What you need to know about Launching a CRO agency with John Ekman




John Ekman 0:00
It might be small in the beginning. But then what you do is just you build that segment of the market. And then you define yourself as the market leader in that segment. And then you do the marketing thing. And then you build that market. And now you have like your 50% market share in it. And that’s going to be your starting point. And then after a while, you might be able to start expanding into other segments in that market. I think that if you want to work with this approach, then find your find your niche to find yourself as a leader in the niche, grow the niche.

Richard Joe 0:32
Hey, it’s rich here from the experimentation podcast, they have got a very special guest, John Aikman on the show. John is one of the OG people in the conversion space. He founded the conversion nice to 13 years ago. He’s grown up now, 90 plus people in Stockholm, Malmo, Sweden and Oslo and they service multiple, large running companies such as h&m, IKEA, and Spotify, so forth. So thanks for coming on the show, John, and welcome on board.

John Ekman 1:09
Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s, it’s exciting to be on a on a global podcast like this with my what was once my very small company now slightly larger. But that’s, it’s I’m glad I made it here to be considered one of the ogci. That I don’t know. Well, but possibly, yeah, I don’t know.

Richard Joe 1:32
Well, I think any anyone that’s been doing it for more than 10 years is in this in this space, you know, considered pretty well established, I’d say. So look, you got an interesting story about how you got involved in Sierra and setting up the agency conversion Easter. Can you tell me about how you how you got into into the space?

John Ekman 1:55
Yeah. So what are we going to be talking about today? So I’ve been doing this, I mean, for now, 10 odd years, I’ve been doing my, my, my presentation. So I, I just had one yesterday, like like a basic introduction to CRO which I call data psychology and experiments. I did it for one of the clients that we have here in the in, in Stockholm, the the Electrolux brand and and then they asked me, How many times have you done this deck, and I think I’m probably getting closer to 300 times now for that single deck. So I talked, I talked a lot about, like AV testing and psychology and those kinds of things. But then somewhere down the road, I just thought about, like I have this, I started to write down a few of the principles that I actually I, you know, it was it was very internal, I just kind of did things on instinct and, and some of them seem to be working pretty well. And then I just collected it then I, I came to 10 principles of that we actually used in building the agency. And then I thought, oh, maybe there’s also an interesting story in how I build the agency not only like the work that I do, but like how did we arrive? How did we come to the position where we are now. So then, when we had our load pre meet, I thought maybe this is this is an interesting story. I could share so we’re gonna I’m gonna have 10 points. Or like I I actually posted it as at the I was previous weekend, I was at the, the what I say now the conference formerly known as the conversion Hotel. Yeah, so I was there. They had an unconference style session, and I posted my little note there on the board and said, the 10 secrets of building a stellar CRA agency. So it’s a little bit click Beatty kind of things to see. Let’s see if it sticks me something interesting.

Richard Joe 3:41
Like five minute abs, right? People think it’s a 10 steps now. Oh, I’ll set up my agency and go to the moon. Yeah, I’m gonna

John Ekman 3:50
go. Let me tell you a little bit of how before we go into those 10 points how I actually got into this at all. Yeah, so I was I was actually in the in the online gambling because we were I worked for a company that did casino software for all my casinos. And I went to one of these conferences in in London, I think this was 2007. And then I saw a guy called Tim Asch, which also is considered one of the OGs. In this business, he wrote the first book called landing page optimization, one of the really early books in the space and he was the host, he was the guy to start a conversion conference. So I saw him on stage and he was doing this amazing like live critique or websites and you can move this take away that there’s too much contrast there. There’s too little contrast and you should AV test it. So he was just basically ripping away on this news, CRO A B testing stuff, which I had never heard about that. I just I just I immediately thought to myself like, wow, this is this is let’s This is a real business. This is like somebody’s working on this and, and and it’s nobody’s doing this in Sweden. I have never heard about this. And I then I also thought Like in a hubris moment, they’re like I, I could be the guy that does this in Sweden. So I basically on the floor, they said to myself, I’m going to be this guy in Sweden. But then I more or less later on then founded Congress nest I put, you need to put in like $5,000 to start the company. I bought a plane ticket about a conference ticket to commercial conference, the first one in, in San Jose, California, and I bought a computer then the money was gone. But I figured I just couldn’t, I couldn’t. Like I if I wanted to be the best I had to learn from the best. I just had to go with the best words, I went to the first conversion conference, even though it was like incredibly expensive for my for my budgets at that time, but at the at the Roundup, but, you know, Tim, he likes to host a nice after party in his suite. So I went there and I, I spoke to him for the first time and I said, I said, Tim, I’m going to be you in Sweden. And then he said, You can’t do that. There’s only one there’s only one me back off. And, and he basically he was he was not joking. That was like it. That was a serious. Yeah, it was serious. And I was a little bit shocked. I was like, Yeah, sure. Fair enough. Yeah. Okay, that can only be one too much. So then the year after that, I went back. And then I met Bryan Eisenberg, for the first time who’s considered to really be the, like the grandfather of CRO, as he’s called. And then he, he introduced me to some people there as being the Brian Eisenberg of Sweden. Like, just he just took it out. And then apparently, I could be No, I couldn’t be turned, but it could be Ryan. And then on the third year, I made like just one of one of the things that I also did, I set a goal for myself, the third year, I said, I’m going to go back as a speaker. And so I pitched hard to come back as a speaker, I did that. And then at the after party, I again met Tim and I told him the story. And then he said, Oh, you can be me too. That’s cool. So then I was officially the Tim ash and the Brian Eisenberg of Sweden. But they had their real words say the real happy ending of this story. Now happy middle part of this story is that I some hosting my own conference, as well as this could be called the commercial job. So we’ve been doing that for quite a few years, we get about a 700 people in Stockholm, and we have 300 in Oslo. And I turn every actually rebooting it now after the pandemic. So we’re going to do it next fall, for after three year stop, or pause. And then as I was I was at the kind of after party in Stockholm after the third conversion jam. I remember a tweet I wrote, which was Sunday, like I’ve been, I’ve been posting like this and that guy of, of Sweden for a couple of years. But today, I realized I only have to be the John Ekman of Sweden. So I felt like after three years, I reached that position of being that person who are who I want it to be. And it actually ties into the to the first of my points in my in my little 10 pointless.

Rommil Santiago 7:58
This is Rommil Santiago from experiment nation. Every week we share interviews with and conference sessions by our favorite conversion rate optimizers from around the world. So if you liked this video, smash that like button and consider subscribing it helps us a bunch. Now back to the episode.

Richard Joe 8:11
It sounds like he these two guys were islands idols. And after three year period, you sort of came full circle, and felt comfortable in your own shoes that you instead of being the new to mesh, you’re you’re the you’re John Aikman, you’re the one and only John Tronic. You obviously have had very successful agency, the 30 year period. And I think you said you sold it to the art group. Can you tell us more about that?

John Ekman 8:41
So this is a little bit about how I, why I sold the company, what did I want to share with us? And how did I find a good solution for that? So if when you do that, when you do this thing, it’s like you really need to figure out what is it that motivates you? And what is something you want to get out of it? And I the way that I felt I’m, I’m a I’m a crafts person, I’m a I’m a geek, I’m I like Google Analytics, I like user testing. I like the all the behavior design principles and all that. I’m not very good at. I’m not very I’m not a very good manager. I’m I get tired and bored of accounting, and HR and office space and all the stuff that you need to take care of when you’re the CEO. So so so one of the things people tell me like you also did today, actually, it is my job. You’re the CEO of the company. No, I haven’t been the CEO for almost like 10 years, I think I haven’t been the CEO for like, eight years. So when already, that’s actually a Tyson to the point number nine in my list that know your limits. And so when the company was only when we were only five people, I got an external CEO to the company. So I realized that I’ve never been the manager for more than five people in my entire life. So that’s kind of my limit, I guess. So I just thought that if I want this company to be big You’re then five people, then I need to get somebody on board as as the CEO. And so I did. And then we’re also when we, when we then started to grow in a faster pace, we reached, we reached kind of the next limit two or 25 people. And this was this guy, Matias. He wanted to he wanted to buy commercial Mr. Like forever. We met, like yearly, for every for every year before that, and then for five years, and he was trying to buy me every year. And I said no, because I, he had this kind of general digital agency called comando. And I couldn’t really see like what made them different from all the other digital agencies by the I had this unique asset of like having the top brand and CRO in Scandinavia. So I figured, like, I got the, the I have I hold a winning hand here. But then as time went along, and they every year we met, he had grown, even though he was just I thought, in my opinion, like a bland didn’t latency. And I was like super niche to competitive offer, he still grew much faster than I did every year. So I figured I just like I don’t know what they’re doing. But it seems like the proofs in the pudding. And also they they just had a very different approach. I was just, I grew my business through the craft I was I positioned ourselves as to do best craftspeople, and then all the other things around it happened and we grew. And Matthias did it pretty much. The other way. He’s like, I want to build this machinery. That is that is behind agency that helps it grow. And whatever we put into the machine, and what kind of services and stuff we put in there is like, oh, yeah, we’ll figure that out from time to time. That’s actually not the important part. And I thought it was like a very good match, because we had very complementary skill sets. And then as I, as we did this, I also asked myself the question, like, because I wanted longevity in the commercial, Mr. Brand, I wasn’t interested in selling it just to make a buck. So I figured, like, is this the is this a context where, where I can find a home for this brand to keep growing? And also I asked the second question, I looked at the people around the table, and I asked myself, these are people that I’m going to be working with for like for the rest of my career cooks, I seriously don’t think I’m 57. Now I don’t think once this is, like finished whenever that is, I don’t think I’m going to do anything else. So so then I just asked myself those two questions. And then as we communicated the transaction, a lot of people came to me they were like, they called me like, yeah, what did you just do is like, you should have talked to me, I could have paid more and, and people were upset, they were not allowed into by my company. But then I was like, then I had to tell them like I’m I wasn’t first and foremost financially motivated. I was just motivated to create a future for my for myself and create a future for my company. And and of course, it was also financially successful. But that was Kim’s kind of second hand for me.

Richard Joe 12:58
Wow. So it sounds like you, you had a good sort of complementary, sort of skills that he was, it sounds like he was good at building systems and scaling companies from a business perspective, but you’re good at the actual, you had the craftsmanship, sort of the care and the the attention to detail and the quality involved in, you know, the Add form of CRM, so to speak, and combine those two helps, you know, helps you to grow bigger overall. Yeah.

John Ekman 13:29
And we’ve now

Richard Joe 13:30
10 acres.

John Ekman 13:31
Yeah, absolutely. And then so that was the starting point, we were 25. And they were 50. So we were 75 people that was now in August, five years ago. And now we have 16 agencies, we also have two agencies in the Netherlands where 1200 people so so became like the starting point of a much bigger journey. And and so like, officially my role now is I’m the chief of NGOs in the ark group. And then I also jump in and do all kinds of things with with coalition is that when they need when they need this founder to come out and do his presentations and inspire the people around the spider

Richard Joe 14:07
crowd. Yeah, yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s good steal, steal your hand in the game. So you mentioned the 10 secrets of building a self care agency. And I think a lot of people will be excited to hear your wisdom there, especially those who have been more entrepreneurial, or if they’ve been working in a CRO agency environment for a while and maybe want to set up their own agency. So yeah, can you run us down through the 10 points?

John Ekman 14:38
Yeah. Yeah. And I think that actually probably some other things which most of us would consider even more important, but that they are general. So they would do with find them in that top 10 tips to build a company or you know, just so so I basically try to take out the parts which are somewhat unique to to What I did, and I divided them into three categories, how to communicate to the market, how to communicate with prospects and how to build a company. And I think my, then if we started with how to communicate to the market, I, the first thing I did was, you know, when when I said to myself, I’m going to be this team, and I showed Ryan Heisenberg of Sweden. I basically that I said that to myself. But then I immediately told it to everybody else. So I, I pitched myself as a presenter at conferences. And and I told everybody, I told them to store it. Like the first couple of slides I had my presentation was the story about going to to San Jose meeting Tim Asch meeting, Brian Heisenberg, that kind of stuff. And I told everybody, my goal is to become this guy of Sweden, Sweden. So now, so now I as I did that, I basically tied myself to the maths because it’s like, because I made an external commitment. I was going to do this, I also had to go and do it. It was like a failure was not an option. So and everybody knew, I myself knew my goal. I had told it totally to everybody. And everybody knew about it. So now I just had to go and do it. So I couldn’t backpedal on that one. So that was that that I think was like my first important principle I at a time, I just did it because I I don’t know, to be honest, I don’t know why I did it. I just, I, I guess I’m a transparent guy. And I made this commitment to myself. And then I just told everybody else like I do with most of the stuff about me. So but then I realized it was actually quite important in the, in the journey to have this external goal and had to have everybody see it.

Richard Joe 16:36
And do you think that, do you see, I have heard of the certain power and declaring external goals and telling everybody because it keeps you accountable? And if you don’t do what you say, you’re going to do, then? You know, people probably think you flip flop or, you know, you’re serious. So do you think that by by telling everybody that sort of created a kind of an external pressure to do what you’re gonna do? social pressure, so to speak? Yeah.

John Ekman 17:09
Yeah. I mean, it worked for me. I mean, I didn’t find it that any management book or anything, it just kind of, like everything that is it’s kind of weird that I’m, I’ve been preaching this data driven experiment, focus the business now for 10 years. And then I’m not going to, I’m going to tell you 10 Things that are that they’re all like, gut feeling stuff. It’s just, it’s just things that I did instinctively, without really knowing why I did it. But then it turned out, like years later, oh, this shit actually works. It’s like, Who would have known?

Richard Joe 17:44
I guess, I guess that’s the human part of you. Right? Like, I mean, we do the data analysis at work, and sometimes the, you know, the intuitive human sites gotta come out. Eventually. So what’s, what’s the other point to lose sight of your clients? We feel? Yeah,

John Ekman 18:00
yeah. Yeah. So number two side with the clients, we feel your pain. I think a lot of a lot of companies, people, agencies, whatnot, are a little bit afraid of talking about problems. So they wouldn’t be solution. Right? Alright. Let’s talk about problems. Let’s like, like, let’s talk about how we can help you. And that basically skips the part of like, what is that? What is actually the problem we’re trying to solve here? And then we have our mission statement is, we have come to save humans from digital experiences that suck, I can add this to the show.

Richard Joe 18:31
And then someone was like, 22 minutes. Yeah,

John Ekman 18:35
the last word there is the word suck is like, and what sane company would put the word suck in their mission statement? It’s like, it’s like, you don’t do that. That’s way too negative. But I think that, what, what what happens there is that you side with your clients, it’s like, it’s empathy. It’s like, we feel your pain. It’s not that it’s not that they they were they they’re walking around thinking their websites are stellar. And then we come and tell them, they suck. It’s like, they feel that pain this like, oh, yeah, this thing, this beast, this monster we created, it’s leaky. It’s like, we’re not getting as much many conversions out of it. And this is horrible CMS. Like, it takes like eight master’s degrees to even figure out how to update a image and, and then, and then we’re basically saying, like, yeah, we feel like we know that stuff, too. We’re in the same boat here. So I think one of the things we did was we’re always in the same boat. And, and, and I know that there are some conference organizers that they basically turned me down because like, we can’t just have this like rodeo on ECMO stage because he’s gonna do these rants about websites that suck is like we can have that they might be people in the audience that he’s tired, he’s gonna tear down on the website, and then they’re going to be pissed with us. But I’ve done I’ve done this quite a few times. And then basically people come to me afterwards to say like, oh, yeah, I’m from this company job. This was so great. I actually you know what? I made a video because I’m going to show this to my boss. Because finally somebody externally is giving a voice to all the pain we’re feeling. So like, thank you so much, John for doing that, because now finally, my boss might listen to me because he saw he’s going to see this on tape with you. So that was that was actually, it has worked out really, really well for us and a little bit. I didn’t see the mechanics of it first, but then I understood it, it has to do with empathy and being in the same boat.

Richard Joe 20:25
Yeah, I think that’s mean, empathy has been something that’s been talked about a lot and, you know, companies loss, and then maybe 510 years, you know, have empathy putting yourself in people’s shoes. And it sounds like you just sort of did this intuitively, right? You didn’t like a book on like, you know, empathize with your clients, but you just put yourself in their shoes. You were like, Okay, I know, your CMS sucks, or I know your landing page isn’t the most optimized or whatever. And, yeah, just sort of, instead of jumping to this solution, just sort of, you could say, Well, look, I know what it’s like to be have a crappy CMS or platform or whatever.

John Ekman 21:08
In order to, in order to understand the solution, you first need to, you need to know the problem is I got a I got a friend who he works in b2b sales. And he says like that your only job is like, if you’re selling, if you’re selling plugs, right? They The only thing that you need to do is that you really need to define the hole in which the plug will fit perfectly is like you need to communicate with a client, what is the exact shape and size of this hole. And once you’re once you’re done in that communication process, then you bring out the plug in your look, it fits perfectly. So don’t talk about the plug, talking about the hole.

Richard Joe 21:44
I think it’s a really good analogy for audiences. You didn’t talk about the plug, talk about all? And you’ve got another one on thought leadership first. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Business model business model. Second, what sorts Yeah,

John Ekman 21:59
so so. So basically, number three. And also, that that was actually, that’s actually something that I that was that that I had, in my mind already. From the beginning. That was a very, that was like something that I really went for. I didn’t discover it in hindsight. But I thought like this, I’m going to build thought leadership, I’m going to be this person that people considered like the Mr. Conversion, whatever, of Sweden. So and I and, and I did that. So when, when the topic of the conversion came up in some business, magazines, and blogs, and things like that people would normally reach out to me and asked me, What is your opinion on this thing? We saw this, blah, blah, blah, with Klarna, whatever, what do you what do you think about that, and then I thought, like, so if I build this position as the thought leader, then I can build pretty much any business in the space based on that foundation. So it could be an agency, it could be a product, it could be like a solo speaking carrier, it could be like the author, you know, that I basically didn’t know so much in the beginning, what kind of business opportunity I was going for, I was basically thinking, like, let’s, let’s build a thought leadership first. Because that’s going to put me in a position where I am going to be able to choose the direction of my business. And then it turned out that I, that I came into the agency model, just I think I did it, that’s just more or less availability bias, it was like, the easiest thing to do is like you’re, you’re, you’re a public person, and people see you speaking, and then they want some help. And they say, Yeah, I can, I can help you and then all of a sudden, your agency started growing and so that, but that wasn’t, I’m not really sure that’s really what I was aiming for. But I was just like, get me on the stage. And then we’ll figure out the other stuff later, more or less,

Richard Joe 23:51
again, intuitive, so you didn’t have a grand plan that you know, I create this thought leadership it would be like set me off from who was set me up as an authority in the space and then that in itself will be a lead generation that there wasn’t on your top your mind but that’s it sounds like that’s what it basically turned into and effect like, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of leads and sales so to speak out of out of being on stage or people reading about you in a book or magazine or whatever. Yeah,

John Ekman 24:20
I think so. And then then actually, they actually leads to the fourth point which is I call that one marketing lead the sales second and in the recipe in this kind of space, you build the market, I built the market and and I think that’s that’s also apt. So when I when I was doing this, I was basically just creating so much upper funnel awareness about the about the topic, so we usually we kind of prided ourselves that up to that point. When we sold the company, which was like seven years into its into its history, we still didn’t have salespeople. So when the company was 25, zero sales People, yeah, we, so we, when we were 25, we did not have a single, like, salesperson. Because basically all we did was marketing. So, so so we were, we were building the market that the market didn’t exist. And then I went out there, I started speaking, I started blogging, I started to create awareness about this topic. And, and only mostly just marketing, marketing, marketing, awareness, awareness, awareness. And then then what happened is that when we when I was there, it’s not like I went on stage, and then I walked off, people rushed up with a business card and wanted me to do this. It was, it was it was, it was more or less, basically a building an awareness. And people, they didn’t have the budget, they like, they couldn’t get the attention of the CEO. And they were all kinds of things stopping it. So basically, they were, they thought like, this is something really cool, something I should do, but maybe a bit into the future, because we’re not prepared to do it right now. And basically, we weren’t, we were not shaking that tree at the time, we just sitting under the tree, and just waiting for the kind of apples to fall down at when they were mature enough. So we were and that was just enough apples falling into our lap all the time. And, and it’s also, I think that the it works when you’re the market, when you’re market leader, I think it’s it is kind of weird, that we are now 90 plus people. And I think our you know, I’m not really sure, but I think our biggest competitor in Sweden, is I think maybe still not above the 10 people Mark i i So we’re basically very dominant in this in this market and in Scandinavia and, and so when you have such a great market share, then it really pays off to build the market is like you don’t have to focus on extracting a certain certain wedge a certain percentage of the market, it’s much smarter to build the market. Because if you have like a 50% market share, then half of the business you create is just going to fall into your lap. And I think that if I if I’m advising people that are now coming into the space or any other space, yeah, they are not in this fortunate position that I was in because I was very early in the market. But I’m gonna ask you, yeah, but I’m thinking like, if you’re if you’re when you’re entering a new market, then the only thing you have to do is just you have to find this market segment, you had to just have to define a market.

John Ekman 28:18
So that you still have to get their attention, there’s a lot of noise out there. But you’re there are still ways there are avenues to reach like that buyer.

Richard Joe 28:26
So in other words, you were there at the start, when CRO experimentation was not even a thing and people’s minds, you had to create the market. And I guess it took a lot of education of the market. Whereas if someone was to start now, there’s a lot more market awareness of of what CRM is and so forth. And so for them, their journey might be a bit different to yours, where the markets already did, they just need to maybe niche down a bit more like say, instead of just saying we do CRO and we’d have forever for everybody

John Ekman 29:03
to do CRO for CRO for

Richard Joe 29:06
Shopify stores or yes, yeah, companies or whatever. Yeah. Okay, I can I can see, I can see how they can create their own segment in a market that’s fairly mature. Great to when you started. Yeah. Um, so that segues to our the second point, you’ve got the second area you’ve got, which is how to communicate with prospects. Can you run us through those points?

John Ekman 29:35
Yeah, sure. So when you’re communicating with prospects, we have basically had, we had to we had two principals. This was also very this was this was fairly explicit. This was like an explicit strategy that we work with. And, and I have to say I owe it to the Magnus does the CEO and that that I brought in because he had been working quite a lot with, with sales. And he was he was very seasoned in this area. So I think he was the one that came with his principles to the company, so I should credit him. And the first one is we say, like, never say no to the customer, to our, to the prospect. And typically, when you’re growing, do you start with a you start with smaller clients, you start with like SMB companies, so then you’re moving up the kind of the food chain to, to as as now we’re working with h&m and IKEA and so on. And, and then when you do that, we are now at a point where we’re basically selling, you know, we’re saying selling bigger chunks of what we’re doing. Like we could do it previously, we could do like a, a 20 hour gig on this and that thing, but now we’re saying like, the minimum you can buy from us is like a full time person for three months or something like that. So and that’s, that’s not, that’s not because we’re because we’re, you know, we’re stuck up or cocky and think we’re the best in the world. It just basically, when you’re at a bigger company, you know, the pieces in your in your staffing puzzle needs to be bigger, if you have all these, like, if you have 90 people, and then you have like a million pieces in your puzzle HLP comes like it just doesn’t work, you need to, you need to have bigger chunks. Because otherwise you just stress people out, you get poor quality in the delivery to the core clients and all that stuff. So but then when once you have reached this position, then a lot of smaller clients are coming to you and you’re you’re having a first like qualifying call with them, and then you realize, oh, there’s no way they’re going to buy our services, it’s just too expensive for them. But then then do you have to say no to that customer. So what we have done is like we basically created a kind of a ladder for this, I can also share this in the show notes. So basically, if you have zero if you have zero money, you have absolutely nothing then worked out. You can you can check our blog out, you can check our newsletter out, and you can come back and you can get free zero tips on a on a bi weekly basis. And, and here are also you know, here’s some other links. Here’s a book where I think this is really good. I think it’s Check, check out this site, because they do some good work too. So sorry that you don’t have a budget, but here’s some tips you can work on. And then if you have, let’s say that you have $400, then you can send one person to the conversion. Yeah, yearly. Right. So So one person can come and be inspired at our conference for a foreign dog ticket every year, okay? Let’s say that you have a let’s you know what, as I said, forth, you have $4,000, okay, then you can send one person to our conversion Manager Training Program, which is a training program that does nine full days of learning, learning how to be successful and CRO like he said, you learn about data, you learn about the psychology, you learn how to set up experiments and an experimentation program and so on. So if you have that kind of budget, well, then you’re good to go. And then finally, if you have $40,000 and above, then you can actually become like a client for our services. So this has for us been a way of saying like the money in the in the lower parts of this letter. Isn’t that isn’t that great. But it basically we had never had to say no to anybody. And, and the good part, which then ties into the second point in this section. Number six is to see the person not the company, because the people that don’t have the money right now. They go, they read your blog, they go to your training, they go to your conference, and you know what, a couple of years later, because they learned so much in the space. And we help them do that. They have this great loyalty and perception of a brand. So then all of a sudden, they get hired by big company. And then they think back about, like Who should I hire in this space, and they naturally come back to us and then become a buyer of our services.

Richard Joe 34:03
So you didn’t just like let’s like, you know, typical sales call you prequalify them have a little 10 minute discovery call. And I’m guessing for CRO agencies would be like, Okay, do you have enough money and you have enough traffic and they probably didn’t have to either of them, instead of this ruthlessly disqualifying them and saying, Okay, goodbye, you still trying to keep the conversation and just gave them like a kind of like a stepladder approach, like if they couldn’t afford this service. Maybe they could afford the the internal training or if they can afford that and then maybe conversion jam or even if they can’t afford an anything at all, then I guess they could just go on your blog. And then by doing these things by going down the value ladder, so to speak, and still giving them value. It created this internal goodwill because I guess at the end of the day, you’re you’re communicating to humans, not just faceless companies, and so that person may have come back to you when they don’t know went to another company like you see that a good company? Or if their company grew somehow, over the years over, say, a period years and were able to get the, you know, get you on board, then yeah, they would be probably first in line to be chosen. Right,

John Ekman 35:15
right. Yeah, I can tell you a beautiful story about a about a guy. And just to keep it anonymous, I’ll just give him another name. Let’s, let’s call him Christopher. And he was, he was like the ICO manager of a big sports store here in the area around Stockholm. And then he kept them he kept emailing me is like, John, I, you know, I noticed this like, weird thing in Google Analytics. I don’t know, like, Do you have any idea what this could be? And then, like, what was this book, again, that he gave a tip about? So he just kept coming back to me. And we had a couple of qualifying meetings. And we understood that yeah, he just, it was a, it was a single, it was a big sports store, and they had a website, but it was like only one store. So it was, they were very big for being only one store, but they were still not, you know, a big player. So this went on for years. And, and we kept hearing from HIM every now and then. And we basically never said no, it took a bit of time. And, and to be honest, that perhaps a little bit annoying at times. But yeah, but then he changed jobs, you know, and we had a friendly relationship. And then he became like, the E commerce, econ manager, or like you really big outdoor bicycle, or like the probably the biggest one in Sweden. And then, like, Guess, who he calls, like, on the on the first day of his job. And then, and then basically, we started a project with them, because he now had finally the budget that he had been hoping for. And now he could all do these cool things that he wants to do, but never had them. Yeah. So it was, it was a really, it was a really nice story. And that, that that’s actually, that’s, that’s how I understood that explicit story, and helped me understand what we had implicitly been doing for years and the value or whatever we had been doing.

Richard Joe 37:08
That’s, that’s an inspiring story. And, and very tangible story. But like, you know, how you just, of course, he probably was a little bit annoying sometimes. And you probably thinking, Okay, I’ll email this guy, even though he’s not a customer. And help them out. But I guess like, you know, it pays off. And like, you’re not everyone’s going to buy off you because some people might consumer content, and they will become customers. But I guess, yeah, that’s a very good, very good point. Now, the third and final area is how to build the company. Can you sign off of your points there?

John Ekman 37:46
Yeah, yeah. So the first one in this section, I call it number seven, then we’re at is build a company where you would like to be a customer, let’s put it this way, don’t build the company, to be the kind of company you hate, and the universe. And one of these,

Richard Joe 38:04
there’s no need for more companies that you hate companies that are

John Ekman 38:10
one on one. With the way I think about it, it’s like one of the things that I hate personally, I mean, other other people might might like this, but I just really don’t like it when a company comes to me is like, John, we got this new kind of AI powered thing black box here that’s going to do like all these like marketing tricks for you. And, and you know, how it works is like, don’t bother your little marketing pea brain with this, because it’s because we figure this shit out. And, and you’re just gonna have to pay a license fee and do all the magic without you having to worry about it. I just I don’t like that I’m an engineer to begin with. And I like to understand how things work as so that if I, if I’m going to deploy this thing in my business, I wouldn’t know how it works. I mean, I don’t have to know the details. But the principles and I this, this kind of blackbox approach, I just really don’t like it, I there’s just too much opportunity for somebody to hide some some bullshit away from me and try to pretend to work when he doesn’t. And so I just basically, I never buy stuff like that. So then I then when I built my company, I said like, we’re not going to do it like that, we’re we are going to be fully transparent. People will be able to, like open the hood and see how the engine works. And we’ll have full transparency in everything we do. Because basically, what is it that I think we can gain from that? I said, I don’t know. It’s like, I just want to build a company where I myself would want to be a customer. This is the kind of this is the kind of agency if I was in the if I was on the buying side. This is kind of agency I would like to go to and therefore that’s what I’m gonna do. Is it more profitable? Is it more successful? I have no idea but it’s just that’s just, that’s just a value judgment on that. That’s how I want it to be if it becomes very small During this, I don’t care is like, it goes in another dimension, then it turns out as as one of the points that I had, I think it’s actually one of the things that made us successful. But that wasn’t I didn’t know that beforehand, it was just a gut feeling thing. I feel I want to do this, I want to do it.

Richard Joe 40:16
I mean, when you say like, Bill, the company, would you like to be a customer? Do you mean, you talk about transparency? Do you mean like, just thinking of a tangible example, do you like, you know, share it like in terms of like reporting on your ab tears and so forth, like sharing? You know, all available data on Google Analytics. And

John Ekman 40:39
I think, a key I think a key component there is that, let’s have a tangible example there. Again, we worked for a big insurance company here in Sweden. So they, so we were working, we had, I think we had two people, two consultants working there. And then basically, they wanted to insource that they said, like, if you have this a lot, but you know, it’s like we, your consultants, we can’t afford you in the long run. So we need to transition in sources. And so how can you help us do this? I said, Okay, so you need two people, we can basically write the job descriptions for those people. Okay, fair enough. Okay, can you let’s do that, okay, so write their job description. So they posted job descriptions, they get, they get a bunch of applications. So then we help them screen the applications to, then we get to a number of people that do the interviews. And as a part of the interview process, we also do one of the interviews with the people. And then you finally we get, we get two people that we sign. And then we put them on the commercial manager program to teach them how to do like to do the CRO thing. So and then when all this was successfully done, we transition out of the client. So we, we help the client replaces and, and I think one of the transparency things is like, here’s the here’s the machinery, here’s how it works. If you want to read like we want it, we want to take you on a journey where you can learn this week, we understand that you cannot be dependent on us forever. So let’s help you help yourself in gaining knowledge and traction in this area. So that’s I think that that’s that would be one example of how we do this. And then you can you can also you can always argue that that. Okay, but isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t you going to, you know, aren’t you going to lose your, your market, you’re going to replace yourself with all clients. And I just, it’s also just one of these values, value things, right. I, I, that’s what I wanted. That’s the kind of company I wanted to build. And now, and now, more than 10 years later, we seem to be like one of the biggest agencies globally in this in this field. So it couldn’t have been all wrong. Like it’s not an it’s not an epic fail in that sense. So we must have done something right.

Richard Joe 42:49
I guess maybe there’s some sort of complex feedback loop where, say, in this instance, you did help them to become self sufficient. And then word got out that, hey, no confusion, Easter’s really good. And then people, you know, people talking,

John Ekman 43:04
etc. And also at the same client, you help them. And then they have these two people that worked there for a while. And then they need, they understand that they need this kind of expertise in another of their business areas. And then they don’t have the people there. And then we go to work with them again, or actually one of these people quit, that that actually happened, one of them quit. And then they need to, like leave. When they are trying to get the new person, we went back and we filled that position for I don’t know, six or 12 months before they could get that person back in. So So because of relation you help them once and now. And now they know we are helpful, and they come back when they have no need.

Richard Joe 43:43
I think that’s similar to point. This point about building a company where you would like to be the customer, I think in some ways. It’s similar to never say no to the customers kind of, in a sense that it’s imperfect based, right? Like, yeah, you’re trying to understand them and say, Hey, we care about you guys. What’s the other going to university you’ve got number eight, which is stay true to the core.

John Ekman 44:13
Yeah, stay true to the core. So So one of the things that happened was that we, we often had these ideas we were getting into like, for example, my my, my first employee, Maria, she had an SEO background. So we’re working we’re doing CRO they also have some some SEO need. So we can do like an SEO audit while we were on it. We have the client so it’s pretty it’s a pretty it’s pretty low hanging fruit to say like, you know, it’s like you’re sitting down you’re saying you’re 10 people and you say like, you know, for every single client almost that we have now we they also say that they have a problem with this. So why don’t we hire one per person that’s dedicated to this area, then we can you know, get some extra revenue we can we can build a company like that. have like these auxiliary services or around the core. But the problem was what for us was that? As we were pitching to clients, we were saying like, maybe the client would share with us that we’re actually talking to this company, they told us that they can also do this. And then we were basically going, we will go and say like, oh, yeah, you’re talking to them? Yeah, they’re actually really good. So they’re, they’re like a performance marketing agency with 30 people. And then they have like, one person in CRO and then you? Yeah, I think you should maybe hire that person, because that person also took our commercial magic course. Right? So it’s probably somebody really, really good. So you should do that. Or you can go with a company like us, that has 30 People that at the core, and has been doing this for like, five or seven years. So you can just yeah, you can choose any of those to like, yeah, you have, you have your pick guy. And then. So basically, you’re framing it your to, to the client that like that there’s, they would be incredibly stupid to go with, with a one man show instead of going with a 30 people company with seven years of experience, right? So now, if we would have added that SEO person, or that CMS person or the WordPress person, although blah, blah, blah, person, I don’t know, then basically everybody could have turned the same argument against us, right? So so we were our, like, our dedication and our ability to stay clear of these, these opportunities, made it possible for us to continue this communication out how we were the hardcore, the top notch top dog people that they should do business with.

Richard Joe 46:40
And by doing that, like, you know, staying true to the nation saying, we only do this, this is our specialty, that reinforces in the customer’s mind that this is this is all you do. Like this is your heart. You know, you’re you’re you’re an authority in that space.

John Ekman 46:55
I think I think it comes with a kind of comes with a territory is like if you’re saying like, We’re the biggest, and we’re also only dedicated this then people with that people would assume like Oh, then you must be the best. And and yeah, yeah. So if they go hand in hand,

Richard Joe 47:12
the other point, you’ve got point nine, we almost means is No, you’ll know your limits.

John Ekman 47:17
Yeah. So then I so we touched on that in the in the beginning about when I talked about the exit that I did with a company and yeah, and I like i said i i was I’ve never been a manager for more than five people in my life. So already, when we were only five I got a I got a CEO, I gave him an A sizable stake in the company. But I just figured a fee together can grow this bigger, faster than the steak again, wait to him then says there was zero sum game for me. So I think too many people don’t realize what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. And I was possibly a little bit lucky. Because when I did this now 13 years ago, so I was I had some I dumped some things previously. So I learned a little bit about myself, but I understood my limits better than I guess for somebody who’s starting this who’s like, who’s like 25 or 30. That’s, that’s then you, you know, you haven’t come to the conclusions about yourself. But I was a little bit lucky in that sense. But I, I really also I acted on it. And I just fairly quickly understood what I should do and what other people should be doing. And I and then I went out and proactively look for people to fill those positions. And I, I think that’s, that’s something that that a lot of founders do. They try to stretch themselves too much in into various things that they think they can do, but actually will be better if other people do it. But then, on the other hand, I actually got pretty lucky because there’s this SEO thing that I did, that turned out to be quite successful. And it’s that’s a really difficult hire. Because like you have you hear so many stories, are you getting the external SEO, and it doesn’t friggin work. It’s like this, it’s an absolute disaster. And it’s almost it almost wrecks the company, because then that person needs to leave and once your shares back and you need to pay them out, and then you get into this financial problem. And so you can get into all kinds of trouble. So I usually say that I’m the I’m, I suck at recruiting, because I I’m very, I It’s like I only get like the Nobel Prize winners or the or the total, like train wrecks. It’s like nothing in between is like it’s either stellar or disaster. So I was I was lucky this time I saw but that I think was that that was actually very, very important part of the all my recipe for success, to see your limit to act on it and get some other people in to help you with with complementary competencies

Richard Joe 49:48
by outsourcing that part. What are you doing on a day to day basis?

John Ekman 49:53
I was still doing the thought leadership thing. So I was I was the external face of the company. And that again So and then people would perceive me as the CEO for years and years and years, I started the company close to 13 years ago now, and I’ve not been the CEO for nine, an important part of that it was it was very, very clear between us what the roles were. So Magnus, he would we’d go in a meeting, and he would say, you know, what, I’m just the CEO is like, I could be anybody, like anybody can do this. It’s like anybody who I’m just kind of general manager type. So like, any general manager is type that that does this could do this job. But the guy you really should pay attention to his job, because what he does is unique. So So that’s, that’s why we are in this room, I basically, I would send you an offer, I was staffed a project, anybody could do this. And but but the pay attention to John so. So I think that it also by it was it was very wise of him to kind of downplay his own role, because a lot of people when they’re the CEO, they would really want to, they want to shine, they want to be on stage, they want to be the face of the company. But it was a, it was a it was a mutual understanding between us, it was for the benefit of both of us that I had the ad that I remained the external face. I remained like the conversion guy, when he was the one like sending invoices and staffing and so on. He was ever so happy with that, as far as I understand that. Maybe it will take a few years on he’ll pull us and Rogers I don’t know. But you haven’t heard that yet.

Richard Joe 51:25
It’s a shine that I guess I guess you had to find a CEO that didn’t have too much ego in the game. Yes. And leads us to the final point. Yeah,

John Ekman 51:39
yeah. So as I wrote build today for what you want to create tomorrow, so I let me let us take both sides to like a very concrete example, like after Magnus joined when we were like five people, like one of them, not actually the first one. But before we were 10 people, we hired a full time HR recruiting manager, and you know what, he’s still with a company. So we like what saying, what same company would have a full time recruiter, and an HR manager when you’re 10 is like, no, that doesn’t happen that 2030 Yeah, so. But that’s basically we were thinking like, we want to build this to like a 50 plus people company. So we could use, like, the downside of working with external recruiters is that they also they don’t have the empathy, they don’t understand your business. And you’re building, you’re building a new business, which basically nobody understands. So if you want to do like serious, high quality recruiting, you need a recruiter that is that is that really knows what you’re doing and have one can have empathy for your business. So and so we know. So we basically said to ourselves, like, yeah, we’re going to this is of course is, is it might be a losing proposal in the first stages here. Because like, if you just look at the cashflow, part of it is going to be cheaper to do this, like with an external recruiting agency for this year, and the next year, and possibly even the next year after that. But that’s not why we’re doing it, we’re not doing it in the most cost efficient way, we’re doing it in the in the way that we think we’ll be able to get the best recruits and we lay the foundation for like long term growth. So that’s, that’s why we that’s why we did this. And I think that if I had a, you know, I never had an external board at this we have now. But but I didn’t have it at the time. And I think if I had a board like this, you know, just looking at the EBIT and the roadmap and so I, I just think that people would not have approved this, they would have said, John, this is too much money, it’s like it’s going to, it’s going to weaken your cash flow, this is not a good thing to do, you should go with external recruiting agency. So so there were a couple of things like that, when we were, we were always thinking like we, we need, we’re everything we do, we need to think a couple of years ahead, like when we’re going to be double the size that we are now when we got to have these types of clients. So So for example, one of the things that when we put processes in place when we were doing this, these like conversion audits, conversion reviews, like we had, like we have always had, like seriously good people, and they were they’re really good at what they’re doing. So I see a consultant doing like a conversion audit, giving it to the client, I, I review it. And I see. And then I typically say like everything you did in this in this document is so good is really good. So everything that’s in here is very good. The only problem is that this thing isn’t in there. And also this thing is not in there. And the third thing that isn’t in there is this so you basically miss these three points. So that’s we quite early then developed these templates and checklists just so that we can get completeness in in the work that we’ve been doing. And then we also instituted this system of we call it the granddad or grandmother so basically that the board In workforces QA right, so so everybody that was doing a piece of work, also had the senior colleague that would have a second look at everything we shipped. So that’s why is this important today, but it kind of is this is an extra cost us an extra step extra layer. Is this important in terms of quality assurance for the clients that we have now, today that we are shipping tomorrow? Now? Maybe not? Is it going to be important for the kind of clients we are getting in 123 years time? Yeah, sure. Very important. So let’s do it now.

Richard Joe 55:32
That’s, that’s, that’s a really good takeaway. I think I mean, what’s it saying? Go to the hockey puck is going to I think it was I don’t

John Ekman 55:42
know, go with the hockey puck is go where it’s going. Yeah.

Richard Joe 55:47
Yeah, Wayne Gretzky, right. Like, it’s very hard to like, think that that forward, because I mean, putting myself in your shoes, you’re at a 10 person, Mark, you want to hire a full time HR person? Which sounds absolutely crazy from a cash flow perspective. Did you just but I mean, could you see the numbers and work without going into details? Could you see your numbers, your financials, that you’re growing at a certain pace? You know, according to the amount of customer, more customers per year, and so forth, in bringing in more revenue, I could see the trend lines that it made sense to hire this person like, Did you Was there some, like logical, data driven rationale behind this?

John Ekman 56:29
The the rationale was basically, we were we looked at it, and we were basically seeing like, this is how much money we’re losing on this. So this, so this is right now. So this is the negative effect on our cash flow. Right now. Can we survive that? Yes, we can. Because we, so if it’s if it’s not bad, worse, you know, worse than we can actually take it today, then, then, then basically, we think it’s worth it this investment for the future. So and, you know, to be honest, it wasn’t, it’s like, it’s pretty expensive to to work when it’s sterno. recruiting agency. So if you are recruiting at a high pace, actually, the the, the payback is comes quicker than then you think, but it just, it just seems it doesn’t make sense. But if you look at the numbers, and actually it’s it adds up pretty quickly. So

Richard Joe 57:17
Oh, yeah. I mean, if you’re taking like, you know, but you but in Australia figures, maybe? I think I heard they take maybe 10 or 15% of a full year’s salary. Yeah, for an employee, which is quite high. So you have, you know, if you’re, if you’re, if you’re accelerating, if you’re acquiring, you know, more employees in a certain pace, it’s going to add up at the end of the day. Yeah, and yeah, so that’s, it’s a 10 points. Were at the bottom of the list pretty much. Now, it’s good. It’s, I’m, I found this really insightful. And would you have any final takeaways for our audience, but specifically, those who are thinking of setting up their own agency in the future?

John Ekman 58:05
Yeah, I don’t know if I would, if I try to extract everything from this. It’s like, yeah, like I said, is there so there was a lot of gut feeling of this, don’t be afraid to go with your instincts. Don’t be afraid to go against the convention and the norm of how you should be doing things. But then also, like if you just do that blindly, and then they don’t reflect because what I’m doing now is I’m reflecting on the things that I’ve done. So you try to extract like, I did this thing, I had no idea what I was doing, but now it seems like this is how it this is how it actually seemed to be working. Because now as I have kind of made these things explicit. Now we are talking about these things inside the company. And now it helps us on the next step is like because now these implicit things become explicit that then people can understand. Oh, yeah, okay. So that principle, okay, let’s, we’ll follow that, that that has helped us before this is going to help us in the future. So it’s kind of a two step approach, like first First, go with your instincts, then reflect, extract the the explicit things that you actually did and then and then keep building on that.

Richard Joe 59:11
Awesome. Well, thanks very much for being on the podcast, maybe in five years time. You’ve talked about the next in building your company even even bigger than it was before. So yeah, thanks for coming in podcast, John. Good to have you. And yeah, next time. It’s you’re out. Okay.

John Ekman 59:32
Okay. Bye.

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