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Interview with John O’Nolan of Lyrical Media


Can you tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in web design?

My very first encounter with web design was actually at school – which I guess is something that many people will say in the future, but in 2002 I think I was probably one of the first people in the world to be taught html at secondary school. My father has always been heavily involved in the IT industry so I grew up around a whole lot of technology. As a result of this, while the other kids were just about managing to make their text bold for the first time, I had already created a fully fledged site using frames, embedded audio, and flash games. It was quite something.

John O'Nolan

Was it a difficult decision to launch your own business?

It was actually a very easy decision because a lot of factors were taken out of my hands, I was working for an extreme sports company with two directors, who were both totally inept. To cut a long story short I didn’t believe in the business in the slightest, and when I fell out with the two directors there was no other sensible option other than to leave.

By this point the recession had kicked in and I wasn’t going to have an easy time finding another job – what’s more, after watching Gary Vaynerchuk videos for 3 months prior to that, I didn’t want to.

Lyrical Media

On your blog you’ve charted progress every month. Has this helped you focus and given you an added incentive to reach the targets you’ve set for yourself?

Very much so – and the reason is something I’ve been meaning to write about on the blog myself. You see the most successful part of my own blog has been the guilt that it gives me. If I promise to do something, and then come the end of the month I haven’t done it, people on Twitter start sending me messages saying “Why haven’t you done this yet?” – this is hugely motivating to me!

Recently I’ve been promising to launch a redesigned version of the blog, and it’s 2 months late right now so I’m facing a whole lot of guilt to get it done.

You are a bit of a wizard with using WordPress as a Content Management System! What advantages does this platform provide?

So many! I could literally talk about this all day, but I’ll try and keep it short. WordPress is a fantastic platform, and all the people who say “it’s good for blogs but not much else” – really haven’t used it much. The best thing about WordPress is that it has a stable core codebase, and you can build almost anything on top of that with a very small amount of knowledge of PHP. I’ve built blogs, company sites, portfolios, community sites, and even an ecommerce site, all with WordPress.

Recently I’ve decided to use WordPress exclusively as my primary platform for development. I’ve tried Joomla, I’ve tried Drupal, I’ve tried CushyCMS/Perch, I’ve tried Magento and osCommerce and ZenCart. All these other platforms seem overcomplicated to me, granted the ecommerce ones need a lot more functionality by default, but the file structures are all over the place.

Right now the only other platform that I’ll consider using is Expression Engine – I’m waiting for version 2.0 to be released before I try it out, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, so we’ll see!

G333333333444E <——— While I was writing up the answers to this interview, that was typed by one of my week-old puppies, the video is below if you want to see him typing it!

Can you give us a few details on the recent VideoBlog experiment you carried out?

Certainly, it was very interesting to me, and I to my knowledge it’s not something that anyone else has done before. The basis of the experiment started during a conversation with my good friend and very talented developer Japh Thomson. Having both watched quite a lot of video blogs from ‘reputable’ people in the web design industry, we thought that quite a few of them really sucked.

I wanted to pinpoint why this was – what makes a good videoblogger vs a bad one? Is it the personality? The presentation style? The setting? The content?

I decided to find out. I recorded myself talking about internet explorer 6 and giving a couple of opinions, then I recorded myself two more times saying pretty much the exact same thing – but in a different way. I then set up 3 different PollDaddy surveys to gauge feedback on the videos, and then served them all dynamically in a blog post with Google Website Optimizer. Every person who visited the blog post saw a different video + survey link, and then left their own anonymous feedback.

The results were extremely interesting, and while I’m still not sure if videoblogging is something that I will actively pursue… I now have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.


Are there any other designers in the industry producing work that you really admire at the moment?

So many, though the ones who I admire aren’t the ones who are ‘featured’ everywhere. The person who I look up to most for both design and user interface development is my long time mentor and close personal friend Spencer Lavery, owner of YouLove.Us. He doesn’t make a lot of noise in the industry, but he taught me almost everything I know, and is one of the few people who I know who really innovates with almost every single new site that he produces.

Other people who I admire are Rob Hawkes for some of his amazing work with CSS3 and HTML5, and the team at OnWired (particularly Megan Stout, Corey Brinkmann, Jon Norris, and Tony Chester) for churning out consistently stunning websites and being by far the coolest people who I’ve worked with this year.

You Love UsRob HawkesOn Wired

How do you organise your workload?

With a lot of help from web apps. The most important tools that I use for organisation are Basecamp, Highrise, and FreeAgent – I can’t even imagine how I would begin to run my business without those. In fact before I started using FreeAgent a few weeks ago, my accounts were a complete mess. Now, I find myself regularly questioning and correcting my accountants because I have a (fairly) full understanding of how they work.

Do you find it difficult switching off from work at the end of the day?

John O'NolanVery much so, but to be honest I feel like during the first 18 months of trading I have no business “switching off” at the end of the day. I mean if you really WANT to switch off at the end of the day, maybe you’re in the wrong business, right?

I’m extremely driven and motivated, I want to put as much time as humanly possible into building my business. I can’t imagine that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Richard Branson got to where they are today because when they were starting out they looked at the clock and went “oh it’s 5:30, that’s me done for the day then!”

As a small example, I was contacted last month by Ubisoft to do some web design work for one of their upcoming major video game releases. They contacted me on Thursday evening, and they wanted a finalised design by Monday. Did I say “I’m sorry that’s just not possible, I need to sleep.” ? – Absolutely not. I worked on the design all weekend long, and come Monday I had produced something that they were really happy with. My willingness to work overtime and be immediately available to take on the job was what won me the contract, even though I was competing against several other much larger agencies.

Do you subscribe to any blogs, podcasts or magazines to help stay on top of the web design world?

I do, and it used to be a number well into the hundreds, but recently I’ve really cut down on how many different new blogs I follow. For the most part they’re all saying the same things, following the same trends, and rewriting the same stories.

Now, I tend to just read a few that I really enjoy, namely Web Designer Depot and The Web Squeeze, Smashing Magazine, and .NET Magazine – All of whom have also been kind enough to publish content by myself on occasion.

Anything else – I get from Twitter!

John O'Nolan on Twitter

Do you have a particular favourite web design conference or event that you never miss?

I actually went to my very first web design conference last week, which was dConstruct in Brighton. It was an interesting experience, but I’m not really sure if it’s something I’d by enthusiastic about doing again. It seems to me that our industry has a fairly clear divide, the conference people, and the non-conference people… I won’t draw any lines in the sand here for fear of starting another internet drama.

The main thing that I can’t understand about conferences is the ticket prices. Take dConstruct for example: They hired out a venue with a 1,700 person capacity, but they chose to only sell about 500 tickets (based on a rough estimate of me counting how many seats were filled) – and they sold them at £115 each. Add up the ticket sales and the premium event ‘sponsors’, and my maths says that they took about £100,000 in revenue for a one day event. No matter what way I look at it, I just can’t see how the event would have cost even half that to put on.

Musicians and stand up comedians hire out the same venue regularly and sell tickets at £25 each, so why can’t conferences do the same and make the events accessible to more people?

If anyone has a genuine answer to this question, please get in touch and let me know – cause it has really been bugging me!

Finally, do you have any tips for people starting in the industry?

My number one tip to people starting out in the industry (from a business perspective), is to learn how to say no. If a client seems like they’re going to be difficult to work with during your first couple of meetings, then politely turn down the contract. It’s FAR too easy to get deluded into thinking that they may be idiots, but it’s a lot money, so you can deal with it. Don’t do that!

The last time I took on a project where I didn’t like the client from the get-go, I lost £2,500 in actual money invested into the project (staff costs/overheads), a further £4,500 of income because I never got paid, and a further £4,000 in potential income that I could’ve had if I had taken on other clients instead. The whole project was only ever worth about half of that in the first place. It was a total nightmare.

It was my biggest mistake but also my biggest lesson so far.

Thanks very much to John for taking the time to answer my questions and passing on his advice!

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  1. I too consider myself a bit of a wizard at setting up wordpress as a cms. The funny thing is, its a real evolution thing. I set up one perfect template with all the cms plugins I need, copy this across to another site then up pops another plugin that will make my life even easier – so I have to go back through every site and add the new plugin. Gets a bit of an arse over 30 sites though!

    The joy of using WordPress as a cms is that it still has the blog/social media thing at it’s heart, which is still the best way to get quality links and traffic in Google. Google just seems to respect WordPress built sites more than others…I don’t know why.

  2. While we’d love to be making £100k from dConstruct sadly your maths is very wrong. As well as the conference venue you’ve got speakers costs (flights, accommodation and payment), tech set-up costs, printing costs (tickets, lanyards, banners etc) and a range of other hidden charges. When you factor in the time spent planning the event, we’re actually lucky to break even, which is why we don’t run dConstruct for profit.

    The difference between a comedy tour and a one day conference is that they only hire the venue out for an evening rather than two days (and have no tech set-up), only have one (usually local) performer to pay (rather than 10 international performers), and make their money by playing 20 different cities rather than just the one. So with comedy shows it’s all about economies of scale.

  3. That’s a fascinating insight into dConstruct Andy, you’ve certainly cast a new light on it for me. I’ve been to 2 dConstructs in the past and, like John, I did wonder why conferences are so expensive, yet only half of the venue was filled. However, dConstruct is a fraction of the cost of other conferences so it’s hardly fair to pick on you guys.

    I’ll definitely think twice about what is actually involved in running a conference.

  4. Interesting interview, a lot of it sounds very familiar 🙂

    Quote: “switching off” at the end of the day. I mean if you really WANT to switch off at the end of the day, maybe you’re in the wrong business, right?

  5. A really interesting interview. I am really enjoying all the interviews on the website and am learning a lot from them. I think that I agree with all that is said on the interview such as the use of word press to such as switching off at the end of the day. I find it very hard to do this and am always wanting to learn something new when I have spare time. The links to other sites are good too so I find I spend a lot of time looking at blogs in my spare time too.

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