The word “digital” has picked up many different meanings over the years, but perhaps its most important implication is the power to streamline the way we work, communicate, and even develop hobbies. At least, that’s the meaning I have in mind when I say that, if you want to successfully run a business in 2015, almost nothing is more crucial than the way you incorporate digital capabilities into your existing infrastructure.
A “digital business” can grow faster today than was thought possible, even five years ago, with tech giants like Snapchat and Uber adding revenue and, to some extent, employees like they’re office supplies. But for those of us that aren’t sitting on a proverbial mountain of funding, one question arises each and every day: How do we scale our digital business?
As the COO of L&T Co., I’ve come to see it as a five-step process: figure out what you really do; set the standard of work as high as possible; incorporate the software and processes that allow you to carry out high-quality work as efficiently as possible; add core talent that’s committed to building something special; and finally, build out dedicated divisions of business that can act both independently and collaboratively while adhering to the tenets and values that got you to this point.
Let’s run through the details of each.
1) Figure Out What You Really Do
This might seem self-evident, but it’s actually a bit harder than it seems. You can say that you know what you want your business to accomplish on day one, but until you’ve spent a few months surveying the digital landscape, talking to potential clients, and actually doing some work for the few that will sign on in the early days, you’re not going to have any sense of what works best and why.
For example, before I joined L&T, our cofounders largely performed SEO odd jobs and developed content on an as-need basis. It wasn’t until our clients came back asking for daily publishing and complimenting our editorial standards that it became clear we should dedicate the business to running a series of digital publications for growing organic traffic and telling interesting stories every day on behalf of our clients.
Today, we run digital trade publications for 20+ companies across an incredible array of verticals and industries. But we wouldn’t have reached this point if we hadn’t first figured out what it was we were great at and why we could sell it consistently and profitably.
2) Set the Standard of Work
Everyone dreams of being the C-level executive in the corner office, sitting pretty in that leather chair and watching the work get done because you said so.
But unless you’re some hotshot developer who’s got the algorithm that’s going to change the way we order Chinese food, this is a straight-up pipe dream -- at least during the first several years of business.
The only way a digital business successfully scale is if the people at the top of the food chain work to constantly raise the stakes. When L&T experienced its first period of significant growth at the beginning of 2015 -- when our client base grew from four to nearly 20 -- I can assure you that our first move wasn’t to go out and hire a room full of new employees to do all the work. Our core team of myself, the CEO, and our Creative Director spent every day -- and every night -- writing, editing, and managing client expectations.
It was this dedication (my girlfriend might say maniacal obsession) to doing all the work right the first time that allowed us to keep our business the same size while securing our future from a financial standpoint.
3) Incorporate Time-Saving Processes and Software
L&T wouldn’t have reached the level of success we’ve achieved to date without the help of some digital friends: Trello, Slack, and Google Docs. I’ve yet to meet a business that’s achieved our level of transparency, organizational sophistication, or day-to-day efficiency in terms of the sheer amount of work we do, and that’s largely thanks to these tools and the way we’ve integrated them into our existing processes.
And to be completely truthful, we’ve actually let their capabilities dictate those processes at times, a testament to the obvious power of digital tools in building a digital business. How so? Let’s run through their impact on our transparency, organizational methods, and efficiency.
First off, by using these tools, everyone involved in a project or account has a window into the work being done 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Conversations on Slack can expand in a more dynamic and inclusive way than emails or Google chats ever could. And Trello cards track every step of the process, allowing clients to keep tabs on our daily publishing schedule, progress on long-term projects, and even billing cycles without ever picking up the phone or shooting off an email.
Secondly, no phone call, team meeting, or one-on-one conversation can communicate deliverable work, but a Trellocard that has all meeting notes, relevant documents, and ongoing communications absolutely can be. In short, the synthesis of hours or even days of work into a compact little square of business deliverables has been, to me, the most valuable outside addition to our business to date.
Finally, this combination of transparency and organization creates efficiency in a way that no one person ever could alone. The transparency afforded by all three platforms raises the level of accountability across our company to unprecedented heights, and the organization of all processes eliminates the possibility of forgotten work or idle hands. If you have a Trello column chock-full of deliverables on your desk, it’s pretty hard to check out for the afternoon.
4) Add the Core Talent
Of course, there comes a point when you can’t do it all yourself -- something that each of us who built the business ourselves had an admittedly hard time coming to grips with. After all, we’re all victims of the ridiculous sentiment that no one can do the job as well as us. By the same token, it’s not like just anyone could do the job as well as we did -- thus arises the need to hire smartly, with a highly trained eye on the way new talent will fit into your digital business.
Our current Community Manager still loves to poke fun at the job posting that eventually brought her here, as the process was admittedly a bit choppy. I had never created a job ad before, much less built up even an ounce of experience in HR, and yet we walked away from our last round of hiring with six dedicated, hungry, and incredibly competent young professionals who I believe will drive our company’s success in the years to come.
So how’d that happen? Pretty simple, actually. I identified the exact qualities I wanted in a new employee and committed significant time and resources to building out job descriptions that accurately portrayed the work each new hire would need to complete every single day. It sounds like a bit of a snooze, but the reality is that each new employee proved to me that they wanted to come to work for L&T and do the job better than we’d been doing to date. So far, they’ve lived up to their promises.
5) Build Out Divisions of Business
Okay, so now we’re sitting pretty, right? We’ve got a talented team of industry rockstars on the rise, a loyal base of clients, and a solid revenue stream.
Wrong. The honest truth is that we refused to establish ourselves as the next boutique marketing agency in a city that’s, frankly, overloaded with them. We want to be the best content company in the industry, and we’re only going to accomplish as much by breaking out of that familiar, self-fulfilling prophecy and scaling our digital business beyond the size of a boutique. What’s the first step towards accomplishing that task? Not to get all nerdy on you, but to borrow from Durkheim, it comes through the effective division of labor.
Tons of people find startups enticing because you can get your hands dirty with a little bit of everything in the business. That’s all well and good when you’re underfunded, overstocked with work, and simply desperate to survive a sales-free winter. But to truly scale a business, every single employee needs to arrive at the office every single morning and know exactly what they’re meant to accomplish that day -- and every day moving forward.
This comes through the clear differentiation of roles, as well as the broader segmentation of work into divisions. At L&T, we have a content team that works everyday with clients to develop killer blog posts, white papers, and influential thought pieces, among a range of other content types. And each one of them is dedicated to a defined set of clients, adding another level of accountability and personal incentive for success.
We also have a growing web production team, together responsible for monitoring and contributing to the live web. Their job starts when a piece of content is ready to hit the press, which means their dedicated tasks range from CMS uploads, to social media outreach, to success monitoring. Together, the team is responsible for the success of the work we do in terms of pageviews, click-throughs, and impressions -- a defined scope that allows them to focus on the micro and let us worry about the bigger picture.
Finally, we have our talent team, dedicated to bringing in and managing the best and most promising writers and journalists on whom our future success will be built.
It won’t stop there, as we’ll look to build out the business further from here. But one thing will hold true throughout our months and years ahead of growth: efficiency, organization, and quality of content rule the day...every day.