Miles Burke

Thoughts on startups, small business, marketing & more.

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Early morning Bongkasa, Bali

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The thing with growth people (I am not a fan of the growth hackers term), is that we are always constantly reading.

We have to, in order to just keep up. Articles on customer acquisition, case studies on what our peers have done, how to write better content, grow your social media presence and the like. To be in growth space, you need to be a voracious reader.

I’ve been sharing a number of growth hacking and marketing links on my Twitter account for the last year or more, and easily read a few dozen articles on the topic a week. I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters, follow a bunch more on RSS and then grep many links from people I follow on social media too.

I’ve often thought of starting an email list to share the best growth hacking articles and links, however it’s always just been filed along with the other 1,001 startup ideas I have, in my mental filing cabinet.

So, when I discovered that the domain name growth.email was available a few days ago, I took this as some sort of sign. It was the universe telling me to just get cracking and do something with my idea. I spent a total of $7 buying the domain, and then I got to work creating a simple landing page.

The following evening, I set up an account with Good Bits, which is a newsletter creation tool that makes it easy to craft sweet-looking ‘curated content’ emails.

Finally, I registered the Twitter account @thegrowthemail and got to work queuing up content for the first issue, which goes out tomorrow.

I plan to share the progress of this little venture here on my blog, and hope that you find some value in these stories. As always, feel free to let me know what you think, in the comments below.

That’s the story of my latest side venture – I’d appreciate it if you became one of the first to sign up, and check out a few articles. It’s super easy to unsubscribe if you don’t find it useful; no hard feelings.

The 9 Month Story of My Very First Startup

This is the story of my first tech startup, which was so long ago, there wasn’t a term for tech startups yet. I didn’t really have much of a clue what I was doing back in 1997, however I knew wanted to gamble on something I thought may get traction.

Let me set the scene. In June 1997, the domain name space in Tonga, ending in .to, opened for registrations. There were approximately 500,000 domain names in the world at the time, mostly in the .com and .net space, and at US$100 each, they weren’t such a cheap commodity as they are now.

(There are around 334 million domain names registered now, according to name.com).

The day after their launch, I forked out US$100 to register the domain name, bounce.to.

The cost of domain names at the time, such as .com and .net were US$100 per year, and it was a laborious exercise to register one.

Less than three months later, on 1st September 1997, I launched my first tech startup; a free URL redirection service.

Six months later, I earned the infamous 10x, and sold the business to a US company that already had a suite of .to domains they were using for URL redirection, which subsequently sold a few months later to Internet giant, Yahoo!.

This is the story of what happened.

The first week I spent trying to figure out what to do with this newly acquired domain. The simplest model seemed to be set up a redirection service, and sell some ads as interstitial pages, which would redirect after five seconds.

There were a few services out there, banner networks, which I could jus insert the code, and get paid per thousand impressions.

I got together with a friend, who was a master at Perl (yep, it was that long ago), and we got to working out what needed doing. We ended up with a simple flat file database, and a Perl script which found the correct URL from a list and redirected the browser.

Whilst he was working on building this, at a great hourly rate since we were mates (thanks Richard!), I got to designing the screens, writing the copy and researching which banner networks paid well.

On top of this, and my full time freelancing work at the time, I also started finding any relevant journalists email addresses I could find, and putting them in a spreadsheet. This was way before all these great services which make this task much easier nowadays.

I also created a list of usenet groups (a precursor to email mailing lists or discussion forums) that may have participants that would find this service useful.

About six weeks later, over beer and pizza, I quietly launched the service, and then asked a dozen or so friends to try it out.

Ready to see it, in all it’s glory? I cringe sharing this; remember it was 20 years ago, please don’t judge me too hard.

A few days later, when we had ironed out any remaining issues, I sent out a press release to the journalists on my target list, and posted a unique post on various groups (avoiding cross posting, which was frowned upon).

The response was good. I got a number of media mentions across the globe, which helped drive traffic. An old copy of the site I found had these quotes on the media page;

Here are just some of them:

“…a very neat service…” “…Incredibly Useful Site.”
– Yahoo! Internet Life (12/6/97)

“…now almost anyone can have the presence they want.”
– Sydney Morning Herald (12/2/97)

“…a snappy domain name to those needing them.”
– West Australian Newspaper (12/2/97)

“A brand new service on the internet making sure your URL gets shorter and shorter…”
– Online Computing Radio (10/19/97)

“A great way to solve long web address problems…” “… bounce.to is destined to become an extremely popular service.”
– Biz Tips Magazine (October 1997)

“Bounce.to claims ad success…”
– Australian Net Guide (9/22/97)

“…a unique service that guarantees memorable web addresses.”
– West Australian Newspaper (9/2/97)

As well as these positive media articles, my posts on various usenet groups had generated a number of responses, which I replied to, that helped create further interest.

By the end of the first month, I had around 2,000 unique users, not bad for a very small internet population, compared to now.

It took me an hour a day to reply to emails, look for further promotional opportunities and find other growth avenues.

The great thing about this service, was people started using their bounce.to addresses on their email signatures, business cards, etc which drove more traffic, and in turn, found more users.

After about six months of operation, in which time I drew a modest amount of income which covered the domain name, the original development costs, hosting, etc, I was approached by a US company who expressed interest in taking a stake in the business.

After a number of emails back and forth and a few late night phone calls, I sold the domain name, Perl files, database and user base of around 40,000 users, for US$5,000 – around ten times the investment I had put in less than a year earlier.

That was around a years income for the service at that stage, and given my interest in the business was waning, I felt I got a great deal.

Takeaways from my experience

Take risks and create something. My first tech startup didn’t cost me more than $500 to get up and running.

Reach out to the media. If you spend time and find the right people to reach out to, you will find success. No blanket emails to everyone though.

Announce your new business in discussion groups, etc if they allow it. Ensure you are adding value, replying to comments and aren’t coming across spammy though.

Look for a way to include a viral element. This service had the brandname in every users web address, meaning my users were promoting it for me.

Write about it twenty years later – it’ll be interesting what similarities you can find between your first tech startup and where you’ve progressed two decades later.

Perth urbex

Celebrating 14 Years as a Startup

14 years ago today, I started a little company called Bam Creative. When I say little, I mean that it was literally me, working from my spare room. I had grand visions of doing enough work to feed the family and getting equal amounts of time to be a good parent and play golf more.

So, the golf didn’t work out (I have played once or twice in the last decade), but I do feel I have done my best to be a good parent to the child I had at the time (who is now 15) and the two more that came after the business started.

I say 14 years as a startup, because although we’re 14 years old as a business, we are still always looking at the world and ourselves with fresh eyes. To me, that’s a vital ingredient to stay relevant. That, and staying lean and focussing on quick changes and staying ‘fresh’ and not bogged down in dusty procedure manuals.

I recall feeling when we hit 3 or 4 years of business that we’d grown out of being a ‘new’ business and although we weren’t huge in numbers, we had reached a certain maturity. There were employees, a real office, a full schedule.

Well, I soon realised that this industry and my personal yearning to always be more, meant that we couldn’t rest on our laurels, and we should never consider ourselves a mature business. We should keep striving for perfect, but accept it’s unattainable.

14 years ago, a content management system was a rarity. I introduced a lot of clients to the idea of managing their own content, back when in 2002, that wasn’t the industry norm. We had CSS and web standards was a big topic, but we still had browser wars (Microsoft versus Netscape), and there wasn’t a thing such as responsive design.

Facebook started in 2004, but didn’t have traction here really in Australia until years later. Twitter started in 2006, and was only used at the time by web and tech geeks such as myself. The first mass market smart phone, the iPhone, came out in 2007, just before we turned 5 as a business.

We now deal with social media, which wasn’t a thing when we started. We now create products and websites for multiple devices, which really wasn’t a thing back in 2002.

We’ve changed directions a number of times; they’d be called pivots now, but back then they were tweaks to our business model. Our ownership has changed too over time, from only two shareholders to employee owned, to being reigned back in to a few key shareholders.

We’ve worked on our culture and I have made a crap load of mistakes. We’ve made more wins on the board though, and proudly have a team and culture that thrives on excellence and innovation.

We’ve donated plenty of money and time to charity and social enterprises, which I’m really proud of as a small business.

We’ve launched a number of side products and projects, some of which failed, some of which are growing. All of which I and the (currently 12 person) team learned valuable lessons from.

The big takeaway in all of this ramble is that you should never stop treating your business as a startup, you need to be quick on your toes and move where the market and traction is. Secondly, you need to ensure that you’re building a business that you honestly want to work in – create a job that you love, and you’ll be the luckiest person alive.

Thank you to everyone who has helped us reach our 14th birthday; my family, my team both past and present, Jamie Bekkers, Patima Tantiprasut, the multitude of people who have given me tasty advice over the years, the Australian Web Industry Association, our colleagues and competitors in the industry and to our many customers, both past and present, who have believed in our abilities and what we are creating.

Roll on the next 14 years.

Abandoned car

Should the Government Help Startups?

All this recent talk of innovation summits, grants, funding for innovation and all has got people thinking and discussing. Should the government be giving privately held businesses any support, whatsoever?

Yes, from a holistic ‘future of Australia for our grandkids’ approach, it would be better that Australia uses our minds to create valuable businesses and IP, rather than dig great big holes out of the ground and sell our natural resources.

However, on the flipside, if I opened a wood fired pizza café in Perth, would I be entitled for any innovation money or grants? It’s the same risk as a tech startup, if not moreso, because I have overheads with commercial building leases, wages, etc.

Why should a tech startup get government handouts, therefore creating a false sense of value and extra runway for something that isn’t a proven business model, whereas an existing business model known to work (people seem to eat daily) does not?

Let’s stick to digging up resources for a moment.

In this article on ABC news, they talk about the $17.6 billion that the Australian mining industry got in government handouts in 2014. That’s no small petty cash tin right there, and in 2014, digging stuff up and selling it was profitable, right?

Then there is this article about the $1.8 billion in coal production subsidies. Surely if selling coal isn’t profitable, all these existing businesses should just stop doing it?
So, if the multinational mining companies can hold their hands out and get $17,000,000,000 of government money in one year, and coal producers get another $1.8 billion, couldn’t tech startups do that as well?

Heck, can’t my pizza café get a bit, too?

Would it be better that the government stopped handing out money to private enterprise, which only benefits a few, and instead spends this $20 billion on education, health, closing the gap with indigenous matters, building big rockets for the post President Trump global stage, or something else? Is that too much ‘blue sky thinking’ for people?

Existing businesses barely get any deductions or subsidies – why is the government hell bent on giving out cash to crazy startup people with unproven business models, who probably will fail, anyway?

The innovation ecosystem is crying poor, saying that the governments announced $20 million for WA isn’t enough, that they should be pouring more cash into this area. Should they be pouring in any cash at all?

I’m not actually saying either argument is right, I’m being inflammatory to get your feedback and to start an interesting discussion – feel strongly one way or the other? I am keen for your comments below.

4 Scribbles That Explain Your Professional Future

I’ve spoken at events, and written many articles, about getting a job in the tech or web industry, and how to apply a continuous learning cycle to grow your career.

See 39 Hints when looking for web industry work or 18 ways to be a better employee.

Rather than write yet another article on the topic, I decided to illustrate this, as I scribbled for a young person I recently mentored on the topic of creating a career plan.

The following four scribbled graphs demonstrate my thoughts on working within the tech industry, or just about every industry, to be honest. Picture the X axis as a timeline from now (very left hand side) to the future (on the right). The Y axis shows the knowledge and skills you have.

What we do and don't know

What we do and don’t know

This graph shows what we believe is true, with the existing skills and knowledge we have (lower) and the skills and knowledge we should possibly obtain to be even more rockstar (top half).

How (nearly every) position is changing

How (nearly every) position is changing

This scribble illustrates what is actually happening. The first graph is, in fact, wrong.

The bottom half is your existing skills. The top curve, are the new skills and knowledge you are expected to have.

Everywhere we look, new skills and knowledge are being created by the hour. We, as workers within an industry, are having trouble keeping up with it all and staying relevant.

Your existing skills over time

Your existing skills over time

This graph shows what is actually happening. In every industry, particularly fast moving ones like technology, is that existing roles are evolving, and employers are expecting new skills and knowledge from their employees.

Your existing skills and knowledge as of today, are becoming less useful as time progresses to the future. It’s called skill decay.

Value of your skills over time

Value of your skills over time

The graph above then also reflects the value of your existing skills over time. Your value as an employee, freelancer or consultant is dropping.

This means, quite bluntly, if you are not in the habit of constantly learning and up-skilling, your value as an employee, is dropping exponentially.

Sounds rough, but let me explain a very real situation I had in the past.

I once was great at doing front end development. I’d create a design, and then make it into HTML. I took a position as a sole ‘digital’ person, and I was very good at it, on day one. Thing is, I created everything in nested tables and spacer GIFs (yes, that’s dating the employment period I am talking about). I continued for a few years doing this, and growing the employees within my team, however I kept doing what I knew on day one of the job.

I eventually left that position, and you know what? I was unemployable with that skill set. Sure, I had picked up skills in a different area entirely, however my existing front end development skills were, in fact, utterly useless. Everybody else had learnt this fancy thing called CSS. They had up-skilled in Javascript, they had moved on from where I had been 3 years before.

It wasn’t my employers fault at all; it was mine. If my role hadn’t expanded over those years, I should have got an annual pay cut each year, not a pay raise.

You are in charge of your career, not your current employer. If you want to continue to be useful as an employee, and in fact, become a more valuable employee, then it’s up to you to stay current, and ahead of the curve.

Spending time outside of work, continuously learning and improving your skill set is a must. It’s an investment in your future. If your career stalls through lack of new knowledge or employ-ability, then you are to blame, nobody else. If you end up being told that you are being replaced by someone with more knowledge and skills, then you have failed.

You have two options.

Set aside time weekly to continue your professional development. Read books, blogs, articles, listen to podcasts, ask people in your industry what they value for skills. Do an online course, write your own code, design, website content, whatever it is. Constantly yearn for new knowledge and immerse yourself in your industry.

Stick to your current knowledge. Work your 9-5 or whatever hours it is. Work 1/3 or less of the 168 hours a week you have available. Do those 56 hours and keep doing it until you are a dinosaur. It sounds like a long time away, but to be honest, it won’t be. In a few years, find a new, lesser paid career.

It’s all up to you.

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Words & Images © 2005-2016, Miles Burke. All rights reserved.