A hint of Royal scandal, a brush with some of the biggest bands of the 80s and a career stretching from art to the internet. Karen Dent speaks to ZebraHosts’ Nick Collins about his design for life.
FROM printing T-shirts on a barge in London to setting up Newcastle’s first web design company and data centre may seem like a giant leap, but Nick Collins reckons his artistic background is perfectly compatible with the technical track his life has taken.
“In 1995 when it was the early days of the web, I was doing mock up web pages with magic markers,” he says.
“We were going into Typhoo Tea with magic markers and drawing it all out, so I used that skill that I had. Yes, it’s all changed, people mock up in Photoshop and supply a j-peg to the customers, but I still do that type of work.”
Zebra Web Design was the first web design business in Newcastle and runs alongside ZebraHosts, which Collins set up to host web servers for businesses in North East. The two firms employ 10 people between them.
“We would see these people going along to the station with a trolley and a big server, and what they were doing was taking the server down to London. Isn’t that ridiculous? We thought we could offer something to these people, and so we became the very first data centre in the North East,” he said.
The fact the business is not based in the capital is now a major point in its favour, as more organisations look away from London for both financial and security reasons.
“People are getting worried about having their servers in London so they are moving them out of the South and into the North East of England and other parts of the country because they are worried about terrorism,” he says.
“It is a developing area – disaster recovery: it’s on everybody’s lips because everyone is worried about it.”
Collins made that same move away from the capital around 20 years ago when he returned to the coastal resort where he grew up.
“We lived in a house in Saltburn called Teddy’s Nook, which also has quite a bit of history to it,” said Collins. “Saltburn has a bank which leads to the beach and the house sits on the bank.
“The house in that period was called The Cottage, and Prince Edward went there with Lillie Langtry, and after they went there, they renamed it Teddy’s Nook.
“That was the family home until my father died and my mother sold it and moved out of Saltburn into North Yorkshire.” His mother is the redoubtable Audrey Collins MBE, who served as Mayor of Saltburn (“My father was the Mayoress,” smiles Collins) and chair of the South Tees Health Authority. Now in her 80s, Middlesbrough’s James Cook University Hospital has named a teaching unit in her honour.
Despite having such as strong character for a mother, Collins was determined to plough his own furrow and he followed his passion for art to Cleveland College of Art, where at the age of 20, he discovered he was dyslexic.
“Loads of artists have dyslexia – they can’t explain themselves with words, so they explain themselves on paper or in design. You will speak to many artists who are,” he said.
“There are so many people that are dyslexic and basically they can’t write, they can probably read – I read exceptionally quickly. But when it comes to sitting with the kids and reading a book, I just hate doing it because it’s reading aloud. If it’s sitting here reading in my head, it’s fine.
“That’s why my favourite books are Asterix the Gaul – it’s because I like drawing and I like visual things.”
Following a Masters in fashion and textiles at London’s famous Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design, Collins put his skills to use working on a barge in Islington, printing T-shirts for pop concerts by bands like The Police and Duran Duran for the princely sum of £25 a week.
He moved into designing babywear and kitchenware, and also ran a fabric print studio in London.
“I designed kitchen gloves, aprons, and tea cosies, and I did ranges for Harrods, and all kinds of crazy things, even naughty PVC aprons. But hey, it was a job!”
Collins also got a taste for the world of sales when he spent a few months selling advertising for The Independent newspaper, which was then in its infancy. He used that skill to set up his own agency selling work on behalf of artists and designers when he returned to the North East on the death of his father.
“I have no problem trying to sell something to somebody, picking up the phone and saying: “Hi, this is Nick Collins.” If you get kicked back, you get kicked back, you pick yourself up again.
“Most artists, they like to paint but they don’t like to sell, they don’t like to push themselves forwards. So I was basically the person who would go out and sell their artwork.
“I travelled globally, from the US into Asia, just selling artwork because people wanted English artwork. I could walk out with around 500 designs on a trip and come back with three-quarters of them sold. Suddenly, I went away on one trip and I sold 10 things – and I said: ‘Forget it, I’m not doing it ever again.’”
Collins saw the potential of the internet as a place to sell art and set up Artwork Online, a resource he now uses to showcase his own work. He then moved into web design with his wife, Annabel Cornish, whom he met at a party in Newcastle. They have been married for 13 years and now live in Gosforth with their three children aged six, eight and 10.
He said: “I think we are very much Newcastle people. Everyone says the North East is a nice, small community. That’s maybe more so because we have lived in Jesmond and we have lived in Gosforth.”
Would he go back to London?
“Oh God no! I’ve done the London thing. Our business is here, our children go to school here, our friends are here.”
The children are very important to Collins. He spends much of his free time ferrying one daughter to swimming club – “She’s 10 and she wants to go for the Olympics, she’s obsessed!” – taking his other daughter to Brownies or watching his son playing rugby.
“The other thing we do as a family is to go camping. We have a nice Cath Kitson floral tent and we go off cycling with the children – I think when you get kids, you look for things that will entertain the kids.”
He is proud to adopt a philosophy of thinking about other people in his business life and ZebraHosts also offers reduced rates to charitable organisations.
“It’s like we try to put something back – my wife is doing mentoring for new businesses,” Collins said. “And by offering charities services that they would pay commercial rates for, we’re trying to help people.”
That outlook is encapsulated in BNI Eldon, a networking group he has joined in Newcastle. The US concept promotes the mantra “give is gain”.
“If you give, you will gain back and that is what we are all about. We give out to gain back – it might be giving someone some good advice and they might go away and do it, and at least they’ll remember where they got this good advice. Then they might need someone who can do some web hosting – so the ‘give is gain’ will go around.
“It’s a networking thing. People do it naturally without thinking about it. We’re not the classic corporates, we’re an SME working in the community trying to help the community.”
However, his business sense has not crushed his artistic sensibilities and he still retains ambitions in that direction.
“My wife complains because a canvas will only take me a night to do because I have a commercial background and I used to churn out 20 to 40 designs a day,” he said. “If I was doing fashion fabrics, they were normally 3in by 3in, if they were wallpapers, or furnishing, they would be 3ft by 3ft.
“But my burning ambition is to paint a huge canvas, a massive one, something like the size of a wall. It’s my ambition to paint big.”