The long road to success
Recently someone asked me if I’d always been a web designer and it started me thinking about how I ended up in this line of work and setting up Catfish Web Design.
My first job after leaving school was selling ice cream at the Odeon Cinema in Newport. It was a nightmare. The ice cream tray weighted a ton and the striped nylon uniform was extraordinarily short, so it was impossible to bend over.
At the end of that summer, aged 17, not being university material and not having an idea about what I wanted to do apart from write poetry, I was shipped off to secretarial college in London.
It wasn’t what I had planned, but then I didn’t have a plan.
However, this training stood me in good stead as back in the late 70s early 80s there were plenty of opportunities if you could type and write shorthand.
Fresh out of college I got a job as a fundraising for the charity Scope. I was thrown in at the deep end organising glamorous balls at top London Hotels, Bond film premieres, concerts and other events that demanded celebrity attendance or one of the Royal Family. I hobnobbed with quite a few including the late Roger Moore.
The salary of a fundraiser was not great, so I decided to take my chance in advertising, a burgeoning industry in the 80s. It wasn’t for me, but I was an excellent organiser and trouble-shooter so was constantly being headhunted to handle office moves, train staff to use their computers and just generally make things happen.
We are talking about a time when punk was still around, along with Goths and New Romantics. I was always making outfits for myself to wear to parties and decided to branch out and set up in business. Vivienne Westwood was much to blame for this false confidence, and there certainly was a culture back then of ‘you can do anything’.
I hooked up with the daughter of one of the creative guys at the ad agency and we launched a range of clothing under the Mama Oclo label. Mama Oclo was an Inca princess and I discovered her when visiting the Judy Chicago Dinner Party exhibition.
We printed our own fabric and sold our wares at various boutiques across the country, at Camden Market and Greenwich Market. We also sold a range to Harrods and made a shirt for Alison Moyet’s appearance on Top of the Pops.
Mama Oclo lasted 2 years. I wasn’t trained so there were limitations to what I could achieve.
I then took a course in plastering, painting and decorating. This led to a sub-contracting job with Smallbone of Devizes who built and fitted high end kitchens. We committed the cardinal sins of ragrolling and dragging every surface in sight. This suited me for a while, but in the long run I needed more mental stimulus.
My next adventure was working for a magazine in North London selling advertising space. It payed the bills and I got a company car! However, after only a few months the magazine folded, and I was out on the street again.
Never sitting around for long, an advertisement in the Hampstead & Highgate Express caught my eye. The New End Theatre in Hampstead was looking for an administrator. I applied for the job and, to my surprise, got it. Initially I had no idea what I was doing, but I ended up producing a couple of shows and then setting up a theatre company with some friends and taking shows to Edinburgh.
Unfortunately, in my early 30s I contracted Meningitis and was severely ill. When I was released from hospital I found it difficult returning to work in such a demanding role. I had severe memory loss and it took me about 2 years to walk properly and fully recover.
I went back into advertising for a while and then found work with a legal charity. I was meant to be temporary cover for 2 weeks but stayed for 5 years.
It was here in 1999 that I discovered the world of the web.
The charity had been awarded some funding by the Joseph Rowntree Trust to produce a website. Nothing seemed to be progressing with the project, so I decided to make it my business. After spending a day or two investigating the possibilities, I realised I may have found my calling.
I handed in my notice and enrolled on evening classes to learn HTML coding. I designed and built the charity website and then managed to get a few more contracts. It built slowly from there.
One of the things that really helped me was a start up business grant from a local enterprise agency of £2,000. They also had a fantastic mentoring scheme from which I benefited greatly.
It is without doubt the steepest learning curve I have ever been on but nearly 20 years later I am still enjoying what I do just as much as ever with a full-time programmer and a team of associates.
I am looking forward to a big 20-year celebration next October.