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Web Tales, Episode 2: profile of a small web agency

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Web Tales: web design & development, a small agency perspective podcast

This week on episode 2 the xovakmedia crew chat about:

The bold design direction Google are going in, the moves Mozilla are making to protect your online privacy and the way that Microsoft are making people love them again.

In our big chat we discuss who xovakmedia Web Design is:

  • How we began
  • Our path to steady growth
  • The impact of a portfolio
  • The importance of design and a client-first mentality
  • Employing people
  • Where we are now and where we want to be

Websites referenced in this episode:

The Pre-amble

Darren: I'm Darren and ...

Jamie: I'm Jamie. I'm a programmer and a project manager.

Jana: I'm Jana. I'm a front-end designer and developer.

Josh: I'm Josh, a programmer.

Darren: OK, let's go. Welcome to episode two. I'm not going to say episode two, Tales from the [inaudible 00:00:19] Small Business Perspective Web Agency blah, blah, blah because actually I've changed the name. It's not called Tales from the Web anymore. It's now just called Web Tales.

Josh: Web Tales.

Darren: Web design and development from a small agency perspective because when we started working on the icon and stuff for it Tales from the Web [00:00:35] just didn't look nice on the icon and Web Tales looked great. Yeah, it's called Web Tales. I was also really surprised that there wasn't a podcast called Web Tales. It seems like a good idea, a good name for a podcast about web stuff.

Jamie: Well, there you go.

Darren: Are you guys all happy with that.

Josh: Yep.

Darren: We are now called Web Tales. How's your week been? What's been happening so far? How's your weekend? I guess we are Tuesday at the moment, so how was your weekend? What's been happening?

Josh: Oh, yeah, just doing work around the house and stuff trying to make it nice.

Darren: Nothing exciting? Nothing notable.

Josh: No, I've got a kid so ...

Darren: You always say that. What? You're really not selling kids to our listeners.

Jana: Kid shenanigans are funny.

Josh: Kids are, they're cute, but they do disrupt the ability to -

Darren: Do stuff that you want to do?

Josh: - go out and party or anything like that.

Darren: Ah. You're not some partier, don't lie.

Jamie: Do you wonder what your life was like before you had a child?

Josh: Oh exactly [inaudible 00:01:32].

Jamie: How you managed to hold down a job.

Darren: Jana [inaudible 00:01:38]?

Jana: Oh, I was in Sydney and it was ...

Darren: Wasn't it your anniversary?

Jana: It was which we spent with Pete's best mate and partner.

Darren: OK. [crosstalk 00:01:49]

Josh: Oh, that's romantic.

Darren: I'm not sure how that [crosstalk 00:01:50]. Yes, we spent our anniversary with Pete's mate and his partner.

Jana: Which we've previously done with one of his other mates as well so that's always good fun, but it beats the year when he was at a buck show.

Darren: Hang on, [crosstalk 00:02:08]. I'm going to need a judge's ruling on this. You had an anniversary and he went, 'Ah, happy anniversary, I'm off to a buck show.'

Jana: That was our first year anniversary. I allowed him to go, generously, because the poor guy wasn't going to have one at all and so he didn't know too many people in Adelaide.

Darren: Context, context.

Jana: Context, yes, but still I was a very generous people, I like to think.

Darren: Yeah, definitely, yeah.

Jana: Sydney was fun.

Darren: I like Sydney.

Jana: Yeah. Just drinking and walking around.

Darren: Cool. Jamie?

Jamie: I spent the weekend catching up with some old friends which was nice and the rest of the time looking for a new motorbike.

Darren: Oh yeah, have you found a motorbike yet?

Jamie: Nearly. I found one I really like, but it's going to be maybe a bit of a project like the van.

Darren: Tell me about the van. I thought you were going to be working on the van all weekend?

Jamie: I was going to, but then I realized that I pretty much finished all the bits that I needed to do.

Jana: He needed a new project.

Jamie: Yeah, the motorbike is kind of turning into the new project now that the van is ready to go play in.

Darren: Did you drive the van in today?

Jamie: Yeah.

Darren: I thought I saw it on the street. Is it exciting? Can we go look at it?

Jamie: If you like, yeah.

Darren: You sound a bit -

Josh: We'll be back in just a moment.

Jamie: I haven't put the paneling on the inside yet so all the cupboards are built and everything is kind of done, but it still looks a bit van-like because there's loads of white metal still exposed.

Darren: Well, it is a van. I'm not surprised it looks van-like. All right, well let's cut to the news. OK. Let's talk about what's caught our eye this week. Who wants to first? Anybody got any interesting news they want to talk about? Any web news? Any webby, techy, news, geeky, techy, nerdy good stuff?

Web News

Jamie: Yeah, I'll open this one up.

Darren: James.

Jamie: This is pretty exciting announcement from the Mozilla guys last week. They've teamed up with the team that took Firefox a while ago and came up with a Tor browser and they're going to look at implementing the two technologies back together in what's called Project Polaris. They will be bringing Tor into Firefox as a native capability.

Darren: Can you talk about Tor a bit more?

Jamie: Tor is essentially an anonymous web browsing set up. Normal web traffic you just connect from A to B via whatever is in between. The idea that the Tor guys had was to keep your web traffic anonymous they just bounce it randomly from serve to server all around the world. They're what's called middle relays and it goes from A to B via XYZ so anybody looking at the traffic can't really tell where it came from so that's only really been used by a very small handful of people so far, but then with revelations that have come out from Edward Snowden with the NSA and recent powers given to ASIO, Mozilla did a survey and 74% of the 7000 people they surveyed said that in the last year the data had been compromised and they felt less safe about browsing the web and now was really the time to act. The NSA publicly described Tor as one of their biggest nightmares because they just couldn't find a good way of monitoring it. This is a pretty big deal and if Mozilla can be the first one to come out and say we've got a browser that will actually keep you private and safe, it could be a pretty big boon for the browser as well.

Jana: How does this -

Jamie: Does this - go on, sorry.

Jana: I was just going to say, on the flip side of the small web agency view, how does that work with things like Google Analytics? Is it just the location stuff that it scrambles or is it kind of everything.

Jamie: Yeah, it wouldn't do your location analysis any good. Once you got a site, Analytics would still be able to track ...

Jana: Clicking around.

Jamie: Your movements around the site and Firefox, I'm sure, will implement in a way that things like sessions in a particular site can still work.

Josh: The IP that you're browsing the site with will be the IP of the exit note that you get assigned to.

Jana: That [inaudible 00:06:14].

Josh: The exit note takes the Tor network and turns it back into internet again so you can finally get onto the web server at the end.

Jana: Yeah, yeah. OK.

Darren: In answer to Jana's question, it really won't affect our ability to monitor someone's behavior on our website?

Jamie: We won't have very good geographical analysis, but other than that we'll still be able to track funnels and see how someone's behaving and interacting.

Darren: I assume it would affect things like [inaudible 00:06:37] targeting ads.

Josh: Oh, yeah.

Jamie: Yeah, that's kind of the point. You've essentially become a nobody online. There's nothing there.

Darren: Then it would also affect stuff in Analytics like demographics.

Josh: Oh all sorts.

Darren: Well, there you go, so it does affect people's ...

Jana: You'll be able to see people's behavior, but not anything about them.

Darren: Just their behavior on your website, not their behavior ...

Josh: I don't know if sessions would always work because I don't know whether you'd get assigned the same exit note as you browse the site. If you hit the server once and download a page and come back five minutes later and grab another page, like click a link, I don't know whether you'd go through the same RP both times.

Darren: Yeah, right.

Jamie: I can only assume these are the sort of challenges that Mozilla is taking on board by bringing the project [crosstalk 00:07:21] -

Darren: In house.

Jamie: - as a joint effort, but something that the guys out there might find pretty interesting to see just how much your information is logged and compromised when you do anything online, there's a Mozilla Firefox add-on that's been around for a year or so now called Lightbeam. What that does is keep track of all the varying connections that you get on your browser and it visualizes the into a [inaudible 00:07:45]. Install Lightbeam and just browse the web as you would and you'll suddenly started to see why the idea of the anonymous [crosstalk 00:07:52] is so important.

Darren: Well, privacy is, again, a massive issue and everyone's becoming more aware of it because it's just becoming news. It's becoming more in our public consciousness now so this is a massive story. Is there likely to be, is there any hint or any murmur of legislation to ban such a tool or anything like that because of the fact that governments do use these things so much. Peer-to-peer networking, for example, is frowned upon and they're always trying to shut down that kind of agency.

Jamie: That's an interesting point because right now the Tor project itself is 80% funded by the US government because they thought, originally, I think it was the Navy that conceived the project and then the government was thinking it would be a good way for sort of despotic societies to keep people's access to information alive.

Darren: Like China and stuff where you can't get to it.

Jamie: It's only when one sort of leg of the government is subversive of the other leg of the government as we see with the NSA now that we might start seeing policy change and things actually could be come a bit tricky.

Darren: Well, this is one to keep an eye on, definitely. That's a really awesome story. All right, thanks James. Who else has got something?

Jana: Well, I've got, it's not so much fresh news as it's been developing for quite a while, just sort of looking at the continued development of the Google design sort of language which they've started calling design material and it's really interesting, like it almost started way back in 2011 when they were like, 'Well, we've got to redesign everything,' and sort of give everything a consistent look and they have done that for a few years and then over the past year they've sort of been taking it to that sort of next level and it's really interesting that they're looking a lot more professional almost than Apple are in terms of design now which is funny because no one ever used to think of Google as a design king or anything like that. It was always about the power behind it. The animations really make it, like it's kind of 50% of the power of it is the way you interact with the design and it's kind of skeuomorphism's next level. If you look at the documents they've got -

Darren: Real rules, aren't they?

Jana: Yeah, yeah, it's own sort of internal physics logic right down to the lighting and the kinds of directions that the drop shutters cast.

Darren: Yeah, they've got like two types of lighting. The animation things, I already like what they, I remember reading this is called material design, their concept isn't it? They've got this whole guide about it which half reads in a really pretentious way, but the guts of it what they're saying is really cool. For example, animations are only allowed to be used for function and stuff like that. Nothing extraneous sort of thing.

Jana: It's all about guiding the eye and making things clear. I've been hearing Rachel Nabors sort of talk about the power of animation for usability for a few years and so it was really interesting to sort of see them take this direction as well and hopefully we'll sort of see that - well, we have been seeing that with CSS3 enabling people to do stuff without Javascript so that's been really cool. It's funny, even though it has its own kind of strange physics that aren't real, but because they all follow the same sort of logic it makes a lot of sense like I've been obviously talking about Google Inbox the last time.

Darren: That's one of the examples of material design?

Jana: Yeah, yeah. At first it was like, whoa. Everything's kind of moving about and stuff, but it really sort of keeps everything making sense and works really well, but yeah, like you mentioned there's a Google sort of a big write up which you can go through and read about the various thing so that will be linked to in the show notes I guess? Yeah.

Darren: What other stuff have they rolled out material design into so far?

Jana: The latest and greatest is the Android Lollipop which I hope -

Darren: I still haven't seen it in the flesh, but I've seen screenshots and I've read a review where someone said, I think on Verge, they were like, 'This is the most beautiful Android ever,' sort of thing.

Josh: I feel like I've seen elements of it in applications that have updated on my phone just recently, just like the app store - no, not the app store. Whatever it's called. Google Play Store and all of that stuff.

Jana: Yeah, they've definitely been rolling it out across the board and I'm really hoping that my Wacom Syntiq Companion can upgrade to that version of the OS.

Darren: I did read a brief comment yesterday on the news, some criticism about how Google will come out with these things and then it just takes an eternity to roll them out across all their platforms. I guess that's because loads of different providers use them in slightly different ways like HTC might use a version of Android in a certain way.

Josh: Well, the phone manufacturer has the final say as to what goes on to the device.

Darren: Right. I said to Bek, because she has a HTC, I'm like, 'Oh are you going to get Lollipop?' She's like, 'Well, I don't know. It depends on HTC, basically.'

Jana: Yeah, I don't know if I'll be able to get it on my - to be honest, I haven't looked into it. I pretty much use my Cyntiq for a single purpose only which is drawing, but hopefully, I'll look into it.

Darren: Overall you're impressed? You think it's nice?

Jana: Yeah, it looks really nice. I've been loving using inbox and obviously a part of that is the design. Actually, a lot of that is the design, I wouldn't have upgraded to it if it looked like balls.

Darren: Did you just say balls?

Jana: I did say balls. Bouncy balls.

Darren: Balls are good for juggling, throwing and stuff.

Jana: Yeah.

Darren: Yeah, let's just make people think of that sort of ball. OK. Josh, what did you have to talk about?

Josh: Microsoft open sourcing .NET.

Darren: What is happening with Microsoft? They're becoming like, you know, the good guys.

Josh: They're becoming like Google.

Jana: They're like complete [inaudible 00:14:28].

Josh: I think Microsoft they're trying to change themselves from a software company to a services company so they're saying, 'We'll give away our software for free and we'll try and make money on the fat people who are going to use these [inaudible 00:14:41] cloud to do stuff on it or they're going to buy technical support for exchange because they can't figure it out because it's too complicated and buggy.

Darren: This is a big switch.

Josh: It's a massive switch.

Darren: I mean, they're providing Office now for free also to iPhone and Android users, I read.

Josh: Yeah and Visual Studio they've expanded the licensing options for the free options of Visual Studio and that's actually, Visual Studio is one of their - Office is one of their kingpins, but Visual Studio is probably the other one because it's really actually excellent.

Darren: That's developer tools basically.

Josh: Oh, yeah, but it's really high quality. The fact that they're open sourcing the .NET stack, the fact that they're cross platforming the .NET stack so you'll be able to run it on Linux and OS X instead of using Mono which was never quite good enough.

Darren: Yeah, OK. Talk about Mono for a sec.

Josh: Mono was an implementation of .NET for Linux and OS X basically. It's just a re-implementation of the .NET infrastructure.

Darren: To try and make it more open source?

Josh: Yeah, but it was never quite good enough. It didn't quite match the original. It was aliways [inaudible 00:15:51].

Darren: It wasn't really supported either.

Josh: As well as that there were always patent issues like there was the potential chance at any point that Microsoft could sue them even though they never did. That's all fixed, basically. They're free now in that way and so there's a lot of opportunity there. There's Android development in Visual Studio now. They're looking into iOS development, but they don't know how Apple will take that, but yeah so it's a very, very interesting development.

Darren: What impact would it have on, say, a new studio. If we were starting up today from scratch. I mean, we're pretty much a PHP house, really.

Josh: Yeah.

Darren: If we were starting up from scratch, would it make you, as a small business web development agency go, 'We should maybe look at .NET as our core.'

Josh: Look, I don't mind .NET personally. I've did some work in a previous job in .NET and I've done a lot of work in C and C++ which you can do in Visual Studio as well so there would definitely be opportunities there. You should be able to run ASP on Linux box for example either soon or now so there's definitely some interesting stuff there.

Darren: Will it change the way that we think over then ext five years as an in-house agency, developer agency.

Josh: I can't see us throwing away our massive code base at the moment to rewrite it in something else, but -

Jana: With this change in attitude, though, they've recently released pretty much anything like iOS, Android, MAC. You can run a virtual machine of i11 to test on.

Josh: Yeah.

Jana: Just for anybody. It's nice.

Josh: There's ideas there that you could if you ever want to do any desktop kind of applications of any kind. They've really decided to make .NET more of a platform that you could do that in for cross platform development.

Darren: Amazing. Microsoft.

Jana: Crazy town.

Darren: Twilight zone. What's happening?

Josh: It could end up the next Java. That is, right once, test everywhere.

Jamie: It almost feels inevitable, though. I mean, the whole world is moving towards sort of cloud-based free services. Microsoft is starting to look like a bit of a dinosaur really.

Josh: They have for a while now really. They're the cool kids now. I just noticed this on a few podcasts I listen to where they were all Apple fanboyish, these podcasts, traditionally. Apple is starting to get a bit of a - I don't know, a bit of a sourness towards Apple and now Microsoft is suddenly like, 'Surface Pro 3 is really good? Have you played with it yet? It's really good,' and this story about .NET going open and free software to Android and iPhone and iPad users. It's changing. There's a bit of a vibe changing. Someone in PR at Microsoft right now would be just going, 'Hee, hee, hee.'

Jamie: Yeah, it's their turn on the roundabout for a little while.

Darren: Yeah, that's right. That's good. It's good. I think it makes life interesting. All right. No worries. Well, the next thing our listeners will hear is we're going to have a chat, we're bringing in our other director, Bek. We're going to have a chat just about xovakmedia and basically who we are, what we do, and how we came to this point in our lives. Yeah. That's what's coming up next.

The Main Chat - xovakmedia, profile of a small web agency

All right. Let's welcome to the main chat now xovakmedia's other director [Rebecca Grattan 00:19:18]. Welcome Bek.

Bek: Hi. How's it going?

Darren: I don't know that we're going to get Rebecca on many podcasts. She seems very paranoid about being on the podcast.

Bek: I've had bad previous experiences of what my voice sounds like on a recorded medium so I am nervous.

Darren: But look, I got Bek here because I think it's a good opportunity to talk a little bit about who we are, what we do, and how we got here, basically, so that if anyone actually becomes a follower, a long-time follower of this podcast, at least they'll be able to go back, listen to this, and get an idea of who the hell we are and what we do and I'm repeating myself now, but you know what I mean.

Bek: Is it worth saying what I do? Because I'm a director, but I'm actually really a designer.

Darren: Yeah, that's right. As well as being one of two directors for xovakmedia, Bek is our lead designer. You just said that, though.

Bek: Yes.

Darren: I hope that doesn't happen on all podcasts. That's fun. All right, well look. Let's just talk a little about where it all began. First before we do that actually, let's talk about our current structure. xovakmedia, I would describe us as a small agency. We have about 10 people, seven of those are permanents and a couple of casuals basically. I suppose you'd separate us down as about half designers half programmers and then program manager, me, but then we also get some project management assistance from one of our designers and one of our programmers, I suppose.

Bek: Sounds about right.

Darren: They chip in with bits and pieces of project management. I don't know if that actually is a typical structure, but that's the way that it's felt natural for us to develop and grow over time and, in fact, we have another programmer coming on in December so we'll actually be quite programmer top heavy at that point.

Bek: Well, I think you can never have enough programmers, but also it's probably worth noting that the designers tend to also do any slicing and dicing and HTML and CSS as well.

Darren: It's all about designers. It's import to note our front-end developers as well.

Bek: Multi taskers, we are.

Darren: I think that's actually something that I've always either looked for or insisted upon when we've hired a designer actually now I think about it. I didn't want to just hire a graphic designer, I wanted to hire a web designer each time.

Bek: Print designers need not apply.

Darren: In fact, the occasions that we've hired someone based on their print design portfolio it hadn't worked out too well. In fact, one I think lasted about a day and a half.

Bek: That was brutal.

Darren: That was horrible. I hated to just ... yeah, that was horrible. Horrible. She was a nice girl, but I could just see it wasn't going to work out so that's an unfortunate story. Look, all right, let's just start back at the beginning. First of all, an overview of what we do here. We're essentially a web design agency, but we dabble in lots of digital stuff, I suppose, anything from e-marketing campaigns to social media assistance for our clients and social media, I guess, campaign design, and then things like we've even done some design and sort of spec-ing out of apps as well in terms of iPhone apps and Android apps and things like that so all sorts of things, but primarily our clients come to us for our web design and web development skills.

Bek: Yeah, we occasionally do the odd logo and print work, but we definitely don't sort of advertise that. That sort of seems to be a secondary thing that comes on from initially doing websites perhaps and whatnot.

Darren: I think that's a sign of - because, yes, we do do brand design a bit, but I think it's a sign of how our business has changed over the years that we used to do a lot more of it. I think that's because we used to deal more with smaller clients and startups than we do now. I think now we more often and in the last five to six years deal with established entities who have got their branding kind of sorted and they're just looking for somebody to give them a better web preference.

Bek: Sure and we'd probably recommend for people at that level to use a genuine branding agency who we partner with, but we'll probably talk about that later on in the show.

Darren: Yeah, definitely. I guess, way back when I look back I used to work at a place, it was a multi media center where we did training. I put my hand up and said, 'YEah, I can teach HTML and CSS,' and just started doing beginner's intro HTML and CSS classes and that was 15-16 years ago I guess.

Bek: I too worked in the same premises.

Darren: That is correct.

Bek: In the internet café which was quite a nice, cushy job.

Darren: Oh yes, you worked in the internet café side of it, but then at one point at that particular place they created opportunities for essentially an in-house studio and you became the designer in that little in-house studio and I became the front-end developer.

Bek: As I was finishing off my bachelor of visual communication degree, so that was a pretty lucky break to be a designer while still doing your design degree.

Darren: Yeah, it was cool. It was a great opportunity, really, for both of us to be there and they just kept offering opportunities for anybody to dabble in anything and we just kept going yes. Then, unfortunately, they closed the doors. This place was called [Napagi 00:24:34] and when it closed the doors -

Bek: Government funded.

Darren: Yeah, the government funding ran out. I set about, I just basically said, 'Well, we've done this here, why don't we do it outside of here,' and I started xovakmedia.

Bek: Pretty humble beginnings.

Darren: Yeah, that's right. It was me in my bedroom in my one-bedroom flat so I actually do recall sitting on the bed with my first client as we discussed their needs because my computer was on the desk next to my bed. We had a chat, cup of tea, talk about what you need.

Bek: There was probably about a need for maybe half a day of work a week for me at that point.

Darren: Yeah, you were doing just part-time design for me. Yeah, I started out just as myself trying to get work and contracting design work out to you and contracting programming work out to a fellow called [Benno 00:25:23] and Benno, as it turns out, after all this time, is coming back to work for us in December.

Bek: Which is pretty exciting to have the original three all back together.

Darren: It's a real sort of the cycle continues almost feeling. Yeah, I'd kind of like to get him back in the fold. That'll be fantastic. I'd seen friends try and start out little digital agencies and this was 13, 14 years now and they hired office space. They had three people who all worked full time work out of it and they went under within a few months because when you're starting out you just can't get enough money to cater to all those expenses early on. You kind of almost have to act like a freelancer, initially, I feel.

Bek: Yeah.

Darren: That's what I felt anyway.

Bek: I think it was a slowly does it and that was slow and steady, it's a slow and steady ship.

Darren: What?

Bek: Something about that. Slow and steady wins the race. That's the one.

Darren: That's the one. Yeah, that's the right. We were very much the tortoise in the tortoise and hare scenario.

Bek: Absolutely.

Darren: Look, it worked out, I think, and I started contracting work out that I couldn't complete and I had a fairly clear initial sort of goal or brand almost for my business that I wanted us to sort of try and convey and that was, at that time, 14 years ago, I really felt like small business and medium business they were scared of the wave. They didn't really understand it. They knew they wanted a website, but they didn't get the whole process or anything. I remember my early blurbs were all about, I still remember this clearly, demystifying the process.

Bek: That's right.

Darren: I used to say that all the time.

Bek: I feel like when I was editing content for a recent -

Darren: You still found that?

Bek: I found that somewhere and I was like I just don't think that applies in this day and age.

Darren: We don't demystify anymore. We mystify. We hypnotize. I think it was a good way to start, though, because there was definitely a market there.

Bek: For that time and place.

Darren: People needed websites. They knew it. They didn't understand why. They didn't understand how to go about it. We were honest. We were open. We really tried to educate them and I think it worked. I think it worked really well for us. Eventually, we had enough clients, I guess, to graduate to an office and I think my first employee, like as a full-time employee, was you. We finally sort of went, 'Well, I think we can afford to pay you full time now.'

Bek: That was really quite exciting because I got to leave the design studio that I was working at which was just pressure central to get to work with people I enjoyed working with.

Darren: That's interesting that you mentioned that previous design studio because I think that had a pretty massive influence on you, I think.

Bek: Yeah, it did.

Darren: You only worked there for what? About eight months or something?

Bek: Yeah, it's a bit of a pressure cooker place, I think, sometimes working in the design agency. Sometimes you just don't feel like creativity comes on tap, but I think they did teach me some good processes and good ways to work through things under pressure and as much as I didn't like it I think that I definitely became a better designer from it. Although, I have always had a last minute lazy streak so I need that pressure to actually motivate me to complete the task.

Darren: I think that habit has disappeared slightly for you.

Bek: Really?

Darren: Yeah, I don't think you're so last minute lazy anymore. I think you're pretty organized these days. In looking back, I don't actually recall ever cold calling or looking for work, basically, but I did do a few very cheap websites, I remember, because I just wanted to get the portfolio cracking and I think that's sort of a tip for anyone starting out who wants to go from being a freelancer to a business with staff and trying to grow is don't be -

Bek: Certainly not free pitching you're talking about, but actually just doing a good product to ensure that you get the gig.

Darren: Yeah, but I just had people that I knew who I could see they needed a website, but they were all like friends of friends and so I did them a very, very cheap, but good job and they were sort of known. I was talking about Blackwood Sound, I suppose. I did them a whole website with content management system and everything for like $900 or something, but I just wanted to give them something nice because they're important to me. I had a lot of friends there, but also it just started the portfolio cracking along and then we had people notice that straightaway almost.

Bek: Yeah and it's just those small building blocks that actually come together to, you know, piece together a portfolio which then you can take to the next level and impress clients with some more prestigious websites and it sort of just grows up from there doesn't it really?

Darren: Absolutely. I mean, all that work, I think, in the last 14 years, it's all just come from someone seeing a site that we've done, noticing our little tag in the footer and calling us or being directly referred to by a client we've worked with.

Bek: It comes back to the original xovakmedia tagline which was never really used, but sort of -

Darren: Can we not talk about that?

Bek: Pass it on? What's wrong with pass it on?

Darren: It's a bit lame.

Bek: It's a bit unofficial, but it certainly applies to us. We're always word of mouth really and referrals and whatnot so people finding us. We're pretty lazy in the marketing department.

Darren: Looking back, I think we progressed and we got good word of mouth because the design was important to us. I think we placed a lot of importance on presentation and good design. I think we placed a lot of importance on keeping clients in the loop and just really making sure they were happy and then through the power of that sort of referral game we just kept getting bigger and bigger clients until we landed quite a big client at one point and I think that changed everything. That was as big franchise here in Australia, Cartridge World, and then, of course, I think, Super SA was another one that was really important, I think, for us.

Bek: It sort of gets you on the government rotation.

Darren: Yeah and that led to, I think, Motor Accident Commission, and Funds SA and a number of government sites. The other thing that I think that we did that helped us with government is I was lecturing a lot at the time. I ran about, in those early seven or eight years, I don't lecture anymore because I don't have time, but I used to do a lot of lecturing in front-end development and I used to always talk about the importance of accessibility compliance so I think the fact that they knew that I was an advocate of that and government here in South Australia started to talk about it a little but just made me look like someone who could potentially help moving forward with that. It's a good position to be in to be seen as a specialist in something, I suppose, and back at that time it felt like we were almost looked on as a bit of a specialist in that area. I think that's good. As a result of that, also, we did our own CMS and there's probably still a debate about whether that's absolutely the right way to go and it probably explains why we have three, almost four, programmers here because we're constantly working on that CMS.

Bek: I think that a lot of our clients have always sought some fairly bespoke functionality so that's where that requirement has really come in, I think.

Darren: Well, also sort of saw that the CMSs back in those days like seven or eight years ago they really honestly, there was just no mention of it in terms of the way that the editors handled content or anything. There was no concern for compliance and so we just decided to build our own that did offer greater control in that area and, yeah, definitely having our own code base makes custom development so much easier than trying to hack Wordpress to do what you want, we find.

Bek: Sure. I feel like that's our thing. That's really our bag, really.

Darren: That's an interesting one, but that's a debate that I think is going to continue on in these walls as to the relevance of having your own CMS. I think probably one of the things that I might touch on before we finish this chat is where we're going. I think we'll end up open sourcing that CMS at some point or another or productizing it in some way. I hope to do that anyway because it would be a shame to put all this work into something that we think is pretty good and not let the world have a crack at it.

Bek: Indeed and improve it.

Darren: Yeah, exactly.

Bek: Open it up.

Darren: Absolutely.

Bek: Yeah, I guess there was a real cycle there, though, just in those early years of getting the better clients and getting a bit of office space which makes you look more presentable and helps reel in those bigger clients and your portfolio grows to the point where we sort of ended up where we are now office space-wise.

Darren: How much do you think improving the office space actually improved the clients?

Bek: I think it's hard to say. It's intertwined, but I think it's quite important at least to have a space where people come in and they're impressed by your presence and we're in a creative environment now and it looks like we're creative people and, well, we are.

Darren: Yeah and we have a really nice office, but I think definitely when the first meeting happens and it's here compared to, say, our first office space which was in town. It was kind of funky, but it really wasn't very presentable.

Bek: It was a bit daggy.

Darren: Really, I think it makes a pretty massive difference actually when they come into a place that feels like a more professional, slick place, even though this is not slick in the business world. This is still a bit funky. It's a renovated sort of church.

Bek: It's got its cool groove.

Darren: It's got its cool groove and it presents well for us, I think.

Bek: I think that was probably always the thing that we lacked in the early days was just having somewhere presentable to bring clients and we'd always meet people out a lot, I think, but now it's good for them to come to us.

Darren: Yeah, I think the other thing when I think about why we've been relatively successful and we're still here after 13 years? 14 years? 13 years. We really, I feel, as the project manager and kind of main client point of contact, is I definitely am obsessive over client happiness. I am like the kid who just wants friends at school. Like I really want to make them happy.

Bek: Sometimes to your undoing actually.

Darren: Yeah, that's right, but I think that's actually worked pretty well for us, generally speaking, really keeping their happiness in mind.

Bek: I think that's just an important thing. I was talking to a friend just the other week for the winery that she works for and they're saying how one of the main problems is actually just getting their web developer to make updates and changes when they request them and it sometimes takes weeks or up to a month. I feel like I've heard that a couple of times just in the last month from talking to random people and I think that that's one area where we do a lot better than that. You really bend over backwards to make sure that even small jobs get done and people feel like they're being heard.

Darren: Yeah, well, I definitely know of agencies here in Adelaide that are a lot bigger than us, but they have massive, I guess, sort of procedural gaps that make little jobs like changing a phone number in a footer or something take a week and I just never really wanted to be that. I wanted to be more agile than that. We basically are like an agile agency, but we don't use a lot of the agile terminology, but it does enable us to respond very quickly to client needs.

Bek: To bond. It keeps them happy.

Darren: Absolutely.

Bek: It gets good referrals.

Darren: I really don't like, actually, when you listen to podcasts or you read blog posts, not so much blog posts, but blog comments, where you can see that other developers really dislike their clients and they're really dissing them and really ... I think that's just a real problem. I mean, sure we have the odd client that we sort of roll our eyes occasionally about, but without them and without their referrals you're nothing.

Bek: We're nothing, yeah.

Darren: I think one thing that I've tried to remember that perhaps some developers forget and get into that real cycle of client hostility or client conflict, one thing that I always think about is that they know their business better than us and even though we may come along with a design that we think has nailed it or whatever, you've really got to listen sometimes. It's not that they really are saying you've got too much blue or whatever, it's just something about what we've done maybe that doesn't wash with whatever the message is or whatever they're trying to convey to their clients or in the way that they're trying to convey it. I always try and break it back to that way of thinking. There is something here that's not quite working for them. They know their business better than me. I've got to listen to this. I've not just got to roll my eyes.

Bek: It really highlights the importance of actually listening and taking good notes in those initial meetings just to make sure that you actually hit the mark. I think we have a pretty good success rate of hitting the mark with designs.

Darren: Yeah, we absolutely do.

Bek: I think that's just because we do really listen.

Darren: I actually don't recall the last time we had to do a redesign. We may need to iterate on a design, but we've never, not in the last 10 years, I don't think we've ever presented a design where the client has just asked us to throw it out and start again. I'm happy with that. OK. Employing staff has been an interesting exercise over the years. I think that's everyone's greatest fear. We started with you and then we started dabbling with getting programmers. We a long time stayed with Benno, but then he went to Japan and didn't become available for a while and stuff, but I feel like sometimes with me I just listen to my gut as to when it was a roundabout right to hire someone. I guess you've got to have a pretty good understanding of your accounts.

Bek: I feel like we've certainly trialed our fair share of programmers or at least interviewed our fair share of programmers only to find that they just don't really have the skillset that they seem to put on their resume.

Darren: Oh yeah, that's been a problem.

Bek: Yeah, it still comes back, I guess, to that original philosophy we had of just not over capitalizing on anything to assume you kind of know when the time is right.

Darren: That's hard though. It's hard to know exactly when the time is right, but so far I feel like we've made the right decisions. I mean, it feels like in the last five years in particular we've roughly hired at least one person per year. Like, it seemed like we went from being about a three or four person organization say five to six years ago to 10 person now. It seems like we've hire about a person a year for the last five years.

Bek: That might not be the craziest sort of growth or anything, but it certainly is something that's been sustainable.

Darren: It's very managed isn't it?

Bek: Well managed, I think.

Darren: Well, we haven't taken risks have we?

Bek: No.

Darren: I remember my first job. It was a small business and this guy worked so hard. I worked there, I was a salesman.

Bek: The boss, you mean?

Darren: Yeah. He'd been doing it for a long time and I was just a salesman in the store and I remember saying to him because I think the store had about 15 people working there and I remember saying, after he was looking particularly fatigued one day, 'Why do you do this?' Because I could see that he wasn't making buckets of money out of the business, but he'd been going for a long, long time. 'Why do you do this?' He said, 'Well, you know, I've got all these people to look after,' and he meant all his staff.

Bek: That's his family.

Darren: 'They all rely on me to give them employment and give them a good life,' and I've always thought that was a great way of thinking about it. I think that made me risk averse. I always wanted to make sure that we were here and we were continuing because I've brought on all these people to be a part of this.

Bek: You do feel responsible for their well-being and welfare.

Darren: I do feel very responsible.

Bek: Making sure they have a good life as well. I think that sort of shows that when - because finding the right employee for a job is hard. I feel like we've interviewed many times and not actually found the person we're looking for, but the people that we have had, I feel like if you look at our staff they've stayed with us for many years now. They're very loyal and we like to look after them and you have to look after your employees who are good employees, because there's lots of people out there, but not necessarily always the right person who can do the job.

Darren: Yeah and it's skillset and it's, obviously, attitude as well. You're just looking for someone who you can imagine working in close proximity with for years.

Bek: Absolutely, yeah.

Darren: We're lucky that we do have a group where there's virtually no conflict as such. We all just seem to love coming to work and seeing each other.

Bek: I think most of the conflict comes between you and me over design.

Darren: There's been occasions, yeah.

Bek: I like to think of it as passion.

Darren: Yeah, exactly. Well, actually, Josh and I are a bit like a married couple. We'll have passionate discussions about the way to approach a certain type of development.

Bek: I certainly hear you guys having some heated conversations in your office upstairs, yeah.

Darren: He'll admit that actually, generally, that whilst that can get heated, we end up always with the best outcome.

Bek: I think that we could also say the same for us with design as well.

Darren: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Well, I guess the only other thing maybe to touch on is just a few little things that I've thought about as to why we're still here and why we're still cracking. As I say, I think design quality is important and trying to built that portfolio is super key for us. Another thing I'll say is don't be afraid to turn away work. Like, I didn't really know this early on and I didn't -

Bek: It took you years to realize that.

Darren: - it took me a few years to realize, but eventually I realized that there's certain types of work and certain types of alarm bells that ring in those early meetings where I just sort of go, 'No, I don't thing this is going to be a fun project at all and this is not going to be a fun person to work with.' If you can, don't just take it for the sake of growth or whatever. Otherwise, you'll eventually just not like your work if you're forced to work on projects and with people that you don't like.

Bek: Yeah, it's true. I was watching a documentary on the Vignellis -

Darren: Yeah, that was fantastic.

Bek: - the other week and they were absolutely saying how did they get this level of amazing clients because they sort of seemed to come to America and just have success straight off the bat and they really work quite big fans of only just taking on clients that you wanted to work with.

Darren: That's a great documentary.

Bek: It's a cool one.

Darren: I can't remember what it's called. It's called the Design one or something like that. It's the story of the Massimo Vignelli, I can't remember what's her name.

Bek: Massimo and Lella?

Darren: Yeah, something like that. Maybe I'll put a link in the show notes about it.

Bek: I think we should put a link in the show notes.

Darren: It's a great documentary just about these fantastic designers that came to America in the 60s and the impact that they've had, even today when you look back at their work from the 60s and 70s. I mean, they basically introduced Helvetica to America. They're fantastic. Great documentary. I'm not afraid to turn away work if I have an uncomfortable meeting with someone early on. I actually just say - well, it doesn't even have to be an uncomfortable meeting. It's actually just more like ...

Bek: You get a feel for the personality and their temperament.

Darren: You get a feel for their personality and then they say a few things or they might disparage someone in a certain way and I'm like, 'Yeah, I don't think I want to work with that person.' That's happened a bit. I also don't like working with entrepreneurs because entrepreneurs have very little money and they have big ideas.

Bek: They [crosstalk 00:44:38].

Darren: You have to really hold their hands a lot to get them through the process, but they don't really have the money to reward you for the effort that you're putting in. I find that I'd much rather work with established entities that actually do have a plan and do understand more about the process.

Bek: And are happy to pay for great work.

Darren: Yeah.

Bek: The other people that I always find are a strange and funny group to deal with are doctors. Doctors, I feel like, they like to think they know everything about everything. Darren's going to edit this out. Do you know what I mean? No one could possibly be as smart as I, I am a doctor so I know everything about websites, too.

Darren: Let's hope we don't have any of our clients who are doctors listen to this podcast, but you do get the odd professional who, I guess, their word is massively important in their life, in their world, so they just assume that their opinion is obviously the best in the room. Yeah, I know what you're talking about.

Bek: Not all doctors.

Darren: They can be quite difficult and they don't take education well if you try and sort of explain why you've done something or whatever, but I actually can't remember even the last time that we had any issues like that.

Bek: No, no, no. I think it's more of an ongoing joke we have rather than anything.

Darren: Don't be afraid to turn away work. Make sure you're finding time to always improve your internal processes, like that's really hard and I can't honestly say over 14 years I've been amazing at that, but probably the last five years I've been a lot better.

Bek: I think as long as you're always striving to improve those processes.

Darren: Yeah, really try and make time.

Bek: You're never going to have them perfect, top notch. It's always an ongoing work in progress, isn't it really?

Darren: I guess by that I'm talking about managing projects, managing task lists ...

Bek: Managing staff.

Darren: Managing staff, putting in processes so that when you are super, super, super busy because it does happen where you get a week where there's like three websites that all need to be finished that week, all launched on a Thursday or whatever, the same day. That's when you really rely on those processes all working and having appropriate checklists for launches and things like that. Really just try and get all those things in order, I suppose.

Bek: What about some relationships with other design agencies as well?

Darren: Oh, yeah, that's been good.

Bek: That's been sort of a valuable ... [crosstalk 00:47:06].

Darren: Definitely, yeah, if you can, if you're a web developer and you're starting to get a good portfolio, definitely look up, I guess, design agencies that look like they may not have a web arm and go and have a coffee with them and just sort of see if they need any outsourcing of resources because, I don't know what it's like in other parts of the world, but in this town there are still many, many traditional brand agencies.

Bek: Brand and print.

Darren: That don't, have never seen it justifiable to fund an internal web development arm, but they mostly all realize that they need to have some web as a component of brand development.

Bek: Absolutely.

Darren: Yeah, we do have two or three relationships like that which have been really important and continue to be really important. The other thing I'll say that I realized one day, don't be afraid to put your rates up. You'll reach a certain point where you're doing pretty good work and you'll sit back and go, 'You know what? My work is pretty good,' and you'll look at some of the big players in town and you'll go, 'My work's actually as good as that.' Then you just need to go, 'Well, am I charging what I'm worth?'

Bek: Yes.

Darren: You'd be surprised at how much you can put your rates up and clients will hardly blink an eye.

Bek: It's pretty easy to undervalue what you think you're actually worth, but ...

Darren: Especially when you start from humble beginnings, like a bedroom sort of thing. It takes you a long time to get out of that mentality, but I found that I was able to put my rates up by 50% at one point because I think I suddenly realized that they were a bit low and all my clients just didn't really blink an eye. I've never lost anyone from that and since then I've just tried to remember to incrementally put them up.

Bek: It's better to do it on a more yearly basis.

Darren: A more regular basis. Well, not yearly even. We don't even do it that often, but just do them incrementally. I would say to anyone out there who feels like they're starting to really get their game on, don't be afraid to put your rates up and don't quote too low. I think someone once said to me, 'Spec out the job. Think about how many hours it's going to take and then times that by one and a half,' because inevitably with website development that's probably what's going to happen, especially in this day and age with responsive development and all the testing that we need to do.

Bek: More tricks that need to go into things, but I guess that's talking about us now because earlier you did say that when we were in our infancy starting out, obviously, we would price a good price to get a client on the portfolio.

Darren: Oh yeah, of course.

Bek: I guess now that we're more established we really like to, you know ...

Darren: Don't be afraid to get paid what you're worth is the bottom line.

Bek: Exactly, yeah.

Darren: The other thing is, don't try and be everything to everyone. I think I said that earlier. Just focus on what you think you're good at. I think we've done that most of the time. We've dabbled in things, but if one of our big clients came to us and said, 'Ah, we want you to build us an iPhone app,' I'm not afraid to go and work with an app development agency, maybe contribute designs.

Bek: Yeah, we've done some designs.

Darren: Yeah, application design, but let them build it because they're specialists in that field.

Bek: Yeah, absolutely.

Darren: We may expand in that way one day, but right now I'm quite happy to work with other agencies.

Bek: Yeah, but that also can come back to a resource thing. Just having other resources in house, but also the time for people who could perhaps do it in house because they're busy, busy, busy doing other things.

Darren: Would you have any future goals for xovakmedia?

Bek: Well, obviously, I think to maintain our standards and I know that you've got ideas which sort of would take a bit more away from the client to be able to maintain it, that sort of thing.

Darren: I do sometimes feel like the whole cycle of website development of getting that client, meeting them, doing the quote, getting it approved, doing the design, getting approved, getting functional sign off, getting it approved, testing, launching. It's quite an arduous cycle actually. You have to do it for every new project. There's no letup really.

Bek: Sure, but also that's for every new project, but I think that these days people are more keen to obviously maintain their website, too, so it's that sort of cycle of maintaining and improving and looking at stats of ways to improve.

Darren: Yeah, that's probably something I haven't mentioned. I would say that over 80% of our clients I would have thought we would have done further work once we launched that initial project for them.

Bek: It's not just really a build it, launch it, forget it anymore. That's not the way to do it.

Darren: That's pretty important is to not forget that client and touch base with them every now and then. You'll be surprised at how they have work for you to do.

Bek: It's so important these days that clients are obviously more aware that you have to have relevant information on your website. It can't be something that you build and just let fester for a few years before you, just redevelop it from scratch.

Darren: Yeah, some clients will just let stuff fester even after you touch base.

Bek: A lot of ours are really looking to tweak and improve.

Darren: Yeah and they can start to see the benefits of that tweaking. Then you'll just get more and more work.

Bek: We did get off track, though. We were talking about something else weren't we?

Darren: We were talking about the future. I guess the last thing I'd say about my hopes for xovakmedia. That cycle can sometimes feel a bit arduous so I wouldn't mind if there was another form of income that wasn't a part of that cycle. Some sort of recurring income whether that be from a product, so productizing some of the things that we've custom built for our own internal workflow, so approach some of the project management stuff or our CMS. There's a lot of stuff that we've built that I feel like we could either open source and establish a bit of an audience and then from that audience perhaps release some products. I'd like to think that in five years' time we'd be on the way to that.

Bek: It gives a bit more of a work-life balance, as well, I think, just knowing that you've got a certain amount of income just coming in the door without having to do anything per year is pretty fantastic and means you can get even more selective with who you want to work with and spend more time at the beach or in the pub or at the playground.

Darren: That's right. That's probably enough. That's about xovakmedia. That's where we're at as an agency and we hope that there was something of interest to any small business out there that might be about to sort of start employing people and grow and hopefully our story meant something to someone.

What we are looking forward to this week

OK, well, I'd ask for a comment on what you guys thought about that discussion between Bek and I, but it was recorded at another time and you haven't even heard it yet. [inaudible 00:53:52] you will be happy to know that I didn't spend five minutes telling the story about how xovakmedia, the name xovakmedia, came to me because that story ...

Jamie: The one question everybody asks.

Josh: I thought you used that story as a hook for clients.

Darren: Well, clients do ask it, but I think I'm going to resist ever saying that story on the podcast because it's been told so many times.

Jamie: We could start internet rumors about it.

Darren: Yeah, that's right.

Jamie: We'll just anomalously post where it came from.

Darren: OK, what's making everyone excited this week? I'm listening to a podcast, funnily enough, but it's riveting stuff. It's called Serial and it's about, like the old-fashioned TV serial, which is like an ongoing story that tells a single story over a number of episodes. This is a story being told and actually I can't even tell whether this is fact or fiction. I haven't looked deep enough into it and I don't want to, but it's told in sort of a documentary way. This journalist looking into the murder of a young girl in 1999 and going back and interviewing people that were around, going through notes, trial notes, to try and find out if this person who's in jail is guilty or not. She feels that he isn't, a least at the start of this thing.

I'm really fascinated to listen to it all the way through. I think there's already been eight episodes or something. I don't know how long it goes for. It's produced by This American Life. I don't know if you know anything about This American Life. They do just about the most interesting public radio you can possibly imagine in America. It's really, really good stuff. Anyway, that is what I am enjoying and excited about. I've only just started listening to it and it's keeping me awake at night. Serial. Check it out.

Jamie: Speaking of jail, I just found out that two of my favorite drum and bass DJs [inaudible 00:55:55] are going to be doing part of an all-day party on New Year's Day in the old Adelaide Jail. That's given me something to massively look forward to.

Darren: xovakmedia outing. Although, Rick Astley is coming to town. Is that not a xovakmedia outing? [crosstalk 00:56:10]

Jamie: It could be. We could Rick roll ourselves all day.

Jana: Wouldn't that be great if the whole concert was just that song and he's Rick rolling everybody. [crosstalk 00:56:25]

Josh: YouTube video up on the screen and it's just on repeat.

Darren: That would be good. No, that sounds pretty cool. Your favorite DJ. Awesome.

Josh: In lead up to the concert, we should get TVs and just set them up around the city playing that video on repeat.

Jana: That would be a great marketing campaign.

Darren: We should definitely have it as our hold music.

Josh: Well, it's already the -

Darren: I know, let's not talk about that. Maybe ... no, we should ...

Josh: It's funny.

Jamie: [inaudible 00:56:50]

Darren: We do have something that we do to cold callers that we don't want to talk to. We put them through to Rick and that's just basically ...

Josh: It's basically a telephone jail.

Darren: They get Rick rolled and we just put them through to make them listen to -

Josh: Perpetual hold.

Darren: - Never Gonna Give You Up perpetually on hold until they decide to hang up.

Josh: Until they do, in fact, give up.

Jana: It's good for the phone awkward people who just can't get a word in to stop from the being pushy.

Darren: Yeah, cold callers can be very persistent. When that happens, we just go, 'Oh, look, I'll put you through to Rick.'

Josh: The alternative is to put it through to me because I just always go -

Darren: Yeah, because you're very blunt. All right. What else is going on? Jana what are you excited about this week?

Jana: Nothing too crazy. I've got an illustration project and backgrounds are hard and so to help with that I'm playing with SketchUp, Google SketchUp.

Darren: Yeah?

Josh: Oh, that's cool.

Jana: It's a very cool program. It's not particularly intuitive. You kind of do have to watch the tutorials to know what the hell you're doing because at first you're like, 'YEah, this is easy,'and then you try to do something and you're like, 'Oh, why is that halfway through that wall there.' I've played with [inaudible 00:58:00] and stuff before, but that was a long time ago so this has been fun.

Darren: Cool. This is for, I'm allowed to say, coming you're working on.

Jana: Yes, yes the comic.

Darren: How cool. I can't wait to see more of that. I like the first panels you showed me. They were cool.

Jana: Yay! It's probably going to be months away before I'm posting online.

Josh: We're putting a air con in on the weekend so that should be good. Just in time for summer.

Darren: Yeah.

Jana: That is a very important thing.

Darren: Although, you were telling me something that the listeners might not be aware of and that is that quarter inch pipe is measured in two different ways.

Josh: Yeah, so water quarter inch pipe is a different diameter to gas quarter inch pipe and we bought the wrong kind.

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