009:

“There have been trials. There have been tribulations. I’ve survived everything from the bursting of the Dot Com bubble to the current global economic downturn.

For any business to last ten years is a major milestone. But for a web design agency, I breath very rarefied air, shared by few others.”

A special kind of hell.

Running your own business is a trade-off between control and stability, and it’s a trade-off I’ve been a willing participant of since 1999.

I see so many businesses and business people fail for so many totally avoidable reasons, many of which are as a result of poor decision making, over-reaching self interest, an inability to say “no”, and a lack of vision and objectivity.

Conversely, a lack of success is not always the presence of those things, but an absence of good fortune and an array of friends and colleagues to assist wherever they feel able to. Those early decisions to go alone have proved to be instrumental in my relative confinement as an individual and not a team.

But the thought of giving in and working for someone else, to be beholden to their politics, and having to be a witness to all of those bad things is to me some kind of purgatory. I simply could not stand being a party to and being expected to be a participant in a failure of thought and deed, when I know for sure there are better and more viable ways.

“Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” — Paradise Lost, John Milton

The future of Octane?

Right now, the future of Octane looks very bright! I’m presently working on a number of large projects, which I fully intend writing about in due course. Rather than tease, I can tell you about two in particular.

Qwiktax started out as a relatively modest bookkeeping web application, but has since grown into a more mature, feature-complete accounting package, designed to allow small businesses to manage not just their bookkeeping, but employee payroll, fixed assets and VAT, as well as view on-going trading results, loans and profit & loss accounts. So far, we’re making good progress, but there’s still much to do before it’s complete and ready for general release.

To Book is an existing web application that is to be re-designed and re-developed, taking it to version three. In simple terms, To Book is an accommodation management tool specific to the needs of one particular business. To Book 3 will be a generic system, which we can sell to just about anyone who wants to take control of their event management needs. To Book 3 will be, by far, the most ambitious project I’ll have undertaken so far, and I just can’t wait to get going. Right now, we’re moving through the various agreed stages of the project plan, having signed off the initial wireframe designs and flow diagrams, I’m now moving onto the actual design stage proper.

Here and now…

So, all in all, there’s much for me to look forward to and exciting times ahead. With winter just around the corner, and all of the attendant festivities in tow, there’ll be no let up for me, but that’s business!

StartUp Donut — What inspired you to start a business?

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