The Early Days of Plank

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The Fabtastic Plankers (Steve, Christiane, Jenn, and Warren): by Luke Séguin-Magee circa 2002

Napster Bad!

Plank was founded in 1998, by some fresh university graduates hoping to make a go of it on our own. It wasn’t easy. The first chapter of our company history was full of ups and downs then, fortunately, ups again. Plank’s growing pains included more than a few layoffs, as we learned how to do that whole financial planning thing. But we made it through the dot-com bubble and its aftermath, managed to rebuild our team, and landed a high-profile client who challenged our abilities and helped define us for years to come.

2000: New digs for a growing team

As the ‘90s came to a close, Plank was starting to feel like a real company — not just a room full of freelancers. Not long after officially incorporating as Plank Multimedia Inc. (doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?) we were evicted from our first office. With the building going condo, we had to quickly move our growing team to new digs.

We pooled our resources with another company and good friends of ours, Black Eye Design, to find a space we could share.  We settled on the Belgo Building, a gallery-filled building in the heart of downtown Montreal.

The view from our new office

Work-wise, we built on some solid client relationships (like NYC development company Standpipe, and Montreal PR company Columbia Communications), and launched some of our first larger, full-scale projects for fast-growing local businesses and artists.

Montreal’s tech scene was burgeoning, and we were happy to lend our design sensibilities to two leaders in security-focused solutions. The first was a website for e-signature product OnSign, a division of Silanis Technologies, which led to a redesign of the main company website.  ZeroKnowledge, a privacy and security-focused “start-up” (although those were just called “new companies” at the time) called on us to develop some digital communication tools, specifically newsletters and a mini-site called Privacy Zone.

We also launched websites for local fashion photographer Daniel Cianfarra and graffiti collective Urban X-Pressions.  In both cases, we were encouraged to push the boundaries of what was possible from a design, animation, and technology perspective. We chose both sites to be 100% driven by Flash — at the time still owned by Macromedia — so that we could offer a fully animated and interactive experience. Both sites won Macromedia Site of the Day that year, and quickly raised the profile of our small company.

2000 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • The Dow peaks at 11,722.98 before the Dot-com bubble bursts.
  • Sony’s PlayStation 2 is released, and much Crash Bandicoot playing occurs. 
  • Apple introduces the public beta of Mac OS X.
  • Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich files a lawsuit against Napster. Napster bad!
  • George W. Bush defeats Al Gore in the U.S. Presidential election, but the final outcome is not known for over a month because of disputed votes in Florida.
The Team:

Warren – Christiane – Steve – Jenn – Molly – Mamma J

2001: Blame the bubble

While the bursting of the dot-com bubble marked the second half of 2000, we started the year confident with Plank’s direction. We had a strong team and what seemed to be a sizable amount of work and clients, with a good mix of ongoing, recurring work, and passion projects that allowed us to grow and experiment.

What we didn’t have was business experience. We blamed the dot-com bubble for our first financial struggles as a company. The reality was that we didn’t have any type of financial plan to last for one month, let alone three or four. We had no concept of saving, planning, or projecting the company’s health.  So, we laid off two members of our team early in the year and moved forward, hoping for the best. 

Despite our financial struggles, our confidence and momentum as a company got a boost by a series of interviews, events, and press. In March, I was interviewed by Hour Magazine, a Montreal weekly paper. A month later, the Montreal Gazette did a photoshoot with the women of Plank for an upcoming women and technology article about Digitelles, the Montreal chapter of DigitalEve. I was asked to speak at the Youth Employment Services’ 4th Annual Entrepreneurship Conference, and Christiane was interviewed by Hour Magazine,, and Unwind Magazine.

The women of Plank pose for a feature in The Montreal Gazette

We kept picking up new clients and projects and exploring different creative directions. We got the chance to make some animated commercials for CBC’s Galaxie Television, and started working with a new entertainment company, Despite the North American economy being deep in a recession, everything felt like it was going in the right direction. We even sent Christiane to our first industry conference, NXNE in Toronto (we’d heard about this thing called ‘networking’ and figured we’d give it a try).

Then one fall day, I walked into the office and sat down at my desk like any other day. After a few minutes, Michel from Black Eye hollered from across the office that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York City. My first reaction was “that’s a shame, I hope no one other than the pilot of that small plane was hurt”. I couldn’t have imagined what we would learn over the next few minutes. It wasn’t a small little plane. It wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t the last thing that would happen that September 11th, 2001. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that an uncertain world lay ahead. On that day, everything related to Plank felt wholly insignificant.

2001 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • Wikipedia is launched on January 15.
  • The U.S. Justice Department decides that it won’t break up Microsoft.
  • Almost 3,000 people are killed in the September 11 attacks.
  • Napster is closed down by court order, Napster still bad!
  • Apple releases the iPod, we know what’s coming next!
The Team:

Warren – Christiane – Steve – Jenn – Molly

2002: A skeleton crew rights the ship

We learned from our financial struggles in 2001, put in place some of our first financial plans, and started to get some external advice. We may not have been good at acting on any of it, but we finally knew how the company was doing. It wasn’t great. At the end of the first quarter of the year, we realized we’d need to make another round of layoffs.

We scaled back to a core team of myself, Christiane, Steve, and Jenn but a continued dearth of new work ended up seeing just the two founders, Christiane and myself, as the last two standing. 

On a personal level, this was a major blow. I figured that Jenn and Steve would be with Plank for years to come. They felt like family, and I couldn’t imagine Plank without them. For the first few weeks after their tearful goodbye, I questioned if the company would continue to exist. I wondered if it even should exist.

After a few weeks of reflection, I decided to use every bit of my effort to ensure Plank’s long-term existence. This little thing we built was ours to mould, change, and adjust as we saw fit, in any way that we wanted, and that was still exciting — despite the uncertainty. Even with so many things hitting rock bottom at the beginning of 2002, there were some positive signs of things to come., who we had done a few small projects with the year before, renamed themselves Airborne Entertainment and were growing quickly thanks to their new focus on developing licensed mobile content. They were coming to rely on us as a design partner for their growing suite of branded content. 

Seeking inspiration, I attended SXSW in Austin and boy, was I rewarded. For the first time, I felt a part of a broader community of like-minded people, working hard to create inspired work on the internet. The interactive part of the conference was still small, and I was able to meet a substantial amount of the attendees and have many meaningful conversations.

Perhaps still a little high from the experience, I acted on a whim and emailed documentary film legend Michael Moore offering to help with his web presence. To my surprise, he phoned us that very afternoon. Later that spring, we launched a redesign of his main website and by the end of the year, a new website for his film Bowling for Columbine. Quite suddenly, the profile of our company grew enormously, as did the traffic to our website. It was the beginning of an eight-year relationship and a game-changing opportunity for Plank.

As the year came to an end, we could safely say we had righted the ship and could to hire again to cover the growing volume of work that myself, Christiane, and some freelancers couldn’t handle any longer.

2002 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey space probe begins to map the surface of Mars using its thermal emission imaging system.
  • WorldCom files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the largest such filing in United States history.
  • The Canadian Dollar sets all-time low against the US Dollar (US$0.6179).
  • Michael Moore’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”, premieres at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • UN Security Council under Resolution 1441 unanimously approves a resolution on Iraq, forcing Saddam Hussein to disarm or face “serious consequences.”
The Team:

Warren – Christiane

2003: Getting the band back together

We were beyond thrilled that, less than a year after laying them off, we’d be in a position to hire Steve and Jenn back. Unfortunately for us, Jenn had already taken off for Taiwan. Steve hadn’t gone quite so far, having taken a job at another digital agency nearby. 

“I’d still see Warren and Chrissie and always knew they’d make it through. When the time came that they could hire me back, it wasn’t a tough call. I am still thankful for that short break as I learnt a ton — and was able to bring this back and apply it.”

Steve Bissonnette

Taking this first step to “get the band back together” helped to develop some pride in ourselves and what we had fought so hard to build and keep alive. We also got the opportunity to start working with a few new part-time friends, Geoffrey Weeks and Matthew Morrow.

We kept ourselves busy with work from the Canada Health Infoway, more TV and print ads for CBC’s Galaxie Television, and Lux Productions. We also redesigned the website for Montreal’s legendary Fantasia Festival, beginning what would become a decade-long relationship. And that Michael Moore fellow kept us busy with his growing web presence. 

For a second year, I headed back to Austin to attend SXSW. This time around, I went into the event with a different level of confidence as I knew what to expect, had some friends to catch up with and was very comfortable navigating the event and the city.  It helped that our work on the website for Bowling For Columbine was nominated for Best Film Website. At the award ceremony when the film was announced, we got a much larger ovation than any of the other nominees, but the MC reminded the audience of a little fact, which echoed exactly how I felt about our chances.

“Hey, don’t forget that this is an award for the website, not the film!”

We lost to Ice Age: The Movie, that groundbreaking and culturally relevant film. Ah, well, it was a fun website.

2003 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • The Iraq War begins with the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and allied forces.
  • Concorde makes its last commercial flight, bringing the era of airliner supersonic travel to a close, at least for the time being.
  • The Recording Industry Association of America (or RIAA) files copyright lawsuits against Internet users for trading songs online.
  • Apple launches iTunes which is an immediate  success.
  • In the biggest blackout in the history of North America, some 50 million people in the northeastern US and southern Canada lose power.
The Team:

Warren – Christiane — Steve — Matthew 

2004: A wild ride

Early in 2004, a major change was brewing that would shape Plank’s direction more than anything else in the past five years. To keep ourselves from operating in “survival mode,” we got some outside help to do some more long-term planning. It was during one of those meetings that I mentioned something like “…when we get to that issue in about five years, we can handle it this way…” Christiane went pale white. It was only later that she articulated her feeling in that moment — doing this for another five years (or more) wasn’t what she saw for herself. We began to put plans in place so she could move on to new challenges in June.

“Choosing to leave Plank was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make in my life. But the relationship Warren and I had meant that we could discuss it and explore what my reaction was really about. I will never regret that decision and, in retrospect, it helped Warren to be able to take on a full leadership role that was not possible when we were co-leading. He is a natural and the result is evident. I’m proud that my short 4 years as Plank’s co-owner helped to form it’s foundation, but Warren has really moulded Plank into what it is today.”

Christiane Magee, Plank co-founder

While the volume of work was increasing weekly with our partners over at Airborne Entertainment — I can count 12 different projects we launched for them that year — we also got the opportunity to work with the National Film Board on the redesign of their project Citizen Shift, and collaborate on two projects with Federation CJA. We were also proud to be profiled in Taschen’s Web Design Studios 2. But there was one series of projects that defined us this year and helped to define the company as a whole for many years to come. 

When it was announced publicly that Michael Moore’s next film would be Fahrenheit 9/11, an exposé on the first four years of the Bush presidency, we knew that we were in for a wild year.

With a US election campaign in full swing, working with Michael Moore was a deeply rewarding challenge. We discussed and decided that, for the run-up to the election, we would turn into an anti-24-hour news network, gathering and sharing news from all over the country, but submitted by the people, by individuals. On election day, the site took in stories of voting irregularities, and heat mapped them for the world to see.  The site managed to stay alive even with the influx of tens of millions of unique users. We survived DDoS attacks, floods of emails, and attempts by websites like the Drudge Report to discredit us.

While the US election didn’t go as any of us had hoped, we had to be proud of our hard work on a project that, at the very least, changed the minds of some people for the better. As a tiny team, we got the opportunity to expand our skill set on challenges that we wouldn’t normally get access to. We learnt what it meant to work under the pressure of a fixed deadline, with real consequences.

2004 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook from his Harvard dormitory room.
  • Google introduces Gmail: the launch is met with scepticism on account of the April 1 launch date.
  • The CIA admits that there was no imminent threat from weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
  • “Fahrenheit 9/11”, directed by Michael Moore is the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 
  • George W. Bush is re-elected President of the United States. ‾_(ツ)_/‾‎
The Team:

Warren — Steve — Matthew — Geoff — Lawrence