It was in this year and out of a caravan in Hamilton that Damon Kelly formed the tech company Enlighten Designs which today is NZ’s largest website design, systems design and software development companies – employing over 70 staff.
In 1998, you’d be at the cutting edge of things if you had a 56kb dial up connection. To download a song via Napster might take an hour all going well and, if you were one of those progressive companies to have a website, it might take you six months to get it manually listed on the dominant search engine of the time, Yahoo.
Enlighten Designs work with Microsoft around the world, not just in NZ – specifically on its data journalism project for Associated Press – to bring interactive data graphics about the US-election to American news outlets. We talk to Damon Kelly about his “overnight success” and how companies in New Zealand are about to help shape the world of innovation from anywhere.
Can you take us back to the early days of your origin story, when you started in a caravan?
It was really fun because back at the beginning we had this vision of the web being this cool new thing and we wanted to be part of it. I was actually gaming at the time and we built this big website around gaming.
I had no money, so we were doing this in the caravan outside the back of my parents’ house. We went to an ISP and we said, ‘Your website’s pretty crappy. If you give us free website hosting, we’ll redo it.’
I stayed up that night, drunk a lot of Mountain Dew and gave them a website the next day. They were really happy with it, like really, really, really happy. I had just finished a degree in psychology and cognitive science and I was going to go back and do clinical psychology, but the ISP kept asking if we’d like to work on another website for a customer. And then another one.
So in the holidays, I did a few of these websites and they just kept coming in more and more. Then two things happened. A group of my friends came to me and said, ‘Hey, we really like what you’re doing. We want to come work for you.’ And I was like, ‘That’s okay, I just have no money so I can’t pay you.’ And they said, ‘That’s okay. We’re just really interested in what you’re doing and learning.’
That was one of the only times in my life where people have been like, ‘I want to come work for you for free.’ We started in the caravan and then progressively took over the house. It was a crazy ride because we bootstrapped the whole thing. I personally lived off a $5 bag of rice for six months.
But it was cool because the vision around what we wanted right from the beginning has always been based on these three pillars. We wanted to do really cool, innovative stuff with technology that would actually make a positive difference in the world.
On top of that, we wanted to be really people-centric, by building both a community within ourselves but also with our clients. The last thing we wanted was our concept of sustainable prosperity; we wanted to make sure that as we made money, we did it in a sustainable way, but we also did it so that we could enable people to learn new ventures and cool things for our clients. That was where it all started and then from there until now, it’s been a crazy ride because we started predominantly doing web development.
We found in those early days that people kept coming to us more and more for software development and that we were actually quite good at that. That enabled this huge period of growth in the organisation. I think our turnover was increasing 40% year on year for about seven years.
We then moved into the data and AI space and that just pulled us international. We learnt that, especially in the last four years, it’s actually a lot easier to make an impact on the international stage than you’d realise, you’ve just got to try. That was a great learning.
If we go back again to the caravan, can you paint a picture for the technical context of the time? How fast were internet speeds? What were you gaming?
The game I think was either Quake or Quake II, so that will slightly show my age. Enlighten had our 21st birthday on May 10th this year. We had either a 33kb or a 56kb dial up modem, that at one point we had 15 people running off.
It was interesting because that internet is insanely slow by today’s standard. But the good thing around that is sometimes your limitations become your strength. Because we had really bad internet, we got really good at building really fast websites where the images were really optimised.
The other funny story is we totally bootstrapped it and we had no money. We ended up scaling with people pretty quickly and the way that we did it was that we would approach friends that had really bad, slow computers and offered to upgrade it for them. We’d get them good deals on the parts and we’d reassemble it and then ask to keep the old parts from the old computer. So we’d had these shelves which were slowly getting enough parts to build a computer. It was literally all the crappiest parts and those would slowly become the base of the computer for someone.
Because we were all young and also all gamers, you had to watch out because you might go out and when you came back, your computer would be running slower. It would be because someone had taken the RAM out of it because they wanted to play a computer game that they couldn’t because the RAM was too slow.
I think the worst one, which was a bit of a joke, was someone came back and their computer wouldn’t turn on and they opened it up and realised that their hard drive had been replaced by a potato top mince pie. That was fun.
It’s really interesting how those limitations can actually help you find new ways of doing things. Does that feed through to your approach to the company as well?
I don’t know if you know what ANSI Art is, but it’s before VGA graphics. So when we were playing these games, we were learning how to do web development and web design from a bunch of ANSI artists out of America. VGA Graphics, which is essentially what you would use on all computers now, was this new thing at the time. It was really, really early days.
One of those things that makes New Zealand so innovative is that we’re on the edge of the world. Sometimes we have to be innovative because we don’t have the same access to things. We got good at thinking about ways we can achieve things, given the constraints that we’ve got. For example, we can’t do it that way, but if we abstract this up, what are the things that would allow us to create these outcomes? It was really, really fun.
One of our early clients was The Edge radio station when I think they were a single radio station in Hamilton. We did a whole bunch of things for them that at the time were revolutionary. We set up online chat, and then we built them a website. Back then radio stations were just audio so suddenly they had this new way of engaging with their community. We even ended up building them a full SMS platform as well.
We looked at how you could take the technology of the time and use that to get better community engagement. That has been a bit of a theme the whole way through Enlighten.
Some of those philosophies that you’re talking about, starting the conversation around creating sustainable opportunities and a people-focus, that doesn’t sound like something to come out of the late nineties tech world. Do you think you were ahead of your time in that respect?
Some of it comes a little bit from our roots. With cognitive science, I’ve done all the artificial intelligence papers and computer science, but also I did all the psychology pieces. I wasn’t necessarily planning to be running an organisation that would have a ton of software engineers and data scientists, artificial intelligence experts and graphics designers, which is where we’ve ended up. We’ve got an incredibly amazing team.
At the same point, we didn’t really know what we were doing. I hadn’t done an MBA, I hadn’t gone to management school. We were just a collection of people that wanted to do good in the world. I think the thing that defined us was we wanted to create the environment that we wanted to work and live in, which we did. We just went out and created it.
We happened to be around during the Dot-com Crash. You had all of these companies that went out and borrowed all this money and went after these great things but had no concept of business model or even how they were going to contribute back. We watched them all crash and we were completely unaffected because it had never been the ethos or the mindset. We’ve always had this strong view that anything we do needs to create a positive outcome.
The other thing I think that gives New Zealand an advantage is this concept of being a good human. One, you should do it because it’s the right thing to do. But secondly, we are a small nation and we’re so well networked that if someone goes and screws someone else over, or they’re not great at generating positive outcomes, they get known pretty quickly and they disappear.
I think in order to have real tenure as an organisation you need to not only be really good at what you do, but you also need to be really good humans at the same time.
I don’t think we’ve necessarily learned anything from the Dot-com Crash. There are companies formed on the basis of growth as opposed to profit and revenue. Looking back at your bootstrapping process, why was that never an option for you?
I think there’s pros and cons with it. This has been a reflection over a long period of time. In the last four years, I’ve spent a lot of time in North America and because I’ve done that, I’ve got to understand the two cultures quite well.
There are these things about New Zealand which are incredible. We’re incredibly innovative, we are really good at relationships and if we’re talking about that whole sales mentality, we’re not cheesy and greasy, but we actually try to help people generate outcomes and have better friendships.
Some of the downsides is New Zealand is a brutal environment to fail in. Growing up here, I didn’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome was particularly real until I went to North America. There is such a different culture where success is so celebrated and if someone fails, but they were going for something great, they’re admired for it, which is not the case here.
The other thing I’ve found, which is a big difference between North America and New Zealand, is that they think about scale and they think, ‘if I’m going to do something, can I really create an impact? Can I ensure that the impact is going to touch the world?’ There are challenges with it.
As there is on our side, Tall Poppy Syndrome can be bad, but there’s actually a bunch of good that comes out of it. It’s the same thing with more marketing, scale-based thinking. ‘Growth is king’ in America, but there’s also some bad with it, which is you can get these companies that are never going to deliver value and create huge debt and then crash in flames.
Where I believe that companies can do the best is when they approach both kinds of thinking and they hold them both together. What has been good for us is that we probably think more now about scalability and how to take the solutions that we’re creating out to the globe than we ever did before. As long as you’ve got this ‘good human’ approach and this ability to actually make sure that it’s going to make a difference in your tempering of those things, you can do more good. I think that we need to be more encouraging of people who are going to do things which are going to change the world.
For example, Peter Beck. If you go back a while, having rockets made in New Zealand sounded crazy. What he did was a very non-Kiwi thing to do by some ways, but it’s arguably up there with SpaceX around being one of the most innovative rocket companies and satellite launchers in the world, which is super, super impressive. As a country and a nation, I feel like we need to get both. Take the good from both sides. It’s interesting and I think the mindset piece is super important.
With the more people like you and the more companies like yours that we produce here, does that start to trample some of the Tall Poppy syndrome and encourages us to celebrate success a little bit more?
I think so. Culture is interesting because culture is always focused on the country or the organisation that has control over it. So if New Zealand wants to continue to do innovative things on the global stage, then we need to ensure that we’re not only celebrating success, but we’re being encouraging when there is failure.
I think the more success stories that we have, the more it shows Kiwis that we can go and do it. Take Rod Drury with Xero as an example, we’ve got a large amount of these organisations that have done things in New Zealand and created companies with billions of dollars worth of valuations, which have been inspirational to other people. You either learn what the capabilities and possibilities are for you in one of two ways; you either see someone else and you’re like, ‘if they did it, I can do it,’ or you fall into it.
I think a little bit around some of Enlighten’s success is that we fell into some stuff. We picked up Microsoft as a client about four years ago from an international sense and we started doing a huge amount of things in media. It started off small, we were running their data journalism program and we were helping struggling media and journalists around the world. It was really cool that Microsoft was doing it because they recognised that the media was in trouble and needed some help.
One of the things that we ended up doing was approaching the Associated Press and their data journalism team and saying, ‘We’ve got this cool technology, Power BI, which is good for data journalism, it’s quick and we believe that you could scale your efforts if you’ll let us help you.’ They said yes, so that was amazing.
The thing that’s cool about it is that half the world sees the Associated Press’ content every day, which is incredible. The scale and reach that they’ve got is amazing. It was a big moment for Microsoft because it was scaling and it was more important. It was also great for us because we saw this impact that we could make.
The Associated Press then came to Microsoft and us and said, ‘We really don’t like doing elections and your technology looks like you can visualise elections in real time. We believe it would work on both broadcast television and on the web. Will you do it?’ So then suddenly we went from supporting media with data journalism, into supporting media with real-time elections on broadcast television. It’s super fun, but at the same time, a bit scary because you’re live on broadcast television.
These are billion dollar media organisations that we’re doing work for. I think it’s been a credit to Microsoft that when they’ve gotten a vendor like us where we’ve had a good success record, they keep investing. When they see that things are working, they keep continuing to scale it.
This part of Microsoft became a team called Microsoft News Labs. It’s currently led by a great guy by the name of Ben Rudolph and they’ve got these other amazing leaders, like Jamie Burgess and Deb Adeogba and Vera Chan. They’re a collection of both technologists and journalists from Microsoft, who are stepping out and using technology to transform things.
What’s been cool is from the roots of data journalism, we’ve now moved into artificial intelligence and we’ve been doing some really, really great things for media around the world. It’s nice being able to be able to go to work and make a global impact for an industry and for society as a whole.
If I look all the way back, if you don’t shoot for something like that, or you don’t fall into it accidentally, you don’t know that you can. But as soon as you have done that, you think, ‘Hey, this is an amazing thing. Let’s keep doing it.’.
How could you even have imagined that you would be part of this cultural transformation?
I’ve been really lucky in life to be able to meet some pretty incredible people that are at the top of their game. What I’ve found by talking to all of them is that the single pattern and thread is vision. This will sound slightly hippy, but they all roughly have the same story.
I’ll give you one example. I was talking to Steve Vai, who’s a fairly famous guitar player and he’s said, ‘From an early age, I would wake up in the morning and I saw myself as the greatest guitar player in the entire world and then I would practice that day. And then the next day I’d wake up and I’d see myself playing as one of the top players in the world and I’d practice that day. And then one day, I realised that I was playing as good as the person that my vision.’ And it’s a variation of that story that I’ve heard all of the time.
Because we’ve been in business for a while now, that’s also what we’ve seen. If you have a clear vision for where you want to go, largely that vision will come into reality. You have to work for it, but I think holding that vision is really, really important.
We’ve got a huge opportunity to transform and we’ve got an advantage with how well we’ve dealt with the Covid situation. I think that’s around holding a vision around where we want to go and how we want to get there.
When you wake up in the morning, what is the person that you see? Is there still more to do?
There’s definitely more to do. I wouldn’t say that you wake up in the morning and think about yourself. I do think that when you wake up in the morning, you think about what it is that you’re trying to bring into being. What is that vision or that area that you want to pull into reality? That is the super important piece.
I’ve definitely gone through a lot of times in my life where I’ve walked in on things and looked around and I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is real, that’s freaky.’ It’s trippy because you can go back to when I was a student and I had no money, I’m in a caravan. You’ve got this vision of what you could create.
I wouldn’t say that I’m even slightly satisfied. The reason behind that is that I think in life, everyone’s given a gift and you want to use them in the best way for the world and for society. Sometimes you realise that you could have done more if your mindset had been slightly different, or if you’d worked a little bit harder. I think most people always realise that they sold themselves short or they didn’t reach high enough.
We’ve done some cool things. We’ve done the elections. We did a whole bunch of work with Microsoft for an organisation called Politico and that report is the most viewed Power BI report in the world. When you’re sitting there and you’re going, ‘We made this as a Power BI data journalism report and it’s the most viewed one in the world.’ Then you start going, ‘Crap, what could I have done if I had realised that?’
I think sometimes knowing where you should shoot for is important, because you tend to get there or close to it. When you realise that you can do something, then you’re like, ‘Well, maybe we should try something a bit bigger and a bit harder.’
We bootstrapped, it was great. Would I do it again? Hell no. One, malnutrition is not a fun thing, that’s a bit of a challenge. But the other one is that it does slow down growth. You’d be much better to borrow money appropriately because it will allow you to scale impact far better.
When I look back, there’s definitely parts of me that asks, did I take enough risks? Did I shoot far enough? It’s an interesting question, but the great thing is, I’m still young. I’ve still got lots of time, so we’ll see where things go.
With the bootstrapping side of things, does that give you an opportunity to push you out of your comfort zone step by step as well? How does your personal growth connect with the growth of the company and the opportunities that you’ve had?
One of the core reasons why we bootstrapped was because it limits your ability to make major mistakes. It’s a nice reinforcement of what’s working. If you come back to our origin story, we were making computers out of spare parts and they were slow. We had to earn everything. Every printer, every PC, every screen, every monitor.
It’s a poor man’s MBA. It’s good from that regard, but I think there’s so much clarity in so many things in life. You get the value of it from one degree, but actually it slowed us down.
Is an element of that still in your DNA?
My view is that creativity comes from constraints. One of the things that I did through this journey was that I was a graphics designer for quite a long time. It’s a much harder thing designing something when you’ve got a blank sheet of paper, than when you’ve got some constraints or a client brief. Constraints are what creates creativity.
Organisations always have constraints. There’s never enough money. There’s never enough time. There’s never enough people. That’s where vision is really important because vision shows you where you’re going. With the constraints in your organisation, you use creativity in order to apply them.
Covid, for example, has obviously totally sucked for the world and definitely had a negative impact on us, but it also had a really positive impact at the same time. It’s also a bit of a story around mindset.
I was in North America about a week or two before New Zealand went into lockdown. I got back just in time, I self-isolated and then the country went into lockdown. I had this conversation beforehand with a close friend and what she was telling me about these seven levels of problem solving.
You’re about to go into what is a challenging time. And when you go into that challenging time, how is it that you want to deal with it? Do you want to look at the situation as problems? And when you’re looking at the problems, are you trying to ignore them or get rid of them? Or do you want to go all the way up to where they’re not problems, instead they’re opportunities?
When we came back into Enlighten, we grabbed the team together and we talked about this concept and because of it, we decided that rather than freak out about Covid and do redundancies – which we didn’t do – we asked, what are the opportunities? What do we need to do for our clients so that they can respond? What are the opportunities for our clients? And how do we do that really quickly?
Within 48 hours, we came out with a collection of offers. A crisis communication site, for example, and we helped a bunch of organisations get websites out to be able to support local businesses particularly quickly. That made us better because it showed us that we could get these relevant offers out to the market really quickly. It was our whole thinking mindset that meant we went through it without actually having to lay anyone off.
Did Covid hurt? Totally. Did it hurt our clients? A lot of them got really impacted. But I think that mindset should be around, what are the opportunities that you get out of this and how do you address the situation? I think that was really fundamental and really, really important. I think it’s made us stronger and more resilient as an organisation moving forward.
We’ve had this focus on making sure that what we do is scalable and repeatable so that we can make more of an impact both here and globally. We want to take innovation internationally and help bring it into New Zealand and really scale it. Take the innovation that we’re doing and the innovation that we’re doing with our international partners, like Microsoft, and scale that out. We continued on that path through and I think that was really, really important.
It’s interesting how a lot of companies are shying away from that digital maturity. There’s got to be so much potential sitting there, in terms of productivity and how much better we could be performing, right?
Absolutely. The opportunities at the moment are incredible. Businesses have the ability to reimagine their business and a bit of a reset. We’ve got the old model, but also the ability to have the new model, which is this far more digital outreach-style scenario.
We’ve got a huge opportunity if we choose to leverage it at the moment. From a global stage, I don’t think our brand has ever been as strong as it is at the moment. I think Jacinda has done a particularly good job in a bunch of situations around how she’s dealt with some disasters and I think the border controls have been really good.
It’s now about how do we as a country leverage that for economic recovery? We’re sitting strategically where we’ve got this advantage and whatever government is in power has a real opportunity to look strategically at how we use this and act quickly.
If there’s a risk, it could be that we don’t act and we just keep the borders shut and we don’t think about how we can use this advantage. There’s lots of people out there with great ideas around how you can leverage this current situation for New Zealand. We need to make sure that we stay safe, but we also should be taking the strategic advantage that we’ve got as a country.
What has enabled you to keep that startup vibe when you’ve been around for 21 years, you have massive global clients and 70 people working with you?
It’s going to sound really cheesy, but a few different things. I think the first thing is make sure that things are real. We have a vision, a mission, values, but they’re not placards on the wall. They’re the fundamental building blocks of the organisation. We use them in how we make decisions. We use them in relation to how we reward. They’re these important things.
We just won the Microsoft Country Partner award. It’s just been announced that we’re partnering with an organisation called ARQ Group in Australia. They’re super cool, but quite large, maybe 500 staff and they’ve won 59 design awards. They’re a nice synergy with us because they’re going to help us scale what we’re doing with AI and data science and we’re helping them with web, creativity and our AI capabilities.
We were on a call with them the other day and Spiderman references were slowly being thrown through the conversation, on both sides as well. The cool thing about that is that everyone’s being serious, we’re getting the job done and it’s also fun. I think it’s similar to what the world learned with remote working, which is we’ve always had this fun, cool environment where people have enjoyed going to work and having a really great culture.
I think if you went back far enough, organisations would have looked at having fun at work as not professional and it would mean that you won’t get the job done. Then if you look at Covid where everyone was sent home and worked remotely, organisations realised that if people are working from home largely, they still get the job done. In fact, they might get it done better. They’re happier and they’ve got better flexibility.
You had this situation that forced organisations to realise that some of the things that you thought were critical weren’t. You don’t have to have everyone in the office from eight to five. I think that’s been part of it.
Also just listen to your people, don’t be a dick. Trying to have a really cool environment is probably the easiest thing that I would say.
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