BKA Interactive kicked off when HTML was newfangled and Webmonkey was the only way to search the net for how to code. Now CEO Barbara Anderson, creative director Maak Bow and the team are mining their diverse base of work for nuggets to turn into products that could be used across industries, companies and the globe.
How did BKA get started?
Anderson: When I was in my 30s I went to art school and computing was being invented. I got my first email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. I was studying at AUT and I did a bit in the digital space. I remember learning about the first HTML thing and a digital prsentation about production stuff. I really loved it. When I left art school I went to work with some freinds at Saatchi which was just kicking off their digital department. I appreciated the mix of artistic and logic. I loved the way it came together so I started my own company out of the kitchen.
I used to search on Web Monkey for 'how to do coding' and, 'how do I do a form?' I picked up a couple of corporate clients, I don't know how.
I also realised it wasn't okay to work at home. My kids didn't think I had a job and the clients couldn't take you seriously. An architect friend of mine said, come and join me and share my space. I did that and Maak, whose friend this architect is, came on board. It started with us and we quickly realised we needed people.
We started it in 2001 and the first two clients were New Zealand Beef and Lamb and Medimedia. We started out doing websites because nothing else was born.
Bow: I'd done graphic design for quite a few years in the non-computer era. I got out of the industry and wanted to get back in and figured out the internet was a good place to be but didn't really know how to get into that. My friends put me in touch with Barb.
How do you complement each other in business?
Anderson: We've both got this design perfectionist streak, which really helped us even though we weren't getting into hugely deep technical things, we were always focused on the usability and the aesthetics. That holds true with whatever we do now.
I'm not technical and I don't think that matters at all. I can just connect with people and get to the nitty gritty about what their business issues are and then have faith in the technical team that they can do anything.
Bow: I've got the whole balance of design being visual and technical. I've got a technical mind in some ways but I'm not a programmer by any means, but I have a fairly good handle on that work and can talk to the technical people quite easily.
I learned on the very first day I needed to learn some code. Barb said you don't need to but I worked it out and I think I learned some in the second week. We realise design is not 'a design'. People think design is a doodle on a page and that it's just art.
How has your web work evolved by virtue of what clients want now?
Anderson: It was about brochure sites in those early days. Many were but they're definitely not now. There's a move from telling the story in the marketing sense to doing more.
When we work with a company now we'll think about what are your opportunities and challenges and what can we do digitally to solve your pain and grow your business. That could be a pretty marketing website or it could be a staff engagement tool or a visual reporting tool that gives you a snapshot of how healthy your company is.
Bow: Things like Parallax are just a trend. Flat design is just a trend. Nothing is actually right or wrong. A good design should work no matter what the style of design. You should understand the principles of what makes someone want to interact with something and what they're going to get out of it, and make sure we understand what the client wants and what the users want. You can't just do what the user wants – the user wants something for free but we have to get them to pay for it. Our job is to make sure they get their product and they're happy. People need to achieve more online now. There's no room for fluffiness.
Have you grown into any particular industry specialties?
Anderson: We keep thinking we have, whether it's health or investor relations or real estate. Then we get a call from someone completely different. In the end I don't think it matters. What matters is appreciation for opportunities and challenges. That's what we're good at.
You're a services company but have an increasing focus on creating products with broad potential. What's behind this shift in the business model?
Anderson: About a year ago we realised we needed to think about how we 'productise' things, especially in the mobile space. A lot of clients will come in and say, 'we want an app.' It was a little bit like ten years ago with websites. There was no real thinking about the reasoning or the business objectives. We did some thinking about what would be useful. In the digital space, only three things matter: is it useful?, is it entertaining? or is it a deal? Those three drivers make people want to engage online. We asked, 'what can we provide online that companies might want to use that we can build for one person and re-use several times?
We would never take something and repurpose it for a competitor. But a lot of clients don't have a huge budget to spend so we've got to think about how we can do things really cost effectively. Every client is a beneficiary of the fact we've learned how to do certain things well. We don't need to reinvent the wheel every time.
Bow: When a client requests something, sometimes we're thinking how can we make this generic for more people as well as serving their needs. It doesn't make it bad for a particular client, if we can maybe roll it out to other people, it's good thinking.
What are some examples of this 'productised' work?
Anderson: We created an app, Crisis, that's being trialled by Foodstuffs in Christchurch. It's used for companies to get hold of their people in times of crisis, like a natural disaster or when a server is down, there's no internet connection or a transport breakdown.
It has a website you can maintain and administer and that's where you add documents. Everyone gets the app and the administrator has an interface. You can send a disruption notification alert and everyone gets informed. If there's a crisis, they can see the alert and tell the company if they're okay. The administrator gets an alert with geolocation.
You can put in your evacuation plan and insurance policies so if something does happen you've still got all your documents in one place.
It's such a simple idea that connects people. We've built it to so we can turn it around probably within a week for a large corporate.
The next phase is this is the perfect thing for families. You could put in emergency contacts and the number of your kid's teacher or doctor.
The other one is a tipping app that's now used by the All Blacks. We were having fun internally with sports apps and we can repurpose this one very quickly for different codes. In addition, we can repurpose it for businesses. I don't think anyone is doing this.
We started with it being able to engage with your clients, your VIPs or your branches around the world with something that's a fun connection. You can pick winners, go up the leaderboard and sledge each other and win prizes.
People want to get it because it's fun, it's not a sales thing, it's about connecting in a positive way.
How big could this productisation get?
Anderson: I definitely think we'll be pushing more into that if possible, even perhaps within website solutions. We might look to productise components of websites. We're the only gold partner for the open source Umbraco CMS in Australasia. Maak has met with the Umbraco team in Copanhagen and we want to really push and lead the way to modularise things in Umbraco so it's for everyone's benefit.