Should you go into business with others or do it alone?

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by the internet famous Carl Smith to talk about whether you should go solo or setup a business with others.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This season of the Boagworld show is sponsored by Template Monster and Lynda. Please support the show by checking them out.

Paul: Hello and welcome to, 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 by Marcus. Hello Marcus!

Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?

Paul: I am very well. And we also have the internet famous Carl Smith.

Carl: Whaat? What’s going on everybody?

Paul: Well it seems a good a way to refer to you as any. How do you refer to yourself?

Marcus: Web-celeb.

Paul: Web-celeb, yes.

Carl: How do I refer to myself?

Paul: Carl?

Carl: Carl definitely works.

Paul: I like your website, your website is devianthippie isn’t it. I like that.

Carl: Yeah, deviant hippie. I try to be calm, man, I try to love everyone but sometimes I get pissed off, you know?

Paul: I don’t understand that.

Carl: It’s the deviant side.

Paul: I’m just so laid back as a person, I never get pissed off at anything, do I Marcus?

Marcus: I’ve never known you to be angry about anything at all, or annoyed.

Paul: I’ve never really known you to be angry… oh I have. There have been one or two occasions. But you are a fairly laid back type aren’t you Marcus?

Marcus: I am.

Paul: I wish I could be like that.

Marcus: Today’s work load started today at 7.00am and has kind of gotten to me a bit.

Paul: I shouldn’t tell you where I have just come back from then?

Marcus: Lunch? Luxury?

Paul: Luxury! When I was a lad… Hey Carl, is he in America? It’s a wonderful nation that I love to visit on many occasions, but you don’t have an equivalent of a British country pub. And there is nothing quite like it on a sunny afternoon, sitting out in the beer garden with the birds tweeting and the rolling countryside with a pint in your hand. It’s just glorious.

Carl: My brother lived in Oxford for a long time and I would go over there and just hang out. And I was like, ‘yeah, we need this’. You know the name things like King Edward’s pub, but all that means is that it’s going to be dark and there’s no televisions, it doesn’t really mean anything pleasant.

Paul: No, no. You’ve got a kind of funny…not funny…a different attitude towards alcohol and it’s more of a grown up thing isn’t it? While pubs over here are family places.

Carl: Yes, you are absolutely right. I was going to say, ‘well I started drinking when I was twelve, not an adult at the time’. But yes, you are absolutely right. Drinking is something that adults go off and do and the kids go ‘please be careful’.

Paul: ‘Come back alive, Mummy and Daddy!’

Carl: It’s got that negative connotation to it. You always say to somebody heading out ‘be careful, make good choices’.


Marcus: I disagree with you.

Paul: See now, for me, ‘what type of beer are you going for?’ That’s a good choice. There are some good beers and there are some bad beers.

Marcus: I disagree Paul, that our pubs are family places. I avoid ‘family’ pubs like the plague.

Paul: Well yes, but then that’s because you’ve got grown up kids. But there is a culture of family pubs in the UK.

Marcus: Yes, to be avoided.

Carl: Well you are allowed to take your dogs to pubs?

Marcus: Oh yes, yes. I like taking my dog to pubs.

Carl: See that’s fabulous. I would want to do that.

Paul: And they drink as well. There is special dog alcohol in the UK. It’s a fact.

Carl: ‘Can I get a canine IPA over here please?’

Marcus: Paul, Mad Max is a 15 certificate.

Paul: Oh, can’t take the boy then. He’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

Carl: How old is he?

Paul: He’s twelve. Twelve going on forty.

Carl: Ahh so he climbs a clocktower later, starts taking some shots.

Paul: See now that’s a lot harder over here. He has to get hold of a gun.

Carl: Start throwing stones at people?

Paul: Yeah, it’s not as effective.

Carl: You know how many drive-by knifings are over there do you?

Paul: Not that many, no. Although that would be quite a challenge wouldn’t it. I quite like the idea of leaning out of a car window trying to attack someone with a butter knife.

Carl: ‘Hey, hey, come over here! Come over here!’.

Paul: Have you seen that link in the introduction? There’s no link to this whatsoever, but I have got to mention this because this is the coolest thing in the world. One day we will get onto web design. Have either of you followed the link that I put in the introduction – you haven’t have you? Marcus hasn’t read it. Carl you lost it, and I had to resend you the questions.

Carl: I wanted to establish dominance, I was wanting to make sure you knew that if I asked for something you’d have to give it.

Paul: I can see why you’re such a high flier. Have either of you heard of the Lilycam or the lilydrone thing?

Marcus: Oh is this the thing that follows you around and films you, Paul?

Paul: It’s the most awesome thing on the planet, ever.

Marcus: I think it sounds like the most narcissistic thing on the planet ever.

Carl: Or both.

Paul: Yes, why can’t it be both? I like Carl’s attitude. No, because when you go to these gorgeous places, you’ve never stood on the top of a snow-capped mountain, viewing the surroundings and you just wish you could throw a drone into the air that would take a beautiful panoramic shot all around you?

Marcus: It hasn’t occurred to me Paul but I guess in that particular situation, yes. I just had imagined this thing following you around all the time, filming you.

Paul: No, it can only fly for about 20 minutes. Which would be enough to cover all of my walking activities for the day, but probably not a normal person.

Carl: I was just thinking, god, if that were around when John Lennon was alive… you know? He would have had to keep changing batteries.

Paul: But you see the whole kind of… it is a dangerous road because eventually we will all have our own personal drone following us around. And you won’t be able to see the sky for drones. But actually it looks so cool. At one point, it is this beautiful piece of design and looks very techy and expensive and he just throws it off a bridge and it suddenly starts flying. It’s terrifying. And then another time he throws it—there is some woman or other going down a river kayaking— and you go ‘oh no, it’s gone wrong!’ as it hits the water and then suddenly takes off. It’s so cool. I want one.

Marcus: I thought you had one, Paul?

Paul: No, I ordered it, but it’s not coming out til next year so it’s one of those vapourware things that actually I have just been ripped off for four hundred dollars or whatever it was. It’s like kickstarter – give us all your money and you might get something at the end of it.

Carl: More than likely you are going to see it in a store next week by some other brand anyway. That’s happened to me twice. I ordered Ninja Blocks or whatever it was so you can give an IP address to any electrical thing and then like a week later I am going through Target and there it is, out via Linksys or sometbody, they’ve got the exact same damn thing.

Paul: Why would you want to give an IP address to anything?

Carl: Because you can.

Paul: Well yeah. That’s why I wanted a drone.

Carl: Since you only walk like 20 minutes a day, imagine not having to get to turn off the light?

Paul: Oh, see now that’s useful. See Marcus, this is why I like having other geeks on the show, because Marcus just thinks I am kinda weird when I talk about this stuff. But look, there are other people in the world, Marcus, that are equally sad.

Marcus: Mmm.

Carl: Very, very sad.

Marcus: What do you use your Apple watch for Paul?

Paul: Nothing.

Marcus: Telling the time?

Paul: Telling the time. It’s very useful. Did you buy one Carl?

Carl: It hadn’t come in yet. nGen got them in for the team, that’s the nice part about a lay off is that suddenly you can do sweet things because nobody really works there anymore.

Paul: What? What’s going on? You’ve laid everybody off and given them an Apple watch to make up for it?

Carl: Well, just the few that were left.

Paul: Oh right.

Carl: We ran the numbers and we weren’t able to get everyone an Apple watch and the tweet just wasn’t going to sound right…

Paul: So you had to fire some people?

Carl: We were optomising for social. So we had to let twelve people go so that we could afford everybody else getting one. No, I wear a Fitbit Surge. It’s the big-ass Fitbit. And I really like it. I never really thought I would but my favourite part of it is not having to take my phone out of my pocket to see if I want to talk to whoever is calling or texting or whatever.

Paul: Yes, it is quite nice for that, but I am fed up with being tapped on the wrist. It feels like, you know when your kids are little and they are tapping you the whole time to get your attention, that’s what it feels like. I feel like I’ve got a toddler again, this time attached to my wrist.

Marcus: Can’t you turn it off, Paul?

Paul: Well yes I could but then it kind of destroys having the Apple watch. I got it for business purposes. I can tell myself that now, it’s great. I don’t have you and Chris telling me I can’t have things anymore.

Carl: When I get my Apple watch I know the app I am getting. It’s this app that basically counts down how many days left you have to live.


Have you seen this thing?

Paul: No, that’s terrible!

Carl: It looks at your age, your weight all this type of stuff, but then if you take the stairs instead of the escalator you may get an extra hour added on.

Paul: Ahh see, now I am going to get that.

Carl: If you just sit still all day you probably just lost two days of your life. Of course you are going to have to track all the nutrition and all that but it’s actually not that tough now that everything is barcoded at least in the States so that anything you are going to eat you can slap right in there. Unless you are going to eat out at a farm or something.

Paul: That will motivate me. I like the idea of putting off death for another hour.

Carl: I like the idea of being able to say ‘I can have that meeting in 23 years and 5 days’.


Paul: I hope you are going to live more than 23 years, I mean I know you are a bit older than me, but you are not that much.

Marcus: Who knows?

Carl: I hope so as well, I hope so.

Paul: What’s the name of that app, do you know? You just made it up!

Carl: Well no, I am pretty sure we are shipping this week… if you want to go ahead and send some money Paul we were going to do a kickstarter, but I would as soon just build it for you.

Paul: Anyway, talking about money, let’s talk about our sponsor. I like having sponsors on the show as they give me money. And they also do my hard work for me as well. Because one of our sponsors is Template Monster. And Template Monster said ‘We’d really like to sponsor and support the show, and we’d also really like to get our community involved in asking questions for the podcast’. I was like, yes, fine. You can pay me money for the podcast and also do all the work of working out what’s going to be on the show. That’s great. So a lot of the questions that are on the show are from Template Monster via their community which is wonderful.

They’ve been going—when did we set up Headscape, Marcus?

Marcus: Oh…1950’s around that sort of time.

Paul: Oh don’t be ridiculous, 2001 or 2002? Which was it?

Carl: I know Chubby Checker had a big hit that year.

Marcus: Yes, indeed. No Chubby was a bit later I think.#

Carl: ’66 wasn’t it?

Paul: Am I going to get an answer? 2001 wasn’t it?

Marcus: January…

Paul: I know that bit.

Marcus: …16th 2002.

Paul: 2002? When did nGen start?

Carl: June 2nd 2003.

Paul: Ahh, we beat you. That means we’re better or something.

Carl: Yes, you are better.

Paul: Old is better.

Carl: I’ve always acknowledged that we are twelve and you are fourteen. And a fourteen year old can generally kick a twelve year old’s arse. I mean now, once we get into our twenties, I don’t know how I am going to feel about this, but right now…

Paul: Well Template Monster started in 2002, so the same year we started Marcus. Ah, those were the days. We were still doing table-based layout weren’t we?

Marcus: Heady days, they were. I was putting websites together back in those days.

Paul: We could have used Template Monster!

Carl: We were rocking out Flash sites.

italic(Bizarre sound effects)

Paul: Is that how it goes? Because the Flash group were almost always cooler than us borrowing HTML a lot.

Carl: Oh my god, we could charge a lot of money. It was good. Then we had to re-do everything because we were not good people evidently. I apologised to no-one. It was fabulous!

Paul: So yes, I can’t remember what the point of this was. Oh yes! Template Monster. 2002 they set up, which means they have been doing it a long time, which means they know their stuff. Does it mean that? Actually, truthfully? Just because you’ve been doing something a long time, does that make you better at it? Yes. I’ve decided to go with yes. Because otherwise the implication is I’m old and of no use.

Carl: I’ve been drinking a long time, and I think that makes me better at that.

Marcus: I am definitely better at drinking than I used to be. No question. Years of practice.

Paul: I can’t hold as much as I used to be able to.

Marcus: Really?

Paul: No. When I was a student it was great. These days, I am turning into Chris Scott.

Marcus: No, that’s not possible. But are the Rolling Stones now as good as they were in the ‘60s?

Carl: They actually had one of the top grossing tours, but that doesn’t mean anything.

Marcus: Last time I saw them was 1989 I think.

Carl: Oh was that Steel Wheels?

Marcus: Yes.

Carl: I saw that tour. I think everybody is waiting to see if Keith Richards eventually grows wings and flies off the stage. Because there is something there. We need to start thinking about what kind of world we are going to leave for Keith Richards.

Marcus: It’s quite interesting to think that my great grandchildren will be around to see him.

Paul: That’s terrifying.

Marcus: Mick’s the same. They just don’t ever change.

Carl: He’s one of the few that you see who’s still dancing around like they used to. Elton John can hardly get off the piano stool but Mick is all over the frigging stage.

Paul: Do you think Template Monster care that we are talking about Rolling Stones in the middle of their segment?

Marcus: You were saying that if you were going for a long time, that makes you better. But I don’t think so if you compare it to the musical world.

Paul: Ok, this is how we are making our judgement.

Marcus: You become a has-been.

Paul: Right. Anyway.

Carl: So Template Monster are better than the Rolling Stones?

Paul: Yes, they are the Rolling Stones of the template world.

Carl: And Flash is dead.

Paul: In fact I don’t even know whether they have Flash templates anymore on Template Monster. They’ve got some very over the top CSS animations on there. Do you still have Flash? It’s all alright people, Flash is still there.

You can try before you buy. Templates can be downloaded so that you can make sure you can use them if you are not a big coder and you are trying to put something together. So Marcus, you can download them and try them before you buy.

And they have 24/7 support for you Marcus. You can ring them up and you can get help and they are always there for you. 24/7 that’s quite impressive isn’t it.

Carl: Can you call them if you are just lonely?

Paul: Yeah!

Carl: And just say ‘Hey it’s 3.00am and I can’t sleep…’

Paul: You don’t even have to be a customer. You can talk to them for as long as you want. I suggest you give it a try. Just ring them up, you know?


Carl: You know Zapper won’t answer my calls anymore so I have got to find somewhere.

Paul: See there you go. That’s what it is. They’ve got a really great help section. I presume that’s related to just templates and not to mental health, but I don’t know. You’ll need to go have a look and you can do so by going to www.boagworld/TemplateMonster. I am sorry to everybody at Template Monster. I promise to do a better job next week. There we go.

Discussing working with others

Paul: So discussion time. So Carl, as you may or may not know, because I am sure you are an avid follower of the podcast and listen to every single episode, so you will know that we are talking about—I am just going to go right over the silence there—you will know we are spending this season talking about setting up and running your own web design business. And I use web design in the loosest sense of the word, not just for designers but for a digital services business. But that seems so pretentious that I didn’t want to say that. And this particular episode we are going to be talking about the solo versus getting partners versus having employees route. What the different options that are available and how you go about dealing with that.

You found nGen. Did you found it by yourself or did you have partners?

Carl: I started with three equal partners.

Paul: Ok. Ahh now I didn’t know that. You say started, so did they lose the will to live as they worked with you?

Marcus: Buried under the patio.

Carl: Well. I hate to say it but Marcus has some accurate information I did not know was still out there. No, it was my idea to start the company but there were three people I really wanted. I was leaving a situation where there was a lot of inequity in the agency I worked at, a full service agency and so I wanted to try to build an egalitarian society. The Peoples Republic of nGen we were often called.

Paul: You really are a hippie aren’t you?

Carl: Yeah, so we started with three. I was the only one who had any money and so they had three years to buy in. And then over time a few didn’t work out, two others ended up getting offers to do other things that they wanted to try and so I ran it myself for six years.

Paul: So from your point of view, as you compare doing it for yourself, running it by yourself and running it with some partners, what were the pros and cons from your point of view?

Carl: Well running it with partners had a lot of pros in the sense that you had somebody to bounce ideas off of. You’ve got to have the right partner, right? Somebody you can trust and complement your skills, you don’t too much overlap I think. And so we were able to have great conversations and I don’t know if you saw this, there was an article that went out today actually, Cap Watkins put it out there and it’s about a sliding scale. It’s about the give a **** scale.

Paul: Oh I saw the article, but the title put me off. I’m such a clean gentleman.

Carl: There you go. But what it is, is basically, say you and I Paul, were running a company together and you had a particular way you felt an email should go out to the clients. And I said ‘well I really disagree with that. I don’t know if I want to put us in that light.’ And then I said ‘to me Paul, on a scale of 1 to 10 that’s like a 4 for me. What is it for you?’ And you’d say ‘Oh it’s like a 7 for me’. And I’d say ‘well do it the way you want, it’s not as important to me’.

And we used to work that way anyway. And Verique Rosetti (???) who was the original designer at nGen, he really cared about the work product, the quality bar. That was his thing. I really cared about the client experience and how our customers felt. And so he always deferred to me on how we would handle clients and I always deferred to him on how we would maintain the quality of the products. So I think if you’ve got partners and can do it that way it’s brilliant but communication has to be amazing. You’ve got to be constantly talking and understand the things that matter to each other.

If you’re running solo I think the big benefits are you really can move faster. You don’t have to slow down. You still have a lot of communication if you have a team, which I think is critical, but the downside is you have to find an advisory board or some external group that you can talk to otherwise you just start building one flavour. You don’t have anything that’s keeping you fresh.

Paul: Yes. I mean I’ve got to say, I couldn’t have done Headscape without Marcus and Chris, beyond their practical contributions.

Carl: Marcus is listening, you know he can hear you with this?

Paul: Yes, I know. Occasionally I will be nice to him. Because I think the pressure of building something of that size by yourself is some significance. Did you ever struggle with that when you were by yourself? Because you’ve got a lot of peoples jobs riding on you.

Carl: There was a time when we had thirty two people and I was the only one pretty much running it and so that was the beginning of the jellyfish model and the way we tried to be opt in and autonomous and have people manage themselves and it worked really well sometimes and other times it was just a horrible mess. But the thing that I learned was you can’t as an individual, manage that many people. You will lose your life. We were in eight different time zones. I would be up at 6.00am and not quit working til 11.00pm or midnight. Which is why I am anti-busy now. I did that and that was horrible.

I’ve got a partner now, I’ve brought on Ben Jordon who was over at the Envision app (???) and Ben is now the President at nGen Works. I mean we never even had titles like that but we’ve had these conversations about how titles are important to clients and I am learning to give on some of the flavour that I was building. The way I was running the company. The other thing is that Geoff Wilson over at 352—which is a shop over here in Atlanta Georgia, I am sure that other people have said this but Geoff was the first person I had heard say it—he said the people that got you here can’t get you there. And I was tabbed out. I mean there was nothing more I was going to be able to do to create a great environment for the employees or for my family. Then we were at that point and I was pretty much losing my life and so I am a big fan of having a partner now.

Paul: I have got to say, it worked really well for us, didn’t it Marcus? Well it still is for you, just not with me.

Marcus: It’s so much better now.


Paul: This is an interesting question mind, because we did work together for thirteen years. Has it changed the dynamic me not being there? Honestly?

Marcus: Honestly it has. And the moment it’s ok. I worry for where we’ll be in two or three years’ time because Chris and I are, well the three of us when we started the company and all the time we were working together were all very different people with very different skills that matched quite well. So therefore Chris and I still do. But losing your input, as I said at the moment, fine. We’ve only been doing this for four months, but my concern is that you used to come in and basically tear the place up on a two year basis and say ‘we need to do X or Y’. And quite often that was absolutely the right thing to do and I don’t think Chris or I will do that. However we do have people who work for us that do that and we already have had conversations about our processes and the way we were approaching project work and that kind of thing and we’ve changed already but that’s been driven by people that work for us, not from myself or Chris. So I think we’ll be alright. But yes, that’s what I miss about you Paul as a Director of the company and the fact that you were always saying ‘we need to be doing this, this area is the next big thing, we need to make sure we get into that’ and Chris and I just get on with it and get on with what we are doing and tend not to look to the future too much. But others do it seems.

Paul: What about from a decision-making point of view? Because one of the things that always worked really well about the three of us and I think is a key point when you are creating anything about a partnership is that you’ve got people that come at a problem from a slightly different angle. And you’re very laid back and Chris is the other end of the spectrum…

Marcus: I still get my own way all the time. I mean that’s how it used to be and that’s how…

Paul: That’s so not true Marcus. If that was true, if you got your way the whole time, Headscape would have been out of business ten years ago as it would have run out of money.

Marcus: We haven’t had any difficult decisions to make yet.

Paul: That will be interesting to see, because I often wonder that with a partnership that is just two of you. The great thing about having an odd number is that there is always someone to break the tie.

Marcus: Yes. We still have Brian.

Paul: Yes, that’s true.

Marcus: Who’s in the background.

Paul: Well you still have me.

Marcus: Yes, you are still a Director of the company so if there are any serious decisions needing to be made then obviously your opinion would be sought.

Carl: Well you can still go in every two years and just tear the place…

Paul: Yes.

Carl: That’s too big of a commitment?

Marcus: That’s a serious point. You are still a Director of the company and yes, if that’s the role that we are lacking, which we possibly are, then that’s what we want from you Paul. There you go.

Paul: Thanks Carl. You’ve just given me a job today. I was just hoping they’d hand me dividends every few years.

Carl: That only works for about nine months. But it’s a really glorious nine months.

Paul: So I mean for me, I am just thinking about what the downsides of being solo are. It is having that somebody to bounce things off of. And I don’t have that advisory board or whatever you want to call it, yet. I mean I have my wife that tells me what to do, but that’s a very different thing. So I miss that.

I miss… it’s almost just a confidence thing as well. You know you wake up those days going ‘shit, is this the right thing to do? Am I sitting here just wasting my time? Should I be doing something else?’ So I miss having Chris and Marcus to go ‘No, no, that’s alright Paul, or don’t be such an idiot, go on and do something useful’. And I tell you the other thing I miss, is I miss that little sense of guilt that Marcus and Chris brought to me. Now there is no reason why I can’t just doss around and do nothing, other than I won’t be able to feed my family. There is always when you work with partners, they help motivate you. And I miss that.

Carl: The other down side to being a solo flyer is you’re not allowed to have family crisis’s. Because my Dad’s really sick and I have just spent a lot of time with him right now. And I know there is somebody else who can make decisions and ping me if something is big enough to worry about. So it’s one of those things that I am kind of on call right now and it looks as though everything is going to be fine. But it’s one of those things where it’s really nice.

Whereas last year when that hit, I had to be sitting with him in a hospital and trying to respond to emails and bounce things around and it was a disaster. So that’s the other thing. It helps having someone to carry the load when things get rough for you personally.

Paul: Yes. And that has been the case all through this, hasn’t it. Over the years Marcus.

Marcus: What have you done, Paul?

Paul: I know. This is a terrible idea. Ok, lets cheer myself up. Where can partnerships go wrong? What’s the down side of a partnership? There must be one. I supposed arguing over stuff, personality clashes.

Carl: Definitely.

Paul: Because it’s like getting married. It’s an enormous commitment.

Carl: It’s huge and so I think where things go wrong is that it’s just like marriage. Its expectations going into it. You’re each bringing in your own experiences, your history of interacting with other people and if you have been in another company then you either were treated well or treated poorly or a mixture of both. I know when Ben was coming on, we spent a whole day just talking about how each of us could fuck this up for the other person. But that was what we did.

So I told him ‘here’s what going to get me. If I have the sense that you are not being completely honest I am going to start worrying about everything. And I’ve got a history of people taking advantage of me because I am generally really nice and I want to believe everyone is the best person they can be. And so if something goes wrong like that, or I see you disrespect somebody then we are going to have this issue. Now if we disagree with each other I am totally cool. Just bring me a rational, explain it to me. But one of the major things for me is that if I feel like you are just bulldozing something I am going to say ‘what was that?’

And the flip side, what Ben said to me was ‘if I feel like you are just hovering over me, I am not going to be able to operate. I don’t want to have a boss, I want to have a partner’. And I was like, I totally get that. And the one thing I don’t want to be is the boss. It’s been like that from the beginning and so it should work.

If you don’t have these conversations up front, like, we had a conversation around Cole Handguns(???) shows up and offers us two million dollars to build this amazing web portal, what would you do? Ben lives in Texas, right? I live in Florida, we’re both states where people tote guns. We went away thought about it and came back and I told him that there is just no way. My daughter in sixth grade lost a class mate because a four year old found a gun. God Carl, why are you being so depressive?

Paul: Yes, what’s going on? Come over here, we don’t have handguns.

Carl: I know, it’s fabulous, I get everything I want. But then Ben was the same way. ‘Yes I can’t stand it. Wouldn’t have them in my house. I’ve got little kids’. So it’s one of these things. Ok, we’re aligned there but I don’t want to say you have to be aligned on political stuff, or religious stuff or philosophical stuff because I think you need differences and you don’t want to build a homogenous company. But I think there are certain things you need to ask yourself, if this happens in the company and there are just two of you. Like know ahead of time how you think you are going to respond. I think that helps tremendously.

Paul: It is interesting isn’t it. Because it is a balance of wanting different personality types and different skill sets which I think we always have very well at Headscape but at the same time you need at least a common vision about what the company is. And you know, we were very lucky that we knew what we wanted from Headscape. We knew what we wanted it to feel like. What type of work it would do, and what it wouldn’t. We were very much… I don’t remember sitting down and having a serious conversation about that stuff but it just naturally evolved, didn’t it Marcus?

Marcus: Absolutely, yes. We had the obligatory enquiries from porn sites and things like that earlier on and we thought ‘no, we won’t do that. It won’t go down well with our charity clients’. Otherwise we’d do it obviously. Yes, but I think we all had a similar view, a pretty similar political view anyway, so therefore there wasn’t a major issue along those lines. We were never trying to go down particular avenues people felt uncomfortable about.

I think the other advantage that we had was that we worked together for three years beforehand in a very close working relationship. And in a very adverse working environment as well. So where we previously had worked was not a good place. And that almost, Headscape was almost a reaction to that. The way that we shape the company was directly out of our experiences, wasn’t it?

Marcus: Often I used to say—I don’t say it anymore—but when I am explaining a little bit about history, I’d say we came from this .com where we learnt how to not run a company. That’s true.

Paul: Ok, it comes back to the question of where can partnerships go wrong and what’s the key to success? And you mentioned communication earlier Carl, and that’s what we’ve been touching on. For me it’s about having an environment where you can be honest and relaxed with people and you can pull each other up in a gentle way. Because I know for example, that I’m not a particularly easy person to work with. I tend to be very up and down. Boom/bust, overstuff. But it was learning that it was ok for me to be like that, but that Marcus and Chris would just…if they had enough of it, they’d say they had had enough of it. There was that safe environment where I knew I wasn’t going to deeply offend anybody because they would just have a go at me back and we’d all get past it and move on. There was none of that bottling up that happens, of resentment.

Carl: Right.

Paul: Is that right, or is there years of bitterness in you Marcus that you need to express now?

Marcus: No, not at all. Chris and I just let you run. It goes back to the original point of what we miss. Yes, sometimes you might go down an avenue that wasn’t necessarily a good thing to do, but we just let you go. Because generally speaking that brought great value to the company.

Paul: Although we did have some big cock-ups along the way as well.

Carl: You guys had that shared experience in the other company and that’s unbelievably valuable. Because you all felt at some level the same way about how that company could have done things better or what they were doing that wasn’t fair. So that gave you a good based to start from. I think that’s amazing. For Ben bringing him on, we talked about the worst jobs that we had had. It’s kind of like talking about your old girlfriends with your new one. And I’m married now, so none of that nonsense. But it’s just one of those things where you want somebody to understand where you came from so that they can understand what you are doing and where you are going.

Paul: It comes on to…I’ve just seen what I’ve got written in my notes…’what about a looser relationship?’ That isn’t what I meant at all. I meant have you every experimented with a looser kind of arrangement other than… because there is a sliding scale, isn’t there these days. There used to be either you had a choice, either you worked solo or you had official business partners. But now increasingly you are seeing this network of freelancers or individuals coming together and working in a more loose arrangement and there may be becoming more formal over time. Now I know you have a lot of… because of Owners Summit and because of a lot of things you do you have contact with a lot of different agencies. I was just interested in what good or bad things you have heard about those kind of arrangements?

Carl: I think those arrangements are awesome from the perspective of pitching work, because you are able to put together a team that has more experience. You can put together people who are really well known in a certain area. When we were working in that manner it was great. We actually not only got Dan Reuben to be on the team, but he did work, so that was amazing. Because you know Dan’s job is travelling around not working, and he is amazingly experienced and good at it. But he has a lot of experience when it comes to fund raising and things like that for Universities. So he’d done a lot of that kind of work. And so we were up for a project with Columbia University and being able to say that Dan had that experience, really helped us get the work. So when you are bringing together a team like that you can make it very much like the SuperFriends and they have the exact skill sets, they have the experience, sort of thing. I think the down side—and you know Dan Mall’s a good friend over at SuperFriendly I think he’s got the best example of this model right now—is the feeling like you have to learn how to dance again every time. And you don’t get in a groove. I am sure Dan brings back a lot of the same people over and over but I can only imagine over time for me, I would just get really tired of that and would want to know somebody else could pick it up and go. Because you have to manage the quality bar every time. And there’s a chance that people are going to go dark on you. And who’s on the hook? You are.

Paul: I mean there is also other practicalities as well of just having, being able to get hold of people that you want to. Other times having to go with new people because you couldn’t get the person you originally wanted available. It also cuts into things like profit margins and that kind of stuff if you are effectively giving away chunks of the project to a third party. But I don’t know. On the other hand it’s quite interesting. In my situation right now, that’s quite an appealing model as I get some bigger clients interested working with me. Although to be honest a lot of the time I come back to Headscape because I know them and it’s easy.

Marcus: That’s a form of it though, isn’t it?

Paul: Yes, I guess so.

Marcus: You working with us is a form of networking.

Paul: Yes, I hadn’t thought of it that way. But it is, yes, basically.

Carl: Well there are two things to what you just said Paul. One is, for us, we were constantly talking to people that we didn’t need to work with. So there was always three or four hours a week where I would be on the phone with somebody, like Elliot Jay Stocks at one point. I didn’t know when we would ever need Elliot, but we liked him and trusted him and I thought he did great work and so we just started that conversation. And once a month we just had a little email that would go out which would say ‘Are you available this month? Are you available next month?’ and everyone got into the groove of letting us know if they were on a project or not.

I mean, its work. It’s something to keep it rolling, but that way, when you do have a need to show up, you don’t have to negotiate price, you don’t have to negotiate those things, because you have already done it. The other thing I would say is ‘Yes, they are taking part in the project but when the project has gone, so are they’. So you don’t have this concern over I’ve got to feed the beast. I’ve got this huge payroll, the pipelines not looking that good. It’s truly you turn it on when the work is there and turn it off when it’s not. So that one I push back on a little bit.

Paul: Yes, I totally agree with that actually. Which brings us nicely on to employees and taking on employees. The number of times I get people who say ‘How do you make that decision about taking on the first person?’ I always answer it as you don’t really make the decision it’s just that you get to the point of hysteria and if you don’t take someone on you are just going to go and leave in a strop. So I think that always used to be our bar didn’t it Marcus? You couldn’t stick it anymore?

Marcus: Yes. Big projects – winning big projects often means hiring people.

[phone ring]

Paul: Oh Marcus!

Marcus: I’m terribly sorry.

Carl: And it’s not on queue.

Paul: It’s a big project! He’s just turned the phone off on a massive project.

Marcus: Yes, it’s Coca-cola. Erm yes, thinking out loud again. Every time we tried to hire someone thinking ahead and that we’re going to go down this route that tended not to work. When we employed people because we really needed them they tended to work. But when we tried to plan ahead that we’re going to go into this particular sphere that did tend not to work. I don’t know if that’s a general thing, or if it’s just us.

Paul: What was your experience Carl, because I mean, thirty two people. You must have done a lot of hiring over the years.

Carl: Well it was and the thing that we finally got to was that we had an on-boarding process that allowed us to work with people in a way that was fair to them and fair to the company and fair to our clients as well. So we would basically, when there was somebody we wanted to work with—the team wanted to work with—we would offer them the project with the team at whatever hours per week they could offer. Because we didn’t want them to quit a job or anything like that. So if they could give us fifteen hours over the weekend or whatever it might be, that would give the team a chance to work together and at any point when that project was going on, if somebody on the team felt like ‘We’re really better with this person’ then they could bring it up and immediately offer that persona a six month agreement. So it was going from a trial to a six month contract and then at the end of that contract, that person was either hired or we really didn’t work with them again.

Because something was either going to happen where we were like ‘Ok, that person makes us better and we want them here’. But try before you buy is at least a popular thing in the States. At least in the shops that I know. I know there are developers try this one week test, but I think it puts so much strain on the individual, you don’t see really how they are going to work, or they just fake it for a week.

When you are really in the throws and the client does something that’s just not cool or you realise that somebody doesn’t understand the technology. That’s where you see how people really react. So that’s what we were always looking for. How does this person react under stress? Are they adding value to the team? Did they do something you didn’t expect which was really valuable?

Paul: Do you think that would work in the UK, Marcus? Because we’re very different attitudes towards employment over here. In America workers are scum aren’t they basically? You don’t get anything.

Carl: The good ones, the good ones are.

Marcus: You can hire on contract if you want to. We’ve just never done it.

Paul: I wonder whether people would be as amenable to it. That’s what I am interested in. Because there is a different work culture here. If I had a job somewhere else and I was looking to move, the chances are someone else is going to offer me a full time job and am I really going to want to chance a six month contract over a full time position? It’s difficult isn’t it?

I like the idea a lot, it sounds like a great idea. But we never did it. Why not? Why not Marcus? What was wrong with you?

Marcus: Nothing’s wrong with me. It’s worked out. Kind of. Nearly.

Paul: Oh come on. We’ve had our bad moments.

Marcus: Yes, we have.

Paul: Although I suspect Carl has too.

Marcus: They are long gone.

Carl: Oh have we had some bad…. That’s a whole other podcast.

Paul: So ok, if you’ve got like a six month contract you’ve got ample time to find out whether someone’s right or not. How do we make those judgements Marcus? Because it was basically down to the interview, wasn’t it? Although you do have a suspicious ability to sniff out dodgy people.

Carl: Paul I notice you left the company. Marcus did you…?

Marcus: Because we have always been not particularly corporate, you can tell…what we always wanted were people you could trust first. That was number one, followed very closely behind by having the right skill set or having the aptitude to learn. That was actually probably equally as important to us. So I think you can tell whether people are trustworthy or not on a couple of interviews. That said, we’ve always done tests for developers and one of our current developers Chris…

Paul: Oh tell this story! This is brilliant!

Marcus: …who has turned out to be absolutely fantastic. He was straight out of University so didn’t have any work experience at all but he did have some experience in developing .net platforms. And at the time we were still developing in .net but we were also developing in php and Drupal and WordPress and things like that. Anyway so we had two separate tests and we sent him the php test – build a one page CMS. I can’t remember exactly what the test is. And this guy has never looked at php before and he’s got over the weekend ‘Send it back by Monday morning’. And he sent it back and it kind of worked. And we realised what we’d done. And it was basically showing that he had huge aptitude to learn and to be a potentially great employee which was the case. So yes, that was our story. And it was our fault. We had sent him the wrong one.

Carl: How great is it that he just went with it.

Paul: Absolutely. It just said everything it needed to. ‘Oh alright then, let’s get on with it’.


Taught himself php over the weekend, got something back to us. Wow.

Hey there was something else I wanted to pick up on—Carl we are running out of time as always but I did want to ask you—you talked earlier about employing thirty two people, what was it? Eight time zones, was it you said?

Carl: Yes, over eight time zones. Yes that’s right.

Paul: So you had quite a large proportion of your team that were remote workers then?

Carl: Well all of them really. We had an office that had a couple of people in it. I tried to close it at one point, but the remote workers wanted to keep it open.

Paul: Oh that was interesting.

Carl: When you join the team you actually get a key to the office mailed to you. It’s like a little tradition. And when we had an event in town and people came in, they all wanted to try their key which was great, but we didn’t give them the alarm code. So that was pretty funny.

No, we were very, very distributed.

Paul: So how did you manage that? What advice would you give people considering working with a remote team? For example, one of the guys I am mentoring runs a web design agency in Bahrain and one of the biggest headaches for him is finding good people. And I am saying to him ‘don’t constrain yourself to your borders. Be willing to look further afield.’ But that’s new thinking to him, so to speak, so I would be interested what advice you would give him so that I can then pass that advice on and he can pay me.

Carl: Absolutely. And I am happy to help you protect your phony-baloney job.

Paul: Thank you.

Carl: One thing I would say is make sure that this person has worked on their own before. That they were a successful freelancer. You want somebody who you’ve seen be socially active, that they’ve written blog posts, that they are active on Twitter. Because you need someone who is a good communicator. Not just that they communicate, but the frequency. That is really, really a big thing. It doesn’t mean that they have to be an extrovert. It just means that they have to be present. That they are going to be there.

One of the other major things is I think any team that’s working together needs at least a three hour time of overlap. I think Jason Fried said four in his book, but we found that three worked really well, including the client. That was the other thing as well. We had a lot of clients in other countries because we were able to do that and that was kind of fun. But make sure that you have that overlap and make sure that you have an understanding as to when people are available versus when they are at work.

And this was a huge thing for us. If I’m over here in Florida—forget where I was for a second because I travel a lot—and I am working with somebody who is in the UK then I have to let them know ‘hey I will be available starting at about noon your time. So if something major comes up send me a text and I will get it. But I will be online starting around 2.00pm your time’. And then for you it would be ‘Ok I would be working until 3.00pm your time, but I would be available until 7.00pm your time’. So it’s just one of those things that you have an understanding up front so you don’t feel alone. You need to have even more communication than even a located company. And I’ve got an article we can put in the show notes if you want, but it basically talks through the characteristics and one of the things I think is critical is that you don’t have somebody you can go to the pub with and have a beer and talk over things. So it’s important that you make social time online.

We had a meeting Monday mornings which was actually around 2.00pm for us because we were trying to accommodate the time zones. And that meeting which was called the Water Cooler where people just got together and the only rule was that you weren’t allowed to talk about work.

Paul: Oh right.

Carl: And then Friday we had a Friday toast which was called Five O’clock Somewhere. And some people would be drinking orange juice and others would be drinking vodka. If they’ve gotten together it could have been kind of amazing. But it was just one of those things that we made sure that everybody got together and know each other a little bit because they weren’t in the same location.

The last thing that I’ll say is make sure you do get together at least once and at least hopefully twice a year. And one of those times can actually be a working trip, because when you shut the company down to hang out, it’ll make you not want to do it again. Because the cost will be tremendous. But when you are working together you walk away with this new found loyalty and trust. And you were somewhere and someone said something funny so it’s no longer glowing pixels on the screen asking you for help. Now it’s Paul, and we had that great laugh over the dog in the bar, or whatever it might be. So huge advice – we used to call it people over pixels. You really need face time.

Paul: Yes. I mean, we used to get together regularly in fact they still do. We used to try and get together multiple times a year. It helps that we are all in the same time zone and we used to go on trips together, conferences, that kind of stuff. Maybe not all of us together, but different combinations of people which was always really good. And we use Slack as well a lot. Slack is just a place where we say things we know other human outside of the company should ever see. And actually it’s quite nice as we as Alumni, those that have moved on from Headscape, we still pop in every now and again. Chris Sanderson who was on last week’s show, he’s in quite a lot isn’t he?

Marcus: Yes definitely. Often having a chat.

Paul: And I think that kind of thing is really good because like you say, it becomes about people and not just work all the time.

Carl: I agree. Culture lives in slack for located companies as well. I think Slack has really just started to own that space. We are actually making new decisions based on Slack integration so… yes, we’ve got a new beast in the room.

Paul: Yes, it’s fascinating isn’t it.


Paul: Ok, we’re going to have to wrap it up because we are running out of time, but I do need to quickly mention Lynda, who is our other sponsor for the season. Thank you Lynda for sponsoring. It sounds like a person, doesn’t it, but I am talking about which has got over three thousand on demand video courses on business, creativity, technical skills, and all kinds of stuff. It’s a great place for learning new skills for everything from photography to being a better negotiator or wrap your head around Agile or whatever else it may be.

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We have to do the joke.

Marcus: You know what? Because no one sent me anymore jokes even though I asked for more jokes please, I looked up the funniest joke in the world on google.

Carl: I think that was Monty Python, right? It’s a very dangerous joke.

Marcus: Yes, they are killing troops with the most dangerous joke. Yes, that’s Monty Python. But I managed to find Facebook’s top 50 jokes and I am going to give you number one.

Paul: Right. Why have I got the feeling I am not going to find this joke funny?

Marcus: You might. It’s quite good. Anyway.

So a woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says

‘Oh that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen’.

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down fuming. She says to a man next to her ‘The driver just insulted me!’

So the man says

‘You go up there and tell him, go on! I’ll hold your monkey for you.’


That’s number one. That’s the funniest joke in the world.

Paul: Yeah. I am not convinced.

Carl: Ok, I laughed because I am polite but… funniest in the world? According to Facebook. I bet there are funnier jokes about Facebook.

Paul: Probably. I think we ought to instigate a new policy, which is whoever we have as a guest presenter has to bring the joke on the show.

Marcus: Oh that’s harsh.

Carl: I will do that the next time you have me.

Paul: Ok done.

Marcus: Do it.

Paul: Because right at the very end of the season—we ought to get you back for this—right at the very end of the season we are doing Work Life balance. Which is your pet subject and mine, to be fair. So I think we ought to get you back on that. How to get to the point where you do as little as possible.

Carl: It’s a lot of work to do nothing.

Paul: It is. It’s taking me years of my career to get to the point of doing as little as I do now. But anyway, Marcus don’t make some snide… I could hear you sniggering in the background there?

Marcus: Fuming, more like.

Paul: Oh jealousy is it? That’s ok. I like it when you are jealous.

Marcus: Yes it’s a particularly bad point at the moment.

Paul: Awww.

Marcus: Yes, it’s not fair.

Paul: You make me feel bad. It’s like I’ve abandoned you to a life of hard work.

Marcus: I know, I don’t like it.

Paul: Well no. That’s the point, that’s why it’s called work. All this rubbish about ‘Oh yes, what I do is my passion, I love to do it, I can do it all the time’. Yeah, wait til you have kids and get old you won’t be saying that then.

So next week. Not like I sound bitter. Next week we are going to be looking at deciding on your offering. What it is that you do? Are you going to be a generalist? Are you going to offer a wide range of things or are you going to narrow it down? We are going to be joined by Ryan Taylor, Marcus. It’s been a very long time. Ryan used to help run this podcast and occasionally when myself or Marcus went on holiday, Ryan and Paul used to do the show in our place didn’t they. Paul Stanton.

Marcus: They did indeed. I wonder how long ago that was?

Paul: They were very good, although no one outside of Britain could understand them because they have northern accents. Do you know Ryan, Carl? Have you met Ryan?

Carl: I don’t believe so.

Paul: Ahh Ryan is great. But he is impossible to understand. So we’re going to have him on next week’s show which will give Meg our transcriber a real challenge to try and understand his accent, although Meg’s father is northern so that’s alright.

Oh talking of Meg, she said to me—because I always get little messages from her every time she transcribes a show—she said curiosity got the better of her and she googled your pop career. And actually knew the words to Hands to Heaven!

Marcus: Well there you go.

Paul: She is a woman of a particular age. watch it!


That’s all I am saying.

Marcus: What as old as me?

Paul: No, a little bit younger. Yeah. So.

Marcus: Well there you go. I didn’t write the words, so I am ok with it.

Paul: Are you?

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: I bet Carl would know Hands to Heaven wouldn’t you?

Carl: Is this what you guys do every week? Because I will start listening every week. This is amazing.

Paul: We did talk about digital stuff a bit.

Carl: I am not used to being in the presence of greatness.


Paul: That is such bullshit Carl. I bet you were such a good salesman back in the day. Really slick.

Carl: That’s pretty good.

Paul: It’s like when I said ‘Will you come on the podcast’ and you said ‘Oh I’d be honoured to’. No you wouldn’t be honoured to. Don’t give me that crap. I don’t believe you. Anyway, let’s wrap up this show. Thank you very much for listening guys. Looking forward to seeing you again next week. Huge thanks to Carl for his creepy sucking-up-ness.

Carl: It’s been my pleasure.

Paul: We’ll will talk to you again next week. Goodbye!