Is the old-school way of doing business dead, or dying? I mean, the physical office, all the staff commuting to work, the need to be at a company office desk to work?
I don’t know if it’s dead, but it’s certainly not the only way of working. After Exposure Ninja had been running — remotely — for a couple of years, people started telling us that it was time to go “legit” and open a physical office. So we did. But we found productivity sank, and I was personally exhausted from the commute. Getting less done during the day because of the endless distractions meant working longer hours, and it was just not ideal. Eventually, the drop in productivity and the extra hires — all those empty desks to fill! — started impacting company finances, so we made the decision to close the office. The following month was our best to date, so the fate of the office was sealed.
Do you think the new generations entering the workforce now, and those newly in it, demand or expect a different work experience? And that it's not just because the internet might enable it but that they want a better work-leisure balance than their parents?
I would hope so. I think that traditional “work” (what we call “battery workers”) is really sub-optimal. By requiring people remain in one location, you’re not only imposing severe life restrictions on your staff, but you’re also dramatically shrinking your hiring pool. If we need a new Ninja, we don’t have to settle for the best person who lives within 10 miles of our office postcode; we can hire the best person for the job… in the world. That person can then live how they want, travel whenever they like, and create a life that satisfies them. Work is only one part of life — an important one, for sure, and I’m a self-confessed workaholic — but a happy life leads to better work. So I’d encourage new generations to look at designing a life that makes them happy, and find a job which suits that.
So with Exposure Ninja, you went from an office setup with staff coming in to work to entirely remote, again. Why did you feel you had to set up a traditional office in order "to be in business"?
People who seemed very serious and business-y told us that we needed an office. Eager to learn, I agreed and we set up the office. Incidentally, we’ve surpassed the size of the companies run by each one of the advisors who made the recommendations, and we wouldn’t have had the growth we’ve had were it not for working remotely.
Why did you get into this business — digital marketing — in the first place?
I was a professional drummer, recording for bands and artists around the world from my home studio. A lot of what I was doing when I wasn’t playing was marketing myself online, so I learned the basics of SEO (search engine optimisation) without knowing what it was called. Eventually I got bored of that, so I set up a website for my next-door neighbor, who was a plasterer. That website took off and changed his life, and I decided to follow the trail to see where it ended up.
Numerous studies and surveys show that remote workers are often far more productive than those in an office — whereas it might be tempting to think the opposite is true. Is this what you have found?
Definitely. I am in awe of anybody who can maintain even 25% productivity in an office environment. The distractions are everywhere, and if you don’t want to work you can spend an entire day ruining the productivity of everyone around you. With working remote, it’s possible to be productive literally all day, with zero distractions. It’s bliss.
Now you have dozens of remote workers — some contracted, others freelance — all over the world, from the UK to US and Asia. How do you cope with all the time-zone differences?
Most of the company operates on UK time, as this is when our clients are mostly online. We do have plenty of Ninjas that work in their own time zones, though, and this doesn’t cause many issues, as long as we book meetings for common online times.
How can you trust people who work remotely to get the job done? What’s the process of actively managing them, and how is it done?
As well as our project management system that tracks task completion, we use activity monitoring software on every Ninja’s computer. This shows what they’re working on and their activity level. It might sound a bit “Big Brother”, but we learned early on that it’s absolutely necessary when operating at this scale. It’s simply not possible for every person to be micro-managed and their output monitored all the time.
In fact, this level of tracking gives us more data about the team’s work and productivity than office-based companies have. This data can alert us to, for example, people who might be struggling with workload or having a tough time generally, so that we can help out when needed.
Why did you decide to write SEO and PR books for the benefit of companies?
Originally it was because I was spending my days talking to businesses who had invested a lot of money in SEO without really understanding what it was. I noticed that there weren’t many plain-English books that did an honest job of explaining it, so I wrote one.
It quickly became an amazing source of leads for the business, so we started writing more and more.
What's the number-one thing you've learned from being in business and running your own company?
Never give up. There have been some pretty miserable times when you kind of look in the mirror and think: “There are much easier ways of making a living”. But seeing the growth of the team, the incredible work they do and watching people grow in confidence, skill, and responsibility has been immensely rewarding. This was a surprise to me.
Also, hire people who fill in the holes you have. I’m so terrible at so many things, but luckily we have an amazing management team who bail me out constantly and keep the ship running smoothly. It’s only fair for me to take about 1/100th of the credit for building this company.
Exposure Ninja has just launched a revamped website and new corporate branding featuring Ninja warriors in all sorts of guises. Is this a sign that the company is powering ahead, and what is it about the Ninja attitude that appeals to you?
Ninjas are efficient and effective, and that embodies everything that we want to be known for.
There are many digital marketing agencies now. What sets yours apart?
We share everything we do and learn through our books, seminars, podcasts, and blog. We believe that most marketing is actually really straightforward, and there’s no need for jargon and BS to muddy the water. This means people can see clearly that we know what we’re talking about, and that we walk the walk.
The other thing that sets us apart is our focus on return on investment (ROI) for our clients. Even if we’re running a traffic campaign, we measure the performance of our clients’ websites and show them how to improve the conversion rate and effectiveness to convert more of the traffic we’re generating. So many agencies only work in their small area, and if there’s no ROI, they’ll find something else to blame. We don’t rest until we’ve got your site working as well as we know it should.
What kind of tangible successes have you had for clients in getting them results from the internet?
We’ve taken one fledgling e-commerce client from almost 0 to $145k/week, ranked another top of Google for over 300 phrases and dominated markets.
We’ve taken another client from £900k turnover to over £3.7 million in under 3 years, with lots of great ranking, traffic and sales results. Recently, we’ve been helping Hofmeister beer relaunch on social media, which has been great fun to watch. William, one of our superstar Content Marketing Ninjas, wrote a news story for a client which went viral, being published in 260 publications around the world, including on TV. That was incredible, and possibly the highest-leveraged use of marketing time I’ve ever seen. That client now ranks top of Google in the UK for the word “gardener”, which is just silly.
How do you cope with the stress of running what amounts to a global company so that you don’t overexpose yourself to crippling workloads?
I go to the gym every day and talk to my cats — Ninja, Samurai, and Shinobi — a lot. But thankfully the Exposure Ninja team is so fantastic that the workload is manageable.
Where are you aiming to have Exposure Ninja in 10 years' time?
Our goal is to be the UK’s number-one marketing company for SMEs. Currently, Yell does more marketing for SMEs than us, so they’re in our sights! We want to help our clients compete and dominate their markets, and do it in the most transparent and effective way. As long as our clients grow and succeed, so do we. So that’s where our focus and attention is.
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