Episode 1: Fixing your work-life balance with Billy Tucker


All Xero In episodes

Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

Work-life balance - is it even possible? Everyone’s got an opinion, and the issue is almost unavoidable if you run a small business. Billy Tucker, a no-nonsense Scotsman with an entrepreneurial itch, wrestles with this issue on a daily basis. He’s owner and principal at 57 Signals; a senior executive at Cirrus Media; founder at online startup Yabbit; and a husband and father of four children. Billy chats with Xero In hosts Rob Stone and Valerie Khoo about how he keeps it all together, what he’s learnt about tackling to-do lists, and the dilemma that is achieving both scale and growth in a business.

Episode transcript

Participants: Valerie Khoo (VK), Rob Stone (RS), Billy Tucker (BT).

VK:   Hi there small business owners, welcome to the very first episode of Xero In. Get ready for the best advice, insights and tips on building a small business. We’re coming to you today from our studio in Sydney, Australia and I am Valerie Khoo, a small business author speaker and podcaster. And with me is Xero evangelist Rob Stone. Hi Rob how are you going today?

RS:    Great thanks Valerie, really excited to kick off our first podcast.

VK:   Today we’re discussing work life balance and we are also talking to entrepreneur Billy Tucker. And he is going to be revealing quite a lot of insight into his entrepreneurial journey and some tips from small business owners as well.

RS:    Billy was fascinating. There is so much that I got out of the interview, building a huge business, a million customers in Cudo. The ability to actually manage his time, prioritisation of focus, and also you know, where do you start when you have these problems of a hugely successful business?

BT:    Scale and growth like that is a double edged sword. As a team we were all buoyed by the overnight success that was this business and as a result there were cracks.

VK:   So stay tuned because that’s coming up. But onto the topic of work life balance. Now this is an interesting one because I have certain opinions about work life balance, but I am interested to know Rob, what is your take on it? Do you have it? And what techniques and tools do you have in place to make sure you have that balance?

RS:    Valerie I don’t think anyone really gets work life balance. It’s something we always try and strive for, I’ve certainly got a long way to go, I guess some of the things that I use in terms of technology to help me a little bit. I wouldn’t exist without Trello, to prioritise my day and tell me what to focus on. I’m a chronic Evernote user to take down all my notes, and to switch off I’m actually starting to use some mindfulness in my everyday routine, so things like Buddify, Simplebeing and other meditation apps. Very helpful.

VK:   How often do you use them?

RS:    I need to use them a lot more.

VK:   I just actually don’t even believe in it to be honest. I think that the better thing to strive for is to love your work. I mean I love what I do, I can’t believe that I get paid to do this thing that I think is fantastic and therefore I don’t really think of it as work.

RS:    I think you’re right there Valerie, it’s an interesting topic because it’s the – the irony that okay, having work life balance implies that you may like one more than the other. Whereas if you actually love your work and you love what you are doing then in some ways, yeah, you are in balance and I think it then comes down to just being able to recharge your batteries so you can keep, you know, pursuing that passion.

VK:   Absolutely, and one thing that I do do, and almost every day is also an app like you but it’s called the Five Minute Journal, and it just takes 5 minutes, surprise surprise. And all you need to do is log onto your phone and put the three things that you’ve been grateful for that day or three milestones that you want to achieve or three goals that you want to achieve the next day and it’s really useful just to kind of have that reset and remind you what you actually did that day.

VK:   We are part of the Xero podcast network and we’d love you to subscribe to the show in iTunes...

RS:    And leave us a review, the link is in today’s show notes on Xero.com

VK:   So we’re talking to Billy Tucker today, tell us a little bit about Billy.

RS:    Fascinating career Valerie, he’s been working for a large multinational software company; he then went out and started his own very successful group buying company called Cudo in 2010. That grew exceptionally quickly to one million customers before a very successful exit. And in 2012 he started 57 Signals, a data consultancy agency. As well as working for Serious Media and starting companies on the side such as Yabbit and Beyond Insurance.

VK:   So Billy thanks for joining us today.

BT:    No worries.

VK:   Now you’ve spent a lot of time in the corporate world, and then you decided that you wanted to become an entrepreneur, what was the catalyst to make you think, “I’m going to start Cudo now”.

BT:    Well that’s only partly right. I always had an entrepreneurial itch, and I think most people will know that they – they either do or they don’t. It’s something that makes them want to run a bit more free than they can in their current workplace, and that was true for me. The fact is the Cudo thing just sort of came about. I, in my role in a company I was working at had a lot of latitude to go build relationships and build new products and go to market with new ideas. But the fact is this idea came at me and I thought it was a no brainer, but it wasn’t obvious to me that I was going to leave that business to go do it. But I did think I wanted to build it.

VK:   So how did the idea for Cudo come about? I understand that you, you wrote a blog post and it kind of went from there.

BT:    Sure so this is 2010. 2010 was really at the beginning of this group buying, let’s call it a craze for the sake of it. So just at that time, Groupon had been around for a wee while and was starting to get traction overseas and just for the sake of clarity, group buying is where businesses were able to sell excess inventory, through a website, it was typically time based. So there was a limited amount of time that you could get access to an offer and often the reason it’s group buying is that multiple people had to buy it before the thing became available.

     So let’s say it was a restaurant, they’ve got some excess capacity and they say, “Hey we could offer some discounted dining but only if 50 people sign up at the same time” So this was just happening around the middle of 2010 I was in the US and I saw Groupon and I thought, that’s fascinating. And it was really an example of where there was something emerging on the web that would help small businesses grow, help people try new things but it was also not adjacent like many other things that we’ve seen and I thought that was cool. I imagine that should a big media business become involved in that then that would accelerate the business model even further and faster.

RS:    To move from a concept to something that’s actually out on the market within 7 weeks. How did you actually manage to do it at such pace.

BT:    It was interesting the – unlike many start-ups, this – this was only vaguely a start-up. Let me explain why I say that. This was some people might term an – an advantage start up. I.e. Lots of money in the bank, great shareholders, access to media, access to legal and HR and to an extent, technology. So it was much easier for that business to get out fast than it would have otherwise been. However it was pretty panicked, it was quick moving. We got a great technology company that were able to build a solution in a very short order and we set ourselves an incredibly aggressive time scale and – and thankfully we were – we were able to meet it.

RS:    And you grew to a million customers in a very short period. A company that has such rapid growth often faces many challenges. What’s some of the fundamental challenges that faced your – your company.

BT:    Well, you know, scale and – and growth like that is a double edged sword, I mean it’s fabulous. Shareholders love it, we loved it and as a team we were all buoyed by the – by the overnight success that was this business and it’s so rare I think, we talk about failure rates in – in start-ups, which are extraordinary, but in our case that didn’t happen. We got out of the door, we got TV on day one and we were on TV every week for a long time. And so we grew very quickly, but it’s a double edged sword. We were not ready, we weren’t equipped we didn’t have the right processes and scale was a real problem for us. Our people were under an enormous amount of pressure and as a result there were cracks and those cracks started to emerge after only two or three months.

VK:   What kind of cracks?

BT:    Well it was really the, I mean, effectively the – the idea of a – of a group buying business is based on great experiences, new experiences but great experiences. But our end to end experience started to get pretty broken. To the extent that you know, we were making mistakes, we were making unforced errors.  Things were described incorrectly or vouchers went awry. And experiences – and at that level and at that pace, it becomes incredibly hard to remediate that, so it just – it was a compound effect, so you’re dealing with growth on one hand and an increasing need to pay attention to the problems on the other.

RS:    So in that scenario, you’ve got the luxury of fast growth. Process and systems start to break, how do you triage what to fix first?

BT:    Yeah that’s a great question. Look I think what’s interesting and I – and I believe this would be true in any case. Shareholders are romanticised by growth very easily and became fixated on the idea of the success that we had had. And even internally when we started to feel the groaning that was occurring because of the growth, because of the – the systems that hadn’t been optimised. It became really tough, like we had great shareholders, but it became really tough to refocus those shareholders on investing and solving some of the problems. So initially we had to triage based on what we could solve first. What were the things that were causing greatest pain that were going to be relatively straight forward to solve. And so rebuilding systems and websites, that – that probably wasn’t where we would focus our energies. But from a leadership point of view, it’s pretty clear that the first thing that we had to do was galvanise the people around the issues and the issues stemmed from not providing the experience, not providing the promise that we had given. And that’s a – and that’s a really big deal.

RS:    You referenced in an article online about Eric Ries, The Lean Start Up, great book, I’ve read it, I love it. How did you apply those methodologies with Cudo and the fact that you know, there’s an inherent conflict between, okay, growing too fast and not having the fundamentals in place with your systems and processes to actually having a lean start up and keep testing and iterating.

BT:    So if you come back to the fundamentals of the lean start up and at the same time agile and many other methodologies, the idea is to spend less time planning and more time doing. So it’s an iterative model. The fundamental message from Eric Ries is go out to market and try to see if the market is receptive before you invest heaps of time building. In our case that was part of the problem, is that we hadn’t expected the overwhelming response that we got, and to an extent what we didn’t do well had nothing to do with Eric Ries and had everything to do with our inability or unwillingness to put the brakes on, to slow things down. So that we could double down on process and systems.

     I don’t know where that’s top, stop and slow growth to make sure things are done well, when we knew the window was tight. We knew that there were competitors emerging weekly and that we didn’t want to squander the opportunity that we had, having not been first to market but been early to market. And it’s kind of quixotic and it’s hard to just step back and say, “you know what guys, we need to put the brakes on a bit, let’s not have all this growth, lets slow things down so that we can get things right.” That’s a really difficult message.

RS:    And if you had your time over again, would you go out speak to market, iterative approach or would you focus on having systems and processes in place that would allow you to scale?

BT:    Yeah that’s a really difficult question to answer, and let me try and flesh out why I think that’s true. It’s, It’s rare that a business would be sabotaged by that type of growth, it’s rare. And so to spend too long building process for scale that may never come would in fact ensure the business never got out. And that is the core point of Eric Ries, however at the point that the cracks begin to appear there is no excuse for not taking time to first of all truly understand them. To get the right insights. And then apply the necessary attention to solving the problems. Before they overwhelm the business. So I think that’s what I would do differently is I would take action earlier to try and solve some of the fundamentals, problems that we could see.

VK:   So with all of that growth, there seems to be like, equal parts excitement and equal parts stress.  Was there any point that it was like, “what have I done? Is this all too much for me?” Did you have a low point that you thought, goodness me, what do I – what do I do next?

BT:    There’s no doubt that there was a daily low point. And then a weekly low point. Look, self-doubt is a terrible demon, it’s a shadow that – that follows you everywhere and so, it’s – it’s really difficult. Yes there were low points, yes there was a tonne of self-doubt. I had some really good people around me who were able to help me through that. So you know, you talk about this issue of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a hellish thing, and I think we all have it. Some people don’t but they are the lucky ones. But when – when things aren’t going so well, even with the leading op techs look fabulous but you know it’s not going as well as you want, you know you’re not delivering the service that you really want and you know that you’re not delivering the employee experience that people had signed up to and that can be a – that can be a devilishly difficult thing. But absolutely I had many serious conversations with my wife about, whether or not this was really worth it.

VK:   What was your lowest point?

BT:    Oh I don’t know if I can pin it down but I, I – I made a decision at some point that there would be a better CEO for the business, that was tough.

RS:    What impact did that have on your – your family and how did you manage to juggle things for a period of time? Did you set expectations up front to then say, you know it’s a 2 year commitment and then we will revaluate then? Or was it, we’ll try and juggle things as they just come along and treat it organically?

BT:    Look there are many people who have this fabulously well-defined career path, I don’t. I’ve never had that. And it was, and it was easy to recognise that this was going to be a pivotal moment in my career, and so my wife and I, we made a clear decision that this was worth pursuing. Now she forgot that a couple of times but you know, we made a clear decision. It was a conscious choice, this is worth it. Let’s do it. We will see what it – see where it takes us. And so that allowed us to make more than a – a normal level of sacrifice. I think what’s interesting is, you either have a clear career path or you don’t. And if you don’t, where you see an opportunity you just got to take it and get both arms around it and do your best. And so that’s what happened here.

RS:    So it was a sprint, and you got to the end. Did you take some time off and then balance it out long service, tour of duty and then some time out? Or did you move straight into building, you know, your current business which is 57 Signals.

BT:    Sure, look I think again this is, this is a sort of really interesting time in my life and that – our families time where I had almost served 10 years in a big corporate. So I had long service leave coming, just before Cudo emerged. We had some great ideas of the things we were going to do and I think, 3 or 4 months in Italy was the plan, I mean doesn’t everyone have that in their plan? And, and – and then Cudo came and that didn’t happen. And then we got to the end of this Cudo journey and I remember having my – my big leaving drinks on the Friday and on the Monday we were going to start planning for this next adventure, and it was going to be some time away. And then I remember on the Monday I woke up and I thought “holy cow, I’m never going to get another job, what’s going to happen now?”

     This is awful, and I don’t know if you’ve felt that way, that you think when things are so uncertain, and after all that corporate time and then that excitement, to just then have this abyss. So i threw on a suit and I went and saw some recruiters, and I had some companies I had spoken to about consulting and I thought, “I’ll do that” and then one thing led to another and Italy never really happened. And so 57 Signals did.

VK:   So let’s fast forward to today. What do you spend your time doing?

BT:    So my time is split, so most of my time is spent operating a big part of a large media company called Cirrus Media. So we have a websites and magazines and events and the like, the areas that I look after are mining and manufacturing. We have hospitality, architecture and franchise. So lots of varying size businesses I – I care about. I have 57 signals as a consulting business where I have a number of businesses that I help them with their strategy and operations. I have a company called Yabbit which is a small interest that I operate for American Express, which is about small business feedback.

     There’s a bit of a theme here, data, feedback, these are the things that I spend most of my time thinking about.

RS:    And I love that, around 57 Signals, it’s a great name for a company, you know, it’s obviously 57 touch points or pieces of data that come to a company before the prospective buyer makes a decision. What’s some of those 57 signals? And if you are a small business owner, what would be say the top 5 or 7 signals that they should focus on for a customer coming to them?

BT:    So I think the idea of 57 Signals is fascinating but let me just tell you this. I stole the name from a presentation that a Google exec was doing, who said the Google algorithm can read up to 57 different signals when someone comes to the site, and I thought “That’s great, I’ll have that” and – and I couldn’t tell you all 57 but the idea for me is – is that whether you’re a website or a physical business, at the point that a customer interacts with you, they will emit a number of signals that you should customise the experience too. And I don’t care if you’re, you know, a cafe, who sees someone who is stressed, who’s clearly in a hurry and you react to that signal by fast tracking their order, or you’ve seen them before so you recognise them and there’s loyalty, you do something differently, personalise the experience or a web business and you tailor the experience to the time of day, or type of browser or whether it’s a mobile experience or not. But there are a number of signals that are sent to your business that you should react to to provide the best experience.

VK:   So obviously capturing that data and identifying those signals is very important, and you are a data kind of guy. For a small business who doesn’t necessarily have any technology, what are some of the first one or two or three things that you think they should start capturing? And how do you think they should start doing it?

BT:    So I think, well two points on that. One is that it’s getting easier than ever before. So your ability to capture data is made easier in – in two ways. One that technology has enabled that to occur, and two that the consumer psyche broadly has allowed that to occur. Now there was a great Carnegie Melon study that said, “If an average consumer was to read the privacy policies that they see, in the course of a year it would take them 76 consecutive days” And so less than 1% of people read a privacy policy before they tick it and so we’ve effectively now just given up on our privacy and – and we’re okay with it because we know it was our fault. Now the upside of that is that businesses now have access to more data than before, and people are less creeped out by personal experiences. So the opportunity that exists now is that you can provide customers with an experience because you know more about them than you have.

     And the reason the driver to do that is that switching cost is lower than ever.  So your ability to choose provider whether online or off, is easier than ever before and you have to focus on loyalty. So the way I would take that new insight that you’ve never had before is to focus on issues of loyalty. When you’ve seen a customer before you need to behave differently toward them. You have to and you should, and you can, so do.

VK:   So you are a very busy guy, you’ve got three seemingly full time jobs, and four, I believe, full time children. How do you manage to juggle your time? Do you, how do you decide how much time you spend on everything? Do you have some kind of structure to your day or what?

BT:    One of the things that I’ve done for a long time now Is I don’t, almost ever, work weekends. So very rarely will I work weekends. I think they, with the regime that I have right now is that I’ll often have 2 and a maximum of 3 long days a week and the rest of the time I’m definitely home before my kids go to bed, hopefully home a wee bit earlier, and so the, what I think is definitely true is that there is a diminishing return from long hours. And it’s much better to focus on fewer things and do them well, not spend heaps of time through the day fuffing around on Facebook, but to really focus those limited business hours on business and getting things done. Making decisions, writing things down and I think that’s the best way. That’s what works for me, but no weekends and no more than 3 late nights a week.

RS:    I recently read this great book called The One Thing, which talks directly to that point of, you just focus and that’s what you do, and you prioritise down from that. But you need something to actually work out the initial list. I’ve got a pet interest around various types of notes you can actually make. One of which is just your classic old note book and then you’ve got Trello, what do you use to make the initial list, you know, before you structure your day.

BT:    So I have a daily list. Actually I have my notebook behind me, and so I religiously write down a list of notes every single day, the things that I haven’t done, so I carry forward but I think what’s important is to try and figure out quickly that there are urgent things, and there are important things. But things that are both urgent and important get done now.  Things that are just important but non urgent, should just be constantly differed. You know at some point your tax return is just important, or urgent and then at some point it becomes both urgent and important. But we spend way too much time prioritising things that aren’t urgent, and miss things that are. So I think that’s the way that I tend to work.

RS:    And that’s a very useful matrix which I’ve seen.

RS:    If you’d like to try Xero, head to Xero.com. There’s a 30 day no obligation free trial, check it out.

VK:   We just wanted to give you some quick fire questions, if that’s okay. Who’s your favourite entrepreneur or business personality?

BT:    Right, do you want a quick fire answer? I, you know, I love, there’s two. Gordon Ramsay and Alan Sugar. Now they are very TV answers, but I think the thing that they both do very well is they simplify and focus on a few things. And Gordon Ramsay has this fabulous model that any one of his TV shows you can watch it. You know he simplifies, he focuses on profit, he focuses in on quality. He promotes and he gets things moving, and I just love it.

VK:   What wakes you up in the morning?

BT:    One or more of my four kids, would typically get me up.

RS:    If you were going to say, recommend to someone who is about to go and look at starting a new business perhaps, what book would you recommend for them to read.

BT:    A book that I’ve gotten a lot from is “How to deal with people you can’t stand”. It’s incredibly smart and helps you figure out two things. One, that people’s intentions are good, whether you think they are annoying, whether you think they are unconstructive. Their intentions are typically good, and then it helps you figure out how to adapt your style to meet their style, whether or not you think they are annoying, they probably think you are too.

VK:   What are the three apps on your phone you can’t live without?

BT:    Okay so Beat the Q for my coffee, Sonos for my music and Foxtel Go for my occasional content snacking when I said I was just single-mindedly focused on business.

VK:   What’s your favourite TV show.

BT:    Oh it’s Game of Thrones.

VK:   And finally, the best piece of advice you’ve been given.

BT:    Authenticity is massively underrated.

VK:   And on that note thank you so much for your time today Billy.

BT:    No worries.

RS:    Thanks very much Billy.

VK:   If you have any questions you’d like answered on the show, make sure you tweet us at Xero using the hashtag #Xerogravity.

VK:   That was a great interview Rob did you enjoy it?

RS:    Loved it, fascinating to hear how he had to deal with a fast growth company, has a lot of challenges. It reminded me of an article I read around the 99 new insights into making ideas happen conference around rewiring your mindset and avoiding burnout, which I think we’ll put up in the show notes later on.

VK:   So what were some of the key points in that article?

RS:    Some of the key points for me was around the mindfulness in the workplace. The ability to decouple yourself from your work and also recognising that stress is that crucible where you learn the most.

VK:   One of the things that we are also going to include in the show notes is the Small Business Guide, tell us a bit about that.

RS:    It’s a great guide for small business owners about how to balance your work and your life and using more effective solutions to give you back time in your everyday business so you can get on and focus on what you want to do.

VK:   So look for that in the show notes at Xero.com. Well that’s all for this episode, be sure to join us next time on Xero in.

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