Me And My Partner: Adam Twiss and Damian Reeves
Wednesday 16 June 1999
ADAM TWISS: We were on the same course at Churchill in 1993. You get to know people gradually: it falls into one long drunken blur. Damian came across as being very clever, the sort of person who would read a book because he was interested in it, rather than because he had an exam.
We formed the company while studying. We had a fast Internet connection to our bedrooms and we were using e-mail as our main communication. Neither of us was a great fan of lectures, and we spent a lot of time reading other university lecture notes on the Net. I didn't have a TV: I started getting more and more news from the Internet. Damian and I set up a website together. It was when Netscape had first released a product and I remember downloading the first web browser. A lot of the software was not very good.
By the end of our second year we had developed our first version on the Internet. We were the only people designing web server architecture from scratch.
With most software, every time a new browser starts speaking to that server, it creates a new copy. If you have 1,000 people looking at a website, you need 1,000 copies of your server. It doesn't scale to the exponential growth of the Internet. We had a fundamental belief that you can have only one copy. People were downloading our product all over the world: it was amazing they liked it, but disillusioning that they wanted a lot more stuff. They said: "It doesn't have this feature or that feature."
We met someone who worked for a web design company at a barbecue that summer, and got involved in web design for Levi's. We never saw much money from the work, but we had a lot of free meals. We felt the Internet was going to be huge, so it inspired us to add more features.
We spent ages coming up with different company names that hadn't been taken. We wanted something short and sharp that people would know how to spell and recognise. In our third year, we began selling software from our bedrooms. People were asking us to fax through a pro forma invoice and we were thinking, "What's that?" We bought a fax machine with my student credit card. It was crazy. One time really inspired me. On the Internet, Sun Microsystems had used graphs to show how good their performance was. Zeus was twice as high. It was the first time anyone had published anything. I went to a really tacky party, feeling quite good. I came back and remember seeing the website had been changed, and all of Netscape's graphs had been removed. There was Zeus - against nothing. At first I was angry, but we had made a difference in far-off Silicon Valley. We were upsetting people, and that was inspirational.
We never tried to promote our stuff: it was about making it better. We didn't cash the cheques - our aim was to make enough money to keep going after university, about pounds 5,000. It was enough for us to turn down job offers.
The reason we work well together is that we were about the only people mad enough to spend eight hours a day working on something other than our university course during the end of our final year. There's a difference in the way we think. If we were designing an aeroplane, Damian would spend years designing the greatest possible wing for an aeroplane, and I would go out and crash it, then redesign it slightly. I am more pragmatic.
But the more you are together the more your opinions tend to harmonise. Until 18 months ago, we were living in the same house. I play football or cricket two or three times a week, and Damian spends a lot of time with his girlfriend.
There were times when we working 36-hour days - there are 36 hours in a day if you don't sleep. Being small was a big advantage. Your customers are close. We knew what they were looking for. Damian now looks after the development, and my time is split between sales and business development. We have to go out and be ruthless. This is an industry where you can get away with an awful lot of dirty tricks. By the time legal action is taken, it's too late - your business has gone. We haven't been as aggressive as we should, but that's changing.
We're trying to do something few people have done in the UK: build a successful software company with a global base. We never cared what people thought. Now, when they think good things, we can smile and go back to work.
DAMIAN REEVES: My first impression of Adam was that he was pretty young. He'd skipped a year before university so he was 17, and I had taken a year out. We tried to work hard and play hard, basically. We're good at learning things very quickly, which meant we could spend all our time doing our business stuff, and then two weeks before our exams, could start randomly going through a lot of books.
We both got Double Firsts so we did pretty well. Luckily we were doing a course that we knew a lot about. Adam had a ZX Spectrum computer at the age of about five. I was probably about 10 when I got interested: I was trying to work out why they worked, just how complex they were and what you could get them to do.
We did a lot together from a technical point of view. When we were first writing the software, we didn't have any idea about how these Internet Service Providers (ISPs) actually worked: we didn't understand how they did customer billing. We just built something that ran really, really quick. We had big customers from the start: we got an awful lot of customers saying: "We need to be able to do this and this."
Every customer has been an upgrade: their business grows exponentially and all of a sudden, the load increases and they have to find a better solution. A lot of our business has been word of mouth, from hardware companies who like us because we make their machines look better. We've never really gone out and attracted people: they have always come to us. We would take their direct comments and give them back a version that did it. Almost all our competitors are on the US West Coast, and they spend their time going to our customers, giving them solutions and saying: "Try this out." It's very hard to compete against that from the other side of the Atlantic when we have only eight people. We fight that by having a much better product.
It's nice to see all the stuff you have written chugging away on machines, especially when you see customers and talk to them about what they want to do. It was unknown to have a UK Internet software company. We have always had in the back of our minds that we wanted to right the wrongs of the UK never getting in on the market. The UK has died a death in the industry.
I try to take control of the development here, and Adam takes control of the business things. But every 20 minutes or so, I will ask him something. I try to keep up with all the business stuff, just so there's somebody else who knows.
I can imagine the differences between myself and Adam will emerge in the ways we manage when we have lots of people and we have to start delegating. I imagine we will approach people differently. We will probably get to 50 people in the next six months, and 20 will be in the States.
Adam and I meld well. We both talk in equal amounts, probably at the same time. When we were living together, every conversation was business-related while we were drinking beer, but I don't think we ever overdid it. It's quite nice being successful because it means when we talk to our friends from university, they think we do something sensible. We don't have to vouch for ourselves any more, on some kind of intangible. We are not having to generate all the data ourselves.
We have the same sense of humour, a similar kind of vision of what we want to do and how we want to do it, and we have the same ideas about people - what we think is hot, and what's not, and why.
I don't think either of us is looking for a particular kind of fame. If we wanted to be media celebrities, we wouldn't be doing computer software.
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