Decades of Digital: An Inside Look at the Origins of zu

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In 1995, the idea of a business in digital may have been unfathomable; 20 years later, it has become an integral component of our lives. We sat down with Ryan and Tony to see how it all began.

How did you meet each other? First impressions?

Ryan: I met Tony when he was a rockstar for the amazing band IBS. He joined the band after they fired their first guitar player and I remember thinking, “Oh no, IBS is going downhill.” Then Tony started playing and I thought: “Wow, these guys are good!” He made the band way better. I also remember that they set up a mic stand for him and the only thing he sang all night was two words of a song “Kiss Me” (Ask him if he remembers the song). Anyway, I started talking to him more and he offered me a job at the Students Union print shop at the U of S, mostly because of my entrepreneurial skills at counterfeiting concert tickets. My first three weeks I called in sick after having an “allergic reaction” to tequila at a 54-40 concert. That was in 1988 when Ben Johnson was caught cheating in the Olympics. I was so out of it that I thought that was a dream. Anyway, Tony waited for me to get better and I ended up working there for 5 years before we started our own business.

Tony: Ryan and his gang of friends were frequent attendees at cabaret shows that the bands I was in used to play at back in the 80’s and 90’s. I also remember the time he came to the print shop I used to manage on campus, acting a little bit suspiciously as he bought card stock in the same type as tickets we had recently printed for an event…. “Hmmmm, kind of an entrepreneurial kid here”. Later, I hired him to work at the print shop, though he missed his first week of work (I found out later) due to some sort of tequila hangover. I don’t think he touches that stuff any more.

How did the concept of zu get started? What inspired you?

Ryan: We just got internet access at the end of 1994 when we worked at the University. Then we left and I kind of missed having access to mail and to usenet groups (handy when it came to fantasy baseball). So when we started Pro Print, we were the first business in Saskatoon to get internet, and the first to get internet on Macs. Then I helped start the FreeNet in Saskatoon and lots of small businesses wanted websites. This was all text based, no images, nothing. That’s when we started thinking: if people are going to need websites, someone’s got to build them. That’s how we started thinking of zu.

Tony: The Internet inspired us. With Ryan an early adopter of technology, we were starting to build web sites while we were still Pro Print Inc. We also busted into presentation production back when this meant creating film slides for corporate clients. Knowing we needed a different name for the Internet operation we went up north to a cabin for a few days with our wives/girlfriends and batted about name ideas. We came back as “zu.com communications, Inc.” with “zu.com” as a URL.

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There are so many different stories going around, so it’s time to get it straight: why the name zu?

Ryan: At the Student’s Union print shop, we’d always say it was like working at a zoo. We tried getting zoo.com but the Boston Zoo had already taken it, so zu it was. It was also on a list of Tony’s unused band names.

What was your background prior to starting zu? Some little known facts?

Ryan: My mom told me I always had the best lemonade stands, and I remember doing Christmas pageants with my cousins and charging the grandparents and aunts and uncles to attend. So I guess I have always been interested in business. I ran a landscaping company in university. Also drove the riverboats and could tell you some fun stories about that. But computers were something I was always interested in, and somehow the pull of the internet got me thinking about starting a real business. Tony and I talked about it lots, and one day we decided to do it. This was my first real job out of university. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever really made a resume. Maybe I should put that on my bucket list.

Tony: I got a Commerce Degree at the U of S right after high school (as my parents had planned), but was more interested in playing in bands back then. With a poor job market, I got a job organizing fun for the college kids and then became manager of the print shop, all the while continuing to play in a band, ride motorcycles and do design at work. Slowly I was becoming more interested in business management, and with Ryan on staff, we were soon making plans to bust out of the stifling university environment and set up something we could fully control.

Were there other business ideas that came and went?

Ryan: There was lots of technology that we tried and lots of ideas that we didn’t do. EasyUpdater (Content Management System) was one that if we pushed it and were able to see that it could become a pay as you go service, maybe it would have flown. It was a precursor to things like Wordpress, but we didn’t see it that way at the time. We were approached for a bunch of different business opportunities, and got so close that we moved into the same building as one, but luckily didn’t follow through with that. We moved into Tony’s basement for a month afterwards because we didn’t have anywhere else to go.

I remember going to Tony’s house, and we’d go to the backdoor to the basement which was framed, but there was no drywall. We’d get there, and Tony would come down an hour later.

Tony: I remember we had a receptionist at the time - in the basement.

Ryan: We worked there for a month, and later moved to our Duchess location.

What was the whole plan for zu, at the time?

Tony: In starting to do websites, we didn’t think farther ahead than 20 minutes. We were desperate to sell anything. I remember when we first printed dockets for zu, we didn’t think we’d need more than 100. Then we were surprised when we blew through them.

Ryan: Because there was internet access on campus, the U of S Place Riel Theatre and Louis’ Pub were probably the first websites we did. We built a simple system where Louis’ could update their lunch specials. They’d login and upload a text file every day for a few years.

Tony: We also did Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan - remember that launch? I had to wear a Shakespearian outfit - but they forgot the pants! So I only had the skirt. On live television. All of the media would show up, because back then, that’s how much of a novelty a website launch was.

Ryan: We got a space for the launch in Wildwood Mall. We also spent two days animating a pair of scissors cutting a ribbon to signify a digital grand opening. We had a big LCD projector, but it was so bright in the mall that you couldn’t see it because projectors weren’t great back then. We had to build a tent over top of it just to see the scissors cutting. We had all three TV stations there, Star Phoenix, all the radio stations…we got tons of publicity because of it. To me, that was the first step in being a legit company. As a result, we got Virtual Saskatchewan as a client (If you go to virtualsk.com it still looks the same as it did then).

Tony: We didn’t know how to estimate jobs back then. We eventually figured out that we should charge for Project Management, that turned out to be pretty much be our entire profit. I remember Potash came in one day to talk about taking over the website job –

Ryan: – We were sitting in a tiny office on 2nd Ave.

Tony: Our main programmer was always in danger of getting hit in the head by the microwave door opening; that’s how small it was.

Ryan: Andrew from Potash walked in in a fancy suit, and asked us about ourselves, saying they were interested in a website. The rest is history.

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What were some challenges you met when starting the business?

Ryan: No one knew what the internet was, that was the biggest challenge. You’ll have to remember, this was a time when most people didn’t have computers and business was done in the mail and through faxes. I don’t even think fax machines had paper.

Being young and not having mentors was another challenge. Cash flow was an issue. Technology was changing so fast that we spent a lot of time and money evaluating things and buying things that we never used. We had the first Apple camera, that was cool.

Tony: The biggest challenge was explaining what websites and email were, and how this would be something everyone needed. Figuring out how to actually charge and get paid for the time it took to build a website was a challenge. Keeping website projects on track towards a firm conclusion was a challenge. Finding people who could do this work was a challenge. But trying to create innovation and value for clients, all the while getting paid a fair rate, seemed to work out over the years.

When did you realize zu had some potential?

Tony: We couldn’t think that far ahead, we were always surprised that we were still in business. I remember comparing ourselves to established businessmen in secure jobs. We were kind of jealous, but then they’d get bought out or lose their jobs, and we’d think “Boom, there’s another”. We just kept seeing these things fall, and we felt like we were on thin ice because we were entrepreneurs. But we got so used to it, that at some point we started to relax a little. I’m pretty relaxed now.

What are some of your top highlights over the years? Some memorable moments?

Ryan: Moving to Tony’s basement. Moving to Duchess Street. Moving here. Shinny in the parking lot. Some of the early websites we did. For me, the memorable moments are with people. I could tell you a story about everyone that worked here.

Tony: Well, as a company we won many awards and some repeatedly: Sabex, Abex, Canadian New Media Employer of the Year. And our clients won awards for our work together. Ryan and I travelled to many cool conventions around North America, experiencing cities, entertainment and the odd beer. We did business with famous North American companies and gave presentations in their HQ boardrooms.

But the best memories are probably to do with the social events we had with staff. Our themed Christmas parties were over the top with Survivor, Olympics, Academy Awards (teams also submitted their own movies), Rock-araoke (staff performed songs at cabaret with Martyr Bones (Tony’s band) backing them… It’s been 20 years of these elaborate events.

The big achievement is having a place I like to go to each day, with people who are a true team, called “zu”.

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What would be something you regret?

Tony: Failing to anticipate name squatting. We nearly registered “go.com” which was going to be a newsletter called “Get Online!” to promote our website business, but it cost $157 and that was a lot! It later sold for $1 million to Disney - d’oh! Ryan also missed registering “Money.com” by a day.

What would you do if you weren’t working at zu?

Ryan: I probably would have worked at walk-up Dairy Queen on 8th street, because I’d get winters off and go down to Arizona for a job wrangling snakes. But really, I don’t know, maybe I’d be a teacher.

Tony: I’m scared to think about that.

What would be the one thing that you’re most proud of?

Tony: I think it’s a mix of things now. I’m starting to get pretty excited about some of the work we’ve done. We’ve done some pretty cool things to move society ahead in a small way, with DocShare, HQC, the City of Saskatoon…they’re cool things.

Ryan: I remember this one point in time, we were in our building on Duchess Street, probably a year before we moved to our current location. I remember Brad and Cory, Tyler, myself, Mandy…we were all there super late working on the PotashCorp Annual Report that had to go live at 3 in the morning. I was sitting there at 2am in my office thinking: “What kind of company has people who are willing to come to work at 8 in the morning and still be there until 8am the next day to get a client’s work out?” To me, that was one of the proudest moments I’ll never forget.

Tony: I like the idea that this is kind of like a tribe - we all like it here, we’re making a living here, it’s kind of like a family. It’s healthy.

Did you set out thinking that the workplace culture would be this way?

Ryan: I think it has evolved.

Tony: I think it’s because we don’t like bullshit people. Our employees have to be real people, having fun, joking around – just real people.

Ryan: If you’re going to spend a bunch of time with people at work, then why not make it fun. We’re perceived as always being wacky, but 99% of what we do around here is work – we just don’t take pictures of it. By having a lighthearted approach, you develop more loyalty in staff, there’s a little bit less stress, people tend to work a little bit harder, they enjoy their days more, they do it as a career more than a job.

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Where do you see the future of digital going? Of zu?

Ryan: zu has changed a lot in the past two years. You may not see it on the outside, but inside we are running a much better business. When I look into the future, what I see is a more focused zu; a company that can determine the difference between the noise and the important stuff. Currently, I am excited to explore more ideas about data, connected devices and where mobile will take us.

Tony: Digital will continue to evolve and become the first way to do anything. There will continue to be lots to do in making things easier, replacing old ways, and maintaining everything. Our goal for zu is to focus on our vision so that we can remain leaders, even at a compact size. This goes hand in hand with streamlining the experience for our clients, so we can all focus on the ongoing transformation rather than be distracted by the friction of transactions. While our particular digital niche defines us, I find the more generic challenge of running a good business with a happy, challenged team, satisfied and engaged clients, and a financial scorecard that shows we know what we’re doing, to be the real fun part. I guess that Commerce degree wasn’t a waste of time in the end!

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