23 November, 2009

The Flying Pig Story

Today is the tenth anniversary of Flying Pig. The ambitious New Zealand-owned and operated internet retail store opened its virtual doors for business on 23 November 1999.

Had Flying Pig endured and become the success that was hoped for when it launched then this milestone would today be a cause for celebration. Imagine if you will a giant inflatable cartoon pig resembling the company’s logo floating over Auckland and a glitzy celebratory party covered by the news media.

In reality Flying Pig folded just two years after it launched. In that time the company had endured considerable down-scaling from a staff of sixty-plus at its height to just six on the day it closed.

A number of my former work colleagues look back on the venture with a degree of bitterness and regret. I understand that. Those of us who were there at the beginning were sold on the concept with the promise of expansion, growth and company shares which never eventuated.

I however have generally positive memories of Flying Pig. I am one of only two people who were there on launch day and still there on the fateful day that we were all made redundant, two years later.

I think in some small way I may have helped inspire the company’s creation. During the latter half of the 1990s I worked for the flagship store of Whitcoulls, New Zealand’s leading bookstore chain. I managed the store’s ‘Book Information’ counter, which involved sourcing non-stocked book titles from local and overseas distributors to fill customer orders. On the strength of my performance in this role I was invited to develop a proposal for an up-scaled version of the same service, to serve Whitcoulls’ customers nationwide. I pitched this to the Whitcoulls CEO who signed off on it. I got my own department located in spare space above the shop with a staff of six to eight people, handling direct phone sales, orders from stores and, eventually, Whitcoulls’ own fledgling buy-online store.

From this seed grew the idea of a separate business venture: an internet store with a vast array of books and videos. Flying Pig was masterminded by the very same Whitcoulls CEO who had approved the concept I had helped develop. The Flying Pig online store was the logical extension of that proposition.

My small team was drafted to join Flying Pig in early November 1999. In physical terms this meant relocating from the second floor of the Whitcoulls building to the basement area of a building situated in Freemans Bay. We were set up as the customer service and orders fulfilment team, which was very similar to what we had been doing at Whitcoulls.

I personally felt frustrated at what I perceived as a sideways move, so agitated to join the content management team located in the office upstairs. I was given responsibility for managing the Video & DVD category. At the time DVDs were very new on the New Zealand market; when I initially set up the DVD category there was perhaps only fifty titles available.

Flying Pig opened its virtual doors to the public for the first time on 23 November 1999 with a huge amount of promotion that included billboards and students carrying placards around the streets. Unfortunately the site wasn’t able to cope with the huge volume of online traffic this generated and promptly crashed, resulting in many calls and emails from frustrated potential customers, and unfavourable comments in the media. It is hard to assess in hindsight how much this incident affected the Flying Pig brand, but internet customers are in my experience a generally unforgiving bunch, quick to criticise and slow to forgive perceived wrongs, so I am certain that we lost a portion of our potential customer base.

Despite this early setback the entire staff enjoyed a great company outing to Waiheke Island as a Christmas party and team-bonding exercise. Who knows how much additional ‘team bonding’ might have taken place had our drunken plans for an impromptu night-time skinny-dip not been curtailed by the perhaps fortuitous arrival of the bus to take us back to the ferry!

During the early months of 2000,the company continued to grow. More staff were hired, a new larger location for the business was located, plans were developed for the addition of such diverse categories as tools and wine, and Flying Pig was to be floated on the sharemarket with staff to get shares in the business.

All of these plans for expansion came suddenly and badly unstuck in March 2000 when the so-called dotcom bubble burst with the collapse of the NASDAQ in the US. The shockwave effect on local investors who had contributed to the company’s considerable start-up and operations costs resulted in an immediate need to downscale. Plans to expand the online store, to move premises and to issue shares were abruptly shelved and some staff members were made redundant. Not long after this we vacated our sunny office space and joined the customer service and despatch team downstairs in the gloomy garage/basement area.

Those of us who survived this downsizing rallied together to make the best of a dispiriting setback. We held weekly barbecues and drinks and a light-hearted team atmosphere prevailed most of the time.

In early 2001, following further down-scaling, Flying Pig was acquired by Auckland-based magazine publishing company IT Media and a much-reduced team relocated to share office space with the likes of Rip It Up, NetGuide and NZ Rugby magazines in Kitchener Street. By this time I had been promoted to oversee the general content for the website as well as still handling the ever-growing video and DVD categories.

Within a few months IT Media also fell on hard times and began shedding titles and staff. Flying Pig’s General Manager left and I was encouraged to fill the vacated post. Despite my initial insistence that I wasn’t equipped to run the entire company, by May 2001 I found myself as the head of what was by now a rather small operation with just six staff.

The crunch time came seven months after my appointment as GM. A protracted dispute between a creditor and IT Media that I was powerless to resolve came to a head with the receivers called in to close down Flying Pig. We turned up for work one morning in early November 2001 to find the website down. A short time later we were told to leave as we had all been made redundant.

I arrived home around midday, suddenly unemployed and in a state of mild shock at the turn of events. That very afternoon I received a call from a old Flying Pig colleague, now working with Noel Leeming. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in coming to work at Noel Leeming to use my experience to help set up their online store. As one door closed, another one opened, and I'm happy to report that I was later able to bring on board a couple of my former Flying Pig colleagues.

New Zealand's most popular website, Trade Me, was established in 1999 around the same time as Flying Pig. Who knows, had things turned out differently perhaps Flying Pig might have enjoyed similar success, and ten years later, I might still be working for the company. It is perhaps unlikely though that had this been the case, that I would have ended up as the General Manager!

05 November, 2009

How I got Stripped for Action

The Doctor Who: Dalek War DVD box set (recently released in the UK), contains two 1973 Jon Pertwee stories: Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks. The set has been eagerly anticipated by fans due to the extraordinarily successful colour restoration of episode three of the latter story which for the past three decades has only existed as a monochrome recording.

The DVD has personal significance as I crop up in the extras. I’m in two separate features, both instalments in the ongoing ‘Stripped for Action’ series which examines the history of Doctor Who in comics. It’s the second time I’ve appeared on a Doctor Who DVD. The first was on Lost in Time some years earlier where I talked about finding a lost episode in an interview that was shot in my living room.

The invitation to appear in the documentaries came about at relatively short notice while I was in the UK last year on a month-long holiday. I had emailed Marcus Hearn, the director of the ‘Stripped for Action’ series, back in April 2008 to let him know that I was writing a book about Doctor Who comic strips and suggested meeting up while I was in London to compare notes since our two projects covered the same ground.

Several weeks passed. Then, on 20 May, midway through my stay in London, I received a reply from Marcus. He had just seen my email having recently returned from a month-long overseas trip. Marcus asked if I was still in London and if so would I like to be interviewed on camera for ‘Stripped for Action’? I replied that I had two weeks left before I had to fly home and if he could arrange something in time I’d be happy to participate.

Marcus pulled out all the stops to arrange contracts and book studio time at short notice to accommodate my limited availability. We met up in a coffee house in Soho to work out what we should cover in the interview and using these notes Marcus came up with sets of questions. I received these a few days in advance of the recording so I that had time to consider my answers. Marcus had already delivered most of the instalments in the Stripped for Action series, two of which had already been released on DVD. There were just three left to complete the series and Marcus wanted to interview me for all of these in a single studio session. Two of the three were The Third Doctor and The Daleks which both appear on Dalek War. The third documentary has yet to be announced, so I won’t disclose the subject of that one. It shouldn’t be hard to guess what it is, though.

My contributions to ‘Stripped for Action’ were recorded at a studio in Wapping, London on Tuesday 3 June 2008. This was just a couple of days before I was due to fly home to New Zealand.

To make good use of the studio booking, Marcus arranged two regular commentators, Jeremy Bentham and Alan Barnes, for the same studio session. Jeremy is a highly-respected ‘elder statesman’ of Doctor Who fandom who had written some influential articles about Doctor Who comics back in the early 1980s. I met up with Jeremy in London earlier in my trip to interview him for my book, and he and his delightful wife Paula treated me to a very nice dinner at an upmarket London restaurant. It was a delight to meet him once more at the studio recording.

The recording session took place in a small concrete-walled studio. I sat on a chair against a green screen backdrop. In the finished documentary, the green has been keyed out and replaced with an assortment of panels from the comic strips. I was advised not to wear anything green as this would interfere with the process. The screen was illuminated by a ring of exceedingly bright green lights placed around the camera lens which I found very distracting at the edge of my vision.

Marcus sat some distance away from the camera and fed me the questions and directions. So that my comments would make sense in the documentary I had to phrase my answers as self-contained statements. For example, when I was asked to describe the style of comic artist Ron Turner, my answer needed to begin something like “Ron Turner’s illustration style was...”

Going into the recording I felt prepared and confident but once it got underway I was surprised to find the experience more of a challenge than I’d expected. I was put off by the intense lights and to my horror I started muddling my words and speaking too fast. Fortunately Marcus is a patient and understanding director, and we did a few retakes of the initial question until I had relaxed into the process. As we began recording I was directed by one of the crew to keep still and to keep my hands out of shot. When I’m speaking, like most people, I tend to move about a bit and gesticulate, so having to sit still and not use my hands felt unnatural and disconcerting. I’m still not entirely sure why I was given this direction. On the documentaries a number of my fellow commentators can be seen waving their hands around which I think in contrast makes me look stiff and uncomfortable.

Following my session I got to sit and watch as Jeremy (who had arrived during my recording) took my place in front of the camera. I could sit and listen to Jeremy talk all day; he knows his subject very well indeed and is also clearly a confident and accomplished speaker. I had kept my answers fairly brief and to the point, whereas Jeremy expounded at great length, impressively covering the answers to a whole range of questions in a single informative and detailed monologue.

Alan Barnes turned up after Jeremy and I had finished our contributions. After a short break Alan went into studio to record his segments and Jeremy and I left to catch the train home. The walk to the station gave me the opportunity to chat some more to Jeremy about my book and he was very supportive of the project and subsequently sent copies of some early articles he’d written about the comics.

I received my complementary copy of the DVD box set from 2|entertain earlier this week, so one and a half years after the recording I've finally seen the finished results for the first time. I'm never comfortable with seeing myself on screen, and this combined with recalling just how uncomfortable I'd felt during the recording itself, meant that it was with some trepidation that I watched these features. Just a handful of my responses have made it on to the documentaries - but I consider that a good thing; my limited appearance makes them slightly easier to watch, and I'm relieved that my discomfort isn't as evident on screen as I'd feared.

Alas, the credit’s not quite right (as seen in the screen shot). I’m billed as the author of The Comics Companion which should be The Comic Strip Companion. I’ve already had people who have seen the documentaries contact me to ask where and when the book’s available. The answer is that it’s not finished yet. I’m hopeful that it will be out sometime next year, and it is being published by Telos.