The entrepreneurs who participated in the Web Fuelled Business program this week are pushing past the limits of physical location. They are bricks-and-mortar shops that are using the web to attract local customers who would never find them on the street; they are manufacturers and distributors who are using the Internet to enter the international marketplace; they are creators and service providers who are creating businesses that exist only thanks to the Internet, either because it allows them to do without a physical place of business, or to provide a core offering that is some kind of online service.
They have been assisted in this voyage by the extraordinary Doug Richard, a successful American entrepreneur who is now the UK’s leading guru of entrepreneurship. In the seven days I’ve spent listening to his presentations over the past year, I’ve watched Doug deliver the best advice I’ve even heard about how to hire, the most succinct summary of what you need to know about SEO, and the kindest dissections of a company’s core flaws. (Doug has a gift for ruthlessly identifying a startup’s essential vulnerabilities, but he manages to deliver the hard truth with the compassionate directness that doctors use deliver a terminal diagnosis.) He’s just as generous off-stage: the frank, thoughtful and surprising conversations we’ve had on the road have challenged my perspective on business and changed the way I think about my work. As a result, I’ve learned more this year about how to grow and run a business than I have in any other year since we launched Social Signal, and maybe more than I have in all seven years put together.
Web Fuelled Business puts Doug’s small business expertise in service to 3500 companies across Britain who are using the web to drive their growth. With the support of the UK government, Doug is delivering a day-long training in 15 cities across the UK; that day covers the first hour for each of five different courses, each of which has another 20-30 hours of material online. I was along to deliver the social media training, for which I’ve created the online course.
Also on the team was James Dening, an e-commerce whiz who launched his own consultancy after several years as Amazon’s Sales Director for Europe. James managed the rare feat of making room after room laugh their way through the job of setting up an e-commerce site and Amazon product listing — in a single hour, while also laying out the fundamentals of e-commerce strategy. If social signal.com or alexandrasamuel.com soon offer shopping carts that sell consulting or content by the hour or page, you can blame James: he left even the most service-y service businesses eager to think about how they could package their services and offer an on-site shopping car. There are a lot of things I could say about how much fun James is or how helpful he is as a translator (there were a lot more vocab gaps than I’d anticipated!), but let me just stick to the thing that will impress some of you the most: he runs his own micro-ISP! Apparently his village is so small that it didn’t have a high-speed Internet service provider, so he got his own backbone, servers etc. I am picturing this as a kind of 21st-century Downton Abbey situation, where the benevolent gentleman ensures the village has Internet access, the way he might once have ensured they have a doctor and a church.
If Doug, James and I were able to show a thousand entrepreneurs in three cities how they could transcend the physical limitations of a place-based business, it’s only because there was an extraordinary team liberating us from the job of thinking about anything beyond what happened on stage. For all that we live in a digital world, there are enormous complexities in doing something as tangible as delivering a day-long training in 3 different cities, 3 days in a row. Four amazing women conquered those complexities and put on highly polished events — events you would seriously think were produced by a full-time, dedicated event planning company — while also handling all the travel, food and psychological needs of Doug, James and me.
They were led by Megan Downey, who has project managed this entire process of developing and delivering a hybrid, on- and offline Web Fuelled Business Program. Her combination of poise and effectiveness led me to assume she must be a lot older than she looks. But she isn’t — my jaw dropped. Thank goodness for her maturity, because she actually had to save me from two potentially humiliating giggle fits. (Hey, you try keeping a straight face while extracting a microphone pack from the inside of a tight-fitting dress.)
Sarah Stephens handled all the travel organizing, from finding our awesome venues (a community church in Manchester, a theatre in Nottingham, and an Indian wedding hall in Birmingham) to lining up great, locally-run hotels (because part of the S4S commitment to entrepreneurship is to patronize local businesses). When I briefly lagged behind the crew on our departure from Birmingham, I had a brief moment of panic when I wondered how I would get back to London if lost them in the crowd. Then it occurred to me that I could look at the train ticket. That was when I realized how completely Sarah had wrapped me in a secure travel bubble, and how rough it would be to return to real life!
Fiona Russell is Doug’s social media goddess, who somehow managed to keep the @WebFulledBiz Twitter feed buzzing along while also managing the registration process — an epic challenge since it required complex coordination between live participant lists and online course registrants. A normal person who has just survived a gruelling fourteen-hour work day might nod politely when a social media smart-ass insists on brainstorming Twitter contests; Fiona not only responded with enthusiasm, but had the whole thing in place by the next early-morning start.
And then there is Fanny, who jumped into fill all the gaps. Fanny reminds me of the old joke about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. You have not seen fortitude until you have witnessed this lady steer a load of conference gear down cobblestone streets, dressed to the nines and sporting 3-inch heels. (Would that I had taken a photo!) She dresses like a diva, but there isn’t a trace of diva in her, so I’m hoping she’ll join Pinterest and be my new trans-Atlantic fashion inspiration.
While our traveling band was enjoying the sight of faces lit up by the revealed potential of remarketing, Amazon storefronts and LinkedIn, the home team was doing the hard work of finalizing the online learning site. Vanessa Knight managed to bend time (or perhaps the minds of web developers) to go from platform selection to full implementation in just 6 weeks. No, I’m not kidding. And yet she still maintained her good graces when I asked for permission to do just one more set of tweaks to my course…and then another…and then another. At 2 a.m. This is the kind of thing that web developers just love.
If she managed to create six kick-ass e-learning experiences that quickly, it’s in part because she fantastic content to work with. No, I’m not talking about my own brilliant contributions. (Though in all serious, I’m incredibly proud of what I’ve put together for this course — I feel like it takes all this stuff I’m randomly spewing out at people 24/7, and turns into into an orderly, comprehensive and navigable plan for building a company’s social media presence.) The really cool parts are the videos created by Adam Tysoe, who got me from a plane to a drafty studio in early November, shot me for two hours, and miraculously produced these amazing explanatory videos that intercut my on-camera comments with related footage.
The live video is complemented by screencasts that were captured and edited by Chris Cunniff, who helped me create step-by-step video walkthroughs on everything from sales targeting with LinkedIn to tweet scheduling with HootSuite. I thought the latter was going to actually break my brain — try lining up multiple tabs with multiple instances of HootSuite, each showing a different set of timings for the same set of prospective tweets, without messing up the datestamp on a single tweet and thus throwing the narrative out of order. Chris met me at 9 am, and by 11 was into full Alex Brain Melt Emergency Panic Mode, but was never anything except incredibly kind and lovely. OK, maybe one thing — incredibly fun.
I’m torn between feeling incredibly lucky to work with a team that is so congenial and so accomplished, and feeling incredibly sad that I don’t get to hang out with them every day. I’m hoping that the Internet will transcend the limitations of our far-flung physical locations just as it transcends the geography of a thousand great, web fuelled businesses.