Lessons learned from 21 years at the cutting edge of digital technology


Credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

Andy Nicol, Digital Sputnik

Andy Nicol, CEO of digital transformation agency Sputnik Digital, celebrates 21 years of the company

I was thinking the other day about my 21 years old.

The more informed will have noticed that I am not talking about myself but rather about Sputnik Digital which has just celebrated its 21 years.

I reflected on the fact that Sputnik and the industry are unrecognizable from the digital transformation agency I created in 2000.

At first I was the only staff member and we started our life above the Royal Exchange Theater in Manchester.

As most start-up stories begin, the early days involved long hours and few rewards.

In my case, I worked for Sputnik Digital during the day and had a telesales position in the evening. It was 16 hours a day. I’ve managed to live on £ 6,000 a year, made easier by not having a car or a TV, at least until the birth of my daughter forces my hand.

In the late ’90s, a web developer had to be a marketing consultant, designer, and developer all in one, and frustratingly for them, it was probably the same person you would call if your PC crashes or you forget your computer. email password.

A young Andy Nicol

A young Andy Nicol

Web development today is much more sophisticated. Any reasonable project requires a multidisciplinary team of user researchers, product owners, UI designers, front-end developers, back-end developers, testers, and DevOps engineers.

Over the years, I have noticed that customer expectations have changed as well. Back then, customers who recognized the growth of the Internet often contacted us without a brief, but knew they needed a website. Web developers have largely followed best practices, although in many ways things were simpler – that was before mobile devices and responsive designs.

The SEO industry has changed the perception of customers. Rather than asking for a website, they asked to be “top of Google”. This caused a seismic shift in the industry, the effects of which are still felt today.

Dodgy SEO agencies have been able to hide among the most reputable, web development budgets have been cannibalized to fund SEO needs, resulting in cutbacks in the ‘design and build’ phase and a boom in the popularity of model websites. Ironically, these cheaper options meant the fundamentals weren’t covered, and the journey to higher search engine rankings often started backwards.

Template sites are designed for everyone – and for no one. In addition to being often slow and bloated, they are not designed for a specific business or customer journey.

This meant that as soon as a website went live, there was an immediate need to address user experience issues.

These were perfect conditions for the dawning era of conversion rate optimization.

I have to say SEO and CRO are absolutely vital – it’s just that they’ve had their ‘Wild West’ moments. Neither should ever have been considered more (or less) important than discovering, designing, building, and maintaining a website – they all go hand in hand.

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Today, the Sputnik team has 11 developers, including eight developers, but our focus has remained unchanged: to produce flawless code to build scalable, secure and reliable websites and applications.

Putting extra effort at the start of a project results in high performance from day one. No one wants to spend the next year or two trying to patch their website to get it where it always should have been.

Our commitment to best practices, from UX to engineering, resonates with customers who demand the highest standards, whether it’s business, compliance or reputation factors. We have been honored to work with exceptional clients including GoCompare, Swinton Insurance and Fluent Money.

What lessons have I learned from the past 21 years?

There is something for every budget, but not all websites are created equal.

Understandably, businesses that want new websites or apps watch the results, but it’s important for agencies to resist the assumption that the customer wants the cheapest option. Typically, they don’t. They want to understand what options are available, as well as the opportunities and risks at each level.

Businesses that are on their third or fourth generation website will have experienced the pain when things go wrong. While no budget is ever infinite, they understand the value of a strong and experienced team.

Another lesson from the past 21 years is that transparency and honesty are vital. In our industry, we see a lot of “buyer’s remorse”.

It is the responsibility of an agency not to hesitate to tell them the truth. If a budget isn’t where it should be, it’s normally best to reduce the scope – compromises in design or code quality should be a last resort, and new features can always be added later.

The third lesson is to stay true to yourself. Our commitment to “precision digital engineering” has served us well. It has helped us sleep through the nights and build strong and lasting friendships with clients. There are many successful agencies that offer cheaper entry level solutions, and they have optimized themselves to do so. It is not fair to us.

We’ve come a long way in 21 years and a lot has changed – myself included – but the principles of adhering to best practices and producing flawless code will always remain at the heart of our business.

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