21 Years of Atomic – how it all began
This year sees Atomic turn 21, no small achievement for a small business, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect on our time in business and maybe share some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Back in 1999, the world was a very different place: Britney Spears was making her chart debut, Ipswich Town were playing Premier League football and people still liked Tony Blair. The internet was little more than a passing fad that would never catch on; it was slow and sluggish and it was quicker to get your football results from Ceefax. When we launched Atomic that year, we could never have known that the internet would become the beast it has today, nor that we would come to rely on it so heavily within our business.
Atomic was launched from the ashes of a company I’d started after graduating with a guy I’d met while editing video for Central News. After four years, my then business partner, unbeknownst to me, ripped me off in a big way – he stole all the money and disappeared. I lost everything and very nearly lost my house.
It was the best day of my life!
Of course I didn’t know that at the time, but with the benefit of rose-tinted hindsight I can see that that was the day I learned many of the key lessons that would make my next venture a success. I learned the importance of trust, and surrounding myself with people whom I could trust and the benefit of being trustworthy to those people; but most importantly, I’d learned how not to run a business.
One of the worst feelings I’ve experienced to date was seeing my fellow co-workers and myself have our wages bounce just before Christmas; I vowed that I would never let that happen to one of my employees in the future. Throughout the life of Atomic, I have put the wellbeing of my staff first and made sure to never employ somebody I couldn’t afford to pay on time, every month. I’ve been mindful that everyone who contributes to the success of the company benefits from that success, but without feeling the impact of the difficult times. It might not sound like much, but I believe it is what has helped to bring together the fantastic team we have, and the people who have helped shape the business from humble beginnings into what it is today.
Humble beginnings and the value of people
I would like to say AtomicM was born from vision and a grand ambition; in truth it was started with a need to feed myself. But what I did have was a desire to do it … do it right.
That and £500.
Luckily, that was enough to get us started. I was able to beg some office space from a friend who ran a printing business; I used my wife’s car to get me to and from meetings and for the first year I lived on egg and tomato sandwiches. Our office computers we built ourselves at a cost of £448. They looked like computers, but seldom worked. Luckily, they were stolen in a burglary, three weeks after starting the company. That may not seem like good luck, but my business partner at the time had had the foresight to get us insurance. We got shiny new computers – that worked – and the burglars eventually got caught by the police. We didn’t ask for the computers back.
Within 9 months of starting the company, I got my first taste of the value of people. Our first employee, Nick Shier, and second, Neelash Prajapati, turned out to be an absolute godsend. I didn’t realise at the time, but looking back I can see how fortunate I was in the early stages of the business to find two people who shared my ambition and whose drive helped to move the company forward in a BIG way. With commitment and passion for their work, their influence is still at play in the business to this day.
The four of us became five and then six and the company was growing at a sustainable rate. But then disaster struck and in our third year of business, Neelash was killed in a car crash. With a new company and a few staff, most of whom had been with the business since its earliest days, this was devastating; we had lost a very close friend… one of our gang. I would be lying if I said I thought of Neelash every day, but he is missed, and when I do think of him, I do think he would be proud of where the company has got to today. So thank you to Neelash and Nick for helping drive us through those early years.
The DFE Years
I cannot stress strongly enough how terrible the internet was back then. It was painfully slow, there was almost no worthwhile content, and as a team, we remained convinced that it would never catch on. So much so that Nick Shier, any time he was asked to make ‘the sign of the web’ would flick the V’s on both hands and join them to make a W. So, we left it alone and concentrated on the websites of the day: CD ROMs.
Our biggest customer for this cutting-edge, future-proof technology was Polaroid; for a few years, we were their main supplier of CD ROMs, working mainly with medical and crime reporting instant cameras.
Another key area to our business at this time was video production, which accounted for around 50% of our business. Video production is as glamorous an occupation as you would expect and we were commissioned by both the DFE and DWP to travel the length and breadth of the country producing training and conference videos, learning aids and promotional videos. And while our work with these departments may leave an empty shelf on the trophy case where our Oscars should be, it was still impressive to have a small, Nottingham-based company fulfilling significant contracts for government departments. From 2005, the consistency and quality of our work secured our place as a long-term approved supplier to these departments. Until 2010, when austerity was imposed, and the government could no longer afford nice things. This could have made things difficult for our company, but we were about to have our eyes opened fully to the wonders of our old nemesis: the internet.
Since its early years and our rejection of it as a useful medium, the internet had changed a lot by 2010. Broadband had arrived, giving people faster access to a world of information. What’s more, smartphones were now growing in popularity and people were starting to see the benefits of having access to the internet wherever they were. By this point, our CD ROMs had developed into websites, which we were producing alongside our video work, but it wasn’t until we appointed the appropriately named Andy Webber to the team, that our eyes were opened to the true potential of the internet.
Andy was another employee who taught me the value of hiring and taking care of talented people, and, along with Nick and Neelash, has been instrumental in driving the business to where it is today. Although initially hired as a web developer, it soon became apparent that he was a walking genius with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the digital world and his finger firmly on the pulse of emerging technology. Whatever issue we were faced with, Andy could work his magic and develop a solution. When asked if it would work, he would just smile and say ‘Of course’. And it always did. It was this attitude that led to us early adopting, and in many respects leading the charge, on mobile apps. Since adding Andy to our team and apps to our portfolio, we have become a provider of apps to a host of large corporations, including JCB, Rolls-Royce, Goodyear Dunlop, Scania, Vodafone and most recently Center Parcs. Unsurprisingly, in recognition of Andy’s achievements and influence, I made him a Director and Shareholder of the company and he continues to drive us forward through technical excellence. It also worth noting more on a personal level, how proud it has been for me that some of our more local clients are businesses being run by strong business women – Kay Porter at Smart Marketing, Samantha Langtree and Recliner Beds and Chairs and Jenny Gillmore at Bracken presentations.
From 2012 to the present day, apps have been the backbone of our organisation and continue to be our biggest success, and not just financially. The team that we have brought together to deliver the app development is by far our greatest achievement as an organisation. Client Services Director, Rob Hallam, joined the team three years ago and is a significant piece of our jigsaw, as he continues to develop relationships with our clients. But it would be remiss of me not to mention two other vital members of our team: Office Manager, Jenny Court who has been with us for 19 years, and one of our Senior Digital Experts, Matt Carlin, who joined us 15 years ago.
With the team we have and skills available to us, we continue to grow …. and currently stand at 35 employees. We are now the leading app development company in the East Midlands and are comfortable in our ambition to be the best in the UK within 3 years.
For 21 years, I’ve made it up as I went along and learned some valuable lessons along the way. There are undoubtedly times when I’ve got it wrong as well as times when I’ve got it right and times when I’ve got just plain lucky. But the one thing I can say with my hand on heart that I definitely got right, was to surround myself with people who inspire me and from whom I can learn. It’s not always been easy, but I’ve loved the journey, and wherever it takes us next, I am proud of the fact that I, with the support of those around me, have built something that will have a lasting effect on the city of Nottingham for years to come.
There aren’t many businesses that make it to 21 years, and even fewer who do so with our level of success, so please permit me my Steve Jobs moment and indulge me while I impart some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned along the way.
Know your strengths and weaknesses
You don’t know everything and you can’t do everything. But as long as you know where you fall short, you can find people who fill in the gaps.
Pick the best people you can afford at the time. It is unlikely your company will be built by extraordinary people, rather by ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Look for that spark and work on the bits that are missing.
Value your ideas
Nobody has five good ideas in a row. Most likely you have a hundred crap ideas and one good one. So give yourself the time to have the hundred crap ideas so you can get to that useful nugget. Although it’s also worth bearing in mind that what might be a good idea today, might not be tomorrow, so make sure you sleep on it before committing to it.
It’s ok to be wrong
In fact, it’s essential. If you’re never wrong, you never learn. I love it when an employee has a better idea than mine, because it means I hired the right person for that job. The skill is recognising the good ideas and not letting them be clouded by your own pride.
Put the customer first
This is an old one but a vital one. Without your customer, you do not have a business so you should always put their needs ahead of making money. Business is won and lost on reputation.
Never be afraid to ask for advice. Whether that’s speaking to other business leaders, reading books by prominent achievers, or speaking to a friend, family member or partner, it’s important to take the perspective of other people. You don’t always have to apply their advice, but it never hurts to broaden your thinking.
There will always be tough decisions to make, whether that’s disciplining a member of staff, changing the company direction or calling a client to admit fault. My advice here is to have conviction in your decision and get on with it. You’ll feel better afterwards.
If you’re going to do something, you should do it to the best of your ability. If you think it’s crap, it probably is, and your client probably thinks so too.
A good friend of mine –Adrian Martin – who I first got to know as a customer back in 2002, once told me that sales in business is easy and all you have to do is ‘meet lots of people, make lots of friends and ask them all to buy’. It sounds over simplistic but it’s true. People buy from people, so get out there and make some friends.
It’s not easy
Sorry, but there’s nothing I can do about this one. There’s no easy way to build a business; if there was, everyone would be doing it. Work will have to come first a lot of the time: above friends, family and any form of recreation, so if you want a good work-life balance, don’t start your own company. There’ll be many, many times when you’re the last one to turn out the lights, the only one not at the Christmas party and the one with his sleeves up when the toilet is blocked.
But on a positive note, if you can find something you are passionate about and you enjoy doing, the benefits will always be worth it, and the rewards will come naturally.