2014 was Hark’s tenth year in business and to mark it I want to use this blog post to look back at where we have been and what we have achieved in amongst the global trends and changes.

The company was legally constituted on November 22nd 2004 and the three founders Claire Higgins, Jason Moore and John Shirley set up their laptops in a corner of John’s home in Langport, Somerset and opened for business, just a month before Christmas full of hope and turkey dinners. Prior to establishing Hark we had all worked together for five years as directors of a web and multimedia design firm which continues to this day. And it was here that we started our relationship with the world of footwear and apparel and where we established client relationships with great brands like Timberland and Clarks. The common link for these relationships was Pittards Leather, a Somerset firm producing premium leathers, and which at the time was one of the last tanneries operating in the UK.

The first ever digital catalogue – 2006

During the hot summer of 2005 we made the move to our first proper office premises in Falkland Square, Crewkerne, from which we designed and built the fore-runner of the current aWorkbook. Even before Hark we had been actively building interactive multimedia solutions and happily for us our client at Timberland followed us and commissioned what came to be known as the Interactive Product Guide (IPG). This launched in January 2006 at the Timberland European sales conference in Sorrento, Italy. I claim it as the world’s first digital catalogue, containing a full listing of the Timberland product range combined with direct links to the seasonal brand stories, a feature that still remains distinctive in today’s aWorkbook.

With continued additions and improvements during 2006 the Timberland IPG became the Atomium digital catalogue solution. It was custom built for each brand around a core set of code and installed initially on a CD and subsequently using the “new” USB technology – these were the days when the price of a 1GB USB memory stick was £150.

The first ever interactive mechanical horse – 2007

Prior to the crash of 2008 the business grew well and we expanded our premises to the next door office and increased our staffing to 17. We continued to attract footwear and apparel customers like Timberland, Clarks, Helly Hansen as well as brands like Sony and LG, and they liked what we were doing with our digital catalogue solution Atomium.  Significantly, what they also really liked was the fact that we took all their product information, associated photos, marketing PDFs and videos and processed them in to a visually engaging and well organised product presentation guide. Something we continue to excel at today – (pun intended).

Meanwhile our second claim to a technical world first came with a project to connect a full size mechanical horse to a big plasma TV screen, and in doing so to create an interactive dressage and racing software that would correspond to sensors monitoring the rider’s actions. The client was Racewood and they continue to use the original computer code today in their unique and extraordinary products. Hark Technical Director Jason Moore must take most of the credit for a brilliant and creative solution to a very challenging brief.

Mobile, cloud and big data

Post 2008 and we can all say that commercial and economic life changed forever. Looking back, those days of imminent financial and economic meltdown were very scary. And along with everyone else we shrank from the harsh tailwinds of that particular storm with a decline in both sales and head count. Available budgets simply dried up and it wasn’t until 2011/2012 when money for our kind of thing began to appear once more.

In the meantime the mobile technology revolution was gathering pace following the launch of the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010. The statistics for the speed and rate of adoption of both these mobile connected devices are truly staggering and broke all previous records for new communications tools.

And while its sounds corny I genuinely believe that even with all the progress behind us, in 2015 we are still only at the beginning of a new digital age. I say this having been around building web sites in 1995 at the true beginning of the commercial internet, the worldwide web.  What was described then as the opportunity for “mass customisation/personalisation” is now much more of a reality, and is renamed as “hyper-relevance”. We can experience this every day we browse across different web sites and our search history follows us, generating targeted adverts on Facebook for example, for products and services related to the last thing we might have searched for on Google or Amazon – scary, but increasingly effective because of big data and hyper-relevance. (More on that later).

aWorkbook – innovation with good old fashioned service levels

The tablet revolution in particular meant we at Hark focused all our spare capacity  during these years on rebuilding Atomium from the ground up and this led to the launch of aWorkbook in October 2011 as a digital catalogue solution that would work on PCs and Macs as well as the new tablets from Apple, Samsung and others. Once again through the tech-savvy mind of Jason Moore we chose a development platform, which while still in Beta, meant with our talented Somerset based team of developers we could write code once and publish our aWorkbook software across multiple operating systems and devices. This is a subtle but important point of difference we still maintain over alternative solutions today. We also decided to become a one product company focusing entirely on the digital catalogue space with our Atomium and aWorkbook solutions. So no more interactive horses or educational animations, health and safety web sites or automated line form tools. Life would be simpler from now on – surely!

With budgets still tight we believed for a time during 2012/13 that the super low cost self-deployment option for our new aWorkbook would be favoured by brands looking to have total control of publishing their product information and wanting to gain efficiencies from the new digital catalogue and tablet devices. And up to a point our early and innovative adopters did “get it” – the O’Neill video on our YouTube channel being a great example of this. But, as the global economy stabilised other innovative early adopters amongst our client list began to tell us that they were quite happy to use the old model from Atomium where we would suck in all their product information, images, PDFs and video and publish it as a ready-to-go, approved by them, beautifully crafted digital catalogue.

2015 Catalogues redefined with aWorkbook and Hark data services

Mindful always of what our customers want, during 2014 we validated this direction with some research interviews and from this we formulated our 2015 campaign theme of Catalogues Redefined where we invite you to let us organise and structure your content and then build the catalogue for you.  Speak to any brand who has worked with us over the past ten years and they will tell you just how good we are at building and maintaining good customer relationships based on a rigorous attention to detail and commitment to quality in the data we manage and the service levels we deliver. Best vendor ever was one accolade. Hark Operations Director Claire Higgins is the name you need to ask for here, who with her project and data team take the credit. And if you are looking to feel the fear of digital catalogues and do it anyway, then you could not be in safer hands. On-boarding is what it is sometimes called but I prefer to describe it as getting to know you, understanding what you need and finding out what’s important to you. Why use one word when you can use a whole load more? And the talking/listening starts with me, John Shirley – a phone call and web meeting is a good first step.

And so here we are at the beginning of 2015 with the most amazing mobile connected devices, using super high speed internet connectivity and extraordinarily powerful algorithms and software which, at their best, delight us by enabling highly personal and relevant online interactions for every aspect of our lives. The so-called consumerisation of business IT also means that we expect and can experience this at work with a proliferation of business apps and related services. There is so much that can be done and yet there is so much still to do for all of us. But hey it’s still only the first full week back at work so let’s not rush things.

Hark in 2015 remains true to our founding principles. We are a fusion of technical innovation combined with rigorous commitment to customer service and product data quality. We are zealous in wanting to meet the needs of our users, and champions of simple useful technology tools that help improve and change the way people work.

Ten years is no time

If you read my Digital Mega Trends blog post from last year then in that context ten years passing is really no time at all.  As a man with a degree in History I believe we are reaching the end point, or certainly the maturing, of an installation phase (internet cloud computing, smart mobile devices) and the beginning of the deployment phase (big data and hyper relevance) where we as people must learn the new ways and businesses must make the changes that will fuel this fifth technology wave.

So in this post-anniversary year we invite you to like us, be social with us and engage with us on all levels. Have a happy and successful 2015.