Enlighten Designs’ Damon Kelly – on creating technology that has a positive impact on the world

Software and design companies come and go – few have been around as long as Hamilton-based Enlighten Designs which was formed in founder and CEO Damon Kelly’s caravan in 1998; today it’s one of Waikato’s largest ICT service providers and boasts a growing list of international clients. 

Enlighten Designs describes itself as “a human-centred design and technical agency” and has partnered with leading tech companies like Microsoft – the company was named Microsoft’s NZ Partner of the Year in 2020 – and Sitecore.

A recent project with Sustainable Coastlines created an easy-to-use app that gave community groups not only instant access to the data they had collected but provided an educational resource and allowed people to find stories in the data that could then be used to inform government policymaking. 

Another project, with Port Otago, saw the Enlighten Designs team create a visual forecasting tool that showed how busy the port is at any time – past, present or future – using visual data story-telling. 

Further its global partnership with Microsoft’s data journalism program has been recognised for bringing cutting-edge New Zealand innovation to the world stage.

I reached out to Damon to find out more.

Damon, you founded Enlighten Designs in a caravan in your backyard in 1998 – so much has changed in tech since then – what’s been the secret to your longevity?

The secret to our longevity really comes down to our passion. For over twenty years, every employee at Enlighten Designs has been driven by our mission to create technology that has a positive impact on the world. During this time, our team never underestimated the value of learning. We understood that technology accelerates and disrupts itself faster than any other industry, so we learnt to enjoy adapting to the fast pace of change. Over time, our eagerness to learn and evolve is what enabled us to stay relevant and essentially thrive in the industry.

Were you always interested in tech growing up?

My initial interest in tech came from my love of gaming – but back then, I never considered a future in the tech industry. I had just completed a double major in psychology and cognitive science and was set on returning to university to study clinical psychology. That all changed in 1998 when I offered to redo a company’s website. The owner liked what I did, I ended up doing a couple more and eventually Enlighten Designs was developed and grew. 

Is it true that you essentially taught yourself code in those early days? 

Yes! When I was at university, I did some programming papers and taught myself how to do HTML and CSS coding, as well as graphics. This was a pivotal point in my personal development which set me up for an exciting career in technology. 

What separates Enlighten Designs from other software companies?

At Enlighten Designs, we bring together like-minded people who want to make a difference in the world. This positive mentality separates us from other software companies because it makes Enlighten first and foremost, a service company. As a business focused on creating positive impacts, we believe that it’s important to not be purely motivated by profit and revenue.

What makes us even more unique is that our team has an entrepreneurial spirit – this helps to drive our people-focused approach to business and enables us to create cutting-edge technology. This is fuelled by our workplace culture, encouraging our team to dream big and bring their own visions into the business. 

How did the pandemic impact your business?

We saw from the pandemic that a lot of our clients especially in New Zealand became uncertain and stopped projects. Rather than do the same, we saw the pandemic as an opportunity and maintained a positive mindset by choosing not to opt for a risk-aversive approach. Instead of reducing staff, we doubled down and redeployed our people to focus on international expansion. Luckily, we were already set up for remote working seamlessly and could continue operating as a business. With the world moving into lockdown, that also somewhat levelled the playing field as meeting in person or even being in the same country were no longer important factors. We’re seeing the benefits of this now, with our international presence and overall success increasing significantly over the last 18 months.

What’s the ratio of international to local clients today?

For the very first time, our overseas services have outstripped our domestic. The USA is now our largest market, and this has led to some exciting opportunities for growth and development. We’ve witnessed the pandemic transform the way people do business today, by redefining the traditional way that relationships are formed globally. Fortunately for Enlighten, it paved the way for us to strengthen our presence overseas. Moving forward, we’re excited to continue forming new business partnerships both locally and on a global scale. 

I suspect the mobile-app development arm of Enlighten Designs is a busy one?

Developing mobile apps is now a very busy part of our workstream, which is great! These development projects are always exciting because we love helping organisations to digitally transform and enhance the way they do business. One recent project we completed was with a major building supplier, where we replaced its website portal with a purpose-built app. Using advanced Microsoft technology, we built an app that was both scalable and efficient. The result was a cutting-edge app, which included mobile features for seamless user experience and functionality for placing orders. 

Enlighten Designs Company Photo 2021

Many in the sector are finding recruiting talent difficult – what’s your experience been?

In the last 18 months, I’ve witnessed how the tech labour shortage and growing demand for digital transformation has created a hot market for technical talent. Although our experience with recruiting new staff has been more difficult than usual, I’ve noticed that we’ve had an advantage and it all really comes down to culture. We’ve found that having an awesome, flexible, and healthy work culture has definitely proven to be a huge benefit when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. 

What recent projects are you most proud of?

Microsoft and the Knight Center for Journalism recently launched a competition for one Latin American newsroom to receive training and funds towards their data journalism project. During this project, we helped the winner, a reporter from news site Animal Político, present and process findings from her data journalism project on women who went missing in Mexico over the last decade – a figure that exceeded 14,000. I’m proud of this project because we got to work with people who have the shared goal of using data and technology to make a positive difference in the world. 

This year, Enlighten Designs and Microsoft also partnered with Auckland Airport for a hackathon, an initiative which encouraged employees to create their own apps. I’m also pleased with this project because driving innovation and empowerment has always been a passion of mine. 

Enlighten Designs is a founding co-collaborator of Microsoft’s Data Journalism program – what has that involved?

Microsoft invited us to work with them to help them create a data journalism programme. This was an exciting opportunity because we got to work alongside Microsoft News and their publishers, to transform the world of data storytelling. It was initially our team’s creativity that utilised Power BI and created unique and engaging visuals that got us to that position. We’ve been working on that for five years now and have been developing new tools to support the media industry, such as IDA, Scanner Scanner and CMS plugins, to make data journalism quick, easy and effective. 

Can Big Tech be a force for good?

As we saw in Australia earlier this year, there’s potential for “big tech” to try and use their weight to control information flow. However, there is just as much potential for large tech companies like Microsoft to step in and support policies that benefit the community. We saw this with the role Microsoft played in supporting the Australian Government’s proposal on technology, which looked to force payment negotiations with news organisations.

“The role of free press” has never been more important, with traditional news sources such as newspapers losing revenue and more attention to citizen-journalists on social media platforms. News producers rely on technology both to identify and reach their audience, and to collect and provide revenue for their content. This means that tech firms have “an opportunity and responsibility to help journalism flourish” as expressed by Brad Smith, President and Chair of Microsoft. 

What does VR and AI technologies offer businesses?

AI services such as those available via Microsoft Azure, allow businesses to access powerful tools that can transform the way they operate. In the media industry for instance, AI tools can translate text to speech, create natural-sounding synthetic voice, auto translate content into over 100 languages and auto-tag images for later use. This means that the speed to publishing is greatly reduced, and the potential reach of each story is expanded – literally – to the world.

This is really exciting for us because one of the tools Enlighten has been working on is a plugin for website owners, which can operate with any CMS system and is super easy to install. This AI Plugin allows bloggers and writers to enable auto translation of their material and can also allow their readers to receive an audio version of the story as well.

Technology like VR/AR Remote Assist is revolutionary as it’s solving lockdown-imposed restrictions to collaboration by enabling incredibly intricate information sharing. A great example of this we saw recently, was with Imperial College Healthcare NHS doctors who are using Dynamics 365 Remote Assist on HoloLens to collaborate on urgent medical issues in real time with colleagues and experts around the world.

NZ has created many respected tech companies and regularly punches above its weight – what do you put that down to?

New Zealand is a small country, but Kiwis have a hard-working, driven mentality, which is great when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship. When you look at things from a natural selection perspective, innovation happens at the edges. In New Zealand we are largely on the edge of the work so that tends to ensure we are highly innovative and make things happen like New Zealand’s history with number 8 wire. We’re also really nimble, and can adapt quickly when some of the larger overseas organisations may need a series of approvals in order to chase a new opportunity or investigate a new solution.

Is it still a start-up vibe there, or are things more considered now?

We’ve been told by people that come into the office that Enlighten Designs feels like a start-up. I think this really comes down to our culture – we have a welcoming team, an entrepreneurial vibe and are always keen to get things done. But when it comes to business, we’re matured over the years. Enlighten Designs was founded over twenty years ago, which means that we bring a lot of experience, growth and maturity to the table. This is reflected in our systems, processes, and quality of work, which have been refined over the years. 

What’s the biggest challenge, in your view, facing local tech companies at present?

Like many other industries, tech is facing a big war on talent – digital is booming and there’s a high demand for developers. Now more than ever, local tech companies are finding it more difficult to hire and attract staff which is preventing companies from advancing their digital transformations and growth. This potentially poses a big problem because it puts New Zealand in a position where businesses are at risk of having a slump in innovation or digital transformation. 

Finally – you wanted to start a company that valued creativity, learning and connecting with customers – two decades on – what sort of score do you give yourself on this front?

10 out of 10. At Enlighten Designs, our values aren’t just theory, they’re practice. Every day, our team lives and breathes them. Creativity, learning and connecting, all play a huge role in shaping both our workplace culture and the culture we have with our customers. This is also reflected in our pay reviews, which reward our team for not only how good they are at their job, but also by how well they embody those values. 

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