Welcome to episode 244 of The Food Blogger Pro Podcast! This week on the podcast, Bjork interviews Kevin McArdle about running businesses, solving challenges, and building your portfolio.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork chatted with Ewen Finser about creating awesome content that search engines and your readers will love. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
This week’s episode is a good one because it’s all about diversifying your portfolio, and not in the ways we typically talk about in terms of food blogging.
Bjork interviews Kevin McArdle from SureSwift Capital about investing in businesses, building solutions to your audience’s needs, and the lessons Kevin learned when starting his business.
I had so many takeaways from this episode, and we hope you learn of some ways that you can grow (both personally and financially) through diversification in this episode.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How he approaches investments
- What “software as a service” is
- How SaaS businesses solve problems
- Tips for diversifying your portfolio
- What the “no code” movement is all about
- How to work with website brokers
- How to pitch an idea
- The lessons Kevin had to learn when he started
- The importance of delegating
- The tools Kevin uses to run his business
Listen to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast below or check it out on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, or Spotify:
- The tech.mn Podcast
- SureSwift Capital
- 111: How to Build a Company of One with Paul Jarvis
- Follow Kevin on Twitter
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
Transcript (click to expand):
Alexa Peduzzi: Hello, hello. Alexa here. And you are listening to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. Welcome to the show. This episode is a good one because it’s all about diversifying your portfolio and not in the ways that we typically talk about when we talk about food blogging. So today, Bjork interviews, Kevin McArdle from SureSwift Capital about investing in businesses, building solutions to your audience’s needs, and some of the lessons that he learned when he was first starting in business. I had so many takeaways from this episode. I’ll talk about one in the outro. And we hope that you can learn some ways that you can grow both personally and financially through diversification in this episode. So without any further ado, Bjork, take it away.
Bjork Ostrom: Kevin, welcome to the podcast.
Kevin McArdle: Thanks very much. Happy to be here.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, so you’ve actually been in the podcast groove, real quick, I want to touch on this because you’ve recently started doing podcasting. I feel a little bit not as cool as I would like to because you have a legit studio where you are doing a podcast. I’m still from the office here, I have my little mic set up. But tell us about the podcast that you recently started and usually you’d say this at the end, but how can people follow along with that?
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, well, you make it sound cooler than it actually is. To be clear for your audience, we rent studio space. And that was just because we didn’t have anybody on our team that understood the details and ins and outs of podcasting. And so rather than learn that or find somebody that did, we just said, “Let’s just rent space.” And this group here in the Twin Cities does a great job of taking care of everything. All we have to do is show up and talk and then they edit, they push it out to the services, etc. The upside of how you do it, Bjork, is that you just sent me a quick email and said, “Pick your time and let’s go.” And so you’re able to book with lots of people around the world whenever it’s convenient, where there’s a little bit more logistics planning to get three or four guests at a time in a-
Bjork Ostrom: Totally.
Kevin McArdle: … five-hour window. But yeah, so it’s relatively new, but it’s been pretty well received. It’s called the TECHdotMN Podcast. So you and I live in the Twin Cities. One of the businesses I own is tech.mn, that’s the URL. And we talk about and celebrate all things technology in the Twin Cities and Minnesota more broadly.
Bjork Ostrom: Love it.
Kevin McArdle: So, yeah, if you just go to tech.mn and search podcasts, you can get the feed to any of the whatever service you’re a fan of.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. We’ll link to that in the show notes. And the advantage with being in the legit studio, it sounds awesome. So not only is it great if you are somebody in the Twin Cities in Minnesota or the Midwest, it’s great content, but it also is great content that is really well produced. So bonus with that. One of the things that you said in that description is you said, “TECHdotMN is one of the businesses that I own.” And I’m sure for a lot of people who aren’t familiar with your story, they would hear that one of the, and they’d think, “Wait, how many are there?” So as we jump into this interview, how many businesses are you operating? And you’re CEO of SureSwift Capital, how many businesses are a part of that?
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, so my job is to be the CEO of a holding company. So it’s not like I’m just private person, high net worth person, the guy that’s just acquired a bunch of businesses. SureSwift Capital exists to find, acquire, and operate technology businesses. So at current state, we have 31 in the portfolio. We’ve been around for almost five years. And yeah, we’ve built through acquisition.
Bjork Ostrom: Crazy, and so awesome, and so many questions that I have around that. For context podcast listeners might think, “Well, is this food related? Is this recipe related?” And this would be more on the business side of things. And one of the things that we’re trying to do with this podcast is broaden horizons and sometimes what can happen is you can get inside of an echo chamber a little bit, and you can hear the same advice around the same things and think there’s only one way to do this, to reach my goal, to be an entrepreneur, to have some type of freedom.
Bjork Ostrom: But what we’re trying to do is talk to different people who are doing really unique creative things in the space, online business space, and broaden the horizons a bit. And my guess is, Kevin, there was a point where you started to think of this idea to have some conversations around this idea and you thought, “You know what? This is really interesting. This is horizon broadening for me.” Was there a point that that happened? Can you take us back to that and what was the transition like to start work on SureSwift Capital?
Kevin McArdle: Well, the truth of the story is that I was working in corporate America and had no idea how people made money on the internet. That’s how novice I was in this space. I had a friend and acquaintance who had the idea to launch what has become SureSwift. He was a repeat entrepreneur in the software space. He had owned websites that made money through ads. And it was really his idea and he had to educate me on the fact that when I’m reading a new site and an ad for Patagonia or Cannondale Bikes pops up, how that happens and how people make money by people clicking on those ads. That’s how little I knew about the internet.
Kevin McArdle: And so I just started learning. But it was my business partner’s idea to acquire profitable businesses, and that we were applying the idea to a very specific niche, but that concept is as old as the dinosaurs. The most common term is private equity, that’s what they do. Holding company is a little bit more vague, but it’s a well-understood model that we just decided we were going to apply to internet only businesses because it was something that my partner understood at great depth and had just tremendous upside, much simpler businesses. You can scale quickly, there’s not the inventory headaches, not the office space, headaches, etc., etc. So that’s how the idea came. But it wasn’t Kevin just sitting in a room dreaming up, “Hmm, what am I going to do? How am I gonna make money?”
Bjork Ostrom: And in some sense, you also probably had to dream up the path on how to execute on the idea. So my guess is, I’m going to paraphrase and probably shorten this into two seconds when it’s actually two years of thinking through what this looks like. But you have this conversation and then you think, “Okay, let’s do this.” So then you take steps forward and actually implementing that idea. What is that first step? How did you start?
Kevin McArdle: First thing I did was start doing as much research as I could. And before even starting the company, I stumbled upon a couple of websites where people buy and sell businesses. I’m sure your audience is familiar with some of those. And that really opened my eyes to like, “Okay, we don’t have to just find people on our own ready to sell. There are people who are actively building and selling websites that we can interact with.” And so the original steps forward in two-year journey, as you put it, earliest days was, “Let’s just find websites that make money through ads.” So I love that your podcast does a lot of good work, but I love that you’re expanding horizons beyond just, as you put it, the echo chamber of blogging.
Kevin McArdle: But that a lot of what we were looking at in the early days were successful blogs, whether about food, or being a mom, or how to sew and things like that, and some really interesting subjects and some that were more trivial, but super profitable. And so along the journey, we proved a thesis which was true, which was we could buy several of those websites and operate them without a whole huge team of people. The biggest learning from that was something that your audience will be very familiar with is that it does take effort to build and maintain a good healthy blog. And there’s also risks that if Google changes the way people find your website, you have big problems. And so that was a surprise to me as I was learning on this journey.
Kevin McArdle: And about the same time, I had that unpleasant surprise, I discovered the world of software as a service businesses that are… And this isn’t 100% true, but generally less reliant on Google or other search engine traffic and their algorithms and more predictable. Yes, they take more work and people to run them, but it fit our investment approach, which was we wanted to acquire and operate businesses for the very long-term and grow them slowly over time and reap the rewards of the profitability. So that’s somewhere between two years in two sentences how we got to where we are today.
Bjork Ostrom: Totally. And one of the things that is interesting that you’re talking about is this realization of not only how hard content is, the content beast is never full, you have to continually feed it, and it’s never like it sits back and it’s like, “That’s enough, I’m good.” You can always be doing more. It’s true with business in general, but you especially feel that with content. It feels like there’s this never ending need to continue to produce content. So hear that as one of the concerns.
Kevin McArdle: You know this better than me, but it seems like the rules change pretty quickly. I’m trying to think of a very specific example, but length of content, the rules seem to change day-to-day.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s true.
Kevin McArdle: Do you have images or do you not? Is there video in your content or is it not? Are you getting links? One dramatic rule that I entered the market after the big shift, but from what I understand, just links equal good, changed to legitimate links equal good. And if you’ve built up a whole bunch of spammy links that used to drive traffic to you and then all of a sudden people got penalized for that, so that’s what I mean by the rules changing. And it not a huge surprise in an industry that’s still in its infancy. That was something that I just wasn’t prepared for and didn’t have, at the time, the people on my team to be ready to react super quickly.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally. And for those who follow along with the podcast, in last week’s episode, we talked to you and you talked specifically about some of those things, and another one of those horizon broadening interviews that we did. So if you missed it, be sure to check out that episode. The other thing that I think is interesting to analyze and to talk through is the shift that you made from a business strategy to say, “Hey, we have these content sites, but then we realized that there’s an element of control and predictability that we really liked about having software as a service.”
Bjork Ostrom: And we’ve felt that too. And it’s one of the reasons why we have WP Tasty, the WordPress plugins business and Food Blogger Pro, along with Pinch of Yum in our much smaller portfolio of businesses. But it helps to balance things out. They’re still all online businesses because that’s what we know, that’s what we love, that’s what we’re interested in. But it’s different sources of revenue. So for those who aren’t familiar with the concept of software as a service, can you talk about what that is and is it possible for somebody who has a blog to think about creating something that would be software as a service because they add that on or bolt that on? And how difficult would that be?
Kevin McArdle: I think you absolutely can. And I think your story, Bjork, is really inspiring to a lot of people because you had a great business, you now have a portfolio of great businesses and different business models, which forces you to stretch your skills as a business person and have different people on your team, but it also probably makes your portfolio more resilient than it would have been if it was just one business. And so you’re an example of somebody who took a content business and spun it into recurring revenue through software. I know several people that… It little different than running a content business and then change it.
Kevin McArdle: But a couple of examples, one small and one quite large, I know… Let’s see, I think he’s a financial advisor, and so not running a content business, but he clearly understands the power of technology. He’s more forward thinking than most financial advisors. And he built an app that I think is called Refer. And he realized that a lot of his business… Actually, maybe a real estate broker, but a lot of his business is introducing people to one another and knowing that the bigger his network gets and the more he can help people, the more that will come back to him in other referrals to either help with finances or sell houses. And I apologize, I can’t remember the guy’s name or what his specific professional is, but he took his core profession and he built an app that generates recurring revenue off the side of his business. And now, that app could be spun out to be its own thing. So that’s a very small revenue generating side business.
Kevin McArdle: Another more dramatic example, one of the people we recently had on the podcast was Joe Welu, the CEO of Total Expert, which is a local success story in the Twin Cities. He was a real estate broker, had a team of, yeah, I don’t know, five or six brokers under him doing really well selling houses. And he realized he wanted a different way to something about having real estate brokers and mortgage lenders and their mutual clients come together in a way that was within the confines of the regulatory rules that govern all that. There’s different rules about can… And I’m not an expert, but can brokers refer to mortgage lenders and vice versa? There was something that was a sticky problem that technology hadn’t solved. And so Joe built software to help solve that problem. Now, it’s since pivoted and evolved into more of a financial services, CRM and customer engagement platform. But that they just raised $50 million, and they’re on their way to unicorn status and probably an IPO in the next three to five years. But the commonality is just people thinking about business challenges and writing software to try to solve those.
Kevin McArdle: So I can’t think of an example off the top of my head, but the people in your audience would have a unique perspective on business challenges. And if you can come up with a way for software to solve that problem, many of the best software businesses that I’ve ever come across where people who wrote software to solve their personal challenge and it worked, and then they were able to communicate that to other people that had a similar challenge, and now they have a growing software company because of it. Our mutual friend, Bruno, or his partner has been on your podcast with InfluenceKit. That’s another perfect example where they saw a problem in their content business and they are now running, I think, profitable software company solving their own problem.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I love that. And what a great example of somebody who saw a problem and fixed it. And I think when people ask about the story of what we’ve done, it’s really just trying to as best as possible figure out what are the problems that either we hear other people talking about or that we personally have and trying to creatively think about ways that we can address those problems. And early on when we were really unfamiliar with software or working with the developer, with all of that stuff, when it seemed way out of reach for us, we tried to solve some of those problems through information. So Food Blogger Pro is an example of that. It’s the product is primarily information, not so much software.
Bjork Ostrom: And for people in the early stages, that would be a good first step. If you want to create something that’s monetized through ads or sponsored content to diversify, maybe you can think about the things that you are really good at that other people ask you about the problems that they have and create a product. It would be called an information product, whether that be a course, whether that be a book, whether that be consulting or a service, which is also an option. And add that to your pie to use a food analogy and that can be a slice of the pie. And eventually, some people say, “Hey, I also want to get to the point of creating software.” But that’s intimidating and you are doing it at scale in multiple different ways. What would your advice be for somebody who has never thought about the possibility that they could create software and sell it? How do you take those first steps into it? How do you educate yourself knowing that you’ve been involved with this now for a long period of time and you’re really focusing on this as a way forward for SureSwift?
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, I would say just about anything could be learned over time is my first reaction to that. So my former job, I worked in the software industry, but I didn’t know anything about writing code. I was on the business side. And a determined person can learn just about anything is one thought. Another concept that you may have talked about in your podcasts in the past, but I think is really exciting is the no-code or low-code movement, which gives talented technical professionals like your audience, the ability… You don’t have to hire a software developer to spin up a proof of concept or some MVP that you could showed us customers or even sell to customers. And it doesn’t have to be really fancy tech to solve a business problem.
Kevin McArdle: And the other thing that you said that I love is if someone is looking for ways to generate new revenue or diversify their revenue or portfolio, jumping right into a big complex software business is intimidating, especially if you’re going to build it from scratch yourself and there isn’t. The dream of a lot of people is the recurring revenue, it’s software, and we’re selling to enterprise customers, and we’re selling it like $4,000 a month. And yeah, that’s cool, but that’s really hard to do, and it’s hard to go from nothing to that. There’s nothing wrong with getting some diversified revenue through consulting or information products or even a small, simple software product gets you on that path to other things.
Kevin McArdle: And another opportunity that may be implicit in the fact that I’m on your podcast is if I’ve got a successful food blog that is spitting out cash and I want to diversify that or pivot into other industries, well maybe you could go look and try to buy a technology product that is related to what you’re doing. If you have all kinds of traffic related to a specific food niche or other content niche for that matter and you can find a software product that is related and you can cross sell, that’s a great opportunity. And I’m here to tell your audience that those opportunities to acquire from as small as if you have $10,000, those businesses are out there up to tens of millions of dollars and everything in between.
Kevin McArdle: So I think it’s a matter of figuring out what is the path that fits you and your business and your skills or the talents of your team and try to emphasize that. But this is not a binary conversation like, “Do I learn to code or hire a developer or not?” There were days long ago where that was the way to start a software business, and I think those days are long gone for several of the reasons that we’ve rattled off.
Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s awesome. So a couple of different things that are worth pulling out there. Number one, you talked about this idea of no code, and I hear more and more people talking about this. We have a mutual connection. I’ll go so far as to say a friend, even though he wouldn’t say that because we’ve never connected in real life, but it sounds friendlier, Ben from Makerpad, so makerpad.co. And actually, just pulled this up when you’re talking about it because Makerpad is all about the no-code movement. And it’s funny because I scroll down and it says our community, and it has four people that it highlights, one of which is Paul Jarvis, who was on the podcast episode 111. And he talks about… This is actually awesome. It’s episode 111. And he talks about the concept of building a company of one, which we really should have played that up more than we actually did.
Bjork Ostrom: But he talks about using no code to build a course. There’s also a little testimonial from somebody named Danny, who was a freelancer, entrepreneur, and she used no-code tools to build a company to $20,000 monthly recurring revenue, which is just incredible. So worth taking a look at that. We’ll include that in the show notes. And I think the no-code movement is really exciting for people who know content and know their audience, but don’t know how to code, and that would be something that would be worth exploring.
Bjork Ostrom: The other thing that you said, and I’ve never even really thought about this, but would be so helpful is to, hey, if you have a profitable content site, or even if you have a content site and maybe it’s breakeven, but you have an audience which is so valuable, you can start to look and see is there something that complements my business that it could fold into it and offer as a product, but a product that I then owned? And you talk about this idea of acquiring, but how do you do that? What would that look like? Are you looking at listings? Are you reaching out to people and saying, “Hey, could I buy your business?” How do people get into it?
Kevin McArdle: I think there’s a couple of ways. So there are marketplaces out there. One that recently launched that I think is doing good things for buyers and sellers is called microacquire.com. I’m promoting that one because I think that that’s purely altruistic by the guy who created it. They’re just trying to create better access for people to connect with one another. I don’t like to promote specific website brokers because I like to have good relationships with many of them. And it’s not hard to find if you search website broker or SaaS business broker. You could spend days just researching there.
Kevin McArdle: Another thing that I am a huge fan of is just tell your network what you’re thinking. So, Bjork, if you and I sit down over a cheeseburger and I just say, “For the first time I’ve thought maybe I should acquire a business.” And that gets my wheels turning about my network and the people that I know. I will be listening for it. And if you have that conversation over enough cheeseburgers, the people that you know and trust will be in your corner looking and listening for that. And then a third way is ask the people that are most directly related to your business.
Kevin McArdle: So when we have a need in our portfolio companies, whether it’s a need to hire somebody, or potentially if we’re interested in acquiring related businesses, we’ll go ask our customers. And maybe not, let’s say, one business, we have 2000 customers, we may not pull the entire customer base, but we may pull the best customers and say, “Okay, you use this business for X. What are the other businesses that you use that are closely related to that.” And that gives us a target list and say, “Okay, well, if we have a common customer, maybe we should then approach these people to see if they’re ever interested in selling our business.
Kevin McArdle: And we take a very laid back passive approach, whether it’s for something like that that we believe is related. In our case, it could be a competitor and that’s something to think about for your audience. We might say, “Look, hey, you wanted to congratulate you on running a really successful business. Just wanted to let you know that we’re out here and we acquire successful businesses. And if you’re ever interested, please call me.” It can be that simple. And you’d be surprised at how much that gets a response. Even if it’s not a, “Yes, we’re looking to sell right now,” response, generally, if you’re nice to people and you pay them a compliment, they’ll respond and say, “Well, not really interested in selling, but good to have your number.”
Kevin McArdle: And we like to say we’re playing a long game. So in terms of your audience, if they’re interested in starting this, I would just start small, approach some people, study these marketplaces. Just think about who are the other businesses or the customers that you might go to and say, “Okay, you are one of our sponsored content best customers, our best clients, and we’re interested in expanding our portfolio. Are there other people you do business with that you know would be related? Are there other blogs that you think are interesting?” And I think you’d be surprised as you start digging how many different businesses are interrelated.
Bjork Ostrom: I think that piece about just speaking to the world, your network, your connections, the thing that you’re trying to do and letting them help you in that is such a big takeaway because I think so often we have these ideas that are bouncing around in our head and we never put them out into the world. And so much can happen from us taking that step and actually going through the process of sharing those things.
Bjork Ostrom: And I’ve seen that where an example is I sent you an email a week or two weeks ago and I just said, “Hey, we’re really trying to be intentional with making sure that things are super solid with what we do from an HR perspective. What do you guys do? What would you recommend? How can we do a good job of doing that?” And you’re like, “Hey, let me do what I can to help you with that.” And I don’t do that enough. And it’s a good reminder both for me and the audience to try and be intentional with that. So let’s say that somebody… or do you have a thought on that? I don’t want to cut you off.
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, I do. I wanted to add one thing to that, Bjork. It’s totally true, like put out into the world what you are thinking or you want. And sometimes it’ll bounce backwards. It’s quite simply I just said, “We’ll talk to Amy,” because she does everything HR, that’s a simple thing. But there’s also value in just articulating the idea or the needs-
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, for yourself.
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, even if the person you’re speaking to can’t help you with that right away or they’re just not a good person that they don’t want to help you with that right away, it helps to harden the strategy or the idea just by saying it out loud to another person-
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, totally.
Kevin McArdle: … and it gives you practice for when you’re talking to another person who maybe does want to help you, you’ve got an even better articulated idea or need. So I am a huge fan of just like, “Get out into the world what you need and good things will happen.”
Bjork Ostrom: It’s amazing how many times I think that an idea’s fully baked in my head until I try and explain it to somebody. And I realize all of the different pieces that are missing from it or people will ask questions and I’ll be like, “Wait, I thought this was super clear in how I articulated that.” And obviously, I wasn’t doing a good job of trying to explain what I was trying to communicate. And like you said, going through that process lets you refine the idea or almost like a pitch. It’s like you’re pitching your idea. And the more that you do that, the better that you can refine it.
Kevin McArdle: And it may actually be fully baked inside your head and you can envision the future state, but there’s a need to communicate that future state in a simpler way to people who aren’t inside your head.
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, totally.
Kevin McArdle: So, yeah, just having the reps of doing the pitch, even if you’re not pitching the business idea to somebody, but communicating what you’re thinking has value.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. So in the early stages, you started to do this and you’re eventually find some companies that are interested in being acquired and they start to go through that process and then suddenly it happens and now you have a team. And that’s something for the people who listen to this podcast are interested in. What does it look like to work with other people and how do you do that in a way that is a healthy and successful and fun? And it’s intimidating in those early stages because there’s so many questions that exist around it, but we also all feel this crazy pressure of the amount of stuff that we’re trying to do and know that we aren’t capable of actually doing it all on our own. So talk to me about what that was like to build the team in the early stages and some of the things that you’ve learned along the way that are really important now that you have a team of what? Over 80 people?
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, that’s right. It’s over 80 people, and we’re a remote first company. So they’re scattered literally around the world. So I told you my honest story of not knowing basically how the internet works, which is-
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, totally.
Kevin McArdle: … halfway embarrassing given that it was 2015…
Bjork Ostrom: Totally. But also I will say encouraging because five years ago, you were starting at a place where it was the baseline and now are operating a business with 80 plus people that is solely internet based.
Kevin McArdle: That’s right.
Bjork Ostrom: So I think for people it’s encouraging in a real and specific way. So I’ll say that.
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, that proves anybody can learn anything with the right effort. Now, what I did bring to the table and what I did know was I had a good long career in business. And I had lots of experience hiring people, managing people, firing people, building teams, building culture. So that was an area where I was pretty confident that I could… that wasn’t going to be a problem. It was the technical aspects of what I was doing and how to acquire a business was something I had to learn. So even though I had built up a career and managed a lot of people, I had to learn a couple of key lessons over in the early days that might be useful for your audience that are running solo companies or smaller companies.
Kevin McArdle: The quicker I delegated tasks, the better. So I did every job that exists at SureSwift from find business, acquired business, source writers, even wrote a bit of content, I’m embarrassed to say at some points, posting con, posting stuff, keeping WordPress plugins up to date. I even tried to build a website once-
Bjork Ostrom: Nice.
Kevin McArdle: … and thank God that doesn’t exist anymore because it was an eyesore. But it helped me learn the jobs and then learn the type of people that would be able to do the jobs. And I made the mistake of holding onto things too long because I either, A, didn’t think I could afford a person to do it, or B, I didn’t think I could trust somebody else to do it as well as I could. And those two things are just false. In today’s economy, there is no job that somebody running a successful business can’t hire somebody to do and delegate that work to allow the business owner to focus on the things that are more strategic or more higher value.
Kevin McArdle: So I would encourage your team to think about… And a good exercise to think about what to delegate are the things like what are you best at and what do you love doing? So if you can envision, this is where podcasts make it tricky, but a two axis on the X-axis, you’ve got things I am terrible at on the left, it might be accounting or… I don’t know, reaching out to podcast guests…
Bjork Ostrom: Or design would maybe be a good example. Like you know good design, but you’re not a designer.
Kevin McArdle: Totally. Yes, or like I need some website change, but I’m not great at going in and making the changes. So on the left is I’m not good at it, and on the right is things I’m great at, which everybody hopefully has a sense of what they’re great at and that’s what’s making their business successful. And on the Y-axis, at the low end, it’s things I don’t like doing, and at the high end, it’s things that I love doing. So you can picture all four boxes. There may be things that you’re terrible at and that you don’t like doing. That’s the bottom-left quadrant. Delegate those things ASAP. There may be things that you love doing, but you’re not good at doing. You might want to think about delegating those things too.
Kevin McArdle: There may be things in the bottom right that you are great at doing, but you don’t love. Those are maybe the third group that you would delegate. And then in a perfect world, you can focus on the top-right quadrant, which is things that you love doing and you’re the best at doing in the world or at least in your company. And so I think that’s a good exercise. And generally, whether it’s design, or WordPress, or development, or what have you, these things aren’t expensive things to delegate. And I would say start small and start with part-time contractors and just see how wonderful it feels to provide some freedom to find some… Because the things that you hate doing, the interesting thing is there’s somebody in the world that loves-
Bjork Ostrom: Loves, yeah, yeah.
Kevin McArdle: … those things. And the things that are in your bottom-left quadrant, the things you’re terrible at and things you hate, there is somebody in the world that loves those things and they’re amazing at it. And so think about how that transforms your business to delegate those tasks. And then that allows you to free up time to focus on the things that are either more important or you’re better at etc.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, I would be interested, I’ll rattle off a couple of examples on our end because I think it’s always interesting to hear what that journey is like for people. And I’d be interested to hear for you specifically what some of those were as well because I’m guessing there’s been a lot of different versions of that. One of the things I’m realizing is every probably year or two I’m needing to become a different version of myself in terms of what work looks like. And I think a lot of that has to do with the changing tasks that are involved with growing a business.
Bjork Ostrom: And so early stages for us, some of the things that we immediately delegated, you had mentioned this accounting. So it was bookkeeping, it was making sure that all of our accounts were tight and really well taken care of. And the thing that is important to point out with that is the first version of doing that, it didn’t go very well. We hired somebody from Upwork and they did an okay job, but it wasn’t great. But it was deciding that we were going to do it that created the tension of figuring out what good does look like. So from our perspective, one of the encouraged pieces that I would say to encourage people is it might not work really well the first time, but it doesn’t need to, you need to evolve to something that is going to feel really good, but you have to start doing it.
Bjork Ostrom: So it was bookkeeping. Lindsay knew that Pinterest was really important in the early stages, but every time she went on Pinterest, she’d get really discouraged that our house didn’t look nicer and we didn’t have all of these DIY crafts and so she didn’t want to be on it. So we hired a friend of ours who loved Pinterest to come on and to help with that really early stages. One of the things most recently that happened is I realized I was getting invoices from all of these random places and I would process those invoices and it didn’t take a ton of time. It’d be five minutes to log into our system or to send an invite for somebody to create an account.
Bjork Ostrom: And it was really easy work, and I was really good at it, and I had a really tight system and I would pay them efficiently. So it wasn’t like there was an issue when you think of the quadrants, I was really good at it, but I didn’t enjoy doing it. And I realized there’s going to only be more invoices for us to pay. So we brought somebody in in an office assistant role, Megan, who’s just been incredible to help out with that as one of her tasks. So early stages, we were doing this. Even when the company was in the very beginning stages, we sectioned off a little bit of the budget that was coming in from revenue and made sure that we figured out delegating. And we’re still to this day looking and thinking, “What is it that we can do in evolving that along the way?” What are some examples on your end, Kevin, that you’ve done throughout the years in terms of delegating?
Kevin McArdle: Well, early days, one of the things that I kick myself for not delegating faster was just the content production and management of that. I mentioned I did the job to try to learn the job, but I held onto it way too long and I just wasn’t good at it. And then I hired somebody who was good at it and it just made life easier. And I think I undressed, you talk about the invoice thing, it doesn’t take that long and it’s not broken. But in the early days, I was trying to keep a very close eye on daily revenue, which on the content world, you can generally do that. And we’ve got one website or two. It’s not that big of a deal. But then I got to 8 and 10 and I was still… I didn’t necessarily do it every day, but I wanted it done at the end of every week. And that was my way to see if there was ever a problem.
Kevin McArdle: So if the revenue ever went down dramatically in a given day or for two days in a row, I knew there was probably a technical problem that I needed to look into because I didn’t really have a technical person or systems monitoring the websites as you should. So those were two things that I was too slow to delegate. But once I did… Counting the money thing every day, we don’t do that anymore. But it was one of those things where I was like, “Oh, it’s not that hard. It just takes me a few minutes.” But once I delegated it, I realized how much time it actually freed up. So I was underestimating the time that I spent doing it and just the stress of wanting to have that done hopefully every day at five o’clock, but certainly every Friday at five o’clock. And it was absolutely something I never should have been doing from the beginning and a perfect task to delegate to somebody else.
Kevin McArdle: You touched on something else that I think is important, especially if people are… you’re currently company of one and maybe expanding soon, is that you’re going to make mistakes in hiring. And actually, I wouldn’t even think of it as mistakes. It’s just part of the hiring process and the growing of a team. Not everybody is a perfect fit. And I think it’s important to try to imagine what a perfect fit is both for the skills that person needs to perform their tasks, but also are they a fit for you as a boss and your culture as… Even if you’re a company of one, you have a culture and you may not realize that there’s a way that you like to work and the way that you like to do business. And you need to hire somebody that’s going to be a fit for that.
Kevin McArdle: Other people would call it their core values or culture. There’s lots of different ways to think about it, but it’s basically… You don’t want to just go on Upwork and hire the person that seems to have the best skills and the lowest costs without knowing if they’re going to be a good fit to work with you. And I would go in, assuming your point about the accounting, if you hire and it ends up being a wrong hire or a bad fit, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go back and try to hire for that role again. And this is something that I told you I had a good long corporate career, 15 years in corporate America, managed dozens, hundreds of people and now I run a company of like 80 or 90 remote workers around the world. We still make bad hires. I personally make bad hires. So it’s something that never goes away. It’s just part of doing business.
Kevin McArdle: And that makes people uncomfortable because when there’s a bad fit, the person you hired either has to figure it out and quit, or you have to figure it out and let them go, or in a happy path, you figure out how to make it a better fit by either changing the role or changing how you work together. That is uncomfortable. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that holds people back from making their first hire or their first hard… in some ways, it’s easier to outsource accounting than it is to hire an office manager because office managers are more… I’m making this up in the examples you just used, Bjork, but it’s a more day-to-day working together type of thing, where accountants you can give them access to the books and they do their own thing.
Kevin McArdle: So I think people should assume your life will get better if you hire the right people. And it might take a few swings at pitches before you connect on that right person, or you could hire the right person right out of the gates and life gets better. But yeah, making a mistake in hiring or hiring the wrong fit doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take another chance on it.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, for sure. And I think to also view that as a skill, it’s something that you need to, as a business owner, think about, “Is this something that I want to do?” And if so, that then becomes a new skill. Like you said, everything is learnable, that then becomes a new skill that you’re needing to develop and reinvent yourself in a way. So to touch on that as a last subject, you have this team that you’re working with, you’re all remote. If somebody is interested in also building a team and working in a remote capacity, what advice would you have for them in getting started with that, but still having a team that feels connected and you’re able to communicate and it still feels like a team even though like in your case you were across what? 14 different time zones, how do you do that?
Kevin McArdle: That is a complicated question. So I think a couple of ideas. If somebody’s about to make their first hire and you… I’m a huge fan of remote first as an approach to building a business. If SureSwift went up in smoke and I had to start something new, or if it got acquired and had to start something new, I am all in on remote as a way to build a business. It just opens the network of people that couldn’t work with you to effectively the world. You can pay the right price for the right skill set versus hiring just the 10 mile radius of your office or home. And it just has all sorts… Diversity is wired in from the beginning. If you’re hiring from anybody in the world, then you’re not just your hometown, you’re more likely to get a valuable, diverse workforce and just quality of life-wise.
Kevin McArdle: I like being around my team. There’s a small subset of us that are here in the Twin Cities, but I also like the freedom of not having to be in an office by eight o’clock or nine o’clock or otherwise people think I am as a CEO, being lazy. I work when it is convenient for me. If I need to shut down work and go pick up a kid from school or take a kid to the doctor, there aren’t a whole bunch of rules that you have to work around. So that’s one thing that I would encourage is think long and hard about leveraging remote work as a strength and an opportunity. And especially if it’s your first hire, I would think about that as a remote first approach because it’s harder if you build up a team of four or six or eight or whatever in an office and then you want to hire somebody that is not in your same city. It’s harder for that newest person to really plug in and be a part of the team.
Kevin McArdle: So just some things to think about. And whether it is your ninth hire or your first hire, it is a ski… Like you said, Bjork, and I think it’s a great point, managing people is a skill. Hiring people is a skill that both skills can be developed. You don’t have to be born with those things. And I think building team culture is a skill that can be learned. Some people just know how to do it, but it also can be learned. And so we think about just like anybody would think about, like if you have an office, you might think about, “Okay, when are we doing Ugly Christmas Sweater Day and when’s the Chili Cook-off, and when are we going to a Happy Hour?” I don’t think that’s actually culture. I think culture is what happens every day and how you interact with each other.
Kevin McArdle: Those are things that people might be familiar with. Oh, that’s like team bonding and team building stuff. Well, we don’t get to do that because we can all put on an ugly sweater and have a zoom call. But we think about, “What are the rules of engagement? How do we interact with one another? How do we treat each other? What technology tools do we use to interact with one another? When is email appropriate? When is Slack appropriate? When do we need to get on a video call when it’s just an old-fashioned phone call.” And these are things that require thought and attention in a remo… They maybe require a little bit more thought and attention than in an office context. But I would argue that even offices, you should probably think about that as part of your culture, like what balances making people productive versus also making sure people have space and boundaries to do solo work when they need to do solo work. And when you’re having a meeting, let’s think hard about like does everybody need to be in this meeting or should it just be these two people?
Kevin McArdle: And so it’s just native to what we do now that we think about the how and why and when and where of interacting with one another more than I think office-based groups think about those things, that’s actually taught me that office-based groups probably need to think about those things and talk about them a little more than they… people just default to… We’re all going to show up in the same place, Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 5:00, and have an all hands meeting every two weeks, and every Monday morning we’re going to all talk about what’s happening for the week. And for some groups, that may be the optimal way to work. But I think for too many groups, we default into these old patterns that aren’t the best way for people to work.
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, you had mentioned a few different things within that I feel like are worth pointing out. One is we need to analyze and think intentionally about the things that we consider to be normal and possibly break those habits. I think that’s a really important point. Meetings being an example, do we need to have this meeting? If so, who needs to be there? And knowing that sometimes meetings are really important, and it’s better to voice over something than it is to try and figure it out over email or Slack. The other thing that you mentioned is intentionally choosing the tools. Can you talk about some of the most helpful tools that you have as a team from a remote perspective, even that could be used at a small scale? If somebody’s just starting out, maybe they have one or two people that they’re contracting with, how do we efficiently communicate with a remote team?
Kevin McArdle: Yeah, I think it’s a combination of tools and process. So a couple of examples that we’re probably familiar, but we use Slack a lot. We didn’t, at the early days, we would do a lot of… We just tried to get away with Slack and email. And then we would start to do phone calls on a regular basis. But it turned into like this meeting that was just a meeting to have a meeting and it wasn’t very effective. I think Zoom is just incredible in the way that it helps to… Especially in a remote context, helps just the face-to-face contact, eye-to-eye, seeing people’s body language and expressions really helps to bond a remote team. And yes, Skype existed for a long time before Google Hangouts exists. They’re just not as good, frankly. I’ve used them all and we default to Zoom whether it’s a one-on-one conversation or a group conversation and that is a really valuable tool.
Kevin McArdle: And we think a lot about process. So partly it’s because of scale. When we’re trying to run 31 companies, you have to do it with some consistency. Otherwise, it doesn’t work, and it’s too hard to keep track of, and it’s even more stressful than just running a normal business. And so we think about process. So what are the things that happen every day? What are the things that happen every week? What are the things that happen every month? Who is accountable for those things? If there is a deliverable, where does it live? File somewhere so that everybody knows how to access it because we have several people and I know you do too, Bjork, where you’re operating on more than one business on any given day and you can’t learn a new process for every portfolio companies, how we look at it. And that applies to working with outside people, so contractors.
Kevin McArdle: We did some work with a digital marketing agency, or we might hire a dev shop to do a specific project that wasn’t a fit for our team for one reason or another. And we have, as much as possible, disciplined processes for how we like to work with contractors. And I think this is interesting. I actually learned this from a business coach of mine. Every agency, every consultant will have a way that they like to do things. And his point, and we’ve taken this to heart, it’s like flip it around. And even though they will all have their way of doing things, it’s okay for you to dictate, “This is how I like to do things, this is how I like to work with contractors,” which may be hard to say with a straight face if you’re not used to working with contractors, but it’s very simple things like, “We need to have a 15 to 30 minute call once a week to measure progress against goals. I need you to send me a document 24 hours prior to that calls saying where you’re at so that we don’t spend the time on the call with an update. I read the update at my leisure and the call is to do Q&A and course-correct.”
Kevin McArdle: That’s a very simple process thing and the tool you use for that is a neutral on, email, shared Google Docs, Slack, whatever. The point is that you have a process. And we have had consultants who balked at that. They’re like, “Well, no, we like to do monthly check ins, and we’ll do an agenda before, but then we’ll talk to you about progress once a month over an hour.” And we just pushed back say like, “Nope, if you want our money, if you want to work with us, this is how we’re going to do it because it’s a better way to do it.” And some people are flexible and they change your mind, other people, we don’t end up working together.
Kevin McArdle: But those are some of the things I hopefully answering your question of like both tools and process… And another thing that is probably implicit in how I’ve described this is it’s okay to learn as you’re going. But then when you learn something, document, “Hey, this was better than the old way and let’s keep doing this from now on.” And for the next relationship, the next contractor, you taught me the phrase that I’ve started to steal and attribute to you, which is 1% infinity. So get 1% better every day from now until infinity. And then I just add like, “Oh, by the way, write it down for the person that comes behind you so they don’t have to learn that same lesson again.”
Bjork Ostrom: Yes, that’s great. And I think part of what’s important to point out with that is the idea that there’s tools and tools are helpful, but tools aren’t going to in and of themselves solve the problem. It’s like you can buy a really good hammer, it’s not going to build the house. And you can buy a really good hammer, it’s not going to make the construction project smooth. We’ve worked with contractors doing projects for house, and it’s really different the processes that they use, and those are things that they’ve developed internally. And what I hear you saying is you need to develop those internally, apply those to what you’re doing and use tools to support it, which I think is really important to point out. It’s not the tool that’s going to solve it, it’s you spending time with and working on the process and improving that a little bit over a long period of time, which is that concept that we love.
Bjork Ostrom: Kevin, I can talk to you for hours about this stuff and I have in the past, so it’s fun to actually record one of these. I know that there’s lots of different ways that you are putting content into the world. You joked about that before, but you’re still starting to write, you’re active on Twitter, you have the podcast. All of those are great ways for people to follow along. We’ll link to those. Any other ways that you’d say would be good for people to check in with you to see what you’re up to and to follow along with what you and SureSwift are doing?
Kevin McArdle: No, I think our corporate blog, sureswiftcapital.com, me personally on Twitter, you have to tolerate a little bit of nonsense in between the business thoughts interactions and… Yeah.
Bjork Ostrom: Probably all the better.
Kevin McArdle: Yeah. You’re a salty veteran at this, Bjork, but I’ve really enjoyed the TECHdotMN Podcast. We like to say it’s made in Minnesota, but for a universal audience like we just talk business and life and balance and tips and tricks that I think are fairly universal for people that are going through life, they’re running a business or starting a business or working. It’s lots of great lessons learned because we have some really outstanding guests. So those are the three best ways. And just for your audience, if you want to connect with me directly, either a DM over Twitter or [email protected], I am always happy to chat over email or a phone with an entrepreneur who’s figuring stuff out because we’re all in the same game. So I love helping people whenever I can.
Bjork Ostrom: Awesome. Kevin, thanks so much for coming on. Really appreciate it.
Kevin McArdle: Thank you, Bjork. It’s been a pleasure.
Alexa Peduzzi: Thus ends this episode of the Food Blogger Pro Podcast. We hope you enjoyed hearing from Kevin and learning more about diversifying your portfolio and growing a business. One of my favorite parts of this interview was when Kevin was talking about the importance of delegating. There’s a line that Kevin says that just it makes me giggle because it’s so true that there is someone out there who loves doing the thing you hate. It’s just such a simple and powerful reminder that you don’t always need to do the things that seem draining or menial to you, but you can run a business, doing the things that make you thrive and make you happy.
Alexa Peduzzi: So before we wrap up, I wanted to highlight a new review we actually had on the podcast on Apple Podcasts from Melissa from thehappierhomemaker.com. It says, “I’ve been blogging for nine years.” That’s amazing, Melissa. “And making a six-figure income. But like Bjork always says, I’m always looking to learn more – 1% infinity. I’ve been a loyal listener of the podcast since the beginning and couldn’t recommend it more for bloggers of all niches. Thanks Food Blogger Pro team for creating such a valuable free resource. Keep up the good work.”
Alexa Peduzzi: Man, thank you so much for your awesome review, Melissa. It’s amazing. You’ve been blogging for nine years and you’ve seen so much success. We appreciate you being here so much. And Bjork and I read every single review that we get and they mean so much, and they also help the show get in front of more people. So if you’ve been enjoying the show, we would really appreciate it if you just took just a few minutes and left us a review on Apple Podcasts, it really would mean so much. So thanks for listening and tuning in today. We’ll see you next time, and until then, make it a great week.