The story of the startup, and how I ended up in my “dream job”…….

The story of the startup, and how I ended up in my “dream job”…….

9 years ago, on New Years eve, I emailed my boss

“It’s been great, but I can’t work here anymore. I quit”.

It was greeted with a “I understand, but there must be something I can do?”. My response; “Pay me last months salary would be a start…..”

The company had been going downwards for a while, and I’d only been there a few months after leaving my developer job in Cardiff. It was a relocation for me, back home, and so much depended on the success of this job to boost my career. Sadly, it just didn’t pay off for me, for reasons out of my control.

I had an option, though. To join a startup, that was owned by a very large, successful, local company.

I took it — the pay was poor, but it was better than having no pay at all. I walked in to the office on day one — a makeshift office inside a warehouse. There was no space for us in the main office, so the company had invested a bit to get things off the ground. The company was small, selling pet medicines on line. There was me (only developer at the time), the manager, a vet, and two customer service people. That first day that I was there, I saw maybe 20 orders come through the website. It wasn’t flourishing, but I didn’t expect it to.

My first job was to build a system to handle the orders from the website (a 3rd party system, that was awfully shonky and hardly fit for purpose). Orders at the moment would simply be printed off, and picked / packed as and when. I could tell right away that I had my work cut out here.

A few weeks pass, and I manage to cobble together something automated to import the orders from the website (some nasty FTP / CSV combo, but it’s all we had). From here, there came to a simple web app that started to collate customer details, and allow the customer services guys and the vet to keep up with things without paper flying all over the place. The process of approving prescription orders for pets was currently being handled by an internal system that the IT team had built — It did the job, but it still involved a huge amount of manual input from the customer service guys to get the data from my new database, to this system. It was clunky, and time consuming, and in no way scalable to the sizes that the parent company were looking for.

My list started to grow — I knew we needed a new website, something in-house. What we were doing was far too bespoke for an off the shelf system. We needed a CRM, something to manage our customers. Believe it or not, pet prescription fraud rates are high, and we needed to be sure that we could validate a prescription and prevent repeat use of it, as best we could. Coupled with this, I knew, that, if the website did well, the warehouse would struggle, so I started to build a picking / packing system for them to use. This involved barcode scanners, automatic dispatch with the courier, terminals in the warehouse to work from. I also needed to replace the IT system used for prescription labels, so the process was smoother.

So much to do, and still, just me.

I concentrated on the CRM and picking system for a few more weeks — there was no point building a new website and driving traffic through it if we couldn’t handle the orders internally. There’s nothing worse than bad feedback online for an online business.

Eventually, I was happy that we had *something* in place to handle a large quantity of orders.

It was met with some funny reactions.

Vets would frown at the complexity of having to scan prescriptions in and actually approve them; 
Warehouse guys would whinge at having to scan stock in and out of the warehouse;
Customer services would whinge that they have to use computers instead of bits of paper (that would often get mixed up and lost).

It was a fight, for sure.

But I wasn’t going to be downhearted. There was potential here, and I needed to drive it forward. I needed a team, though. There was already too much for just me to handle with “the system”* I’d built, and if orders picked up, I’d need to concentrate on ensuring “the system” grew with demand.

A few weeks later, we found out that the parent company wanted us to push harder, so much so, they moved us in to our own warehouse. By now, we were maybe getting 100 orders a day. Still not a huge amount, but enough to show growth, and profit (we had huge buying power, so prices were lowest online by far). I was also allowed to get a team member. My role as sole developer moved to more of a Project / Product Manager, and I employed my first team member. We worked from a small room for a few weeks whilst the office move was finalised.

I volunteered to get the new building networked and setup myself — seeing as it would be using my systems, I wanted things to be in place to match that — and this meant network ports, power sockets, workstations, all in the right places for what I envisaged. Again, weeks went by, and I was over in the new office on my own fitting server racks, workstations, barcode scanners, CCTV, TV’s on walls for stats boards (more on this later), WiFi networks, alarms.

I knew I was stretching myself in terms of what I could do, but it felt good to be so invested in something, to be part of a growing startup. I sourced our internet providers, (4 routers merged to one connection, awful, but no fibre in the area, until later!), and a 3g dongle for a very last resort failover (we only used this twice, and it was worryingly good)

Finally, we moved in. One weekend, we moved the whole business over, and had absolutely no down time on “the system”. I was lucky enough to have the budget to just get new equipment, so we left most of the old behind. In a short term, I’d helped the company grow from mini, to medium, using systems I had built, day and night, for weeks.

It was a huge sense of achievement. We had our sign above the door, and a warehouse that was huge, and empty. So we had to up our game.

My systems, by now, had enough data from orders to start to predict what we might sell. We had stock levels, and our supplier encouraged us to order daily via a CSV file FTP’d to them (SIGH). So, without hesitation, I built a process in “the system” that estimated what we would need, and for it to go ahead and order, without human interaction (it used to be a manual excel file that was emailed over daily, if they had time / remembered). 
The next day, after the first automatic order, chaos ensued; as the order arrived full of all kinds of random products, that normally we’d never think of bulking up on.

“Trust me, we sell 10 of these a week, so let’s order 20 now” I said, time and time again. Always met with “I’m sending them back, we never sell them!”. I’d then go to “the system”, show them the stats and insist that they wait, and see. I don’t think we ever sent anything back from over ordering, not from “the system”, mind.

The warehouse was huge, and the guys were having to walk to and from their work stations with stock, heavy bags of food, to scan them. This wasn’t practical. So, I sourced some handheld scanners, runnings WindowsCE I think, and built an app for them to use, so they could scan stock and pick orders away from their terminals. Another thing “the system” could do.

We needed a new website. So, I got approval and funding for 2 new team members. I’d gone from me, alone, to a strong team of 3 developers, and me overseeing them.

We cracked on with a new website. It had to handle huge requirements, it wasn’t a standard e-commerce store. We had to handle prescription medicines, uploading prescriptions, repeat ordering and so on.

I think we went live 3 months later. A huge effort from my team meant that, again, we switched from old site to new with no downtime, and no impact to customers. We had their data already, we had the salt for their encrypted passwords from the old website, so we could keep the encryption the same. Customers had no idea that over night, their data had moved to a whole new setup.

Orders kept flowing in. I think, by now, we were at maybe 150 a day. Not huge at all, but still, progress.

With the new website, new warehouse, my systems in place and working smoothly, we really pushed on with promotion. I invited someone who had previously employed me to come and work with us — he was now a self employed SEO expert, and I knew we needed someone we could trust to guide us.

Thanks to the parent company, our budget for marketing was big enough to have an impact, and after a few weeks of SEO changes and some well planned ad-word campaigns, we really started to reap the benefits of it. Orders were flying in, driven by the various affiliates and ad campaigns, we were now hitting 300 a day. Our daily order total had gone from around £100 when we started, to now hitting £6k to £7k a day.

I rarely got the praise or recognition from the powers that be — they reported to my manager, and she was quite keen to be seen to be the one driving things. That’s fair enough, I couldn’t be too downbeat, she was the one that got me in to start with (we’d worked together previously). I don’t work for the praise or recognition, but what I do work for is a sense of achievement and that feeling of being helpful. That was fading fast.

It did start to grate on me, if anything went wrong, she was incredibly quick to blame “the system” instead of human error. This mentality spread, quickly, to the ever growing customer services team. I’d often go down to them to see how things were going, to be greeted with a barrage of insults about things they didn’t approve of on “the system” — by now, most of these team members had little clue that I had built all this from scratch, on my own, and I was finding it hard to not take things personally. I had logging on pretty much everything, so when I was met with a “the system did this without me”, I could check. I rarely went back and argued my case, it’s not in my nature.

My team grew furthermore, I managed to employ another old colleague and good friend, and he focused on our affiliates and feeds, and again started adding a huge amount of worth to the business. But again, this was overlooked, and we soon just became “the developers”.

Time and time again, we would get caught up in politics and have to prove that the issues at hand were human errors, and not the fault of “the system”. We’d even create reports, and produced “stats boards” on monitors that we put up around the building to improve exposure to the information we had, that gave us the insight to where things were going wrong, and what could be done to improve them (things like current pick / pack rates, number of outstanding orders and so on)

We got inspected by the VMD (The Veterinary Medicines Directorate), who came in to inspect how we handled orders, prescriptions, and products. It was crucial that, should there be a product recall, we could contact the customers. My systems had been using 2d barcodes for months, storing batch and expiry dates of products, so when the warehouse checked them in, we knew when they expired, and when the order went out, we knew who had what batch. The inspector even said he’d never seen such “Accurate and comprehensive systems”. I grinned. Then I overheard my manager claiming that she was pleased she “insisted on these measures” being implemented. She had no idea they existed until I showed her what I’d made. Occasionally, people would come in from other companies, and would acknowledge the effort that had gone in to “the system”. One company even asked if they could buy it!

My frustration was building. It was further fuelled by me having to deal with pretty much anything that had a plug on it.

Printer broken? Ask Mark.
Kettle not working? Ask Mark.
Batteries in mouse died? Ask Mark.

I know you build a rod for your own back — and I took on more than one person should / could handle for sure, but the icing on the cake for me was when I would go to the toilet, customer services staff would wait outside for me, not so they could use it after, but so they could ask me a question about something before I had a chance to get on with something else.

I couldn’t even poo in peace

I had to address this, though. My team had shrunk down in size, we weren’t doing a huge amount of dev. I had to fire one member for misconduct. Another moved on as the manager wouldn’t give him the pay rise he deserved, despite me fighting. I encouraged him to leave in the end, you have to feel your worth something, and I was slowly beginning to feel very downbeat about things, and I didn’t want him to feel that. Moving jobs is good for you, most of the time. I think he flourished after. I hope, at least.
Me and my remaining team member managed to secure ourselves an off-site office, closer to our homes. 
So we became off-site, away from the day to day runnings, in order to allow us to progress with developments uninterrupted.

This was a mistake.

It soon became apparent that not being in the office was the worst decision. We weren’t there, so of course, if anything went wrong, we got the blame. Well, “the system” got the blame. And we weren’t there to defend it. The CEO, who often came to the warehouse, wasn’t allowed to visit us in our new office, because the manager knew that we’d contradict what she had told him, to cover her own back. She would just say “yes” to anything he wanted, knowing that it would be palmed off to someone else to handle. 
It was falling apart, quickly, and there wasn’t much we could do. A few months went by, and all we could do was watch as things started to go wrong — the parent company wanted to white-label the site, so we were working on pushing out pseudo brands of the primary product — but politics had taken a hold on things, and the person we needed to talk to, the CEO, was still kept at arms reach from us. I reached out to him, but whenever I managed to see him, my manager was there too to oversee anything I said. I was never going to cause trouble, far from it, but I had ideas, and suggestions. I guess he never knew what I did from day one ( a common issue for developers), I was just a tech bod sitting in a room doing code. He had no idea that I’d written thousands of lines of code and was pretty much crucial to the success of his new startup.

I’d had enough. I was job hunting, but tentatively. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. Did I want another dev job? Project Manager? Who knew.

Then, one day, I got called to a meeting by my manager — Someone at the warehouse had reported me for asking the vet to process an order for me, and for allowing my friends to have their orders approved by the vet slightly quicker than “the system” would allow so their orders were dispatched quicker.

Everyone did this, hell, the manager even had the vet go to her house to inject her dogs. I’m still not sure that’s legal to this day, but that was it for me. I had a meeting with HR, where I explained what I was doing was common practice amongst everyone working there, showed them this, and left them to it. I got told off, and that was the end of it. But I knew there and then, I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) stick around any more.

I knew then that my manager was rattled, worried that I was trying to chat to the CEO about things, and all of a sudden it might become clear who was doing the work, and who was pulling the wool over his eyes.

It was poison, and the next day, I handed my notice in.

Luckily, I had just been headhunted for a job up in Liverpool by an agency, and drove up that day for an interview, and had the job offer the very next day. There were offers to try and keep me, but I knew i was destined to leave. It was a “please stay, but you’ll have to do……

I wasn’t willing to be a scapegoat any more.

On my final day, I emailed the CEO my concerns, and a thank you for the opportunity. I got nothing back. I later found out, in years that followed, that things went downhill quite quickly. Work was outsourced to agencies with no real guidance, and money was wasted in the thousands. My manager left not long after. I don’t know the in’s and out’s of it all, but I think she was sacked, and to be fair, probably long over due.

I left with my head held high.

I’d turned a startup in to a hugely profitable business, from £100 a day to well over £30k a day and rising. Using my systems, my planning and my infrastructure.

I’ll be proud of that forever more.

I didn’t hesitate, I was glad to be out of here. I wanted a fresh start — a new challenge, and on some levels, going to a big company like Liverpool Football Club, where the structure was in place, I could just come in, do my job, and go home again.

I didn’t stick around in Liverpool for too long, things just didn’t work out, it didn’t feel right, and before I knew it, I was heading back to Norfolk. After a few years switching between two jobs, I was offered another position back at Liverpool Football club. This time, though, things were different. I’d just left a relationship, had new doors opening and nothing to stop me, and the job was different to before. Previously, I’d been working on the primary Liverpool Football Club website — This job was working very closely with the players and first team managers / coaches to help create the analytical systems used for match analysis, player transfers and so on.

It was a huge eye opener for me, something that has shed a light on another side of the game I have grown up watching. I could now see the amount of work and effort that goes in to every single aspect of the club. The fitness, the signings, the post and pre match analytical work that takes place. It’ll never cease to amaze me, the level of data that is captured from a simple 90 minute game of football.

I’d say this is pretty close to my dream job — I love football, I don’t care who’s playing, I’ll watch it. Now, I get to go to the biggest games, watching world class players, and just say “it’s part of my job”. I spend my days surrounded by football stats.

I’ve always been of the mindset that, if I wake up one day and dread work, I’ll go and look for a new challenge. Why wouldn’t you? You only live once, and life is far too short to spend your days moping around. When the job satisfaction isn’t there any more, move on. The world is changing every day.

Todays failures could well be tomorrows opportunities

Embrace the ability to chuck it all in and start a fresh — you never know, you might just get that dream job after all.

  • the system” as it lovingly became known, was the name that everyone gave, errr, the systems I made (it had a name, like all cool, hip, modern-day software packages do ;-)) but it seemed no one wanted to acknowledge it as an item, but more of just a thing. And every time I heard someone say it, a piece of me died inside. It’s similar to when people call team members “resource”….!

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