Tackling Make-or-Break Startup Decisions: Inside the Founder’s Corner with Distilled’s Will Critchlow

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Will Critchlow Founders Corner | OpenView Blog

In this week’s edition of the Founder’s Corner, Will Critchlow, co-founder and CEO of Distilled — one of the world’s most respected search and online marketing agencies — shares his thoughts on why he created the company when he did, which mistakes he’d correct if given the chance, how SEO will continue to evolve, and more.

Like most businesses, London-based creative marketing agency Distilled didn’t exactly begin as an industry powerhouse. In fact, when Will Critchlow and Duncan Morris founded the search and online marketing agency in 2005, the high school friends did so from a spare room in Morris’ London apartment – a not-so-glamorous setting that seemed to fit the founders’ lifestyle at the time.

“We were 25-years-old, unmarried, didn’t have any kids, didn’t have a mortgage, and didn’t care much about when or where we worked,” Critchlow says. “We just knew that we wanted to build a business, and we felt like we were on to something big.”

Originally, Distilled was built around helping companies navigate the often painful and difficult process of creating a website. But as search engine optimization began to take center stage in 2006 and 2007, the co-founders decided to make a change, pivoting the company toward organic and paid search instead.

That decision — one of many make-or-break choices Distilled faced throughout the startup and expansion stages — turned out to be a very prescient one. Today, Distilled employs more than 60 people in three offices (London, New York City, and Seattle) and has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands. The company is also the driving force behind SearchLove, a hugely popular series of global conferences for online marketers.

What inspired you to start Distilled?

Duncan and I knew each other in high school and, even back then, we knew we wanted to build a business. We weren’t super-focused on what we wanted to do yet, but we dabbled in a few different things. Ultimately, we thought about not going to college, but I’m glad we didn’t make that decision. We couldn’t have built Distilled without the knowledge and experience we picked up in those years.

The reason we started Distilled was rather simple: We saw a clear pain (businesses trying to build websites in the pre-WordPress era) and we thought we had the skills to address it. So, we started building websites, but the question we heard over and over again from our clients was, “How do we make money and attract customers with this website?” Initially, we started offering consulting services on search marketing for our clients, but somewhere around 2007 we decided to fully focus on SEO.

How did you go about building your team?

Early on, it was just me and Duncan. But within a few years, we needed to make some outside hires to keep up with demand for our services. We went through some growing pains as the organization became more complex. Initially, we matured from two to six employees, and then we doubled to the point where it was harder to track what everyone was doing. When we got to 30 employees and established some sort of executive layer, we were very aware of how that would impact our culture and cohesion.

Looking back, we were able to manage that pretty well because our growth wasn’t so fast-paced that we lost control. That allowed us to be choosier about who we hired and what role they played. And as we needed to build out a more formal management structure, we were actually able to mostly promote from within. Most of the leaders in our business units started with us and grew into their roles, which has helped us maintain our culture and illuminate a clear path for growth for the new hires we do make.

What challenges did you face as you scaled and expanded into the United States?

We were lucky enough to expand to two cities with a lot of talent – New York and Seattle – and a very clear grasp on the value of SEO. So moving there, getting settled in, and finding people to hire wasn’t as difficult as it might be for some other businesses.

That said, there are definitely some challenges with managing remote teams. The first and probably biggest issue is keeping a clear view of organizational challenges and maintaining our agile mentality. Duncan and I have always focused on tackling hurdles as they crop up, rather than waiting until they become bigger problems. That’s easy to do when you’re a startup with six or 10 employees. When you have 60 employees spread out over three offices and two countries, communication and reporting becomes a bit more of a challenge.

What are some mistakes you made as the company scaled, or changes you’d make in hindsight?

I’m not sure we made any mistakes that were unique. Most of the things we struggled with are the same things most startups struggle with.

But one philosophy or methodology I wish we would have implemented sooner was the concept of “15-5,” which was invented by Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard.

The basic idea is that every week, employees must submit a report that takes them no longer than 15 minutes to write and managers no longer than 5 minutes to read.

These reports might include descriptions of what did or didn’t go well during that week, as well as which roadblocks are preventing the employee from being productive or efficient. The very simple goal is to ensure that managers or executives at the top stay tuned into the challenges their employees are facing on the front lines. For us, it’s been an incredibly helpful tool, particularly as we’ve scaled. These reports give us a chance to eliminate the anonymity that hinders big company culture, celebrate every employee’s big wins, and remove any impediments.

Who inspires you as a leader and what resources would you share with other founders trying to scale their business?

I highly recommend reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick M. Lencioni, as well as Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Both books are very relatable and provide practical advice and tips for founders or CEOs who are scaling a business.

The other resource or tool I highly recommend using is some sort of internal social network or group chat. We actually use Google+, but I’ve heard great things about Atlassian’s HipChat, too. Whatever service you use, the purpose is to have a tool that allows your team to quickly and easily start conversations. That not only improves efficiency and productivity as you scale, it also fosters a strong sense of team and culture.

What are hot topics in SEO right now and how will search marketing continue to change?

When we founded Distilled, we were helping brands with the fundamentals of SEO. Social media and mobile hadn’t yet emerged, so our core focus was on helping those clients generate high quality marketing and sustainable business results. To do that, we stuck to some very basic SEO principles that I think still apply today.

The biggest of those fundamentals is content quality. Whether you’re talking about Google’s Penguin, Panda, or Hummingbird updates, the one thing that’s always mattered is content quality. So, while some brands and agencies tried to chase trends and cheat the algorithms, we stuck to the fundamentals of search marketing and that’s helped us stay on track.

Now, that’s not to say that you should ignore all of the new platforms, technology, and marketing strategy impact SEO. How you approach Twitter, Facebook, content marketing, and mobile will obviously impact the value of your search marketing efforts.

But the key with SEO will always be ensuring your company has the right infrastructure (CMS), content quality, and team to make it work. If you lack any of those pillars, then you’re going to find it difficult to succeed in modern online marketing.

What are your thoughts on the debate between using agency for search marketing or building a team in-house?

Obviously, my advice is somewhat jaded by my conflict of interest, but I think great search marketing agencies who truly understand how SEO is evolving are invaluable.

I’ve seen several executives hire search practitioners who were great in 2012, but haven’t kept up with the times. That’s the unfortunate reality with SEO – it’s an ephemeral, ever-evolving practice. To be successful, you need to really grasp the fundamentals, best practices, strategic insights, and key trends that make SEO tick. Without that, you just won’t be able to keep up. I think agencies do a great job of that because they have to keep up with how the industry is changing.

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