Artistic Licence is well known in the entertainment industry for the products the company has designed and created. The company's product range encompasses DMX512-A, RDM, Ethernet, MIDI, and the company's own communication system, Art-Net. From test equipment to data distribution to motion control to LEDs, Artistic Licence evolved due to the problem-solving skills of its founder and managing director, Wayne Howell. However, the company is not just about creating new products, it also has its hand in using those products to develop custom projects through its Special Projects department.
The Middlesex, UK-based company came to fruition in 1988 when Howell, a product designer for Avolites, decided to leave the company and form his own firm. In the early years, it was just Howell working as a freelancer designing control systems for concert tours, museums, and corporate events. Gradually, it evolved into a products company because a few customers kept asking for the same thing time and time again, mainly touchscreen control systems. Howell was happy to oblige.
As successful as the products company was, Howell says that over the last year Artistic Licence has been doing products and projects almost equally. “The 50/50 split between products and projects works quite nice because they do feed off of each other,” he says. “Projects spawn new product ideas, whereas new products get us project work. A customer sees something close to what they're trying to do, and they end up asking us to create a project for them. The trouble with being a projects-only company is it's a small cash flow; you only get paid when you get the projects, so it works to have both sides of it running as it really works hand in hand, I've found.”
Currently Artistic Licence has eight full-time employees, many of whom have been with the company since the early days. Howell adds that he also has a regular stable of freelance designers “because we do such a wide range of different work,” he says. “It doesn't make sense to have every specialist we could possibly need on staff full time.”
As the company grew from just Howell in his workshop to his current staff of full-timers and freelancers, he credits two things for the expansion: keep the customers happy and don't borrow money from banks. “There's a lot to be said for it,” he says, referring to the latter. “If you grow a business out of its profits, a lot of people consider that constraining. You don't make the classic mistake to simply expand past your ability to finance your expansion, which is why a lot of businesses die of in their second or third or fourth year.”
Howell happily advises others to do the same thing, adding that it's “not perfectly correct, but it is my view.” However, Howell admits he was in a different position than many entrepreneurs. While he was still at Avolites, he designed a product in his free time. Once it was designed he sold the rights to Avolites and that fee set Howell on his way to starting Artistic Licence. That product was the Q-patch, a system that took analogue outputs and translated them into DMX512 at a time when DMX512 was just beginning to take hold in the entertainment industry. The Q-patch allowed users to patch and merge the data.
Like any good entrepreneur, Howell believes in keeping his employees happy and to do so he makes sure that everyone has input into what the Artistic Licence is working on at any given moment, within reason. He describes his management style as being “somewhere between a democracy and a benign dictatorship,” he says laughingly. He adds that since the company is evenly split between developing products and projects, that the variety of the work keeps his employees happy because it's not the same old, same old.
Artistic Licence's success, especially in the last few years, can be directly attributed to the development of new technology as well as the buzzword of the year, convergence. “From our point of view, Ethernet and LED technology have evolved in tandem and one depends on the other,” Howell says. “From Artistic Licence's point of view, the Ethernet technology has been very important in terms of spawning a new generation of products and getting involved in exciting new projects. It also feeds through to the LED side as well. We got involved in convergence before the phrase was coined and that's been our focus for several years.”
As far as Howell is concerned, convergence is fundamentally a good thing, but he adds that it is difficult to call. “It's probably fair to say that some of the vidiots are little bent out of shape because the LDs are stamping around on their domain,” he says. “Lighting and video designers have different views and both are valid. [Convergence] is good for the art and design point of view. It's certainly good from a product design point of view because it forces you to think outside of the tunnel you become used to if all your products in the past are all lighting. It forces you to take a wider view when you're designing products.” He adds that the whole convergence issue has been “overhyped just a bit at the moment.”
For the future, Howell says Artistic Licence will continue to push down the line with both LED and Ethernet technologies. “On the Ethernet side we got involved with the public domain drive. Fifty or so companies are using Art-Net, which has generated a market for our products and we want to continue to develop and evolve those items,” he says, adding that he is frustrated by certain manufacturers who are doing their own thing regarding proprietary products. “DMX proved that cross-manufacturing is good for the market. We're proving the same thing for the next generation of higher bandwidth control.”
Referring to the LED side of the latest technology trends, Howell assures ED readers that Artistic Licence is only a couple months away from launching a new “convergence product,” and adds that the designers who have seen the prototype have been very impressed. “We see a bright future, forgive the pun,” he adds.