Smokeylemon — 20 years

Words by  Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

With 20 candles now on the cake, Smokeylemon can count the years alongside technological advances. Touch screen interactive experiences, TV commercials, enterprise-level websites, motion graphics, marketing strategy and environmental interior design are all part of Smokeylemon’s portfolio in 2021 — gone are the days when it was just a website company.

20 years ago Smokeylemon was borne from a need to give clients a new way to communicate, market and expand their business without opening bricks and mortar stores. There was no Facebook, Youtube or LinkedIn, and the yellow pages were the most effective contact directory in town.  

In the late 1990s, Smokeylemon founder Mandy McGregor was just another Kiwi on their ‘OE’. In a bid to stay in the United Kingdom, she enrolled at Anglia Ruskin University to do a degree in Computer Science.

By 2001 she was fully qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Computer Software Development.

Back then, the web was still fairly new territory, websites were painstakingly hand-coded with little freedom of design to cater for user experience, load times were slow and “Google” still had two years to go before it would become a verb.

Sitting in a London pub contemplating the opportunity to bring the world wide web to New Plymouth, two lemon wedges in a smoking ashtray interrupted her cogitations, and behold, the company had a name.

As the daughter of two business owners, there was almost an expectation that Mandy would also start her own business.

“Websites weren’t really a big thing back then,” Mandy recalls, dial-up, however was.

The high-pitched squeals and chirps of connecting to the internet were with her all day, every day back then.

“It was pretty slow going,” she admits.

“Back then, all you needed was a static three page website and you got business. But now Smokeylemon invests our marketing, design and technical knowledge to actively market your business online, provide a great user experience, and align with a gazillion other things that Google expects.”

Though the internet opens your business up to the whole world, it also means you are competing with the rest of the planet.

“In the early 2000’s you could portray yourself however you wanted and get away with it. But now you need to be your authentic business self and so we’ve grown to meet that need through our brand discovery workshops, it’s really cool to understand our clients’ businesses more deeply than ever before and help them to develop meaningful character.

“And going mobile … there were no mobile websites when we started — we didn’t have Smartphones, nothing with data. I think I had a Blackberry.”

Mandy also had to spend a lot of time educating people, including clients.

“We still do because people don’t always understand the value their online presence from a business perspective.

“A website is there 24/7 promoting your business, as are your marketing tools — you can be asleep or on holiday but your business is still there getting the message out.”

Over the two decades the business has evolved into much more than a web development company.

Think of a lemon, cut into thirds … one third remains web development, one third is marketing and one third is graphic design.

They do new ground-breaking stuff too.

“We designed all the artwork in the interior of the new OMV building,” says Mandy of the 8 month project.

“It was something we’d never done before but our creativity isn’t limited to a screen, we apply it to everything that comes through the door. Now we can do that. After all, there’s always a first time for everything you do.”

Same with making TV commercials. Writing, storyboarding, art directing, and working with an Auckland production company brought Pipi, the CGI Kiwi to life and provided an iconic advert for Latitude Homes which has proved to be a heart-warming favourite with fans. 

“We also developed a touch screen experience for Methanex a couple of years ago too, which their head office in Vienna wanted to use as well. 

“It’s kind of awesome really, looking at all our clever people, coming up with ideas and creating magic.”

Web design, graphic design and marketing only really scratch the surface of what the team as a whole can output for their clients — who run the gamut from sole traders to large national companies.

“We do bigger jobs now than we have ever done and bigger companies are now looking to us to do work for them.”

One of their biggest is Latitude Homes.

“We’ve been working with them for about four years now and helped them to grow into one of the top ten group home builders in New Zealand. We’re really stoked to be working with them. They’re like family now — all of them, everybody in the country. 

Mandy’s also proud of surviving 20 years.

“Like any business we’ve had our fair share of challenges, finding the right staff, the right locations, technology and equipment upgrades and now of course there are global pandemics to add to the list. In the first lockdown we were able to share our tips on working remotely, and the way we were set up meant that the team were straight back into action from day one. 

“With the second lockdown we have the nice ‘problem’ of having too much work, with businesses suddenly realising that being online is increasingly necessary to combat any reduction in physical contact.”

As for the next big thing, Mandy’s sure there will be something, she just doesn’t have a clue yet as to what it’ll be. 

“Technology will never stop evolving, and keeping up with it is hard work, but that’s always been part of our challenge, and so far, one we’ve managed to meet head on.”

Mandy has to direct staff, advise clients, and come up with new ideas to get Smokeylemon’s clients ahead of everybody else in their field. Stu Sutherland, Senior Designer has also invested in the business, so they are working to a sustainable plan to ensure Smokeylemon is more than just Mandy.

The greatest satisfaction in owning her business is when clients do well.

“We love it — especially when we know we were a big part of helping make that happen.”

There’s no doubt that in the past 20 years, technology has changed the way we communicate as businesses, and Smokeylemon has taken on the challenge of meeting the demands of new software, upskilling staff, educating clients and more recently, recruiting specifically to meet these new challenges.

Full-time staff now number 11, with another six or seven employed as contractors. The latest additions are a highly sought-after web developer from Sri Lanka and a former staffer from TV3, who will be aiding creative direction.

“I love it when you walk into the office and you can feel that vibe, it’s humming, stuff is happening and everyone’s invested, everyone’s on board, it’s palpable. That is the best feeling, it’s so good.”

Mandy caption:

Owner of a cool web and marketing agency. West ham fan. Crazy ideas person. Deep thinker. No work/life balance. Gets stuff done.

 “Perhaps ‘over-thinker’ is more apt,” laughs Smokeylemon’s ‘Big Cheese’.

Finding a better way, a more efficient process, a shorter path to market and a more potent way of getting your message across are at the core of the business she started.

In 2010, Mandy went to Delhi to compete in archery for New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games.

She shot her best ever score but didn’t make it to the podium.

“There’s always something you can take away from everything that you do. It either makes you a better person or a better business.”

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