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Bootstrapping a Business to 200+ Employees: Lessons Learned w/Myles Anderson, CEO Ep#158

By Anthony Taylor - March 09, 2022

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Untitled design - 2021-12-27T131748.040  Anthony: Welcome, folks to this episode of the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. I'm super excited to share with you today. My guest is Myles Anderson, who is the founder and CEO of BrightLocal. How's it going today?

Untitled design - 2022-03-08T140920.068  Myles: Hi Anthony, thank you very much for having me on the podcast today. As your listeners will be notice, I'm from the UK, from my accent. So we're nearing the end of the day. It's been a relatively long day, relatively long week, which I'm sure we'll get on to. But as all things stand, pretty good. Thanks.

Anthony: Awesome. Well, I appreciate you being here, book ending us at the end of your day. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about what BrightLocal is, what you do and how you help organizations around the world.

About BrightLocal

Myles: Yeah, fantastic. So BrightLocal is a UK based company. I'm the founder and CEO. We are a software organization, providing marketing analytics software and services. We work primarily with marketeers who work as consultants or in marketing agencies, or inside businesses or brands that have an internal marketing team. And they probably work around local marketing.

We typically work with businesses that attract customers from a local area. Now that could be a physical business, like a restaurant, or a shop or a café where customers will come to the business. It could be a place where a business - they come to you plumbers, gardeners, construction work, anything like that. Or it could be professional services, business consultants, lawyers, solicitors, etc. We essentially help them understand how their local marketing performance is going, primarily looking at channels like Google Local, Google Maps, and Apple Maps. There's local platforms that are real hubs for finding local audiences and new customers to your business. We help them understand the visibility, how to improve the visibility, and essentially attract new customers.

We also provide some services that take care of some of the heavy lifting. We are a UK based business, but actually a majority of our customers in the US. So around 85% of our customers are based in the US. If you include Canada, it's about 90%. We actually don't have an office in the US. So we've managed to grow an enormous audience, internationally. We're up to around 200 people now, and we've been going since 2009.

We've got an office in the UK, one in the Philippines, and one in the Ukraine. We're also an independent bootstrapped businesses, we don't have any outside investment. We've just grown with a vision of long term profitable growth, and we've been reinvesting the profits to grow the business pretty much for the last 10 years at around 20% a year. We're up to around $11 million in annual revenue now.

Anthony: That's amazing - bootstrapped, helping local businesses, and growing to 200 employees around the world. That's impressive and super cool. As a marketer or marketeer by trade, I know how big local search is. So you're providing a very valuable service and at scale, so not just a small agency. So that's really cool. As you've gone through growing through these challenges as a business owner, what are two or three of the big learnings, big challenges that you've had to face as you grow from bootstrapped small business to over 200 employees worldwide?

 

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Bootstrapping to 200 employees

Myles: That's a very good question. The biggest piece for me, as the leader of a business of this size, is how much of a learning journey I've had to go on, personally. So for a bit of background, prior to starting BrightLocal in 2009, I just worked in other organizations. I've been a paid employed person working generally in business development within media organizations.

I think the biggest team I ever had under me in that time was two people. So when I arrived and set up BrightLocal, I set up literally from my kitchen table with my business partner, Ed, who's our Chief Technology Officer, with a hope and a prayer that it would get somewhere. That our idea had legs, and we could build it.

We weren't able to raise any capital at the time, mainly because we had very little track record or experience in the field. No track record of running businesses, not a huge amount of track record in the industry in terms of knowledge. No one wanted to take a punt on us. Had I been on the other side of the table hearing a pitch from me, I probably wouldn't have given money as well. So it doesn't surprise me.

But in that time, as we've grown consistently in the last 10 years, I've had to almost rescale myself in terms of my leadership capacity, capabilities, and understanding of what my role requires. I do that every six months. Sometimes I've done that through doing formal leadership training. But I've just also read an awful lot of books, consumed as many ideas, notions, tactics, strategies and directions from a huge range of books. I pick up the pieces I like, add them to my leadership arsenal, and then sort of develop my own style. But I think that the learning journey has been absolutely crucial and critical. Sometimes, I had to get dragged kicking and screaming to do another round of learning, and it can be pretty exhausting. But in all it, I love the journey. So that's probably one thing I had to do.

A second big step, which is when we got to probably around 120 people, is to put in place a really, really good leadership team around me. Up until that time, I was actively involved in the operations of all areas of the business, having started the business from day one. On that kitchen table, I did everything.

So back in the early days, I'd be marketing in the morning, I'd be talking to customers in the afternoon, I'd be designing aspects of our tool in the evening, and then I'd be talking to and pitching to developers. So a huge, huge breadth of roles that I had to do, not that I did all very well to be really honest, I was a real jack of all trades. Now that we've got a bigger team - specialists, these departments never seen how bad I was at so many of these roles. I'm delighted to have specialists in place. But essentially, I had a finger in all the pies of the business.

Then having to extract myself from that took a really big conscientious move on my part. But the thing that made it possible was put a leadership team that I could trust, and then actually upskilling them through a lot of leadership training and coaching. That way I could really give them the space and time to do that. We do that as a leadership team, a whole year's worth of training as a modular course that lasts over over 12 months. That was really transformative, actually, and absolutely worth the investment to get there. Because now my time is spent in three ways. Essentially all the operational stuff I trust to team members.

We're trying to push decision making down through the organization so decisions get made at every level and more quickly. I'll spend around half my time just thinking and working on the culture of the organization. I spend another quarter of it working with the leadership team and focusing on execution of the strategy that we have. Then the final quarter is spent on the strategy and product development, ensuring that I'm staying close to that side of the business because it's so key.

But I no longer really have much involvement in customer service and sales and marketing. I understand what's going on in those areas, but I've got great people who know how to make the right decisions with the right principals at heart. I give them full autonomy to do that. So having a leadership team, enabling them through coaching and training, as well as giving them autonomy to make decisions has been a huge enabler for me as a CEO. I just focus on the areas where I can really add value.

I think the third piece is establishing a clear culture within the business, a culture that took me a bit of time to articulate in a specific set of words. I always knew what I wanted to create within the business, that's one of the reasons I started the business. Back in the early days, we never found places we wanted to work, where we felt truly appreciated, that we're genuine meritocracies. When we can be ourselves, do good work, be applauded for that and be looked after and supported. So we wanted to create an organization that would essentially provide the best working experience possible for team members. But it was the thing that we felt we lacked in our early careers, and that's what we hold the core of our culture. So once we knew that, and once we were able to articulate it, we've been able to bring in the right type of people into the business, people that share our values and our beliefs, people that are going to cherish our culture and be the guardians of it as much as I am and as much as Ed is.

I talk about pushing decision making down to the business and getting people to make decisions in the right way. Having that culture in place, that everyone understands, cherishes and supports, means that when they're having their own meetings, and they're deciding which decision to make, they understand how to make the decision based on the very strong culture that we've got.

Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. So for everybody listening at home, Myles just told 11 years of learning in about six minutes or so. It's blatantly obvious and clear - build yourself up over time so that you can have greater capacity, put people in place so that they can take on some of that capacity. And then you have to both go on that journey of development together. So you have the benefit of 11 years of wisdom to look at where you're at - that's basically the repeatable process, the repeatable step. It's easier said than done, and it's sometimes hard to see when you're in it.

Learn from mistakes

Myles: I would probably say I have the benefit of 11 years of mistakes. A lot of this stuff is learned the hard way, by either getting it wrong slightly or getting it wrong in significant ways. Then having the consciousness to recognize that, and also having a bit of the humility and the vulnerability to admit it. Then allowing others to see that vulnerability and to help. Allowing other people in to help is a huge part of that.

I've had two people under me in my last roles, biggest team I ever had, and now I have 200. The best way that I've learned to kind of cope with that is to tell people, I don't have all the answers, I barely have any of the answers. So you have to come up with the answers or help me realize what the answer is. By letting people take control, you give them huge amounts of job satisfaction, and huge amounts of intrinsic motivation that they bring to work every day. You also relieve yourself of the pressure of being the one that has to have a grip on all parts of the business at all times, which is impossible to grow.

Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. I'm gonna record a video today about how your team needs to be better than you. Because that becomes the bottleneck in the business. But one of the things that I really love about what you shared was about the vulnerability and being okay with making mistakes. Also, having the culture of continuous improvement, an organization that embraces learning and development and doesn't show up with the attitude of "I'm bad, therefore I need to fix this", but "I'm actually good, and that's why I need to develop, so that we can grow as a team".

So you need to be humble, because if you're not humble or coachable, it makes it impossible for any of that learning to not only make it through the leadership team, but to cascade throughout the organization. Your ability to open those doors, I imagine, contributed to your ability to grow so quickly, so successfully, and so scalably across geographies.

Give your people room to contribute

Myles: It's the soul piece, the bit that drives everything else. You can have a great clear strategy, you can have brilliantly smart people in different areas of the business. But if you're not giving them the ability to contribute 100% all the time, giving them autonomy to make decisions, giving them the ability to speak up, giving them the ability to say "I made a mistake, but actually I'm going to fix it by doing X, Y and Z", or give them the room to be truly accountable, you'll never get the best out of them, and you'll never get the best out of your strategy. You're always operating at 70, 80% rather than 100%, in terms of making the most of the resources you've got.

So for me, it's been a big enabler as a leader, letting go and being humble enough to roll on that vulnerability. To say "I made a mistake, I screwed up here, and this is what I did wrong". I'm telling you this because when you screw up, I'd much rather know about it, so let's not be lying and faking stuff here. And also, I need your help. I need your help to get this right. And as we all know, if you can harness the power of 200 brains, you've got a much better chance of coming up with the right answers, then just trying to keep it within yourself or a small group. There are some people that I think find that hard.

So I think there's that figure of leadership or that idea of leadership as being incredibly strong - of having all the answers and being very forthright. There are times when that's important. There are times where you need to be really clear, you need to have a clear strategy, talk about that in very clear and direct terms. And you need to try and have the answers for people. But often getting to that point requires collaboration, requires allowing others to help you answers to those. I think if you could find the balance of being strong when you need to be strong, vulnerable, allowing others to help you just maximize the contribution that everyone in the business can bring.

Anthony: Absolutely. In the last 10 minutes or so, one of the things that you touched on is supporting people as themselves. We talked about this in the pre roll and I think it's important to talk about. There are the employees and then the human beings that make up those employees, and recognizing that they are not separate. They are in fact the same.

The past two years, most notably the past two weeks, have really highlighted the challenges that individuals can face within their business. So you've got workers around the world, and some of them are dealing with challenges right now. I don't know how to ask in any other way, you've mentioned it was challenging. What are some of the things that you're learning as a CEO through that? And then if you have any information or context you want to share about the employees.

Managing a team in Kyiv during Russian invasion

Myles: As I mentioned to you earlier, we have a team in Ukraine, around 35 software developers located in Kiev. I'm sure as everyone will be aware, Ukraine is at war with Russia. There is a an unjust and unfair invasion of Ukraine at the moment. A lot of my team have been with the company many, many years. I've worked with developers and software engineer in Ukraine for around 10 years. I've been to Kiev over a dozen times and met the people there to socialize with them. I've met many of their families. They aren't just team members, you know, they're friends, they're part of the BrightLocal family. And it's very, very hard to see what they're going through at the moment.

The speed of the Russian advance, and the speed at which the situation has changed is phenomenal. Some of them were on our annual team ski trip, and less than a week later, they're fleeing their homes, leaving everything they know behind. They are trying to find safe spaces in western Ukraine or going across the border into the EU in places like Poland and Romania. So for me, absolutely, this is probably the hardest challenge by a long way, that I've ever had to face as a boss.

As someone who has a responsibility for looking after people in my care, you know, people who are my team members. What I find interesting about it is, it's very easy to do things in good times. It's quite easy to be good boss in good times, because there's less stress and pressure. For us as a culture, our culture is very much about people, it's very much about caring personally and supporting people. And right now, we're under immense pressure to provide as much care as we can do. Two things. One is, we're actively doing that. That's our number one priority - try and support the team there as much as possible. We've found some safe houses for them, where they've managed to get to where they are out of immediate harm's way, taking their families, their parents. We're looking for onward transport into Europe for them.

So the conversations that I'm having are not about strategy and q2 objectives, marketing initiatives, it's about how do we get them food and money? How can we possibly get them out of country? If they can't leave, can their families leave? What can we do to give them safe passage to safe places? It's an enormous sort of turnaround. I think if I switch off my emotions, and my emotions are running pretty high at the moment, because I know these people, personally, some have worked for me for eight years. So you know, I know their families.

For me, as a business owner, this is an ultimate test of how true we are to our culture. You know, I can say we care personally about people, but do my actions really follow up with that? So in many ways, I have people in the business looking at me going, you've told us that you care about us, you told us that you'll support us, you told us that we bring our whole selves to work. So how do you respond in this case? This is a chance for me as a business owner, to show my deep humanitarian side, but also show that all that stuff I've talked about in terms of caring personally, I absolutely stand by. I'm not trying to get the team to work, but they actually are working from places that they've managed to find. They aren't working all the time, but they need a bit of a distraction from what's going on. And actually work provides an element of that sort of distraction. It also shows to the rest of the business that actually, our rhetoric around caring personally, about looking after people we stand by, in the bad times as well as in the good times.

I think that's a key tenant of leadership and a great culture. It's about truthfulness, trustworthiness and consistency. If you break any of those three things, then you undermine what people believe the company is about. They'll start to believe you less and less, they'll start to contribute less, they'll start to work a little bit less, less hard, they might start to look around at other organizations. So I believe as a leader, constantly role modeling good leadership skills and constantly role modeling your own culture. It's important to do that in the most testing times as much as it is in the easy and good times.

Anthony: Yeah, absolutely. Well, I appreciate that. I don't think there's ever a truer example that I've heard, let alone on this show or in real life of really having to learn even about putting your culture to the test. This is like real life, no bullshit, as much as I want to be motivational and all that other stuff. As a business owner, people put their livelihood in your care on some days, but it's their just their mental health and their ability to pay their bills. Today it's about families and history and sovereignty and just so much stuff.

So I really appreciate you being open and honest and sharing your experience with us today. From the bottom of my heart, I wish everything good for your people. It's tough, and I just thank you for being here. I really hope everything works out for the best for you and your people. Where can people learn more about what you're doing? And maybe if they want to support your team members, or anybody in the Ukraine, how can they do that?

 

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How to support Ukrainians

Myles: Yeah, that's very kind. Thanks for being sensitive and appreciative of the sort of situation. So I guess, if you want to support what's going on in the Ukraine, I would say that our team members are pretty well supported right now because of what we're doing for them, whereas there are vast swathes of the population that have less support. So there's places like the Red Cross, there are a huge number of charities that are starting up, you know. But any supporting aid that can be given to Ukraine is hugely appreciated.

If you'd like to know more about BrightLocal, you can just go to brightlocal.com. As I said earlier, we also have an academy on there. So if you're interested in local marketing and learning it, we have free academy. It's got seven or eight courses that pretty much tell you everything you need to know about how to succeed in local search marketing. If you want to learn about working with BrightLocal, we have a free trial, you can sign up, you can use a software.

We also have a really consultative sales team, you can book yourself in for a sales call and a demo introduction on there as well. If you want to connect with me, personally, I'd love to hear from you. You can find me on LinkedIn, it's Myles Anderson.

Anthony: Awesome. Myles, thanks for being here. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for your openness. All the best to all to you, your family and your team.

Myles: Thank you very much.

Anthony: Absolutely. Folks, my guest today is Myles Anderson, who is the founder and CEO of BrightLocal. Check out his team, check out what he's doing. Check in on your people, they might not be affected directly by what's going on. But you know, we're all in this mess together - some more than others. So be a great leader, support them, and then help them get to that next level. '

I appreciate you watching. I appreciate you listening. I appreciate your contribution, whatever you do in your community today. So this has been the Strategy & Leadership Podcast. My name is Anthony Taylor. Thanks for watching.

Until next time!

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