This week on the Boagworld Show we are joined by Andy Budd from Clearleft to discuss success and running a successful agency.
We are also sponsored by FreeAgent, accounting software for small businesses and freelancers, recommended by 99.5% of its users, including me.
Paul: Hello and welcome to Boagworld.com, the podcast for all those involved in designing and developing and running websites on a daily basis. My name is Paul Boag and joining me as always is Marcus. Hello Marcus.
Marcus: Hello Paul, how are you?
Paul: I am very well. We have to speak really fast and at double speed because you remember that Leigh then thinks that that is how I speak all the time now because he listens to the podcast at double speed.
Marcus: He genuinely thought you were depressed last week.
Paul: Because I was talking at normal speed?
Marcus: Are you all right Paul? Are you okay? Are you sure? Are you all right?
Paul: But as well as us talking at double speed, Mr Andy Budd needs to speak at double speed as well. Hello Andy.
Andy: Hi guys, how you doing?
Paul: That’s unbelievable. He instantly cuts out when we say hello.
Andy: No I am here, I am here, I am here. How you doing guys?
Paul: We are doing really well. We just have this big thing before we started recording, is everything all right? Is everything working well? I closed dropbox. I’ve done this, and we’re all ready to go and the first thing when an opens his mouth it goes wrong. I love it.
It’s good to have you on the show Andy. Missed you, it’s been a while hasn’t it?
Andy: It has. I’ve missed both of you. I got very fond memories of years gone by, sitting outside bars in Austin, sipping beers and talking smack or crap or whatever. So yes it’s been a while. We’ve definitely should catch up. We should go for a beer and try and relive those times.
Marcus: Let’s just go to Austin again.
Paul: Yes. Anywhere hot would do.
Marcus: I’ve just come back from hot and so have you.
Paul: Oh that’s true.
Andy: I went to SXSW last year, slightly accidentally as you do and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not going this year but I was really surprised. It was possibly the best SXSW in terms of content that I had ever had. And so I have a newfound interest I think.
Paul: Time to have another little visit then.
Marcus: We gave up because it just got so big. And I just didn’t go to any of the talks, maybe to just a handful and I thought it was a long way to go to drink margaritas. Although they were particularly nice if I remember rightly. And to do the great British brews up as well. Which was brilliant, on the roof.
Andy: Yes that is absolutely fantastic. But Austin is such a great city, is such a great place to hang out and going back to SXSW these days is a different because there are very few people that I know there anymore. A lot of those people have moved on to other events, XOXO and similar. But it was quite nice just being an attendee in a large throng of people, not having any expectations or expecting to bump into hundreds of people I knew. And I went to all these really obscure talks around Science Fiction prototyping, what is happening with the X prize, the tricorder prize which is the price to try and recreate the Star Trek tricorder. And just loads of other really random staff. And it was absolutely delightful and I saw some of the best, most interesting and diverse talks that I’d seen at any conference in the last three or four years. The downside is that it’s quite expensive to get out there. All the prices have gone up and hotels are crazy booked. I’m not going this year but am definitely thinking of going next year so if you guys want to relive the heavy times of 2009 then definitely come along.
Marcus: That is very tempting.
Paul: Well you see I don’t know whether I need to, I am going to a conference in Brighton soon which is just as good isn’t it? Writing is just as good as Austin isn’t it?
Andy: Brighton is a lovely town, I’ve lived here now first 15 or 16 years. Not quite as hot, not quite as good Mexican food, I haven’t yet managed to locate a great tequila bar or margarita server but otherwise it’s pretty damn good.
Paul: In my head this conference that you’re putting on, because you’re putting on a conference for agency owners aren’t you? A little conference.
Andy: I am, yes indeed but is not in Brighton.
Paul: Oh is it not?
Andy: No it’s in London.
Paul: I didn’t pay any attention to where it was.
Paul: That makes my life a lot easier. That’s brilliant.
Andy: Oh perfect, that’s good. I’m glad we have this podcast.
Paul: Yes. Otherwise I would have turned up in Brighton.
Paul: In my head, you are putting that on especially for me.
Andy: Yes I am.
Paul: Good. As long as we are clear on that, just a chance for us to get together.
Andy: And for Marcus as well, I would love it if Marcus could make it as well because it’s been a really long time. I don’t know if you’re me to jump into details about the conference?
Marcus: Go for it.
Paul: That was what I was hoping for.
Marcus: Tell me more Andy because I know nothing other than the invitation that I got which was a bit of word.
Andy: Is a coaster. It’s not a bit of wood, it’s a coaster.
Marcus: Is the map on the back some kind of cryptic clue as to where it’s going to be?
Andy: Yes it is. All will be revealed shortly.
Paul: But it’s not in Brighton! We know that.
Andy: That big weekly river should give you a pretty good clue. But basically I’ve spent the last 10 or 11 years running Clearleft, loved it and I’m sure we can talk about it a bit more later on but one of the things I found is that basically in terms of running a business of making it up as I go along most the time. I’ve never run a business before, definitely have never run an agency before. I knew what I didn’t like about the other agencies I’ve worked at in the past but knew a lot about what I thought was agency practices that I strongly disagreed with so that was a great motivator for starting Clearleft. So we just bumbled along trying to figure stuff out and I think we’ve been really lucky, probably more luck than skill if I’m honest. But we’ve somehow managed to build a company and brand and reputation and a set of clients that like what we do. But a lot of the stuff that I’ve learnt along the way has been from other founders like yourself. And we joke a little bit about sitting in bars and drinking margaritas in Austin, but some of the most seminal and important moments in my career as an agency owner have happened in those situations. In fact I remember sitting down with Tim Malbon from Made By Many at SXSW last year in a coffee shop and having an amazing conversation with a really smart agency founder and I was taking frantic notes and I rushed back to the UK and put a whole bunch of things into practice. And there are multiple instances of me doing that. Done that with you guys, you been very influential with a lot of my thinking about how to run agencies and I’m not just saying that to flatter you but it’s been true. And the same with other founders as well. How to structure teams, how to run finances, the kind of facts and figures you need to track all of that stuff. And I guess about three or four years ago I started running a series of meet ups, a series of dinners in Brighton which you guys have been invited to and I know it’s been difficult few to come along because you’re not anywhere near Brighton, but I sit down over dinner with agency founders have some of these conversations and again learn more. I just realised that’s the best way of growing in our industry, is peer support. So I’ve organised a little 50 person, semi-invite only, so I’ve invited 200 agency founders already that I know and love and respect but there are many, many more founders out there that I’ve not met who are doing awesome stuff so there was little application form on the website which is thefoundersassembly.com and is happening on 21 April, in London, in a really nice venue. Be food, there will be breakfast there will be a little cocktail mixer at the end will have a big feast afterwards. But mostly it’s going to be people like yourself and other agency founders along the way giving their agency stories, running workshops and masterclasses about particular topics that are really important and lots of people maybe aren’t quite as good at doing, how to sale, how to pitch, talking about value pricing versus day rate pricing, how to structure the company, how to build the culture of the company, how to maybe even sell the company that’s what you’re planning on doing and I think you’re going to be touching on what life is like after agency. And this is just really to help people out.
Paul: It sounds like such a good idea. There was something similar in the states isn’t there, there is an owners summit which sounds a bit similar to that but it’s really good to have something here that we can do that kind of thing. It’s brilliant, I can’t wait.
Andy: It’s very similar. Me and Greg were talking about this idea about four years ago, about the need to have something like this. I think the direction that Greg wanted to do was to have smaller events that were very personal and longer than a bigger conference. Was I wanted to do things little bit more mid-sized. The difference between Greg and me is that he went off and did it and I spent three or four years flapping around doing other things. So we had the idea the same time but I’m just a bit late to the party. We are trying to do it our own way, trying to put our own spin on it and try and provide support to this industry. I think a lot of it comes out of conversations which probably we have all been seeing 18 months ago, either the death of the agency—I wrote a post about it and I’m sure you guys have had opinions about it as well—I don’t think the agency is dying..
Paul: I’ve written a post about it.
Marcus: And I have one waiting in the wings.
Paul: Have you really?
Marcus: Yes but we’ve just had a load of new sites go live so I thought I’d let them take the limelight for a bit.
Paul: It’s a very topical subject at the moment isn’t it, that whole area of where the future of the agency lies, what kind of work will we be doing in the future et cetera which are segues really nicely into what we will be talking about today really, which is running a successful agency and what makes success and that kind of thing.
But before we do that first of all I need to apologise if my audio doesn’t sound hundred percent today, is because I am out and about and so I am using a different mic to normal. So do I sound right Marcus? I should have asked you that before we started recording.
Marcus: You sound fine Paul. Where are you? Where is Paul?
Paul: Yes I am away, travelling in my motorhome to really exciting… Bradford.
Marcus: Bradford? I thought you were going to say Cornwall or somewhere slightly more romantic.
Paul: Even the Yorkshire Dales would have been better wouldn’t it? But no. I am parked in the middle of Bradford. We’ve got friends here and so we are visiting them and it was easier to just bring the motorhome to be honest. Not the most exciting trip I’ve ever done, we got better ones coming up later in the year but yes that’s where we are at the moment. But yes I wanted to mention that just in case it goes bit rubbish, is not what we normally sound like.
Let’s talk about sponsors very, very quickly. And talking about get-togethers and sitting around dinners and sharing war stories and that kind of thing, recently I had a lovely lunch with the guys at Acquia. And if you don’t know about the guys at Acquia, they basically run cloud hosting environments for creating and hosting Drupal websites. They do some amazing work and I was listening to their technical director talk about their hosting infrastructure and it just blows my mind that kind of thing that they do. So that’s who they are and what they do and I was that one of the lunches that they ran where they had a load of existing clients and some other people there was well and there were a couple of talks from big-name organisations, talking about how they’ve addressed things like digital transformation. Then we had a roundtable discussion about digital transformation and it was just really interesting, really interesting to hear how other organisations are tackling this kind of problem and the barriers that they face and the things that they’ve learnt. It was a fascinating conversation and so I really appreciate the guys at Acquia for inviting me along to that and involving me in that and for supporting the show as well.
So we were thinking what can we do as a sponsor slot on this show that actually is vaguely useful to people. So over the lunch, between everybody there, the Acquia people, myself and the various clients, we wrote a list of top tips for digital transformation. If you’re involved in trying to realign your organisation to be a little bit more focused on the needs of today’s connected users and you want to do whatever this thing digital transformation is—none of us could agree what that is—some of the advice they gave was really good. To here’s a quick rundown of five very good tips to bear in mind.
Show and don’t tell. Prototyping. Build proof of concept sites. Don’t write long specification documents and don’t have endless debates about stuff but actually build it and try it. Try creating something small, agile and put it in front of real users monitor what their experiences are. That was a huge thing everybody there agreed that it made a huge difference in getting things to actually happen rather than endless discussions.
Be an educator and not an implementer. Digital teams and companies are spending an increasing amount of time just educating colleagues about what digital is capable of, what user’s needs are these days and how user behaviour has changed, all those kinds of things. So having an internal comms strategy into training in place was a huge thing came out.
Getting common agreement of what actually digital means. Because it’s such a woolly statement a lot of organisations don’t really understand what digital incorporates, what it doesn’t incorporate, what terms like a digital team or digital transformation or digital strategy, mean. So there is a lot of work and discussion that needs to go on around that within organisations to get everybody moving in the same direction.
Talking about same direction, there is a lot of talk about governance and putting together things like social media, managing content, what gets built and what doesn’t so that you don’t just end up building whatever some senior person decides that you should have today, the typical, well my nephew uses mobile apps, we have to have a mobile app is that’s what the cool kids want. Having better governance and processes around that.
And then all the time, exposing colleagues to users needs and showing them highlight reels and taking them to usability testing and having customer journey maps and empathy maps and all that kind of stuff so people are constantly exposed to these users.
So it was a really good lunch. A lot of smart people around the table and I was really impressed at the Acquia team as well. So you can learn more about Acquia by going to Boagworld.com/acquia to check them out.
Discussion about success with Andy Budd
Paul: Cool, so, Andy. The reason that we got you on the show is we are doing the season where we are focusing very much on three things – passion, motivation and success and the relationship between those things and do we all need to have the Silicon Valley start-up mentality in order to be successful? What does it mean to be successful? So we thought we’d get you on the show to start to talk about the agency side of things and a little bit about your experiences of running an agency and what it means to be running a successful agency.
To the first question I wanted to ask you really was around the setting up of Clearleft. So when did you guys set up?
Andy: We started in around May 2005, so we are about 11 ½ years old and we celebrated our 10th birthday last year.
Paul: On that basis, when you set it up, did you actually have a vision of what you wanted to become what you wanted to achieve? Or was it, shall we give this a go and see what happens?
Andy: I don’t know whether at the moment of inception, the moment we have the idea we had already had this really well formed pitch in our heads on where we wanted Clearleft to go but I do remember when we started, never having started a business before we thought maybe we should write a business plan. That seems the kind of thing we should talk about. Frankly these days nobody ever writes a business plan but we did and we looked at the business plan five years later because we’d mapped out five years of revenue and growth and the number of people we thought we had and five years later we were bang on. And we hadn’t opened that document in between, so it just happened that we were working at that pace. And I guess five years on from that where we thought the company would be pretty much being where the company is, so that obviously there is some kind of internal tacit understanding of where we want to be, what we want to do, what we are trying to achieve. But it’s not been written down in some kind of huge mission statement. But I think we are on track, doing what we’re doing very well.
Paul: So from very early on you knew that she wanted to grow the business in terms of number of employees, you had an idea of the kind of clients that you wanted to win, that kind of thing?
Andy: I would say to a certain extent, yes. But I would prefix that with what we knew from an early stage is the impact that we wanted to have on the design community and the design world. We started because we were frustrated by the poor level of service that other agencies were delivering. We were frustrated by the lack of detail that was paid to solving those client’s needs. People back in the day would just jump into photo shop and start moving things around the screen and it was all pretty pictures. At this stage we felt very against that, we wanted to understand the user needs and the contexts of use and the business requirements and do all these kind of things. Very few people were doing that. So we set out to try and deliver digital services in a more modern, user-friendly scientific way. I think also we were frustrated slightly by maybe some of the narrow mindedness of designers back in the early 00’s. It was very state-of-the-art back then, with lots of blink tags, marquees and frame sets and inaccessible poor code quality.
So we started as craftsmen really. We wanted to create beautifully crafted, well considered digital experiences. And if we had only done that for ourselves, if we had only done that for our clients then we would have jumped forward 10 years and then we would have developed 20, 30, 40, 50 sites and that’s it. But by wanting to share our knowledge through our books, through our writing, throughout talks we hopes to have an impact on the wider community and professionalise design. I think is a thing that still drives us, we really love the industry and I know you’ve slightly veered off the passion thing almost as you started talking about it in episode one, it seems like it may be regretting that having that as a driving force but I would say is a company that we generally are passionate, or at least I am generally passionate about the industry that I work in, the people that surround me because it’s such a fantastically talented positive open-minded group of individuals, not just a Clearleft, those that work on the web. And that’s not the same as a lot of industries. I think we can have this blinkered view of our surroundings and we look at all of our colleagues and we think, will these are really nice people in a really nice mature industry but you look at other companies where people check-in and checkout integrated drive rooms where they don’t feel part of the process, when they are doing a job they don’t fully understand and basically they are just working to make ends meet. It’s not their fault and a lot of people have to do that. So I think we are incredibly privileged, very privileged, often if you look at Silicon Valley, over privileged to what we do. But I want to accept that, I want to be thankful of where I am in the industry what I’ve been able to achieve and hopefully allow everybody else within the industry to have something like nearing that approximating that. So yes I am generally excited by helping other people do amazing stuff.
Paul: That’s really interesting because I felt like that for a long time, but I feel like I’ve lost that a little bit. That over the years I have become a little bit jaded in my attitudes towards us as an industry. I’ve caught myself calling them an industry when I used to call it a community. I felt that it’s been more of a battle these days, I felt to be honest—and we’ve joked about this before little bit Andy— that we are both over the hill little bit is all these young talented people who are doing their own thing.
Andy: Speak for yourself, man, speak for yourself.
Paul: You said, and I remember that you refer to yourself as a fading star.
Andy: Like a supernova you mean?
Marcus: Fading very slowly.
Paul: So the point I’m making there is that how you manage to keep that level of enthusiasm and excitement about the industry?
Andy: It ebbs and it flows and it comes and it wanes but I think some of your listeners might know me more from my twitter persona rather than having met me in person or see me speak and I can sometimes be a little bit grumpy and I can sometimes can be a bit argumentative online but that is usually driven by a real deep caring for the industry and passion for the industry. And so when I find myself in arguments with people online, it’s because I actually generally put a lot of effort into this community, I really care about it and I want us all to succeed and I think we can succeed by doing great work. But there are moments of time when I think why am I bothering, what is the point? Is it worth trying to have another big conversation about the professionalism of the industry or craft etc? I don’t also think over the years I come across more and more people who are getting jaded and there’s nothing wrong with being jaded, just because you do this job it doesn’t mean you have to live it. Some people do and that’s great, others don’t. It is a job and a professional life and a calling and it can be all of those things or one of them. I guess I am still enjoying what I do, I am still meeting interesting people and still learning and as long as that carries on want to take those learnings and apply them.
The learnings have changed. When I started the learnings were, oh wow, learning how to change the colour of an underline, I must share it with people. 15 years on now my learnings are, wow, how can we help make businesses better? And I’m doing that through the conferences we talked about earlier, helping design businesses be better. I’m also doing that through a lot of the work we do it Clearleft with digital change. And I think there is always opportunities for improvement and I think the challenge for the designer is that they surround themselves whether they look with things that are broken. You notice the problems around you. The great thing about designers is that we have the abilities to fix those problems and I think as long as you are fixing more things than you are breaking or noticing then you can maintain positive. If it starts to get overwhelming and just seeing that it’s just impossible for you to fix everything and no one else is trying to help you out, then I can definitely see how that would weigh. Who knows where I will be in five or 10 years? My attitude might change. I’m definitely not speaking anywhere near as much as I used to and doing those other things, because I’m doing a lot with our clients and the company. But it ebbs and flows.
Paul: Yes, I know what you mean. I really enjoy the sharing and the teaching and all of that side of things. I think sometimes I find that passion is a two-edged sword. On one half is really great that is a passionate community but it does mean that people can get irritated sometimes as well. And that has tired me I think occasions. But I find that really encouraging that you are still at that place, that you still fired up about what you do because when you’ve been doing something for as long as you have, and I know the job has changed because the industry has changed but it’s a big commitment. Have you ever stayed in one job for that length of time before Clearleft?
Andy: No, not at all. This is a 15/16/20 year career for me at the moment. I am probably too old to switch careers but I still enjoy it and I still think there are opportunities. I guess what motivates me ultimately is seeing potential. Whether it’s potential in an individual, whether it’s potential in a client project and if you can help unlock that potential be party to that is a wonderful feeling. You do that with your education, you see amazing people and you open their eyes and unlock the talents that lie within.
Paul: From your point of view because people would look at Clearleft and Clearleft is generally considered to be a successful agency, an agency that has worked well, does it feel successful in your eyes? And if so, what makes it successful? What is it about it that make you go, yes I’m proud of that? That’s the core of its success?
Andy: It’s a really tricky question because I guess success means lots of different things. We were successful agency in the sense that we’ve been around for 10 or 11 years and we are financially successful. We’re not going to retire any time soon, there is no life on the open road immediately ahead for me, but we are a stable business and have a lot of clients that appreciate our input and effort. We’ve got a team of people who largely enjoy working with this and do really, really good work. So I think we are successful in that sense. I feel that I have a duty of care is a founder of the company to all the people that I employ and I want to make them feel happy and successful and so my job is to feed them great work and great business and help them pay their bills and keep their company and their lifestyle going. I think you can measure the success of the company through the people that we employ and their happiness, or the output that we do and the quality of the work.
I think some people judge success around awards. We’ve won a few of those but that’s not something that we really put much trunk in. I think as a company and individuals we are more motivated by intrinsic validation rather than extrinsic. I feel much happier sitting down at the end of the day having had a great week chatting to a couple of good friends on a podcast, drinking a pint of beer and enjoying what we’ve been able to do over the week than necessarily being told we’ve won an award or some other such thing. So I think the validation comes internally rather than externally.
But I think again it goes back to what the purpose is of you starting something. If you start a business to have a lifestyle and you manage to live that lifestyle, then you run a successful business. If you start a business because you want to make an exit in five years’ time and become a millionaire and you achieve that then your business is successful. I think for Clearleft, as we said earlier, we wanted to have an impact on the design world and I think the books we’ve written and the conferences we’ve created and when I come across people who employ Clearleft now, when we go and meet them it turns out they’ve been following us for years and they’ve read my book and they’ve been to our conferences. Now, 10 years on they have a career as head of UX or head of design in a really good company and we are party to the success of their career. And then they are really excited to have the opportunity to invite us to come and be part of their story in a bigger way. So I think it’s these small instances, these meeting people, these conversations that make me happy and carry on. I think if that stopped, if I stopped meeting people that found use from the things we’ve talked about where it was painful to sell work, when people didn’t value you, then maybe I would think twice. But at the moment there seems no sign of it abating, in fact quite the opposite. At the moment at Clearleft we are struggling just to fill all the orders that we currently have. Things have exploded in the start of the year and we got loads of work and got loads of open job offers and things seem to be really good. But yes, things can turn on a dime in the agency world so who knows.
Marcus: Going back to this idea of what does success mean, and bringing my feelings on that to the table, it does definitely relate to this idea of the dangers of planning to far in the future. Because we did some planning, we didn’t go at it every week thinking well we going to be the following week and what is our 5/10 year plan, but we did do it in the problem with it is that because you are sitting down to make plans you feel a need to do something different. We should be developing a product or something like that, we should be growing, we should be making more money. I think what ended up happening at Headscape is that we got too big and ended up in a situation where even though we had more people and we were making more money, it didn’t feel as successful as it does now when we are back to being a smaller team and doing the things we know we are good at. We don’t spend a lot of time now thinking where should we be in a year or five years’ time, we are just getting on with it and enjoying it.
Paul: That goes back to what Andy said I think of success being what you define it at the beginning. At the beginning of Headscape, while Clearleft wanted to put a dent in the design world which is great and they’ve very much achieved that, with Headscape we wanted to build a lifestyle business that facilitated the things that we want to do outside of our work life. And is not to say we didn’t want to have an impact on the design industry and I’m sure it’s fair to say that Clearleft want to have a nice life but you define your road at the beginning. I think for us growing to 20+ people didn’t make sense because it started to undermine that founding principle of building a lifestyle business. While with someone like Clearleft, their growth is almost a key component in their ability to influence and shape the design industry. Would you say that’s fair enough Andy?
Andy: I think that spot-on absolutely.
Paul: Obviously when I left Headscape I had to decide what it was that I wanted and for me it was that I liked and wanted to maintain the lifestyle elements that attracted me to Headscape, but a big thing that I wanted to do more was teaching and educating and mentoring and that kind of stuff which Headscape wasn’t quite a good fit for. And so that’s influenced my direction and it’s really interesting with the mentorship, the ones that run other agencies, the first thing I always say to them is what does success look like to you? What is your definition of where you want to take this organisation in terms of what you want to get out of it? And I think unless you know that it’s very hard to go anywhere else and design the shape of it.
Andy: I think the other thing is really interesting, I think there are two things – first off though, your vision of success changes as you grow as a human being. So what you think 10 years ago when you start an agency might be very different from what you feel now and if you can make the goals of that agency morph around how you have changed as an individual then that’s great. If you can’t then there comes a point when you know to align your lifestyle to what you want to get out of it. I think for me; I find a lot of satisfaction as a founder vicariously. Often as a founder I give up my own personal preferences in favour of the preferences of others. But I like that, the ability to see other people prosper, I like the ability to make other people feel great and so it’s very rarely about me with what I do, it’s always about tending to be supportive of other people. And so the direction my career is going to go in is very much going to be around groups of people and that kind of stuff. But it’s perfectly valid to have your goals based on how you want to feel or how you want to behave. Some people gain validation by having a great car and that’s great if you want to own a Tesla and if driving a Tesla and feeling the leather and having all this stuff makes you feel good and you understand that’s what the mechanism is then go for it. I think as long as you are following your own path, as long as you realise that path changes and you can adapt to that, I don’t think you need to gain validation externally. Unless of course really that’s what you enjoy doing. So I am very Buddhist or Daoist about this whole thing, there is no right or wrong way of doing things. Is very individual.
Marcus: Personally for me, I just love having my finger in all the pies of what we are doing. A bit like what you are saying there Andy, watching everybody just do great work and enjoying working as part of the team. That’s enough for me, definitely.
Paul: But it is interesting with both of you two, you both have to deal with a lot of what would be considered, the crap of dealing with an agency. Both of you have to deal with some of those awkward client conversations, both of you have to deal with winning the work in the first place. Both of you have those more complex elements of running an agency and especially for you Andy, you used to be a hands-on designer and coder. Have you found that a comfortable transition away from that?
Andy: I have, but again it goes back to the idea that I’m happier when the people around me are happier and so if I have two sacrificed something that I like to make other people happy then that’s my natural tendency. It’s not all about me. But there are some agencies where it is all about the founder, and the founder can’t hire anyone that’s better than them at design better than them development and if they do then they have a big ego problem and they throw strops. I’ve always been the other way around. I’ve always wanted to hire people smarter than me, so that I am the stupidest person in the company. I am, I know the least about everything amongst everybody but that’s great because I think that’s a good attitude. Why pretend to be great at everything when you are not? But yes it’s horses for courses I think.
Paul: It’s like that comment that was made in the Steve Jobs movie about you play the orchestra, that everybody in the company are experts with their instrument and can do this beautiful thing and you just bring them together and get them working together as a team. I like that analogy, it stuck with me.
Andy: The modern society is built on the idea that you can achieve more as a group of connected and coordinated individuals than you can do singularly. So if you want to have an impact and do great work you’re always going to do better work as a team, as a collective or as a group rather than as an individual. This is why I sometimes get a little bit annoyed by some of the discussion around, I am a designer and I should be able to do everything and don’t box me in. Well you can, but there are very few true all-tools out there and these days if you look at how movies are made, movies are not made by an individual person doing everything. They are made by very complex processes and large groups of people who have specialisms and can do great works. That’s not to say that you can’t be a fully validated person making small films with just you and a camera. It’s just that there is a tendency for it to get better.
Paul: Have you ever had moments where you are just fed up of it all and walk away from it, and what kept you going in those kinds of moments? Because running an agency can be pretty tough sometimes.
Andy: Yes it can be and I think if you’re running an agency there are very few other people who can understand the pressure that you are under apart from other agency founders which is again why we are doing this agency conference. There are plenty of times that that has happened. I come from working class background, I don’t come from a particularly privileged background. I realise there are lots of people out there who have really crappy jobs and so it’s a little bit stupid for me to complain ultimately. I’m not working down a mine, I’m not sitting on a checkout, not that there is anything wrong with any of those jobs but I have an incredibly privileged life that sees me flying around the world speaking at conferences, that sees me using a beautiful computer in a nice office and working with really good people. So I think a bit of a reality check, really. I guess I am lucky because I have family members who are actual real human beings that aren’t web designers. I have a brother who fits garage doors for a living and another brother who works in the NHS mental health field. So by comparison I don’t really have an awful lot to complain about because of had a hard day with the client or stressful conversation with a colleague or too many emails. Is a little bit pathetic really and I get a little bit annoyed by too much self-centred bleating.
Marcus: I know what you mean. I talk to my friends, we meet at the pub and they’ve had a hard day and I listen to what they have had to go through with difficult bosses and that kind of thing. And then I think well I properly had a really tough phone call, something like that once of trice year, most of the time it’s fine and yes we are very privileged. I think we are all aware that and we don’t moan about it.
Andy: I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t think in the agency world that we moan but I think there is a level of expectation that is happening in this industry. I remember quite vividly being sat in California and San Francisco in a coffee shop, next to a couple who were there with their parents. They were complaining that the start-up that they worked at had banned pizza on Fridays as a health kick. They were so incensed that they were going to leave that start-up and join another start-up because that other start-up and started offering pizza in order to attract their staff to work for them. You have a $200,000 job and you are complaining about the hardships of not getting pizza on a Friday. You are probably getting food and travel, you are properly having your laundry done for you and you are 23. Let’s get real here.
So every time I start having a bit of a hissy fit and checking myself I think back to some of these super over privileged people and think I have a pretty decent life here.
Paul: Absolutely. So we talked about this a little bit already at the but you’ve touched on the area of planning and business plans. Do you do much in the way of that still? You talked about how you did it in the early days, how do you keep Clearleft on a course?
Andy: It’s usual good business stuff. We’ve got a pipeline of work that we track probably less professionally than we should, we got an idea of the work that is coming in and the potential for closing those projects so there is a pipeline. We’ve got a fairly good understanding of what people owe us so we have a cash flow. We know when invoices are going to land so we can plan a little bit in advance but the reality is the agency business is really only properly planned 3 to 4 months ahead. You don’t really know what’s coming around the corner is not like a product business where you know roughly what the sales are going to be like and you can count pre-orders. So there is a little bit of planning but not really. I think our process has always just been to do good work and hopefully people will appreciate that and come and use our skills. Obviously there is strategy that we do around who we are going to hire and how we are going to hire and the kind of work that we are going to go for and there’s all that stuff but I think we’re designers first in business people second and so we are driven by the work and we have to do the business stuff rather than being a business company first and a designer second. But there are lots of companies like that, I know lots of companies that have sped up to make money, to grow to 60 people, to sell in three or five years and everything about their company is organised and optimised around doing that. If that’s what you want to do then that’s great but for us that’s not how we approach things.
Marcus: I used distress about the three-month cliff but I’ve just accepted it now but it’s the way it is. I also think that obviously the longer you are around, assuming you are doing good work, the more people get to hear about you and get to see your work’s you are more likely to get more work coming through the door which is seeming to be the case at the moment. So we are exactly the same. I’m not sure about the validity of setting up a business just to sell it. Its fine I guess but I wonder what people get out of that. What you get out of it during that period when they are doing it? And you wasting your life?
Andy: Several million pounds?
Marcus: Well, if it works.
Paul: But then it’s a type of gambling isn’t it essentially. Also I think people get the satisfaction of building something, there are some people that are serial entrepreneurs. They enjoy the act of building it but not the running and maintaining of it. I can understand that. There is little bit of that in me. I get bored after a certain length of time. You know, you’ve had to work with me for a long enough, you had to dangle something new and shiny in front of me every 18 months to keep me interested.
Andy: That’s given me a horrendous picture in my mind now.
Marcus: Paul used to come up with hare-brained schemes annually and Chris and I would sigh and go okay Paul, off you go and do whatever you need to do.
Andy: I think I am the same, I am always coming up with ideas conferences, products etc. There is a desire there to drive and do new interesting stuff.
But backtracking a second and going back to one of your earlier questions about what advice I would give, I think the best advice is to just try and build up a bit of a war chest. So you don’t have to worry so much with really detailed financial planning if you have somewhere between four and six months’ worth of money in the bank. If you have that, if you have a couple of dry months, if things dry up then you’re not going to be panicking and making decisions based out of fear rather than based out of comfort. I think where agencies go wrong and the quality starts to suffer is when they start making compromises because they have two because quite often the founders have bled the company dry. I see lots of companies that are lifestyle businesses and basically take every single penny of spare cash out of the organisation because they want to fund their lifestyle, their car driving, their holidays. And then the moment that there is a road bump they go bust. But if you are in it for the long haul you want to invest all of your money or the bulk of your money back into the company and you want to have it in the bank, you want a cash reserve so things go bit wobbly you are relatively safe.
Paul: Really good advice that one.
Marcus: God bless Chris Scott.
Paul: Yes. I am now having to learn this financial restraint. If it wasn’t for my wife it probably wouldn’t be such a pretty picture.
Andy: I remember a while ago an agency founder who will remain nameless, who sacked a couple of his staff because they were going through hard times and at the same time they bought a brand-new Audi car. That’s just struck me as being a real indicator of a lack of concern. You are buying a 20/30/£40,000 car at the same time as letting a couple of people go. If anything I think, is a founder when times are hard you are the one who should really suffer first and you’ve got a duty of care to your team so I think it depends on your motivations.
But answer Marcus’s point I do think it’s perfectly valid to build a business to sell it if your goal is to create value in an organisation that someone else can unlock and you can step away from that deal with 1 million or £2 million and go on and do the thing that you want to do, then absolutely if you’ve dreamt of your life of surfing big waves around the world or you want to give up agency life and become a potter than the only way you can do that probably is to grow it to sell it, to flip it and move on. And that’s fine. But it’s not what I value and is stepping not with you guys value but it’s perfectly valid for somebody else. I do think it’s a bit of a shame sometime because I do think some agencies are almost run like a door-to-door salesman company. They don’t care what they are selling, it could be windows, it could be anything. The business is the thing that drives you is definitely not where we are.
Paul: Do you ever imagine life after Clearleft?
Andy: I don’t know if I can really. I think I’m institutionalised. So probably much like Marcus, I don’t know what that would be. I can imagine possible scenarios, there are plenty of agency founder’s that have gone on to work with big tech companies. I know part of the whole agency world is over has happened through companies like Teehan and Lax going and working with Facebook or other companies going and working with Google. That’s definitely a common route. Another route is to build it up and sell it to a bigger company and take the money and run. The third route is obviously clearly what you’ve done and I think you’ve done a fantastic job of building your own brand and consultancy out of what you’ve had. I set you by email couple of weeks ago that I admire what you are doing at home and you are probably one of the most successful consultants in the space that I know, looking at your website. You really thought about how all these different revenues streams, portfolio career stuff fits together and you are delivering wonderful advice and knowledge and expertise to loads of other companies.
Paul: I like having you on the show Andy.
Marcus: You can stop now.
Paul: We don’t get enough guests being nice to me. You corrupt them all Marcus.
Andy: I genuinely mean this. I also think Marcus is doing great work in keeping the agency going and you can do all of these things. Just go your own path.
Paul: Actually that’s a perfect thing to stop on. You’ve got to follow your own bliss. We’ve turned very hippyish towards the end of it but it’s kind of true really. I think the biggest thing that a lot of people are bad at is deciding what they really want. What is it that they actually want out of life? I think a lot of people don’t take the time to stop and think that through. That’s the wonderful thing about the world we live in now, you can do what your passion is. You can do what you enjoy for job. The means of production, the means of distribution, the means of communication all in your hands these days in a way that they weren’t in the past and that provides amazing opportunities.
Andy: I would agree but also I would say that the world does not owe you a living in the world does not owe you the ability to do everything you want as well so there is an opposite to that which is that you also need to sometimes suck up and do the crap work. Not everyone is in a position to do amazing stuff. I do sometimes get frustrated when I see a lot of organisations selling this nirvana. If my life is perfect, then everybody’s life could be perfect. While on the surface that feels like a lovely positive hippyish vibe to give, the reality is that what we are often doing is setting up expectations which are very difficult to follow. I don’t like this slightly right wing libertarian idea that all you have to do is have to work really hard and seize the opportunity, and life will be good to you. There are amazing people that are born in crappy circumstances. There are really mediocre people had been born in amazing circumstances. There are whole ranges of people that find themselves in between so it’s not like follow your dreams of following your bliss, I think it’s about being a good person and trying to optimise where you are at the moment and accept the fact of who you are and not necessarily trying to attain something that is unattainable. This is definitely a Buddhist and Daoist principal about acceptance. And I think a lot of people in today’s society, in particular a lot of younger people are unsatisfied because what they believe success looks like, they believe they have a right to it but is unattainable. People want to be an amazing boy band rockstar but aren’t willing to put the time in to learn instruments and be able to sing. They want to be able to walk on stage and have immediate fame. Actually, success involves a lot of hardship and it involves a lot of failure and you can’t have this beautiful blissful life. You have to accept some of that to be successful.
Marcus: That is a whole other podcast I’m not even going to go down that route. Watching my kids go through that, particularly when they were mid-teens with this expectation of feeling that all these things would come to them. Not just them but the whole generation. They all came down with a really hard bump when they realised that life really isn’t like that. But that’s another conversation. One that we can have another time.
Andy: Or in the pub?
Paul: It sounds to me like a grumpy old man conversation in the pub. That’s what it sounds like I have to say. But very good and very true advice nonetheless.
Paul: Let’s quickly talk about our final sponsor before we wrap up this week’s show. It is of course Freeagent that have been supporting us throughout this series so far. I can’t say nothing is about Freeagent, I live and breathe them all the time. Last week I talked about how great their invoicing was and how easy and painless that makes it. This week I want to mention how they handle bank transactions because obviously that’s a huge part of running a business, bank transactions are a big part of your accounting and a big part of your VAT and all the rest of it. Basically you can automatically connect almost any bank account with Freeagent and it will just suck in all those transactions so they just appear within your free-agent account overnight. I personally have connected PayPal, I have connected Barclays – it’s just so easy to setup and so seamless and the support loads of other banks as well. Essentially what it does is that it highlights all the transactions that you need to go through and identify and categorise them. Is really simple to do as it flags them in red so you know that you got to do it. You go through and you say, oh this was me buying another shiny iPad that was essential for my work business and you attach the receipt and you’re done. It will even guess at we occurring transactions so it automatically categorises stuff for you if it thinks it recognises stuff. You just attach your seats to the whole thing and then your accountant has everything they need in order to do your accounts at the end of the year or whoever is going to do it. You can even do the whole process on a mobile app which is pretty useful and once all that data is in, once all that stuff has been categorised then at a glance you have all these different reports that give you a breakdown of your business, how your spending is going, your cash flow and all the rest of it. So check out Freeagent. Give them a go yourself at Boagworld.com/freeagent.
Marcus, do you have a joke for us?
Marcus: I do. A very short joke this week.
Statistically 6/7 dwarves are not happy.
Paul: Aww that’s sad, that’s not funny. That’s really sad.
Marcus: You do get it though, don’t you Paul?
Paul: Yeah, yeah. It is sad. I like people to be happy. Like Andy. He likes his employees to be happy, I like towards to be happy.
Marcus: Andy has gone silent. The joke was so bad. They are always bad Andy, that you know that.
Andy: No comment.
Paul: Andy thank you so much for joining us on this week’s show it’s been really good to have you and I can’t wait to meet up in London soon.
Next week we have Molly ? joining us which is really exciting and she’s been out of the scene for quite a while because she’s been battling some really serious illnesses. We going to get on the show are going to talk about that, we going to talk about her experiences of being ill and how that’s impacted her career. Molly is such an enthusiastic advocate for web design best practice because of her illness she hasn’t been able to do a lot and I think that’s a really interesting subject to explore – overcoming the barriers that are putting our way sometimes. So join us next week and until then thanks for listening.