Miles Burke

Thoughts on startups, small business, marketing & more.

Category: Business (Page 1 of 17)

Lombok, Indonesia

15 Lessons from 15 Years of Digital Agency Management

This week marks fifteen years of running my digital marketing agency. Back in the golden era of October 2002, I struck out on my own, setting up a little desk in a cluttered spare room of my home.

A few months later, I was paying rent for a small office, and had taken on my first employee. Fifteen years later, I am proud and humbled to say Bam Creative is still in business, and has weathered the many ups and downs over that time.

I started thinking of this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on my personal journey of managing a digital marketing agency.

As a result, I have put together these fifteen thoughts, in no particular order, which may be a help to anyone managing a digital agency, or indeed, any small to medium sized business.

Frequent change is the only constant

In just about every industry, change is now a constant. You either both accept that, and be open to changing your workflow, offerings, business model, etc or you should start to plan your exit.

The amount of changes we’ve enacted over the last 15 years is amazing; but we’ve had to, to stay relevant. Both technology and customer expectations frequently change; we either both adapt and ensure we are offering the right services, or we become a dinosaur business.

If your business is resistant to change, expect to become irrelevant eventually. It may not be an overnight disruption, but it will occur. Look at the lessons behind the change of circumstances of large companies such as Kodak, IBM or Blockbuster.

We either adapt and ensure we are offering the right services, or we become a dinosaur business.

Your team are the most important asset

Sure, I started the business, and initially took all those personal and financial risks, but that only gives me credit for so long. If it weren’t for the individuals in my talented team, both past and present, the business wouldn’t be where it is today.

Whilst it is very important to keep your customers in focus, your number one concern should be ensuring you have a happy, healthy and motivated team to drive the business forward.

Take time to show them gratitude, ask for their input on everything from workflows, to purchases, to recruitment and business direction. The more your team feel a sense of ownership, the harder they will work to ensure your business is a success.

If it weren’t for the individuals in my talented team, the business wouldn’t be where it is today.

Profit, not gross turnover, is what keeps you going

I’d rather have 10% profit in a million dollar business, than 0.5% profit of a $10,000,000 business (that’s $100k versus $50k, for the maths challenged). Turnover doesn’t allow you to hire your dream team, it doesn’t allow you to build assets for future proofing, or purchase the right equipment. Profit does.

It seems that people still consider profit a dirty word, yet without it, we wouldn’t be in business. Ensure you have built in a profit margin and do your utmost to always reach it. Profit matters, regardless of business size, and continue to reinvest it back to the business to foster growth.

Your customers should care that you make a profit. I know I want my suppliers to still be there for me in a few years; if they didn’t make a profit, it’s very likely I will lose those providers, and the relationships I have built.

It’s all about customer service

The difference between your business or product, and your competitors, often boils down in the customer’s eyes to customer service. The cost of your product fades into insignificance, if you provide great service.

Equally, if you provide garbage service, it doesn’t matter how cheap you make your product, you won’t retain the customers you have.

I, along with most people, remember the service I received from a supplier more vividly than the actual product, down the track. I would get great service than the cheapest product.

We’ve made plenty of service mistakes over the years. The best service you can provide, is to pipe up and admit you’ve done something wrong; customers are people too, and they appreciate the honesty and transparency.

"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value." Albert Einstein

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” – Albert Einstein

Your business shouldn’t rely on you

To create a sustainable business which has a chance of continuity after you eventually exit, you need to focus on removing yourself from the early days. I am in the enviable position that I can take a few weeks off from work, and I know the business will continue to operate in my absence.

This is an enviable position to be in, for many business owners. Look at what you do, and what the business relies on you to be there for, and empower others to be able to do make these decisions or do those tasks.

Even if you have no desire to exit, your mental and physical health will be better for always be conscious of your businesses reliance on you.

See my article on the 6Q Blog, How to Delegate Effectively and Get More Done, for more thoughts of mine on delegation.

Look at what you do, and what the business relies on you to be there for, and empower others to be able to do make these decisions or do those tasks.

Cash flow, not profit, should be your focus

As I mentioned above, without profit, your business won’t survive. Something even more important is cash flow – without the ability to service ongoing costs, your business won’t even be open long enough to enjoy those profits.

Look for ways to minimise the gap between doing the work and getting the money. Don’t become complacent in chasing up debtors. Look for ways to maximise your bank balance, so you can sleep at night, knowing you can meet the next payroll.

If you have serial debtors, let them find another supplier. The cost of maintaining an overdraft or having your cash flow tied up in a couple of greedy customers negates their ongoing patronage.

Also see my article, Seven Tips to Make Debtors Pay, on this topic.

Train the future of your industry

There’s nothing more heart-warming than seeing fresh faced interns become seasoned professionals within your industry over the following years. Universities and education providers can only service one component of a young person’s education.

It was one of my motivations when I founded the Australian Web Industry Association all those years ago – this is a platform to educate the existing, and future members of the industry.

Without the opportunity to get work experience under their belts, people will never crack this, or many other, industries. Take time to create some form of internship program, or at least an informal work experience process.

Sure, it takes time to show these people the ropes, however I see it as an investment in the future of my industry.

Automate what you can

If I spend every day repeating the same tasks, I am not feeling fulfilled. Many people, such as your employees, also don’t enjoy weeks of constant repetitive tasks. Always be looking for things that you can automate, and free up your team to better utilise their time.

Encourage everyone around you to do the same. A small investment in extra time spent now, can pay off in big time savings in the future.

Automation isn’t necessarily about replacing humans. I see it as a great opportunity to free people up to think more creatively, and utilise their most precious finite commodity – time – on better tasks and activities.

Have a life as well as a business

This one has been a challenge for me personally over the years. It is easy to get caught up in work, and forget there is more to life. Take time to decompress away from work on the weekend, spend time on leave each year, and value your personal relationships.

It is why I have non-digital hobbies like motorcycle riding, amateur radio and others; these give me a great reason to stop looking at computer screens for a while.

I’ve known many successful yet deeply unhappy people over the years – I would rather have an average income and enjoy my life, than have an obscene bank balance and suffer from deep loneliness.

Never stop learning

I feel a little fraudulent writing this list, as I don’t feel I know it all. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the more I realise how little I actually know.

That is one of the main reasons I always have side projects like growth.email – it’s not that I expect them to become unicorns, it is because they give me opportunities to learn more.

Don’t get so caught up in your business that you forget to continuously learn. If your brain isn’t taking in new information, it’s rotting. The threat of becoming unskilled is a very real issue for many.

See my article, 4 Scribbles That Explain Your Professional Future for more thoughts on this topic.

The older I get, and the more experience I have, the more I realise how little I actually know.

Include the wider community as a stakeholder

Every business has a number of stakeholder segments – there are your customers, your shareholders, your employees. One group I feel should always be considered a stakeholder is the wider community.

It needn’t be a huge burden on your finances. You could formalise some form of volunteering program, or give back to charities by donating your products or services, or indeed have a financial donation program.

I’m encouraged by the amount of charitable organisations my business has been able to help over the last decade and a half. This gives me a real sense of purpose in business.

See the Bam Creative blog post, Bam in the Community, for some of the examples on how the business gives back.

Empower not micromanage

Particularly in the early days of Bam Creative, I struggled with delegating tasks and responsibilities and allowing others to flourish. I still catch myself thinking ‘I can do this better, maybe I’ll spend this weekend on it’.

You need to empower your team to make decisions, including the inevitable mistakes, in order to grow your business. If I never let go of any roles in those early days, I would still be overworked and by myself.

Whilst some days, you may feel freelancing is an enviable option, having a team to support you is even better.

Don’t take it personally

This is the one thing that possibly challenges me the most on this list. It is very difficult for me to not take a resignation or a client leaving us, as purely business and not personally.

I often feel that these hurdles are personal in nature, when 99% of the time, these situation actually aren’t. I do, however, feel the old adage ‘It’s just business’, was first said by an employee, not a business owner.

Whenever you feel that you are getting emotional over something in the business, stop and collect yourself. Ask yourself, is this actually personal, or is it just the result of a business decision? Nine times out of ten, you’ll find it is actually the latter.

Create the job you love

Cast your mind back to when you started your current business. What did personal success and happiness look like to you back then? Now look at your current position – have you kept true to your word, or become a slave to the business?

Over the last decade or so, my dream job has changed a number of times. As a result, I have done my best to mould my role to fit what excites me. If you are quietly suffering terminal boredom, it will become quickly apparent to others no matter how hard you try to hide it; and your negativity will become infectious.

Take time to assess your role regularly, and ensure you include a component of your role that excites you. In the beginning, it was one of the reasons you decided to start a business.

Cast your mind back to when you started your current business. What did personal success and happiness look like to you back then?

Summary

Starting and leading any business can be, at times, tough work. It can often take a personal, emotional and physical toll and often you won’t have anyone to discuss it with. I still have moments where I ask myself ‘What the hell was I thinking in 2002?’ however I am pleased I made the decision to be the master of my own destiny.

Starting and managing a business isn’t for everyone – many people are better off being an employee, or a solo entrepreneur. This shouldn’t be considered a failure or a shortcoming. There’s only a small percentage of us that have some insane personality trait that wants to create a business with all the challenges it contains.

If you are one of these folk, I hope that there was at least one point in the above list that resonates with you. I wish you continued business and personal success!

Old clock

How (& Why) You Should Find Time for Side Projects

I’m a strong believer in side projects. The work I have been doing on my $99 side project, and sharing the lessons with my readers is testament to that. I strongly believe we should all have a side project; designer, developer, writer, photographer, software engineer; just about anyone.

In this article, I cover my reasons why I feel side projects are great and share a few suggestions on where to create the time to do them.

The benefits of side projects
There are many benefits in doing side projects, including;

  • You get to try different workflows, software, try new things – you get to experiment.
  • They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.
  • You get to actively avoid skills decay.
  • They don’t have a deadline. And as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula.
  • You get to challenge yourself, trying out new things.
  • You get great satisfaction getting something working.

As an example, instead of just hosting the landing page for my growth.email side project, I purposely chose a different hosting provider, and had to install Apache, set up security, etc on my own. Sure, it turned into hours of work, instead of minutes but was personally gratifying when I completed it.

How to make time for side projects
I started writing this post in a Malaga cafe, whilst I was waiting 90 minutes for my 8 year old who is attending a nearby birthday party on a Sunday afternoon. I got some side project work done, wrote the beginnings of two blog posts and managed to get a mocha in.

I’m now finishing this post, the following night after dinner, on Monday evening. This is the sort of thing I regularly do – look for small opportunities between other responsibilities, such as housework, cooking and driving my kids around.

There are a number of things you can do, to set aside time for side projects.

Schedule time for side projects
I actually schedule my personal side projects in my calendar, so I get an alert. At the moment, I’m only spending about two evenings a week, as well as intermittent time elsewhere.

The way something gets done is by repeatedly allocating time to it. It doesn’t need to be five nights per week; whatever you set aside make sure you stick to it.

Stop watching television
I stopped watching TV a number of years ago, and it has given me so much additional time. I do have a Netflix habit, but at least I can watch what I want, when I have time (typically an evening per week), instead of being at the mercy of terrestrial broadcasters.

I’m amazed how much TV many people watch; the same people who then complain that they don’t have any spare time. These people do have spare time – they have decided to spend it unproductively, sitting on a couch.

Recent research shows that Australians watch on average, 1,095 minutes of television per week. That’s 219 hours, or nearly 10 days a year. That’s an insane waste of time.

Be picky with meetups and other events
I could easily attend 2-3 different startup and digital community events per week, if I accepted most mass invites. I enjoy going to them, there is great benefit in networking, however I also enjoy getting things done; maybe it’s just the introvert in me. I do my best to limit these to 1-2 per month instead.

Have a regular sleep pattern
I’ve suffered insomnia much of my life. I found the way to battle this, is to try and walk a fair amount every day, and go to bed and rise at the very same time. I have my watch remind me when it is 11pm, and I should be going to bed, and I am out of bed no later than 6am, every day of the year.

Keep a checklist for side projects
Just like your own day job, which no doubt has checklists and schedules, do the same with your side projects. Here’s a chance also to try different task management tools, or just keep a text document with your priorities.

Be frugal with your time
Be mindful of taking on too much stuff. Launch a lean MVP of your side project and slowly chip away at extending it. I am a true believer in Horstman’s corollary to Parkinson’s law, which states that work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.

Make this year, the year of side projects – chip away at something until you’re satisfied, and then show the world. I look forward to seeing what you create. Best of luck!

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.

Writing in July 2015

My writing during July, had me posting eight articles elsewhere. They are as follows (click the title, to read the article).

I was honoured to write an article for the Australian Institute of Management about our start-up sprint model.

Creating a culture of innovation
As the Managing Director of a mature 13 year old company, it is easy to continue focus on what we’ve found has worked over the last decade. The end result, though, can become complacency and a resistance to exploring innovative new approaches.

When you have an organisation that’s fairly rigid in your approach to processes and procedures, how do you break the tradition you’ve developed, and try something different?

I also penned a couple of posts on Medium, which were;

How SaaS start-ups are going wrong with growth and on-boarding
I am a big supporter of SaaS start-ups; in fact, I’ve paid for dozens of subscriptions in the last few years. I’ve clicked on promoted tweets, those cleverly-crafted PPC ads, well written blog posts, signed up for countless free trials, and handed over my credit card details to some of the luckier products.

How one SaaS start-up is doing great work, post sign-up.
As the founder of a start-up, I’m fascinated at how other start-ups deal with their customers. In my last article, I made the point that most start-ups do a terrible job once they have your money. I want to make sure what we do at 6Q, we keep the relationship going, and ensure a better lifetime value per customer.

Over on the Bam Creative blog, I penned two articles about mobile web usage in Australia, and a simple introduction to growth hacking.

Over 30% of Western Australian Web Users are on Mobile Devices
We recently conducted a detailed research study on more than 380 client websites that we host in Australia, which account for a wide variety of industries and audiences. We found that nearly 90% of their visitors were from Western Australia (which you’d expect, given most are predominantly WA focused) and our findings reveal that a massive 31.4% of all visitors are viewing the web on a mobile or tablet device.

A Guide to Growth Hacking
Anyone working in the tech start-up marketing space in the last few years would have heard the term growth hacking, however it is starting to spread into the vocabulary of traditional businesses as well. In this short guide to growth hacking, we explore what it all means.

Meanwhile, on the 6Q blog, I penned about company values and pulse surveys.

Creating company values that boost company culture
You’ve assembled a fantastic team of talented people. You are creating great value for your customers. Yet, for some reason, the culture within your organization isn’t heading the way you had hoped.

The Nine Netflix Company Values
The behemoth which is Netflix may be known as a global streaming video superstar, bringing entertainment to millions of customers, yet what is possibly lesser known is their eloquent and insightful company core values.

Everything you need to know about employee pulse surveys
Across the globe, there is a large and growing interest from organisations in adopting employee pulse surveys. So what are they exactly, and what benefits can you expect to receive from using them? What should you ask before you start, and what makes a successful survey?

That’s it for this month, stay tuned for the next month’s wrap-up of writing and articles.

Writing in June 2015

I had my first article written and published for the Australian masthead, BRW Magazine, this month. As usual, more articles on the Bam Creative and 6Q blogs as well.

Seven strategies to avoid start-up culture burnout
As a founder of a start-up, it is easy to be brimming with passion for your product or service. You’ll likely be the first to arrive, the last to leave, and sigh quietly when people speak of weekends. While that passion you have is fantastic, it’s also dangerous if it negatively consumes your team.

Over on Medium, I followed up my previous conversion rate post with a follow on.

My landing page conversion experiments continued
Since my last post, I have continued to experiment with the same landing page, pouring effort, head scratching and a little PPC budget (Google AdWords, global budget, same ad copy, same day range (these are all one week rounds) and the same destination URL), to further look at ways of improving the conversion rates of my landing page.

On the Bam Creative blog, I continued the writing about conversion rate optimisation.

The Secret to Getting More Enquiries from your Website: conversion rate optimisation
You’ve got a great website, it is ‘on brand’ and looks the part, has good content and dozens of pages of text and images; however you feel you’re not getting enough enquiries or sales.

That’s where conversion rate optimisation (CRO) comes in. It sounds like a fancy scientific phrase, however I can assure you it’s a simpler concept than it sounds.

Over on the 6Q blog, I wrote a few articles, as per below.

57 great ways to encourage better employee health
Employees are the best asset of every organisation, and putting effort into employee wellness can encourage better teamwork, increased productivity and reduce sick leave and workplace accidents.

Benefits of Increased Job Satisfaction
Increasing job satisfaction makes great business sense. You end up with engaged employees and a better business.

There have been a number of recent workplace studies that have shown that encouraging management to focus on strategies that increase job satisfaction creates a more productive workforce and higher rates of business success.

How our start-up handles feature requests
Recently, I gave a presentation to a group of founders about our workflow in handling feature requests. I share these slides, and my thoughts, to give you a behind-the-scenes at a small start up working on a b2b SaaS product.

5 Founders talk startup company culture
From the outside, many tech start-ups look like they only focus on ping pong tables, full-time office chefs and a lot of perks. It’s not the case in reality. Many startup founders put plenty of focus on culture and hiring, as the five founders featured in this article explain.

That’s it for this month (well, at least seven articles). Stay tuned for the wrap up post next month!

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