Guard This With Your Life

The best thing about running a startup is you’re in control of your destiny, but it takes a lot of effort. You’ve got to push yourself. You’ve got to be ready to make sacrifices and have the mental toughness to stick it out when it feels like the walls are closing around you. As bad as it seems at that moment, it does get better.

The only time it doesn’t get better is if you quit. If you quit, the outcome is certain.

Before I joined my first startup company, I’d been in corporate sales for more than 10 years, working for big global companies with thousands of employees. A mate of mine started a cloud-hosting company and asked if I’d come on board and run sales for them. I was one of five people in the company. In a short period of time we were on the BRW Fast 100 list and won a whole range of awards.

It felt unconventional at first, but I soon became addicted to fast growth businesses.

The best thing about running a startup is you’re in control of your destiny, but it takes a lot of effort. You’ve got to push yourself.

Pretty soon the company got acquired. However, by that stage, the idea of rolling up into a much larger company didn’t really excite me. I resigned and, with the help of some early stage investors, I started DigitalMaas.

I knew it was going to be hard – I was married, I’d just bought a house, and my wife was pregnant with our first child. I remember one of our investors, a high net worth individual, handing me a cheque and saying, “Andrew, guard this with your life.” There were pressures all around.

I had about three months runway with that first cheque, knowing that if we didn’t make it, I was back to the corporate world. But I also I knew that I could sell. I knew I could quickly build a product, get it to market, and produce revenue. They say sales fixes everything; I don’t know if I believe that anymore, but if you can cover your own wages and get close to breaking even, it gives you breathing space.

After about six months, my wife knew this was not going to be idyllic – we didn’t meet for long lunches every Wednesday as planned! It was more work than I’d ever done, and then when I’d come home, I’d help put the baby to bed, clean up, and jump back on my laptop.

It was rinse and repeat like that for four years. Many startup founders will work seven days a week, grinding for up to 16 hours a day. If you don’t have what it takes, you’ll never survive, because it’s super hard.

At DigitalMaas we provide Digital Marketing as a Service, hence the name. My background was in hosting, known as Infrastructure as a Service or IaaS. In the hosting industry we’d buy a big server, slice it up into ‘pieces’, and then resell hosted storage to customers while maintaining the infrastructure. DigitalMaas is a similar model except we provide digital marketing via a platform, so I knew the space.

We didn’t start as a platform. We started as a fulfillment business selling Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to digital agencies so they could onsell to their clients. We’d install Google Analytics, run campaigns, and optimise websites for search. Creative and digital agencies would sell our services to their customers in a white label capacity while we’d do all the work behind the scenes.

It’s all about how quickly you pick up on a mistake, what you learn from it, and how fast you move on to the next experiment.

Throughout that period I carefully documented business processes for everything we did. We built standard operating procedures and found that we were repeating the same things for every project. We’d install Google Analytics the same way, run the same 15 tasks, changing only the client’s name. I began to realise this lent itself very well to being scripted.

That’s when we built a digital marketing platform, offering digital marketing as an on-demand service. We provide a dashboard and reporting solution that shows owners the impact of digital marketing on their business, like seeing how many more leads they’re getting following a campaign.

As the platform has evolved, we’ve developed deep insights into what works and what doesn’t. We’ve done more than 150,000 digital marketing tasks over four years. We understand, based on real data, the cause and effect of digital marketing. For every task we undertake, we know how much it moves the needle.

That’s the power of the platform; it’s an engine that builds on itself.

We’re far from patting ourselves on the back and and feeling comfortable. We’re always experimenting and testing hypotheses, and we’re getting good at killing the winners and promoting the losers. We’ve made all types of mistakes.

It’s the same in all startups. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough. It’s all about how quickly you pick up on a mistake, what you learn from it, and how fast you move on to the next experiment. We make incremental changes and always keep focused on what’s valuable to customers.

I meet a lot of founders, usually incredibly smart people, who have forgotten to ask the fundamental question: which customers have told you they need that and will pay for it? I knew there was a need for DigitalMaas. SEO and SEM weren’t working, and there was a great opportunity to productize digital marketing.

Primarily the platform is geared around markets where Google is the predominate search engine – around 40 markets globally. Eventually we want customers in every single country in the world. We want to service any business owner looking to grow their business online no matter where they are.

Prior to raising money, I was the accountant, the head of sales, and the janitor but as we move into the next phase of the business I’m trying to give the team more of an opportunity to lead their areas. We’ve hired specialists into key roles. We’ve got a COO, a CTO, and dedicated sales people.

I knew there was a need for DigitalMaas. SEO and SEM weren’t working, and there was a great opportunity to productize digital marketing.

In any startup you have to be really careful who you hire. If you make the wrong decisions in a small team, it’s catastrophic. You have to be careful, and you have to be able to make the hard decisions at times. I’m not naturally a see-you-later, terminate kind of person. I try to work with people and train them, but what I’ve learned in a startup is that you can’t afford to have people in the office for one extra day when you’ve decided they’re wrong for the team. You’ve got to make your move then and there.

Now, every morning when I walk into the office I’m grateful that I work with an amazing group of people, each of them focused on achieving our vision.

Andrew Thorn is the Founder and CEO of DigitalMaas.