in Life

2020 year in review

I haven’t written an annual review post for a couple of years and had no intention of changing that this year, but I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s, am pretty bad at writing about myself and want to change that, and want to write more this year. It seems like a good fit!

2020 is over, hooray! I can’t start this without talking about COVID-19. At the time of writing, in the UK hospitalisation rates are higher than ever, 1.9 million people have died worldwide, and whilst vaccinations are starting it seems plausible restrictions are still in place in 12 months’ time. I’ve been mostly at home, my wife works in medicine and has been doing dangerous work where a lot of people have died. It’s been terrible.

2020 was a good year to be working remotely already, though. It was also a good year to be working in an industry which helps people work online. For me personally, 2020 had things which were Very Bad, but day-to-day I had a good routine, got on with my work, and I made the most of it. Let’s thus look at a couple of areas.

Ellipsis

My day job is running Ellipsis. 2020 was our best year ever. We grew revenue by over 100%, hired 3 full-time people, and delivered more and better-than-ever work to a record number of clients. We also added much more sophistication into the business, doing a huge amount of work on processes and systems around client work, but also project management, sales, our marketing, and professional development.

I see Ellipsis as the market-leader for marketing in WordPress. With that comes a responsibility to help drive forward the professionalisation of our area and share what we’re learning. We really lived up to that in 2020, making genuinely new progress on marketing in WordPress and sharing that with both our clients and the community as a whole. I couldn’t be prouder of the team, and am extremely excited about what we’re going to do this year.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Whilst I am extremely bullish about the future growth of the WordPress industry and I suspect overall growth in WordPress last year was extremely strong, we’re obviously not immune to a global recession. We had a couple of challenges:

  • In March/April we saw new projects postponed as clients understandably dealt with economic uncertainty by postponing projects
  • We use a “hub and spoke” model, where the core team and expertise is in-house but we use a pretty big network of freelancers for specific expertise on specific projects. This is a really efficient model which lets us give clients great value, but it means we had a juggling act dealing with significantly higher unavailability than normal.
  • No travel! This meant no team meetups and no conferences. Our team meetups are a huge part of how we work and solve problems. We fortunately had one in February just before restrictions kicked in, but they’re now on hold indefinitely and with hiring, half the team now hasn’t met in person. There were also no WordCamps . I normally go to 4-6 WordCamps a year, and they’re extremely valuable for meeting new people, talking to our clients, and keeping a finger on the industry “pulse”. Not having them left a big hole in our sales funnel.

We dealt with all of these. We decided early on that we should continue with our plans for the year, and that meant hiring two people in mid-2020. I’m financially fairly risk-averse, and that meant I’d built up a cash reserve for the business. We decided that now was the time to use some of that in order to continue with our hiring plans and be in a stronger position when demand recovered — which it did pretty quickly. We also added a lot more freelancers to our network to add resilience.

Around the same time we also started working on systematising our sales and marketing. Until then this was something I took care of, and I was doing a good enough job that it didn’t need much attention. We needed more predictability and insight, though, so we put in place KPIs for these and started working towards them. Our Head of Content Natasha and I now meet with James, an excellent consultant, every fortnight and I attribute a lot of the progress we made last year to these meetings and the work around them.

I really enjoyed writing our Press Marketing newsletter last year. We launched the first issue in January, and by the end of the year we had 350 subscribers with a 50% open rate. For a lengthy, niche monthly newsletter, I was very pleased with that. We also started regularly publishing insight-heavy content on our blog, and produced our first whitepaper too.

Hiring was big in 2020. We hired 3 people, 1 of whom left fairly quickly. That was a big learning experience and also an inflection point for us. We now have a Manager for each of our main service areas and are set up to grow this significantly this year. At the time of writing, our first Content Specialist starts tomorrow!

George and Monica are the two new team members who joined in 2020, with the roles of Conversions Manager and Content Manager respectively. George brings a huge amount of CRO expertise to the team, and Monica brings a phenomenal amount of agency experience to the team. Both have been a pleasure to work with, and they’re now managed by Natasha, our Head of Content and Conversions and supported by Peta, our Head of Outreach and Analytics.

We didn’t get it right the first time. We didn’t grow the team at all in 2019, so whilst we felt ready to do so in January 2020, we lacked experience. In hindsight we didn’t have the right setup to make it work, and with hindsight it was quickly obvious to me I had made a huge error in getting in the way too much. Having our first person leave was fairly stressful, but it taught us a lot and we definitely got it right the second time. We tweaked the role, I got out the way, and we’ve really kicked on since.

Automation, systems, and processes also got a lot of attention last year. Our Content Process in particular received a lot of attention: this is how we deliver our Content Growth plans, and one of our strengths is we can continually iterate across all our clients and then quickly roll out improvements to everyone. The Content Process is always getting better but improved significantly last year. It’s also now powered by a lot of automation. This was another big win. 

We do our Content Growth on a monthly basis, so there’s a lot of work that gets done each month. We’ve always used Zapier to power some automation, but towards the end of the year it really clicked for me the extent of what was possible. We went from using Zapier for bits and pieces to pushing basically everything through Zapier. We now use about 5,000 actions/month in Zapier, and it probably does the work of half a full-time person. A couple of examples for you:

  • All monthly tasks are now created through Zapier, with related tasks taken care of automatically. This includes creating docs, sub-tasks, reporting – the whole lot. One of these Zaps runs to 30 individual steps!
  • We used to manually enter rankings and sales on a per-post basis into spreadsheets. These are now done by a monster-size zap which chews through about 4k individual actions in Zapier in about 30 mins.
  • Our onboarding and kickoffs are now automated through Drip and Zapier.
  • Sales work is much more reliable, with the help of Zapier.

This is a recent, and interesting trend: we’re becoming partially a technology company, not just a services company. This means we can add scale and reliability through technology, letting the automation take care of the low-value work and the team take care of the high-value specialist work. There’s more to be done on this in 2021 and I’m very much looking forward to it.

Somewhat unusually for an entrepreneur, I’m not primarily motivated by money. Don’t get me wrong – I like earning a good salary, and I will always charge what we’re worth – but I’m more interested in what revenue lets us do, rather than the revenue as an intrinsic end in itself. This means revenue goes to the bottom of the Ellipsis section, and whilst we’re going to grow revenue significantly this year, we don’t have a revenue goal. Instead, we have a profit margin goal as our “north star”, as that’s what makes everything possible.

That said, revenue was very strong in 2020. We doubled our revenue from 2019 and invested significantly in the future of the business. Our Marketing Audit and Strategy work is the first bit of work we do with new clients and we did one of these most weeks in 2020. From there we can do implementation work, and we saw significant growth with our Content Growth plans, and Copy and Email work. We added significantly more value to all of these.

We also introduced new service lines! We’ve introduced Technical SEO, solidified our packages for Lead Generation and Customer Retention email sequences, and in December launched our CMO-as-a-Service plan. We’ve filled our initial roster for that, and I’m extremely bullish about the growth we can help these clients unlock.

We aimed to gain B Corp registration last year, but it didn’t happen. It was probably too early for us, and we were defeated by the volume of work. We’re working with Chris to get the registration this year.

Personal development

My work is intrinsically linked with Ellipsis, but personal development gets a separate section. My “job” is currently unrecognisable to 12 months ago, which is exactly how I like it. I’m internally driven by solving interesting problems and learning new things, and my job offers me the perfect place to do both.

A couple of areas I made a concerted effort to improve on, and I feel went especially well:

  • Management: one of my professional aims last year was to become a great manager. You’d have to ask my team, but I feel I improved significantly in this area last year. I also started “leading” the company, rather than just “managing” it. High Output Management was a breakthrough book for me on this in 2019, and Making of a Manager was similarly helpful last year.
  • Product development: I identified this as a weakness in my skill set and set out to fix it. I read a couple of good books and put this into practice as much as I could.
  • Enterprise marketing: we worked with bigger clients and on bigger projects than ever last year, and it was very pleasing to me how our approach and systems worked well at these scales. I did also learn and adapt, though, and this was rewarding.
  • Finance and biz strategy: I find business strategy extremely interesting and will take pretty much any opportunity to learn more about it. Last year felt like the year where things started to come together on this.

Fitness

Around December 2019 I finally found a really good fitness routine, and I’ve been doing it ever since: 3x short runs and 2x home workouts on weekdays, and then a long run on Saturday mornings. I did lose my 15 minute cycle commute when my co-working space closed in March, but this fitness regime has really worked for me. And, incredibly for a regular runner, I didn’t have any injuries last year! Finally finding a good HIIT workout I can do at home seems to have done the trick for cross-training.

I was entered for the Surrey Half Marathon in early March and it did go ahead, but after an injury in December 2019 I was only fit enough for the 5k. Other than that, no races. I did make an effort around October to increase my pace a bit, and I also read Faster Road Running which has given me some ideas to make my training more effective. So far so good, and this year should be a good one for running.

Reading

I read a lot of books, but when the first lockdown hit I vowed to read more! I ended up reading 40 books last year, which was a record reading year. My reading was more varied last year, too, which I enjoyed.

I keep track of what I read on GoodReads, and rate everything too. Last year was interesting: fewer quake 5/5 books, but a lot of really solid 4/5 books. A couple of highlights:

  • Making of a Manager
  • Great Thinkers
  • The Master and Margarita
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
  • Half a Yellow Sun
  • Americanah

There’s three fiction books on that list, which would never have happened in previous years! I’ve been reading more and more fiction, and those three in particular were very enjoyable. I also made a more concerted effort to read more anti-racism books to educate myself, and my list for this year continues that theme. 

For the last 5 years I’ve kept notes from every non-fiction book I’ve read, and last year I switched my system over to Roam. Roam is for “networked thought” and lets you link together notes on the same topic. It’s been game-changing for how much I use my book notes. I can now pick a topic – say, 1-on-1s – and instantly get every note I’ve ever made on the topic. You can do more advanced filtering and referencing too. I’ve used this for writing a couple of articles and it’s been great. I’m looking forward to more of that this year. If only they’d get the mobile/tablet experience sorted out.

Things that didn’t go so well

I’m going to skip over the sad bits: we barely got to see family and friends in person, although we were able to hang out with them online. It’s obviously not the same. We also had trips to Japan and Malawi booked which got cancelled. My wife and I love travelling and do it as much as we can. I was really looking forward to those trips. I’m a keen photographer too, but travel is the main time I do it. I did totally clear my photo editing backlog last year, but I took very few photos.

I would have liked to have written more. I did well on the reading, but less so on the writing. Similarly, whilst I did still take holiday with a “staycation”, I did a terrible job of switching off over this time. I’m pretty good on work/life balance in general as I know what’s sustainable for me, but I’m obsessive with my work and am always thinking about things. I really struggled to take good breaks last year.

I also did very little political work last year. I had intentions of being properly involved with my local Labour party, but I did no campaigning and only went to one meeting. I put all of my energy during the week into my work and I’ve consistently struggled to make time for anything else, even in the evenings. This is an area to improve this year.

Looking ahead

Ellipsis is my main professional focus, and we have ambitious company goals to meet this year. We’re going to do more than ever, and do it better than ever. That involves growing the team, pursuing new opportunities, and my role further evolving to work “on” rather than “in” the business.

I also have some personal development goals. I’m working at a good pace but feel ready to do more and learn more. With less travel and more time to focus, this is a perfect year to do it. “Increasing pace” is my professional theme for the year. I’m experimenting with blocking a 90 minute Deep Work session at the start of my day to facilitate that. 

I keep a journal and look back at notes at the end of the year. It was interesting for me to note just how many ideas were jotted down that ended up being actioned and working well. It was also interesting to note, though, that there was often a massive time lag between identifying something and doing it. I’d like to reduce that lag time this year. I’ve got a good system for tracking projects in Roam and so far progress feels good.

As soon as it’s safe, I’m very much looking forward to seeing family and friends in person properly again. That may or may not be this year. I’ve also missed going on planes. With flightshaming that’s an unfashionable thing to say, but I do get a disproportionate amount of joy from choosing the route, tracking the prices, and trying to pick the optimum seat. It’s a silly game, but I find it bizarrely satisfying.

I feel selfish saying it, but whilst 2020 in general sucked, for me I feel I made the most of it and on the whole it was professionally a very good year. I’m bullish that 2021 can be very good too.