He spoke to Econsultancy about why being the founder of a bootstrapped business means being a ‘T-shaped generalist’, how he juggles two different timezones during a typical working day, and which websites have impressed him lately.
Please describe your job: What do you do?
Alex O’Byrne: I am a founder and Director at We Make Websites. We design, build, and optimize Shopify Plus websites for international brands. We have two offices, one on Park Avenue in New York and the main HQ in central London.
I do three things really.
First, I make sure that we have a plan. It’s my job to ensure our team is happy and we’re going in the right direction.
Second, I help with recruitment, which is crucial because we’re an agency and rely on attracting and nurturing good people. I stay close with our team so they are heard, rewarded, and growing in their career. One of my favorite things is to see how far people can go working at We Make Websites.
Third, I help out with ecommerce advice that is distributed through events we run, our marketing, and new business.
Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
Alex O’Byrne: We’re bootstrapped, so our board is just Piers (co-founder) and I. It’s tempting to say that we have no boss, but we all answer to somebody, and for us, that’s the clients. If they aren’t happy with what we offer then we’re in trouble.
So for that reason I spend a lot of time thinking about our business from a client experience perspective. And I don’t mean how we look. I mean how does it feel to work with us. How does it feel to go to an event we run. What’s it like when you first walk in the office. What’s it like to onboard as a client. How does it feel when your project goes live.
How We Make Websites can improve is always top of my mind. I drift between teams looking for improvements because I am always wanting us to up our game. One of our core values is “Never stop improving” and I make sure that remains true.
Another one of our values is “Keep it simple” and as we get bigger as an agency I find myself being the tsar of simplicity. The natural course for an organization is to accrue unneeded complexity, and it takes thought and effort to prevent that.
I am running our New York office, which is smaller and newer than the London one, so I spend a lot of time in sales and operational activities. I go to London five times a year and that tends to be more strategic, reviewing the past and thinking about what we’re going to do next.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
Alex O’Byrne: As a bootstrapped founder, you have to be a T-shaped generalist. I didn’t invent that term; it means you have to be a generalist with some specific deep skills.
I need to be able to quickly make decisions on budgeting, brand questions, who should speak at an event, who we should hire next, or technical decisions on a project.
My deep knowledge is ecommerce. I taught the first ecommerce class at General Assembly, I work with both high-growth and legacy brands all the time, and I have been a public speaker on digital commerce for years.
Over the years, my deep skills have changed a bit and I think now I need to be the expert on agency strategy and leadership. I still stay on top of DTC and ecommerce trends, though.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Alex O’Byrne: Two mornings a week, I work from home. I interact with the UK a lot so that means I don’t waste an hour stuck on the subway. I ride my bike to work when I can.
I live in New York, where crumbling infrastructure makes early morning commutes take much longer than later in the day. To avoid that, I will also work from home for the first couple of hours each day. I do my most focused work early on, so I tend to tackle difficult tasks requiring uninterrupted thought early in the day.
Then there’ll be calls with the UK team, as it’s the afternoon there. Once those are done I head into the office. Most of my role in the US is about new business and supporting the team here, as well as making noise through PR and marketing. We are fairly new to the market and I don’t want to spend another 10 years building up word of mouth in a new country, so this is a key focus for me.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
Alex O’Byrne: I love this job and feel very lucky. We have a wonderful bunch of people who are a pleasure to be around. The work we do is interesting. We’re renowned for what we do. And I think ecommerce is a great blend of excitement, technology and recognition. Literally millions of people have seen our work and it’s changed the course of many businesses we work with. For anyone that has expertise in design, technology or brand, this is a fast-moving and rewarding industry that can take you around the world.
With that said, agencies have a crappy business model – keeping a happy, talented workforce whilst maintaining a constant flow of client work is and will always be a challenge. So dealing with the stress associated with that is not always easy.
I’ve learned to switch off on evenings and weekends, which didn’t used to be possible. And I never skip exercise, even for the most important priorities. If I begin to do that it’ll be hard to stop – there’s always a pressing issue.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
Alex O’Byrne: Our mission is to be the best Shopify Plus agency in the world.
This year, we had five areas of focus: increase revenue, be more efficient, solidify our market positioning, establish ourselves in New York, and keep our team happy and engaged.
Most of those we’ve achieved – so next year we’ll expand further.
For an agency, I’d say that cash flow, recurring revenue %, employee and client retention, employee and client NPS, and % inbound hires are all good KPIs. We measure those monthly and review in each leadership meeting for progress to goal and year on year.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
Alex O’Byrne: I don’t use anything unusual but I spend a lot of time in Gmail, Slack, and Zoom. I use a Macbook Pro, which has become more annoying and unreliable ever since Steve Jobs passed away.
I use Downcast to jump in and out of podcasts on my iPhone.
And I use Evernote across devices to store everything, and I mean everything: to-do lists, ideas, recipes, tickets, articles to read and so on. I rarely read articles in the moment. Instead, I use the web clipper, simplify/strip out all formatting in Evernote, then read that on the train.
I turn off all notifications on phone and laptop—they will end your productivity.
How did you end up founding We Make Websites, and where might you go from here?
Alex O’Byrne: After three months onboarding at a global investment bank, I found myself sitting in front of a Dell computer with a spreadsheet hoping to be a VP in 10 years. It wasn’t really for me and even after rebuilding one of our websites in a weekend, I didn’t feel like my skills were being put to good use.
The startup scene was exploding in 2009 and there were a lot of exciting things going on in Shoreditch.
I talked to Piers in a London coffee shop and we decided to start an ecommerce agency that would build websites for international brands, using inspiring design and modern technology.
For the first few years we didn’t hire anybody and basically freelanced. Then in 2013 we got serious, hired our first employee and began using Shopify only. That gave us an edge in that world and we’re regarded as a leader in that ecosystem.
What next? Household name brands are turning to Shopify more and more and we want to be there for them, guiding them onto the platform and helping them make the most of Shopify and the DTC opportunities out there. Remember, ecommerce is still only around 15% of retail, so there’s a long way to go. International ecommerce is picking up speed for brands of all sizes and we hope to find them more cross-border consumers.
Which websites have impressed you lately?
Alex O’Byrne: We just launched good-chemistry.com, which I think is award-winning good.
theentireworld.com is an original site that still manages to be very shoppable.
Farrow & Ball has good use of video and Playa Beauty has gorgeous minimalism. Bite Toothpaste Bits is a nice product-focused site. Helias Oils and cowboy.com for animation, and then for something a little unusual… https://www.studio-job.com/
What advice would you give an ecom bod just starting out?
Alex O’Byrne: Never stop learning. There are tons of excellent resources like Econsultancy that you can really get an edge from. This is a rapidly evolving industry and there’s no course or qualification that will prepare you for it, it’s best to dive in. Ecommerce is very practical, ‘retail is detail’ as they used to say, so most things come down to being good at execution whilst keeping the bigger picture in mind.
Always come with solutions to problems. Anyone in my team that solves problems and generally makes my life easier will go far. Also that’s what it’s like running a business, so if you want to do that, quickly solving problems is a good habit to get into.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Keep on top of what other brands are doing, whether directly in your industry or not.
Find time to network. Sadly, the old adage about who you know is really true, so use it to your advantage by getting to know people in your industry through events and conferences.
And take good care of yourself! Eat well, vacation often, exercise, and get a therapist.
For even more best practice advice in the realm of ecommerce, Econsultancy subscribers can download our newly-updated Ecommerce Best Practice Guide.