Episode 32 - Samuel Hurley - Co-founder Novus

The Transcript...

Voiceover: 

Hello, and thanks for coming along to … And we have an office Dog, the digital agency podcast where we talk to agency owner/directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar, to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve had success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host, Chris Simmance, the agency coach. And he’ll be talking to a different awesome agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay, so let us begin. Over to you, Chris. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Thanks voiceover guy. And on the podcast today, we’ve got Sam, the co-founder of Novus. How are you doing? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

I’m good thanks, Chris. I’m good. How are you? 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Not too bad. Thank you. Not too bad. So Novus, you’ve been going for about three years or so. And as we were saying, just at the very beginning of the podcast, it’s been relatively stratospheric, I think. And you look well, considering how far you’ve come in three years. So first of all, give us a plug. Tell us all about Novus. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Thank you very much. So it’s been a busy three years. Myself and my business partner officially went on it full time in January, 2019. And then I just saying before I came on, I think … Added the numbers up and we’ve hired about 40 people in the 36 months since then. So it’s been busy-ass three years and then about Novus … Yeah, we’re about 41 people now. And we just do e-commerce … We just do SEO, we just do it for e-commerce brands. And the business is in a really good position now, it’s like a 50/50 split of the more technical data side of things and then the more creative digital PR link building. So we’re in a good place. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

And it’s nice to be niche into what you do in terms of it’s SEO and it’s for e-com. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. I think that’s been a massive factor of our success. When we originally first met I was in-house at Made.com. Got a bunch of agencies to pitch to me, budget was just stupid, the amount of money for Made. And then they basically just all said the same thing. There was nothing unique about what they’d said. Back then the buzzword were Hero, Hub, Hygiene content. [inaudible 00:02:34] 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

That was because they watched a YouTube video. I remember when that YouTube video came out. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. So then being on the other side, it was just like, “Wow, okay. There’s no USPs here.” And then over time being at Made, I just realized how niche and nuanced e-commerce was. So I definitely found a need there. And then myself and my business partner just doubled down on it and it’s helped massively. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

And you’ve not been shy of a few awards. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

No. I remember when we met in that pub, I remember you voicing how much you love awards ceremonies and how much you love awards, and how much they contribute. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

They definitely contribute. They really do. And I think that you’ve got to know whether or not it’s the right thing for the agency. And winning them is tough. It’s really tough. So plenty of wins. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. I was definitely on the same page with you when you were saying that. And then when we did start winning them, that’s when I … I’d certainly underestimated the perception change that it gave us in pitches. We would just say we’ve won a few awards, but it does change the perception when we’re pitching. But then at the same time, I didn’t realize the impact it would have on the staff and like how much recognition that gives them, that their work is being rewarded. Having that award shelf in the office then is really nice. But we’ve started winning a lot more culture awards recently, which I find particularly rewarding. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

I’ve seen that. And I think one of the things that does sort of shine through, not just from the awards, but just the presence on that cesspit called LinkedIn that- 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

That’s a good way of describing it. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Oh, you know what it’s like. I scroll through it trying to see some stuff from the agencies that are doing well and things like that. And consistently it’s a culture based thing that I see coming up for Novus, and it’s great to see because it’s really hard to get right. Isn’t it? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

It is. Yeah. I think that approach, we did it from the start. We had experience, myself and my business partner met at previous agencies. And we basically wanted to build an agency that was a direct opposite to the experience that we got there. It was not fun. And only when you go through it do you realize how much it impacts your personal life, and your mental health too. So two or three years later, we were both scarred from experiences like that. And it takes so long to get over that. We wanted to build something the opposite. Any agency model or structures, just everything’s about people. It’s like staff that work for you, clients, partners, everything is just people. It’s super important. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

So given what we’ve just said, the first question realistically is going to be pretty hard for you. What do you think has been one of the biggest successes that you’ve seen in the last three years? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

That contributed to our success? 

I think what was mentioned is now specialism. I read a lot about agencies and the discussion around, “Do you go abroad or do you specialize?” And then if you do specialize, how niche do you go? That’s been a massive help for us. Everything’s so much more efficient from a sales perspective and processes and marketing. From day one we knew exactly who we were targeting. So we wrote up those cheesy little persona things that helped massively. If somebody came to the site, or if we got introduced to someone, it was like, “You don’t fit this bill, so we just won’t talk to you and refer you to another partner.” That helped massively. And then on the efficiency processes side … It’s nice to be aware of updates that happen with Google and travel, finance, etc. But, it just means that everything you read, you just tie it back to e-commerce. And a lot of our clients, they go through similar problems. So if 20% of our clients are having the same problems, then we can roll that out to the rest of the clients and add value that way. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. That’s good. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

And the final one on the specialism is the hiring side. I’m biased, but e-commerce for SEO is a different level when it comes to onsite strategy, versus finance, or travel, etc. So when we were hiring, especially in the early days, people thought they were a level above what they were. But, we needed to get them in the door and train them up on the much more advanced technical side of things. Some of our clients they’ve got like 2 million URLs, so managing a website that has 2 million URLs is a different beast and skillset, versus managing an insurance brand that’s just got 20 pages, for example. All of those kind of efficiencies. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. And all of those pages are brochure pages. So the actual purpose of a site is functionally different, which makes an incredible difference when it comes to knowing what you’re doing. Quite a lot of technical SEO is box checking, in a sense. But the other part of it is you really do need to know what that site is supposed to do in order to make the right sort of decisions as to what needs to be done. So if you bring someone in who’s not necessarily done those millions of pages with an explicitly different purpose, it could be quite a shot in the arm for the ego. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah, for sure. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

So if you could build a time machine that only took you back three years, what one piece of advice would you give slightly younger Sam? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

I’d probably say enjoy the process more than the outcome, I think just in life in general. I think I’ve only properly got my head around that concept for about a year or so, and I’m trying to apply it to everything I do. Even just going to the gym, you need to enjoy going to the gym and working out, rather than the actual output of trying to get healthier. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

I’m struggling with that one, maybe you can help there. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Same with reading too. It’s not the output of being more knowledgeable, you need to enjoy the process of reading and building your knowledge. So like you mentioned before you came on, you like to have the audio version and the physical version. That’s unique to you and how you go through that process to build your own knowledge. And then it’s the same with the agency of just like … It’s very easy to be focused on … I don’t know … Like getting to a million pound, or getting to 40 people, or if your end goal is to sell it eventually, it’s so easy to be obsessed with that. But you just got to enjoy what you’re doing and value what you have. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Absolutely. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Take time to step away and just be like, “All right, we’ve done pretty well over the last six months, or eight months, or whatever.” I definitely say that. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Enjoy the journey. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Exactly. 

Another one would probably be … I’m not one on quotes. I hate cheesy quotes and stuff. But one that I read about, I think it was about 18 months ago, it was like, “Can’t change the past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about the future.” And when I read that, that really does relate to exactly what I’m doing. You’re worrying about a client meeting that you did before, like a pitch, etc. But then at the same time, you’re also worrying about the future of where the business is going. Are you going to hit the targets that you want with Google update the algorithm, COVID, e-com in general. There’s so much to think about, worry about. But then if you are doing that, then you’re ruining the actual day in the present. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a realization that you have to kind of come to over time, I think. But do you think if three years ago you’d have popped into your own house and given yourself any of those two pieces of advice, do you think you’d have listened to it? Or do you think you’d have probably thought, “Nah?” 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Not a chance. No. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. There’s a mindset in this world for an agency- 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Like you say, you have to experience it for yourself. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Wholly agree. Is there something that you did in the last three years that you kind of … not necessarily regret as in like a big mistake or anything, but something you kind of wish you’d done differently, or wish you’d started doing sooner? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. Anytime I chat to other agency owners, I always say one of the regrets I do have … It’s not a regret, it is very much like … So we started in January, 2019 and then we hired first two people in March. We took the approach of hiring two grads, versus one more senior person, and I would 100% recommend doing the senior first. Because in our mindset at the time it was like, “Oh, get two people to fit more time to do all the difficult work.” But then they take so much more handholding and just training, they actually just added to our workload rather than actually freed us up. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

It does. And I think we all make that mistake. I think that’s a natural part of when you first start an agency. Because obviously, whilst you want to grow, headcount is required in order to do that. But also, you’re looking at the bottom line in every single part of every single thing you are doing. And it feels safer to have a couple of cheaper people doing something really, really important, rather than one person who’s doing a lot of something very important. 

When you’ve got the processes, the systems, and you’ve got the operational functionality part of the agency right, then fill your boots with grads and interns and things. Because they need to learn at some point, and also, you can genuinely have some really great people that you can train up as you go. But, if you’re trying to grow an agency early doors and then you’re hiring green people, it’s very hard. You think they’re helping you out, but actually you’re spending a long time training, you’re spending a long time coaching them, mentoring them, helping them actually kind of get to grips with even some of the basic jargon and terminologies even. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Exactly, yeah. And then it’s not fair on them at the same time too. You’d be halfway through sitting down and you’d think you’d have an afternoon dedicated to helping them to grow and train with them and they can shadow you. And then all of a sudden you have to jump on a client call, or go to a meeting and then you’re distracted. One of the grads is still with us now and she’s incredible. She epitomizes all of our values and we’re incredibly proud of how much she’s grown over the last three years. She’s way ahead of somebody who would have three years experience at another agency. It’s just that period at the start where it just felt like it wasn’t completely fair on her. Whereas, if we’d hired a senior, then two grads, then that senior could just spend their entire day with the grads and even just the grads shadowing them. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. You’re spot on, I think in the way you put it. I think you’ve got to have that senior in there first, at least one, to be able to afford some of the time that you can’t afford, at the very least. But I guess, if one of those grads is still here now and you say she’s a top performer, then it proves that even if you were terrible as a boss early doors, she’s still here. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. I don’t know why, but she’s still here. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Well done her for her resilience. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Exactly. And then I think it ties onto that as well. And now anytime we create some kind of new department in the company, we always try to get the senior in first. Again, we probably didn’t listen to our own advice recently. But if we were to create out a new … I don’t know, say like account management team, or data team, or creative team … Whoever’s going to lead that team has to be a senior first, rather than trying to get a junior in. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. You clearly learned from that lesson … almost clearly learned from that lesson. So if there’s been someone who’s listening to this podcast now and they’re thinking of starting an agency in the near future, or they’ve just started an agency and all they’ve really done is listen to us waffle on for 20 minutes or so. What do you think one piece of advice that you could give them would be? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

One, gosh. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Only one. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

I’ve got a lot. Can I split it for somebody who’s not started yet and then somebody [inaudible 00:15:31] 

So if you’re not starting yet, I’d probably say … going to merge two together, I think. One is figure out the USP, but then at the same time, think about on your personal level, “What is the worst case scenario?” So it’s just trying to remove all of those risk factors in place. If it does fare the worst case scenario, you just close it up. Your reputation might be harmed in the short term, but long term no-one’s going to remember, no-one’s going to care and you just move into another job. But if anything, I would say if you did try to do that, if you moved into an agency, they’d probably value that more that you’ve tried and you’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit behind you. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Wholly, wholly agree. I’ve done an interview with another agency owner relatively recently. And he said that sometimes when he’s looking at CVs, if it says that they started an agency and it failed, at least they tried. So, if you start and you fall down, then it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of life. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Exactly. Otherwise, you’re going to be like 10 years down the line you’ll just be like, “Wow, I regret doing that.” I regret not doing it, even. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And then what’s the other piece of advice? 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

So if they’ve started and they’re in that early, crazy, crazy, early stage of scaling, I would say free up time to plan ahead. A lot of what we’ve done around the year mark was like, “What is the agency going to look like in two years time?” So if we’re a million now and we’re 3 million in two years, what is the staff budget for that? And then building out the staff structure for that three year agency. So then you’re hiring in line with the future rather than right now, otherwise you’re just too reactive. And you might be hiring someone for a need right now, but then that person might not be needed in the future. And right now you could just go freelancing. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah, exactly. And also with the job market being as kind of difficult as it is right now, you might have a need that you think you want and you’re spending all that time and effort and energy to hire for it. But if you don’t know where you’re going in six months to a year or two years time, you might act actually be putting a lot of effort into something where like you say, a freelancer could do the job more expensive, but at least then, you know we definitely need this role. Then you hire in full time. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. I got more advice. T these are kind of combined, these ones. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Of course, you’ve got more advice, because as an agency leader, you’ve gone through it, you’ve made mistakes. You’ve learned lessons and you’ve got that under your belt to sort of … the success is evident of the fact that you all have advice for people. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah, 100%. You need to figure out, “Are you a strategy, or deliverable agency?” Figure that out quite early on. That impacts your pricing and how you work. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah, big time. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Figuring out your why. So what is the end goal in five to 10 years? And is this a lifestyle business for you, or is it a business you want to scale and sell? And then on an individual basis it’s figuring out, “Are you the deliverable person in the agency?” Say you’re an SEO [inaudible 00:19:08] 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Are you the implementer or the … Yeah. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. Are you the one doing the business side of things, or do you love your trade so much that you don’t want to get into the business side? So rather than trying to straddle both of them … If you want to just build websites because you’re a developer, then that’s awesome and you keep doing that. Then you need to find a way to get somebody in, or support around the operational side of the business, and then vice versa. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. I’ve known agency owners who’ve hired a managing director to run the business whilst they run a department. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. Which is a big, big- 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. You’ve got to be really committed. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Yeah. And when you get to a certain point, the agency becomes bigger than you, so you need to be making big decisions like that. It’s like, “Are you going to hinder the growth of the business and everybody who works there because of your ego?” I think the [inaudible 00:20:03] guy is a really good example of this, isn’t he? Have you heard that story of he was growing it- 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Go on. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Oh, okay. I’m going to- 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

No, no, skip to the [inaudible 00:20:10] Good for the content you see. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

So he was growing it really fast and it was a super fast going startup and new CEO. But then, he stepped back from being CEO, because he was too young and he couldn’t grow and run a business that large. So he got a CEO in and then he took a step back and he was … I think he was branding director or something. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Branding director of a company that just sticks logos on t-shirts. It’s amazing. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Exactly. And then I think it was only last year, so a few years later, then they switched and then he came back to being CEO. So it just takes a lot of not putting your ego and yourself before the business. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah, totally. Absolutely. I think ego is a big part of running an agency in a good and a negative way, which is a lovely way to end the podcast. Your ego is your problem, guys. Thanks very much for coming along and being a guest, Sam. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

No worries. Thanks. Thanks for having me. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

All the best for the next three years. 

Samuel Hurley (Guest): 

Thank you very much. And best of luck for the live streaming of Brightness. Yeah, that’ll be fun. 

Chris Simmance (Host): 

Yeah. That’s that’s happening relatively soon. But when you listen to this podcast, it’ll be in the distant past. And on our next podcast, we have a different agency leader to tell us their story and the things they’ve learned along the way. Thanks for listening.