In the year 2000, after it turned out that the Millennium Bug did not actually kill us all, Tim Copeland saw an opportunity for himself as the dotcom business boomed.
"It was an environment where like never before you could accomplish so much with talent, initiative and a good idea," he says.
The business he started that year, Totally Digital, is now SilverStripe Ltd. I thought today might be a good time to have a look back at our origins and growth, because Down To The Wire, the story of the New Zealand internet, is also examining the year 2000 today. I gathered up SilverStripe's founders, Tim Copeland, Sam Minnée, and Sigurd Magnusson to have a chat about the past ten years.
Tim was fresh out of high school in the year 2000. "It was the time of the whole dot com boom, so there were all these guys who'd become multimillionaires with no skills, no networks, who'd had no startup money, and I thought I could do better."
He'd already won several IT awards through the business he’d been running at school, and had picked up some clients. Tim met Sigurd at a party, and through Sigurd he met Sam.
Sam was also straight out of high school, and was contracting doing database development.
"At the time Tim came into my path, I had a client and Tim had a client, and so we spent Tim's life savings on two computers and high speed internet access, and that was enough to start a business.
"Starting so young meant we didn't have anything to lose, we could afford to take risks, and as a consequence we learnt a hell of a lot - managing client relationships, sales, management, finances, as well as about technology and how to deal with the fact that you have bits of software that last for years and thinking long term to keep things stable," says Sam.
The sites they were building then ran on ASP and Microsoft Access. It was only when Sam and Tim needed more help and brought in Sigurd, who had been writing for the City Voice, that they were introduced to PHP. Sigurd had been introduced to programming, open source, and the internet in his school years by his grandmother who worked as a programmer at the National Bank.
"Getting a server that ran Linux also helped us stumble into [PHP]," says Sam.
Within a few months Totally Digital needed to establish its own office, subletting space from a client who was happy to have them close at hand.
From 2000 until 2002, the company was focused more on databases than building websites, resulting in one client being almost 90% of their billings and supporting seven staff, which wasn’t an ideal situation to be in.
The guys saw several of their clients profit hugely from products they'd developed - for example a local company licensed technology Totally Digital had built from scratch in 500 hours, for a seven figure sum.
"We were really happy that worked out for our client," says Tim, "and it made us understand the value of productising our expertise".
"At that point we started looking more at content management and reinventing ourselves," says Sam.
"When a client moved to Australia and wanted to be able to update their website themselves, this grew into the idea of the SilverStripe CMS product,” adds Sigurd, although at that point they weren't even aware of the term CMS.
The first version of the CMS was SilverStripe, which is a kind of bamboo, and more importantly was a unique search phrase on Google. "We didn’t want to name it 'website updater' as that would make it hard to find our software," says Sigurd.
With the development of the first version of SilverStripe CMS, the guys were looking to move into peddling a commercial product rather than a service.
"That didn’t really work out because people wanted to pay for value, and the value was in the customisation services rather than the product itself. The SilverStripe CMS wasn't getting a lot of uptake. Where we were getting revenue from was the development of that CMS for others," says Tim.
"One thing we’ve been good at is being aware that we don’t always know a hell of a lot, so we learn along the way. We've always been quick to throw away things that don’t work and move on to things that do," he adds.
Something that did work out great was the 2003 move into Creative HQ, a Wellington office space incubator for web companies, where the advice of Alasdair MacLeod was invaluable.
"It's been a defining characteristic for us that we’ve worked alongside business mentors - consistently asking people for insights and input. The Wellington community has definitely been very supportive of that. It seems like there was a very wide pool of knowledge and generosity," says Sigurd.
Richard Francis also played a key role in the company's history when at a retreat in Martinborough in 2005, the decision was made to relaunch the company and make SilverStripe CMS 2.0 open source.
Somewhat ironically, given that he's the one who deals with the code and open source community now, Sam was the most skeptical at the time. "I wanted to make sure that we weren’t choosing a path that only made sense to us geeks. But when even the accountant was won over, I realised it was a good idea."
Becoming open source was first and foremost a commercial decision, but there have been great flow-on effects.
"We also wanted to make an impact and put our footprint out there. It's cool to be able to say that our software is in hundreds of thousands of people’s hands. It’s great that a small company from Wellington is having that impact on the world," says Tim.
By 2007, SilverStripe had over a dozen staff and it was time for the founding three to take a step back.
"In effect, we'd reached a point where we knew we needed outside help. We lacked the experience of what a CEO job title really meant,” says Sam.
Realising that the triumvirate they'd been running wasn’t serving their purposes anymore, and that they'd had little experience of what a CEO title would entail, the guys appointed Brian Calhoun to take the leadership role.
“From day one we've been trying to remove the reliance of the company on its founders, we're now providing input and fantastic ideas rather than being the foundation of it all. We can go away for a week now without everything falling apart," says Sigurd.
"What we wanted was a fantastic work environment and a lot to learn" says Tim, "I can't imagine a better way to spend ten years of your career - what we’ve done and what we’ve experienced is extremely satisfying and challenging."
"It's been hard work but a great experience and a lot of fun, we've gotten to a place that regardless of what happens from here on out, we've succeeded," says Sam.
So what exactly will be happening from here on out? Tune in next week when I put that question to Brian...
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