Interview with UK entrepreneur Darren Nicholls

I’ve got in contact with Darren several years ago, while I was a Project Manager for InterAKT Online, which finally got sold to Adobe. Time has passed and now I’m able to ask Darren some entrepreneur to entrepreneur questions, something that I could never imagine while I had a simple 9 to 5 job. He is the owner of Freshspace, a small web design studio based in Sedbergh, Cumbria, and recently got involved in Ahoy there, a Web 2.0 project that should provide an easy to use system for people who need a job doing and are looking for a reputable service provider .

Cristian: Tell us a little about yourself and how you ended up doing what you’re doing now?

Darren: Hi Cristian, I’ve been running a small web design studio in North West England since 2002, originally from my parents house, moving on to a spare room in my own house and finally getting my own office in 2005.

My background originates in printmaking, my degree was Graphic Arts, Design and Printmaking though by the time I graduated in 1998 I had moved into to working with video; specifically with Adobe Premiere and After Effects; one of my exhibition pieces ended up being used as a visual in a club in Amsterdam which I was pretty proud of at the time! From there I started doing some bits of work for a multimedia company, working on a cd-rom that was used at agricultural shows to highlight farm safety (the complete opposite end of the spectrum to my previous video work!) Eventually I was employed by a Telecoms training company to produce interactive Flash based animations to replace some outdated PowerPoint movies. My introduction to websites came about when my employees got me to work on their corporate website; it was a baptism of fire but it turned out ok and I guess its from their I got hooked on web design.

Cristian: You live and work in a rural UK area. What are the difficulties in working in working in a limited area? I assume there are a limited number of customers there.

Darren: Actually, there is a thriving working environment here, in some respects the onset of Broadband (ADSL) over the last few years has improved the number of businesses looking for websites; be it traditional businesses such as Hotels and Inns who can see the benefits of having a brochure style website, to shops branching out selling their produce on-line, to on-line only companies who work from home, and who prefer (like me) a more relaxed lifestyle that being based in a rural environment can bring, that’s not to say that we don’t work hard.

I suppose the difficulties working in a rural area are more to do with educating customers on what a good website really is and what it can do for their business, I don’t mean selling the latest technology but getting across how a website is only one part of a business; marketing be it SEO / PPC, email newsletters or paper based advertising are as just as important as the website themselves. Sometimes there’s a naivety that a website will sell itself without any hard graft. It’s my job as a designer to get that point across and to send them in the right direction.

Cristian: Ok, so can you give us some examples of websites that show this diversity of customers?

Darren: Firstly, I would go for www.churchmousecheeses.com, the owners of the business John & Jules moved to Kirkby Lonsdale, where I live because they wanted a change in lifestyle. John, who has an amazing passion for cheese, opened Churchmouse Cheeses in 2002; the shop stocks a diverse range of cheeses, many of which are locally sourced and other produce. What he’s done with his shop is to sell his passion for good fresh produce and the website lends itself to that; it’s both a showcase for the shop and produce. But better still people can order on-line! I suppose the website originally was a great way to promote the shop, now with a growing popularity he’s get’s orders from all over the UK .

Silverdale Golf Club; www.silverdalegolfclub.co.uk is another good example; this I think was the second site I did. Originally it was a static site of about 5 pages, little changed and they were happy with that. The people who deal with marketing the club an organize PR are for the most part retired, so 60 and onwards, previously they were happy for me to make any changes to the site but I felt that they weren’t making the most of the site because it was a case of out of site – out of mind. Then over the past year we started talking about how they could have more interaction with the site; of course a new design was essential but they needed a system that they could easily use to add content. For me I was amazed at how enthusiastic they were to take this on and learn, eventually we built the site using WordPress, mainly for it admin system which the ladies and gents at the golf club, with a bit of help from me, have come to grips with really well.

Cristian: I know you are working on a social networking project. What is it and what is its purpose?

Darren: The project is www.ahoythere.com. It’s a UK based website, its purpose is to provide an easy to use system for people who need a job doing and are looking for a reputable service provider (i.e. A joiner, accountant or web designer) Instead of choosing a name at random from a directory, newspaper advert or internet search, they post a ‘service request’ on the website and hear back from service providers who are genuinely interested in doing the work.

From the Service Providers perspective, anyone with a trade, profession or skill can find business, instead of having to chase after business, business comes to them. All people need to do is select the type of work and geographic areas they’re interested in and they’re alerted (via email) when buyers post jobs which match their chosen criteria. That’s it in a nutshell.

Cristian: Why should people use this service?

Darren: Well for Users it’s totally free, they can create an account and be up and running in about a minute, could you make a cup of tea that fast? They’re not giving over any personal or contact details. Yet they can browse at ease and with confidence profiles of businesses who are interested in doing work for them. Where’s the catch? There isn’t one! It’s about making life easier.

For Service Providers I think the description above best describes why they should use it.

Cristian: What’s the business model behind ahoythere? How will it bring money?

Darren: Ok, so as you know Users don’t pay, it’s entirely free. Service Providers can respond to as many opportunities as they like for free. There’s no subscriptions, no pay-per-lead, just a small referral fee if they actually get the business. That’s were the revenue will be generated. There are a couple other exciting ideas in the pipeline but I can’t really talk about them yet!

Cristian: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your entrepreneurship life?

Darren: It would have to be underestimating the scales of developing a project like ahoythere.com. Obviously, when I first looked at the brief I could see the enormity of it but thought that it could be done with a small team. In hindsight it should have been done with a project manager, a designer, a developer and a marketing specialist. The project manager to bring it all together, I’ve managed lots of projects big and small, but this in comparison was massive. I think I would have been better keeping to the design side. We had a lot of problems with the original developer, it turns out they were only working on the site part-time; obviously that caused a lot of complications. A marketing specialist; ok, this aspect of the site wasn’t really a mistake but it’s an area we should have researched as much as we did the site itself.

I understand how to develop a site for SEO /optimisation and how that works, however, when it comes to marketing a site like Ahoy There and getting it in front of people is another matter, it’s been a steep learning curve for myself and Christian, the owner of the business. We’ve learnt a lot on the way and jumped many hurdles but I think it’s fare to say both of us would have preferred to avoid them!

Cristian: You outsource some of your work. How did you decide what to outsource and where to outsource it?

Darren: That’s right, I’m a small business and when needed I try to work with other likeminded businesses to get jobs done effectively. Originally, when I started working on Ecommerce sites I used a product called MX Kart by a company called InterAKT, at the time I wasn’t aware where the company was based, all I knew was they provided an excellent product with great customer service. Overtime I started to need custom elements adding to some of my ecommerce sites, so logically the first people I contacted were InterAKT, that’s when I found they were based in Romania . If I was honest, I was shocked, in the sense that I wasn’t aware that such a forward thinking product could be developed in a country that has, say less opportunities than my own. I don’t mean that in a condescending way but I presumed they would be a US or UK based company. I developed a good relationship with them, until as many people will know they were bought out by Adobe. Obviously, I had mixed emotions over this; on one hand I was happy for them, what an achievement! But on the other hand I realised I was going to loose one of my support networks. Luckily some of the developers there but me in contact with a former employee of theirs who could help me find the services I need. Hey that’s you Cristian! I decided to stay working with yourself because of your familiarity with the InterAKT products and I think my judgement has been rewarded!


Cristian: Financing. When starting up, what sources of financing did you use?

Darren: Foolishly not much. The training company I worked for went into liquidation, so I had to make a quick decision; go it alone or find another job. I had been doing some freelance work and I liked the freedom of being my own boss. I went it alone and it was, I have to admit hard. I soon realised that my design skills alone weren’t going to get me work, I had no other business or marketing skills but eventually with lots of help from my girlfriend Debbi I cracked it. It was probably after 18 months I got my first major break, I’d sent out lots of mail-shots to businesses, none of which came to anything. However, one of the businesses kept my details and got me in to discuss their website, it turned out to be my first ecommerce site. The customer was The Bath House and they’re now one of my oldest clients, I still do a lot of work for them and as it happens I rent an office from them too.


Cristian: What are the most important 3 things people should take into consideration before starting a business?

Darren:

1. Think long and hard about why you’re doing it. Remember, it isn’t always going to be easy and 9 to 5!
2. Talk about it with family and friends; get advice off the people you most trust. They’re not usually wrong!
3. Money; it doesn’t grow on trees! Make sure you can afford to get by for at least the first year. If you don’t have to worry about paying bills, then you can get on with the serious issues of running a business.