How understanding our business “Why?” dramatically improved our hiring process

I think a lot about my work. It’s borderline obsessive at times, which I have to manage…but that’s another blog post.

Most of my ponderous thoughts consider Atlas’ staff and its customers; but my team have been front and centre of my mind over the past 6 months.

The reason for this is that we’ve recently grown the team to 21 members up from 15, a 40% increase. This is still a small business to most. However, I don’t know anybody who runs a business and believes their team size is the metric they should strive to increase. In fact, the truth is that most of the founders I speak with see the growth of their team as a happy(?) side effect of increasing profits and revenue. I say happy with a snarky question mark in brackets because as a company increases its head count the team culture changes, sometimes rapidly and drastically, and that change is terrifying.

On the subject of team culture, I had the pleasure of attending a talk in Silicon Valley by Steve Blank, author of 4 steps to an epiphany and the spiritual GodFather of the Lean Startup.

Steve provided a candid and interesting summary of his decades of experience working with hundreds of founders who have been on the journey to grow their business and their headcount. Steve was close to the action, and saw the gruesome evolution of team culture up close and personal.

As an aside – Steve also said that at least one of the founders of most startups are unceremoniously removed from the business somewhere along its pathway to serious growth. The skills required to start a business are just not the same as those required to sustain and grow one.

Anyway, about half way through his talk Steve caught the attention of the room with a simple analogy…”Imagine your team culture as a lovely, tasty bowl of ice cream. Delicious eh? You’d eat that entire bowl without pause. Now imagine there’s a speck of shit in that ice cream, how much would you like to eat now?”.

Ewww! The entire room reeled with disgust. Nobody wants shitty ice cream. And in that single instant, everybody in that room concluded they didn’t want to be a member of a shitty ice cream team.  In fact, most people had experienced shitty ice cream teams at some stage in their career and knew how bad it tasted.

Putting foundations in place for growth – understanding our Why?

With Steve’s words ringing in my ears in August 2018 it became clear to me that for Atlas (my bespoke software company) to grow revenue it would need to increase headcount. Since being founded in 2007 I had had purposefully constrained staff growth on the basis that we would rather grow mega conservatively than take on too many staff and not be able to make payroll one month.

While this strategy sustained the business it did so at the cost of restraining growth. This had to change.  We had lofty goals for growth and wouldn’t achieve our ambitions without the right people on the team. Not only that, with a solid baseline of income it was time to put our foot on the gas and try a strategy of resourcing ahead of anticipated growth.

However, before throwing ourselves in to a hiring frenzy I decided to first understand why the team who work here bother to show up each day and give it their all. If I was to ensure that no shit got in to my ice cream, I would need to understand why our existing ice cream was so good.

Cue two months of soul searching, Googling useful articles on the subject, chatting with friends, family, staff and anybody else who would hear me out. I talked mostly about Why Atlas was founded, and then about the journey we’ve been on since then. After a lot of rummaging around the archives I established our Why which we now proudly show off on our About Us page:

“To create opportunities for clever, creative and passionate people to collaborate so that, together, we use technology to solve business problems and drive innovation.”

All the people who work in Atlas in every single role genuinely give a damn about their work – they are passionate. They care about and collaborate with their team and our customers.  Because they care, the team can solve some pretty frightful business problems for our customers by using our tool of choice – technology! It all sounds so obvious, and because it sounds obvious it’s clear that this is a genuine Why and not some made up marketing drivel.

Having a Why is great. It helps me articulate to the existing members of the team what I care about, what Atlas cares about, and the type of people we love to work with. Equally, it tells all of us what we are not – for example – I know that we have financial growth targets but meeting these targets is not the reason I get out of bed each day.  I suspect most of the team don’t hop out of bed on a Monday morning and consider our balance sheet, and neither do I.

Having a Why is also insanely useful for interviewing candidates for Atlas. If I share our Why and an interesting discussion ensues that’s a great sign. If I share our Why and the candidate dismisses it, we might not be such a great fit.

When I articulate our Why and the journey we’ve been on to understand it, what I’m actually doing is selling them on our business and the people in it. The right candidate for Atlas naturally wants to be a part of our Why because they understand it and in some way they see it reflected in their personal Why.

This means that any candidate with the necessary amount of technical competence can in a short interview truly understand the pathway Atlas is on, and in that instant understand if they wish to join us on our journey.

Core values – the cornerstones that assist us in pursuing our Why

A Why is fantastic and in some ways life changing but it doesn’t offer enough detail around what we expect from staff on a day to day basis. We might all align with the same Why, but how we go about achieving it might not be. As an extreme example, one team member might feel that they can break the law to pursue our Why, when clearly, that’s not acceptable.

So to add this level of detail, we set down some core values that I felt had been organically curated in the  team but not properly defined. We chose 10 principles that we called our core values, things we expect of everybody, without question.  Ten was a nice round number but it was also just the number that came to us – there could just have easily have been 5, or 15.  We ultimately settled on:

  1. Let go of the past and make the most of the future.
  2. Always tell the truth – we want to hear bad news sooner rather than later.
  3. The highest level of integrity is expected. When in doubt, ask.
  4. Everyone washes cups.
  5. Be professional in your style, speech and follow up.
  6. Listen to the customer. They almost always ‘get it’.
  7. Create win/win relationships with our partners.
  8. Look out for each other. Sharing information is a good thing.
  9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  10. Have fun, otherwise it’s not worth it.

My personal favourites are core values 4 and 10 but they’re all very dear to me.  The core values are also presented proudly presented on the careers page of the Atlas website.

Was it worth it?

We established our Why and Core Values in August 2018, and since then have been on a bit of a hiring spree.

It’s a super easy win for us to identify a candidate who has truly thought about working at Atlas to a level of detail because they will inevitably mention Atlas’ Why and/or our core values during the interview.

In fact, not only have publishing our Why and Core Values been of use for candidates we have interviewed, but I dare say these values have actually attracted candidates to apply for roles. At least three candidates that I’m aware of have mentioned our core values in their covering letter when applying for a position published on Atlas’s careers page.

I can honestly say that the Why and Core Values provided a common understanding of what is expected of all existing team members and gave candidates interested in the possibility of working for Atlas a true measure of what we care about.

I’m delighted with the hires we’ve made and it delights me that they, and our our existing team members, truly understand why they get out of bed on a Monday morning.

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Useful brain hacks for every day scenarios

I’m incredibly fortunate to have a chairman on our board who brings huge clarity of thought to the business.

He’s unemotional yet thoughtful. If he doesn’t have an immediate answer for something, he instinctively understands how to search for the answer. He has a natural sense of the real priority of work and for what level of discussion to have.

So I asked him for some of his favourite brain hacks…simple tricks he uses when he has a mental challenge to overcome. A couple of his insights were very useful, so I thought I’d share them here. Do share your own brain hacks in the comments.

Artificial deadlines

He has a clever technique for bringing tough choices to a conclusion and avoiding procrastination. This is especially useful for life changing decisions such as moving country or taking that new job.

To put an end to the decision making process he sets a deadline for the decision to be made. Say 6pm on Monday. At five minutes to 6 he usually doesn’t know the answer but in those 5 minutes something clicks, and by 6pm the answer is always there.

I suspect just having to pick an answer even if sub consciously you know the deadline is made up tricks the brain in to forcing the best option forward, even if none of the options are great.


This will all be over by then

If there’s an important meeting with stakeholders, a scary appointment with the doctor or a tough chat with an employee – he simply keeps in mind the fact that by “X time”, the thing will have passed and won’t matter anymore.

If it doesn’t matter after X time, chances are it probably doesn’t matter now.

The 10/10/10 rule

This is one of my brain hacks.  The 10/10/10 is the framing of the outcome of a decision across three timeframes. This is

How will I feel about the outcome 10 minutes from now? How about 10 months from now? How about 10 years from now?

The answers to these questions provide a different perspective and usually help to find the correct answer without being misguided by perhaps overwhelming circumstances at the time of making the decision.

To summarise

It seems that the super smart people who do well in life don’t just think, they think about thinking.

Whilst they might not always be able to overcome their cognitive limitations or biases all the time, they do their best to remain mindful of them and not always allow the bias to drive the thought process.

I’ll end with one of my favourite philosophies, it’s called Hanlon’s Razor, and it goes like this:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I repeat this phrase to myself at least once per month. Whether for somebody driving erratically on the M25, or a friend or  family member acting in a manner I cannot comprehend. It pays to remember that they’re probably just being malicious, like me they’re subject to the randomness of thought patterns and most people possibly don’t think about thinking perhaps as much as they could.

Humans are complex and weird creatures, we do weird and dumb stuff, and it’s not always malicious. It just is. And if everybody cut each other just a bit more slack at times when they’re uncertain of another person’s true intentions, we would probably all rub along just that bit better.

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Come fly with me…

I’ve held a pilot’s license for a couple of years, and I love flying. What I love more is introducing others to the fun of flying. Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than watching people smile and laugh as we lift off the tarmac.

To get my fix of watching happy people in planes I regularly take friends and family flying with me. We head of too various places around the South East including the Cliffs of Dover, Brighton, North Weald, Duxford and Headcorn.

I’ve taken most people in my friends, family and work network up. So now it’s time to extend the offer to a wider network online.

So here goes: If you you’d like a trip in a Cesnna 152 or Cessna 172 and you’re prepared to travel to Southend Airport drop me a line, and let’s set a flight up.

A couple of other things to keep in mind

  • A Cessna 152 can only carry two people. A Cessna 172 can carry four people. Whatever type of aircraft we use, I need to consider weight limits.  Don’t be offended if I ask you how much you weigh! It’s for our safety
  • I can’t do anything that could be commercial in its nature as I don’t have a commercial pilot’s license. This means I cannot profit from the flight. However, if you’d like to contribute a proportion of the cost or if that’s not possible buy us lunch when we reach our destination, that’s cool!
  • We’ll meet at Southend Airport, at Seawings club. You’ll need to bring some ID, like a driver’s license or passport to get through the security gate and access “airside”, aka where the planes are
  • If the weather is rubbish we might not be able to fly. Low cloud base, high winds and rain are the main things that’ll keep us on the ground. The Met Office weather reports are unreliable to say the least, so don’t trust them until we’re 24-48 hours before departure
  • Typically we’ll leave about 10am, and return to Southend about 3pm


If you’re interested drop me an e-mail to or hit me up via my Wingly Profile here.

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You do not have to register for self assessment just because you’re a company director

We recently made a member of the team a company director at Atlas. It’s a simple enough process that can be performed online on the Companies House website. We submitted the forms, received electronic confirmation and then forgot about it.

Recently our incredibly diligent accountant got in touch to advise me that our new director would need to file for self assessment. Hmm, that’s a pain and not something I foresaw. Especially when the director in question is paid via PAYE, so all taxable deductions are made at source. This makes self assessment a paperwork exercise at best.

My first port of call was the HMRC website. A quick Google landed me here: Keep in mind that this is the government website and so the majority of people would take it at face value. Scroll down and you’ll see this:

hmrc website

Well that’s interesting. We’re not a charity and we pay our directors, so based on this it seems that our new director does indeed have to register for self assessment.

Feeling belligerent I decided to do some further research and discovered that the law has very specific sections about who has to register for self assessment, and it’s not quite in line with the above information. If you’re feeling nerdish like I was, have a read of this Tax Management Act 1970 where it’s outlined quite clearly:

Bottom line? Just because you’re a company director does not automatically mean you need to file for self assessment. The only caveat is that if you have tax liabilities you do have to register – but that’s the law regardless of whether you’re a company director.

It was incredibly frustrating to see that what is otherwise a very high quality website is providing incorrect information. The cynic in me wonders if this “oversight” plays in favour of HMRC, as it’s in their interests to have more people file self assessments than not.

I’ve contacted HMRC via their online form to tell them their website is incorrect but frustratingly I’ve not been able to find an e-mail address of somebody who I can speak with to get the site updated.

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Inspire Beats Review – Avoid them at all costs

December 2017 update: Three separate individuals have e-mailed me to say how grateful they were for this blog post. Turns out Wilson is still up to his scamming tricks, avoid him.

TL;DR: Inspire Beats are scam artists. They’ll cheerily take your money never to return with the leads they’ve promised you. Avoid them.


Here’s the low down on how I was scammed by Wilson Peng and his team.

On 16th January After making contact with Wilson, one of the founders of Inspire Beats, we discussed what leads we needed and placed an order for the Starter Package. The fee would be a monthly subscription, and so every month I expected to receive 110 fresh leads in return for a monthly subscription payment – neat!

I was very clear upfront about the nature of the leads we were looking for, I stated:

“The leads we’re looking for are primarily UK businesses with between 10 and 50 employees.”

Wilson confirmed that he was working on the leads and that we’d get them soon. Sure enough, we did and on the 11th February we received a Google spreadsheet. Here’s where the real fun began.

On looking at the spreadsheet Wilson had only sent us half of the 110 leads we had paid for. We had also been billed for the second batch of leads in month two. So I was down two months payment, and had only half the leads I’d paid for in the first month.

This made me nervous so I reached out to Wilson to ask for my second payment back and request the second half of the leads we’d paid for. This is what I got back:

Hey Simon, you’re 2nd half will be ready within the next few days. Sure, no worries I can refund you for the 2nd charge and cancel your subscription.

Great! Or so I thought.

Cue months of chasing for the second batch of leads which finally appeared on the 12th April – but they were companies in the USA! I emailed Wilson right away to say that the leads were not as per my original request for UK companies, and Wilson responded with:

Let me look into it and fix it for you. It will take 2-3 days max. I will email you this time as soon as it’s ready.

and when I chased after having heard nothing

Hey Simon, wasn’t the sheet already updated a while back? I think your account was already canceled a few months back, so we didn’t add anymore new leads to it.

Let me know if you have anymore questions,



By the end of April I was furious. My time had been wasted, I had no new leads, and zero confidence they would ever be delivered. I emailed Wilson to tell him I’d like half of my money back rather than the leads and on the 2nd May Wilson wrote back:

Hey Simon, hope you had an excellent weekend. I completely understand. I’ll refund half of the payment through our platform back to your CC.

Well that was over a month ago, and despite e-mailing Wilson multiple times a week we’re still not in receipt of a refund.

If you value your time time and your sanity do not use Wilson’s Inspire Beats service. It’s a disorganised mess that will rip you off and leave you frustrated.

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Outside interests

It’s been a busy year since I last posted back in mid-2014.

I no longer run my software company on a day to day basis, and now take part only at a board level. The new managing director of Atlas is ridiculously talented, so I’m free to pursue other opportunities.  This allows me to spend the majority of my time on Staff Squared, primarily around sales, marketing and product development. I’m also just about to launch a new web app called Things Click but that’s top secret for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to start making noises about Things Click in the next few weeks once the prototype is complete.

With my newfound freedom I’m free to pursue more extra curricular activities . So recently I’ve decided to turn my hand to flying a plane, specifically obtaining a private pilots license. I’ve always been a plane geek, I love the fact that it was only in 1903 that humans discovered the ability to fly and we’ve achieved so much with this new science and technology in such a short space of time. My ambition is to get my pilots license, and then an instructors rating so I can teach others how to fly. I took a big step towards this on the 21st July in performing my first solo flight without an instructor, in other words there was no Plan B, and I loved it. I’ve since racked up one and a half hours of solo flying time and I can’t wait to add more. Nifty plaque from my flying club to celebrate:



With a bit more spare time than usual, I’m keen to update this blog a tad more frequently than once a year! I plan to document the launch of Things Click, buying an apartment in Barcelona, and the remainder of my pilots license training.

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How to engage with a software development company

I’ve been running Atlas, a software company, since 2007. One of the biggest challenges we have with the majority of our customers is helping them to understand the software development process. So I’ve decided to create a handful of blog posts dedicated to the process a prospective client of a software company should undertake in order to make sure that they choose the correct provider, and more importantly, get a working app at the end of the process.

I could write about software development for hours as it’s a huge topic. So for the purpose of this initial series of posts I’m going to concentrate on these steps:

  1. How, and more importantly when, to start your search for a software development company
  2. The specification – getting your app right first time
  3. The process of signing up to work with your chosen software company (including getting the contracts right!)
  4. Kicking off the project and steps to ensure you’re kept in the loop and maintain control of your project

So, let’s start with the how and when of finding a proficient software company.

When to start your search

Most software companies are booked up for six to twelve months in advance. So don’t wait until you’re ready to kick off your project to start your search, get started now.  You might also have to kiss a few frogs before you find your ideal partner, and this process can take weeks, so the sooner you start the better.

How to go about your search

Do your homework

Before you start your search you’ll need to have three key pieces of information to hand (in order of importance):

  1. A time scale for implementation
  2. Your desired budget. A range is absolutely fine. So you might say ideally £10k but I can stretch to £20k
  3. A high level overview of what it is you’re looking to have built. It doesn’t need to be a detailed specification document (more on this later), but it should give the potential supplier a solid idea of whether they have the skills and knowledge to assist you.

Number 1 is perhaps the most important, followed by number 2. If you approach a software company and want to have something created by tomorrow and your budget is a crumpled up £5 note prepare yourself to be sent away!

Start the search

You’ll want to line up at least three companies that look like they might be able to provide the level and type of service you need.  I would recommend the following approaches for finding a software company in order of most ideal to least:

  • Look for recommendations from people you know who have previously worked with or for a software company and can recommend them
  • If you know what type of technology you’re looking to use, there are often partner schemes software companies can subscribe to. For example, my company Atlas uses Microsoft .Net technology and is a Microsoft partner, so we’re listed on the Microsoft Partner UK website.
  • Use business forums, such as or and reach out to strangers in the hope of receiving a recommendation
  • Hit Google, type “<your location> software developers” without the quotes. Obviously, if you live in the middle of the countryside you might want to swap <your location> with <nearest big city>. Being in close proximity of your software developers isn’t essential, but face to face meetings are often useful, especially if this is your first software project. Make the distinction between companies that are paying for their Google listings (sponsored adverts) and those who appear organically. Those paying to appear on Google in the form of sponsored listings are more likely to be pro-actively looking for work.

Short-listing software companies

Software development companies are not the same as web design companies. Web design companies will lure you in with their pretty websites and whizzy graphics. Software companies?  Not so much. Some of our competitors have terrible websites, but that might mask a team of the most talented individuals you could wish to work with. Not only that, the good companies are probably too busy building solutions for customers to have the time to keep their site up to date! So rather than get too hung up on design at this stage (unless it’s a core part of what you’re trying to achieve with your project), you should instead focus on:

  • What examples of work (aka case studies) can you look at, and more importantly have they performed the type of work that you’re looking for?
  • What type of customers do they typically work with? If you’re a start up chances are you don’t want to choose a company that seems to solely work with big name brands, you probably won’t be able to afford them
  • What technologies do they use? If you’re looking for open source, say for example WordPress, you don’t want a Microsoft partner
  • How big are they? A small team might be fine if you only need a simple app. If you’re looking for a backend system to manage millions of pounds of inventory you want a sizeable team dedicated to your project.

Using the above indicators to guide you, build a short list of at least five companies that you’re going to reach out to. You should then contact them with the brief, budget and time scale you already have down either via e-mail or through their contact form. Some of the larger, more established, software companies will have you complete questionnaires on their website before they will speak with you. If your budget is upwards of £100k this shouldn’t be daunting, they’re just making sure you don’t waste their time and more importantly that they don’t waste yours.

Now you’ve reached out, you sit back, and wait to see what comes back. You should judge a company based on the speed and quality of their response. If they sound pretty uninterested at the outset there’s a very strong chance you’re about to waste your time, drop them. Ideally you’ll receive an initial response quite quickly thanking you for your enquiry. A more detailed follow up response should follow in 24 – 48 hours.  Based on the feedback you will soon whittle down your initial candidates to two or three that you go into more detailed dialogue with.

The initial call or meeting

If one or more companies respond positively to your initial enquiry they will want to set up a meeting with you to run through your brief in more detail. This is an opportunity for you to explain the context around why you’re looking to undertake your project in more detail and provide more context. You might naturally be inclined to ask for a non-disclosure agreement. At this stage it’s really not worth the time and effort. Software companies build software, they’re really not interested in stealing your idea for the “next big thing”.

So, you’ve set up a meeting, who can you expect to attend? Likely candidates include:

  • The CEO/MD –  if the software company is quite small they won’t have a dedicated sales person and so you can expect the MD to turn up and play sales guy. I know this because I used to be this guy!
  • The sales guy – you’ll find sales guys in medium to large software companies. Generally not a useful person unless they have a technical or business analyst background
  • The business analyst – the person who will be responsible for defining how your app works and conveying this to the developer(s).  This person needs to have incredible communication skills.
  • The project manager – The person in charge of managing resource and making sure that your project is delivered on time
  • The lead developer – The person who will perform the technical implementation for your app

During the meeting you’ll want to meet the people you will be working with and get a feel for how they work and whether they’re a good fit for you and your project. You’ll be spending a lot of time with these people so it’s crucial that you like them, and that they understand the “why” of what you’re looking to achieve more than the “how” at this stage.  A good team that has a reasonable amount of confidence that they can deliver will be able to show you examples of similar projects to build your confidence. They’ll also get fired up, and want to talk at great lengths about the type of work they can do to deliver value to you and your app.

From this meeting you want to get feedback on the following points:

  • How might they go about the implementation of an app to meet the requirements of your brief at a high level?
  • What ball park would they suggest this project might cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • Can they give you examples of previous work?
  • What would be the typical structure of a project they would undertake, and who would be involved on your particular project?
  • Do they have any customers you can speak with to obtain a reference?
  • Can you see a copy of their standard development agreement to check through ahead of any detailed conversations?
  • Do they offer any warranties for the completed app? For example, we provide three months free support and hosting following completion of the project in the form of a warranty
  • What is support and maintenance going to cost?

During the meeting you want to be strongly pursuing reasons not to use the company sat in front of you. If something doesn’t sound right, or they make statements that seem too good to be true – well, you know the deal.

After meeting with all of your shortlisted suppliers you need to make a decision, and then the real fun begins!  In the next blog post I’ll talk about the steps that will unfold after you have chosen a supplier, which includes the specification document – arguably the most important document in the entire process.

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Artificial deadlines for the win

When I’m under pressure I produce some of my best work. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the amount of pressure I’m under, and my ability to remove noise from my brain and see a clear path through to a desired end result. It is useful to understand this brain trait and apply it in scenarios when I might otherwise not be as focused as I would like.

So it made an awful lot of sense that I would thrive in a startup environment.  When I started my first business Atlas, a software house, I was under pressure to get everything done yesterday so that my co-founder and I could earn a living and stop eating into our modest savings. I was wearing dozens of hats including sales person, developer, bookkeeper, admin, and chief tea maker and I thrived.  When times got tough I simply increased the number of hours I worked in order to stay on top of everything but the focus was always there (note: I’m not saying I was working efficiently what with all the context switching, but I definitely made progress through brute force and determination).

Slowly, without noticing, the pressure and buzz of the startup that we had created started to subside, and I found myself being able to think and plan a month ahead, then three months ahead, and then a year ahead.  We hired staff to take the admin and minutiae of running the business away from me and slowly but surely the noise crept back in as the day to day pressure receded.  I effectively took the approach of firing myself from as many roles in the business as possible.  At the point where I was no longer permitted access to our source code repository I felt about as welcome as a hedgehog at a bouncy castle party, and started to miss the pressure that drove me forward in our earlier years.  It became harder to focus, and I could find myself leaving the office not feeling like I had achieved much at all.

Then a couple of  years ago on New Years Eve a friend of mine who had been thinking about moving back to Canada decided he could no longer put it off and booked one way tickets for July that year. He was committed, and had a fixed deadline of seven months that was an immovable object, and therefore all planning would have to work backwards from the date of the flight. I didn’t realise at the time but what he had done was created an artificial deadline which forced him to see something through.

I decided recently that this was a technique I could benefit from, and so created my own artificial deadline by booking flights to Barcelona (more on this here) where I would spend a month with my family living in a different city and remote working. Since setting this immovable date my output has increased exponentially. Now everything I do revolves around the deadline, and my focus is back as I ensure that the projects we’re working on and in particular my own products are in a state of readiness for my departure.

I think this is a useful technique to use, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve leaving the country! For example, rather than spending the next few months working on that app in your spare time, how about booking a demonstration with some potential customers in 4 weeks’ time. You’ll be amazed how you can suddenly move mountains in order to ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself on the day.

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Taking a month away from my business

Last year I had a child, a boy to be precise. His name is Eli and he has changed my life.  “No shit”, was the response of most people I told this fact to. Well quite, but what was really interesting, is that he actually changed my entire outlook on running my businesses in a way that I hadn’t managed in the seven years prior to his arrival.

This particular insight came about as a result of being forced to take time off from work. Not the kind of time off where you still check your e-mails at least one a day when your partner isn’t looking. This was actual proper time off, and I was terrified. The problem was that I had been managing the business up until this point the hard way…I was attempting to micro-manage at a large scale. I was involved in pretty much every client project our software house was undertaking, I was product manager for both of our products Fundipedia and Staff Squared and that’s before I got to the work involved in managing and developing staff and driving the company forward. The arrangement was unsustainable, but old habits die hard and Satan himself would be handing out ice cream in hell before I released my deathly grip on the business.

So back to the time off…

Here in the UK when your kiddy is born it is customary (and a legal right, no less) that Dad gets Paternity leave. This is two weeks to allow a poor unsuspecting souls to reacclimatise to their new lives. For me, it was the first time I genuinely felt like I could ask my team to cover my back, and run the business as they saw fit.  I would be un-contactable, and so they were to make decisions as they saw fit and that was the end of it. So the boy was born, and I was off, properly off.  I played out my fatherly duties over those two weeks, and fully expected to return to an actual war zone. But no, I came back and the business was running almost better than I had left it. My managers felt empowered, and had taken the business by horns and ran it beautifully. Our clients were happy, and there had been no major disasters in my absence. If I’m completely honest, I was disappointed – the realisation that your business is all grown up and can handle itself is just as difficult as letting go in the first place.

Since my return to work being armed with the knowledge that I’m not actually required on a day to day basis to keep my company afloat I’ve done what any normal person would do and decided to go away again, but this time for a month and I’ll be residing in another country altogether.  I’m spending all of March in Barcelona, and the bonus is that not only does this force my team to get on with it, there are a number of additional positive side effects:

  • Physical distance from my business gives me the space I need to focus on our products which are my priority
  • I suffer from incredibly bad hayfever to the point where it’s debilitating. I’m hoping a month out of the UK when pollen is starting to rear its ugly head again will help keep the worst of the symptoms at bay
  • I get to spend a month of quality time with my kiddy when he’s starting to get really interesting (he’ll be 8 months old by then). I’ll be speaking to him mainly in Spanish (thanks DuoLingo!) the entire time we’re out there, I’ve no idea if he’ll hold on to any of the words I use but my aim is to raise him to be bilingual so this is a good place to start
  • My ultimate aim is to leave the UK and live out the rest of my life with my family abroad, so this is a test in a controlled environment to give this a try

I’ll be keeping a log of how I get on using this blog, plotting the highs and lows and any problems I encounter trying to manage a software house from afar. I’ll probably tweet more often too, so feel free to follow me if you’re interested in this little experiment.

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Common PPC pitfalls and how to avoid them

We’ve spent a few quid with Google over the past year on their pay per click service. It drives traffic to our website and it has generated conversions, but boy have we wasted a lot of money on trial and error.

Here’s an overview of the mistakes we made initially, so you can skip the learning curve…

What to turn off:

  • All countries but your own
  • Display network
  • People searching about your location rather than in your location
  • Non-business hours
  • Mobile traffic

All of the above are potential PPC money pits, and so it’s best to disable them when you first start out.

Turn on:

  • Your location, start as small as possible

Start small, and test. Too often we thought “screw it, let’s target all the big cities in the US and the UK and hope the numbers work out”. They don’t.

The Ads themselves:

Use exclusive and SPECIFIC language and be sure to include the call to action like “contact us”, “call us”, “sign up for a quote”. You want to dissuade people who won’t convert. Don’t be vague about what you do.


Start low, and SET A DAILY BUDGET to a tiny amount to start. We set our initial daily budget way too high, and burnt through much more advertising spend than I would have liked on a campaign that hadn’t been properly tested.

Your choice of keyword:

  • Broad match modifier only – this gets you 90% of the way with 10% of the effort
  • You only need a few keywords
  • Add negatives that don’t fit your business (“free” is usually a big one)

Landing page:

Do not under any circumstances point your ads at your home page. You need a landing page with a clear call to action. If you’re feeling particularly cute you could even create different landing pages for different ads. So for example, that Ad that you’ve pitched at the construction industry should send visitors to a landing page all about why your <widget> is so great for the construction industry. You will see a huge leap in conversions if you get this right.

On your landing page have just the one call to action.  Make it clear that they can only do one thing, whether that’s sign up, leave their email address, or call you for more info. If your landing page asks for people to call you, tell them to speak with “Chad” to obtain a quote so you can track who is calling from one of your PPC ads.

Testing and optimising performance of your ads:

Look through the keywords that are coming in on a regular basis, and perform the searches yourself to see what comes up (make sure you do this with personalisation turned off). If the query isn’t relevant, use a negative keyword to exclude that traffic. If none of them are relevant, you need to pick better keywords to start with.

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