Nick Warren is an adventurous sort of chap. Not only is he a sailor who's taken the Atlantic Ocean, a shipwreck and a hurricane in his stride, today he is Managing Director of the digital agency Semantic , the UK's most relaxed web studio.
Hi Nick. So you've been MD of Semantic for over 10 years now. Is running your own place something you always wanted to do, or did you sort of stumble into it?
I didn't stumble, I fell on my face. It was 1997. I was running big web projects for IBM's New Media Lab. My clients included American Express and Persil. It was great work, but long long hours... not much of a life. Leaving was a spur of the moment thing. I sat down at my desk one Monday morning knowing it was the very last place I wanted to be. That was a key moment for me. I got up, knocked on my boss's door, and handed in my notice. It was 8.45am. The thing I remember is my lovely client at Persil saying, You're leaving? That's awful, but I'm sure you are off to somewhere brilliant. Tell me... Well, I had nothing. But that decision led to Semantic. It seemed easier to create the job I wanted than to go out looking for it. You need the right combination of youth, arrogance and laziness to make that work, but it's possible.
Prior to that you sailed the Atlantic at a very young age. That's very brave of you.
Nah... I just had no idea what I was letting myself in for. It was a 31' yacht. Only 3 souls' aboard. I was 23 during the trip, but I remember stormy nights crammed into my coffin (bunk), when I just wanted my mum. Funnily enough the hardest part wasn't the storms, it was the calms. We were becalmed for 4 days in the middle. Suddenly you aren't getting any closer to land, you're just drifting. I found that much harder to cope with than the hard stuff. I did end up swimming in sea 6km deep though, which was cool. Saying yes to the trip wasn't so much bravery as ignorance... which is also an important skill if you want to try new things.
You say that being brave works for you. Is that something you've learnt from the sailing?
I'm generally cautious, but it's the moments of bravery that stand out as being valuable. I've already mentioned leaving a secure job, but later in the Tech Crash I bet our house on Semantic's survival. I like to think that was brave, but it may have been something else.
Another example. In 2003 we walked away from a big contract with a huge existing client. For internal reasons they were being forced to switch to a crummy CMS... so we had to choose between staying for the money or leaving for the principle of always doing good work.
We left... and walked away from 45% of our annual revenue. I know that was brave because the idea terrified me at the time. In the thirteen years since I started my business I've never advertised... never even cold called. It's not that kind of operation. I'm a terrible salesman, and the problem with being a terrible salesman is that you have to make it up on the actual work. If all your clients come via word-of-mouth the word better be pretty bloody good. In the case of that particular decision, we had a pretty clear choice to make, reputation versus money. We choose reputation, and eight months later they came back to us, which was cool.
I think you've got quite a fresh attitude towards work. I've heard you say freedom beats money. What do you mean by that?
In the late nineties I was offered £1,000,000 (in shares) to dump my business and go work for this dot com company. I was already consulting for them, and the CEO at the time did this whole big pitch... Come in with us Nick. Work for me... you'll be a millionaire in a year. I said no thanks, and it was an easy decision. I already had my freedom, I was doing okay financially, and I had just figured out I could bring a mate of mine into the business. I was literally going to end up working with my best mate from school. Mike and I still work together now. How great is that?
I've never regretted walking away, and that experience kind of proved the principle for me. I don't want to be a dick. I'm not saying that money isn't important. It is. What I am saying is that once you have enough to be comfortable other things become more valuable; freedom, time, quality of life and so on. Once Semantic took off I was thinking less about making money, and more about how to do work I enjoyed... and still be home in time for dinner.
So how do you remain so ‘relaxed' when you've got a bunch of stressed out clients on the phone?
Well, one of the advantages of freedom is that we can choose who we work with... and the first part of that is choosing not to work with too many. I'm not saying there's never any stress, or that we don't work hard... but we pick our battles carefully. For example, in February we were approached by an international brand struggling with their website. It was a lucrative contract, and a job I would have had to have taken had I worked for someone else.
But the five of us talked it through, and decided it wasn't a good fit for Semantic. Too much stress, too aggressive timescale, too many chiefs. We've turned down lots of projects for similar reasons over the years. What you say no to is at least important as what you say yes to.
I read that you try and waste 5 minutes every day on pointless creativity. Your blog 'Restless voices' is the result.
Restless Voices is one of those weird little side projects that got out of control. It was born out of boredom, and these rude, sweary voices I have in my head. In 2007 I started writing their stories on Twitter. I got a few followers, then, in December 2008, Hugh McLeod of Gaping Void mentioned me. I had 200 followers in 20 minutes.
It turned into a thing. For 15 years creativity had been something that I did at work, so it was kind of wonderful to be the client again. I wasn't looking to please anyone but myself. But people people seemed to like the stories. They shared them and talked about them. In time I started a blog about the stories, and now there's a ebook collection of a hundred or so, just to feed my ever expanding ego.
Tell us about your office at Semantic. What's the place like, what kind of things do you have around?
One of the advantages of being the boss is that you get to set the tone of the space. We have sofas, posters, a Wii, and lots of books. There are crossbows sitting on the shelf. We have tournaments.
I also have my badminton racket here next to me. We've all just been over to the sports centre for a friendly game.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge so far?
It was late summer 2002. There was tumble weed rolling around the office and the phones had dust on them. Word-of-mouth is a wonderful model, but you need a certain level of critical mass for it to work. We were right on the boundary at that point, and the ripples from the Tech Bubble bursting was a huge problem. In 2002 websites weren't cool, and our clients retreated into traditional marketing.
We basically finished work on a project at Easter time, then waited. It's the only time in my life I've ever been any good at golf, we had so much time to play. We tried to drum up business of course, and I borrowed a large amount of money from the bank. That wasn't cool.
When the phone finally rang, in September, I was 2 weeks from pulling the plug. Skin of our teeth!
How have you've changed from the guy that first started out in this business?
I'm much fatter now. Aside from that a weird thing happened. I got good at running a business. Not good in the capitalist sense, but good in the common-sense... er... sense. It's surprising how much you learn over 13 years. Mike and I recently had lunch with an old friend who's struggling to build a new business. He wanted some advice and, to us, the issues and solutions seemed pretty obvious. But you forget that what seems obvious is really just a product of experience... of lots and lots of trial and error.
I started mentoring other businesses in 2007. That's the weird thing really. I started out my career as a writer, and became a business guy by accident. We have this phrase at Semantic, Do great work, have fun, make money. That works for me.
Where do you think creativity is right now? Better than 10 years ago or worse?
The video tools on my phone are now better than the £25,000 kit I used at college. That's huge... and it's the same for artists, designers, writers, musicians. Technology has changed the way we create and share our art.
But, and it's a big but... humans haven't changed much. Yes there is the odd creative genius out there, and yes the rest of us get occasional flashes of brilliance... but over any meaningful length of time creativity looks an awful lot like something else... hard work. Creativity isn't a thing, it's a consequence. A consequence talent and effort... with effort being by far the more important of the two. The question isn't whether you are or you aren't creative, it's whether you'll put the work in. So yeah, the tools and opportunities are way better than 10 years ago... but I reckon the proportion of people prepared to work at their creativity is pretty much the same.
Finally Nick, One last question. Where does your story go from here?
We'll see. I'm lucky enough to have brilliant people at Semantic... people who are more than capable of doing what I do. My plan is to gradually become less and less useful around here, and get let out early for good behavior.
We've talked a lot about leveraging our skills into other business models, and that's something that will happen if the time's right. The key thing though, is to keep the core business strong. I'm responsible for the livelihoods of the guys who work here, and that's something you have to take seriously. On a personal level, I hope to parlay the Restless Voices thing into more creative gigs. As it turns out a lot of what you do running a business is really just storytelling.
I guess that's why I enjoy it so much.