John Surdakowski, Founder & CEO of eCommerce agency, Avex, grew from freelancer to small agency to now running a 30+ agency team. He talks about the lessons learned and challenges faced from his journey. Later in the episode, we explore the top challenges, trends, and topics for DTC brands navigating eCommerce right now.
John Surdakowski is the Founder & CEO at Avex, a New York City based creative, technology, and e-commerce optimization agency for extraordinary brands. From Web 1.0 and Flash animation, to the explosion of mobile and e-commerce, he utilizes his 20 years of experience in creative, technology and business, to help DTC brands achieve rapid growth. Throughout the years he’s consulted for JWT, Havas, Estee Lauder, BBDO, NBC, MRM Worldwide, Nickelodeon, MTV Networks and many other New York based companies.
0:53 Megan Ingram (MI): John Surdakowski, founder and CEO at Avex, a New York city-based creative technology and e-commerce optimization agency for extraordinary brands, comes on the Your Brand. Your Story. podcast today with almost 20 years of experience creating for the web, he has seen the digital landscape evolve from web 1.0 and flash animation to the explosion of mobile and e-commerce. He utilizes his vast experience in creative technology and business to help D2C brands achieve rapid growth. Throughout the years, he's consulted for JWT, Harvests, Estee Lauder, BBDO, NBC, MRM Worldwide, Nickelodeon, MTV Networks, and many other New York based companies. Today, we talk about the lessons learned and the challenges from his journey. We also explore the top trends and topics for D2C brands navigating e-commerce right now. How's it going today, John?
1:53 JS: Great. I'm glad to be here. Thanks for having me, Megan.
1:55 MI: Yeah. Great to have you on. Well, to kick things off, you do have an interesting path and I'd love to hear you talk about your journey from freelancer, to small agency founder, to now growing a larger 30 plus team. Talk a little bit about the journey and some of the lessons that you've learned.
2:15 JS: Oh, excellent. Great question. My journey started back when I was a freelancer. I worked for some really cool agencies, like Madison Avenue giants, like you mentioned, BBDO and McCann Erickson and Voss, et cetera. And that was cool. It was fun to work in a large agency environment. But I didn't love it. I loved being able to design and develop websites and also just write about them. I got into UX UI design, which I was always into, but I was doing more flash animation at the time. Going years back, probably about 2010, responsive designs started to blow up. Making sites responsive for mobile at that point, the iPhone was out for about three years. So more and more responsive sites and mobile friendly sites were coming out. And I got really into designing and developing them and then writing articles about them. I got published in Net Magazine, which is a web developer magazine and on a bunch of blogs. I loved doing it. I was like, I just want to write blog posts and design websites. So I left my full-time job, started doing that and as you know, it was living project to project and just trying to win business. But I used that as an opportunity to learn about sales, learn about marketing, SEO, and really focused on that. From there, we started to get bigger projects, started working with like Pony Sneakers and Iconix Brand Group. And that led to working with Liberty fashion fairs and Kith and all of these others. So new business started coming in and it kind of happened by accident. I just started to hire some people to help me out on the design and development side. A one-person shop grew into about four people. Then those four people left over a year or two. Back in 2018 I started to focus a lot more on e-commerce, and I was alone for about a week again. I hired a project manager and a designer, and the project manager is now our director of operations. She's still with us. The rest is kind of history. We went from about two to three people to almost 30 now. We should be more than 30 before the next few months. And that's where it's gone. Ever since we started focusing more and more on e-commerce, that is when we started to see a lot of that growth. And I'm sure there's a lot more at play of what caused that. I'm happy to dive into some individual aspects, but that's the high level view of how it went from freelance to agencies.
5:02 MI: I find it really interesting trying to grow, when you have a smaller team and then as you're trying to grow from let's say 10 to 15 to now 30 plus. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you've faced and how you solved them as you're going through that growth?
5:18 JS: Yeah, I would say that at different stages, there's some different challenges and it's odd because going from one to 12 or 15 people or 10 people or whatever, you're basically more than 10X in the size of your business. But the challenges from that aren't so much.
5:41 MI: Yeah.
5:42 JS: The challenge is from 15 to 20, or 20 to 23 were like so much more. Because in the beginning, what was a challenge, and I think we identified early on the idea that we needed to document processes. I can't stress that enough because if you're looking to scale a business, you need to make sure that you have the right processes and systems in place. We would have never been able to get to this point, and we’re still doing it to this day as growing to a larger agency is making sure that we have processes in place and not thinking about, Hey, what can we do right now to get a project over the finish line or make a sale. It's like, okay, what did we learn here? And how can we document that, so that the next employee that joins has a process and we can have a repeatable system and repeatable process for them to follow? I think that was a big challenge in making sure from the beginning that I started to document processes. And then I put that on our account manager and project managers at the time. She's done a great job at growing and scaling that and documenting our processes on the operation side. We're still fine tuning those over time. It was one of the biggest challenges when we were a 10 person shop, which wasn't that long ago, making sure that was documented. The next challenge as we started and that we're still facing now is being able to focus on retention. Hiring the right people, we made some mistakes with hiring. We hired the wrong people, whether they weren't a good fit for us or vice versa. Improving our HR, improving people's culture, improving the overall employee retention is something extremely difficult for agencies of our size and, even much larger companies. Finding the right people, giving them the tools and processes to do their job, but also maintaining that culture and just like any other business in the whole COVID space and pandemic and lockdowns and working from home, it's been even more challenging to develop a culture. So those are some of the lessons I learned along the way. And there's a lot of little things here and there, but those would probably be the two biggest.
8:04 MI (voiceover): An Airtable survey found that 86% of marketing leaders say that their current workload is causing stress for their team. John is absolutely right there. Documenting processes and workflows is incredibly important as you're growing and scaling an agency. But equally important is making sure that your team is also tapping into their best selves, that they're being productive and that you're creating a culture and a system where they can do that. In a recent “Coffee Sesh with Megan” blog, I dived into this topic about how we can unlock work productivity within our teams. As marketing managers and marketing leaders, our job is to create an environment where we limit stress and improve work productivity with well distributed teams. So how do we do this? Push back on clients with unrealistic timelines, check in frequently with your teams, make sure that your team isn't feeling stressed with the current workload. Constantly find ways so that open communication allows people to feel like Hey, I can come to you when they're feeling overwhelmed.
9:16 MI: I liked how you touched on culture and I'm sure as you're growing culture is obviously important and keeping to those things that you want to be about and your message. How do you keep culture and your business aligned with its founding principles while headcount is growing and increasing?
9:32 JS: Yeah, that is something that is challenging. One thing I did was write them down. It's important to write them down. We did that and we documented it. I think we could still do a better job at communicating that, but that comes in two ways. You could write it down and give it to your team, but how do they really follow it? It’s that you have to practice it yourself. Especially when we were a smaller team. Some of the things that we'd like to focus on were like, and I think a lot of businesses miss this, but they don't include their team in their missions, right? It's all about their customers. It's all about what we do to change the world or change the industry.But what I tried to do is include our team. Part of our mission is to build a really great team and that we love doing the work that we're doing, and that puts our employees first. So doing that in practice, for example, we've fired some clients because they were just difficult on our team or we've had some changes to our service agreements or our services themselves because it made it easier for teams, or changing our processes, not because it delivers work faster and makes us more money, but because it's going to give our team more freedom and identifying when someone is closer to burnout or when someone has too much on their plate, really caring about resource management and caring about the things we're doing. Yeah. There's the culture-building things that we do, like happy hours once a month, or getting together for a team dinner or doing some of these events and things like that remotely. And those are cool. But what really matters is that everyone knows that there's a plan in place, knowing that their company cares about them and cares about their well being and not just their output of work, and that you're actually acting on those things. So that's important to back up, not only document, but to back up what your mission is and what your culture is and, and show your team that you're doing it and not just writing something that sounds good.
11:39 MI: Yeah. And I like how you speak about the qualities there. Cause I often say, when you're feeling out a client and vice versa, it's about both, right? It's about are you fit for them, and are they a fit for you and making sure that feels right, because if it doesn't, then you end up in situations like you're saying where you either fire them or maybe they don't find the right fit for you and you go through those sets of issues.
12:03 JS: Exactly. And that could get expensive and it's just not fun on both sides.
12:07 MI: Yeah, totally agree. So what are some of the qualities talking about the hiring aspect that you're looking for when you're looking to add members to your team?
12:17 JS: Yeah. So we have some key values that we want every employee to have. Some of them are like the basic ones. They need to really be into e-commerce and technology or design and conversion rate optimization and actually like doing it. And they have to be an expert in it. We want to hire people who are really good. One thing that I try to do is make sure that someone could do things better than me. I want to hire people who do the things that I don't do well. And I would say that because I used to be a freelancer and I used to do everything, I’m good and kind of dangerous in a lot of different things, but I'm not great at one thing. The one thing I want to be great at is hiring really amazing people and just getting out of their way and letting them do their thing. We want to have people who are good at working autonomously, who don't need or want to be micromanaged. People who are just going to really care about what they're doing, people who are experts, people who care more than just the money. We want to pay them enough so that money is not part of the equation. Like, what else could we do? You're getting paid what your worth is, but what else can we provide to you? What's going to make you feel excited about your job?
13:40 MI (voiceover): Stand for something? Yes, absolutely. But make sure that you're living, breathing, doing it on a daily basis. And we go back to the classic example of this grandiose mission statement that a brand has. But then when you go and you look at their social content and their daily interactions, somehow it doesn't align. For us, it's be bold, be creative, be curious, be socially conscious and the things that we do and the interactions with our team and externally always ladder up to those four guiding principles. What are those for you? And does your team know what they are? And are you doing things that help support it? Gallup found that an impressive 87% of millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as important to them in a job. So to young people, young professionals, it matters. They want to know that you're standing for something and that you're doing something to help reinforce that as they grow throughout their career, or else you're just going to get turnover and people are going to leave. But if you want to keep your employees, you want to keep those talented individuals within your organization and retain them, then you better stand for something and you better do it on a daily basis.
15:00 JS: Those are some things that I really look for and it's just finding people who you want to talk to and are fun to be around not just like, Hey, they have some great experience. Yeah, that's really good. But people who are going to come to the table with new ideas who are aligned with the overall goals and kinda get it. Some people understand our business more than they might understand other businesses. We've made some hires of people with very little experience and it was based on I really liked talking with this person and they seem to have good ideas. Let's give them a chance. So, it depends on the role. But those are some of the key things that I'll look for when making a new hire.
15:48 MI: Awesome. Yeah, and I would echo that. I like the fact that you pointed out about having a conversation. Because sometimes that's so important; just being able to interact because so much of what we do is just working with people, and collaborating, and all those types of things and being in environments where you're around like minded people.
16:07 MI (voiceover): Did, you know, global B2C e-commerce sales are expected to reach 4.5 trillion by 2021, according to Shopify? E-commerce is on the rise, it's growing, and it's not going away. In the back half of this podcast today, we dive into the challenges, trends, and topics facing D2C brands in the e-commerce space. John is an expert in e-commerce and has a crazy amount of experience working with brands in this industry. And it was an amazing opportunity to sit down and pick his brain on the subject.
16:44 MI: So I want to pivot a little bit into e-commerce. I know you mentioned it's something that your agency specializes in. It's an industry that's seen a lot of rapid growth. What are some of the most common challenges you encounter for D2C brands navigating in the space?
17:04 JS: Excellent question. It really depends on what stage they're in. And I could give you a little brief overview about every little stage. Some of the smaller brands, maybe under a 10 person shop, and that they are really trying to scale and grow. They may face some different challenges as far as being able to just get brand awareness, being able to get people excited about their brand. That's one big challenge and being able to have the team size, to be able to do the things that they want. Like they know they need to do email marketing, conversion rate optimization, managed services and updating their site or digital marketing, et cetera. But they don't have all the team, the pieces in place to do that. So, figuring out what an affordable way is to be able to execute on those things like Klaviyo, email marketing, or A/B testing, or, making design updates to their site, but they don't have the team to do that, and being able to find an affordable way of doing that. Another challenge for some larger brands is figuring out ways, well, how do we get the edge on conversion rates? What can we do about A/B testing? What's that next step? After we went to 20, 30 million, how are we going to get from 30 million to a hundred million and scale? That's when we start to focus on how we can improve, like anything on the logistics side? How can we improve customer experience? What are ways that we could improve a smaller metric and run A/B tests using tools like dynamic yield and things like that? So some of these things brands might not even be aware of. They know they exist, but they're not sure how to execute on them. And that's where we come in to help understand what their problems are and then identify how we're actually going to solve them.
19:00 MI: Yep. That totally makes sense. Thinking about some of the top trends and I know there's a lot going on in this space right now. What are some things for you that are top of mind or high priority when you're looking at let's just say the next year, in this space?
19:16 JS: Yeah, some trends in e-commerce, great. There's a lot going on right now. With the iOS 14 and 15 updates. There were some changes in how brands are going to be doing digital marketing and what they're considering as a metric especially in email, like open rates might take a hit. What are we considering our metric? How are we making sure that we're putting valuable content out there and that our products are great. And it's not about how much traffic we could get to a site and what the sales funnel is. How many click throughs or open rates do we get through email? I think they're going to be measuring metrics a bit differently. I think Headless is also something that's going to continue to grow. The SaaS companies that make Headless easier and easier, are going to be the ones that win, or the companies like Shopify plus, or others that make page speed optimization and things move faster without having to go Headless that even may be something that gets more and more popular. I think overall, focusing more on retention and conversion rate optimization, rather than winning new customers, focusing on the customers that you have and really growing a brand. Building a platform, building a community, to be able to improve what you're doing for your current customers and how you service them. Loyalty is going to be really big. Past few years have been a lot about how we can target the right people with social ads, drive them to the site, and get them to the site. That's been big. I think we're going to see more of a shift to retention loyalty, on-site optimization, and customer experience. All of those things are going to make you win in the long run, as opposed to just getting those quick sales.
21:08 MI (voiceover): John called out quite a few different challenges. They're facing both small to medium size to large e-commerce brands, but I wanted to put a spotlight on the mobile aspect right now. 59% of shoppers surveyed say that being able to shop on mobile is important when deciding which brand or retailer to buy from according to Think with Google. And further, Statista estimated that by the end of 2021, 73% of e-commerce sales will take place on a mobile device. Now, listen, mobile is not new, but I do think it's critically important when we're talking about e-commerce. If your e-commerce site isn't responsive on mobile. If you're not designing your site, thinking about mobile first, then you're missing out on a huge opportunity to get ahead in this space.
22:01 MI: Talking a little bit more about retention and loyalty, and I couldn't agree more that that's so critical for e-commerce brands. Why do you think it's so important and what are you seeing some of the pitfalls that brands have run into while trying to do this?
22:15 JS: Yeah. I think that there are some misconceptions about loyalty. Some people think you could just sign up for a program, like Loyalty Lion or something, and your customers are just going to become loyal. That's just the platform that you're using for points or whatever the system is to be able to track it. What's important is that you're providing an amazing customer experience, you have an amazing product, and that you're consistent. The more consistent that you're going to be and the more that you're providing a great customer experience, those customers are going to just keep coming back. Like how can you provide a personalized experience, a great customer experience and just be consistent. Then it's not going to matter what platform you're using, whether it's Yacht or Loyalty Lion or something else because the customers don't care about that.
23:08 MI (voiceover): Creating and implementing personalized experiences onsite or with your marketing efforts has shown to have a strong impact on revenue. In a 2019 Boston Consulting Group study, they found it had a 25% revenue lift for retailers scaling advanced personalization capabilities. Brands that are able to get this, to get data, to harness that data, to use it, to create personalized and customized shopping experiences win and get ahead.
23:41 JS: They care about your product and, if they're a loyal customer, what are you giving in return? So I think that using those platforms is great, but what else can you do? Like there are some brands that have set up private Slack channels to get customer feedback. I think Glossier does this. There are others that are more engaged with their community. It's about building that community and providing them with the best possible customer experience. And then in turn, your customers are going to be loyal and then you can start leveraging some of those platforms to build that community.
24:16 MI (voiceover): Authenticity equals trust. The latest Gustavson Brand Trust study found that trust had declined for almost all brands. And further, it discovered that trust in key institutions has been eroding significantly over the past few years, and we need not look no further than the state of our current political environment, the average brand trust score for all brands surveyed in 2020 was at an all time low. Listen, people are very skeptical right now. They don't feel like people are being honest and real with them, and the brands that are able to create that connection and really genuinely show people, Hey, this is who we are, aligning again, we go back to what we were saying earlier with the mission statement. Those are the brands that will win.
25:09 MI: I know you mentioned Headless commerce. For people who maybe aren't as familiar with that term, just talk a little bit about what that is and why that is such a big topic right now in the e-commerce space.
25:20 JS: Sure. So I'll try to not be insanely technical. It's even above my head sometimes. But right now, I'll start with a little history. So many years ago, e-commerce if you wanted to create any commerce store, you essentially had to build everything from the ground up. This is before Magento, or even when Magento was beginning to be popular, before Shopify. There weren't cloud-based software as a service companies. It was like Hey, you have to build your database. You have to build your payment transaction system, your inventory management system. It was a whole mess. Over the years, companies like Shopify and BigCommerce, and Magento have created these SaaS products that are all in one solution. It's your hosting, your database, your inventory management system, your payment gateways, all of these things in one. However, not that they're slow, but progressive web app technology being able to use any coding language, like Next JS or Vue JS or Gatsby React, things like that you can build an insanely fast website. So now we've taken a step backward where we're looking at it from decoupling all of these systems. So you have your content management system sitting here, you have your e-commerce platform and payment gateway here, and you have your codebase completely separate. So with all of these things separate, you could code in any language that you want. You're not bound by any limitations of the platform and the benefits of that are going to be an insanely fast website. It uses progressive web app technology so you're able to load the site very differently than you could if you were just using Shopify Plus. They call it a progressive web app because you essentially get app-like speed on there. The same way that you're navigating on Instagram or something. And it's moving, very snappy and quick and nothing takes time to load. When you go to a website from there, now it's slow, but with a progressive web app using Headless, you're able to continue that in-app-like experience. So essentially that's what it is. It's retooling the commerce, your whole commerce tech stack, from the ground up. It's insanely harder to execute on and to manage, but the benefits are there. We don't usually recommend Headless unless a brand is doing like 10 to 20 million in revenue. Although there are some brands around the 3 to 5 million where it starts to make sense because you're going to see an insane amount of conversion rate increases, you're going to see a lot faster page load speed, a lot more control of content, but again, it depends on your business. For some businesses it's right, for some, it's not. Hopefully that made sense.
28:13 MI: No, no, no, no. That was really good. I just wanted to set a level set for people who may be new to this faith and don't know exactly what that is while we're throwing terms out there.
28:24 JS: Yeah. Everyone has a different explanation of it. But that's essentially what it is. I probably could have simplified it even more, but I still have some learning to do on it as well.
28:36 MI: Well, the last question. Give me one great e-commerce client’s story from the last year and how you helped them solve a challenge.
28:45 JS: Oh, great question. There's a couple, I'm trying to think of one that we really helped recently. I would say one of the most recent ones would be a D2C brand called Rumple. They create blankets; really awesome outdoor/indoor blankets that come in this little pouch. They're a very popular D2C brand. We recently launched some and this was just a smaller project, but I'm really proud of it because they had some page load issues. They also needed these landing pages and wanted to retool the navigation. So we worked with them to make some database back to UX decisions, implementing them on their Shopify Plus store reactions. Drastically improve page load time, without the need to go Headless. I believe we're also using the Shogun page builder on the site, so it's easy for them to make updates. And it was really good. They came to us and they needed some of the site updates and they needed someone to be a lot more intentional about what we did. So we did a little discovery, identified areas where we can improve and we really helped them to increase their page load speed, as well as to improve the user experience on the site and develop some landing pages. So that was one that I'm really proud of. Probably the biggest one that we've done over the past year is, we manage all of Hugo Boss's email marketing. That's been extremely exciting to take over. They were working with an agency that just wasn't delivering for them. We were able to win that project with our creativity, with our copy. And now we handle all of their email marketing design, development, and copywriting. So that one just feels really good to see that grow. Also we started to see some of the creativity that we did for them in-store. We did some in-store displays on the TV screens, the creative direction for their Pride month sales, for their sample sales and to see that in real life and not just like on email. And also worked with them on some collaborations they had with NBA and a Capsule collection. That was just an interesting growth story of when we started to talk with them when we were like 8 to 10 people. And now we're up to 30 people and we've grown with Hugo Boss. It's been really cool over the past year and a half or so just working with them.
31:16 MI: Yeah. We talked about retention for clients, but it also works for agencies, like just keeping them and adding projects and growing with brands that way, which is always cool.
31:29 JS: Yeah, I definitely wanted to talk about both sides of it. Like smaller DC brands through enterprise brands, just finding a great client experience is going to mean more work together just showing them that we know what we're doing, we're able to retain that client for the long term.
31:45 MI: Awesome. Well, I really appreciate you coming on today. Where can people find you?
31:49 JS: Well, you can find me on LinkedIn. Just search my name on LinkedIn and you'll find it, John Surdakowski, or just look for Avex. You can go to our website, avexdesigns.com, and check out some of our work and feel free to direct message me, add me on LinkedIn or check out our website.
32:06 MI: Awesome. We'll definitely check him and the agency out, and again, so glad to have you on today, it was a pleasure.
32:13 JS: Thanks, Megan. I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.