Voyage, an innovative creative studio from Christchurch chat with us about their experience with Silverstripe, Government work and the changing landscape of online business.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Ryan O’Hara, the director of Voyage - an innovative creative studio based in Christchurch. We got talking about the changing landscape of online business, their experiences with Silverstripe and Government work, and the process behind building one of the most visited sites in the last year.
SiteHost: Tell us how Voyage got started, and why you moved into agency work.
Ryan: I started out at Silverstripe as an intern front-end developer and designer, then moved into more of a full stack role. I made the change to learn and push myself. I cut my teeth on a few big projects, like Westpac, then I decided to move to Christchurch.
I freelanced back to Silverstripe for a while, then picked up a few other development jobs through contacts in Auckland and Wellington.
At the same time I was teaching at Yoobee design school in Christchurch where I met Andrew, who is now one of our senior developers. I had a pile of work building up so he started helping and he’s stuck around five years later. We slowly got more and more work and, as you do, I added more people.
How big is the company now?
There are 12 of us split between our Christchurch and Wellington studios, and we’re still growing. We’re looking to hire another couple of developers, project managers and a designer. We are in a growth phase, really.
How did you find it going from being a one-man band to being an owner and an employer, and running the business side of things?
It's fun. I like a good challenge that makes me use my brain. It certainly has its complications but, on an everyday basis, everything runs smoothly. Everyone's really good, and happy to turn up to work, crack on with some really cool work and have fun at the end of it. One thing that I've tried to instill is a really good culture. We don't have a large turnover in terms of staff, everyone enjoys it.
In that short time you've been working for some pretty recognisable clients like the Defence Force and obviously COVID-19, which we'll talk about more. How did a young agency end up with such high profile work?
Some of it comes down to my contacts and people I've dealt with throughout the years. A lot of work came from other agencies. We’ve been a development partner behind the scene for agencies like DNA, Clemenger and Silverstripe. Some of those projects progressed and we now run and manage them.
We don't market our work or anything like that, it is just through word of mouth and the relationships that we have.
It's got to also be down to quality as well.
I'd like to think so!
You mentioned work coming through your connections with Silverstripe. How long were you a member of the Silverstripe team?
I wasn’t there overly long, about 2 and half years. They were in their 10th-12th years, and now they are around 20. They’ve gone through some massive growth since I was there.
You’ve stayed with the Silverstripe CMS since those days.
Yes. I know it, so let's not branch out too much. Safe and familiar is good, right?
However, in saying that, we aren’t going to use Silverstripe for a product that we know doesn't need a CMS, or where it's not appropriate. I think there are people who would try and do that.
We believe in finding the right technology for the product that we're developing.
How have you seen Silverstripe change through your years with Voyage?
As a product it's come leaps and bounds in terms of the interface, user experience and making it easy for admins, which I find really important. A lot of the work we do is trying to make it easy for others to use.
They've had a big push on headless CMS. That's become important for us. We're doing a lot of web applications where we still need some kind of user interface, and an ability to manage data, but we don't want it tightly coupled to a front. Quite a few of our projects have explored headless development. We’ve got a pretty large headless Silverstripe project in play today.
Do you think that headless is going to become the standard CMS approach?
I think it will. The idea of things being tightly coupled, and having everything in one package, is almost gone now. There’s a need for headless if clients want to get content out to different things, or want a native mobile app and a desktop app running from the same back end.
As a product Silverstripe has come leaps and bounds in terms of the interface, user experience and making it easy for admins, which I find really important. A lot of the work we do is trying to make it easy for others to use.
In your experience what makes Government work unique, compared to working for private clients?
It's a lot more challenging. That just comes down to working with tight budgets and timeframes. Sometimes there are bigger budgets but a lot of moving parts and stakeholders involved.
The other unique thing is a lot of products and sites we build are not just public sites, but include an integrated online portal. We built a single sign-in identity layer across a whole lot of Education New Zealand's websites, so you can sign in with one identity across 8, 9, 10 of their websites. They've got a big audience of 30,000 users, so it's cool that we’re making something easier for a lot of people.
Obviously Government services have to be available to everyone. How do you bring an entire population with you in these projects?
It’s tricky. We try to do some user research and use focus groups. We try to see what works, and what doesn't, then find a nice middle ground.
Along with Government work comes the common web platform, or CWP, which rolls into its sunset phase this September. Starting on the positive side, what do you think people will miss the most?
Having one platform to rule them all. It's very easy at the moment. You have half a dozen vendors, and you know it has to be a Silverstripe website.
For people moving around Government agencies it's familiar, so editing content for example is the same. I think that’s been a real blessing over the years. It is cookie cutter, but in a good way.
What opportunities do you think will open up? What do you think people will look to do differently when CWP is no longer “ruling them all”?
It’s interesting. It opens up different opportunities. You are no longer forced to go down a prescribed route. We can start looking at new technology, or build things differently. That’s going to be good.
I also think it's gonna be a little bit difficult. It will have some teething problems.
What do you think people ought to have in mind when new options are put in front of them?
I definitely think you could end up backing yourself into a corner. If you go to an agency and say “can you build x, y, z” and they build it on software that’s fully bespoke, no one else is able to maintain it. Should you want to move on in the future, you’ll have to start again. At the moment you could pass a Silverstripe site to any number of developers, and they can pick it up, understand it and make improvements or fixes. The biggest call out is making sure you don't pigeonhole yourself and get stuck.
CWP hasn't had a total monopoly, for example there are some Government sites running in Cloud Containers now. But with more people thinking beyond CWP and about Silverstripe hosting in particular, do you have any advice?
Again, don't go against the grain. Finding a reputable hosting provider, like you guys, is going to be important. Talking with clients, we’ll explain that Silverstripe in Cloud Containers is already proven, instead of trying to do stuff ourselves with a VPS or a dedicated server in our back room. Hosting hundreds of sites like that? No thank you!
What sort of sites or projects have fitted Cloud Containers well?
A lot of our Silverstripe sites have been really good on Cloud Containers. It's simple, we've got our own custom Docker images that we can deploy and get up and running within a couple of minutes. The ease of getting it up on SiteHost is great. Other products or projects that we don't have on SiteHost are utilising some sort of AWS service or they make more sense to run on a platform as a service. Anything that's Silverstripe or that kind of PHP project would be going onto SiteHost Cloud Containers.
The first time a lot of us noticed our relatively new, relatively little Christchurch client called Voyage was when an interesting URL - covid19.govt.nz - popped up in a Cloud Container. We assumed that this was because it was the fastest way to urgently stand something up. Was that a fair guess?
Absolutely, we actually worked with Clemenger on that. We got a call at 5 or 6pm at night, like, “hey, can you have a website up for us? We need to point the DNS to the server tomorrow morning and be running this time tomorrow night.”
So, what do I know that’s easy? Cloud Containers. We had that Docker image up and we were away laughing. I guess this is where CWP was good, because we had the base CWP install up and running on Cloud Containers within a couple of hours.
It made for interesting times when the whole of NZ was told about that site at the same time. How was your experience on those first few days?
Between four or five of us we did about eighty hours of work in under 24 hours. We worked around the clock for about 2 days. That next week was just high alert, sitting and waiting for the daily 1pm press conference to roll around, like, “okay, here we go!”
It was pretty hectic. The phone didn’t stop ringing. We were on support with you guys a lot of the time. It was like, “okay, the team of 5 million are coming, are you ready?”
It was good fun.
When we talk about ourselves we stress the importance of local, responsive support. This was almost the ultimate example of that.
In terms of the rapport and experiences that we've had with SiteHost over the last three, four years has been exceptional in terms of a hosting provider. Being local it's super easy to get on the phone and just ask what's going on.
Or sometimes you call us first, especially from the technical side but also from a sales and marketing side as well. That’s been really beneficial.
This isn’t just about hosting, either, is it? It’s a way of doing business.
Definitely. We didn't ever go at it alone. Part of our success has always been about finding like-minded companies and partnering with them. We partner with clients as well, and they become long term clients. We look to do years of ongoing work.
A lot of our Silverstripe sites have been really good on Cloud Containers. It's simple, we've got our own custom Docker images that we can deploy and get up and running within a couple of minutes.
Presumably the COVID-19 site is a pretty good calling card for you to put in front of prospective clients now?
It’s a really good showcase of our response time in an emergency. They needed to turn around within a day or two, and we know how to do that using Silverstripe and deploying that into Cloud Containers. We can have a site live, should we need to again, within 24 or 48 hours.
That’s a great skill to have, but you never want to have to use it.
Exactly. I mean, I prefer a bit longer to build a site and get it out the door!
What did you learn as a business owner running Voyage through lockdown and the uncertainty of Covid?
If anything we got busier. There was work to be done and it was full on. A big thing was the people, having the support around you. We made sure we checked in every day and at the end of the day we’d have a virtual sit around and beer. Being physically in the office you can feel the energy around you. Remote can be a bit cold. That was a big learning - how do we take that culture, bring it home online and improve on that?
Are you normally an “everyone in the office” kind of a place?
Normally everyone enjoys being in the office. That’s something that we have tried as a company to hone in on. So, it was an interesting challenge with COVID-19, with everyone locked away.
If you combine what you learned from inside your business, and from the challenges your clients face, is it too early to predict how the online face of New Zealand might look in two or three years?
We can start thinking about how things can change. I'd love to think that we aren’t going to end up in another situation where we're all locked inside for another four months but, hey, it could happen. We can start looking to leverage the power of the internet and look at the experiences available online and build on them. How does someone get informed and have a moment of feeling? Can we change the way we engage with people online and make it more accessible and friendly? If we can crack that it makes life easier.
Do you think that there is now an expectation from people who want more from the websites that they're visiting? Do you have to put more into the experience and design than what you might have beforehand?
Definitely, you are going to have to. Governments have found that too. Private customers usually want their customers to feel something and have a really enjoyable experience so they’ll come back. Government work has been really prescriptive, black and white, but people are trying to actually be customer-focused now. They realise it doesn't matter whether the customers are politicians or mum and dad down the road. Now we are thinking about how we make things that people actually want to engage with and come back to.
The digital world holds so much potential to make things meaningful and engaging. Our industry has known that for years, and it’s great to hear that Government is starting to see that too.
For sure, it's great. They’ve started to think outside of one key audience. Government agencies are thinking about their website, and whether the information they're presenting is accessible to everybody. It’s really good.
It sounds like a good time to be Voyage! Thanks for talking with us today.