Friday, August 08, 2014

Interview with Chris Whyley, co-founder of Zamzar

As something a little different from my usual musings, I've recently conducted a couple of interviews which I've found really inspiring and interesting and I hope you will too.

To start us off, this week I caught up with Chris Whyley, to talk about inspiration, creativity and his journey. Chris is the co-founder of, one of the top 4000 websites in the world (no mean feat as there are over 3billion web pages on the internet!). He and his brother Mike launched in 2006 (making it quite old in internet terms), and it now has 6 employees and converts tens of thousands of files every day.

Chris, can you introduce yourself and what you and your company does? I know that’s file conversion, but what is your role in that?

My name’s Chris, and amongst other things I am the co-founder of an internet company called Zamzar. Our company provides services that help individuals and businesses convert files into different formats. So if somebody sends you something that you can’t open, chances are that we can convert it into something useful that you can do something with. We have lots of different types of people who use our service, from teachers, academics and lawyers, to big and small businesses - a whole range of different types of people. Some people use the service for free, some people pay for accounts with the service. That’s basically the company in a nutshell.
"There are probably two or three key moments in my life that have accidentally thown me on the path I find myself on at the moment."
My job is to help develop those services. My background is as a computer programmer, my role was developing the service in the first place, and these days it’s developing add-ons, new features for the service, talking to customers, seeing what they’re interested in seeing in the service and translating those requirements into reality, into code on the page that people can then use. I also manage some other programmers who do similar tasks. I do all the accounts for the business, which is a tedious thing that needs doing and is just one of my roles, and generally in a small business you fill in and do whatever is needed at the time! We don’t have anyone dedicated to customer support so me and brother share that role between us. My brother does most of it but he’s on holiday this week so I’m doing most of it this week!

How have you ended up doing what you’re doing? Were there significant events or decisions or risks that you had to take along the way?

Yes, I would say so. There are probably two or three key moments in my life that have accidentally thown me on the path I find myself on at the moment. The first one is that when we were very little my dad purchased a computer for the family (when my brother and I were 6 or 7 years old) and I distinctly remember sitting round looking at this big shiny new machine one Christmas and thinking “Goodness me, what does this do”, but very quickly my brother and I were playing games on it, writing programmes from computer magazines, typing them in on the keyboard and making things happen on the screen. I guess that would have been the mid 80s and at that stage computers were quite new and unusual, but both my brother and I found ourselves immersed in that world and very comfortable with it very quickly. 

So from that point of view in my background there’s always been this interest in and love for computers from a very early age - it wasn’t something that I actively sought out but it just seemed to happen from dad buying that computer and bringing it home one day. 

In general my approach in life has always been to pick, as far as I can, what I enjoy doing. So when I went to university, I was really into studying history so picked this as my university course. I was fortunate enough to study that for three years and absolutely loved it, but one of the things about studying history is that it doesn’t give you a clear vocation at the end of things. It's very much a foundational degree for possibilities in lots of different areas but it doesn’t push you into one particular area. 
"In general my approach in life has always been to pick, as far as I can, what I enjoy doing.."
So at the end of University I was left thinking “What do I do next?” and it was at that point that my interest and hobby in computers came back and I thought “maybe I can apply for a job in computing”. I ended up on a graduate scheme with IBM, they were one of the few companies that were prepared to employ graduates from non-numerate degree disciplines, which I think probably helps them net some more rounded individuals than other IT companies get. So that process pushed me back into computing, this time in a professional sense. I found myself doing it for a day job, loved it and I did that for ten or 11 years.

The third key thing - I mentioned my brother before. We’d always played around with computers as kids and we continued to play around as adults. So on the side of both of us having jobs in the IT industry we did dozens and dozens of little projects and websites and ideas and one of them eventually sprang into the business that we’re both running today. So those are the few key events that ended up careering us down this path.

You’ve got to the point now where there’s 6 of you doing this, you’re a top 4000 website on the planet, you’ve had lots of ideas, but this one “took” and it’s propelled you somewhere, what’s been the hardest thing you’ve faced on that process?

I think in terms of running a company, once it's up and running there’s no single defining moment like “oh my goodness the entire world is going to end” but running a very small business, which we are, is basically a continuous rollercoaster of enormous highs and lows! 

So to give you some concrete examples there are really "up" moments like getting mentioned in some notable press outlet with really good press that you weren’t expecting. When we launched for the first time that was also a real high. The first time we had a customer pay us money for something we’d built with our own hands was amazing. Getting advertising deals, even things as small as having someone saying something nice about the service on Twitter is a real high. 
"When we launched for the first time that was also a real high"
At the same time they’re often intermingled with huge lows, so things like a competitor launching an amazing feature or new product that kills an area that you were leading in. Once Mike and I were on an aeroplane to the States, a 9 hour flight, and when we landed we found out that half an hour into the flight our website had crashed and it had been down for the 8.5 hours that we were on the aeroplane! When you’re down on the internet that's kind of a nightmare for a website! It feels like a cliché to say that it’s a rollercoaster ride but it is. There’s these big ups and big downs, but probably the single biggest thing that helps with that is running the company with a co-founder, a person that you trust because between you you can share those ups and downs - it means that you don’t get too up or too down. I couldn’t imagine doing it just on my own, some companies do work like that but I think it's an incredibly hard thing to do.

You mentioned some big highs, have the “best bits” been what you expected?

Some of them have, I mean in getting featured by the BBC or Guardian or opening up the Independent and finding your website in there is a real buzz and to an extent you can’t help but feel that’s a really exciting thing. But at the same time there are small things that are unexpected which can make your day. I remember that we got an email from a chap in Mexico, who said that he wanted to thank us for running the website – he’d used the text to speech conversion tool to convert some documents to audio which his blind son could listen to. And I remember being really touched, thinking it was amazing that I could build something in England that someone I’d never met, halfway across the world, could use it to help his disabled son. That’s not something you expect to do going into a project but it’s a real high point getting something like that. Those little moments can often trump the bigger ones, but they’re hidden ones and not something that you wish to necessarily talk about or brag about.

What inspires you and how do you stay inspired? You work in quite a technical industry but it’s also quite creative because you’re having to think of different ways to do things, how do you stay inspired?

I enjoy reading so I read a lot of fiction and non fiction books and I find that that keeps ideas percolating and circulating in my mind in a really positive way. I make sure that I get out most days and have a walk. I enjoy nature and I find that often good ideas do come in unexpected places, so I can be walking thinking about something completely different and then all of a sudden solve a problem that’s been on my mind for the best part of a week or a month.
"I find that often good ideas do come in unexpected places"
I also find that making sure I stay up to date with industry trends is important so I hang out in some forums online where other business owners and entrepreneurs mix and talk and discuss ideas and problems and possibilities. That's a good way of staying in touch of what’s going on outside of your own little bubble.

That sounds good. Has your faith made a difference in this whole process?

I would say so, thinking about this, one of the biggest areas where faith has helped me is that in all of the ups and downs of creating, being involved, being excited, being disappointed there’s always something bigger and more important outside what I’m doing. So at the times when I’m feeling particularly low or high about how things or where things are going with the business, I can step back and think that outside of this there’s a God who inspires me and who is much more important than anything that happens with the business. It also gives me a comfort to know that if the business was to fail or succeed that in God’s eyes it doesn’t really matter.

That’s good to hear. What do you find is the balance between creativity and hard graft? The adage says that creativity is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, would you go along with that in your experience - maybe it’s even more hard graft?

I think it possibly changes over time. I remember when we started this project it was just a little bit of fun on the side that was almost 100% creativity, we were literally bringing something out of nothing, giving birth this idea. Having fun creating it, and all the time we were doing that although some people may think of that was work, for me it was enjoyable. 

I think it changes as a business or idea or project matures and you start to have customers, people that you need to support, have some responsibility for. Them you need to start knuckling down and doing boring things like accounts, talking to lawyers about legal documents and making sure that your terms of service are well written and legally sound. Those things aren’t as enjoyable for me as creating stuff. But as long as I make space in any given week to do something creative I find that I can tolerate some of the more boring aspects that I’m doing.

What would your advice be to people that are looking for ways to develop their dreams or ideas into reality?

The best bit of advice I got was from a chap called Jim McNeish, who you may be familiar with. I didn’t know him very well but I went to a conference he ran and approached him at the end to tell him how much I’d enjoyed the conference. At the time I was thinking that I was doing this thing on the side and it was going ok but I didn't know whether to pursue it full time. 

He said that what you’re doing doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have be 'quit the job to start living the dream'. It doesn’t have to be 'stop the dream to concentrate on the job', it’s not one or the other. He asked me what small steps could I take to push the door to this dream ajar a little bit more, were there little wedges that I could put in place to edge the door open a little bit more. 
"He asked me what small steps could I take to push the door to this dream ajar a little bit more"
As I reflected on what he said I realised that maybe there were things I hadn’t thought of before that I could do. So for example I approached my boss at work to ask about going to a 4 day working week instead of a 5 day working week to give me a day to explore this side project whilst still having a full time job to pay the bills. That was a good wedge into the dream as it wasn’t all or nothing, it wasn’t giving up everything to blindly follow an idea, it was a practical step I could take to put a wedge in the door. I think that often people have this thing about quitting the day job or making some massive decision but it doesn’t always have to be like that, there are smaller, practical things that you can do to ease into something.

As we come to a close, what you've shared has been really helpful and there’s lots in there for people to be inspired and encouraged by, and to take away and apply to their different situations. Can you recommend any good books or resources that readers of this blog may find helpful?

I remember reading a book when I was a lot younger called “WhoMoved My Cheese?” which  
I found to be an extremely helpful book. I really enjoyed it because it was a short read, not a big business tome. You can read it in a day or two, at its core it was quite simplistic in its advice but the way it delivered it was very creative. It gave me a different perspective on looking at change after I’d read the book to the perspective I had before. So for people following the blog who are thinking about change or thinking about making a change then that’s an interesting book to read.

For people particularly interested in the area of technology then were are lots of lots of one day conferences you can go to, meet other people and get a different perspective on tech. The one that I would really recommend is a conference in Brighton in September called dconstruct which has got authors, artists, bloggers, thinkers – lots of different types of speaker. It's not just aimed at a tech crowd. I’ve been before and found it a really inspirational day out and would definitely recommend it.

That’s cool. Chris, thank you so much for sharing your wisdom – there’s been loads of good stuff. I’ve personally found it inspiring and I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.

It’s been a pleasure Luke, you've been an amenable host!

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