When my brother and I started our digital marketing agency, Sparro, in 2013, we were very confident in the direction we wanted to take in our business and our work. We wanted to take on the best qualities of all of the businesses we’d worked with, while avoiding the worst aspects of agencies that we’d been exposed to.
Having worked at Appliances Online for a combined five years, the culture and practices of the group had made a big mark on us, and continues to be a benchmark for the type of business we are building. Here are five ways our time there has helped to shape our own business.
The Appliances Online values are so key to their business that they’re plastered around the office and repeated daily. But it’s not an empty mantra – this is a company that has previously hired a crane to lower a fridge into someone’s house so they could fulfil an order.
In our business we often work well outside of the scope of our retainers. We’ve fixed site hacks for paid search clients, and written press releases for SEO clients. We don’t claim to be experts in every channel, but if we’re asked to help and we can add value, we’re always available.
The result is that clients see us as an extension of their marketing teams, and regularly seek our opinion on their wider marketing and business. We typically don’t charge for this, as we see this as part of the value we offer our clients.
Winning Group employ several hundred people, but the idea of being a ‘small business’ is very much fixed in the company psyche. The CEO makes himself highly available for any staff member to reach him, while whole departments will often wake up at dawn to cook a breakfast BBQ for the warehouse staff.
On the other hand, they’re a company with a highly-experienced management team, board and quite effective processes.
While Sparro is a much smaller team, we’ve always tried to take the best aspects of large businesses – quarterly staff reviews, and internal processes and formalities, for example – and balance these alongside small business values: putting staff and their families first, and being agile and quick to adapt to change.
I probably received one cold call or email pitch a day at Appliances Online and very quickly learnt how not to sell.
Most of the sales calls I took were along the same lines: can I have 30 minutes of your time? Can I book a meeting? Can I show you our deck on improving sales through cross-channel sales automation and programmatic learning?
These conversations were invariably about them and what they wanted, or had, and were packed with buzzwords. They rarely offered value, or made any contextual reference to our business.
At Sparro we do very little cold calling, as most clients are referred by colleagues or invite us to pitch, but when we do we are very conscious of offering actual value. We mostly only reach out when we have a specific idea for a client, or notice a gap in their marketing. We don’t try to protect our ‘IP’ but believe that ideas are free and that the right client will have foresight to implement concepts with the team that generated them.
Early-on in the Appliances Online days I was led to understand that new staff would turn up without actual roles assigned to them, both due to growth and the company culture.
John Winning would find them somewhere to start and move them across divisions until they found a place that suited them. I recently visited and found several of my ex-colleagues in different divisions than when I had left: staff that were excelling in their positions and loved the company.
The secret here, I think, is to hire for character, not skills. While this isn’t true for all roles – if you need a developer, for example – it definitely makes sense for a business like ours where skills are learnt on the job and the ability to solve problems is more important than knowing your way around Google Analytics, initially.
The result – for both of our businesses – are cohesive, positive and loyal staff who have been given confidence and a chance to learn and grow. Our first two hires are still in the business and I believe this was the same for Appliances Online for many years.
The greater play in moving staff between divisions, cross-department events and a strong focus on internal communications is to generate a sense of community and respect across the whole business, and not just departments.
In our own business we focus on developing multi-skilled staff and ensuring everyone’s aware of each client and channel that we work in. Our copywriters are learning SEO and PPC strategy, for example, to greater understand the context of their work and our business. We encourage all staff to become involved in any project or client that interests them, even if well outside their remit.
We also practice this in the way we deal with clients. Our staff regularly spend time in the Webjet and DNSW offices to understand processes and the stakeholders, while we put a lot of effort into knowing our clients’ greater businesses and where our work fits in.