This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by Carl Smith to discuss the challenges of running your own web design business.
Paul: Hello and welcome to Boagworld.com, the podcast for all those involved in designing, developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul and joining me as always is Marcus. Poorly Marcus with his flu!
Marcus: Yes, I’ve never had proper flu.
Paul: Have you not?
Marcus: No, although I’ve never claimed to have flu. I’ve always said I’ve never had flu but it’s not very nice at all. I was saying just before we started recording that I don’t feel any better than I did last Tuesday. The only thing that’s improved is that I have slight clarity of mind. I can’t finish a sentence properly but I was completely not with it at all last week.
Paul: I know! It’s scary isn’t it, when you get proper flu it’s like… I think people underestimate it, I mean flu kills people. It is serious if you get proper flu rather than man-flu.
Paul: You know, you are properly laid out and you get the sweats and you can’t do anything and can’t think straight, you almost become delirious.
Marcus: Yes, I’ve had the shivering, bone-shaking stuff and then sweating and all that.
Paul: Oh nasty.
Marcus: Yes, but now just everything hurts. Particularly my chest.
Paul: I am actually sympathetic towards you which is very rare.
Marcus: Yes, it’s bloody horrible.
Paul: It is horrible.
Marcus: But also, I am incredibly bored of it.
Paul: Yes. Yes, you get bored of it. Being sick for a little while at a reasonable level, enough that when you get up and move around, that’s too much. But sitting in bed you’re ok and you can binge-watch House of Cards or something like that, that’s good. That’s the kind of sickness you want isn’t it.
Marcus: Yes, I don’t like this one.
Paul: It’s gone a step too far.
Marcus: It has and I don’t know who to complain to.
Paul: Well, I would probably complain to yourself Marcus, because it’s probably because you haven’t looked after yourself properly.
Marcus: Well my wife gave it to me.
Paul: Oh well, blame her then. It’s better than blaming yourself.
Marcus: She went to London and I think picked it up on the train or something like that.
Paul: Ahh nasty.
Marcus: So yes, I’m feeling miserable.
Paul: I’ve got more bad news for you I’m afraid.
Marcus: Oh god.
Paul: Do you want more bad news?
Marcus: No I don’t. Only good news please.
That’s stumped you.
Paul: It has. I probably shouldn’t tell you but I actually owe you money Marcus.
Paul: I do. It’s truthful.
Marcus: That’s not bad news.
Paul: Well it’s bad news for me. It’s bad news for you because I have no intention of paying you it. So here’s the story…
I broke the Boagworld website. Quite badly. And Ian had to fix it and I’m not going to pay for his time to fix it.
Marcus: Why not?
Paul: Because I’m tight. I don’t know. I probably should pay you.
Marcus: What we need to do is set up a nice maintenance package.
Marcus: I’ll give you a fair rate.
Paul: Ahh that;s very kind of you Marcus. But I broke it….
Marcus: Two percent below the standard or something like that.
Paul: I;m ignoring you now… I broke it…
Marcus: You cheered me up no end, just the thought about me writing a maintenance agreement for you.
Paul: Yes, getting me to sign it – that would be the problem.
No I broke it in an attempt to make this podcast better. So that’s got to be…
Marcus: And I may have something to do with the podcast so…
Paul: …so therefore it’s fine. It’s on your tab. It felt about time that I moved where the podcast was hosted. But when you’ve done like—there’s all kinds of reasons that I won’t bore you with—but when you’ve done over four hundred podcasts as we now have, moving them is not simple.
Marcus: It’s a big lot of stuff.
Paul: Yes, and it involved some database find and replaces. So you can guess how well that went.
I used to be able to do this shit, you know, just a simple SQL query and you know… I screwed it up.
Paul: So there we go.
Marcus: And then there was nothing?
Paul: And then there was nothing. But fortunately Ian was able to save me because he’s an absolute star. So we’ve moved to Simplecast.fm (link in the show notes for anybody who cares).
Marcus: Ok. Well I’m going to enjoy the conversation I’m going to have with Ian next. So what did he say? Did he threaten you?
Paul: No, he was really nice.
Marcus: Ian is really nice.
Paul: He didn’t even… I was like ‘I am an idiot’…and he was like ‘Well best laid plans of mice and men’ and all that and he just got on and fixed it. It’s almost worse!
Marcus: He should have been moaning?
Paul: Yes! I should have asked Dan, he would have moaned.
Marcus: Oh yes. He would have just said ‘How much are you paying?’
Paul: He would have done, which was why I went to Ian.
So I am really excited mind. It was worth the effort. Because I’ve got some really good stats now. So I
Marcus: Oh right, ok that’s a good reason to move.
Paul: Exactly, so I know fascinating things like today alone, since I set this up—and it only got set up mid-morning—sixty four people have listened to that terrible first show.
Marcus: The first one?
Paul: The first one we ever, well, I ever did.
Paul: I know.
Marcus: Blimey, that’s reason to take it off air.
Paul: I know, that’s quite terrible.
Paul: Oh stop dying. You are just after sympathy now.
So what’s quite interesting about that is that we put a bit on the beginning saying ‘Don’t listen to this’ so it’s ok, we’re covered. So what’s great now is that I know exactly how unpopular we really are. And it turns out we are less unpopular than we thought.
Marcus: Really? There’s twelve people instead of ten?
Paul: Do you want to know? Since I set it up this morning, right—and it was at ten o’clock this morning—we’ve had nine thousand, eight hundred people listen to this show.
Marcus: What today?
Paul: Today. On one of the huge backlog of the episodes we’ve got.
Marcus: Mostly the new ones I assume?
Paul: Mainly the new ones, yes. But not entirely at all. Unfortunately the early ones do rate quite highly.
Marcus: Well we were kind of naively… there was more value to what we were offering then. This is just regurgitating the same old thing for the umpteenth time, what do you expect.
Paul: Of course the downside of discovering we are more popular than we thought we were is that I’ve been massively undercharging for advertising. So that’s bad news.
Marcus: Don’t care.
Paul: No, you don’t care. Talking of which, we ought to mention our first sponsor in the show which is MailChimp. Do you know, I think I would almost do it for free for MailChimp? Aarron Walter… good friend… like him a lot. Well we’ve interviewed a couple of MailChimp people. So there we go.
Yes so MailChimp is great. It’s obviously for sending emails if you don’t know already if you haven’t been listening to previous shows. Shame on you!
One of the things I really like about it is how well it integrates with other apps. So if you’re looking to tie the emails you are sending out and your email subscriber list. If you want to tie them in with any other applications, then I suggest checking out MailChimp first because they probably already integrate into most of the applications out there. That’s a good thing about going with a big player like MailChimp. So everything from WordPress to Salesforce can integrate directly into MailChimp with no coding whatsoever on your part, which is great. But they have also got a really good API so essentially whatever system you’ve got…let’s say you’re some big, important corporate organisation who has got your own proprietary back end system, you can still use MailChimp because you can make use of their API to do it. In fact you can even have a directory of people that can help you do that integration work if you want to.
So it’s a really, really great set up. Give it a go for free – you can use it for up to two thousand subscribers at no cost, as we’ve said on previous shows and you can find out more about MailChimp and what they have to offer at Boagworld.com/MailChimp.
So that’s that. I’m getting slicker at this now.
Marcus: You are. Paul ‘Slick’ Boag. I called you that last week, didn’t I?
Paul: It’s ever since Mike from Aberdeen called me Snake Oil Boag. And I still don’t understand why he called me that. I’m not snake-oily, am I?
Marcus: Oh no, not at all Paul. I can’t believe he said that.
Paul: Oh shut your face!
Marcus: I think it’s awful of him to even suggest or hint at such a thing.
Marcus: So there you go. Does that sound sincere?
Paul: So your mental faculties are not as good as you think they are…
Marcus: They’re not.
Paul: …if you think that was sincere.
Marcus: They’re so not.
Paul: Do you know, I know exactly how you feel because I’ve had a bit of a cold and my brain has had a bit of a…well it shows my brain has turned to mush because of the big cock-up with the move across to the new hosting providers. And also I joined the Unfinished Business podcast which will be no doubt, coming out soon (and I’ll put a link in the show notes if it is out by the time this goes out). And I was useless on it. I just wittered. I was boring, I was grumpy, it was a terrible show.
Marcus: Boring and grumpy?
Paul: Yes, pretty much like I am every show.
Marcus: I was going to say something about Andy then.
Paul: Oh well, now he’s grumpy. But if you get the right guests with him. He was really quite animated, he was really like…. ‘Yeah!’
Marcus: What about?
Paul: Oh do you know what it was about? Oh it was about some stupid arse programme on the BBC with Vic and Bob in. House of Fools. Have you seen this? It’s terrible but apparently John Hicks and Andy think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. They’re wrong.
Paul: Oh, talking of interviews – today’s interview. We have someone on the podcast. Yes, I remember why we do this now. Yes, we’ve got Carl Smith on the podcast this week. Did you do this interview with me?
Marcus: No I didn’t.
Paul: You didn’t. Ohh you missed out. So Carl Smith is an owner of a web agency called Engine over in the States but although he owns it, he doesn’t actually do anything there. He basically just advises them which means he doesn’t do anything. And he’s become a bit of a kind of expert of ditching the overworked lifestyle that most digital people seem to take part in. He’s got quite a reputation for being good at creating self-sustaining teams. So he talks a lot about that kind of stuff and I have to say that Carl has been hugely influential in my thinking about work-life balance. And it’s really quite a telling interview. You ought to listen to it if you get a chance Marcus at some point, because we recorded this interview just before I announced I was leaving Headscape so a lot of the conversation is about work-life balance and the state of the industry and all of those kinds of things but I hadn’t made the decision that I was leaving Headscape at that point. So it was like, it’s very informative if that makes sense. It kind of gives you an indication of what was going on in my own head at the time, so it’s quite an interesting interview from that point of view.
So without further ado, here’s Carl Smith.
Paul: So hello Carl, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Carl: Hey Paul, thanks for having me.
Paul: It’s always wonderful to have you. So I’ve got to say… I’ve become a little bit of a fan of your way of thinking of things and your way of approaching business. But just to kind of give everybody else a little bit of context, tell them a little bit about the Agency that you used to run and the decisions that you made that have led you to where you are now.
Carl: Absolutely. So really twelve years ago I started a shop called nGen Works and started with some friends like a lot of us do. The shop struggled a lot in the early years and then we suddenly got successful and right around the eight year I started getting burnt out and decided I needed to have people to lean on. I didn’t have any other owners so I started just letting go of my responsibilities to the team that I had to the point that really late in the tenth year I kind of stepped out altogether and just let the team start running the company. And then I started focusing on other things, really repairing a lot of damage I had done earlier. In the early years of the company I think I had taken my eye off my family quite a bit, which is just complete honesty, so I had roughly this nine month period where the team was running everything and I just started repairing a lot of my personal life and also started finding other things that I was interested in that I started doing.
Paul: Wow. What I love is the story that you tell about how you went about doing that. Because what is the word you use? ‘Made yourself…’ no, what was it? No, tell your story on how you decided to… I mean you didn’t have a big meeting and say I’m withdrawing from the company, you were much more devious than that if I may say?
Carl: I was very devious. I started what I call my relevance strategy.
Paul: That’s it! Relevance strategy.
Carl: Relevance Strategy. And basically what I did was I made a conscious decision not to make decisions for the company any more. And when people come to me with a problem I basically had a three step approach to getting them to make their own decision.
They would come to me and I’d say ‘What’s going on?’ and they would give me an example like ‘Well this client is a little bent out of shape about this invoice’. And I would say what do you think we should do, and they would say ‘Well honestly we had three mediums we probably didn’t need, we were a little behind on what best practices were and so we had to educate ourselves and so more than likely the client should not have to pay for that’. And I’d say, ‘Well ok, go with that approach, let me know how it goes and come back and tell me’. And they would never come back and over a course of months they stopped asking as much and really it took almost two years before I realised ‘Nobody knows if I am here or not’. Because we are a completely distributed team as well.
Paul: Oh right.
Carl: So they would see my little glowing light in HipChat but they wouldn’t know what was going on, except I would put this weekly video together just telling them what was going on so I really became Oz in a way. And they just stopped peeking behind the curtain.
Paul: That’s wonderful. So you slowly removed yourself from your own business.
Carl: I did.
Paul: That kind of brings us onto the balance that you have to strike when you are running a business. You kind of summed it up perfectly there, because you talked about that you’d taken your eye off a little bit of your family life. As a business owner, because that’s essentially what you focus on now – you run a conference for business owners now which we will get onto later and various other things. So you spend a lot of your time advising and just talking honestly about this kind of stuff. And one of the big things if you run your own business is getting that balance between your responsibilities to the business, your responsibility to your employees and your own well-being. And I am kind of interested in your thoughts about how to balance those different elements.
Carl: It’s very difficult. You know this, you’ve been in this game as long as I have and you get to this point where…firmly I am a believer if the team is passionate, I just want the team to run down the path whatever it might be. Even if I see personal challenges, for example with nGen, they got to a situation where there was a fair amount of money in the bank, there was some work that had dried up and they wanted to start doing their own products. A lot of owners would have said ‘No, this is a dead end. Everybody hits a dead end when they do this’. And looking at that amount of money I was thinking, ‘Wow, my daughter really wants to go to Juilliard’. And I could pull out a couple of years’ worth of Julliard right now but then I thought ‘Well this isn’t really my money because they’ve earned it’. So you end up with this, your own personal beliefs and values versus what’s going to be best for your family versus what’s best for this entity. That even though you’ve created it, it kind of has its own life. And I am horrible at it Paul.
Paul: Why have I got you on the show talking about this stuff then?
Carl: Well they can do the opposite of everything I say.
Paul: Well ok. That’s fine. That’s a good tactic, I like that.
Carl: I think the important thing to do is first of all—there probably will be a little bit of recoil for you as I say this— is that for me, some of this may be very touchy-feely.
Paul: No, touchy-feely is good. We do touchy-feely.
But no hugging, you know my feelings about hugging, Carl.
Carl: I do. I absolutely do, and that’s a big point of why we’re a moot team. People start coming in the office and they’re like ‘He’s going to touch me again’.
But I think you need to have almost written guidelines but an understanding of publically what this company is about, what the money is going to be used for and as an owner what you personally need out of the company…
Carl: …to make it viable for you to keep doing it. You’ve got a great, it appears you have a great consultancy that you do. Now that obviously helps feed business to your company and it also probably feeds you emotionally because you need to help people and that’s exciting. I think a lot of times as owners we want to do that consultancy thing but we don’t. Or we want to do something else but we hold ourselves back because we feel this responsibility to the entity we’ve created. But you can have these conversations with employees and say ‘Look. I’m a little burnt out. I’m going to keep my word to you, but now I might have to change what it is that I commit to. And here’s one of the things you need to understand, if I am not making at least this amount of money a year I have to start thinking about my family because I could shift gears to be a consultant without this overhead and possibly make a lot more. And I am not trying to scare anybody, but just trying to show you my reality’.
And we had those conversations and it worked really well and recently nGen had to go through a down-size and I saw your goal on what’s going on this year. The amazing thing was almost every employee I talked to—and I hate the term employee—but almost everybody on the team that I talked with said they just wanted to make sure that I didn’t hurt my family or go back into debt. And I thought ‘What an amazing feeling to have these people on a team who kind of had a feeling that it wasn’t anyone’s fault’. I mean the industry has gone through a blip and the way we were positioned, we were positioned in a way that we took it full-frontal. But they all wanted to make sure that personally I was going to be ok, because they understood the commitments that we had done in the past that really the things had allowed to happen at our own—I don’t want to say it’s harm—but we made sacrifices.
So I think the balance is also about open communication. We had people on the team and one of the things I would always ask people when they came into nGen or tell them was ‘One day you’re going to leave this company. It’s my job to make sure it’s for an extremely good reason, so when you have opportunities, you have things you are thinking or you decide you don’t want to be a front end developer anymore, let’s talk about it – let’s figure it out. Because I know a tremendous number of people and we can probably figure out a way to make all this work’.
So I know this question started about balance but I think that the way you have balance is by not being afraid to share it, and by being able to have those open conversations with everyone and know that there are going to come times where you really need to do this sort of thing for your family. Paul I don’t know if you experienced this, early on when I was I guess thirty-two or maybe a bit older as I was thirty-three when we started, I really didn’t think about my family as needing the company as much as we needed the money.
Paul: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Carl: But now that I am older, I am like ‘Wow, I gave all this to the company, it’s time for the company to give back because it gets to balance’. My family lived through those years of ‘I am glad they only like the boxes and wrapping paper at Christmas, because we can’t afford to put anything in it yet’. But now my kids are thirteen and eleven and it’s not so much about the stuff that they get but just the sense that everything is ok.
Paul: I know exactly what you mean. It’s with my son, he values my time more than anything else.
Paul: Every moment I can spend with him is so precious with him and I think that’s something about changing points in your life in that a lot of us start these businesses when we are at a very different point in our lives. I mean James wasn’t born when I started Headscape and so as you move through your life your priorities change and either the business has to adapt to suit those or something has got to change hasn’t it?
Paul: There’s also, there’s another balance here mind, isn’t there? Which is the balance between the business as an entity and your employees. So you talked about nGen had to down-size.
Paul: And that’s a tough situation to be in because obviously letting people go is just the worst thing ever in my—I’ve had to do it a lot in the past and it’s such a traumatic experience and I absolutely hate it— but you do need to consider, you can completely throw people’s lives because they just bought a house or about to have a kid or whatever and you just drop this bomb-shell on them. But on the flip side of it, you’ve also got to look after the business as well. So there’s a balance to be struck there. Because obviously if the business goes under then everybody loses their job.
Paul: So it’s a funny one isn’t it.
Carl: It is. The thing that I was really proud of with the way it happened at nGen was that the conversations started probably three months before we knew if it was real or not. And we were able to figure out a way where everybody knew that by a certain day that if they didn’t have client-facing work then they were going to be gone. What we figured out was, everybody just started communicating about opportunities that they had and different options and when the date happened, it was a Friday and we had an afternoon toast and everybody showed up and it was really emotional for me but I think it was a big release for everyone in the sense that it was known. Now that everybody knew it was happening. And we actually had someone who had actually just had a child and luckily we’d been able to keep that person pretty busy. And that was the other thing, because it was open the way that we were doing it, we basically said ‘Well these people are just charging across the bridge and as soon as we can we will send back for you, but don’t think you can’t go and get another job or you just have to wait’.
And it was just really good.
Paul: Yes. It’s painful.
Carl: Terribly painful.
Paul: It’s probably one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever gone through. When I was back in the dotcom days, firing your own staff that’s bad enough but at least those people know that you thought tooth and nail to keep them, but back in the dotcom day I went through a stage where I had to go into companies that my company had acquired and let people go.
Horrible, because you’re like an outside hatchet man.
Talking about stress and stressful experiences, that kind of brings us on to the fact that stress is a very big issue within our own industry. And I know it’s something that you struggle with and it’s something that I’ve been very public about with as well. What lessons do you feel that you’ve learnt from those periods of stress in terms of how you do business these days, how you integrate work into your life?
Carl: I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that stress if I don’t acknowledge it leads me to make really bad decisions, strains the hell out of my relationships both personal and professional and just destroys my health.
It was an interesting eye-opener for me. So every week I do a video for the team and they call it Carl-TV, I call it the mid-week update. And there are literally three years’ worth of these videos that every Wednesday talks about the health of the company, who had a birthday, this sort of stuff. And I went back and I started looking over the balance ledger for the company and I would find a day where we were really low. We might have even dipped into the credit line and I would watch that video and you would have thought that my entire family had been kidnapped by gypsies the way that I came across on the video. And then I would look at times where we were at a high point and you would have thought that we could all just go to Hawaii and it’s going to be amazing and let’s sing Kumbya.
And it was all based on that balance sheet and I started digging into stress at that point and understanding it a little more. But I think the biggest thing—and you were there in Vegas when I was talking about this—is that stress exists. And we can lower it if we are really smart about simple things like getting more sleep and eating better. Exercising, even if it’s just going for a walk and not just sitting in front of a computer for eight to ten hours a day. That can help us deal with it, but more than that, we have to learn to embrace it. And I treat it like an old friend now. I feel stress in my shoulders and when I feel that stress I am like ‘Alright, what’s going on? Why am I starting to get all uptight?’ And then I look at the decisions I am trying to make , I look at the people that I might be surrounding myself with and I just give myself a little extra time to look at decisions and make sure I am treating people fairly. Because it’s normally when I am about to make a bad decision that the stress comes in.
Carl: And it’s such a gift to feel it in my right shoulder as strong as I do, because it’s like a little spidey-sense going off but instead a lot of us power through it and make the wrong decision. And that just compounds everything.
Paul: You’re right, your body tells you when you are stressed. With me it’s my skin. I start getting flaky and dry skin and spotty and disgusting and horrible. Much, much more grimmer than your simple ‘Oh I’ve got a twitch in my shoulder’. My whole body just falls apart. Bits start dropping off of me etc. But it is actually brilliant. No, that’s too strong a phrase.
I don’t resent that, because it tells me something’s wrong. Because I don’t think when you are in the middle of a situation you don’t realise your own distress. Because you’re becoming instinctive. You’re almost becoming animal like, acting on impulse and in that fight or flight mode. So just having those little warning signals that you can go ‘Oh yes, I’ve got a twitchy shoulder again – this is not a good sign’. It makes you step back and re-evaluate what’s going on.
Because you’re right. You do, you make terrible decisions. I remember when I was suffering from quite serious depression I lost the ability to make decisions entirely. My wife would say ‘So where do you want to go out to eat tonight?’ And that was a really lovely thing. And we were going out to celebrate ‘Where would you like to go Paul? Let’s go somewhere you like ‘cause I know you’re stressed’. And I was like ‘Why do you want me to make this decision? I always have to make these decisions!’ I couldn’t do it. It was terrible. So you do need to be aware of it, absolutely.
Carl: And I feel for you with that level of stress because you just don’t want that additional thing to figure out. It’s that preverbal straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s as simple as ‘Do you want to watch television tonight?’ ‘Well no, I can’t think about that right now!’
Or ‘Next week can you pick up your daughter from the…’ How can I think about next week?! I can’t get through the day!
I feel you, we need a bigger support group for guys who just can’t make decisions about everyday things.
Paul: It was that, I was fine making decisions about work, but anything outside of that it was too much work. And I think a lot of us are in those kind of environments. I think our industry doesn’t particularly help, because it changes so fast, because it’s got a lot of young people that have got far too much time on their hands that build incredible things and should be punished for their talent and…
For us older people it’s ‘Oh I can’t keep up anymore, I just need a little lie down in the corner’.
Paul: But I think that with that comes wisdom. That’s how I justify it to myself.
Carl: We just need to talk weekly Paul, and we’ll both feel ok.
Paul: We’ll start a therapy group.
So tell us about this Business Owner’s Conference that I am massively envious of. Now the chances are that this podcast won’t come out until after the Business Owner’s Conference has happened which is really useful for a promotional point of view.
Carl: Well you know this is the attention to detail that we like to have at the Bureau.
Paul: It’s kind of knowing what’s coming up and you’re doing loads of stuff. Tell us about the Bureau, tell us about the Conference as I want to ask you in particular why you started feeling a need to do these kind of Conferences other than obviously to make money. And what are the big issues you are hearing about as you are dealing with a lot of Business Owners now.
Paul: Tell us a bit.
Carl: So the Bureau was actually started by Greg Storey and Greg Hoy at HappyCog and the idea for them was they weren’t really sure if they were running HappyCog correctly. And so they wanted to talk to other owners because the thing you find out—and I am sure you’ve seen this— the longer you are in the industry, the more success you have, the new people you meet, you realise nobody has a clue what’s going on.
And so they invited a bunch of owners to get together in Portland, which was the first one and it was called ShopTalk at the time and because we do have friends like Chris Coyier, we’re like ‘OK, maybe we should change the name’, we ended up calling it OwnerCamp. And there are I guess thirty of us at the first one including people like Mike Montero, Geoffrey Zelman was there, Kelly Orto(?) a lot of us that were around the industry in the early two thousands and we just had this amazing comversation around what was going on, what was working, what wasn’t working. And HappyCog actually paid for everything at the first one, they flew us out. I didn’t know – I thought they were in trouble, because I was telling everyone they should make their own decisions and ‘Carl you need to stop that’. But we had this great several day retreat and we hung out and then they did it again, but they charged for it and I paid to be there and then they did it again and I paid, and they did it again and I paid and again and I paid. And finally I think Hoy felt bad he said ‘Carl do you just want to be a partner in this organisation?’ I said ‘I would love nothing more than to be a partner’.
So if you look at the history of the Bureau it was an underserved segment of our industry in terms of community. There was really no real community for Owners. And so they just reached out to the shops that either knew, respected, or thought were doing things a little differently and just wanted to get these varying opinions on how we run our shops and also make some comparisons on what’s going on legally, what’s going on for a HR perspective and that’s how it originated.
Now Brett Harman(?) who was also at HappyCog realised that Digital Project Managers didn’t have a community so he wanted to put together an event for Digital Project Managers and it sold out in a week. And when you went to this event you just had this sense of family reunion of people who had never met.
Paul: It was incredible.
Carl: It was great. So then we realised we had these camps that were small get-togethers of about thirty-five people and they last three and a half days and you really dig into what’s going on. And then you have these summits which are bigger and are a little more affordable for people and they can get together and talk at a bigger level at a more traditional conference. And this year actually in Dallas just a few weeks ago, we had our first Operations Camp. So this is just for the people who are Operators and who are generally at odds with the Owners.
So now I get this view of what an Owner thinks, what an Operator thinks on the same conversation. And it’s pretty brilliant and so that Operations Camp sold out pretty quickly with a waiting list of about fifteen for a thirty-five person event which is pretty amazing. And then we also have this year, we’re going to do Creative Director’s Camp.
Paul: Wow, you’re doing loads of them now.
Carl: Yes, we’ve got twelve events this year in 2015. The first is going to be an Owner’s Summit which is the one you alluded to. Owner’s Summit is going to be a hundred and fifty owners and twenty five speakers who are also Owners getting together in Austin for two days and just talking about what it is to run a shop. Strategies for everything you can imagine, breaking out sessions where people can discuss the real issues they are having and get some insight from other Owners. So I’m really, really excited about this event because I’ve talked to so many Owners over the past year as I’ve become part of the Bureau, and I feel like I had this insight into at least the segment of the industry that we know. I know there is a ton of people we don’t know. But it seems like a picture is starting to come together, and for me when you first see one of these communities get together it’s amazing. You see people whose eyes light up when they realise they aren’t alone, that there is someone else they can ask questions of and disagree with because you get to defend your base and beliefs, right? But it’s really an amazing event.
Paul: So talking about how you’ve got a better idea of what’s going on, what are big issues at the moment, what are people really struggling with?
Carl: Well you do have a lot of shops that are having a horrible year.
Carl: Some of them only had a horrible quarter and they had their best year ever. And so there’s all these hits that happened in 2014. And there’s really two causes that I see for if you came through it unscathed. One is, are you a specialist or are you a generalist. Even if you are a generalist but you position yourself as a specialist, specialists seem ok. And specialists are people who maybe really dedicate themselves to a specific slice of the industry. Maybe you focus on Education or maybe you focus on building a business with Digital. It can also be a discipline, so maybe you position yourself as a UX shop or you position yourself as a Development shop or as a Mobile shop. If you have these slices of specialty that seems to work as well. So there’s these different levels, or it could be of technology actually. If you focus exclusively on Druple or if you are a Python shop, they seem good. But if you are a generalist, if you’re out there and you’re saying ‘We help people succeed on the web’ right? Or if you say ‘Strategy plus technology plus smiles’ if you have something just a little too broad you seem to be taking a hit.
But the connection there is that generalists seem to stay with the same clients longer. Specialists seem to be constantly finding new clients. So if you found most of your revenue from existing clients in 2014, you were down on revenue and profit. A few were up on revenue but down on profit which terrifies me. Right, you are working harder and making less. This is not a good place to be.
And then you also have for the generalists, a lot of their work went in house at the clients. The clients felt that they were able to acquire that level of talent. And this is general business as well as Start Ups. But when you are a specialist you seem to have that little bit of knowledge outside of whatever they have built, so you are the external expert.
Paul: So do you think that’s going to be a trend of how things go? You alluded earlier to a post that I wrote for Creative Bloq where I talked of my vision of the future (and I’ll put a link in the show notes to that). I wonder what your impressions of that were, because that was just my gut feelings on whether that is not dissimilar to what you are seeing or whether you see it in a slightly different way? Or do you think I am talking crap?
Carl: No I don’t think you are talking crap. It was funny because we had an episode of BizCraft that said almost the same thing.
Paul: Oh right.
Carl: And we had done it a week earlier, but we got it out a day later and I was like ‘Damn it June, Paul scooped us on the whole ‘Everything is going to Hell’ message!’
Paul: The problem from my perspective just for people that haven’t read it, is that what I was saying in that article is that I feel like the agency market is being squeezed from both ends. The bottom end of the market you’ve got things like SquareSpace and small businesses concluding ‘Well I can just do with a Facebook page, I don’t need a website’. The top end of the market, things are tending to go in-house and so people are wanting ever more specialists, as you say and so that’s pushing everyone towards the middle. And that has consequences as a result. And it sounds like you are coming from a similar perspective.
Carl: Absolutely. I also think for the generalists it’s too easy for somebody to grab a template from a WordPress theme shop and set up and say they’re a webshop. And they don’t have to have the logos, they don’t have to have anything, they can basically go online and find a process as easily as they can find the theme. Who purposely go out there, put a price plan up that may be less than you, and an uneducated client’s not going to know the difference? I think you are right with things like SquareSpace and WordPress and let’s face facts. When we were slow as webshops we built those themes. We put ourselves in this situation where we can tell somebody, ‘You know what? You can hire us to build a fifty-thousand dollar marketing website for you or you can buy the one that we built three months ago when we didn’t have anything to do for two hundred dollars…
Carl: …and we’ll customise it.’ I’ve actually come to a point where I’m ok with the themes.
Carl: I think that we can customise them, we can do this for you, we can do that but we have to accept that just like hosting is something we weren’t supposed to be doing, there is a certain level of a client who maybe needs that more just exposure at a lower price plan and we need to help them with the messaging. Just like we know content is king, or context is king depending on how you want to say it. I think we’re going to find that there is a group of shops who just are going to be OK with it.
I personally think we are going to see a return to original design next year and I hate to think that there’s going to be the haves and the have-nots when it comes to original design but I think that’s just going to be what happens.
Paul: I mean, I can almost imagine because essentially what you are talking about is the commoditisation of design in a way.
Paul: That you get yourself a template, you customise it for your needs, job done. But I think there is…once people have done that as Owners then they inevitably start hitting the barrier of ‘Well how do we make it better? How do we improve it?’ And that’s where you’ll start to see an upselling into more bespoke design that’s tweaked based on feedback etc.
Carl: And then you’ll get to a point where you understand who your company is. That there’s a lot of beliefs that for new companies you don’t really know who you are or what you sell for three years. I think Kawasaki said that in ‘The Art of the Start’. He said ‘Don’t have a business plan for three years because you don’t know what you do, who pays for it, you don’t have any clue who you are’. I didn’t read the rest of the book I was like ‘Ok guy, I’ll just put this down now and pick it up in three years’.
Paul: How many years ago was that?
Carl: Shh. I guess it would have been eleven? So maybe I should pick it back up. So I think you’re right, and so as companies evolve they will start to realise. But I think that there is a group of clients out there who are pretty new and don’t know and have to get something up and a lot of times we struggle because they don’t know who they are. If you are a shop that prides itself on creating a digital representation of the personality and the true inner culture and you’re trying to make the culture better and the company better and attract the right prospects and clients, if they don’t know who they are maybe a SquareSpace site is going to get them through this beginning.
I think we just have to realise that this stuff is here and it’s not going away. And I also think we have to realise especially in 2014, we were a copycat industry like I’ve never seen before. How many hero images led to hero videos? And they’re beautiful and I think for prospects who show up they get back to that idea of magic where this company know something I don’t know. And so I want to hire them.
But I think that this idea of original design becoming back to visual design because it’s really taken a hit from best practices, it’s taken a hit from responsive. It’s not that it had to, but I think a lot of us, and I am not a designer so this is crazy for me to say, I think there was a tendency to deflect client input and say ‘Well you have to understand this is responsive web design’. And we use that best practice almost as a shield.
Paul: Yes you are right in terms of, that we’re seeing a shift away from focusing purely on the kind of visual design elements into more of the more of the messaging, the content positioning, the business positioning, and those kinds of things. And I think design will come back in and have its day again but there’s a different focus at the moment.
Carl: And I think different focuses are great focuses and should stay. I just don’t think visual design should be an afterthought. Or should be really just templated.
But I think we have to realise that it’s there. And there’s really a lot of it and I think that this is going to happen in our industry. As Owners I think a lot of it is about seeing a maturing market.
Paul: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a big part of it. So just kind of doing a much more generic question, but I think it’s one that I would be interested in your thoughts on.
You encounter a lot of business Owners that are running web design businesses.
Paul: What’s the piece of advice that you pick up from these guys the most. What’s the messages that you think others could do with hearing if that makes sense?
Carl: No that absolutely does. It’s kind of a blending of a lot of different things that I’ve heard and there are so many amazingly smart people in our industry. And most of us when we started, we started it more as a hobby, even though we thought of it as a business, we didn’t know what we were doing and we just got some friends who happened to have either complimentary skill sets or the same skill sets and we decided we were going to do this for ourselves because we didn’t like the place we had been.
Carl: We never grew out of that mind set for a lot of us. We kept it a hobby, we never made it a business. And the thing that I’ve seen is that companies that run it like a company seem to do a lot better. And what I mean by that is, they owner doesn’t try to do everything themselves. They’ve let go and they understand that there is a need for somebody with CFO type responsibilities. And it’s not just the size of the company in terms of it could be revenue or people or whatever, I think there just comes a time—and I hear this a lot—where you have to realise that you as the Owner got the company to a certain level, but that doesn’t mean you can get it to the next level by yourself. And because I think so many of us suffer from Imposter syndrome, feeling like if they were to take a look at the books ‘Oh My God’, we have this fear of someone coming in and looking, that holds us back.
So my advice would be, start thinking about this wonderful thing you’ve built as a company, look at where the weaknesses are that you can’t provide any answers too and hire for that. Don’t just hire for building what it is you sell, hire for building what it is you’ve created.
Paul: Yes. Hire for building the business rather than for building the product.
Paul: Mmm. Yes. It’s a difficult one, I often think people often fall into the mistake when it comes to hiring, they hire themselves. They hire people with the same skill set that they’ve got and they slowly do themselves out of business. So you start off as a Designer and you get too much Designer work so you hire another Designer and then you’ve got to keep them busy and so you maybe you start doing a bit of Development and get into that side of things. And then you get busy doing that and so you hire a Developer and before you know it, you’re doing Project Management which you hate. Why didn’t you just hire a Project Manager to begin with?
Carl: Exactly. I think that’s exactly right.
Paul: That makes a lot of sense. That does make an assumption of course which is that your desire is to grow the business. That’s quite an interesting one isn’t it, because there’s two types of business in my head – very naively? There’s the lifestyle business which are businesses that exist purely to facilitate the lifestyle that the founders want to live and then there is the kind of ‘We’re building a business’ kind of a business if that makes sense? The idea is to get bigger all the time and to expand and that kind of stuff.
You seem to be, the comments you are saying, you seem to be leaning more towards the latter than the former. Is that a fair comment?
Carl: I am a believer in letting a company grow and shrink.
Carl: I don’t think there’s ever a single size or a magical place that you get to.
Paul: Yes I would agree.
Carl: I think you have to be prepared for the ebb and flow and that to me, when I look at what these other companies have done, they’ve given themselves information not data, but actual insight and they can make better decisions and they can possibly minimise the down and be better prepared for the up. And I think that’s the real thing, it’s more about having a beautiful picture versus having a gut feel. And I know we all lean on Steve Jobs and go ‘He never did research…’ Ok. That’s… if you’re Steve Jobs I agree…
Paul: Also I don’t know if that’s entirely true.
Paul: They did market research, they talked to people. Ok, we might choose to ignore them sometimes, but that’s a different thing.
Carl: I think the rest of us need the best information, not just the raw data, but insight into what it is and I am no good with spreadsheets. I hate spreadsheets and so we need somebody who understands how to get insight out of numbers and I think that’s part of being a business versus a hobby.
Paul: We’re very lucky at Headscape in that we have Chris Scott is one of my co-founders and he’s got that kind of business insight but we also have a Non-Executive Director, a guy that I’ve known for years who essentially his job is going from company to company and becoming temporary CFOs. He goes into struggling companies and help them recover financially and he’s always been involved in Headscape since day one because we’re very close to him. And he’s been invaluable not just because of his financial knowledge but because just having that outside perspective as well has been hugely useful. He knows nothing about web design whatsoever but he does know how to run a company. Perfect.
Anyway, I think we’ll end on that point as I swore to myself I’m not going to let these interviews go on too long, and I can go on forever. But I think there’s a lot of really good stuff there if you are running your own business, if you are a freelancer or a small agency, I think there is a lot in there that they can take away. So thank you very much Carl, for coming on the show, it’s much appreciated.
Carl: Ahh thank you Paul. I had a blast.
Paul: So I probably shouldn’t have said all those inappropriate things about Headscape.
Marcus: I haven’t listened to it.
Paul: That’s why I am saying it.
It’s such a good interview, you really ought to listen to it. So yes, Carl’s a very smart guy and I have a lot of time for him. It’s an interesting time in the industry at the moment, for those of us working in the web, there’s a lot of things that are changing and we are having to adapt and all of that so we cover all of that kind of stuff. It’s a really enjoyable interview. I like Carl so much, he’s a really smart guy.
We talked about the state of the industry and we also talked about work-life balance and I have to say it does concern me that some of the work-life balance that people within the industry have and how…
Marcus: Dan wrote about it, our Dan which we mentioned at the start of the show and what I think his beef is this kind of expectation, not of necessarily that you must do loads of hours from an employer point of view, if you don’t work every night of the week as well as every day that you won’t be considered worthy by the community, that’s his angle. And he’s kind of like… well you know what Dan is like.. he swears at that.
Paul: He swears at most things.
Marcus: He swears at most things, yes. But he’s got a good point.
Paul: He has. I’ll put a link in the show notes to Dan’s article, and also one I wrote for Smashing Magazine on a similar subject because I do think it’s really important stuff and you have to be conscious of it. As someone running your own business and even as an employee of getting that balance because you can easily burn yourself out. I mean going back to joking about your flu at the beginning. With me leaving Headscape and the various things you are changing at the moment, it’s a really busy and intense time for Headscape at the moment and that’s probably half the reason why you ended up getting ill. And then that means that you can’t do your work, which means you fall further behind, which means you get more ill and you can get into this vicious cycle.
You’re actually really good most of the time, aren’t you Marcus. You’ve got a good work-life balance, much more healthy than me, really.
Marcus: Healthy isn’t the word I’d use.
Paul: Well, no.
Marcus: The words I would use would be…
Paul: Burning the candle at both ends?
Marcus: That’s the one.
Although I haven’t done that for over a week now, but yes, I’ve always been… you’re absolutely right, I’ve been putting myself under a lot of pressure the last month or two which has meant I have been susceptible to all this stuff. But I’ve actually found recently that we have been crazy busy partly because obviously there are fewer of us now, but I do enjoy it much more than if it’s like there’s not a lot out there.
Paul: Oh absolutely, I prefer to be busy any day of the week. That’s the downside isn’t it, of running your own business. There is no pleasing you. Or even actually, I think anybody. Even if you’re an employee I don’t think you want to be sitting around doing nothing.
Marcus: No, we’ve got lots of interesting things on. I’ve put myself in a panic about a few things and so has Chris, but the majority has been alright, we’ve been getting on and doing things.
But yes, because I refused to be work, work, work, work, work. If you’ve got tons on what that ends up meaning is that you will be burning the candle at both ends which means you can end up getting flu, especially if you are as old as me. It was my birthday on Saturday!
Paul: I know. And you spent it all ill.
Marcus: I did.
Paul: How old are you now?
Paul: Forty-eight? My word. Wow, that really is old.
Marcus: I am going to be a Granddad this year too.
Paul: I know! That blows my mind.
Anyway, can we quickly—and there is no segway here—before we get onto the joke I do quickly want to mention MediaTemple who’s our other sponsor.
MediaTemple are a great fan of Granddad’s that are forty-eight and over. I’m trying to make a link but didn’t really succeed did I?
Marcus: No you didn’t.
Paul: No. Anyway, so MediaTemple. They’re the most popular out of any platform among Web Designers and Web Developers and there’s are blooming good reason why. It’s because they have got this thing called a Grid Account, which can run anything from a single portfolio site up to a hundred different client sites all on the same account which is really cool and this Grid system (I don’t claim to understand it to be honest) but it’s seems to be capable of dealing with anything. Hundreds of servers work together in a cloud.
Marcus: Using magic?
Paul: Using magic, yes, to keep the site online. Even if it hits the front page of Reddit or whatever else, whatever the trendy thing is at any particular time, the whole system can adjust accordingly. It’s not like there is just one server that gives up the ghost. So they’re definitely worth checking out.
They are just so popular amongst Web Designers and Web Developers that it’s just insane not to include them on the list of hosts that you look at. And even if you have got an existing host, then just check them out as you may be pleasantly surprised at how they work out compared to what you’ve currently got.
They’re also and they are our first sponsor to do this—and I have to say its behaviour that I wish to encourage in the future—they are offering a special discount to you, dear listener. You can use the promo code BOAG for twenty-five percent off your web hosting. That’s a quarter off.
Marcus: That’s a lot.
Paul: That’s a lot of money. So go to MediaTemple.net and enter the promo code on sign up. Even better, go to Boagworld.com/MediaTemple and use the promo code on sign up, because then I can track you. I know what you are doing.
So there you go.
Marcus, are you up to doing a joke?
Marcus: I am.
Paul: Go on then.
Marcus: My friend Michelle shared this one with me the other day and I quite liked it. It uses American terms but I am not feeling clever enough to UK, so I will carry on with the American terms.
Paul: No, you just take it easy.
There are two Beat Cops.
Paul: Oh my word.
Marcus: Call the Crime Branch on the telephone to give feedback on a homicide case.
So the first Cop rings up and says ‘Hello, Crime Branch?’
Crime Branch says ‘Yes?’
‘This is Sargent John. We have a case here, a woman has shot her husband for stepping on the floor she just mopped’.
And Crime Branch says ‘Have you arrested the woman?’
And the Cop says ‘No Sir, the floor is still wet’.
Paul: That… that…
Marcus: Sorry, I am dying, and I am worse than usual.
Paul: Well, yes, to be honest you are. But we will let you off this one week. Thankfully MediaTemple are not sponsoring just your joke, you are safe. The pressure is off a bit for a while.
Marcus: Actually can somebody send me some more jokes?
Paul: Oh come on people, Marcus is poorly, cut him some slack. Send him some jokes at firstname.lastname@example.org. You do still get emails at that address?
Marcus: No idea.
Paul: Oh alright. Or you can go to Marcus.lillington…
Marcus: Or just Marcus@headscape.co.uk.
Paul: Alright, well thank you very much for listening to this week’s show. Send good wishes Marcus’s way. Give him a virtual hug or a thumbs up or whatever it is we do these days. And you look after yourself Marcus and we will do this again next week.
Marcus: Ok, I feel like a children’s presenter.
Paul: Go and have a little lie down.
Marcus: I am going to do that.
Paul: That’s very wise.