Harris Kalinka

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Sunday 23rd November 2014

How NOT to start a visualisation company*

Are you considering starting an architectural visualisation company in two countries at the same time, while you’re at university, with no previous experience in running a business? And then expanding into an industry that you only really know from TV? If you are, then the story of how we set up Harris Kalinka might provide you with some useful insights. If not, you’ll at least know a bit more about how and why we got where we are today.

(*The title of this post could equally have been ‘how to start a visualisation company’.  After all, the story does have a pretty good ending. But the way in which we started it was anything but conventional, and would probably go against the advice of any experienced business adviser.)

University (Part 1) and 3ds Max

I met Juris at Oxford Brookes University in 1998. We were both studying for our BA in Architecture. I’d moved to Oxford from Brighton and Juris had moved slightly further, from Riga in Latvia. To encourage creativity, we weren’t allowed to use computers in the first year, but I took it upon myself to learn AutoCAD anyway. That Christmas I bought the AutoCAD Bible (it was literally as thick as a St James Bible) and I taught myself everything in it from cover to cover. Back then we were using AutoCAD v13. I soon graduated to using 3ds Max v3, but would often get stuck when trying to do something new. It was well known that Juris was the go-to guy at university when it came to anything computer related, in particular anything related to 3ds Max. So I’d regularly ask for his help when I had a technical problem, which in those days was often. Through our undergraduate degree we both continued learning AutoCAD, 3ds Max, Photoshop and various other software. By coincidence we always seemed to end up in the same unit too. Our friendship grew, as did our determination to create a 3d model for every project we worked on – to the annoyance of some of our tutors.

Architectural practice and University (Part 2)

When we finished our BA degrees, Juris and I both ended up working at Popularchitecture (now Teatum+Teatum), an architectural practice in West London. It was run by our second-year tutor, Tom Teatum. This was an eye-opener for us and we were thrown in at the deep end. We ran our own projects, doing everything from the design concepts through to overseeing construction on site. This didn’t stop us from jumping at any chance to get involved in a project or competition that required 3d though. After our year out we moved on to Westminster University to study for our Dip(Arch), under the guidance of unit leaders FAT, led by Sean Griffiths. Once again our work was driven by computers, and we worked to push the boundaries with each project. We wrote our dissertations on related themes: I considered architecture in computer games, while Juris looked at the architecture of virtual words. When we didn’t have enough power to render our animations at home we would use the university system to link 80 computers and create our very own render farm. (No, we weren’t always popular with other students who came in to university on a number of occasions to find every computer rendering our work.)

A man brave enough to pay us for our visualisations

During our time at Westminster I was working on and off for Turner Associates, an architectural practice in Brighton. In March 2003 they were contracted to design a new residential development and the client wanted some 3d images to sell it. I was charged with finding a company to create the images. Seeing the quotes coming in, I told Jon Turner that Juris and I could do just as good a job, but for less. (This is where I have to say a big thank you to Jon for trusting us with the project.) That was the first of four projects we completed for Turner Associates that year, and it funded our last year at university. The seed was sown and we started to think seriously about creating a company to provide images and animation for the architectural industry. It would combine our love of architecture with our fascination with computers. It was the way we could have the best of both worlds.

turner-associates-photomontagePhotomontage created for Turner Associates in 2004 showing the Arundel Road Development in Kemp Town, Brighton

Making Harris Kalinka happen

We spent the last year of university writing a business plan, doing research into our competitors, honing our skills, and taking on the odd project in between working on our final-year projects. In 2005 we created the company that would later become Harris Kalinka. I set up an office in London and Juris set up an office in Riga. His plan had always been to go back, and we knew Riga had the people with the skills we needed. We had enough work to start employing people and the company started to grow organically. Janis was the first addition to the team, and the first person we’d ever interviewed. He’s still a key member of our team today. We reinvested any money we had into building our own render farm. When we set up in 2007 we had 28 cores with 94 Ghz of computing power. It doesn’t sound like much today (in 2014 we have 196 cores with 835 Ghz), but it was enough for us to take on our own projects without having to outsource the rendering. And all the time we had, we invested into researching and developing new work flows and generally improving the quality of our work. It was by no means an easy way to do it; we had to learn how to run every aspect of a business, from accountancy to marketing to creating a company culture that would last. We decided at the beginning that crucial to this was giving our team plenty of opportunities to develop their technical skills and techniques, and also to lead by example. We wouldn’t ask our team to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves. If a deadline demands an all-nighter, we’re all there working on it together. We’re very proud to say that we still have 3 of the 4 team members who started with us in 2007. We’re also thankful to the companies that took a chance on us when we were starting out. We’re still working with a number of them today. It’s difficult to gauge success, but we’re still here, 8 years later. I believe it has everything to do with the fact that we love what we do.

A chance golfing encounter

In 2008, on a flight to Rio via Toronto I got chatting to the chap sitting next to me. The conversation naturally turned to what each of us did for a living. After explaining what I do, he revealed that he was studying to be a golf course architect in Ireland. We continued questioning each other about our respective industries and he asked if we’d ever animated a golf course. The answer was no, we hadn’t, and it wasn’t something I’d ever considered. But the thought of it intrigued me. So much so that, to the annoyance of my wife-to-be, I spent much of my holiday in Brazil finding out everything I could about the golf industry and the companies that were creating golf course animations.

Teeing off

When I arrived back in the UK, I announced to Juris and the rest of the team that we needed to animate a golf course. Luckily they all like a challenge! The team was enthusiastic as they all enjoy spending time in the countryside and liked the thought of creating beautiful landscapes. We’d need to put in some groundwork, but we felt we could do it. I already had a good knowledge of the game of golf, having watched it on TV since I was a child. I had played a bit when I was younger and this seemed like a great excuse to pick it up again. Besides working on my putting, I also started doing a lot of reading, in particular about golf course architecture, working my way through books by the likes of Alistair MacKenzie, Tom Doak and Michael Hurdzan. Juris and his wife signed up for a crash course at their local golf club in Riga, one of three courses in Latvia, and got their green cards. When I was over in Riga we would take our team out for corporate golf days, spending time on the course so they could learn about the game first hand. Our existing animation experience made the transition into golf courses relatively smooth, but we had to adjust our workflow and learn some new techniques for creating 3d models with so much grass and so many trees. Then there were the subtleties we had to learn to appreciate, like the intricacies of the various bunker styles and how important grass types are. We also had to upgrade our computer systems to give us the power we needed to model each leaf and blade of grass on the course. For us, being able to do this was important: if we were going to embark on a new venture, we wanted our work to be the best it could be.

A par 3 opportunity

A couple of months after I made my announcement and had emailed every golf architect in Europe, Ken Moodie of Creative Golf Design came back to me and gave us the chance to create an animation for a par 3 hole at Weybrook Park Golf Club in Surrey, England. That was in 2009, and since then we’ve created animations for golf courses around the world for some of the most esteemed golf course architects. So far we’ve all been on a pretty steep learning curve, but we’ve got no regrets about what resulted from my pre-Christmas flight to Rio. Besides very slowly improving my golf handicap, we can now create animations of golf courses that rival those we create of buildings – and the quality of the animations we can create when we combine the two in the same animation has helped us make a name for ourselves. My only regret is I don’t know the name of the chap who sat next to me on the plane. We exchanged business cards, but unfortunately I lost his. I imagine he is now a fully-fledged golf course architect. So, if you’re reading this, I’d like to say thank you for giving me an insight into an industry that I previously knew very little about. You inspired me to start creating golf course animations and through that we’ve had the opportunity to work with some great golf architects. I’d love to work with you on your next project, or at the very least buy you a drink.

visualisation-of-hole-14-fairway-at-weybrook-park-golf-clubVisualiation created for Creative Golf Design in 2009 showing hole 14 at Weybrook Park Golf Club

So, what would I advise you NOT to do?

Setting up Harris Kalinka could’ve been simpler if we’d gained experience by working at an established visualisation company, used an external render farm to start with, and done some short courses in business. Also, setting up in one country would’ve made the tax and finance issues a whole lot less stressful. So, would I advise anyone else to start an animation company in the same way we did? That depends on how much you love what you do and how happy you are to take risks. Yes, it does sound cheesy, but passion really can carry you a long way. And if you find a person who shares your drive and your enthusiasm for what you do, then I’d go for it. Just be prepared to work really, really hard. I’d do it all again, the same way, without question.