It was a cold, dark night in the French Alps. The falling snow was whipped into vicious spirals by the sharp winter wind. A group of bemused friends huddled closely together inside a coach faced by one very angry French coach driver, cursing wildly that he had gone over his 35 hour working week and would not drive any further, despite the fact they were still a 10 minute drive from their destination.
A dark stranger in a green woolly bobble hat and a snow-frosted beard strode onto the coach and clapped his hands together. ‘Hi guys, I’m Aaron, your travel rep,’ he proclaimed authoritatively, his breath steaming in the cold air. ‘You may hear a lot of screaming and shouting, but whatever you do, don’t get off this bus.’
15 minutes later and the group of friends were warming themselves inside their chalet drinking wine of questionable quality but offered in copious amounts. Aaron’s self taught French and disarming charm had calmed the coach driver, who had agreed that abandoning them outside at night in at minus 10 degrees may not have been the best long term career decision.
Aaron dug deep in his ski jacket pockets to extract a notebook. ‘So, who needs a liftpass?’ he grinned. One by one the friends went to give him their details and make the payment. Last of all it was Helen. ‘So, what do you do you do back home?’ Aaron asked, smiling inquisitively.
Helen tucked her hair behind her ears and peered down at the ground. ‘Um,’ she mumbled. ‘I, uh, work in IT.’ She lifted her eyes slowly, cringing away from the look that a statement like this typically produced. Aaron stared back at her with wide eyes shining with enthusiasm and joy.
‘That’s. So. Cool.’
And thus, having found their fellow geek and soul mate, in the middle of a blizzard high in the French Alps, the spark of the idea that would later become 6-2 design was born.
A little over a year later, Aaron and Helen returned to England having worked a ski season together as chalet chefs. They wound back up in Ashford, Kent, where Helen had grown up and where her parents still lived. Whilst pondering their next step in their new life, a colleague of Helen’s father asked for their help in creating a website.
‘I’m a trained classical artist, and I used to project manage some pretty big international IT projects. I’m sure I could handle this.’ said Helen. ‘And I’ve been designing and building websites for pretty much every recent previous employer. I know my way around Photoshop and HTML.’ said Aaron.
They looked at each other and grinned. ‘Let’s do it’.
One website turned into another, and then another. Before long, they were working 7 days a week from their home office and the idea of weekends was a distant memory. One day they stood back and looked at what they had achieved. This got them wondering what other web professionals were doing. Before long fingers and curiosity got the better of them, and they started Googling the terms ‘web design kent’ and ‘web design Ashford’.
Although there were some great local web agencies, most of what they saw treated websites as a product with bronze, silver and gold packages. Design seeks to solve a specific problem and help people do a job, and the templates they saw were fine for communicating a basic web presence and company details, but not for anything more complex or specific.
A sense of purpose slowly dawned upon them. ‘We have a great opportunity to use our knowledge of design and code to make a real difference to local businesses.’ Aaron enthused.
‘You’re absolutely right. But we’ll probably need to rethink our working environment,’ added Helen. They gazed around their home office, a sub ground level cellar with one very small window opening into a bricked well. Aaron stroked his beard. ‘We’ve done this room up to look pretty good. But clients look really worried the first time they visit us and we lead them down the steps to our cellar.’
Simultaneously they said, ‘We need to get an office.’
As luck would have it, one of their clients had just finished renovating a beautiful period building – conveniently located right next to Waitrose – and were looking for tenants. A month later, and they signed and dotted the lease for a room at Repton Manor, Ashford, complete with old wonky beams and fireplace.
(The fireplace was later to become a great source of worry to Aaron, as a few times a week a sputtering of fine brick dust would crumble down into the hearth. Being a London urbanite, Aaron feared the whole thing would one day run out of brick dust and come tumbling down upon them).
Business continued to thrive. Happy clients referred 6-2 design onto other businesses, who in turn became happy clients and referred them on again. Their second Christmas came and went, and just after New Year’s Day Aaron proposed to Helen. They would officially be partners in life as well as business.
As they honed their skills in design and development, they acknowledged that running their own business was a first. They reasoned they could take 5 years to learn how to do it the hard way, making mistakes others had already made and learned from, or could pay for coaching and education to fast track their progress.
A chance email about a lecture on social media at the University of Kent found their way to their inbox. ‘We should definitely attend that event,’ Helen said in her don’t-bother-to-argue-with-me voice. Attending that event was to be a turning point for 2 reasons (not that Helen’s smug about it).
First, they met Sleeping Giant Media – a Folkestone based specialist search and social marketing agency, rising stars and winners of a gazillion awards including Kent Invicta Chamber’s Business of the Year 2014. To form a relationship with such a talented complimentary business at their doorstep was a huge asset.
Second, they were handed a leaflet about a free seminar on 10 things that businesses did to achieve lasting success. But unlike many quick-fix quick-promise solutions, this was backed up by years of academic research undertaken by the University of Kent’s Business School.
And thus began a 3 year long intensive business course called the BIG Journey/ BIG Network, which combined academic research and learning with practical action sets and individual coaching. The insights, support and advice 6-2 design gained were invaluable and helped them progress more quickly towards building their team.
Growing the team
Helen and Aaron had formed an ambitious strategic plan as a result of the BIG Journey, and that plan required more than just the two of them. It was time to build the team.
In July 2013, they held interviews for a developer position. They were incredibly lucky to find not one but two excellent coders, both perfect for the job. In autumn 2013, Steve and James joined the team.
A lot more was possible with double the resources, and business continued to grow – as did the need for stronger, more robust systems and processes. As any business owner or manager knows, it’s a big step from going from an established team of one or two people to a larger team. It takes a lot of hard work to ensure that work can be scaled up and delivered consistently in terms of both standards and approach. Whilst this job is never truly done, by Christmas 2013 the team were working as cohesive unit – and feeling pretty awesome.
2014 dawned and 6-2 started work on some of their most technically complex projects to date. Time flew by, and before they knew it, blossoms were unfurling, flowers were blooming and the notorious Ashford seagulls had returned to nest. Spring had arrived, and Helen and Aaron’s wedding was just around the corner. A flurry of activity and planning occurred to ensure 6-2 design was ship-shape before Helen and Aaron jumped ship for their honeymoon.
Before they left, they moved into a larger office (complete with separate board room) and held interviews for a project manager position. Like before, they met two phenomenal candidates who shared the values of 6-2 design and brought some fantastic skills and experience into the mix. Contracts were signed for Kathryn and Jeremy to start work in June.
Maturing the business
Before Kathryn and Jeremy joined, most of our time was spent on client deliverables. Now we have opportunity to focus on all the internal things that are very important but not urgent. In the past three months alone, we’ve refined our business strategy and plan, switched to working agile, created our own playbook, starting building an internal automatic website testing system, created a plan for giving back to the community, launched our own software product and much more.
We know what our values are, who we want to work with, where we want to be in five years time, and what we need to do to deliver value for our clients with the best customer service possible. That’s not to say we know it all or have made it yet. Our future, like anyone else’s, is stuffed full of unexpected challenges and a whole bunch of hard work.
Growing a business isn’t easy, and from time to time we will make mistakes. But we will never stop learning, never stop improving, never stop striving, and never lose faith.
We have big plans, and the future is bright.