“Wow. This thing is really working.”
This is an exact thought that went through my head at the beginning of this week. Yesterday was a new team member’s first day (Hi, Nick!) and, as such, there was a lot going on. On top of that, we also were kicking off a new client (Thanks for going with us, Jenni and Helen!). On top of that, we ran into a big issue with a keyword research project for a current client that had to be dealt with before EOD. Oh, and it was a Monday, so there’s that, too.
My point is that there was a lot in motion and, in the startup agency game, that’s typically when things start to break down and fall apart. The great thing is…nothing did.
All of this was particularly fitting for the eve of UpBuild’s three-year anniversary — despite it being one of the most active days in recent memory, everything worked. Sure, there was stress and, yeah, no one got to Inbox Zero that day, but when we all logged off in the evening everything was stable and humming along nicely. The team could rest easy and know that we’d have tomorrow to sort the rest of it out.
To me, that’s a huge deal.
We’re Three Years Old Now
Today is UpBuild’s three-year anniversary! It feels unreal to write that statement here (even though I’ve been watching the date approach on my calendar for weeks, marveling at how far we’ve come). Especially in light of yesterday’s activity, it’s really starting to feel like this experiment is working. And working exceptionally well.
This thing that we’ve built here is real.
Well, as real as ten geeks typing instant messages to each other all day and trying to make websites perform better can be. 😉 My high school guidance counselor could never have guessed this could ever be a viable career option.
Where We Are
The fact that we’re still in businesses today means that we’ve successfully made it through three whole years. 53% of services businesses (and 50% of all small businesses)* don’t make it past five years, so two to go! To date, we’ve been able to get/keep clients, deliver the work, keep everyone happy, pay our taxes, and not get sued out of existence. Excelsior!
* according to US Census data
I could write about everything we’ve accomplished this year at length, but that would make for an extremely long blog post. So in lieu of that, I’ve pulled out a few highlights, facts, metrics, and events that pertain to our third year in business.
- We grew the team to 10 people (though #10 won’t start until next month). We’re in the double digits now.
- The team still votes on every prospective client before working on proposals.
- We were named TINYpulse’s “Happiest Company of 2017” in Marketing.
- We recently had our sixth UpBuild Team Day in Austin, TX. As usual, it was the “best team day ever®.”
- We’re on track to exceed 1MM in revenue in 2018. For all intents and purposes, it’s an arbitrary milestone, but it feels like a big deal.
- We rolled out a 401k program with a great match, plus other exciting new perks and benefits.
- We hired an Operations Manager, our first 100% non-billable team member. Ryan is amazing and has been an awesome addition to the team.
2018 has been an amazing year so far. As we kick off the year’s fifth month, our challenge will be to keep up everything we’re doing and see if we can do what we do it better. I’m excited to keep working on it.
Where We Started
There’s a lot more detail on early UpBuild in the two-year anniversary post, so I’ll skip rehashing the UpBuild origin story for now and just leave a few bullets that blow my mind a little.
- I started calling this “UpBuild” immediately, even when it was just me doing independent consulting. It may sound trivial but I think using the name (as well as “we”) right from the beginning is a big part of how we’ve been able to scale rather than being limited by how much work I could take on personally.
- My initial plan was to try getting three clients (at ~40 hours per month) and see if I could survive for three months. I decided that if I was missing mortgage payments after that point, I could go out and try to land a more stable job elsewhere.
- Almost immediately, I had more business than I knew what to do with. I was not prepared for that problem, but I managed to figure it out. 😉
- While it felt like I spent ages on my own, I now realize that I brought on UpBuild’s first team member after a whopping 13 days. I think the reason that time felt so slow back then was that spending all day having no idea whether or not I’d be able to pay my bills, or even if I had what it took to run my own business, slowed time.
- In 2015, I (somehow) convinced no less than three people to quit their jobs and be early team members (technically independent contractors with no guaranteed salary, W2s, or formal benefits). That was a huge leap of faith and something I’m still grateful for every day.
The Path From Then and Now
Three years is a fairly long time. On the internet or in the startup world, it’s ages!
Since those early days, we’ve had some incredible people join the team, some great luck and serendipity, and the opportunity to partner with some amazing clients. We’ve all learned so much and each one of us has been able to spend our time here doing work we could be proud of.
It’s also my sincere hope that our team members feel that we’re doing something important — I would like to think that we’re blazing a new trail; that we’re redefining how a marketing agency can not only survive, but thrive.
It’s been an unbelievable story so far. We’ve created something literally out of nothing. UpBuild started at zero. No capital, no bank account, no clients, no offices. And now, look how far we’ve come.
Where Do We Go From Here?
What’s next? We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re going to continue to build out this framework, where people who love technical marketing can make a living by doing good work for clients they’re proud to partner with, in conditions that don’t suck.
UpBuild is about building something sustainable. Team members and clients can come in and out over the years and that’s okay; if you don’t need what UpBuild has, you don’t need to hang around. We won’t be offended. But when someone needs what we offer, i.e., high-powered technical marketing, I want UpBuild to be the only logical choice (that goes for whether you’re a prospective client or a marketer looking for a workplace).
If you don’t have time to read these posts every year, that’s okay. Come back and read our post in 2030. We’ll still be here. 🙂
What I’ve Learned Along the Way
The end of this post is in sight, so I figured I’d wrap up with some lessons I’ve learned and insights I’ve had along the way.
You Don’t Need an Office
You really don’t. Think about how funny it is that people get together inside of high-priced office buildings with fishbowl conference rooms in an effort to build things for the web. That’s ridiculously counter-intuitive, right? I don’t blame anyone for doing that, of course. I’d been conditioned my whole professional life (and even before I became a professional) that “real businesses” had offices.
I’m happy to say that three years in, this 100% remote and distributed company runs more smoothly and productively than any company I’ve ever been a part of. You can learn more about how we make a remote team work if you’re so inclined.
Betterment is the Way
When I founded UpBuild, I wrote out our core values on my office whiteboard and spent days staring at them. I decided on the final version and put them in writing before I brought on team member number one. That’s why I refer to us as a culture-first company. Defining the culture came before almost everything else.
One of the core values that form the basis of our company culture is Betterment. It’s the idea that we should strive to take actions and make decisions that will make life better for someone. Whether that’s making someone’s life better in some grand way (empowering a Director of Marketing to hit their yearly lead gen goal and snag a promotion comes to mind) or just making a day, hour, or minute better for a searcher who found what they needed because we optimized the right page.
Betterment, I think, is at the core of our success. Through keeping Betterment in mind, we’ve made a lot of days better, offered a lot of value, and solved a lot of problems. Sometimes in exchange for payment and frequently in exchange for nothing at all.
Side note: My only guiding principle when working with leads who get in touch with us is “provide value”. It doesn’t matter if they end up signing with us; we should, and can, find a way to help them out.
Every client we’ve ever had has come to us as a referral or due to prior experiences with the team. We still have most of our first-year clients, and we have stakeholders who have taken us with them through two or three job changes. That doesn’t happen with people whose days and lives you make worse.
Over the course of three years, UpBuild’s client discovery team has never sent an outreach email. I like to think Betterment is the reason.
A Shy Introvert Can Be a CEO
I’ll go on the record saying that I’m going to write a blog post about this (if you’d want to read that, please let me know in the comments). It seems silly in retrospect, but all of my professional experiences taught me that, to be a CEO, you had to have an energetic, take no prisoners personality. So many of the bosses I’d had throughout my career had a firm hand in their companies, were outspoken (to a fault), and were very much Type A.
When I first started on this journey, I’d often (multiple times a day) think that I clearly didn’t have what it took. I figured I’d just try anyway, though. What gave me reassurance? I had a history professor who once said, “Mistrust anyone who goes out of their way to say they want to be a leader; they’re the last person who should be given power over others”. Maybe this could be a good thing then.
Well, I’m happy to report that an incredibly shy introvert can still be a CEO. I think my team would tell you I’m a pretty good one, too! That’s wild. I’m really starting to feel like I’m getting a handle on this job, though it’s not all smooth sailing. I still suffer from occasional imposter syndrome and I still get incredibly nervous before every phone call and conference. I’m still not 100% sure that I want to be CEO, but it’s important to me to do the job until I get really good at it and to continue to defend the integrity of the UpBuild framework.
Focused On My Investors
I have no plans to seek an acquisition (we’ve had a few people kick the tires) or take on investment (not that anyone’s lining up to fund an SEO agency). Doing either of those things would mean that I’d need to turn my focus to buyers (future ones) or investors (current ones). I’d be accountable to them and the numbers they cared about first and my team second. That’s not how I roll and I already have investors.
UpBuild’s investors are all the people and organizations who give something up so that we can succeed. I mean the team and our clients.
The team here doesn’t invest money in the company, but they’re investing huge chunks of their lives in UpBuild by staying here. Sure, I pay them well and provide the best benefits that I think UpBuild can feasibly provide, but still, giving years of your life to a company is a big freaking deal. It’s not something I take lightly. In my mind, every day that an UpBuild team member spends working here is them investing in this company, this idea. They’re here because they have a vested interest in seeing this thing become greater than the sum of its parts and become more valuable than the cash in its bank account. My first focus as CEO is to do right by them.
The second class of investor: our clients (see, “The Team is Everything” for why clients aren’t first). Unlike team members, they actually do give UpBuild money so that we can succeed. But their “investment” empowers us to do so much more than just do the work that we’ve been contracted to do for them. Their investment empowers us to learn, to grow, to make mistakes, to get satisfaction from our jobs, and to become a more valuable product through our individual and collective evolution.
Even if they’re not saying this outright or even thinking it to themselves, what I hear in my head every time a client signs a proposal is, “I believe in what you and your team are doing. I’d like to offer my support so that you can continue doing what you’re doing 1) because it’s great and 2) there’s a fantastic chance that I’ll benefit as a result”. No one’s ever actually said that to me, but that’s how I like to think of it.
The Team is Everything
Yep. Clients are not first; the team is. No apologies.
More often than not, I think of us as a product company. Our product is the team. It’s what clients pay to have access to and it’s my solemn duty as CEO to do everything in my power to improve and protect it. I think that it’s this obsessive focus on — and unwavering prioritization of — the team is the reason that we’ve been able to succeed as a company. If there’s one thing I’ve done right as UpBuild’s CEO, I think it’s that.
So, I can say without any exaggeration that UpBuild’s success to date is an achievement that belongs to the team. These days, I literally don’t do any of the work that clients pay us for! Sure, I do other things that are arguably pretty dang important but the team is what makes this work.
In that spirit, I want to share an answer that I gave to some conference organizers from a speaking gig I did last year. They wanted to know “who would be on your online marketing dream team?”. They never used my answer (they had 8 other Q&A responses to choose from) but I think that maybe I was supposed to say something like, “Aaron Wall, Rand Fishkin, and Matt Cutts”. I just couldn’t. Since my answer has never seen the light of day, I wanted to share it here.
“I’m going to assume that I myself am on this dream team, so my primary concern would be making sure that the folks on my team were aligned with how and why we were doing what we were doing. It’s easy to get on the same page regarding the objective, the approach, and the other specifics but what guides a group of people while they’re doing those things is the real secret sauce that differentiates ‘great’ from just ‘good’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying by any means that a team should all agree with each other all the time; just that they should be aligned in terms of what they believe and how they want to move toward an objective together. They can and should have differing viewpoints, be able to offer constructive criticism, but also support and respect each other throughout it all.”
“There are plenty of people who I know of — either people I’ve read about, seen their work online, or have seen speak at a conference — that seem to have great outputs and admirable qualities, but it’s impossible to say whether or not I’d want to be on a team with them. My dream team is the one that I’ve chosen to build and be a part of. People with whom I’ve worked to know on a level deeper than what their public persona conveys. People who have not just an interesting track record, but people who have a compelling story and motivations behind the track record. So at the end of the day, the people I’d want on my dream team are the people who are already on it at UpBuild.”
Epilogue: Life is Good
This is more of a personal note, so I’m putting it at the end of the post rather than in the primarily business-oriented body.
Life is good.
When I founded UpBuild, it wasn’t because I wanted to. I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. The real and selfish reason that I founded this company was that, through long hours of self-reflection, I realized that there were a specific set of conditions in which I could have a happy work life.
- I had to be able to do work that challenged me and that got results. Good or bad.
- I had to have control over my location.
- I had to be able to earn a salary that would allow me to take care of my material needs (supporting a family, having a house, etc.).
- My job had to leave time for me to enjoy, work on, and tend to my life outside of work and provide flexibility.
- I had to be able to do this at a company that I aligned with philosophically, ethically, etc.
Had I found a workplace where I could have done even two or three of these things — not to mention all five — I probably wouldn’t be writing this post; I’d be working at someone else’s company and would be fairly happy and relatively professionally fulfilled. But, because of what I created, what my team helped me create, I’m living what I can say is the happiest version of my life that I can possibly imagine. My wife and I live in our dream house in Portland, Oregon and I feel like I have way more balance and am way more personally fulfilled than I ever was while working for any other company I’ve ever worked for. And I helm a company that, I sincerely hope, is a part of empowering others to live their best possible lives
Sure, there is stress and anxiety in my life because of what I’ve chosen to do for a living. There are absolutely afternoons where I think “what the everloving f&*^ am I doing? Where’s the eject button?”. But I’ve learned that those moments pass. Some more quickly than others, but invariably all the hard times pass away. I know it will never be entirely smooth sailing and I’ve accepted that I’ll never really feel like I know what I’m doing, but that’s just something to make peace with.
Is UpBuild going to make me a millionaire? Probably not. Is TechCrunch ever going to write about my company’s valuation? LOL, nope. Is the company ever going to be acquired? UpBuild’s 15-year plan spells that out as a failure scenario.
Are aspects of all that alluring? Sure, I’ll admit that they are, sometimes. But this thing that’s being built is about stability. It’s about living the life you want and, to the extent that one has to trade days for dollars, being able to do work that you’re proud of with people you like for causes and business you feel good about. For me, that’s living the dream.
Huge thanks from the bottom of my heart to everyone on the UpBuild team [past, present, and future], to all of our clients [same deal], and to everyone who’s been following our journey and supporting us. To the extent that I can try to name names without forgetting people, I’d like to thank:
- Tyler, Laura, Will, Ruth, Alex, James, Michelle, Ashley, Ryan, Nick, and Ila from UpBuild team.
- Significant others. Especially my wife for hanging in there while I figured this all out, and to everyone else’s SO who was cool with your partner or spouse saying, “Hey, I’m quitting my job to join Mike Arnesen’s crazy company”.
- Every person and organization who’s ever sent a dime payable to UpBuild in exchange for letting us try to help with our applied geekery.
- All the companies who got the email letting them know that they didn’t pass the team vote and were understanding and cool about it. Thank you for not taking it personally.
- Sarah (also, our first bookkeeper), Summer, Tore from Subtext.
- Tom Arnesen (my dad and our CPA), Jennifer Rodriguez (our bookkeeper), and David Wray (our lawyer).
- Alon and Yarone Goren for helping push me toward entrepreneurship.
- John Doherty, Kirk Williams, Damon Gochneaur, and the rest of the CredoCamp crew.
- Rand Fishkin, for reasons.
- Every organization who’s invited one of us to speak at your event, be on your podcast, or contribute to your blog. Moz, SEMpdx, DFWSEM, MNSearch, Distilled, and Confluence spring to mind.
- And, last but not least, all my former bosses (and even corporate overlords) who taught me by example either A) how to build a great workplace or X) how to run a workplace into the ground. I’m serious. Without every one of my past experiences, good and bad, UpBuild would not be what it is today.
And thank you for reading this and following the UpBuild journey. Until next time, happy optimizing.