You know how some established brands (tech companies, in particular) have long, flowing pages with a clearly defined “brand identity” or “core values” section, or something like that? I’ve always struggled with this concept because when you’re running a small business, it’s hard to determine what these are. When you first go into business, for example, you can say all you want about what you want your “values” to be. But it takes time, and experience working with real-live projects for actual clients to hone in on what it is you do and don’t stand for. For example, Google did an exceptional job of this in the early days with their list of “10 Thing We Know To Be True.” (Of course, the fact that Google act as though it doesn’t even believe in them anymore is fodder for another discussion).
I’ve never been able to sit down and write out in one session precisely what my own core values are. But after stewing on this concept for several months, I realized that I’d written down three or four separate lists that I finally pulled together and decided it was time to put a stake in the ground and make them public. Obviously, I might make small changes at some point, and I’ll surely add more as time goes on.
But today, I’ve decided to post it: a list of my honest, unvarnished business values that are important to me as a company founder. As my business grows over time, the people I add to the team will also need to buy into this list to a great extent as well. (That’s kind of the whole point). So for anybody who wonders about the “bigger picture” of why I do what I do, here are a few ideas.
I don’t know whether to call this list a collection of “guiding principles,” or “core values,” or “the manifesto,” or what. But I’ll probably decide that later too. For now, this is good enough.
Data wins arguments
This is the very first principle I decided on back in 2008. I didn’t have a catchy phrase for it until after 2012, but the idea was always there: if you and I (or anyone) wonders about what may or may not work, I’m going to find a way to get data to point us in the right direction. If there’s an argument about which idea or tactic will work best, I will look at the data, and that is going to end the argument. Pretty much every time. I’m no fan of opinions, and when opinions stand in the way of results, you shouldn’t be either.
Saying that data has the final word in arguments is all well and good, but is just wishful thinking if you don’t actually have data to refer to. Because of this, I will tediously, annoyingly remind people that we should always be tracking everything we do. Without data, we have no compass pointing us to true north. So track everything, and get the data. Fortunately for me, the web industry is nothing if not the world’s greatest treasure trove of data, and you can track almost all marketing efforts these days online, or offline.
Don’t chase awards
I’ve always been confused at people (and companies) that spend time trying to earn awards for the work they do online. I’m not necessarily against awards in every case, or even earning or winning one (if that should ever happen to me or with any work I do). But there are definitely companies that make this a huge part of their marketing efforts, and it simply makes no sense. It’s just patting yourself on the back. When a client comes to a web design company or digital agency, it’s because they have a problem or challenge that needs a solution. They need the right company to help them, not a company that won awards. And awards are absolutely, positively no indicator of quality or a job well done: they’re an indicator that a judge (who may or may now know what they’re judging) decided that one contestant’s entry was better than the other contestants who entered the contest. That’s it.
Again, if someone nominated me or decided to bestow upon my team or me an award for a job well done, that’s flattering. But this whole business of companies that send out emails to all their friends and family—who have likely never engaged the company’s services at all—to vote for them to win “best of” contests is completely pointless in my view. I will not chase awards, ever.
Speak in plain English
If you speak English, that is. In my case, I do, and so do all of my clients. The point here is to avoid industry jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords. These often meaningless words can be (and are) used to obfuscate the underlying issue at hand intentionally, and tech companies and digital marketers do this quite often. For example, when’s the last time you heard an easily understandable definition of “SEO”? I’ve never heard the same client describe SEO the same way, and they’re frequently very confused about what it is, and what they’re paying for. A lot of times, when I talk to a potential client about internet marketing, I can hear them repeating back phrases and acronyms they clearly don’t understand, but their “SEO guy” told them. It’s not their fault; it’s the industry’s fault.
Here’s a quick example. When describing a specific issue on a website, you could say something like this:
“The server has not found anything matching the Request-URI. No indication is given of whether the condition is temporary or permanent. The 410 (Gone) status code SHOULD be used if the server knows, through some internally configurable mechanism, that an old resource is permanently unavailable and has no forwarding address.”
Or, in plain English, you could say this:
“The link to this page is broken. You should redirect it to another page.”
Which would you prefer?
Take the long-term view
It’s technically extremely simple to build a quick website and launch it. I built a simple website earlier this week after dinner, and when from buying the domain to launching the site in exactly 25 minutes. It’s just that simple sometimes. But people often confuse “simple” with other things, like “easy.”
Building a website that helps a company accomplish their business objectives and create a profit is simple to start, but it’s not always easy to keep going. SEO is a great example of this: for many years, SEO companies were breaking Google’s terms of service, openly, and blatantly, sometimes proudly. I’ve met people like this who employed “black hat” SEO tactics, and when I’d question them about it, they’d say “Yeah, but it works.”
Well, it did. Slowly but surely, Google started penalizing websites that had employed those tactics. In some cases, all the momentum that shady SEOs built up for their clients literally ended overnight. Some business owners woke up and found that their search traffic came to a screeching halt in a day or two. (Look at some of these charts for more info).
That’s not worth it to me. I don’t want to employ short-term tactics that pay off now but will result in pain later. In every instance I can, I try to take the long term view.
Make it right, every time, no matter the cost
This is similar to taking a long-term view, but different in that it acknowledges that sometimes, mistakes happen. I’ve made a few mistakes in the decade-plus that I’ve been in business, and I’ve always tried to make it right. Sometimes, that means putting in more time than you expected on a project. Sometimes, it means troubleshooting some technical glitches at 11:45 pm on a Saturday. Sometimes, it means actually having to pay out of my own pocket to fix something or pay for something I promised a client but forgot to build into my proposal.
Mistakes happen. They do, and they will. But it’s my promise to always make it right, every time. Doing so makes relationships. I’m happy to say that the web developer I hire when I need help with technical issues that are out of my league has been working with me for over ten years. I have one client who has faithfully paid my invoice every month for more than nine years. These long-term relationships are important to me, and that’s the result of taking care of the people who take care of you and making it right every time.
Don’t follow methodologies or tactics named after people
Every once in awhile, I get requests from potential clients who recently read a certain book, or follow a particular marketing “expert.” They’ll say “are you familiar with the [insert name here] method? We want to follow that model.” I always shrug off these kinds of requests with a complacent sort of “Ehh…. no, and I’m not a fan of them.” Sometimes, I lose business over this, and that’s okay.
I’m extremely skeptical of “experts” in any field, and especially the types of people with the audacity to create a methodology named after themselves. Marketing thought leaders are a dime a dozen: there are so many I can’t keep track of, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the people who profit the most of creating marketing systems are the people who “invent” them, and that’s it.
Maybe that sounds harsh, but after 13 years in the internet marketing industry, I’ve accumulated enough knowledge and experience to have my own sort of marketing method. There’s simply no time—and no reason—for me to try to change my entire process for one or two clients to emulate someone else’s system. If those people are so smart, feel free to hire them! I’m not trying to be sarcastic or rude, but to me, asking me to work with a methodology created by someone else is silly. It would be like if I asked my wife: “Can you dress, act, and look more like Cindy Crawford?” I picked my wife because of who she is, not because I wanted her to act like someone else.
That’s not so to say those people don’t have some good ideas. I like a lot of brands and marketing minds: Neil Patel, HubSpot, Rand Fishkin/Moz, Seth Godin, Avinash Kaushik, Gary Vaynerchuck, and a lot of other folks, but I’m not going to commit to doing everything they say for my clients. I’ll do the best job I can, with my own experience and knowledge, and incorporate other ideas as needed. This is just good business. …and I would certainly never call this “the Ron Stauffer method,” because that’s silly.
I’m sure I’ll have more to add in the future, but that’s good enough for today. Thanks for reading.
Ron Stauffer is a web and marketing guy based in Colorado. He has spent the past 13 years working in digital marketing, building websites, creating marketing strategies, and growing traffic and revenue for small businesses across the USA. His motto is “data wins arguments,” and he uses data visualization tools and charts and graphs to track everything and prove the value of his marketing efforts for clients. You can connect with Ron on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter, or visit Lieder Digital online.