Staying strategic

This week on the Boagworld Web Show we are joined by Dan Edwards from No Divide to discuss the importance of stepping back and thinking strategically.

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. This week we are going to be talking about staying strategic and we are joined by Marcus obviously – hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul.

Paul: Because you are Mr Strategic aren’t you. You think through carefully everything you do before you do it.

Marcus: Absolutely. I am doing it right now.

Paul: As I do as well. And then joining us to provide even more incompetency to the show.

Marcus: Oh that’s harsh.

Paul: Well it’s Dan Edwards. Hello Dan.

Dan: I was going to say thank you for having me, but I am not sure now.

Marcus: Apparently I am an embarrassment now.

Dan: Nice to speak to you Marcus.

Marcus: Yes Dan, and you. He’s rude to me all the time these days, and now it’s spilling over onto our guests – the people we have invited to join us on this show.

Paul: Yeah, but there is logic behind this. Dan said to me before the show ‘Oh this will be interesting, I am not very strategic’.

Dan: That is true. I don’t consider myself strategic.

Paul: So there we go. But then we had Jeremy Keith on last week talking about growing a business and he doesn’t understand how a business works so this seems to become, this is like a trend now that we’ve started.

Marcus: He did rather well. He talked a lot about…

Paul: Sci-Fi.

Marcus: Yes well, but also about employing people he talked a lot about.

Paul: Yes he was quite good actually, a lot better than he thought.

Marcus: The things that he cares about, we managed to steer him into. So that was ok.

Paul: And I am sure the same will happen with Dan.

Dan: Let’s hope so, eh?

Paul: Dan is a world-class YouTuber these days. With a massive following of four people.

Marcus: Same as this show then.

Paul: Exactly yes. We are ground breaking aren’t we, Dan?

Dan: Apparently according to you right now, yes.

Paul: I am talking complete bollocks this week. It’s because we are doing it far to early and I have had far…too less sleep.

Marcus: See you can’t even talk now, can’t even use the correct words.

Paul: So Dan, Marcus. Marcus, Dan. Because I don’t think you’ve met each other, have you?

Marcus: Your name rings a bell. You work with Ryan. Is that right?

Dan: Yes, that’s right. Same, through this show I know who you are Marcus, but we’ve never actually met, no.

Marcus: I am so glad you said that because I have a habit of saying ‘We haven’t actually met, have we?’ and they say ‘Yes, we spent half an hour chatting at that conference’. So phew. You’ve saved me that embarrassment. But yes, you work with Ryan at No Divide? Is that right?

Paul: Ooooh, very good Marcus. You got the name of the company and everything.

Marcus: That’s as far as it goes.

Dan: Good research there.

Paul: So Ryan used to work with Headscape then he went freelance. Dan you’ve never had a proper job have you? Did you work for someone or have you always worked for yourself? Because you are only about three and a half.

Dan: Well I am getting old. I am twenty-seven next month.

Paul: Are you really? Well, not the Young Designer of the Year award for you anymore.

Dan: Certainly not, no. I’ve probably not really had a proper job, I started off in a surf shop and I was doing graphic design and my first job doing web design was to re-design their website when I was working there. But it was pretty terrible. And then I did have a proper job, I had a part time job at an online surf shop alongside that as their graphic designer and then I was doing two days a week at an agency and then the rest of the time freelance before going full time freelance and then No Divide last November.

Paul: So it’s only been since last November that you’ve been doing No Divide?

Dan: Yeah.

Paul: Wow, it feels like a lot longer than that. Although I guess you and Ryan had worked together for quite a long time before No Divide became a thing.

Dan: Yes we definitely tested the water with it because it is kind of like getting married when you decide you start an agency with somebody.

Paul: Don’t I know it. I’ve just had a very rough divorce. It was quite traumatic.


Paul: Complete silence…

Marcus: I am not going down this particular analogy.

Paul: Do you not like the idea of being married to me Marcus?

Marcus: No. We’ve had this conversation previously. And I am not going down that route.

Paul: I lie in bed thinking about being married to you Marcus.

Marcus: That’s a little bit disturbing.

Paul: So Dan yes. You tested the waters, sorry.

Dan: Yes, we worked together. We actually met at the Net awards in 2013 so we haven’t actually known each other that long, although I have known about Ryan for a while from him working at Headscape and then working with people like Mike Cous who I know very well. He was always one of the developers who I said I really wanted to work with at some point. Because I’d seen what he’d done with other websites and I thought that he was really good. Then we met in 2013 and by the end of 2014 we’d launched a business together which was quite weird because we probably only met about three or four times.

Paul: And you are at opposite ends of the country aren’t you? He is really only in Leeds, but for me being a southern boy he is further than the M25 so he is Northern. Very far North.

Marcus: He really is Northern, let’s be fair.

Paul: He wears flat caps. So he must be Northern. Or at least he did do.

Dan: This is true, he does wear flat caps and has a lot of Northernisms as well.

Marcus: Does he have a Whippet?

Paul: Definitely Northern. He also has this bizarre thing where his head is upside down. Have you noticed that about Ryan?

Dan: Yes he does. You do see this a fair amount with bald men. They decide they are going to grow their head upside down. I don’t know. I am probably going to have to do it at some point. I am surprised you haven’t done it Paul?

Paul: Perhaps I ought to. Have more hair on my face than on my head. It’s the way to go. I am sure it will suit me wonderfully.

Marcus: Bizarre conversation. It is early in the morning isn’t it?

Paul: I make no excuses. It is the second from last episode of a longer season that we normally do.

Marcus: So we are running out of steam.

Paul: Well to be honest this is episode fourteen. Normally we finish on episode thirteen so that I figure that if you are listening to this it’s all gravy now. This is extra.

Marcus: It’s just a bonus. Like those bonus tracks that are never very good.

Paul: Exactly. So there we go. So as well as doing your work with No Divide you have also been doing a video series on YouTube which is very cool.

Dan: Yep, been doing ‘Let’s Talk Design’ for just over a month. But I did my first actual episode a month ago. So episode four went out the day that we are recording this which is Tuesday. When does this go out?

Paul: This goes out on a Thursday in like two weeks’ time. You can’t do time.

Dan: So I guess when this goes out it will probably be about six weeks. Hopefully I am still doing it by that point.

Marcus: Where is this thing?

Paul: You got banned from YouTube for obscene language or something. I don’t know.

Dan: I am very family friendly on my channel. I did a recording with Ryan in the latest video and he said ‘arse’ and I made him re-record it. Which is terrible really, because arse isn’t really even a swear word. But I think it was more because he directed ‘Once Dan gets his finger out of his….’ And I said ‘Oh no, no, no. You can’t say that. But it’s actually probably because he said it about me.

Paul: And now you just said arse on this show so we are going to have to re-record that as well. We are going to have to beep out the word arse. Actually Marcus, you should beep it out, because then people are going to think it was a lot worse than it actually was.

Marcus: Ok, I’ll do that.

Paul: You won’t do that. You never bother about doing anything useful on this show.

Marcus: The only time I edit the show is when you say embarrassing things, Paul.

Paul: Yeah. You do have to do that from time to time.

Dan: Is that whole marriage thing going to be cut out now?

Marcus: Paul doesn’t…. mouth in gear, brain not engaged. So I am just taking notes that at 32 minutes, 42 second…

Paul: So yes. No Divide is basically you are answering questions for people? Not No Divide, I didn’t mean that. What is it called?

Dan: Well we’ve done it through the Oozled channel which was one of the side projects that myself and Ryan started before No Divide. We’ve always wanted to do more with Oozled and we long wanted to do interviews and Q&A and podcasts and things like that with it to bring more content into it. But for me it was that I wanted to answer some questions for people that maybe wanted

[Phone rings]

Paul: There’s your IKEA call.

Dan: No it’s not, it’s my mates phone, it’s not even mine.

Paul: Ahh see, that’s really annoying isn’t it. We’re very excited that at some point in the show Dan is going to get a call from IKEA. What are you getting delivered Dan?

Dan: I am getting a wardrobe. It’s not that exciting.

Marcus: Does it have those sliding mirror doors on it?

Dan: No it hasn’t. It hasn’t got the sliding mirror doors. I don’t really know what to do about this phone because I am not at my house. It’s stopped now.

Marcus: No, the sliding mirror doors IKEA wardrobes are one of the hardest things you will be in your life. Ever. The feeling of wholeness and completion once it’s finished and you can slide them back and forward eighteen hours later is unbelievable.

Paul: For me, IKEA is this really exotic thing because I live so far in the depths of nowhere that I have to travel ten hours across mountain ranges and through rivers to reach IKEA.

Marcus: To go and eat the meatballs.

Paul: Just to eat the meatballs and then turn around and walk back. Because we don’t have cars.

Dan: You’ve only just got chairs down there haven’t you?

Paul: I tell you what is exciting. I am going to get Fibre Broadband!

Dan: Wow. That is exciting.

Paul: A little bit of wee came out when I discovered that. It was that exciting.

Marcus: I can get Fibre Broadband but I am so far from the exchange it’s only 1–2 MBits faster than I currently have. It really is crap.

Paul: So I have a question about your video show. So you answer people’s questions. Have you yet got to the point where you are making up questions?

Dan: Not yet. Not yet.

Paul: Oh no.

Marcus: He’s lying Paul. He’s lying.

Paul: He is, isn’t he.

Dan: I really am not!

Paul: ‘Geoff from Ohio says…’

Dan: The thing is that I have kind of stitched myself up in a little way because the way that the show is, is that I actually show an avatar from every person that answers a question or their twitter handle so there is like a real element to it. So if I started to make them up, I think I have only ever done one question where I couldn’t find the avatar for the person, because they emailed and I couldn’t find them online. So I just didn’t have an avatar but other than that I always try and include an avatar and make it a bit more personal. Because I feel like the person who is asking the question should be shown. But yes, if I do get to the point where I have to start making up questions I am going to have to start taking photos of random people in the street.

Marcus: There’s nothing wrong with doing that, is there?

Dan: Apparently people don’t like that very much.

Marcus: If you do it secretly they will never know. Oh but then you put it on the internet.

Dan: Mind you I get so little views, it probably wouldn’t matter.

Paul: That’s the secret, is don’t give up. Keep going. Eventually people start watching just because they are impressed with your perseverance. That’s the only reason we have people listening to this show is because we haven’t given up and died yet. They just tune in to wait for the car crash that will inevitably happen.


Marcus: Again.

Dan: I am sure they don’t, but I think you are absolutely right. Perseverance is key. Not necessarily within anything I have seen but I think it’s very easy to go ‘Oh well I have only gotten 100 subscribers over the last month, I’ve accumulated 2,500 views over that time, it’s not really enough to warrant doing it’ but it will come. There is no such thing as an overnight success.

Paul: It took us years and years to get beyond six hundred subscribers for the podcast. And that was in the days when people actually listened to podcasts. So it is a very, very slow process.

Discussing thinking strategically with Dan Edwards

Paul: So let’s move on to the topic that we are supposed to be discussing today, but before we do that I just want to quickly mention our sponsor TemplateMonster – the guys that luckily provide me with questions so that I don’t have to make up questions. Because all this time Marcus, you’ve been thinking we’ve been making up questions for this season but we haven’t… entirely. There may be one or two when I wanted to talk about a particular thing and no one asked the proper question. They also help pay for the transcripts on the show. Now I talked before about their uber theme or uber template that they provide called Monstroid. But it’s actually out now and there are videos you can watch and see how it works. I did just want to mention it again because it’s now out. And it is quite remarkable. It’s like almost hosting your own Squarespace on a WebPress installation. It’s like this huge monstrous (hence the name) WordPress theme. Which you could build absolutely anything within it. The other thing is that they are constantly expanding it. They are talking about adding fifty new things to it every month, including new features, styling, templates etc. They have over fifteen premier extensions baked into it that you can use including an absolutely amazing extension which basically gives you that Squarespace drag and drop functionality within WordPress which is superb. They have 24/7 support on it which is through the entire lifecycle of owning this thing they will respond within two to four hours. They also give you a big old chunk of PSDs to go with it which allows you to further customise it if you want to. They have an installation wizard to make it easy to set up. It’s fully responsive, it’s SEO friendly, it’s got loads of stock imagery that comes with it. But what’s really important about it and I think an important thing to stress, is that because it sounds so big it sounds very bloated. But you can turn on and off stuff as you want, so if you are not using something none of that is getting loaded into the site. It minimises all your code and all that kind of stuff. So it really does feel quite interesting if you are working on smaller websites. Obviously it’s not as good as having a professional designer such as Dan working on your site, but if it’s a smaller site and speed to market is really important to you then check out Monstroid at

Cool. Right let’s move on to talk about what we are talking about this week which is strategy.

So, Dan. When you set up No Divide with Ryan, did the two of you sit down and have a conversation of what you wanted to get out of the company?

Dan: No.


Paul: Ahh this is going to be hard work.


Marcus: Bit like us then Paul?

Paul: Yeah.

Dan: I think it was one of those things that it made sense for us because we felt like we had plateaued. Your time doesn’t scale and there was only so much we could do individually and I think it was a logical step for us to join. We didn’t sit down as such and discuss what our aims and goals and aspirations were for anything. We loosely talked about it we both have similar goals with the company. We both want to get to a position of five to six person agency and then re-evaluate. But the most important thing was that we wanted to work with people that wanted to work with us rather than having to try and take on everything and not be completely happy with it or something would go live and it’s not something you want to shout about. We wanted everything we worked on to be something to be proud to put our name to. And that was as far as our strategy went. Ryan is probably more strategic than me. He wants to and has created more process driven documentation stuff so we can have documentation in place for how we manage certain projects and everything. He had set all our Trello boards in like a Sprint structure so that everything is very clear and focused and we know how we work on 95% of our projects. Which is has been a great thing because it’s no longer like I would pick up a new project and run with it and it would go off in multiple directions and not really have an idea of work.

Paul: Basically you are trying to sound more strategic than you actually are.

Dan: I used to wing it a lot more than I do now basically.

Paul: I am kind of quite glad we have got you on the show to talk about this and Marcus to be honest, because when it comes to strategic stuff I tend to think very strategically.

Dan: Hold on two secs, I have got a puppy destroying some clothing.

Marcus: You forgot to mention about the dog.

Paul: As you can see, Dan is very strategic and is expecting an IKEA delivery while the show is on and he is babysitting a puppy. So really good planning ahead. Bless him. Anyway, what I was saying was that I tend to be very strategic in my thinking and the way that I operate but I am not always sure how necessary that is. There are so many books out there that are telling you to be strategic and to think strategically and to approach things strategically and it can be quite intimidating especially when you are a small business as to whether you need a mission statement, whether you should do this, that and the other.

And that was the first proper question I was going to ask ‘Do you think that it really is that important to think strategically as long as work keeps coming in?’

Marcus: The literal answer to that question is no. No it doesn’t matter as long as the work keeps coming in. But you probably have to review your strategy and that can mean all sorts of things for the work to keep coming in. So answering the question literally as it’s asked, then no. Why beat yourself up about ‘we need to be going down this new route or whatever to ensure that we are still viable’ if you don’t need to. Although I think there are some elements of strategic thinking that are actually quite fun. When we’ve done it in the past we’ve taken the day off and we’ve gone off and had a day to look at what we’ve done, where we are, what we want to do, where the opportunities are. That’s quite a fun thing to do, so it shouldn’t necessarily be something that should worry you. My experience of developing strategy with Headscape has been that maybe we’ve tried a bit too hard and we’ve tried a lot of things that haven’t really worked.

Paul: That was kind of what I was thinking about when I sat down to write this and ask the questions. To begin with I got all excited, because I was going to talk about this book I’ve read and how this and that… but when I actually came to it and I look back at the strategic thinking we did at Headscape I am not sure any of it was any use really?

Marcus: No, I disagree with that. I think the fact that we often looked at what we want from the business which has never really changed that much, but then we kind of felt we wanted to offer that to the people that work at Headscape and how can we make their lives better and more interesting and bring in more work that they are going to enjoy. Not saying we always do that, but that’s a strategic thought and a good one. We’ve made some decisions over the years – Get Sign Off that we discussed previously in the series was the biggest one of those, deciding we were going to invest in developing a product which just didn’t work. I think listening to other people talk about that who are in similar positions I think we were a bit half-hearted about it and didn’t really believe in it. A bit like you were talking earlier about doing a blog or a podcast of a video show, you have just got to keep at it. And I think if your heart is in developing projects then you will keep doing it until you have a hit. But we just thought ‘let’s give this a go’. And it didn’t really work, because what we like doing is service based agency-type work. And that’s a good thing that means we got it right early on and we’ve managed to do it for many years.

Paul: I am wondering whether it depends on the type of business that you are trying to grow. Because we were always trying to grow a lifestyle business, we were strategic in that regard. There was a point where we sat down and said ‘no we don’t want to build a big business that we will then sell off’, and ‘no we don’t want to grow a big business just for the sake of it – we want to have a business that facilitates the lives that we want to live’. So that was a strategic decision. But once I think you’ve made that then maybe you approach the business in a different way.

Dan are you back with us?

Dan: Yes I am back and have been listening.

Paul: Is that where you guys are at? What are you looking for from your business? Are you looking to build an empire or what are you after?

Dan: I think to be honest with you, I think it changes. I think it’s a natural thing because it’s always the grass is always greener on the other side. And I can’t help but think if we were completely focused on building a 500 person agency that actually when we got to that position, would we be happy with the work we were doing because we had to take on work that perhaps wasn’t what we wanted to be doing purely because we’ve got such a big company. So our goal has always been short. We don’t have a big end goal, we have lots of little ones and we have hit for example, we wanted to get to 5 people and although there is only 4 full-timers we do have a contractor as well, there is actually 5 of us that could be working in the company now at any one point.

Paul: I didn’t realise there was more than just you and Ryan.

Marcus: You weren’t listening when Ryan was on the show, Paul.

Dan: I was going to say, I think he covered that when he was on.

Paul: I don’t understand him because he talks Northern.

Dan: That is very true, yes.

Paul: That’s really embarrassing now. Did he really cover that when he was on the show?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: Ahh that’s really embarrassing.

Dan: But yes, there is 4 of us full-time and we are development strong. There are 3 developers although Matt is pretty good on design as well, but there is just only myself in design and then Lucy who works with us on contract for content. Our goals were to get to the position where we are at now and re-evaluate. Right now, our next hire we want to hire a Project Manager but to be able to allow us to do that we have got to obviously have a certain amount of capital to do that. So we have these short goals which I guess are strategic in that we would then find ways of achieving those and at the moment it is solely via servicing clients. But we do want to grow things like Oozled which is a side project of ours hence the YouTube videos that I am doing and we are launching other things coming up in the next couple of months on that. And they are strategic – they are things that we have wanted to do because they are good for the community as it were but also I think you can’t deny that we also do have a business side to those where we do want to make money from them or at least we want to generate work to No Divide through projects like Oozled. So I guess we do have these short goals but no, not like an overall ‘this is what we want to be’ because at the end of the day, somebody asked me at a conference a few months ago ‘What would you do if one of your side projects really took off? Would you kill off No Divide?’ And my answer at the time was ‘Well hopefully not, we would instead bring in the team to be able to work on that and also continue to service clients on the side’. But of course, never say never. I think going with the flow is part of what we have to do really.

Paul: I mean there is that other element in all of this isn’t there that because of the nature of our industry and it’s fast changing pace I think there is only a certain degree of strategic planning that actually works anyway because the environment in which you are in is changing all the time. You can’t even predict what might come along and send you off in a new direction. You might suddenly become obsessed with wearables and start doing more wearable stuff because that is huge and there is some interesting design challenges around it and you follow that.

Dan: I think perhaps with being strategic, definitely within a larger company these things are more important because you have such a large group of people you are working with. Especially if you are a 200 person company you would have to have a really strong strategic business head on you to lead a company like that, whilst we are able to be more flexible. There is only four of us full-time and we could shift into different things if we wanted to. We always want to work into the interests of ourselves so we wouldn’t want to lead the company into a direction that everybody wasn’t happy with, so we would want everybody who is working with us to be happy with what they are doing. And that is always a constant worry for me, making sure our staff are actually interested and passionate about what it is that they are working on and if they are not, what can we do to change that? And that can throw a massive curve ball. Somebody came in with a great idea for an app, and instead of saying ‘we just don’t build apps’, we may just say ‘let’s give it a go’. That throws you off in a completely different tangent and you could suddenly become a product company and you are no longer a design agency as it were.

Paul: I think there is a balance here isn’t there? I think it’s nice, like you say, to have short term goals, to have a framework of what it is that you want to do where you’re at, what your broader objectives are. But then to just remain flexible in that. It’s like recently I decided that I want to primarily focus on Not-for-profits. I enjoy doing that kind of work. But equally I didn’t want to entirely close it down and say I wouldn’t ever do a commercial project ever again because there might be something good that comes along that I would be really interested in. But I felt I needed some degree of focus in what I was doing as well. It’s a difficult balance.

Dan: I think as generally and I know a lot of people don’t like to brand us with the term ‘creatives’ but I think as creative people, talking for myself, I feel I get bored very easily. So I will not just in work, but in hobbies and all sorts of things really, I find that if I was to pigeon hole myself into a certain sector or exclusively work with start-ups or with non-profits or the finance sector or whatever, I would have to be really, really passionate about it to make that decision and I don’t think I am passionate about any one sector or industry that I could do that. And that is just me. Everybody is different. I love surfing but I couldn’t imagine working with just surfing clients because suddenly then, I would probably get bored after a year of doing all surfing websites. I’d want a challenge and do something else.

Paul: That is the sensible thing to do. That’s what the business books would tell you to do, is to specialise, especially from a marketing point of view. Because if you specialise then people know that you are an expert in that field and your marketing efforts can be concentrated in that field. But that doesn’t mean that you have to specialise in that area forever, one presumes.

Dan: No, and also what if that sector isn’t that well-funded? Talking about the surfing industry it’s one of those industries that is very, very popular but it is also—sorry, the dog has just sat on my leg—one of those industries that isn’t well funded in the grand scheme of things. Like in terms of digital there isn’t as much funding as other tech industries, certainly non-profits and other areas like that. It’s the generalist or specialist argument. I answered this on the show recently and it was actually aimed more at skill set but I think the same answer applies. I think you should try a bit of everything and then find out what you really don’t like and I found that the same for my route into web design. Try a bit of everything, a bit of illustration, learn a bit of code, and find out what it is that you do and don’t like because you might surprise yourself or you will quite quickly realise ‘Ok, I don’t really enjoy coding, I don’t really want to be a developer but I love typography and everything about print and I want to become a designer’. I think as a business as well, working with a diverse group of clients is really, really important, because we’ve just recently worked with CharityBank which is a non-profit but they’ve now become a for-profit organisation. That has been an amazing insight into the charity sector, because they work with so many charities across the UK and they’ve lent nearly £500 million to charities and it’s been really interesting to see their business model and also what they do. And I’d love to work with more non-profits, if they were all like how we’ve experienced them so far, it’s been amazing. But it’s probably not true. I am sure Paul, if you are focusing on non-profits you can probably tell me in a years’ time that there are probably still some people that aren’t that great. As with everything I guess.

Paul: I guess the problem that this raises, because for me, if you take Headscape for example we’ve moved through a series of different sectors haven’t we Marcus.

Marcus: Yeah.

Paul: We haven’t specialised in a formal sense. We’ve never said like I’ve just done that ‘I’m going to specialise in not-for-profits’.

Marcus: No, and I wouldn’t want to do that.

Paul: But we have done the Heritage sector. We’ve done Higher Education, Charities etc. They are sectors we specialise in. Why do you say you wouldn’t want to do that?

Marcus: Because you are unnecessarily closing a door. I think one specialises in particular sectors because in the kind of work we do which is quite high-end client services the majority of the work you are going to win will be through some kind of recommendation so it makes sense that you are going to use sales talk further up a channel because a client you are working with, it’s likely a recommendation will go to somebody who is working in a similar organisation to them. It might be a friend in a completely different sphere, but more often than not you are going to win work because you have done a good job for a client who has recommended you to someone else in a particular field.

Paul: Just to play devil’s advocate, but the problem with that is why No Divide or Headscape over anyone else out there? You’re just the same as everyone else.

Marcus: I think it’s, and we have covered this in the series as well, I think it’s whether you and the client feel that you are a good fit for each other. If that client when he meets with you thinks ‘I can work with that person’ then the chances are you will win the work.

Paul: But to even get to the point of them knowing about you, if you are working on the basis of it’s a recommendation, but in the case of No Divide you guys have only been around since November, so in that case you’ve got a personal reputation before that, but how do you differentiate No Divide from anyone else? How do people come to you if it’s not through some form of specialisation?

Dan: It’s a good question, and I think it’s one that we are always asking ourselves. How you get more clients. It’s why we are trying to put out content. I think putting out content around the industry that you work in is a good way to establish yourself as an expert and I think that by doing that, which is what we are trying to do, Matt has written a book about HTML5 and Ryan has written one about Git and I am trying to do more talks and writing blog posts and doing the videos and stuff like that. Essentially what I am trying to do is establish us as the experts in the industry so that we have some kudos when a potential client visits us they go ‘These guys obviously know what they are talking about’. And we hope that’s enough for them to believe we can do the job and actually when we speak to them we think we are pretty good at getting to grips with the business that they are in and understanding that and then being nice people. And I think what Marcus said about making sure you get on with the client is just the most important thing. But obviously that does come later and that tends to be how we win our work. It’s certainly how we’ve been told we’ve won our work, it’s because clients have said that they really, really liked us and what we did. I think a really good portfolio is really key and something we actually haven’t really got at the moment. Our portfolio is just a visual list and then links off to websites. We really wanted to write more case studies and what we did with our clients. And I think that is sort of what you have got to be able to do to establish yourself – that we know what we are doing, we are very good at it, you can see how we’ve helped previous people and we’d love to help you.

Paul: As I look at Headscape and I look at No Divide, in fact any agency, I can’t help but see there’s so many agencies out there that if you look at it from a client’s perspective, if they haven’t come via a personal recommendation and I totally agree with what you say Marcus – that makes a huge difference. There is just an overwhelming amount of choice. I don’t know how you begin to narrow that down without expressing some level of specialism. Now don’t get me wrong, my reason for specialising in not-for-profits is nothing whatsoever to do with a commercial decision though, it was something I wanted to do personally. So I am not suggesting that I’ve done the right thing and you’ve done the wrong thing. Because my reasons for doing it was totally different. I just find it interesting.

Marcus: Depends how far you go though and depends what you mean by specialism. I could argue that Headscape are specialist Digital Designers. We don’t do print, we don’t do SEO marketing, so therefore we are specialists. I can also argue that we are a one stop shop for everything you are ever going to need for web site related stuff. So I can argue we are specialists and the opposite so it depends what you mean by that.

Paul: I guess I am looking at more than that. I don’t know.

Dan: You’re talking about an industry or a sector specialism rather than… as an agency you could do marketing both offline and online, you could do video production. As designers you can go into print, you can go into products, you can go into video and all these various things. So we are kind of specialised in that we are digital and more than that, we are web. At No Divide for example we don’t design and build mobile applications. We are web at the moment. Web applications and web sites. We are specialising in that way, but not in a sector way. It’s not like if you came to our site as a non-profit you would be like ‘OK these guys win it in this category’ and that is a personal decision because we don’t like Marcus said, close doors for the sake of it. But you have also made a personal decision Paul, that that is who you want to work with. And I think because you as one person can do that, whilst me as a team of four, we I think to expect everybody on the team to get into that would be ‘yeah ok, we are going to work with a certain client or just ecommerce’. Of course there are agencies out there that are very focused on Magento, eCommerce sites for the Fortune 500. And that is what they do. And everybody on the company is on board with that. But the thing we sold our employees into is that we are diverse and that we want to work on multiple projects. It was one of the first questions we asked them – ‘What projects do you want to work on?’ and they came back with ‘A bit of everything really, and we liked what you did with this…’ And that’s the dream we’ve sold them and that’s what we want to do. And I can’t expect my personal selfishness to go ‘Right I really want to work on extreme sports websites’ and then expect everyone else to be ok with that, while as an individual you can.

Paul: Yeah. And that’s absolutely fair. I think that the key take away here isn’t whether or not you should specialise, it’s the fact that you have to consider these things. At some stage you have to sit down and go ‘Ok, where am I setting the limits? What do I want this company to be?’ It’s very easy to stumble along and not do that kind of thinking and there is a time where you have to go ‘Ok, am I confident in my decision to be a generalist or to just do websites or to just do eCommerce or to specialise in not-for-profits, or whatever decision you’ve ended up making. Am I comfortable with that and have I made that as a conscious decision or have I just stumbled into it?’ Because in Headscape there were many times in Headscape where we went ‘Hang on a minute, this has just kind of happened to us’ and we’d lost control of the business and we’d ended up serving the business rather than the business serving us. Am I right in this Marcus?

Marcus: When we got to big, too bigger than we wanted to be, I’d agree with that. Definitely. You said ‘an agency with 500 people’ Dan. The thought just horrifies me. They exist but I don’t, you’ve got to diversify if you are a 500 person agency.

Dan: Yes, I think those agencies are typically much more diverse. They do video production, marketing and everything in between.

Marcus: Ad agencies basically.

Paul: And also I think they have departments dedicated to different sectors as well.

Dan: Oh yes, or even specific clients. The guys at LBi at one point had a whole team working on Virgin. It was the Virgin digital team basically but they were employed by LBI. And that’s a whole different thing, isn’t it? There might be a team of forty people working on Lloyds Bank at an Ad Agency – that’s a much specialised team.

Marcus: Well it seems to be the way but there are a few examples of big agencies being bought out by large companies to become their internal team.

Paul: We’ve decided nothing. Not only have we decided nothing, we’ve answered none of my questions.

Marcus: I did think earlier Paul that when we were talking about wanting a lifestyle business rather than a five year plan and wanting to sell the company, I think that the type of work that we do kind of makes the decision for you. There are very few successful sales of service based companies. They do happen but they are rare. And it’s like why bother with that? Let’s not kill ourselves for five to ten years trying to sell this thing, let’s just do some work, do a good job and try to make some money out of it.

Paul: I am not sure I agree with that, Marcus. I would have agreed with that when I was still at Headscape. I’ve had some really interesting conversations in these mentorship things that I do where I’ve encountered agencies that have chosen the other route. Now they haven’t sold yet but they have got a pretty damn solid plan for doing it, which is essentially to target business clients that potentially might want to buy them one day.

Marcus: You would have to aim pretty high for that I would guess.

Paul: For me personally, it’s a big gamble. But let’s be honest Marcus, we are not risk takers are we.

Marcus: No, not particularly. We’ve never wanted to bet the business on anything.

Paul: And we are not even ambitious.


Paul: Well we are not, are we?

Marcus: I don’t know. What does that mean? My ambition in life is to be as happy as I possibly can be. From that type of view I am very ambitious.

Paul: Yes, but you are not business ambitious if that makes sense.

Marcus: Well I want to make as much money as possible. I am an old man now. Paul and I realised that that’s not a particularly great goal to reach happiness.

Paul: I mean we don’t get a buzz, we don’t get happiness from building something large and impressive and cool. That’s not where we get our happiness from. And some people do. And this is why I do think you need to think strategically to a certain degree. For example, one of the companies I am working with at the moment, the guy that runs that company, he’s early thirties and I asked him what he wants. He said ‘To build a big agency’. I pushed him more over it, why?

Marcus: That’s not a proper answer.

Paul: I said that to him – that’s not a proper answer. But it was. He gets a buzz out of building things. That wasn’t a means to an end for him, that wasn’t a ‘I want to build a big business so I can make more money or sell it’ the act of building the business was what excited him. And for me, that’s ambition. Do you see what I mean?

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: And that’s why I say I am not ambitious, because I have no desire to do that whatsoever.

Dan: I’d just say that’s different priorities though. Some people love the client, and then when they get there they sell and move onto the next thing and they build up another one. That’s what they do. That’s a very almost a start-up mentality.

Paul: Entrepreneurial.

Dan: Entrepreneurial. Where you would build rapidly, build big and either sell or whatever. I guess it depends on whether you want to stay with that when it gets to that point or you think ‘right, done that, move onto the next one’. I think the thing that you’ve got to remember is that everybody is different, and so therefore yes, I think strategic thinking is important. But that can be different for every person. That can be as simple as these small goals that we have or it can be the much bigger, broader ‘I want to be the biggest digital agency’ and then go out and that’s how you do it.

But I think depending on what your goals are, you are going to have to be more strategic. So if they are bigger and bolder and harder to get to then you are probably going to have more strategy as to how you are going to get there. Whilst smaller goals require less strategy because they are easier to get to. Doesn’t mean that they are any easier or you don’t have to think about them, but I guess they require less because they are quicker. So it can be something that can happen over a short period of time so you don’t need to map out the next five years to get to a goal that is feasible within the next six months.

Paul: I think the other aspect is that maybe you become a bit more strategic the older you get. Because you start to think, in my case, I am starting to think ‘Ok, I am now 43, I’ve got another twenty years of work maybe, at maximum I would want to do that, I’d prefer to do less if I can get away with it. So you start thinking, what do I need to do to get where I want to be by that point? And what do I want my life to be like between now and then? And what’s the next step? I’ve done this so far, and where do I go next?’

So for example, my decision to leave Headscape was to some degree a strategic decision. It was a lifestyle choice as to what I wanted for my life. But it was also towards maybe a bit of a bigger plan of where I want to be in another ten years. So maybe you think more strategically when you get older?

What about you Marcus, you are so much older than all of us?

Marcus: Well Chris is even older than me. And that makes me worried.

Paul: Chris doesn’t think like that, does he really. He doesn’t have a plan.

Marcus: He doesn’t think ‘At this date I am going to retire’ thank goodness for that. But he is going to have to soon. And so will I. I am 48, twelve years away from 60 which is that nominal date by which I think it would be nice to stop. I don’t think I would be able to. I don’t think pensions are anywhere near good enough these days. I think I will have to carry on doing something for quite a lot longer than that. I just want it to be quite a lot less than I am doing now.

Paul: And that’s what you do. You start thinking about how to ramp this down. Well maybe when you are Dan’s age you’ve still got life and energy.

Marcus: When we started I was 35 and wasn’t even thinking about that. It wasn’t an issue that even came into my head. But now, a year and a bit away from being 50 you start to think… things start to break, I can’t see anymore..


Paul: I was lying in bed last night feeling all those aches and pains, not feeling very well and I was thinking to myself, ‘What if I can’t keep working, what would happen?’ You start worrying about things like that because suddenly you are aware of your own mortality. That’s cheerful isn’t it?

Marcus: Yep. But you’re right. That is strategic thinking that pretty much everyone will go through at some point unless the decision is made for them by someone else. Which it isn’t in our cases, we’ve got to think about ‘Well I am not sure I want to do this forever at this level’ so exactly what you said, what I need to do to make that happen. So yes, that will become a sharper and clearer question and answer as the years go by.

Paul: I bet Dan is sitting there thinking ‘What are these old geezers on about?’

Dan: No but I think you are right. Especially when I started you just think ‘Oh I’ve stumbled into this thing called web design and found out I can make some money from it. Let’s just see how it goes’ and didn’t really have a strategy or anything. And that’s why after seven years of doing it, it went a bit crap. Because actually I got a bit older and realised I have got proper bills to pay and actually I am working like a dog and not really getting anywhere and I had to re-evaluate things and went on to form No Divide with Ryan. I think it’s very easy to just keep going and go ‘well I love this and am just going to keep doing and doing it’ but at some point you have to take a step back and think ‘right what do I want out of this, is this actually servicing my lifestyle and is this still what I wanted to be doing when I started off?’ When you start off you don’t really have those kind of big business ideas. Or if you do, then perhaps they have probably changed from when you were 17 or 18, depending on when you started. Marcus said he was in his mid–30’s when he started on this. So you’re going to be at a very different position in your life at your point if you are stepping out of something else and into this new kind of thing at a much later age than I was. But come 35 I might decide that actually I am bored with the web thing and I want to be a product guy as I am bored with it and it’s no longer servicing me with what I want to do. So I think strategies change all the time probably.

Paul: Yes, they do and it is making sure that you are conscious of what you are doing, you don’t let the business take control.

Dan: Checking in every six months, or a year whatever. Just going ‘Is this what we want to do’. No Divide is very young so we haven’t gotten to that point yet, but in a years’ time we will probably will want to go ‘Right, are we doing the work that when we wanted to?’ If we have not, then why not and if we have then great. And everything can continue. But if we haven’t we might need to rethink it. It could be marketing, it could be a focus change, it could be a staff change, and it could be a multiple of things. But checking in every now and again to make sure you are on the right path you have set out for yourself is probably the key, yeah.

Paul: And I think you have nailed it and we shall finish at that point.


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Marcus: In a wonderful moment of serendipity, Ian Luckraft who works at Headscape shared a joke with me this morning that happens to be on theme.

Paul: There you go.

Marcus: ‘Someone asked me where I saw myself in five years. “I don’t know, I don’t have 20/20 vision”.


Paul: Ahhh. Limited lifespan joke, but very good. By the way, for those of you listening in the future, it is 2015.

Marcus: Yes.

Paul: See you’ve got to think about this. You are going to have to worry about these things in your videos as well Dan. People might be listening to this in a few years’ time. Making time specific references is bad, but we do it all the time!

But anyway, Dan, thank you for coming on the show. It turned into not at all the discussion I thought it was going to be but actually it was a very pragmatic look at strategy. So thank you very much mate. Much appreciated.

Marcus: Thanks.

Dan: Thank you both. It’s been a pleasure.

Paul: So next week we are going to be on our last show of the season. It’s been a good one, this season. I’ve no idea what we are doing next season. So if you’ve got ideas as to what we should do in the season…

Marcus: Just carry on with this, it works.

Paul: What? Just waffling on about running your business?

Marcus: With somebody else. Talking about design stuff. Or Sci-Fi.

Paul: What I was thinking was to do a season on User Experience and have guests come on and talk about their experience from visual design to wearables all the way through to lots of different kind of things. Or I was thinking about doing a season on what you’ve learnt. Where you get different people on and we just talk about the one thing we’ve learnt in the last week.

I dunno. I have no idea.

Dan: I like that one.

Paul: You like that one? So if you like either of those ideas or have got another one, email me them at [email protected] or Tweet me them.

But we have one show left to do and that is on Work/Life Balance, which is very similar to some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about today. I am not entirely sure who the guest is going to be at the moment. I have someone lined up but they haven’t confirmed yet so I won’t say. It will be a surprise for you next week.

But for now, Dan, thank you very much. Marcus, I’ll even thank you. And talk to everyone next week. Goodbye.