Startup Stories

“I didn’t even get a cape or anything,” – James Hall of Parallax talks being a local tech hero

Northern Tech 100, Leeds, Adtech & Marketing

Jennifer O'BrienJennifer O'Brien, June 6, 2018

Director James Hall tells us about Parallax’s journey — from four friends drinking afternoon beers to a burgeoning digital media agency working with adidas and the NHS.

This year they’re placed at number 77 on the Northern Tech 100 League Table, but they started out as four friends working out of their bedrooms in York back in 2009. Parallax is now firmly established as a major player in the thriving Leeds tech scene and has worked with clients as prestigious and diverse as British Airways, Nespresso, Hisense, American Express, Dyson, and The Sunday Times.

As well as being one of the most trusted digital agencies in the north for design, development, online marketing and PR, Parallax gives back to the Leeds community through its work with local charities such as homeless shelter St George’s Crypt.

In the beginning, there was beer

“I don’t suppose there was really any grand vision. It was just: this could be cool. We didn’t really know if it was going to work or not.”

James Hall sits under a skylight in a 150-year-old building — originally a brewing and bottling warehouse — a stone’s throw from the River Aire in Leeds and home to his digital media company, Parallax.

There is a hushed air of focus around their airy office, which James puts down to the Parallax team being “quite devvy”. But it wasn’t always like this.

“In the beginning it was us four playing really loud music and trying to shout over each other, but now it’s quite quiet and relaxing,” he says.

“We’ve still got a bit of that culture; we’ve got a beer vending machine. We used to have beer on tap but we don’t drink as much as we used to, which is a good thing I guess. We sometimes play video games on an afternoon.”

Parallax originally consisted of James and Lawrence Dudley handling “the techie side of things”, while Andy Fitch and Dario Grandich specialised in development and design, respectively.

“We had a good mix of different kinds of development skills, design, and being able to go out and sell it, and we thought: there’s enough difference in all of us to go and make a well-rounded company from this,” says James.

Brewing up success

The four friends quickly discovered that their particular blend of talents would set them apart from other digital agencies.

“We started off doing some quite technical projects involving LED billboards, which is why we’ve got that techie streak throughout the agency,” he says. “Quite early on we managed to bag British Airways as a client.

We started doing all their business lounge stuff and off the back of that we got Eurostar.

“We’re half development, half traditional marketing agency, and we’ve had an Internet Of Things streak running through us. We’ll often find that other agencies nearby pick up a lot of web jobs but when they’ve got something more involved to do, they’ll come to us.”

The company’s capability to produce software for connected devices along with core online marketing assets put them in contention to win flagship projects for global brands.

When adidas needed interactive displays for their Kate Moss Originals campaign in 2016 they turned to Parallax, whose track record of successful public engagement has led them onto pioneering projects with city councils and the NHS.

Using tech for good

“We’ve taken on two large NHS projects, one of which is coming to an end and has been really successful,” says James. “We’ve built them a minimum viable product to improve the way they spend their money on management training.

“We’ve moved onto doing street lighting. We’re trying to save councils money on their electricity bills by putting radios in the streetlights themselves so that they can control them over time. It’s a really cool project.

“I know air pollution is a big thing – there was a report this morning about how pollution in Yorkshire affected childhood asthma and there’s a direct link there. It’ll be interesting to see how tech can help with that problem and what councils are looking to do with it.”
James received personal recognition for his work when he was named as an Amazon Community Hero — one of only 13 expert developers in Europe and the Middle East to be given the title for their outstanding knowledge of Amazon Web Services (AWS).

“I didn’t even get a cape or anything,” says James. “We’re pioneers of their tech in this part of the world and off the back of that people go to Amazon and say: ‘Do you know anyone?’ And they’ll point to us.

“We’ve been running an AWS meetup, originally at our offices but we’ve outgrown it in the last couple of years. It is getting to the size of about 80 or 90 people so we’re thinking about moving it.”

You get the feeling Parallax may need to move its team to larger premises in the coming years as the company continues to flourish, but James has no plans to uproot from a Northern tech scene he believes is thriving.

“We have a satellite office in London,” he says. “We’ll often go down and meet clients in London but they’re keen to meet with agencies up North because the cost of living in London is so great, developers are expensive, so London companies are moving their resource to Leeds and Manchester.

“Leeds and Manchester is where it’s at, I think.”