Climb Online: Performance After 100 Days

Toward the end of 2014, a man called Mark Wright won “The Apprentice” in the UK, with his idea to create a Search Marketing Agency called ‘Climb Online’.

Just after the show aired, I ran a quick poll asking the question “Do you think Lord Sugar should have invested in ‘Climb Online’?”. After 45 minutes I shared the results in a post:

It’s now been a few months since the show aired, and Mark’s PR team have been in touch with various people to spread the word a little about what he’s been up to. They’ve put out a few of these interviews so far, with the interviewers broadly falling into one of three categories:

  1. Mainstream journalists – eg. the Radio Times.
  2. Digital Marketing blogs – eg. Econsultancy.
  3. People who they perceived had been vaguely critical of Mark.

They thought the blog post I’d written following the show was critical of Mark, and so they asked me if I’d be willing to meet up with him to find out how the business was going. I thought it would be fair & sensible to do that, and also interesting to meet Mark & his PR co.

I therefore spent an afternoon with Mark toward the end of March, at his PR company’s office. The conversation covered various areas from his company’s performance, to search marketing in general, to legal matters, to his plans for the future. This article summarises some of that, and my impression of Mark & the business. The full transcript runs to about 18,000 words, so I’ll keep information here to a summary of the bits I think will be most interesting/useful to a general audience.

[As one tiny note: Mark’s PR company asked me to remove the names of employee names – I thought that was fair enough. Other than that I haven’t altered the transcript, so there’ll be some of the usual ums and ahs of speech included].

Do feel free to add comments/questions/thoughts to the post, or drop me a note at @danbarker on Twitter if you have any questions.

Company Performance & Model

The normal start to something like this might be: “We met at Mark’s PR company. I was late & he was very kind about it. He was wearing the light blue waistcoat & tie he often seems to in publicity shots…” but I will skip right into the detail:

I picked up the following info from the chat:

  • Climb Online have roughly 80 clients at the moment.
  • They haven’t lost a client yet. (Mark was proud of this, though pointed out himself it’s still early days)
  • 63 of their 80ish clients are actually Paid Search clients, not SEO clients.
  • They’re up to around 10 staff.
  • Costs are, and have been, fairly high. The website cost ‘tens of thousands’, Mark says he spends around £13k a month on software, etc…
  • …But the returns are also fairly high: Mark mentions one client pays £6k fees per month. That’s probably not the average, but let’s pretend it is: £6k x 80 clients x 12 months = £5,760,000. Obviously the £6k probably isn’t average, but it’s also likely that the 80 clients will grow over the course of the year.
  • At a lower end, if we factor it down very pessimistically to 10% of the above it becomes a harder business model, but with the amount of leads, the fact it’s profitable at present, and the scope to grow, there is obviously lots of potential if they can execute well

Aside from the back of napkin calculations, the most interesting element among the above is the PPC slant: Every article you read about the company, Mark himself, or most opinions, talk from the stance of them being an SEO company. To those outside of digital marketing that probably makes little difference, but I think the perception within the industry is quite different between pure SEO agencies & pure PPC agencies (or those that lean one way or the other).

While we were chatting, Mark mentioned that the SEO angle almost came about by accident:

“The plan was nothing like Climb Online was. It was a … almost like GoDaddy. My business plan was for a company like GoDaddy. Domain and hosting registry, where you could do PPC services. The way that the show positioned it was to have SEO in there as well.

“Basically, when I went to the interview stage, I met with Claude and Mike and they said, “Why would you ever launch business model similar to GoDaddy.com?” They’re like, “That is ridiculous. Their marketing budget is in the hundreds of millions. The margins in hosting and domains is so small. You’ve got no background in that. However, you’ve got fantastic background in teaching people how to sell, paid search, and SEO is a very similar sales model.” I’m the guy that can train people, with the knowledge in the industry to go out and present it. They said, “If you present that business plan, you’re far more successful.”

“I modified my business plan and, obviously, I won the show. What we got was, I think, what Lord Sugar wanted, was something that was similar to ReachLocal. He’s always won for someone who does what they know. I was presenting from an industry kind of off the back of what I did, but then I went to pitching a business of one I’ve done successfully before, so I think he really liked that. “

As services, they therefore offer PPC as the main service, a specific Retargeting service, SEO, and a Social Media service. As I said, Mark mentions they’re charging a particular client £6,000 per month fees for paid search management. You’d expect those sort of fees for a small-to-medium sized company, rather than very small, which perhaps gives an indication of the size of some of their clients.

Mark also talks about some of the extra services they’re offering:

“Free brand protection. When any company works with us, we trademark your name with Google so people can’t bid on your brand term on ad words and we also trademark anything on your website that we can and the company name to stop trademark infringement. Now, we have that in place for us to clean up the search, but also to protect us in the industry. When we offer that to our customers, and we offer it for free, that is part of our SEO service, which I think is pretty cool, because if a normal small business wanted to do that it could cost them up to seven hundred pounds to do trademarking when we come along and do it for free.”

I’ve never heard of another paid search/SEO agency offering trademark protection, but in honesty I think it’s a sensible idea: Something that differentiates them a little, doesn’t cost a lot, and is the kind of thing that can be added as an extra that’s valuable to the client. [side-note after several comments: I’m not commenting on the effect this has on Google]

Mark also talks of one of the other value-adds they offer as being transparent results in PPC. He’s noticeably more animated talking about paid search, technology, paid search, & sales than he is talking about SEO or Social:

“I mean, a guy that works for me, he can probably set up a campaign better than anyone in the bloody country. If you’re going to go and set up … If you’re a little man in Southampton that’s going to go and set up a Google adwords campaign against us, you’re going to go no good. You’ve got to be more innovative in the way that you think and the way that you’re building the campaigns and what you’re offering the customer. If you go in and do a pitch on a Google adwords campaign and I come in and do a pitch on our search product, I will blow you away because the tools we have are better. The way we report back to the customer on how many leads they’ve had. This guy’s like, “Well, you’ve had a conversion through your form six days ago.” I’m like, “Well, Sandra typed in ‘dentist in Southhampton’ and this is the call. We can listen to the call. This is the keyword. This is the time she came through. There’s Sandra in the chair having her teeth done.” That came from me. “

And he also talks a little bit about a paid search platform that they’ve been putting together:

“It’s interesting, I’ve handled a lot of proposals and I’ve shopped a lot of companies just to look at what they do and everyone’s got a different strategy. What I’ve decided to do … We do adwords management, right? Where you have an adwords campaign, we manage it. We charge you a management fee and you just go in and we change your ad words and it’s running smooth now. We have what we call our “paid climber”, which we’ve got our own platform for. Sits … Your campaign sits in our platform and the ads consider across Facebook, Bing, Yahoo, and Google, and it’s constantly monitoring for the lowest CPC and conversion rate and it will factor in where you’re getting the lowest CPA and start showing your ads there more. It’s more of a product than just adwords management because ad words management is quite boring”

He clarifies this a bit later on, mentioning the various networks it covers:

“You look what happens to some of the keywords in the past year alone. I don’t think … Okay, here’s what I think: I don’t think the competition is as great as the price rise in the CPCs. I think that Google are forecasting that the lifespan of Google ad words is coming to an end in the foreseeable. Let’s turn the dial up on the CPCs and make as much revenue from this as possible. Maybe. Maybe not. I think that’s what’s happened, because if I was at the head of that business, that’s what I would do. I would say, “Right. This has probably got three, four years left. At the volume that people are joining this, sort of, form of advertising, let’s increase the price, because they’re still going to see return. Make money from it. Then see what happens next. What we’ve gone away and done is say, “Let’s not concentrate all of our areas there. We’ll set the campaign up in our platform. We’ll show the ads on every form of search: Google, Yahoo, Bing, Right Media Network, Google Display, whatever it might be. YouTube. Show the ads there. Show it where we can get the lowest cost per lead. Then the customer is still winning. If that becomes achievable due to price, we’ll find the conversions elsewhere. That’s what’s working for us.”

And finally he talks about this in the context of the market:

“Marin’s good, Kenshoo’s good, Acquisio’s good, and a lot of agencies are building their own platforms. I mean, a lot. You know, this used to be unachievable and cost millions to do this stuff. It is now … It’s still expensive. It could cost you a hundred grand, but you could have a really good, responsive platform. I’ve trialed Marin, I’ve trialed Acquisio, Kenshoo wouldn’t touch us because we weren’t big enough, which was a real shame because they are a good platform.”

Digital Performance

Strangely, one of my own websites has ranked in Google UK for ‘Climb Online’ more or less since the show aired. As a result, I have a little bit of data for the search volume associated with Mark’s business. Here’s a graph of rough Google search impressions for the phrase (47,865 in total over 3 months). As you can see, the bulk of searches came at the start, but there are some upward bumps along the way (these roughly correlate with PR activity):

 

Mark himself says: “We’re getting up to forty thousand visits a day. Whenever Lord Sugar tweets the business, the site nearly crashes, just from, he’s got four point one million followers on Twitter. You get a percentage of that visiting your website, god … It peaks. The CloudFlare starts to throw a few warnings at us. Which is good. “

On the CloudFlare point, he’s referring to the content delivery network they’ve been using to protect against attacks. Along with the general trolling on social media, his site has had various negative SEO attacks and denial of service attacks. Mark & his team hadn’t anticipated that, and initially didn’t have anything in place to deal with it. He credits that as one of the elements that held up their website launch. Here’s the site that eventually launched:

This was one of the big criticisms of Climb Online’s digital performance – that the site launched so late (it fully launched more than 2 months after the show aired).

Here’s how the conversation went around that:

  • Mark: We had a website ready to go three weeks in. We just put it out a couple of weeks ago because we’re getting attacked so heavily that we couldn’t risk putting a website that’s cost tens of thousands of pounds out on the internet.
  • Me: That’s probably something I would have done differently as well. I’d have made the website cheaper.
  • Mark: But have you seen it? It’s a good website isn’t it?
  • Me: Well it …
  • Mark: It’s probably revolutionary.
  • Me: You’re playing on your charm now.
  • Mark: I’d say that, you know …
  • Me: It’s definitely not revolutionary. It’s a nice website, but it’s …
  • Mark: Well, I look at your website …
  • Me: As I said, I do not try to sell myself in the slightest. I’ve two websites. I really should have redirected one to the other one several years ago. One of my websites, I haven’t updated it since 2008. When I bought the .dj and when I bought the .co.uk one I just talk about general stuff, and that’s it. I don’t really tell anybody who I work for. I showed you that. That’s not out there anywhere. I don’t try to sell myself.
  • Mark: Would you say our site’s innovative?
  • Me: Well, to be honest, I deal with so many websites, no. I wouldn’t say it’s innovative. I’d say it’s kind of good. It’s responsive, which is great. It gets across some of your message, which is good. Really, you don’t need an innovative website. You don’t need a revolutionary website. Your gift is that you have a very public-facing profile and as long as the website doesn’t look bad, you’re fine.
  • Mark: Yeah. Interesting.
  • Me: I hope that doesn’t hurt you.
  • Mark: No, no.
  • Me: It’s somebody else that built the thing. I acknowledge, my website is awful.
  • Mark: No. No, that’s all right. I really like it. I mean, the thing that I … My little touch on it, you know, SEO, PPC, these things are boring, and what I went and did is I made Climb Online so we changed it to the paid climber, social climber, I wrote all the content. Then we had an illustrator go and draw all of the imageries and buttons that are on the website and we’ve trademarked all of those. We’re creating something different, which I think is quite cool. We could have just called it SEO, PPC and been like everyone else out there. It’s little things like that which I really enjoyed. Which is probably boring. Sounds horrendous.

You can tell from this he really is very proud of the site. I think he oversells it a little, which naturally will lead to criticism from people who feel it doesn’t match up the ‘revolutionary’ claim. But – assuming the same pride transfers across to the work they do for clients – that’s a very good thing & .

On Criticism of Mark’s Digital Marketing & SEO Knowledge

Mark’s had a lot of criticism across social media. Some of that was based on things he said during his appearance on The Apprentice (actually I think pretty much everyone on the show gets some sort of criticism on social media as the show airs, as well as many gaining big fans). He’s also had quite a lot of criticism from people within the ‘SEO industry’. Some of that’s direct criticism for things he’s said; some of it’s concern & annoyance from people who work in SEO, and some of it is pure trolling.

I think really there are a few things at the root of the criticism:

  1. People like to point out mistakes, and they like to point out when they think people are not being entirely genuine.
  2. Mark positioned himself – or was positioned – as an SEO expert in order to win The Apprentice. His actions & words afterward didn’t completely match up with that.
  3. Mark is a very good communicator in real life, and on TV. But he’s fairly new to social media.
  4. Alongside all of the above: There are genuine trolls who just like to make fun of people, and/or try to get a reaction, and/or in some cases actually try to damage peoples’ businesses.

Mistakes…

On the ‘mistakes’ point, Mark makes a few during our chat. For example one of the first things he said to me was “I’m speaking at SEOBrighton next month. Have you heard of SEOBrighton before?”. The conference he’s talking about is ‘BrightonSEO’ – a point that will be lost on people outside the industry, but a mistake few within digital marketing would make. In the grand scheme of things, this is a meaningless error, but it’s a little tell that he is not the expert he sold himself as on the show.

SEO Expert?

He jokes about the ‘SEOBrighton’ thing a few times later after I point it out, and on the ‘SEO Expert’ point he’s completely up front:

“I don’t know that much about SEO, and this is the thing that I think most people are surprised when they meet me is they think I’m an SEO expert. My background is in paid search.”

These little mistakes continue as we chat, for example having told me he’s not an SEO expert he clarifies that he is an expert in other areas:

  • Mark: “PPC on the other hand you can ask me any question in the whole world and I’ll answer it as well as anyone at Google would.”

Very rudely, I then took the bait & asked him a PPC question:

  • Me: “What does RLSA stand for?”
  • Mark: “Mate I’ve no idea. RSLA…”
  • Me: “RLSA.”
  • Mark: “What does it mean?”
  • Me: “Remarketing Lists for Search Ads”

Again, that’s fine – 99.99% of the population won’t know what RLSA stands for either, but it’s another little tell that Mark’s a bit overconfident in his digital marketing knowledge.

Mark’s Background & the Company

Following up on the above, Mark’s experience was working for a firm called Reach Local. As I’d mentioned earlier they have a similar business model to his new company. He worked for them purely in Paid Search Sales. He clarifies that he never got involved in the SEO side of things – his background had been in the sales side of Paid Search.

“I never got involved in the SEO side. I was in the sales team for the PPC, then I went to sales manager, then I went to manager for the business, so my background had been in the sales side of PPC. Nothing technical about SEO. Now, my knowledge is far better than anyone you’d meet on the street, but am I someone that can implement an SEO strategy for you if you want? Open up your site now and said, “Right. We want some links. We want it W3C compliant, etc. etc.”? I’d be like, “I know everything you’re saying and I know that that’s going to be relevant, but I’m not the guy to do that. My team, probably one of the best in the country, will be building one of the SEO teams in the country to implement SEO strategy, but it’s not me sitting in there writing the articles, doing the links. That’s just not my thing.”

With that context, some of the criticism that he’s not an expert makes perfect sense.

New to Social Media

On the ‘new to social media’ point, I think this is perhaps the best example:

Read one way, that’s a friendly joke. Read another, it comes across as bragging & a bit aggressive. Having met Mark, it’s quite obvious that it’s the former. Prior to meeting Mark, I would have assumed it was the latter.

On Hiring

Having been open that his knowledge of SEO isn’t huge, I ask Mark how he goes about hiring people. A common difficulty in digital areas is that the people doing the hiring are less technically savvy than the people they need to hire.

“When I say I’m not an expert, it’s like, I never want to claim to be things that I’m not. I’m an expert salesman, an expert sales manager and manager of people, and I’m really expert in those areas. I’ve got a base knowledge of SEO. I’ve read, you know, I read search engine blogs. I read Moz. I love Moz.”

“People actually, and this is really funny … Someone tweeted “How Mark Wright Learned About SEO” and it was the “Moz’s Startup Guide, Beginner’s Guide to SEO”. Do you know I actually read that and I laughed because they were taking a piss. What’s wrong with a beginner guide to Moz’s SEO, you know? I don’t understand why … I actually read that whole thing and I thought it was absolutely brilliant and I think Moz are very top of their game with SEO. They’re really, really on it. I use it as a software tool for my personal campaigns and for our website, you know, to monitor keyword changes and link opportunities. I think it’s fantastic. It’s quite funny, but I don’t claim to be an expert. I have a very good knowledge of each section. I claim to be a sub-expert in paid search, as you’ve already tested me on.”

Separately he talks about this from another angle:

“Well, you know, if we look at the industry, or online marketing as a hundred percent, I might know twenty percent. This twenty percent here which is selling, managing, and training people on basic knowledge of online marketing. My guy, who sets up all my other paid search campaigns, he knows this much in the industry, but he knows the bit about paid search really well. The person who does my SEO, he knows thirty percent of the SEO piece really, really well, so it’s about getting one hundred percent for people. No one knows it all, other than the, you know, guys at Google who create the game that we play. Someone might know SEO ten times better than me, which wouldn’t be hard, but they can’t sell it near as good as I could sell it. But I can’t implement the campaign as well as they can so why don’t we just work together to make it that much easier for everyone. Let me be the face of it. Let me make online marketing perceivable and, you know, really … Help me make online marketing, you know, the shiny thing out there for businesses. Then people can go and implement the strategy any which way they want to. That’s, you know, no way’s the wrong way.”

And he expands on this still further:

“I’ve been very lucky with the staff I have. I have a knack for knowing people very, very well. I can sit with someone and I can tell your expertise straight away, even if I haven’t made you open up a website and show me how you can code, or show me how you build links, or put you on the weeks trial. I can sit with you and know in ten minutes whether you’re going to be the right guy and I don’t even read CVs. It’s just the … This is my power in business. You know, I may not have the same knowledge of SEO as someone, but I know your knowledge just as well as you do. Just through conversation I get people to tell me … When I first started interviewing for our Head of SEO role, I met with about fifteen different people and I said to me, “Describe to me what SEO means.” Every person gave me a different explanation.”

If I’m overly honest at this point, I think Climb Online will succeed, but it’s crucial they hire at least a few of the right people. I haven’t met Mark’s team – he heaped praise on them throughout our chat, but he also mentioned that he doesn’t read CVs. Elsewhere he also mentioned one of his employees and told me: “He was the Head of SEO for Wonga”. I thought to myself “I’m sure I know the head of search at Wonga…”, so I looked up the employee Mark was talking about, and here was his experience at Wonga:

It’s easy to make mistakes like this – he’s running a business that’s been going for 100 days, picked up 80 clients, and hired 10 staff. It’s hard in such a short amount of time to stay 100% on top of everything, and most likely the ‘head of SEO for Wonga’ comment was a slip of the tongue. But, if not a slip of the tongue, it may be worth checking on employees a bit closer. I think that’s particularly important around SEO as opposed to Paid Search. Whereas Paid Search is largely transparent, and there are very defined rules, it’s relatively easy to break someone’s site or business by getting things wrong from an SEO point of view.

On Paid vs Organic Search

We had a fairly long conversation around paid vs organic, and around the value Mark offers to companies. I thought I’d include some of that verbatim here as some of it was interesting, it reinforces their ‘paid’ perspective,.

  • Mark: Oh, no thank you. Well, the thing is is I try not to … I don’t want to ever offend people, you know? I always want to be seen as someone who’s contributing to online marketing and I have my way and I’m very spoken about my way. If someone asks me my way, I’ll tell them my answer. It might not be on Google, under their new update. My view is my view and the industry and people choose to partner with me because I challenge things. I think that Google this year will make an announcement that people that do Adwords with them will get preferential favoring through SEO. Now, someone hearing that from the SEO industry would have my neck for saying that, but, if I put myself in Google’s shoes, and I’m running a business and someone’s spending money with me and someone’s not, I’m going to give that person favorable, favorable ways of dealing with my business other than someone who’s not. I’m sure that that announcement will come.
  • Me: You’re sure?
  • Mark: Yeah.
  • Me: Should we make a bet?
  • Mark: Well, it will happen and I think it will happen this year.
  • Me: Yeah?
  • Mark: Because imagine if they do that how many more people will use Google Adwords? If you say that’s going to help your natural listing?
    Me: Well it’s sort of the opposite. If that’s going to help their natural listings, then that’s really slightly less money for Google. From their point of view, the worse someone’s performing on generic search, the more likely they are to spend on Adwords.
  • Mark: Potentially. Potentially. I don’t know. It’s more … That’s not for us to decide, that’s for the customer.
  • Me: That’s for the customer?
  • Mark: That’s for the customer to decide. If you say, “You’re not ranking well on Google, so should you spend more money on SEO … “
  • Me: No, I’m talking about from Google’s point of view.
  • Mark: Oh, from Google’s point of view.
  • Me: The thing is that they do seem to … make it a bit harder to do organic search and also make it harder to manage your paid search stuff more granularly for small people.
  • Mark: Well, that, you know, I’m sure you’ve had an adwords account where you get the suggested changes drop down on the top right hand side, you click that, it doesn’t tend to improve the campaign. All it does is tend to make it spend a lot quicker and a lot more. I mean, Google’s a fantastic business and I think it’s just amazing. Absolutely amazing. What they do is they arm their Google Adwords platform, which is very complex, but they make it look very easy to use. That’s why I run Google Adwords and it didn’t work, and I go “let me open up your campaign” and they’ll have three key words and then no negatives. One ad’s running with six pound bids on the keyword and one ad’s whatever and it’s just spending money, not getting any conversions. No conversion tracking setup.
    You go, “Well of course it’s not working. You haven’t … ”
    They go, “Oh, well I know you couldn’t make this any better.”
    “Well, did you know you should have a local and international site of the campaign? You should have over a hundred and fifty negatives in here under this ad group here.” They go, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
    You say, “This is why … ”
    I’ve only got basic knowledge. If I give this to some … one of my campaign performance managers, they spend ten days building the campaign, doing keyword researches and SEMrush on your competitors, using the keyword planner, talking with Google to make this run effectively. You’ve built that in an hour and you wonder why it’s not working. No disrespect. If you’re a mechanic, I don’t know what to look for under my car. I don’t expect you to know what to use on the Google platform. Google have built it that way. People will go, “Oh, this looks pretty simple.” Click, click, click. It’s almost like a slot machine. Here’s my Visa card. Wonder if we’ll get any leads. It just goes [tonk 01:24:03], takes a thousand quid, and not much happens. Thank god it is like that because when we go in and work with their campaigner, we get good results. One thing that does frustrate me about this space is when I sit with a customer … Sorry I’m talking so much!
  • Me: Don’t worry about it.
  • Mark: One thing that does frustrate me is I go in and I sit with a customer and they say, “Oh, we don’t need you. I can do this all myself.” Now, that must even frustrate someone like you more who’s worked probably twice as long, definitely two or three times longer than me in the industry than me. I’ve worked in the industry for, say, five years full-time. Right? Learning, reading, seeing customers everyday. I know this much about an industry that’s this big. Right? So I’m here. John the plumber saying he can do it all himself because he goes and runs an Adwords account, it’s like me going and saying to my lawyer, “Don’t worry. I’ve got this one.” He’s done years of reading and studying and learning his craft every day. Six years of study to get there. Our industry is no different. People have read every blog, watched every update with Google, seen Adwords go from, sort of, a couple of keywords in an ad group to these massively granular campaigns that have changed businesses. People have still got to study and learn the same for us as they have for being a doctor or a lawyer. You’ve still got to beat at your craft every day and you can’t do it yourself. You need to use an expert. That’s why we exist, because my guys have been there ten years, reading, you know, search engine land and all of this Moz and stuff because they’re beating at their craft, and that’s why they should use us. Don’t know if you agree about that.
  • Me: Well, no. That makes sense. Yeah, or it’s something that changes all the time as well. Like you said, there’s new technology next week. You’ll have to read up on it. All those kind of things. I suppose that’s sort of why when you were talking about people that criticize you at the start, if they just perceive it as being you, and actually you’re saying “I actually don’t know that much about the industry.” That makes sense, because they’ve … They think you’re saying: “I know everything about this.” When really, as you say, you’ve got this team that you’ve hired. You say, I don’t know who they are, but you say, “These are the real experts.”

On Mark’s Targets

Finally, I ask Mark whether he has particular targets for the company, or for himself.

Mark: “For myself, I’ve always sort of wanted to be a businessman. I don’t know … I didn’t know what type of business when I was younger. I just wanted to be a businessman. Now I know I want to be in online marketing. The reason why is because it’s challenging. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. The amount of reading you’ve got to do just to stay in today’s game is a lot. I have targets for myself to grow a big company. I would like to be the biggest agency in the country in five years. Wouldn’t that be amazing for me to walk in and have, you know, the Periscopix, the Jellyfish, and when you walk in there and I’ve got a hundred guys selling. I’ve got thirty guys implementing, you know, SEO. I’ve got thirty guys running Google ad words campaigns. We’ve got people doing Google shopping. We’ve got people doing this. We’ve got people filming videos, or whatever. That is the dream, you know? The all-encompassing online marketing agency that is, you know, pushing the boundaries in the UK. That would be great. For myself, as an individual … “

“It all, for me, it starts with the client. As long as we’ve got happy customers out there, people in the industry can say bad things about me. That’s fine. I just don’t want my customers saying bad things about us. That’s all that matters. Start with the customer and work back […] touch wood, we haven’t lost a customer.”

I point out that the company is only 100 days old:

Mark: “We’re a hundred days in and we haven’t lost a customer. Which sounds like, “Oh sure”. You know? Whatever. That’s really important. We need people to be happy with prices we offer, service we offer, and the consultation they get from my staff. If that’s getting it wrong, then I’ve got people to answer to.”

Takeaways

Here are a few takeaways I took from my chat with Mark. Do feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments:

The Apprentice & Hostility: One oddity of The Apprentice is that it’s accidentally rigged in such a way that the winner’s chosen industry is often hostile against them. The purpose of the show is to take someone who would not normally be at the forefront of their industry, and place them there. In many industry’s that’s a lonely place to be; in digital marketing I think if you’re upfront with people they’ll embrace you. Mark made a few miss-steps around the launch of his site, and around social response, but I think he has an opportunity to fix all of that & seems to be trying to take that opportunity. From a ‘client’ point of view I don’t think it makes a huge difference if Mark is embraced by other digital marketers, but from a hiring & partnerships point of view it’s obviously important.

Brand Marketing: Climb Online is doing very well from a leads & closing point of view. I think the ‘leads’ part basically indicates ‘brand marketing’ can be very successful within digital marketing. Most SEO/Search/Digital agencies use direct response & relationship building to grow their clients (ie. largely B2B channels). Mark himself mentioned Go Daddy earlier – another company that’s done very well from ‘above the line’ advertising, targeting smaller businesses.

Albeit much smaller than GoDaddy, I think that’s basically the formula that’s working for Mark: He is in the position of having gained a massive amount of ‘general population’ publicity as someone who offers digital marketing services, and it has driven a lot of leads. That is something that other search/digital agencies – if they are able – could learn from. On the surface that perhaps sounds hard, but in reality it’s not too difficult to appear as a talking head on TV News, etc.

Mark Himself: Mark comes across as a very nice guy in real life. He’s obviously a good salesman, and that’s a big focus, but he is also an open, honest man who genuinely cares about what he’s trying to do, about learning, about his team. He has handled the big pressure, and the interesting position he’s ended up in very well so far. He’s had a lot of criticism, yet is still happy to turn up at big industry events like Brighton SEO and to chat to anyone who’s willing to say hello.

Mistakes: The original post I’d written on Climb Online referenced a series of mistakes I thought Mark had made. Mark & his PR company explained that some of that was due to the mechanics of the TV show. I still think some elements were mistakes, or perhaps naivety/good faith: Not finding a way to get the domain name climbonline.com (I was offered it at one stage for $2k), not getting the site online earlier, etc. Others have been super critical of smaller things like minor SEO issues on his site, etc, but I think he’s done well focusing on publicity, starting to find his feet growing a team, and figuring out his product offering, etc.

Company Focus: It’s very obvious that the larger focus of the company at present is Paid Search, with SEO & Social being smaller. I think that may change, as they’re in the interesting position of having the ability to drive digital marketing leads in high volumes from smallish businesses, and with that no doubt come requests for web design, email, content, and more. The challenge will of course be growing a great team, building partnerships & trying to smooth his ‘industry-facing’ profile, client service, and of course pure executional focus. These are big tasks, and I very much look forward to seeing how the business continues & where the focus moves.

The Big Question

In the original poll I’d run at the end of the show I’d asked whether Lord Sugar should have invested £250k in the business.

I thought it would be sensible to run an update now that the company is up & running: On the basis of what’s happened since, and what you’ve seen of their performance, what do you think?

Should Lord Sugar have invested in 'Climb Online'?

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As ever: Do share this post if you found it at all interesting, and do comment below if you have any thoughts – I always try to be balanced, but your opinion may differ.

5 Business Rules from Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg have been touring the world talking about ‘How Google Works’. Eric is the former CEO of Google, and current ‘Executive Chairman’, Jonathan is the former SVP of Products at Google. Much of the talk was a condensed version of their book “How Google Works”, but there were a few extras in there, and a short Q&A at the end.

I wrote a series of notes on my phone during the talk. Here they are,  marginally expanded for legibility:

1. “Revenue solves all problems (especially of you’re president of a country or a CEO)”

The overall message of this discussion was that Eric Schmidt’s biggest role within Google was to bring money in & grow it from that point of view. Eric put forward that his overriding rule for whether something should happen or not was “revenue solves all problems”. If there was a big dispute in direction to be settled, that was the guiding principle he often turned to.

That sounds obvious, but often writing around Google concentrates on the ‘non-money’ parts of things: big, bold innovations that have no obvious short-term money making potential; products that are very interesting, but less commercial, etc. The suggestion I took from this discussion was that the ‘real’ Google is deliberately a money making machine, which enables all of the rest to happen, rather than a group of massively exciting ideas that also coincidentally makes money.

2. “Avoid the tipping point in knave density”

Quite a buzzword packed point: This was really a discussion between Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg. Jonathan suggested that – aside from general team members – there are 2 types of people to be particularly aware of & to act when they are identified:

  • Knaves – people who claim credit that’s not really theirs, people who cause problems in groups, people who gossip, etc.
  • Divas – people who are excellent at what they do, have the ability to produce excellent things, but are hard to manage, do not necessarily fit in socially, and are prone to upsetting other people.

On Knaves, Jonathan Rosenberg said: “People that leak, people that cheat, people that lie and steal: we fire them.” – Jonathan Rosenberg

On Divas, the point was that these people can appear similar to ‘knaves’, but that an organisation wishing to achieve success should fight hard to keep them. These are people who are capable of delivering immense value, but in normal day-to-day environment can be difficult to work with. A couple examples I’ve seen him mention elsewhere as ‘divas’ were Steve Jobs & Serena Williams. I’m not sure either of them would have wanted to work for Google, but the suggestion is if they did, Google should fit in with their behaviour as much as possible, rather than the other way round.

Jonathan suggested that the point at which a company’s culture becomes poisoned is when the ‘knave density’ reaches a tipping point. I guess for a small company, that could be a single person, for a larger company it may depend on both the ‘density’ and their position.

3. “Recruiting turns out to be crucial”

Eric Schmidt felt: “Most people pay lip service, but they aren’t really systematic.” He suggested Google has thoroughly tested interview systems and that, for them, five interviews per candidate is the ideal amount (he didn’t qualify whether this was specifically for engineers, or for all jobs, but I expect it doesn’t span to every role).

He mentioned a couple of other experiments they’d carried out:

  • A system that simply asked employees once per week what they were doing, how they felt, etc. This turned out to be good for organisational memory, and for spotting potential problems.
  • A period where they went through assigning 120 direct reports to 1 executive. They found that this cut out all possible micromanagement and, while probably not scalable, had lots of positives.
  • A ‘rule of 7’. Unless someone had 7 direct reports, they could not be a ‘manager’. Again, this was related to minimising micromanagement, and avoiding job title creep.

Related to job title creep, Eric suggested reward is better conveyed with money than with job title: “If you want to reward status do it with financials not with appearances.”

And at a much wider level, he put forth that building a great company is about building a platform: “Real growth comes from building ecosystems. Ecosystems come from building platforms that provide huge value.” I took from this that he was referring partly to the more nebulous ‘culture’ of a company, and to its systems, processes, technology, financial, and ‘people’ setup.

4. The now clichéd “Don’t be Evil”

As with every Google discussion with a general audience, the “Don’t be evil” question came up a couple of times. In the Q&A in particular, someone asked them quite a specific question about whether some particular activities they’d carried out were evil. The question was clarified a couple of times, before being dismissed as not evil. Eric Schmidt relayed that the very first time he heard someone use the phrase: “I actually thought it was a joke”.

The “don’t be evil” point comes up so often in popular culture that if you’ve never looked into where it came from, it’s worth doing so. It was coined apparently by Amit Patel, & championed by Paul Buchheit, who subsequently left to found FriendFeed (acquired by Facebook), before becoming a partner at Y Combinator & an investor. Paul apparently wanted a phrase that – once it caught on – the organisation would find difficult to backtrack from. The phrase has certainly stuck, but whether the ethos has depends on your perspective.

5. HiPPOs run meetings at Google.

The final point I’d noted down was that, at Google, Eric & Jonathan said the much maligned ‘HiPPOs’ run meetings. (for those unaware of the term, HiPPO = ‘highest paid person’s opinion’; it used to be a common gripe that some organisations were run by ‘hippos’ – people who made decisions purely on the basis of their instinct, and must be followed based on their status within the organisation).

Their meeting rules were interesting & useful:

  • Start with data.
  • There are 2 projectors in every room. 1 for slides; 1 for meeting notes. (this ensures everyone can see both the topic for discussion, anything agreed, and any actions; and that this can all be clarified within the meeting rather than disagreement when notes are sent around later)
  • The job of the exec (‘highest paid person’) is to get everyone talking & move the agenda forward.
  • Everybody argues about the data. “If you have a bit of a disagreement then you end up having to have a real conversation”.
  • When actions fall out of the discussion, everyone sees both the actions assigned to them, and the actions assigned to everyone else.
  • Everyone leaves understanding where they stand, what they have to do, and by when.

Summary

As mentioned at the start, these are expanded from notes I’d gathered on my phone. The event was run by the FT & despite running short (they blamed Eric Schmidt for this), and obeying the ‘revenue solves everything’ motto themselves by not handing out the books included in the ticket price, it was an interesting & useful insight into a few of Google’s principles, but more particularly into Eric Schmidt’s perspective on the world & on the company he shaped.

Do feel free to add comments below if you attended one of these events, read the book, or simply want to expand on any of the above.

And do share this with others if you found it either useful or interesting.

An Interview with Apple’s Founder

Here is an interview with the founder of a company that’s played a fair-sized part in shaping the modern world: Apple. Below you’ll find a 2,000 word interview where he very kindly gives his insights and advice on careers, regret, misconceptions, and the characteristics behind Apple’s success.

Which Apple Founder?

If you asked 1,000 people on the street “Who founded Apple?” most would be able to tell you “Steve Jobs”. Some may say “Steve Jobs… and the other guy” (some may even know Steve Wozniak’s name). And, if you were very lucky, some of the most tech savvy among them may give you the correct answer, as illustrated by a Google search for ‘Apple Founders’:

applefounders

If you Google ‘Ron Wayne’, you’ll find he was born in 1934, he worked at Atari as well as founding Apple, he drew the first Apple logo, wrote their founding partnership document, wrote their first manual, and – at one time – owned 10% of their shares.

You would also find lots of articles focusing on him relinquishing his shares, how he left the company less than 2 weeks after founding it, and dwelling on how much theoretical money he ‘lost’ by doing so. Below are 9 questions with Ron, talking about his life, his single regret about Apple, his feelings on technology & society, prejudice, and how he would like to be remembered in 100 years.

Q1. What are some of the things you’re most proud of in your career?

“This reply will probably disappoint you, but in terms of technical achievements, I fear I’ve accomplished very little. For a start, I wasted early decades of my life (marked by the acquisition of a dozen significant patents) before I came to fully realize that the life of an independent inventor, in the U.S., is a treadmill to oblivion – because this happens to be the only advanced country in the world where it is not a crime infringe on a patent. This means that by acquiring a patent, the independent inventor is telling the corporate world precisely what he’s discovered, and then is given 17 years in which to defend himself in civil court, against such fabulously wealthy opponents as GE, Borg-Warner and Westinghouse. One might just as well chew on razor blades, or do something equally as ridiculous.” [ed: You can read all about these mis-adventures in Ron’s autobiography “Adventures of an Apple Founder“.]

“But to return to the initial question “What are the things I’m most proud of in my career?”, I think I’m most proud of having pursued my own technological passions – and of the fact that without a formal education in either electronics or engineering, I was still able to conclude a half-century career in these fields, as Chief Engineer at a small electronics firm in Salinas, California. But please do not misread me. My lack of formal education was due to the circumstances throughout my developing years, rather than to a philosophical opposition to formal education. I simply happened to develop my career during an era in which such a professional life-style was still possible. Only under the most extreme circumstances could such an approach be possible, under the complex technolgies of today’s world. More then that, its not a course of career development that I’d recommend to anyone.”

Q2. If you had founded a company other than Apple, which would you have liked it be, and why?

“As a point of interest, I actually did found a corporation of my own, in Las Vegas during the early 1970s, focused on the design and development of new electronic gaming machines. During its brief life, I actually succeeded in having equipment of my own design, qualified for street service through the Nevada State Gaming Control Board. But I wasn’t long involved in this effort before I realized that I had no business, being in business. The fact is, I came to realize that I was a helluva lot better as an engineer, than as a businessman. As a result, in less than a year the whole thing came unglued, and I eventually returned to California with $600 in borrowed money. Then over the next 18 months I bought back every share of the corporate stock, and made certain that every creditor was paid off at 100 cents on the dollar. I knew that my “corporate shell” was there so that I wouldn’t have to do that. But my personal need to be able to look in a mirror without cringing, denied me the use of such protection.”

Q3. A lot of your posts on your blog are about politics and social justice. What role do you think technology can or should play in these fields?

“I truly believe that successful corporate enterprises – technological or otherwise – are supposed to be functional entities within a “civilized” society. And if such corporate entities (as the Supreme Court has suggested) truly are “people too”, then they have an equal obligation to behave in a civilized manner, particularly among the ocean of “human” people, within who’s society they are “privileged” to exist. Make profit, by all means – but not in the fashion of organized thuggery – and then consider, at least peripherally, how some nominal portion of that profit might be used to support and enhance the well-being of people within that society, upon whom they ultimately depend, for their own success.”

Q4. You sold Apple’s founding contract for $1.5m, making it one of the most expensive corporate documents in history. What did you do/will you do with the money?

“This question reminds me an anecdote, about two elder gentlemen meeting on a steetcorner, after not having met for some time. One says to the other… “Hello George, I heard you made $50,000 in oil last week?” The other man then replied, through a sarcastic grin… “Well, you’re almost right – except it wasn’t oil, it was coal – it wasn’t last week, it was last month – it wasn’t $50,000, it was $100,000, – and I didn’t make it. I lost it.”

About 20 years ago, while working at Thor Electronics, I came across an ad by a dealer in autographs. I then remembered this “old Apple contract”, which was then collecting dust in my filing cabinet, and which carried the signatures of Jobs, Woz and myself. After a brief discussion, I sold the contract to the gentleman – for $500. That was the same contract which, about a year ago, went at auction for 1.3 millions. In this event alone, you see the story of my life – and out of my entire “Apple” experience, this is truly the only incident that I honestly regret.

There is this, however. After a brief meeting in my apartment, between Mr. Jobs, Mr. Wozniak and myself, it was decided that the three of us would found the Apple Computer Company. At that point, I immediately sat down to my typewriter and typed out three copies of that now-famous contract. This means that even though my actual compensation was quite trivial, I can honestly say that in that moment I actually created an artifact which eventually sold at auction for more than a million dollars. In some sort of convoluted way, I suppose that’s some kind of accomplishment.”

Q5. Many of the articles written about you focus on a false ‘with hindsight’ idea that you have missed out on billions. Has the decision, or have these articles ever caused you to feel regret? Do you have any tips for overcoming regret?

“It’s easily said that “I never had any regrets over that decision.”. But I can effective prove the truth of that statement. Aside from the fact that I had several well-founded reasons for not continuing with the Apple enterprise, during the several years that followed, on at least three occasions, Jobs offered me a position with Apple, and on each occassion, I graciously declined. In large part that decision was based on my “engineering style”. I was in my late 40s by that time, and had evolved into an approach to product-development which would involve me in very stage of a product’s creation – from concept development, to prototyping, to documentation, to production planning, and even to the development of production work-station design. It was this “soup-to-nuts” approach to engineering (admittedly a 19th century engineering philosophy), which led me to always ply my skills with small companies, where I could wear six hats. It was a philosophy that eventually laid the foundation for my 16-year stint at Thor Electronics. During that 16 years, I was the Chief Engineer because I was their only engineer. And I was also the Chief Draftsman for the same reason. That kind of engineering style could never have worked at Apple, or any other massive enterprise, for that matter.

How should one deal with regret? Simple. By locking your patterns of thinking into “reason” rather than “emotion”. For example, if I had later decided that my choice to separate from Apple had been a bad idea (which I hadn’t) the rational question must immediately pop up. “Why should I squander my phsychological energy, and my potentially productive tomorrows, making myself sick over the “yesterdays”, about which I can do absolutely nothing?”

In short, if one makes mistakes – learn from them. Don’t grieve over them. Yet I’ll also add, that if someone can actually smarten-up from their mistakes – I should by now be the wisest man in the world.”

Q6. Having seen Apple’s early days from both the in & outside, how much of the company’s eventual success do you put down to each of the 4: Luck, Hard Work, Talent, Personality.

“This is simple. Start with hard work – but also with the realization that in pursuit of ones own passions (as with Steve Wozniak), “hard work”, is just another word for “fun”. I’ve always told people, “Find a job that gives you so much pleasure that you’d be willing to do it for nothing, and you’ll never work a day in your life!”

Talent and personality is also unquestionably a benefit, but one that’s heavily outweighed by the others – passion, and in too many instances, luck.

When it comes to “luck”, an almost totally overlooked element, at the outset of Apple, which profoundly influenced the ultimate success of the enterprise, was the linkage between Jobs and Wozniak, the their finder, Mr. Art Rock. I don’t know if that linkage was by luck, or by cleverness on the part of Mr. Jobs. But without it, the success of Apple would have been strongly impeded. It had always been my experience that whenever an “investor” came in to support a creative mind, “money” always wanted control. But Mr. Rock was far wiser than that, so that when he linked Jobs and Wozniak to the millions needed to start the enterprise, he (Rock) made certain that the “boys” jointly retained the critical 51%. It was this key decision which guaranteed that creative genius would dominate the corporation’s future, and it’s inevitable success.”

Q7. You’ve said that Steve Jobs was the first person at Atari to whom you ‘came out’ as being gay. Do you think that would no longer be an issue today? If not, how do you think progress could be achieved to a point where sexuality and/or gender are no longer issues that trouble people?

“It is a tragic reality of the human condition that prejudice too often trumps reason. I think that the likely reason for this is that its easier to make one’s self feel superior, if others (who happen to be different) can be labelled inferior. And easier still, if one can link to others, of prejudiced thinking, to then use each other as sounding boards. The net result of this reality, is that humen social progress tends to flow like cement. I’ve presented substantial comments on this, and similar issues, in my opus magnum, “Insolence of Office“.

Q8. Do you have any big pieces of advice for someone looking to pursue a career in a ‘digital’ field, or mid-way through that career?

“When I was attending the School of Industrials Arts, in New York City, in the 1950s, I majored in Architecture and Industrial design, under the instruction of Dr. Mueller – a gentleman who held his doctorate in Architecture. My most powerful memory from that course, was when he defined architecture as “Enclosing Space for Human Living”. What struck me so deeply about this comment, was the “universality” of it. By that I mean, that the core of this expression is simply that “What ever you are creating – be it a design, a product or a painting, if you wish it be successful, never forget that you are creating it for the benefit or the use of people.” If the creator of anything forgets this simple truth, no matter how stylish the result, that effort will tempt failure.”

Q9. In 100 years, if you were to be remembered, how would you want people to think of you?

“I’d like to be remembered simply as “Someone who tried.” By the usual standards of the world, it could hardly be said that I was a “success”, by almost any measure of the term. In the final analysis, I’ve certainly never been rich – but then, I’ve never been hungry either. I’d like be thought of as someone who’d given total vent to his own creative passions, and in the process, explored the wonderful world of technology at my own pace, and under my own guidance. At 79, I can look back on a thoroughly eventful life – a life in which I’ve had a helluva good time.”

ronwayneblack

Thanks

Thanks for reading, and thanks very much to Ron Wayne for sharing his experience. Do read his books:

And do visit Ron’s website: http://www.ronaldgwayne.com