John Atkins found it hard to pay attention in university. While his classmates pored over their anatomy and neurology texts, Atkins sketched designs in his notebook. The young native of Newfoundland was in school to follow in the steps of his parents, a paramedic and a medical-records specialist. They told him the field of medicine would lead to a good job, a good pension, and a good life. But in 1991, during his second year as an undergraduate, Atkins came across something that would change his life forever: a computer.
Atkins remembers the hum as the machine whirred to life. “I turned it on and went online,” he says. “The first thing I downloaded was a basic program called WinZip. The blue bar started going across the screen, and I fell in love.” Atkins was hooked, and he soon discovered a program called Photopaint. That simple program, combined with his knack for drawing, ignited his interest in computer-based design. Atkins had given up his passion for art to become a neurologist, but suddenly he was giving up time in the classroom to perfect his digital techniques, and the diversion would eventually lead to forming his own company, John Atkins & Co. (JAC).
Atkins wanted to follow his true passion, but to do so, he had to give up on a promising career and break with family tradition. It was a growing network that helped Atkins overcome the early obstacles. He found others who shared his passion and started building and selling more than 100 computers per year. He discovered web design and IRC chatting, met colleagues online, and became even more inspired to share his creativity with the fledgling online world.
The Road Ahead
What’s around the bend for John Atkins & Co.
• Developing its own ideas through online apps and custom app development.
• Atkins and his colleagues do two branding sectors particularly well: travel and automobiles. So JAC plans to pursue opportunities in the tourism industry.
• The firm will continue to look for passionate and talented people. While the company wants to remain small, it’s always on the lookout for good workers.
But what Atkins really wanted was a career, so he picked up a local newspaper and found an ad: “Wanted: Internet guru.” It was for a web-design company, and Atkins got the job, arranged a year-long hiatus from university, and dove right into the work. “I latched onto my colleagues’ heads and sucked all the info out so [that] I could get to the next level,” he says. “My entire story is about pushing to get to the next level.”
One year away from university turned into two, and two turned into three. Atkins spent five years perfecting his new craft and moving up the ranks, eventually reaching the international stage for an aggressive resort company as its director of marketing. He helped the company transition away from traditional ads and toward electronic and online marketing, but the down economy eventually claimed the business, and Atkins found himself back at square one.
He was 35 years old, had just lost his $100,000 salary, and had a wife, young children, and a new home that needed his support. So, never one to shy away from adversity, Atkins decided to forge onward, forming his own company. “I had a severance package that gave me the freedom to take a big risk,” he says. “I had the most fun of my life when I was 17 years old and started my own company. I felt like it was time to try that adventure again.”
Atkins didn’t wait one day or even one week. He immediately sent out an e-blast to friends and colleagues announcing the birth of a new company. A musician responded, and JAC had its first client. After that, the contracts kept rolling in. Against all odds, Atkins managed to earn $200,000 in his very first year. He hired a former colleague and expanded. Then he expanded again. Each year, JAC has grown in terms of total contract values, and today, in its fifth year, the company has 13 employees and combines marketing work with web design, helping companies market their brand to their demographic instead of merely building one-off web portals. “I think we should really focus on what we are best at instead of trying to do everything,” Atkins says.
He’s still one credit shy of completing his honours degree in behavioural neuroscience, but what Atkins lacks in formal education, he has more than made up for in real-world achievement.
His firm now boasts a Rolodex of 200 clients and 29 international awards, and he was named one of Atlantic Business’s Top 50 CEOs in 2013. But despite the success, he plans to keep JAC relatively small. “We like to have fun,” he says. “We play video games or go to movies. It’s a good culture. Small is the new big.”