First published on LinkedIn here.
2018 was an important year for three reasons. I turned 50, AWA entered its tenth year, and I got a taste for sailing yachts.
As I approach Xmas I am left with some time to reflect on these milestones.
As a business owner and a father I often think about the business as my third child. A child that doesn’t find me ‘really embarrassing’ (well, not too often) and doesn’t siphon the contents of my bank account straight to Deliveroo.
The intellectual challenge of running a business - balancing the needs of our team, our clients, our drive to innovate and to achieve stability - is something I get out of bed every morning to examine and make adjustments to.
May was a great month. I had three birthday parties. One of them was a work one that coincided with our client day at Eynsham Hall - I was joined by clients, supporters, partners as well as people who just liked holding a mask in front of their face.
Since setting up the business in 2009 we set an ambitious financial goal for 2025. There are seven years remaining and this target often scares me - as all good audacious goals should - but every day we make strides. Our other goal is to be the world’s most influential conversion business. It’s equally daunting and in fact a tougher one to crack, especially in terms of measurement.
This year, like every other year, our growth was well into double-digits. We enjoyed the continued support of some of our biggest clients and brought more into the fold and continue to work with many of them. We helped them grow their businesses by plumbing great depths to uncover the thought processes of their website visitors, and using this insight in a structured way to validate that knowledge.
I am lucky to work in an industry where we can prove - to levels of 95% confidence - that one version produces more orders or sales than another. It’s a humbling process because we are led by evidence, and not opinion. One of our biggest insights was helping one of our clients evaluate the impact on sales of reducing their range of merchandise. I think CRO and testing is great - clearly, but when it can be used to answer key business questions like this I become an evangelist.
Sometimes, I end up thinking it would be great to if we could split-test everything, but fear that could get a bit messy in some situations (Brexit vs. non-Brexit, anyone?). What I do know is that I am passionate about working in an industry where you get levels of 95% confidence on the outcome of an important decision. Not many other industries offer this level of certainty.
Making a small difference
Our growth allowed us to do things beyond business that had been on my personal agenda for quite some time. I was very close to my grandmother and when she was widowed in later life and wrote to tell me how lonely she was, I promised to keep my eyes and ears open for ways I could help reduce loneliness felt by older people.
Cycling Without Age is a charity that provides equipment to take old people for rides outdoors. It was started by Ole Kassow, a Danish man who took an elderly gentleman around Copenhagen in an adapted bike. This October, AWA sponsored our first bike in partnership with YorkBikeBelles. Here I am taking it for a spin with Grace and Vicky.
There’s something magical about being outside in the autumn cycling along the River Ouse with an older person whose often only footwear are slippers, and for them to feel the wind in the hair. This is when business is good; the opportunity to use our surpluses to benefit others - and to see a smile on a woman’s face who very much looks like my much-missed grandmother.
As a business we have always offered paid leave to people who want to use their time to support charities or community organisations that are close to their heart. Nicole, our Marketing Coordinator, has used her time to raise money for the British Heart Foundation as her father died suddenly of a heart attack 6 years ago.
Lynne, our Business Optimisation Manager, has used her time to support Treasure Chest an organisation that promotes, supports and encourages breastfeeding in the York area. Lynne has also completed the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers’ ‘Mother Supporter Module’ training, and next year plans to start the ABM's Breastfeeding Counsellor training to further her knowledge and, by the end of this 2 year course, she will be able to support mothers across the country on their nationwide helpline.
This year we have also been able to tackle something that has irked all of us in different ways; our impact on the world’s climate. We operate across three continents and although I think we have got pretty good at communicating, building and motivating a team remotely, sometimes it’s good to have everyone in the place. Getting together means several long-haul flights and tonnes of carbon emissions polluting the atmosphere.
One of our team, Trevor Hinkle, a keen environmentalist, calculated how much CO2 we were responsible for. It turns out, that although we are not a big company by any stretch, we are responsible for 53 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. 53 tonnes of the stuff! So with Trevor’s help we offset that 53 tonnes by donating to Native Energy to support a wind farm project in India.
We all also provided a £300 grant to all team members to spend on something that would reduce their CO2 output.
Both Jonny and Mel used their grant to buy a Nest, a smart thermometer. That’s not Mel, in the right hand picture, she doesn’t like getting her hands dirty so this qualified chap is installing her Nest.
Given the amount of sun that Cape Town receives, Brendan decided to use his grant for a solar geyser.
I am aware that these measures are just scratching the surface of what we need to do to slow down climate change. As individuals we need to do as much as we can to adjust our lifestyles, or we will end up with events like the water taps being turned off, as they nearly did earlier this year in Cape Town.
We have been fortunate this year to have been joined by two people who have redefined what the business can achieve. Trevor Hinkle, not only helped us to execute our sustainability policy, but he has helped us to launch new businesses, research new investment possibilities, is our lead optimiser with Xero shoes (this company is growing massively), all the while studying for a Masters in Sustainability in Copenhagen.
This year more than others I have appreciated the position that our people define our possibilities - and this year we have added talented people to our already high-performing squad. Phil Cave has joined us an Optimiser with extensive experience of travel and financial services. Phil used to run his own digital agency in the West of England and comes from a direct response marketing background.
This year I have been impressed by Optimizely’s ambition to grow their business, and I believe they have the capability - both in terms of people and technology - to define the landscape. In my view their full-stack, server-side approach, program management capabilities and quick updates to existing tests is going to help them enormously.
Google have not been standing still either - unlike their limited offering, Content Experiments from way back when, Google Optimize has the capability and flexibility to be a useful experimentation platform for those taking their first steps into CRO - the fact that it is currently free clearly helps.
Our partnership with Google, and the insight we get into their plans each year when we attend their Partner Summit helps us to see how businesses can get more out of this important tool.
There’s a lot to be excited about next year, including the further development of a new business division as well the launch of another. We are never going to stand still; in eight years’ time we will be known for far more than just the agency part of our group.
But to this year; 2019 will see the launch of the second edition of our book.
Sales have been better than forecast so our publisher, Kogan Page, have asked Johann and I to update and comment on recent developments in conversion optimisation. Just when I thought 4am writing sessions were a thing of the past.
This year will see us celebrate a full ten years in business and that’s another milestone to mark and look forward to. I hope as many of our partners, clients, supporters and friends will be able to make this event. A ‘Save The Date’ email will be going out in the New Year.
And to my own target for this year. Call it a mid-life crisis or an attempt to write a large cheque that my body might not be able to cash, but I have signed up to do an IronMan in Barcelona on 6th October.
My aim is to finish, to finish well - not like this (I hope).
Have a great break over Christmas and I look forward to seeing you in 2019, although if I were you, I would avoid the Croatian coast in mid-September as I do my best to qualify as a RYA Day Skipper.