Brendan and Ben spoke with Nicolaas from Sunny Side Up - a successful web development agency in Wellington - about his story, Silverstripe, becoming climate positive certified and his experience with us over the years. The beautiful beach photos are courtesy of Nicolaas himself.
Hi Nicolaas, thanks for having us today. Would you perhaps like to start by telling us how Sunny Side Up first started?
Sure thing. Sunny Side Up started in 2001 but it was just me and I ran things as a company of my own rather than contracting as a sole trader. Then in 2003 I was managing a luxury lodge in the South Island and needed a system to track everything about the lodge - and I ended up creating a complex Microsoft Access database to do it. It worked really well so I started selling that system to other hotels and lodges around New Zealand. I then realised what people really needed were better websites and that’s how I got sucked into the web world.
I'd say it was 2005 when we created our first CMS (Content Management System) which led to more customers and team members coming on board - and we’ve grown from there over the years.
That’s interesting – Sunny Side Up started off managing a lodge and transitioned into a tech start up of sorts?
That’s right, a startup with a lot of enthusiasm but not necessarily a lot of know-how nor investment. Having studied Psychology, Marketing and Management, my first jobs were for newspapers and advertising agencies. So I was clearly interested in communication and the web was an exciting new place to communicate with people.
I understand that you chose Silverstripe as your CMS and you’ve stuck with them for more than ten years now?
Yes, in 2007 we were invited to a product demo by Silverstripe and like most companies at that time our websites were hand-coded from scratch, so the toolkit that they offered as a ready-made option seemed like a great alternative. The company looked like it was going places and I thought the open source software was a way of doing business that resonated with me. Plus it’s based in Wellington and I really liked the idea of supporting a local business.
I also suppose it’s been nice seeing Silverstripe itself grow over the years?
Totally, I was elated when the New Zealand government selected it as their CMS of choice, but there’s also a bit of Yin and Yang behind it. It’s amazing recognition for the platform but it also feels in some ways that it has slowed the pace of development and become more enterprise. I will say they’ve opened themselves up to the PHP ecosystem using the composer platform better than most other systems though, which has been great.
We’re also exploring new tools and systems like Gatsby for our upcoming projects since they’re getting more popular and seem to provide some real benefits.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced as a business over the past 15 years?
For our business, finding work has never really been an issue but finding experienced and capable developers can be harder. What we’re doing in custom web development is essentially Research and Development where we’re building something that in some small way has never been done before while reporting to stakeholders and meeting tight deadlines. So finding the right people and making the right choices throughout are really the biggest challenges I feel.
So how does Sunny Side Up go about finding the right people?
We’ve taken a riskier approach by hiring young, enthusiastic individuals who are just keen to start. This comes with it’s own challenges but overall has worked really well. It’s also rewarding when they come up to me years after leaving the company expressing how much they appreciated the way I offered them their first job. Then again, we also have long-term employees who have really grown into their role and are enormous assets to the company.
What is the single hardest lesson you’ve had to learn as a business owner?
That’s a tough one (laughs). I think as developers, we’re often at the end of the line and there are times when we’re asked to solve problems that are not ours to solve. I used to embrace this service ethic from my previous job with the luxury lodge where I’d make every client’s problem my own but now as a developer, I’ve learnt to say no when necessary.
Sorry, I have another! I’ve also learnt over the years that as a small business owner you can’t wear every hat. With many areas of responsibility, I need to make sure that I’m not juggling too many balls at the same time or else time management and switching context can be tricky.
Sunny Side Up has recently become climate positive. What made you decide to take that step as a business?
I strongly believe businesses should commit to a triple bottom line, that includes not just profit but social and environmental impact. At Sunny Side Up we’ve been conscious about our footprint for a long time – I cycle to work and we encourage our team to walk or take public transport for example – so becoming climate positive was a logical next step.
We also felt that becoming climate positive could be used as a form of activism. We now include it in our written proposals and encourage our clients to become climate positive as well. Obviously businesses offsetting emissions is not a real solution, but it’s a good first step towards running a business that is a force for good. We all work for money, but money is no good if we have to spend all of it cleaning up our mess.
When you made this decision, where did you start?
After looking at a bunch of providers and sweating the details, we decided to go with EKOS. We had a nice chat with their team, filled out some paperwork, they calculated how much of our carbon footprint we had to offset and now we’re helping fund the growth and protection of forests around Aotearoa and the Pacific Islands that help to deliver climate resilience, waterways protection, erosion control, biodiversity conservation and community economic development.
We all work for money, but money is no good if we have to spend all of it cleaning up our mess.
When it comes to offsetting emissions it’s easy to question if those trees were even planted at all but we’re confident that becoming climate positive, with carbon credits certified to the Plan Vivo Standard, was something worth doing. Besides, I’m sure that everyone including EKOS, the government and science will devise more refined solutions over time.
Some people argue that it’s a personal responsibility rather than business. What would be your answer to that?
Well from a philosophical perspective, a business is a collection of people that have decided to work together and if a company is made out of people, I guess in some way that makes a company a person. From a business perspective, it can also be regarded as a long term investment that can help us save a whole lot later.
Plus if it being the right thing to do isn’t enough to motivate you perhaps just protecting your business and profits is?
That’s right, and there's an argument around it being a commercial and greenwashing strategy to enhance the New Zealand brand but the cost of becoming climate positive is so small in the scheme of things that it’s one of the best advertising strategies you can opt for while being a genuinely good thing to do. For me, the real exciting part is to make it become an integral part of everything we do.
Quintin (our Technical Director) helped you work out the carbon footprint of your hosting. Did anything in that process surprise you? Was the power usage or impact greater or less than what you expected?
We’ve made a conscious decision to host with SiteHost because being New Zealand based your electricity mostly comes from natural sources like water, wind and steam. We wrote to SiteHost and every other supplier of ours to get data – except Google because we didn’t expect an answer from them (Laughs). What I really enjoyed about the process was that I got a clear answer within fifteen minutes after writing to Quintin - and I think that’s SiteHost in a nutshell.
Surprisingly our numbers were lower than expected. I thought our carbon footprint would be really high and this was probably one of the reasons why I didn't do it sooner - I thought I would never be able to afford it.
We are definitely lucky to be in New Zealand from a power perspective. There’s more to do as a country and for us as a business but it’s a good foundation.
I’d love to know what you guys have done and I hope you’re looking at more ways to reduce your impact as much as possible. I might be wrong but I believe SiteHost was one of the first to move to SSD’s (Solid State Drive) which would have reduced power usage, right?
It’s an ongoing discussion for us internally and I hope we’ll have more to share on that front in the future. But yes, there’s been some positive changes already, building our own data centre has given us a lot more control and technology improvements like NVMe storage and more powerful CPUs help us increase density which is usually more efficient. We’re certainly a more efficient host than we were 10 years ago.
Yeah, and I trust SiteHost to be proactive. Every now and then when we find something that can be improved we often later find out that you were already working on it months beforehand (laughs). Your team has excellent know-how and an understanding of what truly matters to developers – and that combination is powerful.
We have also used Amazon in the past but I wasn’t a big fan of the platform, they seem to stifle competition. I am not keen to support an American company that is largely based around greed and dominance- and I also wonder about their environmental impact. One thing that is very telling to me is that the user interface for both Amazon and AWS has as much finesse as the bottom shelves in a supermarket. Plus we prefer supporting New Zealand businesses where we can.
Your team has excellent know-how and an understanding of what truly matters to developers – and that combination is powerful.
You’ve got a pretty big Cloud Container setup with us. What’s been your experience using the platform over the years?
It’s been great – just recently we were part of a migration to a different platform for one of the biggest corporations in New Zealand. It took a dedicated engineer multiple weeks to set up what would have taken us an hour on Cloud Containers.
Another example was when a client of ours was featured on TV – which caused me a lot of stress – one of your senior engineers made sure that our infrastructure was ready to handle the traffic and it went without a hitch.
I think Cloud Containers are out of the box perfection, and could save people a lot of time and money. I hope more people see SiteHost as a provider that is on par or better than the big international players like Amazon.
I think Cloud Containers are out of the box perfection...I hope more people see SiteHost as a provider that is on par or better than the big international players like Amazon.
That’s really great to hear, thank you. You’ve been with us for years now, have you seen anything change about us or how we do things?
SiteHost has been reliably solid but I definitely notice there’s a lot more names on the support tickets these days! It used to be more of a 9-5 business but now I seem to get a reply almost immediately even late in the evenings or during the weekends.
I’ve also seen that improvements to your products like Cloud Containers seem to be happening more frequently than they used to.
Good spotting on both accounts. We’re a much bigger team now and we’re working through the process of having support available around the sun.
Hats off for having people work around the sun – it’s not easy managing an international team!
Thank you! Finally, what are your goals for Sunny Side Up for the next two to three years?
We want to be part of taking Silverstripe to the next level and help a bunch of exciting New Zealand companies that we’re working with shine on the web. Plus I’d like to keep assisting those companies that put a lot of trust in us by delivering new and exciting technology.
Thank you, Nicolaas, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.