A Conversation with Ben Norman

Alan sits down with CEO & Founder of Koozai: Ben Norman for an in-depth talk to discuss how he got started in business, what he has learnt and advice for small businesses.

Note: This transcription has been generated with AI and there may be errors present. 


Don’t Don’t make me cry for shoot a video, I’ll go puffy.

So, I’m Alan Donegan from the Popup Business School. And I wanted to bring you an interview with a seriously interesting entrepreneur who built a business from scratch. So 11 years ago, 2006, just before the recession, Ben started Koozai, which is well, it wasn’t cool. Koozai back then. But he started Koozai, a digital marketing agency, all focused around search engine optimization and content creation. And Ben over the last 11 years has built a pretty damn successful business. And we wanted to get some ideas about how we did it, what he did to get going, that will help all of us build small businesses. So Ben, how did you come up with the idea? Where Where did it come from?

I think I was like most people, and I was doing a job that I didn’t particularly like very much looking for a way out. And I’ve been researching and reading originally, I was actually going to do event organising. Which is interesting. A completely different subject. Yeah, exactly. And I figured that to do event organising, I would need a website. So I had to learn how to build this website. And by the time I started building this website, I kind of figured, well, if I’ve had to learn how to do that, for me, why don’t I just do that as a business? I was pretty crap at building when I could build them. But very much from template, nothing, nothing special. The the moment came when I’d started a few other sites as well, I’d gone to get those sites marketed. And for all intents and purposes, been fleeced, there was a thing that was happening way back when where people would optimise your website, for terms that people just weren’t looking for. It was really quick and easy to do. By it was a way of them saying we’ll get you X number of top 10 rankings. And you pay us x a month, and they’d get you those rankings. But it was absolutely pointless because no one ever search. And so that’s what then lead me into looking at how they were actually doing this. And I found that actually, once you kind of got it, it wasn’t that hard to join the dots up. And back then Google was pretty simple when it came to out ranking. And a lot of that was down to links, you had the most long links you want. And that’s kind of how I, I stumbled on it really. And then it just kind of grew through seo into content, and then paid offering and social and things like that. It just kind of grew from there.

So how did you choose between the events marketing business? And the website business? What made you decide?

I think it was, I’d learn how to build websites, it just seems stupid. I knew how to build websites. Why then go and start trying to organise events that just seemed it just seems silly. And by then people can Oh, he built this website is really cool. How did you do that? Could you do that for me. And then suddenly, you get one or two, three or four people that want you to build websites for them. And then they want you to market them. And before I knew where I was at, I was earning more money, doing what I was doing in an evening and a weekend and I was during the day at work. And it became I’ve even taken on the company I was working for I’d taken them on as a client on my side business. I mean, they knew about it, I’d had to get it all Fry’s through them that I could I could run this business outside of working hours. And yeah, they were paying me nearly what they were paying me to do this outside. It was kind of it’s crazy when you look back. But I think everyone kind of has limits and things that hold them back. So for me it was personal debt. I think I owed about 28 grand. I think when

I did you have a good time?

It’s a bloody good time. Yeah, it was really good. But then you wake up and you suddenly go, how, how am I going to pay this off? If I pay this off by literally just paying every month? I’m going to be probably clear in about five years.

Five years of hard work.

So you put your life on hold for five years to pay it off. And I hate what I did. Anyway, really I didn’t agree of what was going on and particularly like it the people were nice, but I think it’s that classic UAC a better way of doing it when you’ve only got your particular snapshot of what’s happening. It was it was just I think, in my experience, I saw people on that bit of the journey that I’m going to set my own business up, I’ve got all these ideas. That’s all they ever were, though. And they were really good ideas, but they kind of took them a certain way. And the first bit of pushback, and they just moved on to something else. And someone Carnivale read it. And I said, you know, you need to be ready to succeed, you need to be ready for success, whatever the term is, but it is you will self sabotage, you will talk yourself out of it, you will panic. I mean, I even with what I was earning a month, I still continued to talk myself out of leaving my job.

So what, how did you decide because you’re, you’re in a full time employment, you’ve got a side hustle that’s earning you more than the full time employment? How did you make the decision to jump to go full time into your business?

So it’s quite, it’s quite funny. So I actually went to a barbecue with an ex girlfriend related people I didn’t like, and there was a guy there who’d bought his younger sister, who was had gone to college, and uni, and she was living away. She was blind. And her hearing was really bad as well. And it was one of those moments where you sat there use thought, I have absolutely zero, like reason to like complain or worry, like, you heard what this girl had done. And it was just, yeah, it was just really inspirational. And I remember that was the Sunday and I just remember going on the Monday, just hand in my notes. I think either. I can see, I can hear there’s nothing wrong with me. The only thing holding me back is me. Yeah. So I’m just going to go for it. And that’s what I did. But the interesting thing was, though, good things were kind of happening. It was only when I left. And I remember that it was I think it was it was either the week that I’d left or the week after I landed a couple of new clients. Actually, the publisher rang me up and offered me a book deal. And all this good stuff just happened because my it was like, my head was in a tight different space and wasn’t pretending to be this thing anymore. I was what I said I was. Whereas all of the other bits and pieces were all done. I was having to take days off and go in and it was not smoke and mirrors but you can’t rock up and say you’re on this leading SEO. My day job is doing this it, it doesn’t really work. People wouldn’t really get that. So there is an element of a very light the term fake it before you make it. But you’ve got to kind of act like what you want to be.

So you fully committed, you threw yourself into it. And all of a sudden business turned up book deals turned up. Yeah. So like, one of the things that I think a lot of us struggle with when we launch businesses is getting those first customers. So selling and finding customers. How did you because you had a few that came to you in the start again, though?

It’s it’s so the way that I did it was a bit different. So obviously, because I was looking to do SEO, I’d set up my own consultancy website, and I was FCRA. And all this, you know, I basically as a trustee, all this SEO stuff works. The funny thing was people then started ringing me and going oh, Ben, you’re this SEO consultant, we need to talk to you about our SEO,

because your website was working you what now?

What? Well, wherever you found this, oh, I think you think you know, number two in Google for SEO consultant. I was like, yeah. So I was, yeah, so you know, building websites as well. It’s kind of a bit like, what what am I doing? What am I going to be? And I think that then comes back to this, everybody wants this very structured plan, or I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do this, and I’m going to do this, it doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to be able to move with it. And, you know, don’t just stick to what the original plan was. Don’t be afraid to kind of change that and move that around. Because otherwise you just keep going in a direction that maybe people don’t really want that they want this. But if you’re not listening, you’re not going to kind of adapt and change with it. I think the other thing that I found was when people knew what I was going to do, most people would just say, Oh, you do that later people do that. Why would anyone use you? Why would anyone not pay for you to do it? That’s just and you have to be able to not ignore it. But understand that that’s their self limiting beliefs, but you don’t need to take that on. And if you’re that determined and you believe in what you’re doing that much then you go for it. Also, there’s a lot of things that you can do that don’t rely on you just quitting your job and starting it, but it does rely on you sacrificing your weekends or your evenings and the people that don’t make it, the ones who want to go and play Playstation all evening or they’re out every weekend with their mates, they kind of they want it. They want it to happen as long as I have to put any effort in and it just doesn’t really work like that.

So what do you think are the three top things that have enabled you to build the business has gone from zero to offices in London, Southampton, Newcastle, you have some major clients, what’s the three things that you’ve bought, that have enabled it to grow?

I think you’ve you’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. You’ve got to trust and believe that it’s going to get there, you’ve got to focus. Think it’s that kind of just that determination to push it through. Most people will wait for one bad bit of feedback, one setback, one negative thing. And that’s it, they’re out. And it’s not it’s about going Ah, yeah, but now,

we’ll try and fix that. Or we can push through that we can work

around it. I don’t remember a time that someone’s bought me a problem so big that I can’t think my way around it or through it or over it. It doesn’t. It’s just people go oh, can’t do it because of that. Okay, so how can we do it? Or we can think of other options? Could we? Yeah, yeah, we could. And it’s that it’s looking at all the options. One of the big things that I’ve learned and adapted through is I call it like a decision making engine. And it’s it’s developing and training yourself to take on like your past experiences, things that you’ve learned, and use that to enhance the way that you make decisions. So that when people come, you have a problem, you can almost look up the different scenarios and how that could work and how you could get around them. But the more you do it, it’s like anything you The quicker you can do it moving on, and the more that you can run at any one time, which means that you’ve everyone would have been in a situation where there’s an issue and someone’s like, Yeah, I know what we’re going to do, we’re going to do this, and straight away, you think you care, but that’s just gonna cause this other issue two steps further down. So we need to think of another way that people tend to get to the first what they deem the solution and stop, rather than actually following that through and understanding Well, are there any other knock ons, like people will make a decision to keep one person happy that three moves further down? The line is going to upset an entire team. Sometimes the best decision is that you upset one person. But unless you run the scenarios you you don’t know that. So I think that’s one of the biggest things. Scenarios love a good scenario.

So what’s the what’s the most outrageous thing you’ve done so far in business?

outrageous thing.

Have you done something outrageous to win a client? If you’ve done a interesting ad campaign? Have you

thought no, then I wouldn’t say outrageous, I’d say I think that my the cleverest thing that we did was when we rebranded to KUVO. Because we’d run so many different scenarios, because we’ve looked at so many different variables, because we planned it out. When we launched, we were everywhere within the industry. We were connected in, you know, with so many different people that when it all changed, and we shouted about it, and the social went live and the press releases went out and we were sponsoring events, we suddenly went from being nowhere because we weren’t, we didn’t exist as Koozai, then to suddenly everywhere people looked it was cool. We’re also remarketing when that kind of first came about, so people weren’t as switched on as to what that was. So they’d hit the site, and we’d follow them everywhere. So suddenly, we had this appearance of coming from nowhere to being everywhere. And I think that really helped kind of projectors forwards. I think one of the funniest thing, not that we’ve done. I remember when the whole negative SEO thing came out, we had a client who offered us a brown paper bag full of money to try and get rid of one of their competitors. That was That was interesting. Obviously we didn’t do it because that would be pretty bad. It was an interesting conversation that you’re waiting for the hahaha I’m just joking, but they weren’t actually joking. It was how much should we put in this brown paper bag?

So what’s the ethics around something like that when someone offers you a brown paper bag full of cash to novel someone else’s business? You suddenly become the SEO hitman. What what do you do?

I think it it comes it comes down to how you know I like to sleep at night all for competing with people but I think for Connors side sabotaging effectively someone’s business, that’s pretty low. I think you need to compete on a level playing field. It’s just ethically morally, it’s just wrong. Say you just know. And even if even if you’re going to get away of it, you still know you’ve done it. And I just think that’s pretty. It’s pretty bad. So yeah, no, no for us.

So when you first started way back in the early days, who were the advisors that you supported you? How did you learn? Who did you go to?

didn’t really read a lot or read or looked at what the competition was doing? And you kind of run it through? Like your common sense filter, like, Does this sound legitimate? Does this sound locker, the right thing to do? With the books, we always have a thing in house that it’s like, in the in like the court of Google, you know, it’s like, if you pulled up in front of these guys, and you had to explain why you were doing it to us, if you’re doing it, because it benefits the client. You know, if you’re doing it for business marketing reasons, then yeah, great. If you’re doing it just kind of bias Google search results, then it’s probably not right. I know, there’s still a lot, there’s still a lot of people run around by links and doing a whole host of things. But you can get the links by earning them free, doing decent content and creating decent hubs that people want to link to or do in digital PR, that’s going to get mentions and links and citations and stuff is there’s ways of doing it properly. But people will almost put more effort into it. Like, like a bit sneaky. But for me, you just run the risk of that getting caught. But at some point, I mean, no one knows what Google’s gonna do with their algorithm. And, you know, like tomorrow, let alone like, next year, it’s just gone. I gotta look at what way you think they’re gonna go with it, and try and protect yourself and your clients as as well as you can. But books.

Yeah, what were the books that had a big impact on you, as you were growing the business?

I think it wasn’t so much books, there wasn’t really a lot out. I mean, I think you had like SEO for dummies. And so I never really read any In fact, I think that was being written around the time you had people like Aaron wall had done like digital books that you can buy on I remember, I remember reading things like that like a get. And there was different people doing different guides that you could buy that a lot of the time you could you could analyse there was different bits of software and stuff like IBP, and web, SEO and things like that, that you could basically analyse sites through and it would come back to you and show you what why they were doing well. So you could use that to say, well, the top five, top three or share this in common. So I’m going to make sure we use a bit of that. So it was a bit of a different way of doing it back then. I think one of the reasons I got the book deal was there was wasn’t really an awful lot out. So yeah, that that went out. And I mean, now there’s there’s hundreds of books on SEO.

So how did you know when it was time to hire the first member of staff then? Because you, you quit? You start on your own? When do you know?

The fastest the hardest? I mean, one of the questions I get all the time is people I think we’re like 2728 people now, I think people got 20 People have 1928 people but it’s not your kind of start a one and E two and then four, and then it kind of levels up slowly. So you kind of get used to it, you don’t suddenly end up lumbered with, like 27 people to deal with because that would just destroy you. I think you know, because you are just crazy busy. And you’re physically going to have to turn work away. Or you’re taking your eye off the ball or letting stuff slip where you can’t keep selling or whatever it is. And the thing that I show people is basically analysing the functions that are needed, what you’re good at and what you enjoy, and what you’re not good at and what you don’t enjoy. And they’re the bits that you try and outsource first because you find somebody that is better than you recruit the people better than you to do those jobs. And for me that was first hire sales, hated sales hate me but I just hate that idea of selling the now you need to do it and it’s quite an important skill and I can do it. I just don’t particularly enjoy it. So that was one of the first things that I did, because I found that I was spending all day in our customer service selling kind of role. And then the phones would switch off at five o’clock and then I’d be like I now need to try and do all this work. So I’d gone from two jobs to one job, but the one job was still taking up all my time. So it’s, I think a lot of people have this with the first person, it’s one of those milestones. And people feel quite nervous about hiring the first person, I think, you’ve just got to make sure you’ve got you know, you’ve got the regular money coming in, you’ve got money in the bank that can fly you for however many months that you’re comfortable with.

I had a year in the bank before I had Henry’s first team member, but that’s

the thing people say, Well, yeah, but how much did you have in the bank? Or what? What’s your tolerance on risk? Like, how risk averse Are you? How much do you feel you need? Well, I’m comfortable now. And I’ve got a year if not bring anything in? Well, that’s a pretty perfect storm to suddenly lose everything and not generate anything for a year. But if that’s

I could have done that or less. Yeah, I could have done on less, but you’re quite risk averse.

Yeah, exactly. So but that’s what you’re comfortable with. So that’s what you need to do. And also, it depends when you get to that point where you physically can’t juggle balls anymore, because then you end up going backwards. So you don’t want to invest any more money in because of the risk. So you won’t, you know, put another line, say 3000 a month for a salary. But yet by not doing that, and mismanaging accounts, you run the risk of losing like this account, it’s worth like 100 grand a year. So it’s looking at it sensibly as well. And, and going well, I would rather have a year’s worth of runway, I’ve only got six months. But if I don’t do something in a minute, I’m going to lose this account and I lose them. Anyway, it’s gonna set me right back anyway. So it’s a false economy.

So most of our audience of people building small businesses, okay. If you had some tips for people who are just starting up, they may be going in for a year, but they’re just growing their business, what would you say to them? What do they need to do, to grow their business to make money doing what they love?

I think if you truly believe in what you’re doing, and you know, there’s a market, you’ve tested it, I mean, you shouldn’t be just pushing on aimlessly. Leave that for, like Dragon’s Den, you know, and it’s gonna work or not pump 200 grand in, and I’m gonna actually ask them if they want this or not, you know, you’ve tested all of that you kind of you’re going to hit hurdles, you’ve got to be resilient enough to keep pushing through, you need to listen to what people say, but don’t let their their then self limitations limit, you don’t take that on if you know what you’re doing. Right? If you’ve done your research, and then you need to kind of push forward with that. Tell the thing is like people say it like you need a plan. Like when I before I left, I had i This is no joke, I’d worked out all the things that I needed. I knew in my head I was comfortable with I needed to bring on another thing, something like another two, two clients worth of initials, and I needed to keep another two retainers, I needed to get an office I needed, like, these were the things I need to do. And I worked out the order. And I drew boxes on a three flip pad with an arrow going round. And I had all the boxes on there. And the M one was like you know, like hand notice in start. And I put it on my wall next to where my computer was. And I used to tick them off as they happened. And literally, if it wasn’t on that a three bit of paper, I didn’t focus on it. All I focused on was getting those boxes crossed off. And it’s amazing how much quicker that happens when you’re you’ve got it there when you focus solely on doing that. Otherwise, if you’re, you know that there needs to be like a time limit on it. It’s like, well, when am I going to get that done by I’m going to get that done by next week when we get that done by the end of the month. Because then suddenly it becomes real. And you know that when you get to the end of September 2017, this is this is what’s going to happen like this is where I’m going to be you know that you’re falling behind or you’re not on track. Whereas I think people they have this dream. And they’re kind of scared to push it into reality. So it continues to keep being this point further and further away. And also like just actually taking action and doing something about it. Otherwise, it’s easy just to put it off till tomorrow, put off to tomorrow. It doesn’t matter what it is that you start but start something like do part of it now. Like because once you start and then you just get that momentum, it’s easier to carry on and that then drives you forward more. The other thing I used to do was always put it rewards in place. So like there’s one year I wanted a new watch. So I put a target for myself in place. And that’s what I focused on was it’s not it doesn’t matter what it is it might be on holiday or taking your family away whatever it is. Do you want to do like, put something in bucket and build it into your plan? Because it just keeps you focused. And also tell other people so they hold you accountable, like hold you to kind of task? Or where are you without a fork by end of the month, you are going to do this because it makes it harder for you to wriggle out of it pushes you forward a bit more. So that that kind of helps as well.

So do you tend to set like Big Five year goals? Or little six month goals? Do you bother with goals?

How do you know five year goals, of course, you know, you need to know roughly where you are, but I wouldn’t have all of the little micros to like really you want to i i focus really heavily like on the next year and where I need to be. And then I look at like a three year and a five year as well. So that I know what knock on effect this year will have to those and what I need to do to then get back on track. You know, metrics, you need the metrics in place need to be able to track your numbers you need, you know, little things like, you know, everyone looks at like their profit and turnover. But you know, like your cash flow is like key. You know, if that dries up, and you’ve not got any money in the bank, then you can’t try it and you dead lie, and it happens to businesses that are profitable, but they’ve not got payment terms set properly, they’ve got not nothing in their contract to enable them to what’s the interest? What happens if they don’t pay? Like, what’s the penalty for that? Or what’s the timeline? Or how does it work, or if you have to have a bid send something to debt collection like, well, you’re gonna have to pay all those fees unless you specifically put that they will have to pay those fees. So it you know, contracts are really important, and making sure that they’re right, you have contracts in the early days, yeah, just ones that you got from online. And then as little things happen, and you get caught out and you read, you know, you deal with people in business that are really nice and really honourable, and you’ll deal with some quite horrible people that will do and say anything to get out of paying what they owe, they’ll quite happily take what they pay for, and not pay for it, you know, unfortunate sight in the real world as what happened. So these are the things that you have to protect you from that. And you just add to it every time you get an issue that you’ve not accounted for learn and start off of all your scenarios and what you think might happen you build in say that you’re protected. But then as things happen, that you’ve not thought about you then add them in. You know, it’s like bringing on new people. The biggest problem with that is is you know, where everything is sure business, you know, where the issues are, you know, who’s had what report and but the minute you bring extra people in how you both gonna be on the same page if you’re out of the office. And that’s where things like CRMs come into it. So you’ve got people like HubSpot that do a CRM that’s free for life. It’s like, you just sign up for it. And like, you know, yes, it’s not got all the bells and whistles, but when you start, you don’t really need that. But you need something that tracks like, well, what have you said, what has been promised? Well, you know, when when are you making calls, like things like that? It’s, you know, when we first started, I think we were using like an Excel spreadsheet, you know, but it worked. So well. We started using first a couple of people, you can get away with it. But you know, the minute that that spreads out, it’s more important. It’s you have to look at like your systems and how they work and connect together. It’s fine. You know, if you’ve got a server, say in the corner, you know, it’s, I’d say it’s fine. It’s not because if something happens to your building, then you’re in big trouble. But if you look at it now look like internet speeds, and the systems and services that are out there, it’s so cheap, free as well. Yeah, a lot of them’s free, you know, you can. There’s so many options available. Now. That just makes collaboration a lot easier. Some systems and processes really helped when you’re bringing on new people. Otherwise, it’s like why if you don’t like that you’ve done it wrong. I have, well, how do you do it? Right? Well, it’s like this, obviously, what is it? Because you’ve not shown me and it’s not written down in USA. It’s then really hard, like, what’s the standard, say, putting time into actually building out processes. Like when it’s just you, it reminds you how to do it, you can look at something and then improve it over time and work out what you need to build in. And also when you hire somebody else has all the processes for those jobs. It’s so much easier. So yeah, I think that’s very important, especially if you’re bringing on people.

So what’s next for Ben Norman and Koozai separately individually what’s happening next?

I think one of the I’ve got a couple of other things that are going to look at just to be able to test stuff like econ wise Because Keizai as a service based business, and there’s a few things that I want to test from an econ point of view. But there are more little side projects that are more fun. We’ve Koozai we’re always looking at new technologies that are coming along, and new innovative ways of doing things. Rather than just that sitting and going through the motions, like everybody else seems to be quite happy just to go through the motions with work. So the way we’ve always done it, we’re always looking for ways to build on what we do or make it better or improve it or do something slightly different. Now you keep doing the same thing, you’re going to get the same results, right? And the more people that do that same thing, the results diminished. So you’ve got to find a way of getting ahead of everybody else.

So if the audience want to find out more about you, where do they go?

koozai.com. So for digital marketing things, we’ve got keys ITV there, so lots of videos on lots of different things to do with digital, and the blog as well. YouTube. I’m always on Twitter. I am Ben Norman. Yeah, that’s probably the best places to find us. Thanks, Ben. Thanks for having me.