In Business with RISC OS:
Douglas Hunt explains how his 'modern sunclock' business developed from a hobby into an international business based entirely on RISC OS.
For a number of years I had a hobby of 'Sundials' - you know, those vandal-prone garden ornaments that never seem to tell the right time - and in 1983 a local park was looking for something to commemorate their 1884-1984 centenary. I had previously designed (but never built) a large ground-level sundial that would use a person's own shadow to indicate the correct time including an automatic change-over from GMT to British Summer Time. The local council thought that it should be perfect for the park - vandal-proof, cheap to install, 'public improvement' and so on.
Two years later I found myself unemployed and the level of local interest had led me to believe that perhaps others would want to have one as a garden feature. Having the time on my hands, I sat down and developed a computer program (on the BBC Micro) that would calculate and print sets of plans and instructions for setting out my Sunclock, based on the geographic Latitude and Longitude of each location.
Being very naive, I had a vision of placing small advertisements in the newspaper classified section and collecting a lot of orders. It didn't quite work out like that. I barely covered the cost of the advert. The next spring, I started to take out advertisements in the gardening magazines and the orders slowly started to come in.
The next year my Sunclock was accepted into the National Garden Festival at Glasgow and my business really started to grow. It was something of a paying hobby and I also had a job as a Quality Manager and a brief time as a Computer Training Officer. The next year, "Gardening from WHICH" magazine favourably reviewed the concept (and I still get enquiries from that article).
The following year, something happened which would see the immense growth of the business. The new National Curriculum had a requirement for children to understand 'Sundials'. As a result the enquiries from teachers started to flow in. With a 'Sunclock' painted on their playground, there was an ideal educational project that was also vandal-proof. The concept became so popular that it was featured in a schoolbook, has been included in some education supplies catalogues and will be illustrated later this year in a Maths Dictionary for USA schools.
There are several well-known 'Human Sundial' layouts in Britain - "Chatsworth House", "Longleat" and "Lincoln Castle" being clear examples. As well as 'novelty' appeal of people being part of their own accurate sundial, it is essentially vandal-proof and with the selling point that every one is totally unique.
Our website - at www.sunclocks.com - gives you more information, including photographs of some layouts from Australia to Alaska, Tasmania to Tibet!
As the nineties launched, dealing with the orders and enquiries (some coming from as far as New Zealand) was starting to seriously interfere with my full-time job as a Quality Manager so I took the plunge and became self-employed. My business was supplying a personalised set of Plans and Instructions for these unusual 'Human Sundials'.
During the winter (as orders get a little thin), I also did some consultancy work for companies wanting to achieve the sought-after ISO9000.
When I found an Australian distributor I then didn't need to worry about 'seasonal variations' since there is now a non-stop influx of orders throughout the entire year. My website gets about four hits an hour, every hour of every day - this being 'visits' alone, the actual volume of page hits is considerably higher.
In twenty years, my hobby has turned into a full-time international business; and there are some business opportunities available. Further details are on the website at www.sunclocks.com/profit.htm.
If you believe in a product, persevere and have a mixture of determination and conviction in your product you'll find that success is quickly forthcoming. I could have easily let the low response from my initial advert force me into forgetting the whole thing; but instead I went on to run a unique international mail-order business. It is, literally, 'Banking on Sunshine'.
How this relates to RISC OS...
The bulk of this business is run on two Risc PC computers and an A7000+. The software that produces the "Sunclock" plans is written in BASIC and the programs have been adapted over the years to produce some different versions (Printed, HTML and now PDF) as technology has developed.
Towards the end of the 90's, more and more people were asking if we could supply the plans by email, so the programs were re-written to provide HTML (with GIF diagrams) so that customers could view them using their normal web-browsers. This was fine, except that we had no control over how pages might print out.
In 2001, I decided to offer a 'PDF' version, which would give the same output on any computer platform and the programs were all re-written again. This time they produced pages in Drawfile format, which are printed to file then converted into PDF documents through the Postscript driver which we can then email to customers worldwide.
Since they effectively cost nothing to produce, the business runs on a very high profit-margin; and if you look on our website you'll find that prices are guaranteed to be fixed permanently. That's not something that many businesses could do.
For email, we use Messenger Pro, although we prefer Fresco for web-browsing. For site maintenance we use FTPc. We use each machine to backup data and also have a DataSafe to ensure that data is encrypted in the event of failure. Using your webspace as a secure off-site backup also ensures that you can keep vital software securely elsewhere.
I am proud that my business exclusively uses RISC hardware, plus software - but must get around to upgrading again... perhaps to an Iyonix or A9.