© 2022

Sit Rep

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Four months today to be precise. A lot has been happening. And also not happening (a house full of COVID kids and other assorted excuses). So in the honourable spirit of #buildinpublic here’s a summary of my fevered thinking:

Agency Work / Ugli

This has been the bulk of what’s been going on.

We’ve had ongoing CRO and SEO work for https://shop.imi.com.hk which is going well (they’re in unrecognisably better shape now than in mid-2020 when we were hired).

We launched and are now managing a large suite of complex Drupal sites for English for Asia (such as http://hongkongtesol.com/) of which we’re rather proud.

We also have a couple of other large development projects on the books via Yellow Fish (a creative agency we work with a lot): an e-com site and an events platform.

This has been using a lot of our (my) intellectual bandwidth.

As mentioned previously, the activities associated with “old Ugli” (knocking out large Drupal websites / e-com stores for HK clients) is declining fast, hence my scramble for new areas of work, reasons being:

  • HK is under the cosh and few are investing in new businesses
  • Site builders, #nocode and DIY platforms are improving all the time
  • Personally, and as a team, our skills are stronger in marketing, strategy and development than they are in design

So to this end I’ve decided to de-prioritise https://ugli.hk (UGLI/HK: our main website since inception in 2010) and move portfolio work, client backlinks and non-HK-specific blog content over to https://ugli.site (UGLI/UK a new work-in-progress Webflow site recently created).

The value prop for UGLI/UK will be “Web development & associated services for creative agencies”. This plays to our strengths as a team, not to mention my personal preferences for strategy over design. UGLI/UK will offer agency clients: web and e-com dev (you make it pretty, we make it work), email, SEO, CRO, hosting and maintenance.

After getting the website to a respectable state, my next step here is to learn how cold email works, which is not something I’ve had to do before.

Productised Service / CRO Beast

My attempt to offer my CRO/marketing skills as a subscription service has had a very modest start. Via Twitter I have managed to sign up two ongoing subscription clients for “CRO Beast”, plus via Twitter and some very old friends I’m mid-negotiation for a one-off CRO and copywriting project for https://www.totalticketing.com/ **based in HK.

I have become very aware that it needs new name: “CRO” is a specialist term (and specialists are not my market) and “Beast” is a fun nickname but of no relevance or value.

The “offer” needs work also. I read Alex Hormozi’s $100M Offers (good summary here). A good offer needs the following elements:

  • Dream outcome (ie convert more of your visitors)
  • Perceived high likelihood of achievement
  • Perceived short time delay to success
  • Perceived low effort & sacrifice

Offers can be enhanced with

  • Perceived scarcity
  • Perceived urgency
  • Including bonuses
  • Offering guarantees
  • Good naming (ie. of the offer)

My challenge at the moment is finding a way of expressing the outcome in a universally appealing manner. I could say something like

Increase your CVR by x% within 3 months or your money back in full

And I could only take clients where I thought that was doable.

But… Not everyone thinks in terms of conversions / CVR.

I don’t know if this should be an ongoing service, a one-off, a cohort based course, or some mixture of the above.

Plus I’m very aware that the cro-beast.com site is way too jargony, too texty, rather stuffy. It needs to be friendlier, more focused on benefits, and perhaps use video of me explaining the deal (once I know what it is).

This item is frustrating me at the moment. I know I’m good at CRO, I have proof. I just need to know how to wrap it up to sell it. Once I get that part right, this it is going to go off.

SaaS Projects / Swimming App

This hasn’t moved forward since February but is still something I want to pursue. I spoke to Patrick (my partner on this project) today and am now extremely excited (again) to get this to an MVP stage. Next step is wireframes.

More of this coming soon…

So .. that’s where I am! Stay tuned.

Patrick Miley and the swim coaching app

“Every time a spreadsheet is sent by email, a SaaS idea is born.” ~ Ancient Chinese proverb

I have a surprise for you, dear reader. I have another SaaS project on the go.

Just before Christmas I was approached by Patrick Miley, who happens to be an Olympic swimming coach, who happens to be father of thrice-Olympic finalist Hannah Miley, and who happens to be good friends with my father-in-law. As I’ve always said, it’s not what you know, it’s what those whom those whom you know know… know.

Someone doing some actual swimming

As a high-performance trainer, Patrick spends his life poring over spreadsheets, analysing his students’ swim data, comparing their split times with those of past winners and calculating the optimal stages to focus on shaving a few vital milliseconds off their times.

Patrick showed me Excel sheets he had compiled, bringing together the split times of world record holders and Olympic gold winners so they could be compared to the relative split times of a student. He had even used #nocode product Openasapp to convert the spreadsheet calculations into a simple mobile app.

He has perfected the system over many years and likens it to the speedo or rev counter of a car – or more specifically he compares people trying to train swimmers without it to trying to optimise a car engine with no instrumentation.

Initially I thought I would ask Patrick to hire me under a typical client/contractor relationship to develop, promote and distribute a version of the above system, but in the light of how much I enjoy working with him, and in the context of my ongoing quest for a decent SaaS idea, I am happy to say we’ve agreed to approach this as a 50/50 joint venture.

Eventually the product will be used to regulate swimming live, by using existing wearable hardware (perhaps Apple Watch) to transmit metronomic “stroke rate” beeps directly to the swimmer. But for now, we have boiled it down to an MVP which (we hope) will be the simplest version of the product we can hawk for actual money:

  • Map the relative split times of the winner of a given event to a student’s given target time
  • Offer free use of the for a trial period e.g. one month
  • Accept credit card payments for ongoing subscription usage
  • Include a marketing website to promote the product

To give an idea of the potential market size, Swim England has 188,499 members across 1,045 clubs, with approximately similar numbers in Canada, USA, Australia and NZ before you’d even need to think about localisation (multi-language). The product could also discriminate between coaches/clubs and individual swimmers/parents to provide an affordable offering for individuals and a pricier version with more features for groups.

Over the course of a few late-night sessions over the last week I have managed to put together a working version. I chose to use Angular, to which I am relatively new, for its platform agnostic architecture. This will clearly need to go through a few more iterations first – it still needs various “nice-to-haves” like user authentication (!) - but theoretically we should be able to release an early-stage prototype in the coming weeks.

It has been a very long time since I have stayed up late coding – especially coding something for myself – and the process, the research, the self-teaching, and the act of creation has made me very happy indeed. I can’t wait to share the results!

New idea: the “CRO Beast” stumbles blinking into the sunlight

My current favourite idea – and this is not on the previous list – is a fully productised, done-for-you CRO service, sold on a subscription model, and marketed to look like a SaaS.

“Every website visitor that doesn’t convert is more money left on the table” ~me, just now

Conversion Rate Optimisation is fun. In recent years it’s been the part of running my agency that I have enjoyed the most. Like all the best projects, it has simple and achievable aims, and to meet them you need to be scientific, creative, technical, commercial and psychological.

So, the service: you would select a package and subscribe on the website; we onboard you (manually, at first) to discover your CRO goals, share our own ideas, and plan a series of experiments. You can then sit back while we run a series of tests to fine tune your website / lead gen page / app / online store / whatever for the best possible conversions.

Essentially you can relax in the knowledge that for entire time that you’re paying us, your website is going to steadily improve as time rolls on.

Pricing tiers

The tiers could be -

  • Basic (or whatever) – pricing will need to be calculated but I’m hoping we can get it down to like £50 a month – this gets you sequential improvements carried out on one URL (at a time), a monthly summary showing the URL’s conversion rate before and after any changes.
  • Medium ~£100/m – this would include more simultaneous improvements (e.g. an A/B test to trial new versions of home page copy AND a trialing a revamped contact form) and could include an ongoing customer survey project (ie. Hotjar or similar) to ask users & customers what they love, hate, yearn for (etc.)
  • “Full Beast Mode”, maybe £250/m, would include simultaneous improvements on multiple URLs, surveys, feedback, plus a nightly back massage from the founder plus whatever else I can throw at it. Unlimited website maintenance & hosting included anyone?

Client area (later)

Eventually (beyond the MVP stage) we could develop a simple client area where customers could log in and see a list of past tests, along with results and any changes measured in the conversion rate. It could also show the line up of planned future tests, and allow the customer to change the order and annotate the plans for our reference when we come to carry out the test.

I would honestly sign up for this service. It is endlessly depressing knowing that you are responsible for a website but are always too busy to work on making it perform better, and yet even (perhaps especially) as a web designer this has been my experience for as long as I’ve had a website.

It should be an easy sell: a low conversion rate clearly represents money left on the table, and I think people can be made to see it like that.

It plays to our existing strengths, I have a dev team in place already with the skills required to carry out these improvements, and we have a long list of SME clients (and almost-clients) every one of whom has responsibility for a website and ideas for improving it.

What’s more this would be quite a simple business to launch. It would really only need a fairly simple website, a blog (topics around CRO and answering the many questions people have), and a free CRO email course (to generate leads).

I’m excited about this one: it seems to be a way of “productising” the most fun element of what I already do, it’s aimed at people who are already my customers, and it would be delivered as an ongoing, repeatable service which would bring them ever closer to “beasting” their goals.

What’s not to love?!

Swimmingly not drowningly

“Startups don’t starve, they drown” ~ Eric Ries (probably)

The above quote, attributed to Eric Ries, touches on the idea that a founder is more likely to become overwhelmed with too many business ideas, and too much to do, than to run out of projects.

Indeed it has felt a little bit like drowning (not that I’ve ever drowned). I’m brimming with ideas for new business projects, finding it very hard to focus on advancing any single one of them, plus there is ongoing work for Ugli clients, the kids, and on top of it all I have had to do jury service this week. It’s been a mad old time.

Brian Casel talks about the shift from running an agency to offering a “productized service” and describes one of the biggest challenges as figuring out exactly what on earth to do:

“I had a thousand things that I knew I needed to do. But I had no idea which ones I should work on first, second, third, or tenth. For a while, I jumped haphazardly from project to project and I chased shiny objects.”

And believe me the struggle is real. Particularly regarding the transition from Ugli to whatever it is I’m going to do next: big projects (ie Ugli work) deliver money up-front, but I worry that if I spend time hustling for these then I’ll probably land one, and then be stuck with a time-consuming new client. Focusing on ramping up a SaaS business is definitely the dream longer term but it isn’t going to pay the bills any time soon. It’s a hard balance to find.

And the time I do allocate to my SaaS future needs to be divided it between

  • discussing and finessing the idea list
  • cold calling people to find out about their problems
  • writing this blog
  • researching new platforms and technology
  • reading a never-ending sea of articles and books about … SaaS, entrepreneurship, technology, marketing… you name it

Suffice it to say I’ve very quickly moved from a decade of deadline-based client work, and knowing exactly what I needed to do, into a world where I need to motivate myself to figure out what to do first.

I have no idea if I have ADHD or not (a friend told me he thought I did), but I definitely know better now how it feels to have ADHD than I did last year.

I need to remember my mantra: if I’m not validating problems, learning skills and/or building my audience then I’m wasting my time.

A Content Creation Company: good idea, bad idea, or idea which needs work?

Idea #7 on my list was to set up a company which produces writing for website owners. This is a project I’ve been discussing with my excellent friend Imogen Harris, to operate as a partnership.

Initial hypothesis

The idea sprang from the realisation that everyone with a website to promote needs “content” (I wonder if I’ll ever stop hating that word), and that everyone with a business to run struggles to find the time to create content. So – ran the assumptions – there is a market for this.

On the supply side – we continued to assume – there are probably lots of writers who would be available for the work, and at a price level which would enable a profit to be made. We know that in the UK very good writers can earn 20-30p / word, so presumably quite good ones are available for around 15-20p.

The model which first sprang to mind was a monthly subscription model, where we would supply our clients with a fixed number of blog entries or articles per month in return for an ongoing monthly fee. Alongside the writing itself, other complementary services could be offered to the same clients: strategy, SEO, marketing, website monitoring, reporting and so on.

In the interests of a) operating ethically and b) making it fun (and actually a=b) we would concentrate on the mid to top end of the market. Neither of us wants to be paying people peanuts to pump hastily-written listicles into an already over-burdened internet.

Market research

My first discovery was that this is a way larger industry than I had previously thought. As so often, following an exciting new idea comes the disappointing discovery that someone else got there first. This is definitely worth knowing but not by any means the end of the world. Being first is often a disadvantage: none of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google were the first to their markets, but there is such a thing as stiff competition with deep pockets. You don’t need (or even want) to be the first vendor to an empty market but you do want to have a testable theory as to why the market could sustain your business (aka growth hypothesis).

The suppliers we found seem to be split between, on the one hand, highly-niched operations e.g. Audience Ops who supply content marketing services specifically to SaaS businesses for a few hundred US$ per article (following a lengthy onboarding process), and on the other hand a glut of extremely cheap ‘content mills’ like Copify who quoted me £120 for 4 x 500w blog entries (a miserly 6p / word). What there is left of that after Copify have taken their cut one can only guess at; in fact according to this third party analysis, writers for Copify would struggle to earn £50 a day even working fairly long hours. This is absolutely not where we want to be.

But is there room in the middle of this market for a quality producer at comfortable prices? We don’t yet know. But one thing is certain, we’re not going to get anywhere competing on price at the bottom end.

How it would work?

So would do you persuade clients to pay prices which aren’t their lowest option? By convincing them that you offer a high quality product. And, as a new outfit with no (company) track record, how do you prove that? I think the only thing you can do is to position yourself as the go-to expert in a particular area.

The conclusion to which I am inexorably drawn, in this case, is that the only way to compete effectively in this market is to specialise in highly specific niche. It could be an industry niche (e.g. content for web designers, which is an industry we know well) or a functional niche (e.g. content for e-commerce businesses, which is a mechanic we know well). But saying “we are experts in content marketing” without saying “content marketing for what” is impossibly broad.

A clearly-defined niche not only makes it easier to convey your expertise, with, by definition, much less competition, but also, for the same reason, makes SEO and other marketing much easier.