Our CEO and Founder, Jacob Savage, joins our VPs to talk about flexible growth. How does a successful company remain willing to try new things? And do you ever really know if a risk is worth it? Listen to this episode for tips on failing forward and continued growth.
Roberts: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us. You're listening to A Little Off Topic. One agency's water cooler chat on digital marketing, business, and all the things that get in the way, presented by Speak Creative. Let's get into it.
Kindra: Welcome back. We are rounding third on season two of A Little Off Topic with Speak Creative and we couldn't let the whole season go by without bringing on our CEO and Founder of Speak, Jacob Savage. Jacob, welcome to the podcast.
Jacob: Thanks for having me. Finally.
Kindra: I know. Season 2. We had to bring you in somewhere. It's great to have you here today.
Ervin: There’s a specific reason we couldn't go the entire second season without you.
Kindra: We can't pinpoint it. I don't know. Word on the street is you're actually coming back next time and you’re going to join us for power rankings. Is that true?
Jacob: I do what I am told around here and I believe I've been told to be there. So I'll be there.
Roberts: You seem excited.
Ervin: You’ll be joined by David Caffey so it will be fun.
Jacob: Well, that will be great then.
Roberts: Now he's excited about it. Yeah. Wow.
Kindra: TBD on what the categories are, but I'm prepared. Hope you guys are bringing your game faces.
Roberts: Oh man. I was not prepared last time.
Kindra: So today we're going to keep things mostly on topic. We've talked to you before about leadership, but this time we want to talk a little bit about flexible growth and how one of the keys to our success here at Speak is being willing to try new things. So to start, I'd love for you to talk to us more about how you find balance in owning what we're good at as a business, but then making sure we don't get too comfortable.
Jacob: Yeah. That's a very interesting topic. I feel like that's something that we ourselves have talked a lot internally about over, really, our history. If you go back to the very beginning days of Speak when it was just myself or just a few of us in those early days, what we were involved with and what we were doing then is significantly different than the things that we do today. Going back and uncovering kind of how that evolution happens, I felt like it's two major components. One is to a large degree, the market drives change. What the market is after from us or from any business is always changing the level of service and the depth of what we have to offer.
Those are things that customers will tell us they want more of. For us, what that looks like is that phone call that comes in, that lead that comes in that says “I know you guys do X, but can you handle this project that is Y?” We have an opportunity when those things come around to stand back and ask ourselves that same question of can we handle this? Is this something that we feel like we're comfortable to stretch ourselves and to take on? And so we've done a lot of that over the years. I think a really firm example of that is the work that we do in mobile apps. So back in, whenever mobile apps came out, we got that first phone call of, “hey can you guys do this?”
And we circled up internally and said, we've got this request. What's our ability here and we tapped some really smart people on our team and we said, “yeah, we'll figure that out” and that's become a core service of ours that we've been doing for close to a decade now and all out of a willingness to take on something that was a little bit outside of our wheelhouse. The other major side to that is us making decisions to pursue new things just proactively. Having an idea for a new service or a new market that we want to go into, knowing that there's a risk involved, that we may not fare well with that particular venture. But that's the part of business that I really like, is seeing how we can push ourselves and make a plan to try something new and see what happens.
We've had situations where that's equaled great success for us. I think sitewrench, our content management system, was one of those where we just made a decision and said “hey, we'd like to build this and see what happens” and for us, that's been close to 20 years of recurring revenue and long-term customer relationships that has really defined who we are as an agency. We've had other ventures like website template-based websites for restaurants that fell flat on its face and we're glad that it did, but it was a fun experience. So again, just responding to the market, but also pushing ourselves at every opportunity. I think both of those allow us to just continue to evolve as an agency.
Kindra: Yeah. It occurs to me too, that we are really fortunate as an agency, if you're a business that's a bank, not everyone is interested in loans or whatever, but for us, we're all ourselves internet users and so I think that what we take on has been really a natural shift because what we're seeing works in real time. So, podcasts have been a huge thing, like we're listeners of podcasts and so, maybe we should get into producing some podcasts, whether that's the mobile apps or online ticketing, we users of all the things that we're creating. So it's nice to be out there and see things evolve and get new ideas just from actually being users ourselves, not just the people marketing those things.
Ervin: The ones that have fallen flat, we learn a lot about why they fell flat. Like before you start something out like that, you make a bunch of assumptions and you say, “okay, we think these people and this type and this service and all these things will work” and then when you get into it, you realize, “wow, we were wrong on every one of them.” But that informs your decisions going forward the next time and allows you to make better picks.
Roberts: I'm sure we'll get more into this here in a minute, but I mean, one of the things that just kind of piggybacking off the idea of learning from failure is just the idea that like from an investment standpoint, there have been kind of very few times that we've come into decisions about going into a new market or starting up a new service or trying something new where it's betting the bank on this one thing to be the thing that helps us succeed. We're very willing to try and see if it works and if it works great and if not, we're okay with failure too, as long as we take something away from that. I feel like that's a little bit of a cliche in the entrepreneurial world of like, “oh, don't be afraid to fail” but like, there is some freedom in the fact that like when we enter into a new service or new products, we do our due diligence. We do research and then we just see how the market reacts. Sometimes, the ultimate solution that we ended up creating there is very different than the initial idea that we pitched to the market. It just evolves over time and so that becomes a new core service or a way for us to work in any market. It's just very cool to be a part of the conversations around here when there's new stuff that we want to do and try. There's always that conversation going on.
Jacob: For the entrepreneurs out there, there's at least one type of entrepreneur that's pretty classic, where there's a lot of interest in a lot of different things. You see entrepreneurs that own lots and lots of businesses and oftentimes very unrelated businesses. What we're doing here is, I would say, very small stretches outside of our zone to where we're picking up an adjacent service, or we're taking the services that we already have and packaging them and marketing them in new ways or in new markets. To be candid, that's the smarter approach, at least for myself and for the direction of this company, is to not step out there and do something that has no relationship to what we're doing right now. We really want to find ways to serve our clients better. Over the years, for us to bolt on related services like video, for instance, we've been doing video for, for four or five years now. That's a service that is very related to marketing and is becoming exponentially more relevant on the digital side of things.
So to provide that service under one roof, right alongside your website and your marketing consulting services was just a natural fit for us. It didn't mean it wasn’t an investment, it didn't mean it wasn’t a risk. We had to hire people and buy equipment and learn new processes and learn how to market those services. But just like a moment ago with mobile apps, that's now a key service of ours and that's tightly with everything else we do. Success for us doesn't mean that we have to go in and conquer a market. Success for us means we need to improve what we're doing and increase our customer base, add more value for our customers. Have the venture overall make more money than it lost. So that's a good perspective for us to remind ourselves about and other folks that are out there, that if you want to enter a new market you don't have to become the major player there. There's typically plenty of room for lots of different service providers in the market. If you can go in and get enough of it, where that's good for your business, then I think that's a good risk to take on.
Kindra: Maybe where a lot of entrepreneurs get busy in innovation, they forget that they have a core product or a platform to grow from, but sticking to our bread and butter and innovating off of that is key right? Instead of just moving on to the next thing and then the next thing from there, you grow until you don't even know what your base is. So I think that that's an important note that maybe understanding where your core growth is and your stability is, and growing from those places are easier ways to be flexible in business growth.
Roberts: Well, and the thing that I feel like is a really helps encapsulate that is when we look at the people that we have on staff at any given time, there's always this question of, yes, here, here are the things that we do every day, but like what are other things that the team that we have would be good at? So that if we find with some downtime in a particular type of service or working in a particular market, that we can kind of activate the expertise that we have, so that we have, I mean, not to be too programmatic about it, but like, so that we can maximize the resources that we already have. That's where the natural growth of building on the core services and what we have and I liked the term that you used, but I'm not gonna get it exactly right. But the stretches within a zone of expertise feels like a really agile and smart way of staying relevant to the market. Especially as the things that our core service provides is changing really rapidly. So yeah, I think, I think all those are really well made points.
Kindra: So, Jacob, how do you decide when pursuing any idea is worth that risk? What are the key factors of highlighting the new offering and going for it?
Jacob: Yeah. It's not super impressive. I would say a lot of what we do is based on a strong gut feeling backed up with kind of a quick business plan. So we may have an idea that comes up that says “this feels like a good thing to get into. We can kind of see the pieces working out in our minds. Then to run just a quick business plan to just take account of: what does our investment look like? What does the potential return look like? And what does the timing of all of that look like?” And we can map it out and say, “okay, this is the minimum amount of new business that we need to get out of this venture in order to make this worthwhile” and if that seems like a major stretch that may be something that we turn down. If we still feel really bullish about it, then we may say, “okay, let's take that risk and see what happens.” That's one of the things that I feel is a responsibility of mine, as the owner, is to put capital at risk to continually try to make the business more and more relevant to the market. So playing it safe all of the time would be irresponsible of me. So there's kind of a sweet spot there of finding smart risks to take and being okay that occasionally they're going to fail. As we've already mentioned several times, hopefully, we fail forward in those things and learn from those situations. Then as we back up and try again for the next thing we'll take what we've learned and apply it to that next thing.
Ervin: So we talk about flexibility in business and changing environments and everything that happens today that is completely different than anything that's happened before, or is a repeat.
Roberts: Do you call those “unprecedented?”
Ervin: No. I specifically was using synonyms for unprecedented. But we've seen businesses not respond to the changing environment. We all know what happens, right? Where did blockbuster go? We don't know they're gone. But what do you think, Jacob, what do you think has been the biggest benefit to us remaining flexible? And I think the easy answer to that question is we've been able to stay in business, but is there something else?
Jacob: Yeah, I would say for us, when I think about our business, it always seems like it's free to be rewritten every day. With every new project that comes along, we can change how we approach that one particular project. With every new retainer relationship, we can change that approach. We can change the way that we deliver the services. So, there's a lot of flexibility there that we really value. We really enjoy working with that amount of flexibility. It helps us have the freedom to try new ways to do it better and feel like we're more successful at our work. But as far as our position in the market and staying relevant out in the market, again, I think that that's a really hard one because you want to think that you're able to know what's around the corner and always stay ahead of that.
But I think that's a bit naive. There are many businesses that have been sunk by things that they really had no great way to see coming. So, without that ability to tell the future, I think the things that we would try to do would be to continually try new things, see what's being offered out in the market, see what the the younger companies are doing and try to continue to incorporate those things alongside our core services and just maintain as much as we can an open mind to just pursuing change, which I felt like we've been really good at, just across the years of our, of our existence. Whether that'd be a new logo for the company or a new way to talk about ourselves or our services, we’ve just given ourselves the freedom to consider things written in dry erase pen and we can wipe it clean and start over to a degree each day.
Kindra: I think we've seen so many businesses not survive that inflexibility. Netflix once upon a time offered to buy Blockbuster, but they were just so certain that the future was right where they were. They couldn't see past VHS and DVDs, and now look at them. So Blockbuster is a great example. But even in 2020, those businesses weren't able to take their stuff online or be agile or change the way they did business. We really saw how much agility is needed in any market, I think. So, being able to just have a plan to be that flexible, I think is a really good place to start. What can we do to be more flexible with our business practice? That's probably something that businesses would benefit from asking themselves at this stage.
Jacob: So many businesses are consumed with just delivering their services and that's not a fault of their own at all. That's what we're here to do is to deliver for our clients or put our products out to market. But in that amount of busy-ness, it's impossible to pull away and just talk about the business and talk about how it operates and what it could be doing and what we should be trying and what our competitor is doing. So for us, we had to go through some significant growing pains and some significant restructuring from a management perspective in order to get to a place where we're able to talk and plan in that way. But for a small organization where there's a single leader just making that work on his or her own, it takes an extra measure of effort to get separation from working in the business in order to spend some amount of time working on it and making those plans for tomorrow.
Roberts: Yeah. The ability to do all this is dependent on your ability to take a step back and actually evaluate your business. Which means you need data and you need to either have a critical eye for data or be able to have some folks that you can call in at key moments to say, “here's what I'm seeing, what do you see?” But if we do get the opportunity, like you were saying, to kind of look at how we're performing, how our team is being leveraged across different projects, what's happening in the market, what our competitors are doing. That's a really, like you said, that's a really kind of difficult thing to do until you hit a specific scale where that can be built into people’s full-time role.
Otherwise, it's like trying to steal time on the weekends or in the evenings, to try to do that type of evaluation. So you don't get stuck in that mindset of just continuing to deliver the services that you've got. But I mean, when we look back across the history of Speak, I suspect you and Ervin know this better than any of us, what those early days look like of making the company work. I suspect that it was time away from the office still spent talking about those things, thinking about those things, evaluating, and trying to make decisions for how you were going to grow. Of course, you didn't know what it looked like today. But you knew that there was an opportunity to be captured.
Ervin: Yeah. There are not a lot of business books that I would plug. Generally, I find that they work in a vacuum and that's pretty much it, but Michael Gerber wrote a book several years ago called E-Myth and he's had several different versions of it come out since then. He does a very good job of talking about how you have to balance those things between working in your business, on your business, or he calls it being a technician, versus being a manager. If you're thinking about those things or are interested in how all this works, his perspective is incredibly good.
Kindra: So now is our segment where we like to ask our guests of the week a question that's a little off topic. I'm going to affectionately call this segment today, ask your boss anything. So Matt, Matt, anything you would like to ask your boss?
Kindra: I mean, he wanted to be in the hot seat. Let's go.
Ervin: There are so many things that come to mind that probably should never be spoken. Alright. I’ve got one for you. We can choose whether or not to air this, but what do you think, based on what we've been talking about today, what do you think is the dumbest thing we ever tried to do?
Roberts: That was my question!
Jacob: I have to dig deep for that. Let me say it wasn't dumb on was uninformed.
Ervin: I agree. Yeah, exactly right.
Roberts: What was the question? Dumbest thing we've ever tried to do?
Jacob: I'm having a hard time coming up with anything that we've done that was really dumb. Dumb to me would mean that we had no good in hindsight and no good reason for trying that. If the question were to be interpreted as “what have we done that we've regretted, no matter how good of an idea it was?” I think that we've taken on certain clients or certain projects that we knew were not a good fit for us and have regretted that all the way through. Absolutely. That's not so much a discussion around being flexible as much as picking your lane appropriately and sticking to it.
Ervin: What if you didn't limit it to just like product stuff? Not what's the worst business idea that we've had, but of the different things that we've done.
Jacob: I’ve got that one. Well, now I've got a few more flooded in my mind. One dumb idea we have that was, and this goes right into what we're talking about. So, 'll rewind and set it up. So, as a company, we've been offering website design development hosting since our beginning, since 1999. When we started sitewrench, which is our content management system that has a packaged content management hosting solution. Back in 2001 and 2002, we felt the pressure to do what other hosting companies do and that is to deliver email service along with website hosting, which was very commonplace at the time. So we did that for many years and pretty quickly learned the lesson that organizations were much more keenly aware of if their emails were flowing slowly than if their website was down for an entire weekend.
Just the maintenance and support headache that was email service just got to be too much and we ultimately said, “Hey, this was a really dumb idea. Why do we do this?” And we made the decision to fix our dumb idea and get everybody shuffled over to a new email service and bow out of doing that. We have no regrets about that bow out and life has been so much better since then. No regrets.
Roberts: No regrets other than you’d be happy if you had done it sooner.
Jacob: That's right.
Ervin: That was a pretty good one. I think it's a good one because it fits the “it sure seems like it's related to what we do, but, but it's really not.”
Kindra: Alright. So Jacob, you have the mentality and the heart of an entrepreneur. I'm curious that if the internet wasn't where you were, what kind of service or product would you invent or offer that's maybe not web design related?
Jacob: If the internet didn't exist back when I was getting into this business?
Jacob: I was definitely on a path of doing graphic design and marketing. So if we didn't have the internet come along and become a new place for that sort of thing to happen, I suspect I would be selling a lot of brochure design and branding and all the traditional media that if we didn't have the internet, would still be a thriving business. I'm sure that there would be packaged services for different industries and similar marketing approaches as we've done being a digital-first agency, just without the digital bits.
Ervin: I think the Dwight Schrute answer to that question is “I would make the internet.”
Kindra: I was hoping he was going to say something like a contraption that paints your house for you or something completely unrelated to marketing.
Jacob: If you're asking the question, what has been my favorite job? My favorite job, I talk about frequently, is I love pushing a broom and sweeping out a large room, because I'm alone with my thoughts and I can clearly see my success or failure when I'm done. There's nothing to say up at night worried about whatsoever. The job is done or it's not.
Ervin: That’s why I like driving my tractor.
Roberts: Do I get my “ask your boss anything” question?
Roberts: It's a real short. Alright. We now have 4 Matts on staff. Who's your favorite?
Jacob: Well I think the smart answer is I like each of you equally for your own unique reason.
Roberts: Alright. That’s how you answer your kid’s question.
Ervin: The right answer is Grayson because the rest of us seem more replaceable.
Jacob: When my kids ask me that question, I say “all of you” and then I look at the one who asked me that I mouth “it's you.”
Ervin: That's perfect.
Roberts: From myself, our panel today, and all of us at Speak, thanks for getting a little off topic with us. If you liked today's episode, you'd love the content our team is cranking out on our blog. Head over to madebyspeak.com to check out the latest and greatest. If you enjoyed the show, subscribe and leave a review on your podcast platform of choice and see you next time.
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