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In this episode of Ecoffee with Experts we have Jason Di Vece, CEO and co-founder of Bytes. Jason told Matt some anecdotes to illustrate the best practices for finding and retaining talented employees, fostering a healthy organizational culture, and much more. Watch now for some deep insights.
I think if you really are going to grow, you have to think about what is your culture and what are your people worth and how do you keep them happy and willing to work for you.
Thanks, Matt. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Oh, my God. Very scrawny and small. So, I was very good at making friends as a school kid, outgoing, gregarious, and I wanted everyone to like me. That was me as a school kid.
I see where you’re going with the questioning. I was a bit of a bookworm. My parents were always like, you better get straight A’s . They were very hardline old school. So academics were always a very serious measure of success in our house. I did do athletics but never excelled at it. But regarding computers, that is interesting. I got started young. I think fourth grade was the first time I used a Mac and connected to the internet. I remember a program called HyperCard. At the time I was just a kid and I remember being blown away with what you could do with a computer. I just thought it was so interesting.
I remember the first one we had at our house, it was a balck and white Mac. You had to pay extra for the color version and our parents too cheap to do that.
I didn’t and I didn’t know I would get into marketing. I never saw myself as a leader, someone running a business with staff. I went to school and studied graphic design. That’s where I got my degree and but that was for primarily print advertising, which we all know how things went there. And the time I did spend on the marketing side was was more technical. I spent a lot of time learning flash Adobe, well, what was then Macromedia Flash which Adobe purchased. I was writing games and thought that was really cool. So for a minute I thought if graphic design doesn’t work out maybe I’ll be a game developer, but who supports flash anymore. So again, I picked the wrong fashion, so to speak. So how I really got into web development or websites, building websites and marketing was, I spent a year teaching abroad in Korea and as part of that I had a WordPress blog. Somebody told me about WordPress, and I use that to explore my other passion, which was writing, and started blogging. And that was my introduction to WordPress, which was around 2009. So that’s how it got started. Because I was trying to build awareness for my own personal brand, but more I wanted people to read what I was writing. I got introduced to these concepts of search engine optimization, getting people to link to your blog, and share your content. And how do you do that. So, it started as a selfish endeavor. And that’s where it all started. That’s how I got interested in this world.
That’s correct, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. It’s odd to think about that, because teaching in Korea and running a Digital Marketing and Web Design agency, how do those two come together? And it really was just exploring a passion project, which was writing. It all started for me there and when I came back from Korea I needed a job and I got one as an SEO analyst at a big tech company that’s here in Vermont. So that was my training on like, here’s how SEO works for real if you’re going to make money doing it. That is where I connected with my business partner who I knew from college. And , he was building websites with WordPress as a freelancer, which I had never seen anybody do. I had never seen anyone create a website with it. I had only seen other WordPress blogs. So it connected the dots for me like, Okay, I can do a lot more with this platform. And that was how what was then Burlington Bytes came to be. It was my business partner freelancing and me working as an SEO analyst and freelancing, doing SEO on the side, and coming together and saying, I think we could make money doing this together. If we, you me, J handle the content and creative elements, and my business partner handling the technical business development side. So that’s how we got started, just as freelancers coming together. And to loop back to what I was talking about earlier that was my goal. The goal was we’ll make a bunch of money together freelancing. We’re not building a bigger company. I think it was $86 an hour. I’m gonna charge that and it’s gonna go right to the dome, and I’m gonna make way more than I’m making now as an analyst.
Because we’re in Burlington, Vermont, and my business partner had started it about a year and a half prior to when I partnered with him. Maybe it was probably two years. But it was just him freelancing under the name Burlington Bytes, his business name.
I shouldn’t diminish that. But on the surface, it sounds like it was a lot more than Burlington. Burlington Bytes was one person and I think he had the vision of something grander than what I had. I was thinking small at that time.
Oh, man, pick your poison. I’ve seen a lot of people that are replicating what we were doing, they’re freelancing, building their own portfolio of clients, and they reach critical mass on their own, where they can no longer do the work themselves, they need to hire. And what I tell people, I do say these exact words, I say, don’t hire anyone, go as long as you can and without hiring anybody, because the moment that happens, everything changes. It’s no longer just you, or just you and your business partner who have a vested interest in the success of the company, or agency or whatever. So the moment you bring somebody else on, it is a tremendous challenge, probably the biggest challenge in my mind, because you now have culture. That is if you create a culture, you introduce a third element and you now have to think completely differently. It’s like no longer about how much money am I going to make? It’s, well, I need to keep this person happy. And I need to keep them busy. Otherwise, it is not good for them and it’s not good for me. So, you have to think about the whole thing differently if you want them to take you seriously as an employer, or as a person or a manager, so it completely changes the dynamic. And I would say that was our biggest challenge in the beginning. We made some poor hires. People say, don’t hire your friends and I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think that can work really well. But it can also hurt you, because you have people that will take advantage of your relationship. And that can be very detrimental for a growing company to have turnover in a short period of time. So that took us a while to figure out and what I mean, there is like to figure out the type of person that we should be looking to hire and how to give them what they need to be successful. In the early days of Burlington Bytes, we didn’t have titles, like everybody did what was needed. It was a very small team, it was tight knit, and that only works for a certain kind of person. Some people thrive in that environment and some don’t. And it can become a lot to ask. I look back on that and sometimes ask how we even pull that off? We turned the whole company over. Once we had people that were core to the success of the business, that four or five years later, as we were changing, and things were growing they left. Some resigned or in other situations, were terminated because it changed so quickly. It went from a small, four six person organization in a garage, and then a basement to like a quote unquote, real business. We were creating a management structure and hiring rapidly and aggressively and they didn’t really see that vision. They were me when we first started, thinking we’re gonna be a small company. I like this ragtag sort of punk operation that’s going on here. And that was very challenging to figure out. Because we were just saying yes to everything at the time. And I don’t think that vision for what is Bytes Co today, that didn’t exist for many years. I think there was sort of a like, do we go here? Do we go there? You know what I mean? It was hard.
Yes and no. So there’s a lot to unpack there. We did early on, I think in 2015, we wrote job descriptions. Because we went through this exercise of saying things like, we should be thinking about who we’re going to hire and for what role. So we did exactly what you just described. Okay, this is what a Technical Support Engineer looks like. This is what a Graphic Designer’s responsibilities are. Here’s a Project Manager. And that was helpful on the recruiting side, because we were able to get people to apply to Burlington Bytes. Previous to that, I don’t think I clarified this before, the hires we made were people we knew, or friends of friends. It was like referral based, or like, when we had interns for a project one summer, we posted something on Facebook. And there’s a University of Vermont, in town here, so we’re able to easily find college kids to do data entry. But that’s not something that’s long term. So what we figured out over the years doing this process was, it’s hard for me to say what works and what doesn’t, because I’m an instinct guy. And I still do this today. What I mean is if I talk to somebody for 30 minutes, and I get a good vibe, and they interview, well, I’m inclined to hire them. I know that might sound crazy. Because it’s like, well, what about reference checking? Or what about having your team weigh in? And I do that. But I didn’t used to do that. We used to meet somebody, we’d have a beer, and we’d say, yeah, they’re gonna be great. Let’s get him in here. And some of those people are still here. And it’s been six years. So I think what I’m saying is, meet and form a new relationship, but in some instances, it just clicks. And I think you just know, and you shouldn’t fight that. I feel like you should just go for it in those situations. And it doesn’t always work out. But I will say when it has worked out here, it has been tremendously successful. There’s one person in particular, well, two, that are higher ups here. They’ve been here I think I mentioned the six plus years. And in both cases, we hired them on the spot. Like, you are great and we want you here. That is something I’ve learned over the years is to trust your instincts. And the flip side of it, something that I would say, has been a lesson and this is easier said than done, but don’t hire under duress. Like we’ve had to do that many times in the past where it’s like, oh, shit, we need somebody now we have so much fucking work. What are we going to do? And we kind of look past what are pretty obvious red flags, and we hire. And then it turns out, it doesn’t work out Right.
That’s a great question. An obvious one I’m sure people have said this to you over the years is you look at a resume, and it’s like, Oh, they’ve had like six jobs in the last three years. That’s a little strange. What’s up with that? That to me is always a red flag. Another one and this is kind of ironic, given that I came from the freelancing world and this has happened to us. You have someone that’s freelanced for a long time and now they want to work for an agency or they want to work for somebody else. That is something that to me is a red flag, because over the years, we have not been able to make that work. We’ve hired a couple people in the past that they’ve been freelancers, they’ve done Digital Marketing or Web Design on their own for however long. They come on board and turns out, they don’t like working a nine to five and being told that they have to hit deadlines or follow a certain scope. They’re used to making the decisions and setting the scope. So can be very challenging. When you have an organization team and one person on the team is clearly doing whatever they want. It’s like, well, we don’t have that. And that’s one of those things that like, on paper, it looks really good. It’s like, wow, this person is so skilled, they can deal with the clients directly and build the sites. But then you get them in, and it’s like, they don’t know what they don’t know, they have never really worked for an agency. And it turns out, they don’t really like it.
Matt, you’re dead on with that. Those are the things I hear in interviews, when I asked that question. I say like, Well, why do you want to give up the freedom of freelancing to work under somebody else? And it usually is along those lines of, well, I’d like a steady paycheck, I really would like benefits, that comes up a lot. And the benefit of being on a team. And I do think that there’s situations where it can work. I’m saying like, I’m going to interview them but we’re going to pay close attention to this and ask some more detailed questions about where they want to go in their career and why.
It’s a huge challenge. Because when you’re, and this is a question I always ask too is, do you hire for culture or do you hire for the job? Meaning like, okay, this person has all the skills that I need. I don’t know that they’re going to fit in but I’m going to look past that, because I know they’re going to hit the ground running on day one. So that’s one of my staple interview questions. I ask everybody that. And the most common answer I get, you want to know what it is?
Take a guess. What do you think people say to that question?
Yes. Which would you do? As a small business you’re often faced with that question, do I hire for culture or do I hire for the job? It’s a limited set of applicants.
Well, Matt, I agree completely with your answer. And I think that is one of the keys to the success of our business. We have tried to hire for culture, more than we’ve tried to hire for the job. Sometimes you get both and that’s the answer people always give me I shouldn’t say always, but more often than not, I hear people say, Oh, we’ll hire for both. It’s like, Yeah, no shit. Hiring for both is ideal. That’s called finding a diamond. But we all know how rare those are. You can teach skills.
You can’t, it is invaluable and it works both ways. Because if you can create a work culture, where people want to be there, because they like who they work with. Maybe they don’t love the work all the time, but they can look past it, because there’s so many other good things about the company that make them want to be there. Like, it’s valuable and it’s hard to put a price on that, it’s hard to quantify that value. Just very recently, and this is, this has never happened in the 10 years I’ve been doing this. We recently had somebody resign, they went to another business that was offering them more money, and they came to us and they said, look, I’ve got this offer on the table. It’s for a meaningful amount more. I’m not gonna give the dollar figure but it was a meaningful amount of money. And then we were in, we were in a position, my business partner and I, we said, we’re not going to match that. I think that the wage you’re being paid is fair and there’s a lot of trade off to that. It’s like you have a very flexible work environment. You don’t have to do nine to five, we don’t even care if you’re full time, 40 hours a week, we just the work done. That’s our thing. We need to work to attract and very loose management for this individual. So anyway, they left and ultimately took the higher offer. And that’s totally fine. It was an amicable break up. And what happened about five or six weeks later was this person called and then asked for their back their job back, they said they made a mistake and weren’t happy with where they were and the words that this person used where, I chose money over culture. And it really hit, because I almost didn’t know how to process it.
It is a compliment.
Well, we wish them the best.
No, we hired for that position. We had to fill the position. And so we did, we have to move forward. And we were able to, thankfully make a replacement or fill the open position quickly. Which was fortunate for us because I wouldn’t say we were under duress, but it was like, Okay, we got it, we got to fill this position. So anyway, I guess the larger point I’m making is about when you’re hiring and building a business, I feel like one of the biggest keys to our success is finding people that we want to work with that are smart. I think that’s the other key thing. If you can identify those two things, is this person smart and is this person going to fit in with the vibe that I’m creating? I think that is an important driver for success. And I don’t think that enough companies take that seriously, at least the some of the other agencies that I know of and work with. I don’t really see that reflected. We’ve hired people that have worked for some of these, and I hear them say things like, well a manager wasn’t listening to me or like, I just don’t feel like my work is valued and on the surface, they sound like they’re easy problems to fix. So like, oh, well, I just need to have a meeting with so and so more, or I just need to give someone some more money, and then they’ll feel heard and they’ll feel valued. But it really is more complicated than that. It takes a lot of work, which goes back to what you said, Matt management is work, it is constant work. But if you put in the work, you will be rewarded with a very strong and happy team. And that is why I still do what I do today, because I feel like that’s what we have here.
So we do a couple things here that I think help. We have a wellness stipend. We offer non taxable reimbursement monthly for persons who go to the Gym or bought some running shoes. I think that is a nice perk. We do team outings. We are trying to get back into them. Pre covid we used to do frequent team outings. We would go do a beach thing, a holiday party, trying to get everyone together to socialize more. So we are trying to get back into that. I think ultimately what I hear that people value more than most things is the flexibility. To be able to work remotely is very important. I am one of the older people here and I am thirty eight. I hear from most of my staff that they appreciate the flexibility of I can come into the office or work remotely. There are a lot of companies that are moving away from the hybrid model and trying to get back to everybody in the office. You heard President Biden say something months ago about , we have to bring everybody back into our downtowns again. I forget what the exact quote was. But he was discouraging the idea of remote work. I believe that is incorrect.
Especially for a smaller business like ours, you need to have that flexibility to be competitive. You need it because it’s what younger workers want and you have to give them what they want.
So this was in 2018, maybe the end of 2017. Burlington Bytes was chosen for its geographic pairing as an SEO strategy. So that is how we will rank for Web Design Burlinton or SEO Burlington. And it got to a point where as you said we were thinking bigger. How do we expand? How do we look bigger without being bigger? We have clients all over New England with a concentration in Vermont. Bigger than that we have clients all over the United States. So we were like why are we limiting ourselves geographically. So that was the core decision for why to do it and secondarily the name was always a little confusing to people. They were like Burlington Bytes? Do you write restaurant reviews?
That was something that came up a lot and our logo if I can share with you later, if you would like to see it. But our logo was very retro and almost cartoony in a way. It wasn’t a reflection of where we were heading. Because at that time we did have a vision for growth . We were thinking we are going to double down on Digital Marketing, Web Designing and Hosting, and supporting all these clients. Being that exercise was difficult because we all had these ideas, people that had been in the company for years and were instrumental in our growth. They were very invested and so wanted to hear their thoughts and it was very challenging. Like you get all these people in a room and everyone has ideas on, what do we call ourselves? What do you want our logo to be?And we ended up dropping the Burlington and becoming Bytes.co. Why the.Co and interms of .Com it’s probable money. We could afford Bytes.Co we couldn’t afford Bytes.Com.
If it’s even available?
That sounds more accurate. I almost feel like it was out of exasperation that we landed on Bytes.Co, if I am being honest.Because the process was so taxing and we were redesigning our website as part of this. It got done. It was rocky, it didn’t have to be. We had a CEO at the time who didn’t work for much longer after that. He had a lot of opinions and wasn’t the right fit. In hindsight it goes back to our culture. like culturally he was grossly misaligned and it was like, hindsight is twenty twenty. But in hindsight you look back and that was never going to work. I don’t know what we were thinking. There were some good things that he pushed forward like this rebrand but there were also a lot of collateral damage that came from it. I think our current website is part of that. I was never happy with that design and I think other people on the team were like , yeah good enough , it’s better than what we had let just get it out there and get it done.
We are redesigning it now. The new Bytes.Co should be live in September. We are all super excited for that because it’s like let’s apply everything that we have learned from the last time we did this and make it more fun and collaborative. And people do tell me they like our current site and I am like, that’s nice I’m glad you like it. I look at it through a different lens.
Thats had a positive impact. It was a little rough at first regarding our web presence, our visibility took a hit. I think we did an okay job but as you know SEO is something you have to keep working at it. I think we did a good job on the upfront like site launch and site architecture, but we didn’t have anyone managing it like for months after that . Which was a huge mistake. We needed to be producing content, tracking keywords and optimizing. That was something if anyone is going through a rebrand, let’s look on the backside, because we did not. And I think that hurt our visibility and we ended up having to spend more money on ad words to make up to retain that lead volume But the positive there was we were able to get in with enterprise clients. So we got larger organizations that we had not previously done a lot of business with. We had a couple but if we were getting those they were referral and it was rare. Whereas the first year as Bytes.Co we engaged in several conversations with some big players in the area for eCommerce and heavy Custom Development and support work. I think they looked at us and saw a more polished professional organization that they would not have seen with Burlington Bytes. Burlington Bytes was the Emom and pop model. The bar needs a website, the florist down the street or a restaurant. Bytes.Co is more like, oh, these guys can build us a kick ass eCommerce site and help us take our Digital Marketing to the next level. It present better and sounded better. It sounded like a hip cool Digital agency that is going to be creative and take us to the next level. And it did manifest itself in the form of larger Clients with greater needs and more money to spend and able to do more. So we were able to break into these accounts that I don’t think we would have been able to get as Burlington Bytes or if we could have it would have been much harder to sell ourselves. Whereas the new face it took our Marketing game to the next level.
So from 2018 to 2019, the first year of the firebrand, I think we had a 28-29 percent growth. It was just under thirty percent and that’s revenue. which I would call success. So 2020 was poised to be another killer year and of course the pandemic hit. So for us we ended up finishing flat. But then 2021 we had our best year ever. which was up went three percent from the previous year, granted covid was still here. I think technology grew two or three percent in revenue. It was still up.
I was talking about this earlier today. There is a lot that I am excited about for Bytes, some of which unfortunately I can’t too much about. So continuing to grow the business is in the future. And this comes in two ways. One is being more focused on eCommerce. I think there is so much opportunity in the eCommerce world.I think like a trillion dollars is gonna get spent online this year according to adobes study they released recently. The point is the pandemic accelerated spending online.
Two years minimum is what it is?
So we are positioned very well to capitalize on that. So that is an area where we are trying to flex more and get in with larger brands that are looking to grow and expand online . And that pairs well with the other side of where we are trying to grow, which is the eDigital Marketing business. I don’t want to say we are behind but I don’t think we have done enough to innovate on the Digital Marketing side here for a few years. So much has changed with personalization at scale. How does that fit into a Digital marketing strategy? AV testing using something like Google Optimize or some cool UI and UX tools.
Great tool and we are starting to leverage them and apply the knowledge we are gaining to help these companies make more informed decisions about how to approach a redesign for example. It’s not like, hey, mock up something for me that your designer thinks is cool. Well look at where your data points are today and let’s use that to help us inform what we do next. So trying to innovate more on that side. There are some interesting AI driven audience builder tools are available to work in this cookieless world. So ways to leverage first party data. So I think there is more coming from us on that side. I am also interested in exploring where, we talked about companies that couldn’t make it in the covid world. I think there are many opportunities to see what is there to pick up. And what i mean is like, plugin development is something we have been looking at. Where years ago we started to dip our toes into this and we have some plugin on the WordPress Repo. We haven’t touched them in so long and meanwhile they have been accumulating real users, to the point where people are asking us to support this stuff like, when we do that do we charge for this? So that is something to explore, like do we pivot the products or create a product division? how do we fund that if we do it? Because we, like most agencies, are tied to billable hours.
Right, just like lawyers. This is something that gets me excited because I think there are tons of opportunities in the market place still for plugin or app development in the WordPress Space. What it means for us, I don’t know yet but I do know that we have some stuff out there that we are going to take a closer look at and figure out what to do with it.
Well I guess it depends on who I am talking to.
Hire for Culture.
Hire for culture. Yes that would be the thing I would say, is they are the most important thing you have as an agency if you are like Bytes.Co. Your people are your only real asset. But they need to be treated like people, not assets or commodities that are disposable and can be replaced. I think that is an antiquated way of thinking and if you are gonna grow you have to think about what is your culture and what are your people worth to you and how do you keep them happy and willing to work for you? And I think that is today more challenging than it has ever been or at least for me from what I have seen. And this is going back to when we didn’t know what we were doing, we were making mistakes. I think now it’s harder than ever but if you can make it work it’s worth it in the long run. Because that is how you separate yourself from the rest. It is the team that you have and the customer experience that you can deliver and that comes from your team. I wish it could come from me every time but I don’t have time. So how do you level everybody else up? That is the thing to think about.
They can connect with me, I will give out my emails email@example.com. Anyone is free to email me and I’ll respond to you. I am also on LinkedIn, Jasson Di Vece. You can also go to Bytes.Co and find me on the team page, there is a link to my LinkedIn profile.
Matt, thank you. I really enjoyed being here, this is the fist anyone has interviewed me like this.
Its was fun and I am glad that you reached out and I was able to do this today.
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