Reflections on 15 years of Wholegrain Digital

Written by Tom Greenwood - March 19, 2022

This week we are celebrating the 15th birthday of our business, Wholegrain Digital. It all started in 2007 with Vineeta and I sat at our dining table in a small ground floor flat in Wolverhampton. Looking back, I wonder how on earth we got here.

The truth is that when we started, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had a vision of what we thought we could bring to the world, coupled with the youthful naivety that we could actually pull it off. I was only 24 at the time and was working as an Industrial Designer, and Vineeta was working as an Electronics Engineer. There we were, setting up a sustainable brand and digital agency. We were coming from different sectors, had no relevant contacts, no sales skills and minimal relevant portfolio to demonstrate our expertise. Basically, we lacked most of the things needed to turn our self-belief into a viable business. Everyone thought we were mad!

Perhaps they were right. Those first few years were really, really hard. We had to live on a shoestring and drained our savings to nothing, but somehow, we kept pushing forward. The prospect of failing was not an option, and so we kept finding ways to muddle through one day at a time, and here we are, 5475 days later.

Eventually, with a few early clients putting faith in us and taking a leap of faith to hire us, we proved our worth and started to build a portfolio. Drip, drip, drip. The tap was slowly opening.

After six years, in 2012, we had an enquiry from M&S. I honestly didn’t believe it. I wasn’t even going to follow it up because I thought it was spam. Their email came from the domain marks-and-spencer.com. I thought, “M&S can afford to buy marksandspencer.com, so this must be fake!”. Luckily, Vineeta was not so stupid and she followed up. We ended up getting hired to do a global web project, introducing M&S to WordPress in a project that set company records for time, quality and budget, and became an internal case study of IT best practices for M&S. 

Funnily enough, when we had started out, we had three dream clients – M&S (because they had a Plan A), SolarCentury and Ecover. Despite us never doing any outbound sales and minimal marketing, we were eventually approached by all three and have done a number of projects with all of them over the years. I don’t know how to explain that, but somehow the universe delivered and for that I am immensely grateful.

As one of the first specialist WordPress agencies and with some big brands now doing landmark projects with us, business really took off. However, we built such a strong reputation as WordPress experts that we began to lose our way a bit in terms of our purpose to be a truly sustainable company. As we approached our 10th year as a company, we realised that we needed to get back to why we started the company – to use design and technology to help positive organisations thrive.

We doubled down on our environmental initiatives, Certified as a B Corp and went on a journey to learn about the environmental impact of the digital technology that we were creating. We ended up leading the industry in this field, creating the first carbon calculator for websites, creating a stacks of content on the topic and I literally wrote the book on Sustainable Web Design. I’m proud to look back and see that we really have changed the industry, with many agencies now embracing digital sustainability and client briefs now often including environmental requirements, something that never happened before.

Despite the pandemic and a number of challenges that we have faced as a team, the past couple of years have been good to us. From a real low point in 2018-2019 where we struggled financially in the process of reinventing ourselves, we have now come to attract so many positive clients, built a team of the most wonderful human beings I could care to know, and had our two best financial years in a row.

Image of some team members sitting close together. All smiling looking at the camera, looking happy

I just love our team so much!

Our culture has been improving too, as we have focused in on one of our other original objectives, which was to create a place that we really loved to work. We wanted to create a place where misfits like Vineeta and I could feel at home. A place in which work is not separate from life, but a fulfilling and supportive part of our lives as a larger whole. In 2020, we took the bold move of hiring an in-house team coach and cultural architect, Chris Hardy. Chris has joined us on this adventure of exploring the many invisible challenges of creating the perfect place to work. The company that we have created together as a team over the past few years is one of my proudest achievements and is summed up in our new cultural manifesto.

As we look to the future over the next 15 years, our world faces an increasingly urgent ecological crisis, growing inequality and a rapidly changing digital world. We will continue to be a positive force, punching above our weight as a small business helping to create a better web for a better world. Small but mighty!

We can create a bright future. Here at Wholegrain Digital, we’ll do everything we can to help inspire and facilitate more responsible business practices and more responsible use of digital design and technology.

Onwards, towards that bright star!