How one designs a web business fit for Royalty

IN an era when the Queen is on Facebook and Clarence House has a Twitter feed, it is unsurprising that the royal wedding needs an official website. And, of course, that means that someone needed to design it – literally, designing a website fit for a king to be. The people behind it must, therefore, have a fair claim to being among the finest website makers in the land.

Contrary to what you might expect, England’s royal wedding website wizards are not trendy Shoreditch types in skinny jeans, but a husband and wife team in their 50s, Margaret Manning and Simon Usher. They set up the firm in 1996, back when some people still thought the internet was a fad. The business now employs 170 people, has six offices across the world and has a turnover of £12m a year.

“We were the OAPs of the internet world even when we started out. It was during the days when you couldn’t say that you thought the internet was going to generate a ‘communications revolution’ without looking a bit scary and evangelical,” says Margaret Manning.

But as a self-confessed geek and a former accountant, Manning confesses it wasn’t the revolution that got her involved in the digital world: “It was a slight mid-life crisis actually, I had a very good job as a financial director, and a very nice car, but just thought – I’m going to dump it all and go and work with my husband.”

Usher gave the scheme a boost by finding their first client. Previously the webmaster for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), he walked into his boss’s office and asked them to outsource his job to him on a 12 month contract or he would leave. They agreed and the company Reading Room was born.

Manning originally did all the techy stuff: “Simon is the creative part and I’m the geek.” But the business grew rapidly after sourcing venture capital investment. “The technology soon got beyond me but thankfully we were then in the position to hire people.”

Of course, rapid growth and the interest of venture capitalists was a common experience across the internet sector in the 1990s. But, unlike many of their competitors, Reading Room kept growing despite the dot-com crash. Manning believes they weathered the financial storm because they were cautious about taking venture capital money.

“We held off taking venture capital for some time, we didn’t think the company was big enough to handle it. We waited until we had 50 staff before we started talking to investors. I think that’s one of the reasons we survived.” Once they took the capital, however, Manning describes most of her job was recruiting as fast as possible to keep up with the demand for their services and they have been growing ever since.

Manning says even at the business’s toughest points she has never regretted quitting her job and taking a risk: “I mean, it’s taken me to pitch at Buckingham Palace.”

Turnover: £12m

Staff: 170

Age: 51

Born: Bromsgrove, Worcestershire

Lives: Soho

Studied: Psychology, Birmingham University

Drinking: “Red wine and peppermint tea (not necessarily in that order).”

Reading: Emails

Talents: “My ability to work 18 hours a day.”

Awards: International Female Entrepreneur of the Year, EMEA: Stevies Women in Business Awards 2009; First Woman in Science and Technology: First Woman Awards 2008; Female Entrepreneur of the Year: Fast Growth Business Awards 2008; Finalist: Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2009

Motto: “Just do it.”