2021: Our Year In Review
2021: Our Year In Review
What a year.
We started 2021 as a team of 3 that had just experienced a surge in new clients. We were immediately managing the process of onboarding them and frantically trying to hire more team members. We’ll end the year with 10 team members and 6 open roles.
There have been plenty of ups and downs. Lessons learned. And of course, valuable experiences along the way. It’s safe to say that it’s been the most intense working year we have experienced. Running an agency is hard. Running a business is hard. Trying to launch a new business whilst dealing with multiple national crises is the stuff of nightmares and we’ve certainly felt the weight at times.
But it’s not all bad – we’ve been extremely lucky. We’re in an industry that is experiencing a surge of growth, and we have been riding that wave.
We wanted to write this review to give you an insight into some of the lessons we’ve learnt across 2021 running an agency at the intersection of advanced Paid Search and Marketing Technology.
What we wanted this year to be about
We had a pretty simple 3-year plan when we launched WeDiscover:
In our first year, we wanted to get traction. We wanted to understand if there was a market for what we could offer and whether we – two people who had never worked in an agency, let alone run one – could sell companies our vision and ability.
After the initial lows of the first lockdown, we definitely felt we had some traction. Our revenue grew nicely as we approached the end of our first year.
That moved us on to our 2nd-year objective. Get Organised. Easy, right?
System building (getting organised)
2021 was all about getting the right people in the right seats and creating a framework for them to do their best work.
James Clear’s quote of “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems…” rung especially true as we entered this year.
It’s felt like slow progress over the last 10 months or so, but we have actually accomplished a lot in this space. It feels like we are now in a great place.
Here are some of the highlights:
- We’ve developed a standardised process for onboarding and offboarding clients alongside extensive frameworks for auditing accounts & managing them.
- We’ve become Asana-centric, channelling some of the wonderful Product best-practices from our previous roles. I mean, if there’s not a card, did it even happen?
- We’ve got our content fly-wheel up and running and are now held to account by our content calendar.
- We’ve built up our internal Wiki (with Notion). We see this as one of the most important tools for achieving company-wide excellence.
- We started time-tracking with Harvest at the beginning of this year. This has been a game-changer for resource management (And the by-product is that we’re now constantly reviewing where we’ve spent our time).
- Released a range of internal tech, from budget management systems and website health checkers to real-time monitoring systems and automated auditing.
There is, of course, always more to do here. But we’re creating a culture of process and methodical thinking that we hope will lay the foundation for years of sustainable growth.
Team, team, team
The most important asset we have as an agency is our team, no doubt about it. We’ve spent a lot of time hiring the right people over the last year. Despite this, it hasn’t been plain sailing. We often take longer than other companies when it comes to our interview and selection process. Our applicants need to know us, we need to know them. Moving positions is a big step; it’s a match-making process and it should take time. While our approach to recruitment and retention could warrant its own article, we’ve tried to make our all-round package more attractive for new and existing staff. There are a few things we’ve offered our team from the beginning:
Flexible working. Work from home, from the office or a mixture of both (we’re fans of the hybrid approach).
- 28 days holiday + bank holidays. We’ve purposefully applied a number of days vs. offering unlimited holidays because we believe by giving a number of days our team members will use more of them.
- Top of the range equipment. Laptops, screens, chairs, etc. We see very little point in buying cheap equipment – doesn’t make much sense to us.
- 2 days volunteering per year. To spend at a charity of your choice.
- Regular socials, lunch and learns & internal training.
Moving into next year we are going to add the following:
- A wellness subscription (Heights, Calm, Headspace, Thriva, Gym, etc.)
- A new and defined home office equipment budget.
- A new annual learning fund (for our team members choice of books, audio subscriptions, etc.). This is above and beyond our training and development budgets.
- A 5-week fully paid sabbatical after 5 years with us.
At the beginning of 2022, we will also be revising our Maternity and Paternity policies with the aim of enhancing them alongside increasing our pension contributions.
Moving towards summer 2022, we are planning to launch our first grad scheme, and with that, we are building up a huge catalogue of training material. We are very excited to have the industry’s future leaders come through our training programme in the not too distant future.
But coming back to the past year, one of the processes we adopted is a weekly individual survey using 15Five. This is to allow anyone to give feedback on how they are feeling, what is going well and not so well, if there is anything the company can do to improve, etc. Of course, each team member has a regular 1-2-1 with their manager where they could discuss these points, but we’ve found a written update at the end of the week allows team members to be more honest. But most importantly, as part of 15Five, our team members have the chance to shout out their colleagues for great work. We’ve integrated this shout-out feed into our slack, and it is definitely our favourite channel.
We started the year like most companies where we had a few targets we wanted to achieve – mostly related to the services we offered, our monthly turnover and team development. As we’ve gone through the year we have revised our approach to setting objectives. The problem we found with targets is they were outcomes, rather than well-considered actions or objectives that would get us where we wanted to be. For example, say you want to turnover £2 million in the next year – that’s great – but just having the target isn’t going to help you achieve it. Releasing great content, having a capable and well-resourced team, focussing on internal processes and building valuable client relationships will. So, as we entered the 2nd half of the year we started to do three things:
- We moved to shorter-term objectives. If it wasn’t achievable over the next 3 months, then it wouldn’t make the cut.
- We removed all financial targets. Our objectives must focus on what we can control (i.e. a set of well-considered actions that we expect will ladder up to financial growth).
- We reduced the number of objectives we have. We spend most of our time on client-related projects, so we need to be very focused with the remaining time.
It’s likely that this will change as we grow, and we will start to implement longer-term objectives. But, for us, right now, it is working.
Flirting with burnout
Multiple times this year we’ve both come close to burning out. Too much stress, too heavy workloads, not enough breaks.
Working in performance marketing during a period of massive cultural change does not make for a relaxing work environment. That, coupled with the fact that we were too slow to hire at the beginning of the year caused us (the co-founders) to overwork.
This has improved massively as the team has grown, but it’s taken a long time to balance out (and honestly is still a work in progress).
If you look at Byron’s average step count for the first few months of the year you’ll see he barely left the house.
During the worst of those sedentary periods, he did develop some good habits, which have continued to this day:
- “No phone in the evenings. Once I’ve finished work I leave my phone in a different part of the house. Otherwise, I find myself checking it constantly”.
- “Exercise every day. Walking, running, stretching. Anything to get the body moving (this helped with sleeping well that night)”.
- “Reading/doing a crossword before falling asleep. I found the combination of reading and doing some sort of puzzle allowed me to fall asleep much quicker and get a better quality of sleep”.
The other thing that we’ve both done is to take proper holiday breaks. This means deleting slack and emails from your phone. It can sometimes be a daunting thing to do, but the truth is that after a proper break you’ll come back to work with more energy.
It’s important, we think, not to glorify overworking or burnout. For us, or any of our staff. We want to build a culture of productivity and performance but that cannot come at the expense of mental wellbeing or job fulfilment.
The power of momentum
A hard-learned lesson of this year: progress is greater than perfection. We value getting things shipped – prioritising action and momentum over endless planning is important. It’s hard for any motivated practitioner to call anything done. A little extra could always take you a step closer to perfection, but knowing when to deliver something is a real skill.
We actively encourage this mindset. We value action being taken and things progressing. Iteration is a natural part of development and just because something has flaws does not mean it’s not ready to use. Not to mention – using something and gathering feedback is an integral part of that iterative cycle of delivery.
The first version of our Experimentation Studio for example looked nothing like it does today. What you see on the blog is version 5 (and the result of 200 hours of iterations and internal releases). Are there things we would improve about it? Sure. But it’s also valuable as it is.
We are bootstrapped and this has impacted a lot of our decisions this year.
As the founders of the agency, we’ve both taken severely under-market salaries for ourselves. We’ve done this because WeDiscover is growing tremendously, and the capital is better allocated within the business.
It’s a decision we share with many founders and we’re pleased we made it. Over the last year we’ve built up a cash reserve runway of 9 months and that continues to grow. While we’re aware that may indicate some underinvestment, we feel it makes sense for where we are, right now.
With this type of cash reserve, we don’t have to seek outside investors for capital, it gives us freedom when deciding who to work with and it’s great security for any new team member.
We also decided early on to be fully transparent with the team when it comes to company finances. Every two months we have an all-hands where we share all the major company news, including our exact monthly turnover.
Working with and getting clients
Do good work and write amazing content and 80% of sales are already done for you. This is our approach to growth. In fact, our pitch win rate is sitting at over 90%. The chance of you working with us after you’ve heard our pitch is a near certainty. But, when we pitch, it comes at a cost – each pitch we prepare is largely bespoke and we spend a lot of time writing, preparing and discussing it internally. This helps with our win rate, but it does mean we have to be selective with whom we pitch to.
Our entire growth strategy is tied up in 2 elements:
- Be the best partner our clients can have (our mission is to be their most consistent source of growth). We strive to be the agency we wanted to work with when we were in-house.
- Contribute to the industry by releasing outstanding content and playing an active role in the community.
That’s it. It’s that simple. Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Let’s break down those concepts a bit more.
Being the best partner
We pride ourselves on going above and beyond. When we work with our clients we’ll go beyond our Paid Search platform, we’ll chat about their technical infrastructure, user experience, company vision, competitors, CRM, customer LTV and so on. We see ourselves as a strategic partner that happens to use Paid Search to acquire customers and can support technical initiatives. We’re big on proactive communication and bringing new ideas to the table.
With our marketing technology, there is a pretty large difference between us and the majority of other agencies. If we build custom marketing tech for our clients, they own it. That’s right, if we build a proprietary piece of software specifically for our clients, it’s their IP. We were warned that it would be one of the particularly poor business decisions we could make, but we did it anyway. What type of partnership exists when the agency is constantly holding its client hostage? And if the relationship ended, they would just rip everything out.
That didn’t seem right to us and you can be certain it’s not something we would’ve been open to when appointing any agency ourselves. People said that our retention rates would plummet, and the moment we shipped the project the client would leave. Well – we’re happy to say – that hasn’t happened. In fact, we have wonderful retention rates. And we believe it’s because we see the relationship as a true partnership.
The truth is that there is always more to do. There is always more tech to build, more projects to start, more experiments to run. Our partners see us as a crucial part of their long-term performance marketing strategy and there is a sustainable value exchange.
Contributing to the industry
When we write articles and scripts it takes a lot of commitment. Our articles can take over 25 hours to research, write and refine. Tools, scripts and resources can take much longer to produce.
That’s a big commitment when you’re trying to balance it alongside client work and internal projects. But we’re sure it’s worth it. Content has been one of the biggest drivers of new leads for us, second only to referrals. In fact, we’re still getting a respectable stream of leads from a piece of content Byron wrote over 2 years ago. That’s why we’ll continue to invest the time and energy in sharing what we know with the industry. Pushing useful tools, scripts & frameworks, hypothesising about innovative approaches, testing our theories and creating new case studies.
Beyond the new-client-incentive, we’ve both learnt a lot from reading blogs written by other Paid Search managers, Data Scientists and Engineers and we’re proud to continue that tradition here.
Going into 2022
As we enter 2022 there is a lot to be really excited about.
We are one of the most diverse and capable marketing-focused teams around, and we’re confident that the projects and growth we are delivering for our clients is truly outstanding. In particular, we’re looking forward to:
- Over doubling our headcount in 2022.
- Shipping some truly world-class reporting products. Reporting will become one of our competitive advantages.
- Building the best graduate training scheme in the market.
- Publishing several new case studies that will inspire the industry.
- Continuing to run innovative and profitable campaigns for some of the most exciting brands in the world.
- Launching projects that push Diversity and Inclusion initiatives forward (and shining a spotlight on them).
Building an agency, or any business is incredibly tough.
But, without a doubt, there are a few things that make it all worthwhile. Seeing colleagues fulfilled, happy and inspired clients and feeling excited about the work we get to do are just some of them.
Together, we just feel grateful for the year we’ve had.
Grateful that we get to work on some of the most interesting projects in our careers. Grateful that we get exposed to so many different approaches to doing things. Grateful that our company is growing incredibly fast. Grateful that some of the greatest minds in this industry want to work here.
Roll on 2022.
– Byron & Adam