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February 12, 2015

The evolution of Space 48;

from startup to lean establishment.


The tech and digital startup scene

An innovative, technical, and creative scene has been increasingly flourishing around the world in the last few years. The number of technology and digital startups has been seeing so much expansion that The Economist likened this boom to the Cambrian explosion and the dotcom bubble in an article just one year ago. This increase has been attributed to the evolution in the startup ecosystem, becoming much more welcoming to a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Over in the ‘Valley of Heart’s Delight’, Northern California, Frederick Terman, Stanford’s Dean of Engineering, took it upon himself to encourage faculty and graduates to start their own companies back in the 1940s and 50s. This became known as ‘Silicon Valley’. Its concentration of technical innovation grew, spawning successful startups as well as some failed startups, of course. As Silicon Valley matured, eventually home to the world’s largest high tech. corporations, as well as thousands of tech startups, it inspired multiple worldwide cities to imitate the structure in their own vision; to build startup hubs of their own.

A combined effort of incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, tailored events and conferences, high-intensity courses, financial investments from venture capital, angel, crowdfunding and more, there is now less untrodden ground to cover; practices have been tried and tested; the ecosystem is a little more nurturing; the passionate and competitive have a great chance of success.

London’s business sector boasts the affectionately named Silicon Roundabout and its cluster of technical and digital startups, and they are out to make the whole world sit up and take notice. But the rest of the UK is hot on their tail. Realising the rising costs of living, they can stay exactly where they are to start their business. Already the North West has seen many very successful companies born from new sparks of insight.


There has been a massive push of late to increase the size and stature of the technical and digital sectors (in particular) in Manchester and generally across the North. There is a growth in the number of co-workspaces available for freelancers, contractors, small teams, and remote employees, as well as accelerators that offer to help you get your idea from concept to production. The whole environment is definitely gaining traction in Manchester – I feel that I can say this as I run the Silicon Drinkabout for startups every Friday and I also regularly attend a selection of the (wide) array of digital, tech, design and startup events that are on offer. Thus, I have the pleasure of meeting all of these sparky ideas people, designers and developers, and hearing their stories.

Exactly what makes a startup varies depending on which newspaper or website you read or exactly who you talk to. But, the universal underpinning of a startup ‚ it seems to me‚ is that they are constantly evolving, growing, and staying lean and agile, whilst offering a new product, or service, or finding themselves a niche.

Whilst running these events and being generally in and around the tech, digital and startup scene I was pleased to meet a few of Space 48’s employees, including Jon, the Managing Director. When it was time for me to look for a new job, I was lucky enough to be offered a role that fully utilised my skills; not one role but three, neatly merged into one little package. Just outside of Manchester, perfect: a journey just long enough to listen to a few tunes on my commute. Although it is a well-established agency, the company lives and breathes, altering itself just ever so slightly for the better every day. It still has the air of a startup. Jon himself often quotes Simon Sinek and Daniel Pink, which I personally find quite refreshing coming from an MD. There is definitely no dust settling over here.

“One of the best paradoxes of leadership is a leader’s need to be both stubborn and open-minded. A leader must insist on sticking to the vision and stay on course to the destination. But he must be open-minded during the process.”

– Simon Sinek, a quote that I found quite apt.


Space 48, a startup in disguise

The story

Back in 2008, Jon had been working as a consultant but decided that it was time for him to spread his wings; to team up with web designers to enable him to pitch for larger projects and thus, Optimise Internet was founded. He started mixing with a whole host of new and interesting people; specialists in different aspects of web design, not only learning more in his own field but also gaining new insights from the collaborators. The whole experience was exciting him. Constantly working with new people, the pitches were getting bigger, he found the collaborations and team environment very rewarding. Momentum was certainly gathering.

His team of hand picked freelancers then collaborated on a Magento project. Optimise Internet had found their niche and had set out to be specialists in the field of e-commerce and Magento. At the beginning of 2010 Jon found that he could now fully justify a permanent workforce – this startup had traction. Jon met Tony, our Technical Director, and they immediately hit it off; they became partners in crime. Tony took control of the web development and technical side, and Jon held the reins on the business development, marketing, and the accounts.

Another developer was hired and more followed; along came a designer and an account manager. We say these are their job titles, in reality the developer did some designing, the designer did some marketing, the account manager did some new business – the usual that happens in a small business, a startup. Together they created the business, they were the business – it has always been about the people and their individual skill-sets.

By 2011 they needed to stretch their legs and move up in the world of offices, their modest abode was filling to the brim. Each year since Space 48 started, has been gaining about two thirds more employees. You can see our happy mugs below:


Agility to grow

The bright new Space 48 rebrand was launched in 2012. The business model that has been created is dynamic, supportive, and scalable. Utilising agile methods, which are proven to work in varying situations, paired with good old-fashioned common sense. The whole team is continuously adding improvements to the system as and when needed. Visible strategies are employed so we know if it is working for everyone or needs tweaking. Questioning is encouraged; inquisitiveness lends itself to improved learning and innovative thinking. Staff are encouraged to learn, internal training and the chance to attend external courses and conferences are offered. There always seems to be time made available for employees to share their thoughts on the company.

The teams have stand-ups every day, briefly discussing colleagues’ project development; accomplishments, task lists, and blockers. The walls are filled with oversized and very visible Kanban boards, upon which all projects and their progress are tracked on little index cards. Blockers can be anything or anyone that may be halting the advancement of an assignment. Colour coded for ease of recognition, internal (blue sticky notes) and external (pink) blockers are each marked and commented on the individual index card including details to highlight the limiting factors. In fact, team members even have a little cartoon version of themselves to pop on the card they’re currently working on! So everyone knows what the other is doing. This seems to work for everyone no matter how they work best, as it is very physical and visible but closely managed by Team Leaders, updated daily, and used in conjunction with personal reminders, GitHub, and personally, To-Do lists.


The above all takes place in an open-plan office; teams work on tables next to each other, but not too close! Each desk adorned with dual monitors and whatever personal accessories the individual decides on. Usually a pair of headphones, a mug, and some quirky toys – the general office paraphernalia. For internal communication we use the messaging service Slack ‚Äì a bit of office banter happens here but we try to employ it to it’s full potential. Slack integrates with an array of other apps and services enabling our developers, designers, and account managers to work effortlessly and efficiently together. We can easily track work and discuss current projects in their own channels, it is sync’d with GitHub in particular so all commits and comments automatically post to the relevant channel. Due to the less official nature of Slack, it is much easier to reply/comment to ‘all’ on Slack, without creating a long string of emails. Plus you can set your own alerts and log out when you need uninterrupted quiet time. Obviously emails still remain, especially for external communication – they will not be disappearing any time soon – but they have their place. We also all have access to the company Dropbox as work is more than often collaborative and always saved remotely.

Old-fashioned transparency

Not everything is digital though! Good old face-to-face conversations regularly occur; a chat by the Kanban board, a little project catch-up at the desks, or a natter in the kitchen. There is a friendly vibe that makes for a comfortable working environment. You can also never underestimate the power of a meeting in person, this goes for internal and client meetings. We are careful of setting an agenda and keeping to the points so not to overrun and become a strain on time, keeping meetings productive and valuable. Retrospectives are called at milestones of a project’s progression. We find that this aids with time-lines, managing workloads, finding weak points, testing, and team work.

I think it’s mainly due to this open and transparent way of working, the warm team environment, and the encouragement, that Space 48 is growing so well. It’s a really inspiring place to work. The year of 2014 saw the company almost double in size. Not only did we increase the number of bums sat on chairs for another year running, we also saw the office have a face-lift and literally double in size. A whole wall was knocked down and new furniture was procured to create a relaxing living room area in addition to the rather comfortable workspaces. With each of the teams expanded we’re able to share the additional work we’re gaining.

Just the way we are

Do you know how much we love Magento? Well, we know it inside out, and together we mused on the best way to share this knowledge. The decision was made to hold a first of its kind event (as we’re a friendly bunch); an event designed and curated by developers for developers: Mage Titans. We had a little help from our friends as sponsors and partners; Manchester Digital, UKFast, Magento (themselves) and other Magento-focused agencies. Not only did we get loads out of it, (you should see our notebooks), the other delegates must have enjoyed it as it inspired a whole host of online summaries and articles.

We also took the decision to share our knowledge with the younger generation and in November we were pleased to welcome three wonderfully talented apprentices to join the team. Fresh faces now appear in our online marketing, front-end design, and also web development teams.

2014 brought Space 48 an extra 57.14% of brainpower, double the comfortable office space, star apprentices, amazing clients, a clever event, oh, and a few more awards on our shelves too. Needless to say after seven successful years in business we’re ready to embrace everything that this year, sorry, the next ten years bring us.

That momentum I mentioned earlier, it has not stopped.

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