Our Entrepreneur Online is David Trewern, founder of specialist web design firm DTDesign. He has made a successful business , career and life out of knowing and using the web. He is willing to share his secrets to success. Read on to hear his story, and s
David Trewern, founder of specialist web design company DTDesign is this week’s Entrepreneur Online.
He is happy to share his knowledge and expertise, so if you have questions for him, email them through to us at [email protected] and we’ll post David’s responses on this page (there are already questions answered, scroll down).
David got his start in 1996 doing projects for LookSmart and Mercedes-Benz. He now employs 27 people and has received more than 32 national and international creative awards.
In 2003 the ASX-listed STW Group became a shareholder in DTDesign.
In his spare time, David is a keen kite-board surfer, and a pioneer of the sport in Australia. He set the kite surfing speed world record in 2005, achieving a maximum speed of more than 90kph.
Amanda Gome: You started your business in 2003, and the niche was web design. What gave you the idea for the business?
David: I left my job working for one of Australia’s pioneering digital design / multimedia studios in 1996. I was owed holiday pay and thought that instead of getting another job, I’d start a business.
I worked out that I could afford to pay the rent for two months, so this was my time frame to become cash flow positive. I had no start-up capital, and funded the business from cash flow from day one. This discipline put me in good stead when things turned ugly during the dot-com bust.
I shared studio space with some friends from university, who had set up their business a year earlier. They showed me the ropes, showed me how to set up my books, invoices, etc. It was a huge help. In the beginning, it was just me. I was freelancing to previous employers.
Within a month or two I had more work than I could handle and money in the bank from profitable projects, and didn’t hesitate to hire my first employee. My partner Bethwyn joined the business shortly after, and together we made a great team, making the decisions that put the business into motion.
I had no business plan, and never intended to start a serious business. My initial goal was to earn my previous salary, and have some flexible time to do the things I enjoyed, like windsurfing. In hindsight, I was very disciplined.
I was in the office to start the day each morning, and never did take the afternoon off as I originally intended.
Our next employee followed shortly after, and before long I had realised that I was the leader of a team. I needed to set the example and provide some inspiration. I had some unique skills, being one of only a few formally trained graphic designers who also possessed required technical knowledge to build and code web pages.
Of course these skills don’t sound impressive in 2007, but at the time Netscape version 2.0 was cutting-edge, and hand-coding was the only option. My university colleagues had decided that the internet provided no scope for designers and left the web to programmers.
Designers from even one or two years ahead of me were having a hard enough time coming to terms with using computers for design and publishing, let alone designing for the internet. Not only was I a formally trained designer, but I had topped my class with first-class honors from arguably the best design school in the southern hemisphere.
Despite my design skills, I was most interested in developing innovative ways to construct websites, so I really did find myself in exactly the right place at the right time. Without realising it, I had a niche.
I had no idea how to run a business, but had seen my parents run their own small businesses so the concept wasn’t too foreign to me. I worked things out as I went along and the business grew as quickly as I could learn business acumen.
What was your major strategic mistake in the early years?
I could have taken more risk and further exploited the dot-com boom to grow the business more quickly in the early days, but then again the business might not have survived if I hadn’t been so conservative.
In the early days, and even before the business was fully established, I was approached by a range of potential suitors including Clemenger, Swish and Razorfish. And I am glad I did not make a strategic blunder by getting starry-eyed about these opportunities too early in the piece.
Looking back, what would you have done differently in the start-up phase and why?
I would be much more cautious about starting a new business today, even with so much experience behind me. I had unique skills, passion and enthusiasm, confidence and nothing to lose. These forces can go a long way, and are difficult to replicate through a strategy or plan. I built the business through intuition on the back of a thousand decisions that turned out to be the right ones.
How do you describe your management style and why does it work? What’s your worst flaw as a founder and CEO?
I am optimistic and trusting, and I believe in the potential of each and every person. I go to work each day challenging the people that I work with (and I have high expectations). I also genuinely do all that I can to instill confidence and provide encouragement.
Fortunately my business operates in a high-growth industry where the people are everything. I believe that if I coach my team to help each individual develop as fast as possible, then everybody wins.
Of course I have an ego. My name is on the door. But I have a belief that “there is no greater cost to any business than ego”. I want nothing more than for my team to challenge my ideas, and be far better at their specialist roles than I ever could.
I want to see each person succeed, and I feel a great responsibility to create new opportunities within the business. I think my greatest strength has been finding great people and creating an environment where they can become even better.
While I have come a long way in the past few years through delegating responsibility, it’s always hard to let go. Like many founders, not letting go from time to time would be my worst flaw.
You are an expert in online communication. How did you use online communications to ‘sell’ your business? What worked best?
I like to think that our work speaks for itself, and our own website is a good showcase of our work. Our website receives quite a bit of traffic, and we receive about five to six inquiries per week. We are re-designing our website right now, as the design and structure is almost six years old.
A lot has changed in terms of technology during this time. Our largest client (Honda) found us via a Google search, which is great evidence of the importance of a good web presence with search engine optimisation. It’s testament to our work and approach that our site is still so valuable to our business after six years.
A well-designed website should be dynamic and scalable to support changing content and marketing messages, and therefore (in simple terms) a website structure that is relevant for six years instead of three will provide twice the return on investment over its lifespan.
What failed and why?
After 11 years in business, we have established a large network of clients, colleagues and students, many of whom are advocates for our business. Email newsletters to our subscriber database always generate activity and a positive response.
I don’t think we have ever tried an online marketing technique that has failed. We do not actively market our business other than via our website, email newsletters and word-of-mouth.
What are the biggest four mistakes you see businesses making online when communicating with customers and why?
1. Not using a customer-centric approach. Too much online marketing is based upon a hard sell, which is simply not effective. Customers are in control online, so it needs to be about them. Websites and email marketing should be valuable tools for customers first and foremost. Every website should have a clearly defined value proposition for its audience.
2. Websites that fail to communicate a clearly defined role. If your website is a shop, then state that from the beginning. If your website is intended to be an online community then make this clear. Too many websites do not have a clearly defined and communicated role, making it hard for visitors to quickly ascertain the relevance of the website to their needs.
3. Too many websites fail to consider the frame of reference of their audience. One of the great challenges of designing an effective website is creating something that is clear for first-time visitors, but equally valuable for repeat visitors. Too many websites are designed with an intention of impressing first-time visitors, with flashy animations and graphics that offer very little value to anybody (other than the ego of the designer) and these features waste time and bandwidth of repeat visitors and discourage them from visiting again. Businesses should ask themselves: ‘Are customers coming to my website with free time, expecting to be entertained?’ If the answer is no, focus on helping them to achieve their objectives as quickly and easily as possible.
4. Too many websites are not optimised for search engines. Search engines such as Google are now the gateway to a world of information, products and services. The majority of internet users now research significant product purchases online, even if they are going to buy the product in a store. If your website is not search-friendly, your business will be invisible.
Best website you looked at recently…
www.smartcompany.com.au. Seriously. I have only just discovered it, and the content is very relevant to my current head space.
And the worst?
Any website that wastes my time as a result of bad design, usability or irrelevant content.
What is the most impressive strategy you have seen by a big advertiser to reach a business market?
I haven’t seen too many impressive strategies in this sector, but my advice would be to use customer-centric thinking to create value for their target audiences.
For example, providing tools, calculators, information and data, templates, etc, that actually help businesses solve common problems.
Audiences worldwide are switching off the TV and turning on the internet. When will the TV die altogether?
TVs are quickly morphing into internet connected media centres. My own TV is connected to a Mac Mini with a TV tuner, allowing me to record free-to-air TV and skip through the ads (similar to Foxtel IQ).
I use the TV to browse my music library, view my photo library, watch DVDs and view a myriad of content from the internet. One minute I might be watching live sport, the next, watching a video via YouTube.
Television broadcasting (free-to-air or cable) is still the cheapest way to deliver high-quality video (and will be for the next 10 years at least) but it relies upon a ‘one-to-many’ relationship.
The ‘longtail’ model shows that if you can cost-effectively provide more choice to customers, they will take advantage of this choice and change their habits. New devices such as Apple TV provide cost-effective means to connect internet content to your TV.
Regardless of the technology, conventional television programming and advertising is under pressure. The internet is competing for eyeballs and marketing budgets.
Viewers have become used to high-quality feature film production values. To make the economics work, TV producers need to distribute to a broad global audience, which reduces the amount of tailored, local content.
This provides even more reason to turn to the internet, to download the content that YOU really want to see via peer-to-peer networks. Large record companies are facing financial ruin as downloading pirated music becomes commonplace for a new generation of teenagers. “Buying music is so pre-2000”. TV producers need to find new ways to entertain and engage audiences live and in real time, or risk a similar fate.
Is there a role for print advertising?
Yes. I think a very large percentage of the population still turn to the printed page for content when they want to relax, over breakfast or lunch or on the plane.
When you want an answer to a specific question you turn to the internet. When you want YOUR content tailored to YOUR interests you turn to the internet. When you want to browse information aimlessly, and want to feel the tactile qualities of paper, you hit the newsagent.
However, the challenge print media faces is the content being old news even before the print run has finished. As more people discover Google alerts and RSS (web feeds, blogs, podcasts, etc), they will become increasingly frustrated with reading news on the printed page that is in fact old news.
What are the big online trends?
Consumer-generated content. Every traveller, diner or purchaser is now a potential critic. And consumers love the empowerment provided by having a voice.
Wikepedia pages about brands and companies often rank higher in Google searches than the official websites themselves. This trend makes companies more accountable, and consumers more powerful.
How do you use Google search to get eyeballs on your site?
The most important factor is to write good content using the terminology of your customers. If you call your product ‘spectacles’ but your customers use the term ‘glasses’, then you must use ‘glasses’ on your site. This is what customers are looking for.
Engage an SEO expert, and there are many factors involved. However, avoid proprietary ‘black box’ technology approaches to search engine marketing. You risk being banned from the Google database, but more importantly this can lead to distrust among your site visitors.
Google is so successful because it provides so much value to audiences via accurate search results. Make the most of the system, but do not try to cheat it. It’s not a sustainable strategy.
What’s in the future? Are you going to sell out like many other small businesses?
We formed a strategic alliance with ASX-listed STW Group over four years ago, which now owns 49% of DTDesign. It has proved to be a fantastic partnership and I have enjoyed the experience.
I have learnt a great deal about running a business ‘properly’ and it has exposed me to a much larger world than was possible in the vacuum I was previously in.
The management team that I deal with at STW have similar goals and values to my own, the only difference is that they have 20 years more experience, which I can learn from. The move has been good for my personal growth, good for the growth and sustainability of DTDesign and good for our clients via the resources we now have access to. I also believe the partnership has created an environment in which there are now greater opportunities for my team members.
If you would like David’s help and advice, email your own questions for Entrepreneur Online at [email protected].
Questions from the floor
L. Jasper writes: What search engine optimisation did you do for the site?
David answers: For our site, it’s simply an ongoing process to ensure appropriate structure and content in line with our understanding of Google’s rules and algorithms. Also ensuring that as many sites as possible link to ours (such as our clients’ sites) using the appropriate link structure and keywords. It’s a complex area. It’s hard to summarise and every site requires a different approach.
Luke Moulton writes: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about running a business?
David answers: In my case, the best advice was that familiar catch-cry “work ON the business as much as IN the business”. I received this advice many years ago when DTDesign was a small team of about five people. While it made perfect sense at the time, in reality it took me a very long time to transition to the point where I was actually working ON the business.
Of course, there are many different paths you can choose. And business owners need to be realistic about the opportunities and model of their particular business. But if you really do want to grow the business, you need to make working ON the business THE priority. It can’t simply be the thing that you do when you have free time. You will never have free time! This may mean changing your role, and investing time and money in developing the people, systems and platform required for the business to operate on automatic pilot.
Only when you have done this, will you have a chance to REALLY look out the window and think about where you want to go. And this is still something I struggle with regularly. It’s easy to fall into old habits.
Thomas Zamanis of Print Options writes: I am involved in a new website project encompassing a concept being created that will link buyers and sellers, via the creation of an online database.
The site will encourage consumers to register their interest in brand named goods or services utilising a detailed registration process and aimed at facilitating a cost effective and seamless transaction, directly with the seller.
The model will have synergies to an online dating service however will evolve around real time information being translated across web and mobile platforms, in real time.
It may or may not have merit but the domain names have been registered and your advice would be invaluable.
David answers: Over the 11 years I have been in business, I have been approached with many ideas and concepts for online businesses. Many of these ‘could’ have been developed into successful businesses, and most certainly all of them ‘could’ have failed miserably. The development of an idea into a plan and then execution of that plan will be what defines whether a new business venture succeeds or not.
Many venture capitalists that I have spoken to or read about over the years have said that they refuse to sign confidentiality agreements, because there is simply no such thing as a truly new idea, therefore they have probably heard it before. In many cases what these people invest in is the people, track record for success and unique assets and experience that is being brought to the table. Your domain name may or may not be a valuable piece of intellectual property.
There are many online businesses that loosely fit the description that you have provided. Ebay is one very successful example that comes to mind. If in fact your plan involves a very unique idea, that does not mean it will be an instant recipe for success.
Take for example YouTube. There are literally hundreds of examples of website systems on the internet that provide exactly the same functionality as YouTube. And while YouTube was purchased by Google for billions of dollars, many of these competitors are worthless. YouTube was the first to reach a scale whereby brand recognition snowballed, and I would argue that the value vested within YouTube is held within its brand, and its ability to amass content and users quickly, and not the unique business idea or technology that supports the site.
Yes, based upon what you have said your proposed business venture could be a success. But in spite of how unique your idea is, it will be no easier to turn into a successful business than many ideas that you could come up with for ‘bricks and mortar’ business. Success will come down to the strength of your team, revenue model, marketing and the quality of the support network you build around you.
One thing is for sure… Successful online businesses with strong business models are not cheap to set up. There is no room on the internet for the second best website in a given category (look at YouTube) therefore if you do execute a great idea, you have to do it in a very big way, otherwise someone with deeper pockets than your own will quickly copy your idea and steal your thunder.
The first step is to work on securing IP, rights and relationships that create a barrier to entry for any potential future competitors. And then build a team around you that can turn your vision into a reality.