Leaders’ Insights: Alan Coleman, Wolfgang Digital

15 Dec 2016

Alan Coleman, founder and CEO, Wolfgang Digital. Image: Wolfgang Digital

Alan Coleman is the founder and CEO of Wolfgang Digital.

After graduating with a business degree from Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT), Coleman failed to get his dream job working at Google. Not one to wallow, he decided to forge his own path in the industry. In 2007, he set up his own digital marketing agency, Wolfgang Digital.

Here, he provides some fascinating insights into his life as an entrepreneur, offering nuggets of wisdom that include staying in college, adapting to changes quickly and having “bags of craic” in the process.

Describe your role and what you do.

I love what I do. I jump out of bed every day excited about what lies ahead. At any given time, a large portion of my schedule will be project-based. The project could be planning our 2020 vision and strategy, conducting and promoting some digital marketing research or working with people within Wolfgang Digital on their focus areas. I never lasted long in jobs where things become monotonous. Constant new projects keep life fresh and exciting for me.

The rest of my schedule is very routine and is based around internal comms. My favourite part of the week is ‘Four Minute Friday’, where I check in with each digital marketer individually at their desk to hear about their recent performance highlights.

What set you on the road to where you are now in the industry?

In 2007, I applied for a job in Google. I’d never wanted a job more in my life. It wasn’t just the pool tables and free lunch, I’d fallen in love with Google AdWords. I felt then, as I do now, that this is the best advertising platform the world has ever seen. So when I got the call to say I wasn’t successful in applying, I resolved to do it myself: “Feck it, I’ll do it anyway”. I wrapped up what I was doing at the time, took a loan to tide me over and dedicated myself to learning AdWords. Once I was AdWords qualified, I started working for people for free. My third client had huge success so I then felt ready to start charging people. I started spamming email addresses in the Golden Pages, telling them “The Golden Pages is dead, your customers are on Google”. We actually still have our first client – a solicitor we won via spam.

Wolfgang Digital is now 35 people strong. We’ve grown to this level with no debt (that early loan is now paid off!), no outside investment and minimal state funding. Our growth is based off happy clients continuously doing more digital marketing based on great results. In 2016, we are the Irish, UK, European and World Search Marketing Champions.

‘You can always make back money misspent, but time misspent, that’s gone forever’

What do you do everyday to help you achieve your business goals?

Ultimately you have two resources: time and money. You can always make back money misspent, but time misspent, that’s gone forever. So, I’m anal about time management. Every day has been planned months in advance. I work to an annual plan which is then divvied up into quarters, months, weeks and days. I’ll then have time allocated to each goal and activity. So although I don’t always know the details of the activity, I know the objective and overview. I’ve started auditing my time spent and outcomes on an annual basis and I’ve found it a really useful project.

If I’m struggling to keep to allocated time, it’s time to delegate, promote or hire. Admittedly, I tend to spend far too much time on marketing – I get a great buzz from it.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Unhappy and underperforming employees has always been the thing that keeps me up at night. In the early years, 50pc of the people we hired weren’t around after the six-month probationary period was up. Basically, we weren’t great at hiring, nor were we great at onboarding. I figured if we could turn ‘talent’ into a strength, it would really set us apart from an industry with a horrific staff turnover rate. We decided that to be a great digital marketing agency, our core activity would have to be making great digital marketers.

We’ve created a thorough hiring process that’s more interested in character than CV, and evaluates enthusiasm over ‘interview face’. We created a traineeship programme with a six-month curriculum. We actually have two ‘directors of people’ and I’m proud to say we’ve had numerous people go from trainees to award winners (and even international awards), for their work inside their first two years. Our staff turnover rate is now less than 5pc. I’m delighted to say I’ve far less sleepless nights over 33 people than I did with 6.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Stay in college.

We hear a lot of stories about the legendary tech entrepreneur who drops out of college and launches a start-up in a garage and goes on to take over the world. I suspect these people are outliers. When I studied business in DIT, I was often frustrated at the pace of things and did considered the ‘drop out and get going path’. However, I honestly don’t believe Wolfgang Digital would be where we are now if I didn’t complete my degree and get the grounding I did in management accounting, strategic management, financial reporting, maths, economics and even ‘traditional’ marketing.

Lots of entrepreneurs stop enjoying their work once their organisation gets to a certain size and seek to exit. 15 to 20 people seems to be the number. My business degree has given me the grounding to understand the complexities of a scaling organisation, while keeping a steady eye on the big picture.

‘The fast-moving nature of the industry is why I find it so exciting. New starters need to be quick learners and adaptable’

How do you get the best out of your team?

That right there is probably the most important thing a CEO has to do. Ideas without execution are nothing but brain farts.

There are some very simple things we do. Schedule time for learning; we schedule upwards of 10 hours per person per month. Progress equals happiness. When somebody has done a great job tell them, and tell everybody else too. When they haven’t, just tell them.

We take time as a group every three months to review the progress Wolfgang Digital made over the quarter. Everybody gets to see how the company is progressing and how their input, as individuals and teams, is creating some really remarkable results. People appreciate seeing the big picture and newbies are often surprised by the level of transparency. We have a shandy after too.

We also do a profit share. At the three-month review, 10pc of the quarterly profits are divvied up equally between everybody; the directors get the same amount as the trainees. I’m proud to say we’ve shared over €100,000 with the Wolfgang team. It’s money very well spent in my view, despite the shoddy state of my car.

What would you say are the key skills and traits a new starter in your industry needs?

First thing I look for in an application is evidence they are active on digital media in their personal time. Naturally, I don’t mean they have bags of buddies on Facebook. Anybody who has a blog, YouTube channel or some sort of passion project will be streets ahead of the people who fancy it as a job, but aren’t active online outside of work.

The fast-moving nature of the industry is why I find it so exciting. New starters need to be quick learners and adaptable. Campaigns that had all the bells and whistles 12 months ago can look embarrassingly outdated now.

Numeracy skills are very very important. If you can’t move a KPI, you haven’t done the job. Understanding the intricacies of various KPIs is crucial.

Communication skills are key. Half of success is getting great results, the other half is ensuring those results are being understood by the client and those results are solving their current marketing problems. There is nothing worse than losing a client that you have been overperforming for, just because of a fall-down in communications.

I’d give aspiring entrepreneurs the same four pieces of advice actually:

  1. Go with something you are passionate about
  2. Be ready to learn and adapt
  3. Numbers are make-or-break, know which ones matter
  4. Your ability to communicate internally and externally will go a long way to dictating your success

What trends do you see affecting your industry in the near future?

2017 will be the year of mobile! Just joking.

So, Google has been dominating the digital marketing scene for years. It’s great to see Facebook rise to challenge them. It’s led to a spurt in advertising innovation from Google. In turn, it’s super to see Snapchat arrive and make Facebook tremble a little. The upshot of these rivalries intensifying is more innovation, better value for the advertiser and more options for digital marketers to reach their audiences online.

The challenge this creates for marketers is integrating your efforts across multiple channels. The best campaigns in 2017 will be those that not only use each of the channels expertly, but also offer the user a personalised experience as they move across multiple media channels.

Closer to home, Google quietly launched Google Shopping in Ireland recently. This will be a critical success factor for Irish retailers, just as it has been in the other markets it has been launched in.

Who is your business hero and why?

My grandad, Liam Coleman, was a media entrepreneur too. Dublin in the 1950s was a particularly grey place. He brought neon signs to Ireland.

There are a couple of parallels between his story and mine. He had been a travelling salesman selling hardware out of his van around Ireland before joining the sign industry. I was operating a lunch delivery business out of a van immediately prior to Wolfgang Digital.

His pitch was “Your sign is the most important part of your business”. My war cry at the start was: “If you only do one form of advertising, make it Google”. Coincidentally, his very first sign factory was on Denzille Lane, a couple of doors down from where Wolfgang Digital HQ is now.

‘Although nobody lists it on their balance sheet, having a bit of fun is a tremendous business asset and a powerful differentiator – it will infiltrate every facet of your business’

What books have you read that you would recommend?

When I was a teenager, Richard Branson’s book Losing My Virginity (I think he’s more prolific than JK Rowling now) changed my world view. It showed business could be a young person’s game, plucky underdogs could go far and business could be bags of craic to boot. I was fortunate to work with the Happy Pear prior to starting Wolfgang Digital, and they reminded me of these values. Although nobody lists it on their balance sheet, having a bit of fun is a tremendous business asset and a powerful differentiator – it will infiltrate every facet of your business.

In 2008, it looked like the world was going to implode. When I tried to open a business bank account, the gentleman in the bank tried to dissuade me, informing me running a business is a very hard thing to do. At the time I was reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by Don Tapscott [and Anthony D Williams]. It painted a picture of a society undergoing gargantuan change, far greater than any economic cycle, and it filled me with optimism. There were numerous nights I couldn’t sleep after reading it. I was so excited about the opportunities afoot, and by hook or by crook, my kitchen-table internet business was perfectly positioned to capitalise.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I work with my friends; Wolfgang started as a ‘friends-and-family business’. That set the culture – the value of this can’t be overstated. I meditate every morning. I actually meditate on the DART to work. I’d say I look like some eejit perched there breathing deeply.

I’m always working to goals. I choose goals that excite me and scare me a little. This helps me spring out of bed every morning.