For episode #13 of How It’s Done, we spoke with Mel Carson of Delightful Communications.
Mel Carson is the founder and CEO of Delightful Communications, a Seattle-based marketing agency that aims at helping businesses and individuals become more discoverable. He has also launched a new service subsidiary called co-create work that helps companies better their culture and purpose their organizational design and employee experience. Mel is a former Microsoft digital marketing evangelist, and has around 20 years of experience in the industry.
1. What does your daily routine look like?
I have two small daughters age 7 and 4, and I’m very involved with my children. I have built this business around the principle called family first, and around flexible work styles.
I get up by 6.30 am and first thing is to put the coffee on and I’ll quickly check my email, by 7 a.m, to see if anything’s happened overnight over in Europe. We have a team in Europe that works on campaigns and digital marketing initiatives that we’re working on. So I’ll see if anyone needs anything. And then get the kids off to school. And then we have an office in downtown Seattle, so I’ll be down there by 8:30-9:00 a.m.
And then my day is about dealing with some meetings. I’m still very involved in a lot of the client that we do. So I work with a team of seven other people in Seattle on different campaigns. So the day will be meetings and lots of emails and responses and business development and things like that.
And then I’ll normally finish up around 3:00-3:30 and then get back home to spend some time with my children. And after that they’re in bed in the evening about seven o’clock. That’s when I’ll get back on the computer, answering emails and doing any business admin kind of things. Probably 20% of my time is spent traveling going to conferences and events. We do a lot of event amplification through digital, social media, video, etc.
2. What made you start your agency? Tell us about your journey.
I was working at Microsoft in 2012 as their digital marketing evangelist and I got laid off, with 5000 other people across the business. It wasn’t anything personal, it wasn’t based on performance or anything, it was just that they needed to save some money. And I thought well, what am I going to do? Am I going to go and work for somebody else? Or maybe this is my chance to do something myself. And so 6 years ago I had the idea of building a business around the big gaps and opportunities that I saw in the marketing space. The first one being social media strategy. Nobody really had a strategy, they all had a Twitter and Facebook page and that was it. No real strategy!
The second one was around personal branding. So, you know, there’s been a big resurgence in helping executives and individuals use their personal brands to augment what their company is doing. And so we work not just with companies but also with businesses and individuals to help them get their story straight and be more involved, with telling the story from their own perspective and bringing in their own experience. With personal branding, we’re helping them with the value in their experience and you know at the end of the day people tend to buy from people and so especially in the B2B space that’s been very useful.
And then the other service was Digital PR; I’d spent a lot of time with traditional PR agencies who didn’t get digital, SEO, social media and influencer marketing.
A couple of years ago, it was just me and one other person and we decided to go all or nothing on trying to grow the company. We’ve just been tremendously successful by just having a positive attitude and working with clients and being very creative with some of the campaigns that we’ve worked on. Recently in the last year or two, we’ve won two Content Marketing Institute Awards. One for the Majestic in space campaign, which is where we 3D printed a 3D visualization of the internet on the International Space Station; and then more recently this Microsoft IoT in Action global event series where we won another award.
3. How did you get your first client?
Our first client was a company called Majestic.com, they are an SEO tool. I happened to know their marketing director who, when he found out that I was not going to be at Microsoft, immediately called me up and said I would like you to come and work with them as an ambassador. So basically I was an ambassador for Majestic and actually an influencer and then would do influencer work for Majestic around the world.
The other ironic thing was also within two weeks of starting the company Microsoft was back asking me to help them now. They’re pretty much our biggest client.
4. What is the biggest problem that you have faced as an agency owner? How did you overcome it?
That’s a good question. I think the biggest hurdle has generally been navigating the business processes in the U.S., understanding how to set a business up, you know, taxes and payroll and all that kind of thing, you know, kind of business administration. It’s not easy in the US as I’m from the UK. So just the logistics has been a hurdle.
I guess the other thing has been, firstly, having the confidence to actually grow the team, and trust that if you put the right team in place that the business will grow right and you’ll still be able to maintain the quality of the work. So we did a lot of work on our company culture and company principles and values, to really ensure that we were set up for success from an organizational point of view. From job descriptions, selecting employees for interviews, the interview process and then the employee onboarding experience. As soon as we changed that we found that we were attracting exactly the right kind of candidates, experience, that they would have and feel truly a part of the company and not just becoming a ‘small cog in a big wheel’.
So I would say it’s kind of the business logistics side of things and then what we did on the whole company culture. To really push ourselves to be better at attracting the right kind of talent and retaining them.
5. If you could go back to the past and tell one thing to yourself when you started your agency, what would it be?
Yeah, I think that there are two things, one is – take your time. I think that there is so much pressure on startup founders, new CEOs starting a company to be instantly successful, and be this big unicorn that suddenly everything kind of takes off. I think that you know if you take your time and grow a business, and if you’re new to it, you will take time to figure out. I think too many people can be blinded by vanity metrics – how many employees do you have? What’s your top line revenue; and in an agency, you can have a revenue of 5 million dollars, but you might actually be spending four and a half of that on Facebook ads for your clients. So it does actually disguise the true number, which is profitability.
So I would say slow down, take your time to really build a business from the ground up, make sure that you are very cognizant of your “why”. What is the reason for building the business? What is the purpose? Making sure that you’re building the right kind of company culture in order to build a business sustainably.
The other thing that I would do is you know, think about your legacy. What is beyond a paycheck, beyond having to put the kids through school or beyond the need to earn enough money for benefits or something like that in the U.S. and all that crazy stuff. Think about what is going to be the impact on the world? When you are retired, when you look back on your career, did you make the most of it? Did you take all the risks that you should have taken? Did you play it safe? Could you have done any better?
It’s kind of what happened to me when I started the business people were saying to me “Oh don’t grow it! It’s a nightmare you have to deal with you know, employees and millennials, they all need nursemaiding and the regulations and the taxes you might as well just be a consultant not even start a company”.
And it took me a few years to realize that maybe these people have been burnt because they’ve done it the wrong way. Maybe they hadn’t set up their company culture right. Maybe they hadn’t grown the business in the right way. Maybe they had tried to grow too fast and then failed and had to lay off people and that left them with a bad taste in their mouth. I just thought after a couple of years, why did I listen to these people? Maybe I should be trying to do this the right way, and so those really are the two things – is one is really thinking about taking your time. But the other thing is to think about you know, what you’re growing in the legacy and make sure you don’t have any regrets at the end of it.
6. How did you hire your first employee?
So my first employee was a lady called Bianca, who is still with us like four years later. I put an ad on Husky Jobs, which is the University of Washington’s website for students. She had a very impressive resume, so I called her for an interview. When I looked at the resume, I could see that she was at Columbia University, and I said well, hang on a minute you’re in New York then why are you interviewing for this job in Seattle? And she said I’m moving to Seattle because my husband has a job at Amazon.
I asked how did you find out about the job, and she said, “I have a friend at the University of Washington and I borrowed her log in to the account,” and I thought wow that was creative and determined. So I pretty much hired her on the spot, because I thought she’s got an amazing track record of education and some of her experience, and also I just love how creatively she had found out about the job with Delightful.
And she’s been an incredible asset to the company and to me and to my family for 4 years. And so we’re very glad to still have her on board and she keeps growing and learning and getting promoted and taking on more responsibility and she’s a fabulous asset.
7. What do you look for when acquiring talent for your agency?
We look for people who embody our principles. But most importantly for people who are curious and creative about the digital industry, marketing industry, the personal branding side of things. People don’t necessarily have to have the slam dunk resume or experience, because I actually prefer to teach and train people in the Delightful way of doing things, which appears to be quite different from other agencies and companies.
So we have a certain way of doing things, but people definitely have to match up to our principles around – being very people-focused, always learning, family first, these kinds of things. Because at the end of the day we want to create an environment where the people don’t feel that there’s a wall between home and work; they should feel as much at home in the office as they do at home. They should be enthusiastic and look forward to work, as I’ve said beyond the paycheck and the benefits and all that kind of things.
So it’s very much about finding people who match our kind of values or principles, but that doesn’t mean that we hire people that are just the same as us that’s very important. We need to make sure that our team is is very diverse and we’ve done that very successfully if you look at our website.
8. How do you manage things like customer churn and employee retention?
On client churn and everything, we have lost very few clients, simply because of the great work that we do. We will always find something that we can be doing for them; very often we’ll start small but will prove the pudding of what we can do. But we’re very open to saying yes and being flexible and coming up with creative ideas that our clients love.
Sometimes if we’re doing some business development and I get the impression that a client is going to be way harder work than we can deal with, or that they’re not a client that we necessarily think that we could learn something from and that we think would be a good fun experience to work with, then we probably won’t see it too far. I don’t want our team to get bored and I want to feel that they are energized and really engaged.
When it comes to employee churn, we’ve had a few people leave to go to different jobs, but that’s fine if they feel that they’ve grown out of their role. In our company, we’re very happy and grateful that we had the opportunity to help them learn and grow and the rest of it. But I’m very happy with our employee retention, simply because we make it a big point about the company culture and making sure that we are creating an environment that’s engaging, where people feel that they are learning and growing. And that’s good fun to be.
9. What are the tools that your agency uses on a day-to-day basis?
Office365, OneDrive, Dropbox, Skype, etc. For digital marketing, we use Buffer.com, Buzzsumo, and Sysomos, which is a social media listening tool. For content creation things like Canva.
And we’re always interested in trying out new ones as well.
10. How did you help your agency scale?
So we went from 2 people to 9 people and then 15 people on the payroll very quickly, because – we said we started saying yes to work instead of worrying that we weren’t going to be able to deal with it. So it was a little bit painful with a lot of that onboarding. But the other thing that we did was make sure that we put proper processes around the culture and principles in the interviewing and the onboarding and stuff like that. This meant that we were able to accelerate how quickly we could find, interview and take on new employees and make sure that their employee experience was rapid, their onboarding was rapid, and that they knew that they were going to hit the ground running quickly and that they need to be up to speed. So it was a little bit of a hump to get over but it worked.
11. You’ve gotten so many speaking opps in the past – how do you prepare for them, generally?
I do a lot of research into the audience and tailor my deck and talking points to make sure my talk is as relevant as possible. Also, we use an acronym at Delightful – AURA – where we make sure content we share is Authentic, Useful, Relevant, and Actionable. I have seen too many talks where the content exudes the “so what?” factor. Not on my watch!
12. Top 5 marketing books that have helped you get where you are now?
Less about books and more about communities I have learned from – conferences like Pubcon, SMX, the Digital Summits – I learn best from people F2F and not books – although I have written two myself! If I had to choose some authors though, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, Lee Odden and Alan Weise (really helped with me setting up Delightful).
13. Something on a lighter note – top 5 songs from your work playlist?
I have to listen to classical/jazz music otherwise I start typing the words. So Dave Brubeck and Mozart for me!!
That’s it for #13 of How It’s Done!
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