Richard Millington is the founder of FeverBee and author of both ‘Buzzing Communities’ and ‘The Indispensable Community’. Over the past 13 years, Richard has helped 280+ organisations, including Apple, Facebook, Google, The World Bank, and SAP use psychology to build thriving communities.
1. Biggest fuck up of your career?
My biggest mistake was trying to grow a big consultancy practice in a relatively small and niche field.
I suspect this happens a lot. If you tell someone you run your own business, the next question they ask is ‘how big is it?’. This creates a lot of social pressure to make the business as big as possible (regardless of whether that’s the right thing to do).
Once FeverBee began passing the six-figure mark, I figured I should probably begin hiring people. For a while, this went ok. We began attracting more clients and I kept hiring more people. However, three things became clear over these years.
Managing a team wasn’t my skillset or passion
I enjoyed doing the work and not managing people who were doing the work. I had a really great team but wasn’t equipped with the skillset or enthusiasm to give them the support they deserved. I found the experience stressful and time-consuming.
My niche sector isn’t big enough
Most of the spending in online communities goes on the technology or the staff managing the technology. Unless we wanted to become a technology provider or a moderation company, we were always swimming in a relatively small pond. We could attract client projects, but there simply aren’t enough projects to sustain a 20+ strong consultancy practice. It took me a while to appreciate this reality.
The inevitable bad year
While revenues had risen every year, profit margins had slimmed with every person I’d hired. This creates a lot of stress. The more staff we had, the more clients we needed (and then the more staff I needed to manage the work). We began taking on clients I was less excited about. When the contracts of two major clients both ended at the same time, we took a sudden, sharp, turn into the red. I decided this was the right time to slim the team back down and focus on doing the work I enjoyed the most.
I wish we as an industry spent as much time focusing on small, successful, businesses as we do upon debt-ridden companies for whom an acquisition is the only escape route. The latter creates a false impression of success and a ridiculous amount of social pressure.
This proved to be the right decision. Today I can pick and choose the clients I want. And while revenues have dropped by around 40% since I had a team of 7, the last few years have been my most profitable ever. It’s a lot less stress for a lot more money.
My biggest frustration is with zealots.
I feel there’s a fine line between being an advocate for a topic and being a zealot for it. People are crossing this line far too often.
I suspect this happens when an advocate discovers the more forcefully they tell their followers that they are the future of [topic], the more likes and shares they get. This becomes a self-reinforcing circle in which an advocate loses touch with reality and becomes a zealot.
You see this every day on social media when ‘experts’ proclaim their field ‘is the future’ or ‘every person/business business’ should be doing [x]. They’re usually making a big proclamation based upon scant (or suspect) evidence.
You will find zealots cherry-picking from a tiny handful of similar examples, unquestioningly sharing evidence that supports their view and ignore (or challenge) any evidence which doesn’t. Worse yet, when their trend succeeds, it’s because they’re right. When it fails, it’s because it wasn’t implemented properly.
The problem with zealots
The problem is they create unrealistic expectations and poison the well for the topic over the long-term. The hype they’re creating can result in a harsh backlash when expectations aren’t met. Real progress isn’t made by bland statements, but by learning from our mistakes and building up a body of evidence about what [trend] is and isn’t most effective.
For that to happen we have to first admit the limitations of that trend and seek out as much evidence of failure as we do of success.
Take community for example. Plenty of companies have implemented a community with phenomenal results. But I’d argue an even larger number have failed to make it work for them. Declaring a community is the right approach for every company ignores these failures.
It would be far better to build up a collection of failures, admit that building a community sometimes isn’t a good idea, and use these failures to refine and improve our methodology and understanding.
As an aside, I think we should be extremely skeptical of claims of success from people who are tasked with making the project a success. If they don’t have studies or can’t reveal the full data set, we should treat their claims as propaganda. There might be nuggets of truth in it, but it’s likely greatly exaggerated.
I’ve lost count of the number of ‘ROI of online community’ studies I’ve questioned and discovered either the author couldn’t provide the methodology or was simply guessing based upon some dubious ‘industry standard’.
3. Useful Advice
It’s easy to find evidence that you’re right, but it’s far more valuable to find evidence that you’re wrong. When you’re right, you just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s only when you’ve realised you’re wrong that you change your ways and really improve.
Seek out people with opposing views. Proactively search for evidence that something isn’t working. Be sceptical of statements and studies you see. Look for corresponding data that proves your right. For example, if a brand marketer is declaring something worked really well, you should expect that project to get an increase in manpower, resources, and scope the following year. That almost never happens.
It’s also important not to get sucked into the popularity cycle. This happens when you declare to a group of people that they are the future. The more loudly you declare this the more popular you become. We can all think of people who have walked down this path.
I think the real value you can offer is sharing evidence of failure – challenge sacred assumptions and be prepared for some backlash and negativity when you do. Don’t worry too much about that. It’s far more important to be respected by the few than popular with the many.