Starbit’s 5th Birthday
Tilly Dyson (Starbit’s latest recruit) interviews Jonathan Stevens (CEO and Creative Director) on the eve of the company’s 5th birthday to get an insight into where Starbit came from and where the team are going next.
TD: Congratulations on 5 years of developing Starbit. Did you ever think it would last this long?
JS: Never. I never really had a plan of action. I didn’t have a long term roadmap. A lot of people in business say you need a 5 year plan, or a series of 5 year plans, but I have to admit I didn’t have one. Starbit happened organically and it came to be the most important thing in my life. At I guess what was a pivotal moment, I had the confidence built up and decided to go for it on a full time basis and set up a limited company, which happened in 2011. Since then it’s slowly but surely been going from strength to strength. Unexpected, but very happy still to be here.
TD: Where and why did you begin Starbit?
JS: Starbit was a formalisation of the freelance work I’d be doing for several years. The first Starbit website launched in 2005, not long after finishing my undergraduate degree. Design has always been my passion, and because I didn't go to art school I kept it as my hobby. So to further my skills I got involved with the university design team in St Andrews and did a lot of focused work. It wasn't me just messing around, I was building a portfolio of work, so when I left uni I had an option, almost a 50/50 choice: Do I go into a design related job or something in line with my degree? Initially I went for the degree side but luckily one of the managers based in the same office asked if anyone knew how to use photoshop, and I stuck my hand up. Using photoshop again in a commercial environment, I was able to take my skills to another level. The global organisation I was working at had a diverse range of marketing needs, and that really bolstered my portfolio. From there, I worked at the Scotsman for two years as an advertising designer. The shift pattern was a bit mad three twelve hour days in a row and then a four day weekend every week. This gave me a lot of useful spare time to build up my freelance client base.
TD: Where did the name Starbit come from?
JS: A star has always been my motif since I was a child, I’m not quite sure why. I had a make believe company when I was four or five called JS Stars that mostly made stationary products out of paper. At high school I must have jokingly called myself Jonny Star a couple of times, and I loved it when it somehow stuck with some of my friends. Maybe it came from being a nice kid and people saying “Oh, you are a star”. So I guess I wanted to keep my personal heritage going. But obviously having a company called Jonny Star is not very corporate or professional sounding, so I did go through exercises of trying to brand the company, and the bit part came about from the digital side, it was added on and it seemed to fit.
TD: What kind of products did you start off designing, and how have your products evolved over the past 10 years?
JS: With my freelance work, it was flyers, logos and pretty basic websites initially (in the days before Web 2.0 and long before smartphones). I guess as I started working with more corporate clients they started asking for things that were more complicated booklets, folders, large- format stuff for events. It has evolved over time and the digital work started taking the driving seat. When other people joined the company, the complexity of the web work we were doing definitely evolved.
TD: What is the biggest lesson you have learned about running a digital business?
JS: Not focussing early enough on our core strengths. Part of the reason for that was that we were finding our feet along the way, and building our portfolio. We are now in the position of feeling very confident in what we do and having some projects we are really proud of behind us, so we are able to continue pushing ourselves further in design and digital using the latest technology. It’s taken a while, we could have focused sooner, but in some ways we may not have learnt the important lessons and so may have been premature.
TD: Why have you chosen to base Starbit in Edinburgh?
JS: Starbit could have almost been based anywhere, but I chose to move to Edinburgh. The creative scene here is great and the quality of life attracts a diverse community and talent pool of designers and developers. The other side is a personal bias, I grew up in Scotland, it's a great place to live. It’s exciting, I mean it's small but there is enough variety to make it exciting, and partly by coincidence, I’d like to say it was planned, but the Edinburgh tech scene has just been booming in the last few years and it's really difficult to think about being anywhere else when everything is so exciting here right now. I think it opens up a lot of opportunity, being in Edinburgh.
TD: You have a good team around you, what qualities do you look for in employees?
JS: The main quality would be sharing the vision of what we are about. And that is not something we can really advertise for. After speaking to someone for a little bit you can tell if they share the same general values. There is all the usual stuff too, they have to be ambitious, hungry to learn, improving their skills all the time. They also have to have the right attitude, to work together to build something bigger, which on your own you couldn’t do. Being a bit competitive helps there are other companies doing similar work so we have to have a bit of a killer instinct. One of our real strengths is our client focus, engaging them in the design and development process as much as possible, and being their to support them through the good times and the bad.
TD: What are your ambitions for Starbit?
JS: I would like Starbit to become one of the leading digital design and development outfits in the UK, and hopefully beyond recognised for the set of core skills we’ve been honing in digital product innovation and rock solid infrastructure. Having had this slow and steady approach, we have established ourselves quite firmly. Now we are growing and showing what we can really do. My ambitions are big, so I want to seize lots of opportunities, encourage the best people to work for us and with us, and we want to go beyond Edinburgh to other parts of the world, and challenge ourselves everyday. But whatever happens, it’s gotta stay fun.
TD: Do you have advice for people coming into the digital/tech sector, or perhaps even starting their own company?
JS: Best advice I could give and it’s probably not unique advice but it’s something that I’ve been told myself there is never just one way of achieving something. There are multiple routes to success, so as long as you are aware of what has gone before and the current scene, be experimental. Don’t be afraid to try. Also, talk to as many people as possible. There is no benefit in keeping your ideas to yourself.