Episode 2 – Nichola Stott

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Audio Transcript:

Chris Simmance (Host):

Hello, and thanks for coming along to And We Have An Office Dog: the digital agency podcast where we get to talk to different digital agency, owner, director, and learn about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’ve rather have known sooner, where they’ve had successes and where they’ve learned some lessons along the way, all will be revealed.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I’m your host, Chris Simmance, The Agency Coach, and I’ll be talking to a different awesome person in each episode, asking them four key questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. So let’s begin. In this episode, we’ve got the amazing Nichola Stott from Erudite. Hello Nichola.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Hi Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

How you doing?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I’m well, thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

Chris Simmance (Host):

No problem at all. For those of you who are listening, we’ve spent the last 20 minutes trying to get microphones sorted, so we are very happy to be talking in this podcast today. Nichola, you are the MD of Erudite. Tell us all about what Erudite does. Give yourself a plug just in case there are potential clients listening.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So we are a technical SEO agency. We are very strong in e-commerce. We work with national and global business consulting. We specialize in senior level business consulting, we get right to the heart of business direction. So we are, I guess, management consulting but make it SEO would be a way of describing us.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And that’s quite, within the world of SEO agencies focusing directly on technical is quite niche, isn’t it?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It certainly is. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I think being niche in some way or another is a superpower, I think, especially if you stick to it from an agency’s perspective. So we’ve got four questions here, Nichola, we’ll jump right in and we’ll see where we go. So the first question I want to ask and I ask all of the guests on the podcast is, what do you feel has been one of your biggest successes over the, was it, 12 years I think you’ve been running Erudite now?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

That’s right. Yeah. So one thing that we’ve always been pretty good at is having a real sixth sense in terms of what’s important, what to focus on, what Google might be looking at. And it’s something that we seem to really time really, really well with any of our R&D projects. And from as far back as implementing hreflang sitemaps, we were the first agency in the world to do that-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Really?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah, it created our-

Chris Simmance (Host):

You heard it here, everyone.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Created our hreflang sitemap tool because it was such a painful project to actually implement ahead of the curve on that. And then other projects, we created a UK-wide performance benchmark for the top 1,000 sites in the UK. We did some progressive web app stuff like five years ago, so we’ve always been a year or two ahead of whatever the drum to bang-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Before everyone’s tweeting about it, you mean?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Before it becomes the conference fodder of every conference talk pitch three years afterwards. So most recently we did, well a couple of years ago we focused on accessibility as UX criteria as a ranking factor. So yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So where do these visionary things come from? Be honest, is it just accidentally ahead of the curve or are there 50 different projects which don’t make the cut? Or are you genuinely, because you’ve got some smart people working for you, so how is it that that’s come about being a thing?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Honestly, I’d say having worked for a search engine, it’s just pretty obvious. It’s like having the R&D roadmap-

Chris Simmance (Host):

I forgot all about that. It was Yahoo, wasn’t it?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It was Yahoo. Yeah. I was there for five years. When I started, they had like 12% market share so it was actually a consideration, that was a good chunk of data for the UK. But obviously that was eroding very quickly. But it just gives you that insight, if there’s an algo update and the focus is X, then you know if I’m, well, the next one is going to be Y. It just naturally follows.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That makes a lot of sense. So nice bit of use there from previous experience. And I guess having those smart people that work with you has made it a hell of a lot easier, hasn’t it, to implement some of these ideas, I guess?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

100%.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. So I guess if you went back then to 2010 to talk to the younger, more spritely version of you, what would you say to her?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Get therapy.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I shouldn’t laugh at that, but it’s the way you said it. Sorry. I’m not laughing at having therapy, I think that every…

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. I’ll expand on that. I’ll explain for why. I think if you’re a founder, you’re probably one sort of type of personality anyway. You might be quite driven, you might have a lot of ideas, generally you’re open to a lot more risk and that sort of thing than somebody who might be absolutely perfectly happy to accept a salary and that is absolutely great.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

What I would say though is really defining what your business goal is, what you want it to do for you. What is the point of having this business? That really comes from having your own personal vision. And for me, I didn’t have that. I didn’t know myself well enough 12 years ago, and I didn’t have a crystallized personal vision. I knew what I didn’t like and I knew what I didn’t want and I knew I wanted to stay in search, but I didn’t have a real plan because I didn’t have that kind of core guiding me and I wish I did.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Okay. So therapy has helped you with that?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. I think if that is what is missing in terms of your guidance, in terms of your plan, I would 100% recommend that that’s… It’s that [inaudible] fit your own mask first in order to establish your company goals, in order to establish what your company vision is, it’s fitting a purpose for you. If you’re a sole founder or even if there’s just a couple of you, if it’s a bigger piece, if you’re seed funded, you’ve got investors and all the rest, that’s a different story, but if you’re founder operated, then that’s where I’m coming from.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think you’ve got something there. I especially say to quite a lot of agencies who try and, there’s quite a lot of agencies out there that look the same, don’t they? There’s quite a lot of agencies out there that just run their business and they churn lots of clients, they churn lots of staff, and they don’t necessarily give themselves or the industry a great name. And quite a lot of the time, if you’ve got a really well considered and concise understanding of what your own personal vision is, that’s not the hardest thing to change or turn into a professional vision, is it? That is something that you can connect a team to and everyone can pull together with a shared purpose. So, however you come to that conclusion is vital I think if you want to run an agency, especially for 12 years with incredible success.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah, that’s it really, isn’t it? I think it’s so much easier for people to get behind that when they can see that there is a shared common goal and then your culture and your values and everything like that trickles down from that without you having to really force anything. Things like that should start to happen naturally, but then as you grow, you’ll get more responsible and you’ll be able to employ people who might be culture officers, but if you’re a small team, that should happen almost by dissemination.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It should feel like that I think. It’s quite hard, and I’m sure that you do recognize this, that oftentimes when an agency owner starts their business, they’re just really good at a thing, aren’t they? And they’re an entrepreneur maybe, like you say, and getting to that conclusion that you need to create this culture and this culture should come from you as the leader is not always something that people grasp that straight away.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I’ll be honest-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I certainly didn’t either. I remember trying to go through a process of building a culture in the team and realized that it felt very forced and couldn’t work out why and I was doing everything I was supposed to do, or thought I was supposed to do. And it wasn’t until I knew what it was, then you’re right, and I think having that distilled in you and knowing exactly what you want makes it a hell of a lot easier, doesn’t it?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It does. It really does. Yeah. That intrinsic self confidence and self worth and that real purpose and direction, I didn’t really have that 100%. I knew what I liked and I loved the SEO and I love search. That bit was clear. The rest of it was happening.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. It kind of all happens around you quite quickly in an agency world. Do you find that knowing that more now helps with hiring, with firing, both staff and clients?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Oh yeah. Yeah. It really does. Yeah, it really does. I mean I think we’ve always had the confidence to say no when a project is not right for us. As a business, we’ve always been able to see that, or on occasion to let a relationship go if it wasn’t working. But yeah, I think it’s not finished. We’re still a work in progress.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah. It’s never perfect. You can strive for perfection, but it’s hard to achieve, isn’t it?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It is. Yeah. I don’t want to, to be honest, I’d want to be constantly evolving, because humans are, we are. We’re in the talent game, aren’t we?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So you know?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. So I guess other than having that really strong self-awareness in place, what would you have done differently, or maybe even just instilled sooner over the years? Or is there even maybe something that you learned the hard way, I guess, that set you up for this future success that you’ve been having?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So I would definitely get a business partner from day one. I would launch with a partner. I would find that person as part of my plan in creating that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay. That’s interesting.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Which again, didn’t have a business plan, it was very much an accidental agency. It was just me, ended up really quite successful, working 18 hours a day. So it span into something different. But with hindsight, if I’d have wanted to be an agency, had a plan to be an agency from day one, I would’ve found somebody that is not me. And I was actually thinking about this today. Wouldn’t it be great to start a business with a recruiter?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yes. Yeah.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So you’re growing an agency and they’re building the talent, and that’s the two sides of your personality types, the two sides of your skillset. So it’s like the beginning of your senior management team. And this is 12 years too late a realization, but I just-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, I think that’s especially-

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Don’t you think that would be a good thing to do?

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s especially ahead of the curve, more so now than ever I think with the jobs market in the digital marketing sector. I think it’s a bit of a strange time, isn’t it, if you’re looking to hire?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It is. It really is. Yeah. Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And alluding to a conversation we had earlier, it’s really hard to make sure that you’re finding the right people that aren’t just a on-paper replacement for someone or just to fill a gap. You need to make sure they fit culturally with the people you already have.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Because a little drop in a small calm pond can create such a big ripple. We’re a small team, small team, really, really great long-term relationships. Some of our clients have been with us for 10 years, really lovely long-term relationships, so we need to make sure we get the right personality matches.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Absolutely. And just to come back to the thing you’d have done sooner, in that you would’ve started with a business partner. Now, if I think back to just myself, I don’t play very well with others or I didn’t do at the time when I started [inaudible] a long while ago. Would you have listened to that advice, if you were to go back in time and give that to yourself, start with a partner? Would you have listened to it back then? Or is this a with the power of hindsight kind of thing?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I think I would. I think I would. Yeah. Not necessarily for the reasons that you might think, but I think because of areas of self doubt and understanding that I was good at certain things, but actually not having had any entrepreneurial, I’d always worked for large American companies. I’d worked for Yahoo. I’d worked for PR Newswire. I’d never worked for a really small scrappy org, so I didn’t have that experience at all. So I think it would’ve been something I would’ve been really, really very open to if I had known, if I’d have known how valuable it would’ve been.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And especially if it was a recruiter giving you that advice. “Hey, I’m a recruiter and I’ve got lots and lots of money. Do you want to start working with me?” You’d be the biggest agency in the UK right now.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Fastest growing.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Hoovering up all of the staff that come off the university production lines.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

No clients, but we are the fastest growing.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Massive piles of debt, but lots and lots of very happy people and culture. So, is there something that, other than having a bit of self-doubt and starting off on your own when you potentially would’ve chosen to work with someone else, has there been anything that you’ve learned the hard way where you’ve gone, “Jesus Christ, that is something I’m definitely not doing again?” Or, “Wow. If I’d known that sooner?” Is there something that you’re happy to talk about there?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Do you know what? There is. There is. Something that I wish I’d known prior to starting the business is, get a prenup. It’s just-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Truth bombs, guys. Truth bombs.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

… [crosstalk] advice. Anyone ever, don’t want this situation, but life happens and if you own a business, you start a business during the duration of a partnership or marriage, be aware that to the letter of the law, starting position is 50/50.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So what you’re saying is you did have a partner when you started Erudite?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I was married.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, I mean that is pretty good advice anyway. I think these days in general, I think that’s potentially good advice, especially if we move away from the humor of it all, it’s probably a good to have clear lines, as much as it’s unromantic, it’s probably a good thing for everyone.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So many people that I’ve spoken to, friends or industry friends who I know quite well, were completely surprised. So many people were surprised that even if your spouse or life partner, whatever, has no stake in the business, has never worked in the business at all, the legal starting position is 50/50 on the division of assets. So I’d strongly just recommend look into that, get legal and financial advice.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well I know what my next call’s going to be. Hopefully Vicky, you’re not listening to this.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

For those out there listening.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No, it’s sound advice. It is really, and I think that, I framed the question as something you’d learned the hard way, and I think that these sorts of things mean that the next time a decision around the business in terms of its equity or its value come along, then you’re going to look at that from a legal perspective just as well as you would do from an entrepreneurial business point of view, I guess.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah, of course. Of course. And I think sometimes there’s a lot of value from all of these peripheral pieces of advice when it comes to running an agency, owning a business. I could tell you about mistakes made here and there and whatever, that anybody else could tell you, but I’m trying to think about some of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn myself that I can tell you.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I mean every day as an agency owner, I think there’s something new, isn’t there? And the book never ends of little things that you’ll learn as you go.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah. For real.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And part and parcel of that is, it’s not a lesson unless you actually learned from it. If you keep doing it, then maybe you’re a bit thick.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Isn’t that the definition of insanity, or is that a cliche or a poster that’s been [crosstalk]?

Chris Simmance (Host):

That could be one of those memes where it’s a picture of Einstein with a quote from someone else with the name of something else. Yeah. It may well be from Einstein, but I feel like that’s something that’s not sciencey enough for him to have said.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I think you’re right. It’s been misrepresented over the years.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I’m pretty sure the definition of scientific process is to keep doing the same thing over and over again to keep proving it or proving it wrong.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Something like that.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Oh, I think falsification and deduction, [inaudible], the scientific method, isn’t it? That something is right in so far as it cannot be proven wrong.

Chris Simmance (Host):

There you go.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And then it got turned into a meme.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Like everything else, hopefully this doesn’t turn into a meme. So, other than prenup and starting up with a partner, what do you think could be one of the most powerful pieces of advice you might give to a future agency leader or someone who’s just starting their agency now?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

So this is something I wish I’d done a little sooner. I have a shared Board of Directors. So it’s an organization called TAB, The Alternative Board, and essentially you sit on a Board of Directors that are hand selected from within your region of non-competitive businesses. So there might be four to six, seven of you and you share a board effectively. So once a month, you’ll meet, you’ll talk about any particular issues, anything you’re struggling with, how to resolve something, ask for referrals or anything like that. So we’re each airing something that we’re struggling with or a challenge or a change or something like that. So, it’s a really cost-effective, nice way to have quite a large Board of Directors when you’re really quite a small business.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Those sorts of things are incredibly powerful for businesses, incredibly powerful because you’re learning from similar issues and mistakes and also supporting other people. It feels good as well as you get something out of it. And not to toot my own trumpet here and make this into a sales pitch guys, but this is actually something that is quite popular in the digital agency world as a mastermind style group. One of the things that I’ve been building of late Nichola, I’m sure if you’ve looked on Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook, I’m pretty much posting it everywhere, there’s a digital agency mastermind group which is running now in the metaverse.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So if you fancy sticking a brick on your face and talking to me in a group setting with peers who run agencies, but outside of your general sphere of competitiveness, then that’s a similar type of thing. And I think you’re right when you say that it’s a good thing for the business and a good bit of advice for someone to have, because with your TAB group, there’s things that will come up in your agency which will be slightly different but very, very relevant to someone else, and there’s a lot that you can learn from that, as well as the potential business referrals, I guess.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah. That’s definitely something that’s come secondary, but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, and actually I was going to ask you about your mastermind because that looks super interesting, and I would definitely be interested in checking that out. But it’s that sharing, it’s that learned experience, but for me, it’s the accountability, because you need someone to be your boss. If you’re ultimately the boss, you can’t just do that, you can’t freewheel and be [inaudible] about everything. You need to be accountable to somebody.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Exactly. I think that’s one of the key things that underpin any kind of mastermind style thing is that you come in with a problem or a position, everyone helps everyone out, but you don’t just walk away from that meeting with a nice list of things that you’re going to do. You’ve got people who help hold you to account. And with COVID it’s obviously been difficult to meet people in person, so a lot of that’s gone to Zoom and things which makes it a little bit harder. But any kind of accountability when, it’s very hard for the leader of an organization to hold themselves to account all by themselves, because it’s very much in our nature to procrastinate a bit, isn’t it?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So yeah, I think anyone who’s thinking of starting an agency for themselves, once you’ve got things running and you’ve got the work coming in and you’ve got things moving and you know that you’re going to have the future problems that Nichola and I have talked about, other people have talked about within the sector, I think that’s really good advice there, Nichola. And also, fantastic sales pitch for me. Brilliant.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It was just natural. It just naturally came up.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It just came [crosstalk]. This was totally not contrived. So if you were to say that there’s one thing that you have done at Erudite that has been one of the most powerful growth tools or ways of getting work in over the years that you’d either double down on now knowing it, or you’d spend a lot more effort on sooner, what’s really helped grow the business over the years?

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It’s always, always, always been referrals for us. And those referrals came from activity on Twitter. It’s honestly from really, really early days, apart from some personal referrals from people I’ve known from my Yahoo network, it’s been very much about the content that I’d created in the early days, things that I’d shared, conversations that I’d started or been involved in. Just that for me has always been the driver.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Well, if you consider from an everyman agency style where they offer every single digital agency service that there is going, it’s really hard to build your business just on referral, but I think when you’re doing excellent work in a niched area of digital marketing, and you are, as an agency, synonymous with great technical SEO. I knew of Erudite before I knew of you, put it that way. And that was going about eight or nine years ago though, however I think that being excellent at the things you’re excellent at will naturally drive that referral, won’t it? Because you’ll have happy clients. If you’ve got the right level of client, then they’ll move on to other companies and bring you in and things like that. And you fill your own sales funnel by just being excellent and honest to yourselves.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

I guess some referral is about the face, it’s about that person, isn’t it? And some of it is about the service. And if you’re one of those sort of, to use your words, an everyman agency, the referral then has to come from the face surely because if someone says, “Do you know anybody that can do this?” You’re not going to be front of mind for said this if you do everything.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Couldn’t agree more.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

It’s going to be about, “So I know that person is a good person and they can do…” Whereas I guess for us, if someone asks that question, then we do come up. It’s easier to remember that’s who they are, that’s what they do.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. If you do everything, you can’t be great at everything. The old adage of a jack of all trades, however you can be really good at all of those things if you are a large agency with lots of departments, but if you’re small to medium size, it’s always best, I personally think, to be really great at something that people will know you for. You’re spot on.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

That’s been my experience thus far.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Well that brings us to the end. Thank you very much for coming everybody and thanks for listening right to the end, guys. Thanks very much, Nichola, for gracing us with your presence. I know you’re very busy and you’re probably going to have to give your son back some headphones now.

Nichola Stott (Guest):

Thank you for having me. I enjoyed that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thank you very much. And we’ll be joined next time by another fantastic digital agency owner, whose name will remain a secret. So, thanks very much for listening and see you all soon.

 

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