5 lessons on how to scale – The Daily Scaleup with Kim McAllister

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I’m chuffed with today’s column cos I’ve been working on my pal Craig for a while now, trying to persuade him to share his story.

Craig McGill, who now works at PwC in Scotland with their cybersecurity teams and initiatives like their scale-up programme SCALE (which launches tonight in Edinburgh) had his own business.

Contently Managed was one of Scotland’s first digital marketing firms, but wound down in 2013 after Craig joined Weber Shandwick as a digital strategist.

The lessons he learned from that experience have stood him in great stead and he’s agreed to share them on The Daily ScaleUp – with plenty of name checks for other big players in the Scottish scene. Enjoy:

“The one good thing I would say about running your own business is that it does give you a bit of confidence. You always feel that, if you lost your current job, then you would be able to do something to keep providing for your family. Having said that, it doesn’t mean it’s something I would suggest is for everyone. It’s not the hardest job I’ve ever had – but it wasn’t far from it. Here’s a few things I like to think I’ve learned from the experience…

MAKE USE OF GOOD ADVICE FROM THE RIGHT PEOPLE – AND USE IT

When I was starting out, the perception of online media was: Twitter was a new kid on the block, PR people were ignoring SEO, blogs were for saddos, Facebook might occupy five minutes a day for those missing Bebo and Friends Reunited – in other words, there wasn’t a lot of advice that was useful for being a digital marketing and PR business.

Stephen Rafferty of SurePR gave me great pointers on what to charge and how to conduct business (most of which I ignored to my long-term detriment. For example, Raff was a great believer in charging day rates, I said that was impossible when you had to have daily engagement on social media and blogs. He’s still in business…).

Others like Scott Douglas at Holyrood PR and Tommy Butler of Glasgow.com gave great proper advice that was relevant at the time. But when we wanted to grow beyond three staff there was a lack of advice out there for scaling up. That’s why I’m glad to see that as the Scottish digital market has matured, there are lots more outlets offering relevant advice.

If you have good advice and you act on it, you are golden. If not, sooner or later it all comes down. In fact, every other thing I learned, I could have avoided if I had just listened to people who had been in the trenches and not believed that doing business in the digital era would be a whole new way of doing things, which brings me to the next point.

YOU CAN ONLY GO AT THE PACE OF YOUR MARKET

For all we talk of disruption, you can only sell what people want to buy and often that means going at the pace of the slowest company or person that you want to sign up. That was frustrating as you would be trying to convince people of the benefits of mobile and location-based services when many of them didn’t even think they needed a website that would work on desktop PCs. You could lose days trying to convince people  – and then lose money as they would want to work on the cheap as “it’s just digital”. The ridiculously talented Mike McGrail of Velocity made a great point the other day that attitudes have changed now – it’s a lot easier to talk about email lists, paid-for social promotion and other aspects because marketeers and CMOs get it. In 2010 that was far from the case.

Other firms like The BIG Partnership dipped their toes into the digital waters and pivoted far better than many. They got it right.

SAYING NO AND NOT CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK IS AN AWESOME SKILL

This is one I’ve started to get the hang of but it’s taken years. I was always afraid of the well drying up so I would say yes to every piece of work, every networking event (even started my own – Scottish Social Media Dinners – to help others learn more about social media) just to make sure I was out there being helpful, which would then surely convert to tonnes of business leads, lots of work and so on.

Didn’t work that way. You end up over-servicing clients who pay 10% of your monthly fees but take up 40% of your time  – but you just get on with it as you don’t want to offend or lose business. Again, this comes down to a lack of business confidence (something I’ve noticed many journalists suffer from – they hugely undervalue their output).

WORK OUT IF YOU WANT TO PROFIT OR JUST SURVIVE

My aim was to help Scottish businesses compete online and that worked – a bit. Myself and the others spread ourselves out thin and worked hard, but we could only be in one place or meeting at a time. To grow, we should have hammered out some books, copying the likes of Chris Brogan (remember him?) and others, as well as charging for everything. We should also have taken tips from the likes of Ewan Spence or Rein4ce and marketed ourselves globally and not to the local digital-agnostic market. Doing that, we would have profitably grown and, with advice (see point one) and luck, been a larger success story. Instead, we were good guys, tried to help where we could, didn’t charge high fees, didn’t phoenix the company (like some of our contemporaries) or anything like that and we just got by.

STICK TO WHAT YOU ARE GOOD AT, HIRE FOR THE REST

Look at the likes of XY&Z – design, design, design and it’s beautiful stuff at that. When we started out, it was all about organic traffic, proper engagement, SEO – and all mostly text-based. As online evolved, you had video, then video in different formats, then imagery, then PPC, then social ads as well as affiliate ads. We charged companies at the end the exact same amount we charged at the start, even though the workload had trebled in some cases. It didn’t help that some didn’t understand why they had to pay for Facebook or PPC (“You’re kidding us on that Facebook or Google have changed how we get mass coverage” was often a comment). If we’d had the confidence to stick to core skills and partnered with others instead of trying to do it all ourselves and never saying no to people, things may have been different.

WHEN IT’S GOOD, IT’S GREAT

That feeling when someone got what you were doing and you were able to help or make a difference? Yeah, that was awesome.

Massive thanks to Craig for the insight – make sure you follow him on Twitter and if you think you can top that, drop me a line kim@impactonline.co.uk.

PS I loved the Scottish Social Media Dinners. I miss them.

Kim McAllister is a Journalist & Communications Consultant and director of Impact Online

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