I wrote, read, and re-wrote this a number of times. Not because I’m unclear on the why; I’m resolute and content. Dare I say excited. But my journey of building User Conversion has been an eye-opening, identity-finding, life re-prioritising one. Full of demons, hurdles and hard knocks, but also white knights, new friends and opportunity.
I recently sold User Conversion to, what I would consider to be, the most reputable performance marketing agency in the UK (and beyond).
It’s fantastic. Joining forces with a company who built its reputation — and even brand logo — on experimentation. Furthering it’s reputation with such a solid understanding of culture, and certainly catching my attention many moons ago with the partnerships of LivingBridge, Distilled and Hannapin. As far as life chapters go, at User Conversion, we enter an exciting one.
I find it interesting that some have questioned my personal decision to sell, assuming that I’m successful. Or happy. Or fulfilled. Or contributing.
I wouldn’t say I am or I’m not, I’m partial half glasses in each of those pillars. But in selling, I reflect on why the above perception from others is the case, or even pertinent. And in writing, I found a cathartic way to both add clarity and educate.
I hope in doing so, you get a sneak peak into what accidental success is. Or what impact “The pressure of success” has on ones mental health. Or the meaning of wealth. I also ask that you check in on your friends, family or peers who you deem as successful (or not). Check in on them. No, really check in on them. Properly. Never assume ‘success’ is as surface level as is appears. Because success is both complex and perceptually subjective.
I’ve been fairly consistent on the fact that, User Conversion was an accident. Born out of a driven individual, with one hell of a co-founder, riding waves of opportunity and luck. It quickly became my identity. An all-consuming feat which, whilst exciting, wasn’t fulfilling.
In fact, I remember sitting with my friend Lee Turver in 2012 before the premiere of The Avengers in the classy setting of Pizza Hut, Liverpool ONE. And specifically asking a question “what are we doing? Where do you want to be? Professionally?”
Lee responded with a detailed response about his desire to own his own agency. To direct people and build product that people use (he does so at the moment successfully and I look at him in awe).
I dismissed it as being a travesty to own an agency. It sounded awful to me.
3 years later (in 2015) I owned an agency. An unsolicited accidental agency. I never wanted to own an agency, at least not in a traditional form.
There’s a reason why in just 3 years in (in 2018) when we grew to an unprecedented and bootstrapped 24 people, I hired above me. Or why I never used the word agency when speaking to people, opting for the word consultancy instead (although I was forced to conform and use it on our website for SEO purposes. Stupid SEO). And I remember hiring an advisor and sitting down in Manchester’s illustrious Northern Quarter. Our first conversation was why I wanted to hire a managing director.
I’m not good at, nor do I have much interest in the management of accounts. Property leases. And perhaps most of all, despite my extrovert exterior, people. They were complex and I find it really hard to get my head around a clear difference between “think” and “feel”. Emotions are difficult for me. And that was my first brief to Mark, my managing director, to handle ‘people’
Despite hiring an MD, I couldn’t help myself. The responsibility may have been diluted, but the control — of the business, it’s future, the staff — still remained.
That conflict stayed with me for a long time. As a result, my mental health deteriorated. First with panic attacks which grew in frequency and severity. Once it was so severe, I even, in the classy Knutsford service station late at night, stormed through the door at night, shouting at the Starbuck’s assistant “I’m having a heart attack, call an ambulance”. He did. I was fine. Didn’t get a free latte out of it though.
These panic attacks extended to, almost paralysed, ‘moments’ of crippling anxiety. I later learned that they were physical manifestations of a problem that wasn’t physical. And eventually, before medical and therapy intervention, I suppose I had what one would define as depression.
As I battled those demons for a number of years, the business grew further under the leadership of Mark, Ryan and the senior leadership team. It grew because of the talent, culture and systems that were embedded within the veins of User Conversion, and still are today. I’m so proud of that fact.
However, it was clear that I was personally unfulfilled in my professional life, sacred of the overwhelming control, and my life balance was, well, imbalanced. I was clearly suffering from delayed burnout. I’ve read a lot on burnout during, and since, and come to the conclusion that burnout is a symptom of doing too much of something you don’t love.
Perhaps I no longer loved what I was doing?
Others influenced me that I must love what I was doing because it inherently gave me success. We’ll come on to that later. My network grew and every time I would speak to a relationship or newly found friend they would always ask “how am I doing”. But they didn’t ask, nor did I explain, how I was really doing. Because being honest, before COVID forced me to balance an equilibrium in my life, I was lost and really struggling.
Fulfilment and purpose
Simply put, I found that I was struggling because User Conversion was no longer giving me the thing that I needed it to.
Yes it gave me a credible platform to get my voice heard. Yes, it also gave me skill sets that round me off as a human — from negotiating leases to giving feedback to understanding the ins and outs of the (still mysterious) EBITDA. And, if I’m really honest, User Conversion made me what I am today.
I’m clearly not scared of starting something new and going into the unknown. I’m equally not scared of quitting. The dude who started Social Chain, Steven Bartlett (I really like him), says “quitting is a real skill; its for winners”. Yet I often feel as though I’m surrounded by people who are dumbfounded that I’m quitting. For clarity — I’m quitting what I’m not good at. I am quitting the control and ownership that gave my chronic anxiety and passing the baton over to someone, or some people, much more capable than I.
Instead, I’ll focus on what I am good at. I’m staying on within the Brainlabs family a couple of days a week in an advisory capacity.
Those that are surprised think that I’m leaving a very successful, profitable and respected business “at the top”. Who, by the way, is genuinely made up of the people, desire and systems that inherently make it “successful”, it’s not me.
That’s why I’m proud and others envious of our client list — working with some of the biggest, if not the biggest, retailers in the UK.
Those people assume, that I can make more money by staying put and therefore, by virtue, be “more successful”.
But it leads me to the question of what is success?
Money; apparently if we pay attention to what we see, mostly on social media. For reference, I quit Facebook to get away from that toxic culture and remain on LinkedIn, only, to see market trends and voice opinion rather than ego. Also after watching the Great Hack on Netflix. My data must be everywhere. Anyone can find me on Take Me Out 2010 S1E3 if they look hard enough. And when it comes to “wealth” there will always be more available and always be those that have more.
I’m not interested in that life of chasing “more”. I was. But things change. Maybe it’s the desire to go to a pub now, rather than a club. Or go for walks, rather than adventures. Or the fact I had a child, which immediately put him in the no.1 spot of priorities. Maybe I’m just getting really old 🤷🏼
No, the real reason for selling User Conversion was simply the direction that I want to go in, isn’t the same direction that User Conversion in its current form can take me. The control and responsibility was crippling for me personally.
And the familiarity and certainty of “this isn’t giving me a level of fulfilment I need” trumps the uncertainty of “I want to search for better”. Not more; better.
That’s it. The real reason for selling User Conversion is so much more than surface-level financial benefit. It’s driven by a need to create; to innovate; to disrupt; to revolutionise. What exactly? I don’t know. But that’s cool that I don’t know. I enjoy that, it’s what makes the future exciting.
And yes, I’ll make some (decent, I’ll be honest) money from this that will no doubt be spent on the odd trip to Disney with Max and Zach. Odd meaning as “often as humanly possible”. And that will give me options, perhaps comfort, in some areas; but it’s such a throwaway secondary benefit.
How can I contribute? How can I be more fulfilled? How can I align purpose to my work? When these stars align, these are the definitions of success.
We’ve had lots of interest in our business for a number of years. And yes we’ve had discussions, but none more fruitful, exciting and opportunistic as Brainlabs. Their emphasis on culture is infectious. Their leadership team visionary. Their trajectory exciting. And who hasn’t heard of Dan Gilbert? When the opportunity came along things progressed very quickly — a matter of months! — simply down to the evident synergies that existed. The world was telling me something.
My original intention, being candid, was to walk away from it all. But there’s a reason why I’m staying with the Brainlabs team for a handful of days a week and it’s nothing and everything to do with what I’ve just mentioned. I’m really impressed and in turn very excited to be acting as the Global VP of Conversion Rate Optimisation.
The other handful of days I have can be used to — spend time with my family, read, write, evangelise, consult on other projects — forms that allow me to express me in different ways.
Accidental success, leading to being overwhelmed, a lack of support structure, a deterioration in my health all led to today and it’s just another chapter. But if there are a handful of learnings I’d like to leave you with after reading this:
- Never assume those in a position of success are happy or, more importantly, healthy. Check up on your friends. Go on. Text them. Now. Ask if they are really OK.
- Fulfilment is more important than success. Success is a surface level attribute that means different things to different people.