I was reflecting the other day on turning 21. 

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noticed I’m not talking about myself but rather Sputnik Digital, which has just celebrated its 21st birthday. 

I’ve been thinking about how both Sputnik and the industry are unrecognisable from the digital transformation agency I set up in 2000. 

At the beginning I was the only member of staff and we started life above the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. 

As most start-up stories begin, the early days involved long hours and not much reward. 

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

In the late nineties, a web developer needed to be a marketing consultant, designer and developer rolled into one, and, frustratingly for them, was probably the same person you called if your PC crashed or you forgot your email password. 

A younger Andy Nicol

A younger Andy Nicol

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

Over the years I’ve noticed customer expectations have changed too. Back then, clients who recognised the growth of the internet often approached us without a brief, but knew they needed a website. Web developers largely followed best practice, although in many ways things were simpler – this was before mobile devices and responsive designs. 

The SEO industry changed clients’ perceptions. Rather than asking for a website, they asked to be ‘top of Google’. This caused a seismic change in the industry, the effects of which are still felt today.  

Questionable SEO agencies were able to hide among the reputable ones, web development budgets were cannibalised to fund SEO requirements resulting in corners being cut in the ‘design and build’ stage, and a boom in the popularity of template websites. Ironically, these cheaper options meant the fundamentals weren’t being addressed, and the journey to better search engine rankings often started on the back foot. 

Template sites are designed for everyone – and no one. Aside from often being slow and bloated, they aren’t designed with a specific business or customer journey in mind. 

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

These were perfect conditions for the burgeoning era of conversion rate optimisation. 

I should say that both SEO and CRO are absolutely vital – it’s just that they have had their ‘Wild West’ moments. Neither should ever have been considered any more (or less) important than the discovery, design, build and maintenance of a website – they all go hand in hand. 

Why a ‘Ford Fiesta website’ will never beat a Ferrari

Today Sputnik’s team has grown to 11, including eight developers, but our focus has remained unchanged – producing flawless code to create websites and applications that are scalable, secure and reliable. 

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

Our commitment to best practice from UX to engineering resonates with clients who demand the highest standards – whether the drivers are commercial, compliance or reputational. We’ve had the honour of working with amazing clients including GoCompare, Swinton Insurance and Fluent Money. 

What lessons have I learned from the last 21 years? 

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

Understandably, businesses wanting new websites or applications look at the bottom line, but it’s important for agencies to resist the assumption that the client wants the cheapest option. As a rule, they don’t. They want to understand what options are available, and 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 having a strong and experienced team. 

Another lesson from the last 21 years is that transparency and honesty is vital. In our industry we see a lot of ‘buyer’s remorse’. 

It’s an agency’s responsibility not to shy away from telling them the truth. If a budget isn’t where it needs to be, it’s normally better to trim 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’s helped us sleep at night, and build strong and lasting friendships with clients. There are many successful agencies that offer cheaper, entry level solutions, and they’ve optimised to do that. It’s just not right for us. 

We’ve come a long way in 21 years and a lot has changed – including me – but the principles of adhering to best practice and producing flawless code will always remain core to our business.