Ed Bussey is founder and CEO of Quill, a platform built to help ecommerce businesses deal with the pressure of creating content at scale.
With plenty of experience in ecommerce, Bussey has lots to share about his journey so far, and his typical day at Quill. Here’s what he had to say…
(Remember, for the latest in marketing trends and innovation, visit the Festival of Marketing 2018, 10-11 October in London.)
Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
Ed Bussey: I am the founder and CEO of Quill, the content production platform for ecommerce businesses. We produce primary content – the critical pre-purchase information that drives online revenue, such as product and category descriptions and buying-, how-to- and destination guides – for global brands including Tommy Hilfiger, Google, Thomas Cook, eBay, Farfetch, Dunhill, John Lewis and Louis Vuitton.
No day is the same in my job, but I have an overarching leadership role across all areas of the business, working closely with my senior team to ensure we are tracking against our key objectives, both financial and operational – whether that be content quality and customer satisfaction, progress against our technology roadmap, or growth of our global freelance network.
I also meet regularly with our board and investors to discuss the trajectory and strategy of the business, and I play an active role in maintaining the core cultural values that run through the organisation. I believe that’s a critical role for any Founder CEO, and to that end I still interview every potential new hire personally to establish whether there’s going to be a strong cultural fit with the Quill team – I know from experience that this is a crucial driver of building highly effective teams.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation?
EB: Organisationally, I sit between our senior management team and the board. Physically, in the same open plan office as the rest of the team. I’m a big believer in maximum transparency and accessibility of senior management.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
EB: Leadership is an essential skill for any CEO: having the ability to inspire and lead people, whether that’s in the context of attracting and motivating talent, or in selling a new and positive vision to potential investors and clients.
Resilience and stamina are two other crucial attributes, in my opinion. Whatever people say publicly, the reality is that building a business is never a straight line, and there are inevitably ups and downs along the way. If there aren’t, you’re probably not pushing hard enough. To ride these waves, you need to have a firm and genuine belief in the promise of the business and the size of the market opportunity. It’s this that enables you to keep going under pressure and motivate your team to keep going with you as well.
Lastly, I would add flexibility and adaptability. Fast-growing businesses like Quill are in an almost constant state of flux, and it’s vital that leaders are comfortable embracing this continuous pace of change and improvement – both organisationally and individually. The best teams and leaders are consistently and honestly re-evaluating how they can improve the individual and the collective, across all areas of the business.
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
EB: I like to get up early, at around 5:30-6am, and then I typically meditate or do some yoga to make sure I’m focused and ready for what lies ahead. I then usually kick off the day proper with a working breakfast around 7-8am, and then much of the rest of my day consists of meetings. I prefer discussing things face to face, rather than via email. Whilst email is an amazing efficiency tool to maintain pace, particularly when you’re on the move, in my experience face-to-face discussions yield far better decisions, faster than multiple rounds of emails, and in a way that invariably improves communication and engagement.
When I get home, I break from work to put the kids to bed in the early evening, and then I like to clear my head with a long-distance run or a high intensity training session at the gym, if I’m not at a work event. Having had little time to do emails during the day, I tend to spend the evening going through my inbox – I try to manage my inbox to zero by getting back to people within 24 hours.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
EB: One of the things I find most rewarding is seeing my vision for the business become a reality. I first conceived the idea for Quill back in 2010, sitting alone in a Starbucks on Conduit Street with a blank sheet of paper. Having experienced first-hand the convergence of content and commerce in my former role as a founding member of early online retailer figleaves.com, it was clear to me that existing content production models (e.g. in-house or via traditional agencies) were no longer fit for purpose, given the sheer volume of online content now required by ecommerce businesses to properly service their customers.
There was an obvious gap in the market for a company that could solve the formidable operational challenges of producing high-quality, unique, on-brand content in multiple languages, at speed and scale. However, at the time, many sceptics from traditional publishers and media companies told me that what I was trying to do was impossible.
Since then, we’ve taken Quill from a blank sheet of paper and one employee (me) into a market-leading business, having defined a completely new model for the production of quality content at unparalleled speed and scale – with a global network of over 2,500+ talented freelancers driving a 24/7 production engine, creating 400+ words per minute in 40 languages, for over 170 brands.
To build a successful business from scratch – and bring a world-class team along the journey with me – is something I’ve enjoyed immensely and of which I’m very proud. Of course, the flipside of being on such an ambitious journey is that it involves a huge investment of time. I work a lot of hours, including most weekends. Frequently I’ve had to work while on holiday too, especially in the early days – and it’s only now that I have a full and very capable management team that I can just about get a holiday without a work interruption. This obviously isn’t ideal, but the temporary sacrifice is, I believe, worth it.
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
EB: As a business, customer-centricity is the priority for us, which means that the quality of the content we deliver, and the happiness of our clients, is paramount. Before producing content for a client, we always establish clear KPIs, whether that’s increasing their conversion rate, organic traffic and search rankings, or reducing their product return rates. We then ensure that we’re measuring the performance and ROI of each individual content piece that we deliver, in addition to evaluating ourselves against operational and service KPIs such as pace of production and level of quality.
In terms of other metrics, as CEO, I’m primarily focused on our gross margin, bookings, cash, AOV and revenue figures, as well as our client retention rate, content quality and customer satisfaction scores.
Another critical goal for me, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is maintaining a strong, positive company culture. I believe this is key to the long-term success of any business. Recruiting and retaining the best talent is therefore a significant area of focus for me: hiring ahead of the curve in terms of talent needs, and continually evolving the organisational design and configuration of the team as it scales.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
EB: I rely heavily on Smartsheets to manage the whole business: I use them to track progress against KPIs for the senior team, and to stay on top of the key milestones of large projects to ensure everything is running in line with plans. My other top business tool is LinkedIn – I meet a lot of people, particularly at events, and I’ve found LinkedIn to be the most efficient way of keeping track of people.
E: How did you land in this role, and where might you go from here?
EB: I began my career in the military, before going on to hold various security and counter-terrorism roles with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In the early 2000s, I made my first major foray into entrepreneurship as part of the founding team at figleaves.com, and it was there that I first experienced the huge content challenges that Quill is now designed to solve.
Although we were beating our offline competition because we had such a wide variety of products and brands, available in more sizes and colours than it would be possible to stock in-store, this paradoxically led to falling conversion rates in some of our product categories – because we had so many different options that consumers became overwhelmed with the choice, and increasingly made no decision at all.
After running a number of customer surveys, we realised that, whilst we had a very sophisticated online shop, we weren’t providing the crucial content at the point of purchase that helps consumers make decisions – which, at Quill, we now call ‘primary content’; essentially the equivalent of the human shop assistant.
When I then looked at the market, it was evident that there weren’t any businesses that were solving this enormous problem: how to produce high-performing, on-brand primary content at the speed and scale required by the internet – where retailers commonly have thousands upon thousands of products, which are frequently changing, demanding high-quality content, and often in multiple languages.
This is how I came to found Quill, precisely to address this problem – and my aim is to continue to grow the business into a market-defining solution and go-to content partner for global brands.
E: What new martech are you most excited about (if any)?
EB: Dare I say it – as it’s a massively overused term in my view – the area I’m particularly interested in is the field of Artificial intelligence (AI) and content production, which I think promises to be a powerful opportunity for Quill as the technology continues to advance.
At Quill, we believe AI is most effective when it’s used to leverage human creativity, in what we call a ‘humans in the loop’ approach – enabling the automation of manual and repetitive tasks, driving up efficiency and eliminating human error, while simultaneously freeing up human talent in turn to focus on tasks that require more nuanced decision-making, creativity and relationship-building.
We’re currently working on integrating AI features into our Quill Cloud platform to improve the efficiency of our content production processes. These features range from computer-assisted translation tools through to enhanced workflows that automate the screening and selection of freelance content creators for client projects, based on data – so that we can quickly respond to briefs and instantly deploy the best talent to projects that are relevant to our freelancers’ skillsets and experience.
E: Who is doing content well at scale?
EB: One company that immediately springs to mind is Farfetch, the boutique online fashion marketplace. They have a really sophisticated understanding of the power of content, and have made this central to their digital strategy – they recently brought on board Natalie Massenet (formerly of Net-a-Porter), as well as Yasmin Sewell, after absorbing Conde Nast’s ecommerce platform Style.com, and I think these hires reflect just how seriously they’re taking content as a business.
They also have an excellent grasp of their local markets and – in regards to content, specifically – have combined centralised content control with local team expertise, enabling them to create tailored marketing messages for their various local audiences that really resonate.
E: Do you have any advice for people working with content at scale?
EB: I think many organisations are still labouring under the misconception that all business functions need to be kept in-house, including content creation. But the fact is, whilst having a small internal content team is sufficient when the volume of content required is low, the moment you start to get into any kind of scale – for example, producing hundreds of content pieces per week – it quickly becomes unsustainable to manage production manually via email, Word docs and spreadsheets. It leaves the entire process vulnerable to human error, lapses in quality, missed deadlines, team fatigue and ultimately lost revenue.
When producing content at scale, it’s absolutely essential to have a flexible, curated on-demand network or talent pool (such as we have at Quill, with freelance content creators located around the world) as well as the enabling technology to efficiently manage that talent, and all the various tasks and work streams associated with it – which is why we developed the Quill Cloud platform.
Rather than seeking to scale content production in-house – and in the process building up a huge team with associated fixed costs that can’t flex with seasonal fluctuations, for example – my advice to businesses would be to outsource this function to a trusted, specialist partner and focus internal resource on the competencies that are core to your business. We’ve worked with hundreds of brands over the past seven years and the approaches that are creating the winners – and those that aren’t – are clear and consistent.
Econsultancy offers training in content strategy and planning