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3 Lessons Learned Whilst Become the World's Best Shopify plus Agency

Alex O'Byrne speaking at Milton Keynes Geek Night in March, 2017
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About this talk

1) How to go niche and find and audience that values what you do 2) How we built an audience with content and events 3) How to hire the right people to help you grow


- So I'm gonna talk to you tonight about how we made our agency the most popular, best, most trusted Shopify agency in the world. Step one is you just start saying it and then eventually people believe you. So we bring the best brands onto Shopify and today I wanna talk to you about my journey actually going from, actually I was a developer so I had no marketing experience whatsoever. I wasn't one of those kids who sells stuff on the playground or anything. Not entrepreneurial at all really actually, and sort of accidentally ended up running a web agency just by virtue of starting to sell websites. And the beginning of my career was in the city of London doing a job I really didn't like which was in technology for a bank. Awful environment, awful people, and managed to get out, and before I quit actually I met this guy, Piers. This is a really old picture I found today actually, it was really funny. So we met Piers and we started making apps which was fun because this was 2008 by then, so iPhone was pretty new, messing around, doing stuff like that. He was also teaching me piano for a little bit as well, it was fun. But eventually I thought, well this stuff is actually a bit more interesting than what's going on day to day and also tech and the cloud and mobile and all these things were becoming more and more mainstream. I went on holiday to Niece and I was reading Hunter S. Thompson, the Run Diary, and I just had this moment where I thought "I need to be doing more things "like taking more risks and be more adventurous." So I quit, that's me on my sofa trying to do the same sort of thing, didn't really work. But yeah started making websites and we were doing it, we sold a few websites through Gum Tree and a few sort of lucky deals, made a few deals of charities to give discounts to their members, like business charities like Cross Central, people like that. And we got our first client and we got by. We even got to our first birthday and hired our first employee, that's Rob. These are our girlfriends that we roped in to look like we were a sort of profit company. And that was all good, we would basically do anything for money and we were selling websites and all good. Eventually I decided to take a bit of a break because I was also running a photography shoot at the same time and it was getting a bit much, so I took the whole Odyssey sort of crisis like mid-life, or sort of quarter life I suppose, and just went to Eastern Europe, had a good time, and tried to find the meaning of life, which my conclusion was to do marketing, which isn't exactly like a massive epiphany. But when I came back I realised to grow the business I had to focus on growth. And was looking after me too was I founded a company and naturally it seems that I do all the sort of raising awareness, making more noise and getting people interested in what we do, and Piers handles all the actual work I suppose of like delivering the stuff and making sure. He's a sort of creative director and tech lead and manages our team now which is about 11 designers that all report to him. And all our designers are all developers as well. So anyway, my realisation was I need to actually just get people aware of what we do. So these are my three lessons that I learned along the way. The first one was to find a niche. I think it's quite hard to come to the answer of who is it that really values what you do. We realise fairly early on that e-commerce was really a good place to sell websites because they can immediately see the value as measurable and you can make a big difference. And back then we were selling websites to even people like lawyers that were struggling to justify why they would spend even 5,000 pounds on a website, whereas obviously e-commerce brands were a lot more likely to put the money down if they could see an obvious return. And around that time we started using Shopify which I'll come back to in a minute, I assume most of you know what it is, but it is basically an e-commerce platform that makes it very easy to build websites on. Like Wigs but good I suppose. So the thing about simplifying that I wanna talk about more before I talk about Shopify, is that everything got simpler when we really focused. So everything from Shopify's hosted, so immediately all that stuff, in fact today we closed down our last server ever that was running, which was still a headache even though we weren't actually doing anything on it. So all that stuff disappeared, Shopify handles about 10,000 check outs a minute, maximum for any client. So no one really has that sort of problem. Pretty good on security, all that good stuff, so all that went, process got simpler. Because we were doing the same stuff all the time. Hiring got simpler because we no longer needed back end developers, so that's why we have design front end developers. And marketing, positioning was a lot easier because we just said "well we just do Shopify." And I think a niche should be so strong that it's actually repelant to some people and they think "well I don't need that." But the other people that do need what you do, they say "oh these are the right people." So when we started saying "London Shopify Agency" which we were the first really, anyone in London doing Shopify, the founders said "oh these are the guys "we should work with" rather than a general purpose agency. If you just think about sales when you're selling general web design, the sales meeting, you're just grasping around trying to figure out okay, you might have a framework of questions but it's not the same as if we're selling to an e-commerce brand, we've done it literally hundreds of times and we know pretty much all of them have got similar problems so we know that they probably wanna increase direct to consumer sales but they're already selling very well through some other channel like wholesale. We know that they've probably got problems updating the site, integrating with back end systems, getting a mobile to my site that works, ultimately having a good conversion rate. And when you can say that to them before they've even said anything, they know that you know that what their world is like. And it's a lot harder to do that when you're doing a project for literally anyone. So here's some of our work. We tend to work with design lead brands that have got some sort of hype behind them. Often they have got a store somewhere like Common Garden or selling very well through Net Porter or A-Source or some other big channel like that. They're also very design focused, we do a lot of lingerie actually which I never thought when I started making websites when I was 11, not really how I'd spend my days. But I think those type of brands really value that we can bring the brand online and stay true to it but also keep it commercially focused as well and actually get sales. So basically it'll look good and actually generate sales which is not that common actually in e-commerce. But we also do a lot of big brands like National Portrait Gallery, The Economist, Penguin Books, Pepsi, people like that. And the situation there is more like the cloud is now fine and a lot of these big companies have got entrepreneurial visions that say "why are we buying "Demandware or Hybrid or Magenta when we could just "be using Shopify to get something up and running?" And most people will go and try and find the sort of biggest agencies of which we are one. So that has been that we do a lot of these bigger brands as well. So I wanna talk about how to get more of these people interested in what you do. The first thing is to figure out who exactly they are. So this has changed a bit for us over the years. Now I would say it is an e-commerce manager, one of these brands, so even these kind of hyped up design lead brands, often fashion gifts, homeware, that type of thing, or a big company that happens to own a lot of brands. And then once you've figured out who that person is, you need to influence, you need to try and build an audience with them. And in my learnings about marketing, I noticed this change between what's been called 20th century marketing or interruption marketing where you're kind of trying to get in the way of what someone is doing through a different method of inbound marketing where you actually try and get them to come to you. So you think about infrastructure marketing, it's things like billboards, TV ads, radio ads, magazine ads, basically things that try and get in the way of what you're doing and show you a message. That's not affective because it's extremely expensive because it's mass media usually. It's not very focused because the nature of the channel is very broad. It's almost impossible to measure the actual effect. And as we know the world is changing, this is the Vatican, 2005, that's 2012. And yeah, you just need to look around in a restaurant or whatever to see this change. It's kind of bad for humanity and when you see your friends, everyone's sort of waiting for the next message instead of listening to what's going on. Very good as marketers, very good for us because that means people are on their phones all the time and trying to buy stuff that's interesting to them. The question then is how do you create content that actually attracts people. And Daman Shah who is one of the founders of Hook Spot, said "you need to focus on attracting people instead of annoying them. So that is a major difference in the two methods. So we took that idea and made a blog that solely focuses on content that helps that audience win. So it's things like "seven e-commerce mistakes you "can easily avoid," "how to engage influences "when on Instagram," all this type of thing. And we put a lot of time into this, in fact we have a full time person that used to manage and we hired her to maintain our blog. And this now gets around 60,000 unique visitors a month and obviously most of them are in e-commerce. You wouldn't be google for e-commerce trends unless you were in that market. So everyone that comes to us is potentially a target customer, and you see a lot of agency blogs or small business blogs where they talk, it's all news about them, and as you know if you've been on one, no one really cares really to read about. Even if it's famous, quite a big achievement to you in the office or new employee or someone like that, I think that stuff is great to share with a close network, maybe family and friends and stuff like that, but it's not really gonna get people buying stuff from you. Whereas giving them content that actually helps them win in their career is really helpful, and it doesn't have to be as direct as this. So this is SEO Moore's, they did it, or Moore's it's just called now, they came up with this in their whiteboard Friday, they researched, some you might have seen. But brand for Moore's basically, does like a kind of 10 minute lesson on how to do things. And I really like this one where they talked about coming up with ideas for content, and the idea is that you start with viral or super broad content. This example is about if you were selling standing up desks. So they're saying okay, you create this kind of really viral content or broad content like work setups on Facebook versus Google, the startup world's greatest desk set ups, that type of thing. When you move to discovery phase content, so let's assume someone has sort of gone there and seen that a lot of people have got standing up desks. Then you go to discovery phase content, so people start search say, for benefits of standing desks, why sitting at a desk might be bad for you, that type of thing. Eventually they get onto consideration phase content where they're literally comparing models of desks and about to make that purchasing choice. What we found is that we can create content along the funnel for all those points so that people will find our blog consistently throughout the process of researching for a website and then obviously if they see that we're asking a lot of questions, they're likely to see that we're also in the UK and we could help them, and then again they get in touch. That process works really really well. We also broadened it a bit so we did YouTube videos for a bit, we stopped for now but we're gonna restart doing that soon. And we also run the London Shopify meetup. - People will forget what you say, i.e. your marketing, people will forget what you do, i.e. your customer service, but people will never forget ultimately how you make them feel. - Here today gone tomorrow, use that time down element to really generate a lot of excitement about your product and your brand if this kind of style is right for you. Be imaginative, be the creative entrepreneurs that you are. - So I found the event really interesting, the diversity of the speakers was quite nice and it got you thinking in a whole new way as an online retailer. - The questions were great and the general speakers all kind of added to what we were specifically asking. - Definitely fun, they all have been very informative, very engaging, and also very relevant. - It was really interesting on the whole night. - It's always hard to get an entrance to these types of events, especially when they don't have a lot of time and tonight's event was fantastic because you had merchants speaking and content experts that gave really actional points of view. So well done guys because you've got a really great event tonight. - It was inspirational, it was lots of fun. - Sorry I had to show the whole thing because it was really expensive. Shout out to my man Andy for getting the audio on that, thanks mate! Right, the right team then, so let's assume all that's worked and you're starting to get busy. So this is something that again I've had to learn from scratch. Finding people that can do the job and have the right attitude is absolutely crucial to delivering good work and the first step there is obviously when you're hiring is to hire for attitude. There's an old saying "hire for attitude "train for skill." I think trying to find a team from the beginning that's really into what you do is really crucial. But obviously also test for skill and we've had some howlers early on where we didn't really test people on if they could do a job basically, and some couldn't. So that was a hard lesson. And actually to this day in the interviews we still do a really practical test. So obviously if it's developing, getting to write some code maybe, with our project managers we literally get them to write an email on a piece of paper, and we say if something's gone very badly for a client, we've really made a big mistake, what would you say to them? And obviously you can see grammar and things like that, but just doing that is a quick sign that you check that this person can do the job which sounds obvious but not always. Right, core values. So yeah obviously this is quite an old company some of you may know. And this is the highest quality I could find and I used to think that company values, it's all bullshit really and that kind of thing. And it is i think a big scale, but over the years I've changed my mind a bit, so I was thinking with like sort of smaller HIPPA companies and these are all different. Maybe they're not that different maybe they've just got better typography and a beer in the fridge and that sort of thing, but actually I think smaller companies in general are more human in they exhibit because they're not such big rational prophet seeking entities, they're literally a load of people in a room trying to do something. And they tend to have empathy and a bit of an actual human approach trying to get their work done. And eventually I realised that my own company, a bit like market positioning, if you don't define your culture it sort of gets defined for you, which can be okay but usually if there's a reason you start the business and there's a reason why you're really pushing it along, and eventually I realised how to define what our values were. So we help our clients win is one of our values. "Our clients come to us with grand ambitions, daily "struggles, we listen careful, we guide and support "our clients using our creativity, experience, and skills. "We deliver great work that truly makes a difference." okay, so then I put that on the screen and said "this is what we believe" and everyone's like "yeah okay okay." Leave the meeting and of course nothing changes. So what I've realised is that each value has to be implemented. So for example for this one, finding the right people is a start, keeping our skills as good as they can be through training is another thing that helps. Focus on client objectives throughout and making sure that designers understand that, and to do that we include designers at every meeting. So we used to just have a project behind us in between and now the designer comes in even if I don't need them that meeting, so they can begin to understand the client's context. We got a thing called "store wars" where a company is split in two and they both start a business and then they compete about who can get the most sales, so that's kind of fun, teaches them what it's like to be a merchant. And we use net promoter score which is basically this thing that's similar to on Uber, would you rate this driver out of five stars. And the way it works is if, the question is always "would you recommend this service to a friend" or usually "would you recommend this to a friend?" If someone puts one to three on Uber or six on a 10 point scale, that means we're detracted. So that if people ask them about their experience with you they're actively saying "no they're not very good really." Whereas if they put a nine or a 10 or a five star on Uber, that means you're in the market place saying "oh yeah, these guys are really good," and obviously that's absolutely priceless marketing. So we always do this measure at the end of a project, it's just an objective thing of "have we done any good or not?" So the result, that was our sales but today I actually redid this graph because this text is a bit old and you can see, so that point there is actually here. So you can see this month is our best month ever which I'm very happy about. And that is basically when I came back and started doing this, so it's had a really big impact on what we do, I'm running a bit short on time so I'll skip through this, but these are some notes I added today just based on my experience asa someone running a company that was naturally getting bigger. I can maybe send my deck out or you can ask me about this afterwards, I guess the key thing here which I found difficult was not spending anymore time on the tools and actually logging in and trying to fix stuff for ourselves but instead letting everyone learn themselves away from the processes that would get things done without my involvement. And that's been the biggest thing that I've been working on last year, and this year I've realised that I actually have to spend a lot of time just nurturing people, making sure that they understand what we're doing and that they can take all the stuff I just told you about and actually continue doing it and building the company and improving it. The last point though, don't let it get to you. So anyone that's running your own business or even freelancing, you'll know it's pretty difficult sometimes. So it's worth sticking with it and we all have days that are hard and especially when it's all on you, it can feel pretty uncomfortable. But stick with it and that's why all these great leaders like Churchill and Steve Jobs and all these people always talked about perseverance because that is really what makes a difference. So final thing is that IRL and in real life, maybe I said that, I didn't know that, maybe it's not, but that's what IRL means if you ever see it. So that's a nice graph that I showed you but this actually resulted in real things. So we moved offices, that was our last move when it was only like three or four of us, and yeah, we built a team doing the stuff that we really enjoy every day. So the result is that we have a great environment and we do great work that we really enjoy doing and that is what the marketing we've done has got us to that point. So yeah, if you have any Shopify projects you can contact me, I'm Alex at or on Twitter as well, AOB tweets. And that's it for me, thank you.