UpBuild & COVID-19: Staying the Course in Uncertain Times

We’re living through a dark moment, unprecedented in our lifetimes. Each day brings a relentless flood of bad news: lives are lost, families and individuals are suffering, businesses are struggling and collapsing. Yet despite all of it, the days march on and we must find a way to live our lives and — if we’re fortunate enough to be able to do so — do our jobs. 

While keeping the metaphorical lights on is more than enough to keep me busy, it felt important to provide a transparent look at how UpBuild is navigating all this. So within this context, at this unique moment in history, what is UpBuild doing? 

UpBuild is existing. Hopefully that will count for something when this is all over. 

We’re staying our course in extremely uncertain times by doing our best to heed our mission and embody our shared values, taking it day by day and week by week and using our intensely geeky skillset to, hopefully, make our clients’ work lives just a little bit easier.

More than anything else, we’re leaning into the fact that we are a team, that we’ve had five years to practice distributed work, and that we’re (at least for the moment) in a privileged position to be able to support the people we care about. 

But we should talk about specifics. That’s why you’re reading this post. 

All Systems Operational 

We’ve been a fully distributed team since our inception and as such we’re in a uniquely fortunate position. Aside from attending the occasional in-person meeting and our team making a trip for our annual company retreat, UpBuild is the embodiment of social distancing: we work out of optimized home offices; Slack, Zoom, and email are our natural modes of communication; our clients are used to syncing with us virtually; our deliverables are created, maintained, and delivered in the cloud; our software tools and systems are accessible from anywhere in the world. So in that way, nothing about our day-to-day operations has changed.

And yet, everything has. 

How We’ve Been Impacted

The world feels like a fundamentally different place than the one we all worked and lived in at the start of 2020. A lot has changed for vast segments of the population so I’m grateful that not too much has changed for UpBuild and its team. We’re hanging in there.

Making a Tough Call Early On

However, one big shakeup was that we made the decision to cancel our plans for our annual company retreat and our company-wide attendance of SEMpdx’s Engage conference (which we’d also decided to sponsor). This was at the end of February / beginning of March and Washington state was just beginning to clock its first cases. What felt like a possible overreaction at the time ended up being 100% the right move in hindsight. On March 3rd, we finalized the decision to cancel all our team’s travel to Portland, OR for our team retreat and cancel our conference attendance for Engage. We also decided to make peace with the possibility of losing most of the value of purchasing a large (for us) sponsorship for the event. It was a difficult decision to make and cost us quite a bit in non-refundable flight and hotel bookings (remember, this was well before any significant action had been taken in the US, and spending company time haggling with airlines and hotel chains to salvage partial refunds and credits would have been a losing proposition with terrible ROI), but I have no regrets about it. It was the right thing to do for the health and safety of our team and it soon became clear just how bad the COVID-19 situation was. Furthermore, the event was officially rescheduled three days after we made the call to change our plans. 

Other than that change (which, I think, feels larger and more significant than it really was), we’ve been mostly business-as-usual. We’re still able to do great work for clients we’re proud to stand behind. Furthermore, my State of the Build address that kicks off each UpBuild Team Day simply transitioned to a Zoom meeting. It felt ironic that it took a rapidly escalating pandemic to force this fully-distributed company to have its first virtual State of the Build.

Our 7th State of the Build was, ironically, our 1st virtual one

Socially Distant; Interconnected

One huge takeaway from this historic pandemic is realizing how interconnected we all are. Just as we as people are inextricably linked to one another, no business can thrive if others (people and businesses) are not experiencing prosperity up and down the chain. UpBuild’s clients — by and large — were not directly impacted by the first month of the pandemic: few were related to the travel industry, none were brick-and-mortar businesses. 

But many are soon going to suffer at least some fallout due to the impact felt by those businesses hit by the first wave. It’s no shocking revelation that when small businesses suffer, they naturally cut expenses like software or, at the very least, refrain from filling out lead forms. Two, three, or even four degrees of connection away, that hesitance affects the success of the companies that UpBuild typically serves. When our clients (current or prospective ones) begin to see uncertainty and when they see lead volume fall or purchases decline, they’re going to start taking a hard look at their own expenditures. It’s only natural to look to an organization’s list of outside vendors first. 

So how much have we been impacted so far? Just a bit, but given that we’re further upstream from the hardest hit segments of the economy, I fully expect to see a bit of a time delay. So far we’ve had a client or two choose not to renew for a follow-on engagement after the end of an initial sprint together. We’re also having some transparent conversations with stakeholders at other companies to help them make informed decisions about how to modify their marketing spend. Aside those few not-entirely-abnormal hiccups, we’re in a good spot. We’re even kicking off with some newly-signed clients. 

What We’re Doing for Our Clients

First and foremost, we’re continuing to serve our clients to the very best of our ability. Just as we always have and as we always strive to do. We know for a certainty that we will lose every client at one point or another. Rather than letting that fact keep us up at night, we make a point to do our absolute best work for them one day, one week, and one month at a time so that when the time comes for us to part ways, we’ll all (on both sides) feel good about what we were able to accomplish together. 

But other than “doing the work”, what is UpBuild doing for the clients we serve? Well, now that remote work has become ubiquitous overnight, we’re suddenly acting as a resource in a way we didn’t anticipate: we’re providing lots of remote working guidance and strategy for marketing teams who haven’t had the advantage, as we have, of building a remote work culture over the course of five years. It’s been an honor and a gratifying experience to be able to share our expertise and experience in that arena in order to help our clients adapt. If you, dear reader, are curious to learn some of our top tips, Nick Bradman compiled a great blog post last week. 

Additionally, we’re brainstorming ways in which we can show our clients we’re thinking of them during these difficult times. Our clients should expect a nice surprise this week or the following. 

Sticking to an Investment Strategy

Anyone with even a single brokerage or investment account has doubtless received dozens (if not hundreds) of emails over the last five weeks advising that they not sell off their stocks or abandon their investment strategy out of fear. “Don’t fear a bear market”, they say; you’re in this for the long term and continuing with your predetermined strategy (presumably, one you established with a clearer head) and essentially doing nothing in the immediate future is likely the best action you could take to ensure a healthy ROI further down the road. 

“This is fine”

It’s a simple message and, I believe, sound advice — now is not the time to abandon your investment and take a big loss. The market will rebound eventually and you’ll likely be glad you stuck to your guns. 

And this is the exact advice I’m giving to clients. This is not the time to abandon an investment in SEO and marketing optimization. Optimization programs are long-term investments that need time to ramp up and bear fruit, but they also generate incredible ROI when maintained over time. Cutting costs right now has a certain allure and logic to it, but I’m doing my best to advise against shutting down an SEO campaign and letting six to twelve months of solid progress reset over the next two to three months of this pandemic.  

Don’t get me wrong, though. Many businesses (SMBs especially) will not survive this, and that’s a tragedy. Yet I’d wager that, if you’re someone who’s reading this, many players in your space will survive. Can you reasonably expect to be the last one standing when the smoke clears? If not and we all start moving toward “business as usual” by the summer, would you rather be the one who cut marketing and lost all your momentum, or would you rather be the one who doubled down and ended up miles ahead of the competition? If you’re in a position to continue investing in your marketing programs, now is the time to consider speeding when others are slowing down. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t look for efficiencies and ask hard questions about strategy (you should!), but if you had a product and marketing strategy you believed in before, this is not the time to cast that aside, hole up, and simply hope for the best. 

What We’re Doing for Our Team

While supporting our clients is a high priority, it’s never far from my mind that our team is priority number one. The reason for that is simple: our team is our product. If the team isn’t supported and they can’t perform, everyone loses — our clients most of all. 

Not pictured, Ila, who is also awesome.

So even though UpBuild as a company is inherently set up for social distancing, there’s one thing that we’re making a deliberate effort to acknowledge with our team on a daily basis: this is not normal. Just because we can work from home during a global pandemic doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do; it certainly is not. 

I’ve become fond of saying that we’re humans first and marketing consultants second (possibly even third, or fourth). I’m acutely aware that there’s a real emotional and psychological toll that comes as a result of all of the fear, uncertainty, bad news, and existential dread we’re faced with on a daily (even hourly) basis. While Focus is a core value for UpBuild, if we thought that we could simply state that as a value, move on, and expect 100% productivity from our team, we’d be kidding ourselves. As such, we’re doing our best to be kind with ourselves, ask for help and/or extra time when it’s needed, and lend each other support. 

One silver lining in not having a full client roster for the next few months is that we all have some extra bandwidth to pitch in and support each other. If a team member is having a tough time getting through a task, they need to take a mental health day, or they’ve suddenly found themselves running their own full-time daycare on top of their regular day job, there are other team members who can step in and provide a pressure release valve. 

Beyond that, we’re finding ways in which we can funnel profits back into supporting the team in ways that go above and beyond what we normally do: Establishing food delivery allowances, purchasing subscriptions to meditation and wellness apps, upgrading everyone on the team to a paid Zoom account and encouraging them to use it to stay in touch with loved ones, etc. We’re even matching donations to organizations that team members have nominated, like the Restaurant Workers Relief Fund.

UpBuild’s Core Strategy & Operating Theory

Our strategy for getting through these unprecedented times is refreshingly straight-forward. It’s the same strategy we’ve been following since the beginning. Current circumstances don’t change it much. It has been and will continue to be proving a theory I laid out years ago: that by investing in and looking out for amazing people, an agency can deliver better results, develop lasting client relationships, and build a stronger reputation than any other agency practice out there. 

We still believe that and we’ve already put a lot into trying to prove it. Now is not the time to take our foot off of the gas. It’s easy to claim a belief or point to a set of company values when times are good; not so much when times are tough. It’s the beliefs and values that endure a major trial that really mean something. We have faith that it’s been our values and beliefs that have allowed us to get this far. It’s my great hope that those are what will get us through this as well. 

At the end of the day, UpBuild solves technical marketing problems using SEO and analytics so that we can help in-house teams do their jobs exceptionally well. We’re focused on doing that — now more than ever — and the bet I’m placing is that by continuing to do that, we’ll be able to weather the storm and come out the other side. 

Moving Forward

As I write the final paragraphs of this post, some words of advice spring to mind. It was a mantra that Ruth imparted to me just before I went on parental leave for three months: “This is not forever.” 

They were words to remember throughout the “fresh 48” in which you suddenly find yourself with a newborn that…HOW DID THEY LET ME LEAVE THE HOSPITAL WITH THIS I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING. They were words to shelter in during those six weeks of never being able to eke out more than 70 minutes of sleep at a time. Those words seem appropriate here because they’re absolutely true. 

This. Is. Not. Forever. 

Sure, times are hard. There’s a constant threat in everyone’s awareness which we can neither flee nor fight against. The world feels like it’s on fire; it kind of is. People are suffering. People are literally dying by the hundreds, by the thousands. 

It’s awful. It’s not right. 

None of us should have to go through something like this. But we’re going through it just the same. We’re here and it’s hard. 

But this too shall pass. I think a lot about what life and business will be like on the other side of this pandemic. It’s impossible to predict anything with confidence, but by now we all know that hindsight is always 20/20. If there’s one thing that I’ve used to inform my decisions, it’s that simple fact. Hindsight is going to be 20/20 and as the future-me looks back at all of this in six months, in a year, or in 2030, I want to be able to say that I was proud of the decisions I made and the difference I attempted to make. 

I’ll leave you with this beautiful and poignant speech from one Samwise Gamgee (watch it below). It’s brought me a surprising amount of comfort these past few weeks and I hope that it can for some of you. 

Stay Safe and Happy Optimizing.

— Mike, Founder & CEO

Sam: It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Featured image at the top of this post courtesy of Zoe Arnesen.

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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