Mark Panay started off in the music industry – where he produced one of the first 3D-graphics CDs – and also spent time in mobile marketing and ringtone wrangling, before co-founding web developers Simpleweb with Tom Holder in 2006.

Simpleweb have been innovators from the off, with a knack for timing and a mind for big ideas. Mark describes their music apps, developed during the blossoming stages of Facebook, as the first virtual record label, and they were also in on the ground with Fat Face’s virtual gifting app, after which the sky was the limit.

“We’ve got big companies who want to act a bit like a startup, but don’t know how to do it – so they come to us”

 

Mark comments: “The thinking was ‘this is more like it, this is what we should be doing’ – dealing with people, so business to consumer, but also other startups who were young, hungry and enthusiastic like us.

So we did just that, moving in the direction of startups, and since then we’ve got big companies who want to act a bit like a startup, but don’t know how to do it – so they come to us as well. We’ve even started running hacknight events to bring everyone together.”

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Appy days: Developers are set tasks at interactive hacknights

Flat structure, grow sideways

Mark doesn’t see Simpleweb growing beyond a core of twenty people, and they plan to reach that figure by June. Instead, he’d like to see Simpleweb develop satellite firms – client and consultancy relationships which blossom into mutual ownerships and long-term associations, or side projects which grow into independent yet aligned businesses in their own right. At this very moment there’s a campaign tool for social and internal promotions on the table, and one member of the project team will go on to become the first employee.

The company recently invested in and helped develop the team behind W2 Global Data, and a Simpleweb project manager has since become their CTO.

“There’s always been a grand plan – we’ve always known what we want to do. It’s just not always knowing how to do it. Experimenting is essential”

 

It works for two reasons. Firstly, there are no bosses in Simpleweb. The firm is a flat structure, with no junior or senior employees, and no promotion ladder; the opportunity isn’t for advancement up the ziggurat but for movement into new and exciting territory. Secondly, the third leg of the Simpleweb tripod is non-executive director Les Freeland: the financial mentor who guided Mark and Tom through the start-up stage, running the numbers and making the judgements. Les’ presence has helped the business grow, and helped Mark and Tom achieve their aims:

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Dockside: Simpleweb harbour big ambitions

“There’s always been a grand plan – we’ve always known what we want to do. Just not always knowing how to do it! And you know, one of the biggest things for us was finding a mentor. We found somebody that can fit in our gaps. We knew our limitations, basically. I think that’s really important. We found a guy – Les – and gave him a huge chunk of the business, as you do… people are too precious about equity. We’ve grown ever since.”

Interesting things, interesting people

When asked about Simpleweb’s achievements, Mark considers carefully: “There’s interesting things and there’s interesting people. So sometimes working with somebody is better than the product.” The examples that spring to his mind are the Customer Relations Management tool Simpleweb developed for DEFRA (which was then successfully open sourced for six other government agencies), and Contactzilla, the deceptively simple contact management tool which exemplifies Simpleweb’s ethos. No matter how hard the software is to programme, it stays easy for the end user.

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Contactzilla: Collaboration, simplified

Not that it’s all government contracts and organisational tools – far from it. Simpleweb’s current projects include a community platform and Tinder-esque app for sex toy retailers LoveHoney, which suggests fun scenarios for people who are already acquaintances, friends or lovers. There’s also the Edge Stamina app, again developed for LoveHoney, which aims to help men tackle premature ejaculation.

“I love Bristol. It’s laid back, there’s a lot of tech here, there’s a lot of creativity here; it’s an interesting place for this stuff”

 

That sense of community is close to Mark’s heart. Bristol born and bred, he began his musical career with parties and events in the city’s empty spaces, and though he’s been around the world in bands and as a promotor, his love for his home city, its innovation and its enterprise is crystal clear:

“I love Bristol. It’s laid back, there’s a lot of tech here, there’s a lot of creativity here; it’s an interesting place for this stuff. It’s close enough to the rest of Europe and London and everywhere else to be useful, but kind of far enough away to not be massively influenced by it all.

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Edgy stuff: Helping men tackle premature ejaculation

“I think the start-up scene in Bristol is going through a weird little evolution at the moment, but it’s good. A lot of London companies are moving to Bristol at the moment to soak up talent. We need to attract talent and not let companies soak it up… we need to fund more startups.”

Thanks to Mark for taking the time to talk to us. You can track Simpleweb’s latest news on Twitter @Simpleweb, and don’t forget to follow @TechSPARKuk while you’re there!

And talking of startups – if you are an innovative new company looking to get some more exposure for your idea or meet other like-minded entrepreneurs, don’t miss Venturefest Bristol & Bath – a showcase of innovation, entrepreneurship and investment opportunities.

Chris Cahill