A cabinet reshuffle of our own.

This post has turned into a bit of a lengthy post, but should give you some insight into some changes going on at Distilled.

Over the last 4 years Will and I have had the challenge and the pleasure of growing Distilled from just the two of us working out of my front room, to where we are today. We deliberately decided not to take any funding, and have bootstrapped our way through 5 offices to our current situation with 15 staff and our fantastic new offices.

Today I’m going to talk about some of the challenges of growing a small company, and give a bit of an insight into where we are going from here.

Setting up and running a company has been a dream for Will and I pretty much ever since we met all those years ago (17 for those of you who are counting). In March 2005 we finally decided to swap the (relative) comfort of our (relatively) secure, (relatively) well paid jobs for the thrill of starting a company. In the early days our goal was survival. Could we make enough money to pay the rent and buy food for the month? Luckily the answer was yes, and we were on our way. Life in the first few year or so was all about survival. Our goal was simply to still have a business.

The next two years the goal switched from survival to growth. The business was still young, and the growth was somewhat haphazard. It was growth in the sense of “see what sticks” rather than growth as part of any defined strategy. Will and I are incredibly ambitious, and we found that we simply couldn’t stick to a strategy. We often found ourselves creating a 6 month strategy, only for 2 month later to have done something slightly different that was much more effective. When you are a small and growing business it is very easy to change course to fit with the market, and to follow what feels right at the time. We became very good at subtle changes to make the most out of the situation in front of us.

Will and I were reminiscing about this just the other day. The first three years can be summed up as massive growth whilst “flying by the seats of our pants”. This is what we, as entrepreneurs thrive on, the uncertainty and the ability to change course and follow a different path. It’s exciting, exhilarating, but it’s a nightmare to even start to put into a strategy.

Where are we going, what’s the exit strategy?

Over the years we have spoken to a number of business advisers in various guises. Will and I have never been afraid of taking advice from people who know better. In fact I’m certain that our biggest success to date is in hiring people that are better at their jobs than Will and I ever could be.


Photo by splorp

Of all the business advisers we have ever spoken to not one has failed to ask us about our exit strategy. Up until now the flying by the seat of your pants feeling, and our ever changing business has meant planning, and more importantly sticking to a strategy has never been possible. Not to mention the fact that at the moment, we are enjoying the ride, and want to take Distilled as far as we can go. In my mind, thinking about our exit feels like it goes completely against what we have spent the past 4 years building.

Changes at the coal face.

The last year or so at Distilled has seen subtle changes from the previous three. It simply isn’t possible for 15 people to thrive as we have in an overly entrepreneurial environment. 15 people going from day to day and seeing what challenges are thrown their way doesn’t lead to the incredible results we have achieved for our clients. The change has come in creating processes around our day to day tasks to ensure that our work is consistent. We have a fantastic team at Distilled and it has been a struggle getting the balance right between ensuring that we have consistent and repeatable processes and giving enough freedom for people to get on with what they do so well.

Despite trying to formalise more of what we get up to, we are keen not to lose all of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in so many small businesses. The challenge is to keep that feeling, and to allow everyone at Distilled to express their creativity, whilst ensuring that we continue to strengthen and grow our business. Despite managing to triple our revenue last year, and move into our new offices we can’t help feel that something was missing. Will and I are outrageously competitive, and despite doing really well last year somehow it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it perhaps should. A lot of the entrepreneurial feeling is based around constantly being challenged and more often than not coming out on top. Even the subtle constraints that the processes put in place are enough to lose that feeling of being challenged, and without challenges it’s very easy to lose the winning feeling. This feeling of slight disappointment is what drives us forward and is a big part of what makes Distilled so successful. It’s that feeling that will drive everyone next year to bigger and better things.

When we were a small company, we tried new things, and were able to see what worked. As any company grows it’s natural that they lose some of that ability to try things. We have built a company that is incredibly good at what it does, but a bit of the fun of running or working in a small business is the ability to try new things. There are a lot of challenges facing Will and I but ensuring that Distilled remains at the top of the game, whilst encouraging creativity amongst our staff is one of the greatest.

After a long introduction it’s time to announce the changes that are happening at Distilled. Will and I are going to ensure that we take at least half a day out of the office each month talking about the long term strategy. We have had a handful of these meetings in the past and have found each and every meeting energises us and gives numerous ideas for the future. Where we have struggled in the past is to take these ideas from the early stage into something that will help our business.

For this reason my role is now CEO. This is to ensure that there is one person accountable for driving our strategy and ideas into changes for the business. Historically our day jobs got in the way of the non urgent but important changes that came out of our strategy meetings.

Those of you who know me will know that I’m not the most outgoing of people - I’m firmly in the introverted techy camp. The reason Will and I work well together is that he isn’t quite so techy at heart and is firmly in the extrovert camp. This split has always worked well and the split will remain. Will’s roles will continue to be looking after the public facing roles of a traditional CEO. This means evangelising Distilled, and continuing to build our network.

To help this more strategic focus Sarah, our COO will be taking on even more of the day to day tactical management challenges.

Getting to where we want to be.

The competitive nature of Will and I means we are never satisfied with the way things are. We are always looking for ways to improve and better ourselves. Historically, with our lack of strategic focus we have been restricted to making incremental improvements to our business. The next challenge, and my major role as CEO is to look at where we want to get to, and implement any changes necessary to get there. This should result in Distilled getting further, and ending up stronger than if we continue to incrementally better ourselves. Given how proud we are of where we are at the moment, this is exciting times indeed. This subtle change, and the fact that we are giving ourselves the permission and the structure necessary to get to where we want to be, means that once again Distilled feels exciting. For Will and I it feels like (once again) we are setting up a new company. The entrepreneurial feeling is back, the excitement of thinking where we can push ourselves is once again getting the competitive juices flowing.

Stay tuned to watch where we can get to. For those of you not already subscribed, now would be a good to sign up. You don’t want to miss out on something good.

Duncan Morris

Duncan Morris

Duncan founded Distilled with Will in 2005. He built the, now defunct website CMS from the ground-up, and consulted for some of the company’s first clients. Today Duncan leads the management team and helps to steer...   read more

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  1. And the best bit? I can put people who call looking for the CEO through to someone ;)

    In seriousness though, I am really pleased that Duncan is running everything we do operationally and driving things forward - it's been too easy for us to coast and do our 'day jobs'. Recently D has been freeing up more and more of his time for making sure the business runs well and it's making a difference. I am hoping that with the addition of Caitlin (blog post and details coming soon!), I will be able to do the same with the external strategy. Exciting times ahead - watch this space.

    Oh, and if anyone has any bright ideas for my job title, feel free to let me know.

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  2. Sounds like you guys are really 'stepping it up a notch', 'turning it up to 11' and 'living to the max'. Or something.

    I'm glad to hear that the challenge of process implementation and structured business growth hasn't dampened your spirits though guys - I can see plenty more excitement in the future of Distilled yet!

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  3. Well, this is certainly a more interesting post than a press release that says "Duncan Morris is now Distilled CEO" !

    Really great insight into how you guys have grown. As you know I am impressed with your ambition and ability to cobble together such a great team on the fly. Still haven't decided whether I want to take that leap or not.

    This line caught me by surprise:

    "Despite managing to triple our revenue last year, and move into our new offices we can’t help feel that something was missing."

    a) Wow, 300% growth in this economy. That is stunning. I increased my personal bottom line by about 60% last year but that's largely because I worked about 30% more hours!
    b) What is the difference between the use of "treble" and "triple" -- as in, FA Cup, League Title, Champions League = a treble...can "treble" not be used as a verb? (serious question)

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  4. @David that tripling revenue did also co-incide with hiring about a gazillion more people... That said, yeah, things are all good here and it's nice to be still growing despite the economic stuff.

    Regarding triple and treble, it's a subtle difference that I'm not sure I can elucidate on with accuracy but in common usage I'd never use treble as a verb - I'd always use triple...

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  5. @david @Tom Huh?

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  6. @stuart If we haven't met, you probably don't know my irrational interest in bits of British trivia like this. In college, I studied for a semester in London and picked up just enough English English to pique my curiosity...

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  7. @david stuart can barely speak English so I wouldn't worry about him ;-) he won't appreciate the finer points of our discourse.

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  8. I believe treble and triple mean approximately the same (though treble has the common noun usage as in "winning the treble" - I'm not sure this is truly correct).

    Tripling and trebling are the same as far as I know.

    Either way, the growth is lovely - the challenge now is sustaining and growing more (and as Tom says, we did hire a lot of people and spend a lot on offices!).

    Thanks for stopping by, David.

    (and thanks for your contribution too, Stuart.).

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  9. Thanks for your comments.

    @david - I'm literally the last person you should ask about the english language. I still stuggle / ignore the difference between to and too.

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  10. ... and "its" and "it's" and apparently "stuggle" and "struggle"... ;)

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  11. Don

    Congratulations are in order.Have enjoyed, very much reading your blog postings. Nice to see success stories in the SEM space, esp in light of the current doom and gloom, economic climate.

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  12. Congrats Duncan & Will - you've done amazing things with Distilled, and I must say that we're thrilled to have had the opportunity to work closely with you these past few years.

    Best of luck going forward!

    p.s. Will - Gillian's title at SEOmoz is "President" while mine is CEO. This has worked well for us. Otherwise, if you're staying less operational, I might opt for "Founder & Chief Evangelist" - a common title in the American startup world (not sure how it might translate in the UK, of course).

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  13. Hi guys,

    great post and i think what you describe is a common challenge for small businesses.. how do the founders evolve with the changing challenges of the business as you grow?

    As for your title Will i think the closest approximation to Rands CEO/President is CEO and MD in the UK. I think traditionally the CEO role in the UK is to ensure the bigger picture is being looked at and that the business performance against the plan is being measured, whilst the MD is the one actually at the coal face with clients.. again you see two types of MD, Sales/marketing lead ones for companies growing, FD leaning ones for companies consolodating.

    I think the other important distinction is between the board level responsibilities and the operational level responsibilities, the MD may be reporting to the CEO in the board environment, but on the shop floor it is often the other way round (if the CEO has operational responsibilities at all).

    Not sure how helpful that is but it is how we are structured (I am founder and MD, I found it very liberating when we brought in a CEO/Chairman).

    I guess the title doesnt matter so much provided you are clear on the role and responsibilities (which it sounds like you are:-)

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  14. Thanks for the insights, guys...

    I think part of the problem is that my role is the one in the biggest state of flux (whereas Duncan's was the faster-changing role 6 months ago). As it settles down, I'm sure we'll work out what to call me :)

    @Rand - I am currently leaning towards co-founder (though it's not really a job title/description!). President would be an excellent choice except it sounds wrong in the UK (as does Director in the US I understand).

    @Alex - the last sentence of your comment is the most important to me I think and the one I'm working on hardest at the moment!

    I'm writing up my 'letter to my 2007 self' as per Rand's recent post at the moment and that may have more to say on the subject.

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  15. Hey Will, Duncan & the team - congrats are in order!
    Very interesting article and the "exit strategy" is definately something to keep in mind - as when you nurture your own business like this knowing when to let go and cash in is tricky!
    All the best in the future!

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  16. Wow, sounds like it's exciting times for you guys, certainly looking forward to seeing where this takes you especially as to an outside observer the growth you guys have made has been extremely impressive to say the least.

    Certainly hoping to emulate some of that success in my own business ventures, best of luck to you, I'll be staying tuned!

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  17. @Tom

    Unbelievable - I'm related to Keats you know.


    I have an irrational interest in tangential comments - so I think we've both been satisfied

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  18. @Randfish

    "Founder & Chief Evangelist"

    We only get that excited inside, it would probably translate to:

    "Most Important and Enthused"

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  19. Graeme

    Nice article Duncan. Interesting to read about your strategy. I think its both brave and realistic to accept that given your growth, you can't always, and realistically, stick to your original strategy. All good strategies need incremental development, so it is refreshing to see some honesty and pragmatism being demonstrated.

    Keep up the good work

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  20. Good luck guys, sounds like exciting and fast paced times for you ahead.

    All the best for the coming years and catch up soon!

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  21. Will: Sounds like some form of Managing Director will likely be in your future title. But it's not the title so much as a clear direction and focus that will make the coming months successful for you. I think you're both on the right path and I'm eager to see the next stage as it develops.

    Duncan: Hearty congratulations on formalizing titles and organizing the company for the next stage of growth and development. Oh... and since grammar made its way into the discussion (see above), check your Strunk & White for the grammatically correct use of "I" vs "me". ;-)

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  22. Matthew Oxley

    Excellent post - very interesting.

    Having been in companies of very different sizes (including, at one point, my own) I have a feeling people tend to think of the advantages of big vs. small (or startup vs established) as defined. Startups will always be entrepreneurial, corporations are more credible etc.

    If you can grow your professionalism, process efficiency and credibility while keeping your entrepreneurism, I'm sure you'll continue to be an exceptional company. Good luck.

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  23. Congratulations on all of your success over the past few years and on being so proactive about your direction. I was formerly second-in-command of a 16-person company, and one thing we never got quite right was taking that time out of our day to manage our own growth, instead of letting the growth manage us. I've tried to take that lesson with me into the new business, but it's much easier said than done when fires are blazing all around you.

    As for titles, "President" obviously makes no sense in the UK. Will's new title should be "Prime Minister" ;)

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  24. @gillian @randfish Thanks for dropping by. A lot of this has come of chatting with you guys about the best way of doing things. Indirectly the meeting we had a couple of months ago made us realise we were missing out on a lot by not having one person at the rudder..

    @gillian. I promise you that the correct use of I or me, is the least of my grammatical worries!

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  25. I missed this last week what with getting ready to take up a new position of my own. And so I'd just like to say a belated congratulations and wanted to let you know that I have huge admiration for both you & Will: people like you (& Rand) who have the drive and energy (and courage) to set up your own businesses amaze me. Well done and here's to continued success at Distilled.

    As for Will's title? Surely it should be "Tom's Brother"? And on another serious note, has anyone ever pointed out the fact that Will ever so slightly looks like David Milliband.

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  26. Thanks Ciaran. All great suggestions and useful comments. I'll give them the consideration they deserve!

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