Make a cuppa and sit and join us, as we discuss ethical businesses, sustainable web design, the challenges and rewards of running a business, and why Vineeta is his biggest inspiration.
Can you tell me a little about your background and what led you to a career in web design and development?
I should state that I consider myself as a designer, and a fairly technical one, but I’m certainly not a developer. I dabbled in making some basic websites in my teens but didn’t intend to have a career in digital. I went to university to study product design and investigated the field of sustainable product design for my final year project. One of the outcomes of this was that I found information was hard to come by at the time, so I created a really comprehensive online guide covering every aspect of sustainable design I could find. It was www.espdesign.org, which I recently put back online.
After a few years designing physical products, I wanted to start a design business. My interest in sustainability led me to look for ways we could design things that were non-physical, so we would have minimal environmental impact and not be designing things that would end up in landfill sites. That initially started as brand design but quickly morphed into digital design. I really enjoyed it and it fitted perfectly with what I wanted to achieve.
You set up Wholegrain with Vineeta ten years ago. Vineeta discussed why you set up your own business in a recent interview. Can you tell me little about how you got started and how you won your first client?
Honestly, we got started by quitting our jobs and trying to teach ourselves the fundamentals of running a business, as well as learning the specialisms of brand design. So those early days were a steep learning curve, but a really, really fascinating one.
I know a lot of people start agencies by picking up work from people they know, but I’m just not a good networker, so although we did some little bits of work for people we knew to get experience, it took some time to get what I would call ‘real clients’. Lucky for me, my brother is and was an SEO expert and taught me a lot of what he knew, which helped attract some of our first clients. Then I gave a presentation at the Business Start Up Show in London, which helped get the ball rolling. It was a slow and painful start, but we persevered and things gradually developed a life of their own as people came to know us through word of mouth.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own agency? On the flipside, what’s the toughest part?
I think the most rewarding part is seeing that you’ve helped people to progress, whether that be helping clients move their businesses forward in a positive direction or seeing team members move forward in their careers.
The toughest part for me is being responsible for so many moving parts and for many people’s livelihoods. It is a 24/7/365 responsibility that doesn’t stop when I go on holiday. It can be a positive thing, as I’m always thinking of ways we can do things better, but it isn’t something I find easy.
What’s been your greatest success at Wholegrain?
I guess overall it’s managing to build a business that actually matches my own ethics. It has been hard at times to focus on doing things for the right reasons and not just to maximise profit. In fact, sometimes even at the expense of profit. The outcome however is that we have some really positive clients, an amazing team of positive people, and I hope we can be an example of how to run an environmentally and socially responsible company.
This year we got certified as a B Corp, and I feel that was nice because it gave some recognition to things we’ve been beavering away on for years. Perhaps more importantly, it focused my mind on what we can do even better and connected me with a community of likeminded business owners and managers that are on a similar journey.
Congratulations on being awarded B Corps status! What benefits does this bring to your customers and to the amazing team here at Wholegrain?
Well I think the biggest benefit from any company committing to becoming a B Corp is that there is one more business focusing on how they can reduce their negative impacts and maximise their positive impacts to anyone they impact. So that has to be a win all round.
For our clients, I think it depends who they are. However, it presents an opportunity for us to share ideas and experiences with them on how to build positive businesses, as well as reassuring them that they’re working with a supplier that’s genuinely committed to creating positive outcomes for all.
For staff, it has focused our minds a lot on thinking about how we look after our team, given us opportunities to learn from other positive organisations, and it means staff can get involved in putting forward and actioning ideas to help us do things even better.
We recently took part in a month of pledges with Do Nation and I was really impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment from our team members to pledge some positive actions in their lives. We ended up coming in a strong second on the leaderboard amongst other B Corp businesses, which I think was a testament to how engaged our team are in making positive change.
What’s been your biggest setback and how did you overcome it?
Since before we started the business I’ve suffered from pretty serious repetitive strain injury (RSI), which means I can be in quite a lot of pain for much of the time. In the early years of our business, it got extreme and I thought we would have to give it all up as it was getting almost impossible to work.
However, with the help of a wide range of therapists (some better than others), a lot of special exercises, stress reduction, an anti-inflammatory diet, and a change in my working habits (for example I transcribe long documents instead of typing), I’ve got to a place where although I have pain and it isn’t great, I can cope pretty well day to day and sustain a high workload.
Who has inspired you most in your career?
I know it’s cheesy, but Vineeta. There are lots of people I take inspiration from, but Vineeta is the person who has helped me dream of what we can achieve together, and motivated me, supported me and guided me to get to where we are today. (It’s not cheesy at all. I love this! – Jo)
You’re a champion for sustainability. How important is sustainable web design?
Far more important than most people realise. To be honest, I’m slightly embarrassed that I didn’t get my head around it until fairly recently.
The internet has the same carbon footprint as the aviation industry, and individual websites can emit several tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. We like to think of dematerialisation as being good for the environment, which it is in many ways. But we need to face up to the invisible impact that the web has and take strong leadership in tackling it by designing and building more efficient websites and services, and by using web hosting that’s energy efficient and powered by renewables.
Also, the environmental impact of a website includes the impact of the team that design, build and maintain it, so keeping our business operations eco-friendly is as important as ever.
What advice do you have for web designers and developers to reduce the environmental impact of the web? Are there any little changes we can all make today?
In terms of quick wins, the easiest things to do are to choose a host that’s powered by renewable energy, use caching on the site to minimise the amount of data transferred each time a page is loaded, and minimise the size of images and videos. Speaking of videos, avoid having them autoplay, so that they only need to be loaded if someone actually wants to watch.
There’s a lot that can be done to design and code efficient web pages, but these things are the easy wins. It should be noted that most things that make a site more eco-friendly also make it faster, which is great for user experience and for SEO, so it’s a win-win-win.
If you had a time travel machine, what advice would you give a younger Tom and Vineeta when starting their agency ten years ago?
Focus. I would like to think we’ve always been fairly focused, but I have a habit of getting excited by new ideas and spreading myself too thin. Something I learned along the way is that there’s huge value in consistency.
Finally, it’s your job to manage the direction of the team. What would you like Wholegrain to achieve in the next ten years?
I’d like to see Wholegrain really lead the field in sustainable web and help move the industry towards zero carbon, which is something that’s going to be essential over the next decade. If we can do that while also delivering amazing results for customers and great user experience, then I think it will be a big win.
We’re soon launching a tool to help others learn about the link between websites and climate change, which I’m really excited about. Watch this space…
Thanks Tom! I really enjoyed this discussion. I didn’t understand the importance of sustainable web design until recently (thanks to your work here at Wholegrain), and it’s definitely made me think about how I can improve my own websites. I look forward to seeing what other positive changes you can initiate in the next ten years.
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