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An anniversary and a love letter

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Silly, Useful/interesting

Supercool officially formed on this day in 2004, when fresh-faced graduates James and Kris opened the company’s first business bank account.

This was back in the day when it was pretty-much unheard of to start an agency straight out of uni. Those crazy kids! But, after lots of hard work, lateral thinking, grit and determination, it panned-out well.

Thirteen years on, Supercool’s going strong – we even made an award-winning website recently. Go team!

And until the start of this month, we were still based in the very same building we first called home; 8a Legge Lane in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

Although we’re now a distributed team, our JQ headquarters served us well, and I couldn’t leave without penning something of a love letter to the old neighbourhood …

Sunset on the JQ

View along Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, at sunset

When we first moved there, the Jewellery Quarter wasn’t the cool, hipster hangout it is today.

Nope; our immediate local area was made up of abandoned, crumbling and derelict former factories. This allowed for almost endless discovery of amazing old typography and signage; but also meant a long walk to find a pint of milk.

And it wasn’t the most welcoming – or well-lit – of places after dark.

Bernard C Lowe building, Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter
Spencer Street, Jewellery Quarter, 2013

Legge Lane, 2005
Legge Lane, c. 2005

Legge Lane itself was the epitome of cool, urban decay, particularly in the mid-late 2000s.

Interesting shells of old buildings? Check. Overgrown courtyard? Check. Hard-edged railings? Check. So, every few weeks (during university term time) small groups of photography students would arrive to make use of that edgy, gritty backdrop – then beat a hasty retreat.

(There must've been some collaboration with fashion students too as some of the models' outfits were … avant garde.)

Legge Lane, 2013
Legge Lane, 2013

Legge crane, 2016
Legge crane, 2016

Over the last 13 years, I’ve witnessed the Jewellery Quarter evolve from a long-neglected area of beautiful but decrepit buildings into a smart, bustling quarter full of live/work spaces, independent bars, restaurants, cafés – and coffee shops.

Nowadays it’s fair to say you won’t have trouble finding a cup o’ Joe in the Quarter. But imagine the local buzz in 2008 when the area got its very first, actual, proper coffee shop.

Although Saint Caffè is no more, it will always hold a special place in my heart – not only did it pave-the-way for the area’s increasingly popular café culture, it was also the venue for Likemind, a coffee morning/gentle networking event we ran until 2012.

We made new friends, and work contacts! We learned loads of interesting Jewellery Quarter facts from Brian! We raised money for charity! We drank more coffee than was probably good for our insides!

Collage of images from our coffee morning, 2007-2012

In the main, the Jewellery Quarter has been – and continues to be – developed in a thoughtful and considerate way.

Preserving all the good stuff is helping to retain the area’s distinctive character, and avoiding it becoming just an extension of the city centre. This is A Good Thing.

It seems weird now to think barely anyone lived here when we first arrived – the JQ’s now an increasingly popular and desirable residential area, which has almost certainly helped it to maintain its friendly, almost villagey feel.

So far, so gushy – I did say this was a love letter – but what won’t I miss?

The commute of course; the perpetual, occasionally disruptive but always noisy construction work; and the even louder gulls.

I will miss the area though – the proximity to excellent sandwiches, film sets, and my favourite Indian restaurant – and the office itself wasn’t half bad. But there comes a time to shake things up; to move on. And I’m sure I’ll be back for a visit.

So, farewell Jewellery Quarter –  you’ve been lovely.

Thirteen years of Supercool

Having a birthday in the same month as Leggexit (Legge Lane Exit) seemed a decent enough excuse for me to dig-out some old, mostly office-based, photos:


James and Kris in the then-new office, of the then-newly-formed Supercool – c. 2004


Me (Katie) and Kris en-route to a printing show at the NEC, where we got ourselves a mega map …


Arty. We reckon from the Mac OS X Tiger box in the foreground this must’ve been 2005


Different room, same white desks, no more Kris, but our first Josh


Superintern Kamilla taught us all the most useful Danish words


The wooden desk era – classy


A couple of Joshes doing the thing (all?) Joshes do best


Pulling funny faces. Filming model trains/chickens.


And so to late 2016 – we welcomed Naveed, said adieu to Angell and the office, and proved without question that we’re AMAZING at problem-solving.

Why we’ve ditched the office

Categories: Inspiration, Jewellery Quarter, Useful/interesting

The outside of 8a Legge Lane, Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham

At the start of the Christmas break we closed those black double doors on our office of the last 13 years one last time – as of January 2017 we’ve become a ‘distributed' team. Basically this means that we work together remotely day-to-day (from our respective homes most of the time), meeting in person every week or so.

There wasn't one catalyst for taking this decision – as with most big changes there were lots of reasons – but certainly one of the biggest drivers, and biggest changes for each of us personally, was to get rid of the daily commute.

Ugh, that commute! Despite the team all being based in and around Birmingham, between us we were still managing to rack-up a ridiculous 26 hours a week travelling to and from the office each day.

It's one thing having some time to get into the 'work mindset' every morning but that’s more than 3 working days worth of time sat in cars or on packed commuter trains. That’s how long it’d take to (re)watch a complete season of 24, with several generous tea/loo breaks between episodes. That’s the time it took the entire globe to see-in 2017 – from Kiribati to Baker Island – for goodness sake.

By any measure, this is neither good nor sensible use of time – but particularly in terms of work/life balance. Not to mention the significant environmental impact and monetary cost of all that travelling to-and-fro.

The old office meeting space – sofa and all

And how often were we actually meeting with clients at the office? A handful of times a year at most; which doesn’t really warrant having a permanent dedicated meeting space. And the construction work happening in the street, while not crippling by any means, had been fairly noisy for a good few months and was unlikely to be finished in less than a year. Plus there was the possibility of our building being sold within the next couple of years and, if so, we’d have to find another office anyway – paying a lot more than the current rent for not-as-nice a space. Hmmm. You can see where this was going …

We realised we’d actually been working perfectly well with clients in different locations for years, so … why not each other? We’d done the odd day of home-working anyway, so making that a permanent set-up didn’t seem an impossible leap.

Once the idea was planted it was time to hit Google and research the pros and, particularly, cons of moving away from all working in the same space, from people who’d already done it.

A combination of our hypotheticals, along with the practical experiences of those who’d already taken the no-office plunge, gave us a decent list of pros and cons:

Pros

  • No commute! This is a big one – saving time, money and the environment – so definitely counts as three-pros-in-one
  • No travel disruption (leaves on the line, snow/ice on the roads etc.)
  • Not paying over-the-odds for city centre rent; hell, not paying *any* rent!
  • We could each create our perfect working environment; noisy/quiet, messy/tidy, dressed/pyjamas
  • Forced to be at the cutting-edge of digital technology and communication – as we’d be relying on it
  • We’d have to be more structured with internal meetings – yes, this was a ‘pro’
  • More internet connections = someone’d always be connected
  • No construction noise/disruption from the new flats apartments being built a stone’s throw away
  • We’d be all set-up incase of out-of-hours emergencies
  • Opens the possibility of working in-house with clients, with little disruption/set-up
  • If any Supercoolers move away from Brum, they won’t have to leave their job
  • We could recruit from further afield without the need for someone to relocate or have a huge commute (and, practically at least, setting-up a new home-worker’s easier than adding another body to an office)

Cons

  • Possible barriers to effective communication – both regarding projects day-to-day, and the ‘team spirit’ side of working with others
  • It doesn’t suit everyone
  • More temptation to eat ALL THE BISCUITS IN THE HOUSE

The pros pretty much speak for themselves and are pretty convincing; but obviously the big worries were the cons.

Communication barriers were mentioned in nearly every essay, news item and blog post we read as part of our research into remote working. However, each of these articles also detailed how other companies had overcome potential communication issues; primarily with tools we were already using day-to-day – Slack, Trello, Hangout, Skype etc. We also knew it’d be important to be sure and maintain social/personal communication as well as working together on projects. So, this 'con' was definitely surmountable.

A large part of the reasoning behind ditching the office was to give everyone in the team a better work/life balance, so this change absolutely had to work for everyone. It had to be all or nothing … so, how did we go about planning for, trialling and, clearly, ultimately taking the plunge into ditching the office?

Find out in the next thrilling installment: How to go remote – detailing the myriad considerations and months of planning that go into becoming an office-free business.

(Oh; and as for being tempted by unhealthy snacks, I'm still working on it …)

HQ heritage

Categories: Jewellery Quarter, Learning things, Tenth anniversary, Useful/interesting

Since the beginning (aka 2004), Supercool has been based in the same building in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

When we moved from the rear office to the front a few years back, it prompted us to do a bit of digging into the history of this listed building. Our tenth anniversary seems as good a time as any to share what we found out.

From some internet-based detective work and a visit to the Pen Museum down the road we discovered that, along with neighbouring buildings, our office seems to've formed part of St Paul's Pen Works; home to one of Birmingham's foremost pen nib manufacturers, George W. Hughes. (The factory moved to Legge Lane from nearby St Paul's Square, hence the name.)

A bit more interweb trawling uncovered a box of 'Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs for sale. Despite its bruised and battered state, we had to buy it.

Why is it called the 'Million Pen'? Perhaps it commemorates the millionth nib produced in the factory? Was it manufactured after the factory had turned over its first £1million, maybe? We can't find the answer to that, so it remains a mystery.

Possibly an even greater mystery is the nothing-short-of-bizarre packaging design.

Along with the nib's name, the design features what appear to be a duck and a dog on the front, as well as some exotic-looking script; with the side of the box sporting another line drawing of the dog, now holding the duck in its mouth.

On first look this seems to make no sense, and have zero relevance – but one of the more believable suggestions I've come across for this peculiar animal pairing is that these creatures are in fact a goose and a fox. The clever, quick-witted fox – standing-in for Geo. W. Hughes' pen nibs – is doing-away with the goose, which represents the out-dated, out-foxed quill pen. Ah-ha!

The 'hieroglyphs', however, remain unexplained …

On the underside of the box is a big wodge of copy signed by George himself, warning people off inferior copies of his stellar product. It's incredibly old-fashioned and quite, quite ace.

Incase you can't quite make it out in the photo, it says:

"St. Paul's Pen Works, Birmingham. GEORGE W. HUGHES having, after many years of unceasing effort, succeeded in bringing the manufacture of STEEL PENS to the highest point of perfection, regrets to be under the necessity of cautioning the Public against base imitations of the Genuine Article, which disreputable parties have endeavoured to foist upon the Public. None are genuine but those with this Signature, thus– Geo W. Hughes"

Final fun fact: these very same nibs are important enough to form part of a National Trust collection.

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This the second in a series of blog posts commemorating Supercool's decade of design.

RIP Tess

Categories: Jewellery Quarter

Sadly we said goodbye to our unofficial mascot and occasional office dog, Tess, recently. She had a good innings and we like to think that throughout her life she appreciated good design – but not cats. Definitely not cats.