Rewind the clock a bit to 1997. Netscape just announced that their browser will be given away for free. Microsoft buys Hotmail. Macromedia introduced Dreamweaver. Google hadn’t bought any office space yet.
And over in Somerville, MA, Lise and Chris filed the paperwork to start a company called MuseArts.
Yes, today just happens to be the 20th anniversary of our web and digital design company, MuseArts. We’ve helped design and launch hundreds of web projects in that period of time.
Lise and I met at the Computer Museum in Boston in the exhibits department. When the museum moved to California, we were left with decisions to make about how to earn a living.
Designing properties for the internet fit both of our skill sets, and we did think of it as “property” back then. It might be expensive for a museum to add a new gallery space, but it would be easy to add an infinite number of galleries if the museum had a web site. Physical size and location of an entity no longer mattered the way it did before.
We spent a fair amount of time trying to find a name for the company, and narrowing down the list. Ultimately, a check of the internet to make sure no one else had claimed it led us to christen ourselves MuseArts. Muse, for museums and muses, and Arts for creativity and design.
We originally thought that museums, exhibits, and education would be our market, but these sectors were slow to adapt to the internet. By necessity, we started designing web sites, logos, databases, and e-commerce packages for businesses instead. Some of those first clients sold books, some sold real estate. Other early projects were more about entertaining and amusing – animation for interactive music videos, a children’s radio program, or a band page.
We worked out of the apartment. At the very beginning we didn’t even have desks, just our computers on coffee tables and crates. (One of our first and best investments were high-quality chairs. The thought was that if we were going to be in them forever, they should be good. Wise.)
In addition to working for others to build them what they want, we wanted MuseArts to build up a library of our own work. We used any lulls or downtime to experiment and play, and to design our own web sites and experiences.
The first of these was something called Castle Arcana. Here we explored the idea of space and property by building a gothic mansion for visitors to explore. With over 150 hand-drawn, Gorey-esque rooms to explore, we were able to test out technologies (image maps! rollovers! animated GIFs!).
The images filled screens at 432 x 288 at 72dpi – making them huge, modem-crushing files of about 37k, which is now smaller than most modern email messages.
Over the years, we’ve happily taken on all sorts of challenges. We’ve done interactive 3-D animation for a major Florida theme park, educational interactives for a major publishing house, custom database designs, shopping carts and e-commerce, blogs, digital advertising, logos, animated holiday cards for an O-ring manufacturer, and more.
Some of our clients are Fortune 500. We work with colleges, non-profits, restaurants, retail outlets, real estate agents, authors, and so on. We’ve worked with video producers to create animated titles and segments for productions.
And we kept up our goal of doing projects for ourselves. MuseArts won awards for our Guinea Pig Theater cartoons in 2000. We started an indie music site called indiedisco.com in 2001. And in 2003, we decided to try an experiment to see if local news could come from the bottom up, rather than the top down by creating iBrattleboro.com.
When we created iBrattleboro, there was no Facebook. No YouTube, Flickr, Yelp, or Gmail. No Twitter. No Firefox, Spotify, or Goodreads. Less than 60% of the U.S. was connected to the internet, and around here, most people used dial-up modems. The iPhone was years away.
We were first in town to put images and videos on a local news site. We did a fair amount of speaking and presentation about the idea of citizen-news to media conferences around that time, and watched as the gatekeepers started “allowing” readers to contribute.
iBrattleboro keeps us busy every day of the year, and is how many people know us, but we continue to be MuseArts first and foremost. Our current class of clients includes real estate agents, a hospital, a variety of online and brick & mortar retailers selling everything from food to yarn to pet toys, non-profits, a college, a church, and others.
We’re also proceeding with more work for ourselves. Most recently, we launched The Brattleboro Shop this year with an amazing collection of Brattleboro souvenirs, goodies, and gift items. We have more animation in the works, a few book projects, and some thoughts about a possible think tank of sorts.
20 years seems like a long time ago, but the work we do is very similar. Our tools have improved, computers and connections have gotten faster, and Lise and I each have two decades of experience we didn’t have when we started.
There are times we wonder if we are in the right business. It bothers us that the internet has become a place that enforces conformity, and that the government and large corporations track our every move. We still think we could all do better.
It was a bit scary to start off on our own. We didn’t know where it would lead, or if we’d be successful. We watched as well-funded internet start-ups played ping pong in their offices (and then as they went out of business). We did have a hunch that if we did our best and stayed focused, we’d go somewhere.
It hasn’t made us rich, but it keeps us quite happy. It’s always refreshing to start a new project with someone, learn about their business or organization, and find ways to use what we know to help them. We’ve met a lot of interesting people of all ages and backgrounds and have learned about a wide range of topics.
We’ve also enjoyed become the long-term web team for some organizations. Sticking with a project for years allows us to become intimately familiar with products or programs, and we can offer advice or services based on that knowledge and experience.
It’s also been fun to evolve as a team. Lise knows programming, databases, e-commerce, servers, security, and so on. I know about images, illustrations, AV, logos, and animation, and PR/advertising. We both are good at project management, planning, and debugging. Together we can do just about anything.
Running one’s own business is not easy. There are days you will wonder if you’ll ever get any work at all, or if a client will pay their bill on time. It can be stressful. Believing in yourself is essential. Doing your best is crucial. Laughing at yourself can help.
Just about 20 years ago, we mistyped our business name one day in the office. MuseArts became MuseRats. It made us laugh, and ever since, we’ve applauded the little, unseen MuseRats that must come in while we sleep to get things done.
Thanks to the MuseRats, and also to everyone we’ve ever had a chance to work with on this journey thus far.
And if you need some help with a web project, get in touch. We’re currently scheduling our next 20 years.