Catfish Web Design: The Story
I absolutely love working for myself and having my own company. I had been self-employed on many occasions before I set up Catfish Web Design, but none of my ventures had really taken off.
My first foray into the world of self-employment was launching a range of clothing which I ended up selling to Harrods. I also worked as a painter and decorator with a bit of interior design thrown in, set up a small catering business delivering to local cafes and offices, as well as hiring myself out to companies who needed help with an office move or setting up new office systems.
In 1999 I was working for a legal charity in London and feeling frustrated with the office politics. The charity was in the process of getting a website built with some funding from the Joseph Rowntree Trust, but work seemed to be at a standstill. I barely spent any time on the web in those days and rarely used email, so this new world was intriguing. But the idea of designing and creating an online resource really appealed to me. I was convinced this was something I could do and that perhaps my first project should be the charity website.
I quickly discovered why progress on the site was slow. The web design agency was waiting for content … that age old problem! Here I had the advantage because I’d been working at the charity for 5 years so I knew exactly what information should go on to the site and where to find it. Easy!
So, I handed in my notice and enrolled in evening classes to learn HTML. It was a steep learning curve. I could barely code and yet I now had my first web project for which I was being paid the princely sum of £1,500. I don’t know how I arrived at that figure, but the charity was happy.
It could be argued that the charity was being irresponsible handing over funds to someone who had never built a website but fortunately over the years I had proved myself to be a reliable team member who could always find a solution to a problem. There was a lot of trust involved. The website I delivered was exactly what they wanted and needed, and it was a great launch pad for Catfish.
In October 1999 Catfish Web Design was born. Having decided to become a web designer I approached a friend from my days in advertising to see if she was interested in being my business partner. She jumped at the opportunity, so we set about buying a domain, building our own website and getting business cards printed.
The ‘spacious’ London office - 2000
We secured a start-up business grant of £2,000 from a local enterprise agency which helped enormously, and we benefited from a fantastic mentoring scheme.
Unfortunately, my business partner, Maureen, decided that self-employment was not for her. We parted ways amicably and remained close friends. Sadly, she passed away in January this year so won’t be able to celebrate 20 years of Catfish with me in October.
With Maureen out of the picture, I forged on alone. I employed a mum at my son’s school to cold call potential clients and set up appointments for me to discuss their website needs. Until they heard from us, most of them didn’t realise they had website needs. I paid her a small hourly rate and a commission on any projects that came to fruition.
My husband was extremely supportive of my venture. I guess he just took a leap of faith. At the time he was on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company, so we had a small but steady income (very unusual for a jobbing actor) which meant that I was not under so much pressure financially.
In order to make ends meet I was still taking on some freelance work for the charity which I carried out from home, and I signed up with a language school to act as a host family for people studying English. With a young son also in the equation, I was extraordinarily busy, often working into the early hours of the morning. But they were exciting times.
Something I realised early on was that I needed help, most specifically the expertise of someone who had far more knowledge of programming than I did. I had run into a problem with one of the sites I was building, and I’d had several sleepless nights wondering how I could resolve the issue. I remembered that one of my neighbours ‘did something with computers’ so in desperation I knocked on his door. The sense of relief that flooded over me was immense when he said ‘yes, I can do that’.
Problem solved … an extremely happy client … and Mike was on board. He’s been my programmer ever since. This partnership continues to work beautifully. I now concentrate on marketing, sales and design while Mike writes complicated code that will do anything I want it to. No challenge is too great for him.
At the time though, I was still building most of the smaller websites myself but with Mike I could expand my offering with ecommerce and more complex systems like password protected areas, event booking, news and blogs, photo galleries.
That’s not to say it was a breeze attracting clients. I was gradually building up a portfolio but in the beginning some of these projects were for friends who I charged a tiny fee, and in most cases nothing at all. The experience of working on real websites was crucial for me to gain credibility in the eyes of potential customers.
Marketing was a constant but in the days before social media it meant phone calls. There was a lot of rejection and this was hard, but I kept going because I was loving my work and really believed I could make a success of Catfish. What I did discover was the power of referrals, particularly in the charity sector in which I was trying to make my niche.
In 2003 our family moved to Cambridge. Coincidentally, we bought our house from a web designer who left me a fully kitted out office.
The Cambridge office - 2009
In order to try and establish myself within the Cambridge business community I looked at attending networking events. There were very few options (unlike the plethora of networking groups around today) and with an 8-year-old son it was difficult to get to events taking place at the crack of dawn or in the evening. So, I decided to set up my own networking group - at lunchtime. I thought this would suit a lot of working women like myself and I was right. The first meeting of Cambridge Women was held at Bruno’s Brasserie on Mill Road and 34 women attended.
Networking, whether through my own group or others, has been a great source of clients for me. But it also introduced me to people who offered services that were complementary to web development.
Things digital move at an alarming rate so keeping on top of changes to technology and the workings of social media is a constant battle. SEO also seems to have us constantly jumping through hoops. These additional challenges made me realise I needed more experts that I could tap into for advice and support when clients needed a service that I was not comfortable about providing myself.
The team 2019
A website is only part of what a business needs to operate. Many clients coming to me also required logo design, help with marketing and social media, photography and video, as well as Search Engine Optimisation. Gradually I have built up an expert team of associates who I can call on to provide these services when the project demands. They are tried and tested professionals who share my vision and whose input can enhance the work I do. On the other side, Catfish is often their web agency of choice so work flows from both directions.
There are a lot of web design agencies out there and Cambridge is well and truly inundated with some extremely talented designers and developers. I’m not the sort of person who seeks or is comfortable in the limelight but in 2015 I was persuaded to enter the Cambridgeshire Digital Awards. To my astonishment I won 4 awards. I returned in 2016 for another.
Cambridgeshire Digital Awards with Cate Burren from Angel + Blume
While I now have a successful business, it’s not all been plain sailing. It’s been a lot of really hard work, long hours, and enormous stress when technology doesn’t play nice. I’ve had to grit my teeth when I’ve lost out on a job that I really wanted. I’ve had to stray out of my comfort zone, take chances and deal with my share of difficult clients. In 20 years there has only been one occasion when I felt like giving it all up. Eventually I was able to pick myself up, dust myself off and move on.
When I started out on the Catfish journey, I thought I could engineer things so that I would have a part time job to fit in with looking after my son. Catfish has never been part time. Sometimes it has absorbed more of my life than it should, but I think that’s inevitable when you start and run your own business. I like to think that finally I have more of a work life balance.
I work with so many interesting people and I get a huge amount of job satisfaction when a client’s business is improved or enhanced by their website. Some clients have become friends and some friends have become clients.
In October this year Catfish will be 20. I think this is cause for celebration.