[Live Training Series] RUN YOUR AGENCY LIKE A PRO

George Morris of Imulus on Growing a Better Business and Finding Sales Talent

President and Co-Founder of Imulus, George Morris sits down with me to discuss his agency’s growth, goals, sales, and talent, and how to enhance your business and yourself.

George started Imulus in 2002, originally focusing solely on website design and development. Imulus has now evolved to focus on mobile apps, UI, and UX. After welcoming us with open arms to their Boulder, Colorado office, we sat down to talk about what brought Imulus to where they are today.

You can find more information about George Morris and Imulus by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

Video Transcript

Brent: I’m Brent Weaver and you’re watching uGurus, the must watch web series to become a more profitable and in-demand web professional. I’m here today at Imulus in Boulder, Colorado with their president and co-founder George Morris. Welcome to the program.

George: Thanks Brent, thanks for having me.

Brent: So George, tell us about Imulus. How did you get your start?

George: Well, we got started back up in 2002. We were working at another company and it was right at the dot com bust. And so right at the dot com bust they shut down their office out here in Boulder. They were based back in Philly. And so when they shut down the Boulder office we decided to start up our own shop. And it was three of us that started it up. I did project management and development, John my business partner did technology. And Scott my other business partner did design.

Brent: So when you guys started, what was different from what you were doing then to today?

George: A lot. When we first started up, the stuff that we were working on was just doing small websites. You know, doing the design, the development and the technology behind all of that. Now we’re doing so much more when it comes to the mobile apps, UI, UX, all of that. I mean, it’s entirely different than when we started. And I couldn’t do any of the things these guys are doing today. Like you don’t want me touching any of the code.

Brent: What would you say makes you guys unique?

George: I think the part that makes us really unique is the process that we go through, right? We have really great conversations with our clients and we’re really selective on the type of clients that we work with. We want a client that’s going to trust us, engage us, is going to challenge us and is also going to listen to us and take our advice. And we’re going to listen to them as well. You know, we want to take their advice, they know their industry really well. But it starts there, that’s the part that makes us unique because when we start working with the clients we’re going to ask them really insightful questions to figure out how to build the best apps or the best sites for their users. And I don’t know that everybody does it to the degree that we do that. We put a lot of emphasis on that part of it.

Brent: So would you say there’s like a particular industry or segment you work with? I mean is that part of your requirements for the types of clients you guys pick up?

George: No, not at all. You know, we really focus on the type of client. You know, it’s not an industry, it’s not an amount of revenue that we’re looking for, we’re looking for a fit. If a client is a good fit for us or not. I mean, a lot of times I have to laugh because Ellen who does our sales and business development. I call her a Jedi when she gets on the phone with a client. The first thing she always says to the client is you might not be a good fit for us. And that’s always how we kick off the conversation. And it seems like it wouldn’t be the best way to kick it off, but it creates an interesting discussion. Because we start talking about fit right away. Are we a good fit, are we not a good fit. And I think in situations where we’re seen as a vendor, or we’re given an RFP to go ahead and fill out, we’re not going to be a good fit for that. So we try to avoid those situations and look for people that want to do really great projects with us and they’re going to work with us as a team and they see us as a team.

Brent: So you just mentioned that you guys have somebody that does sales full time that’s not a founder, managing partner in the company?

George: Yes.

Brent: Tell me how you’ve gone about hiring somebody to do sales. Because that’s a big problem with web pros. Is like they’re the best salesman because they know the business really well and it’s really difficult to go from them being the wizard that sells to somebody else. So I’d love to hear about that.

George: Yeah, yeah. I mean, no kidding. I mean that was… I think that was a major leap that we had to have. I swore up and down that when we started the business I would never get out of sales. I mean I’m still never… I’m not out of the sales. But it’s not my primary job. I would say probably about two years ago now, maybe a year and a half ago we had an opportunity to bring Ellen in to do sales. And I wasn’t really looking for a salesperson or trying to hire for a sales position.
But Ellen used to run Three Roads Media out of Denver. And I met her through Networking and trying to find ways to do our business better. And she wanted to get out of Three Roads Media and look for something else to do. And it was just the right opportunity for her and it was the right opportunity for us and I was blown away by her sales skills when I first met her. I’m like she would be great in front of a client. So I asked her to jump in and give it a try. And we just tried it out for a few months and it stuck and so now she’s heading up all of our sales and she does a killer job.

Brent: Now was she selling before she came into Imulus?

George: Yeah, she was selling at Three Roads Media. She was doing sales and project management.

Brent: So you found somebody who knew how to do it. That’s a way that’s worked for you guys.

George: Yeah. It was awesome, right. And you know what, when we were at the other companies that we worked at in the past, I saw how they brought sales people in, and it was such a difficult process to try to figure out which sales people are going to work and which ones aren’t going to work. And they have to be motivated the right way. And we just had to find somebody who understood the importance of the client match for us, and they understood what we were about as a business. And Ellen, she gets all that. She does. And she has a certain passion for selling. But she also isn’t going to try to sell for strictly just hitting a revenue number. If she’s not meeting her goals for the month, she’ll step back and say you know what, this client isn’t a fit I’m not going to go after this client even though it means not hitting that goal. And that’s totally okay with us.

Brent: So how have you structured that in terms of commission type of arrangements or these goals. I mean, not being totally commission focused but actually thinking about the company vision as well?

George: Yeah. She’s a mix, you know. She’s partly salary and partly commissioned. And that works really well for her.

Brent: So if you tell her we’re not going to do this deal it’s not like she’s going to starve that month or anything.

George: Oh, I don’t tell her that we’re not going to do the deal. And I think that’s an important lesson that I learned. Is that, you know, when I give you a responsibility you asked to take on something, I trust that you’re going to get it done. And she’s doing sales and she’s got full control over that. You know, I just say run, put your foot on the pedal. Go full bore into this. And it’s totally up to you, you decide what clients are a good fit for us and which ones aren’t. And then down the way if something goes wrong with the project we’re going to talk about it. We’re going to figure out what could we have done better to find a better match. Or if the project goes really well, what can we do to find more clients like that one? But she totally has control over that and I don’t step on her feet.

Brent: That’s really cool. I think it’s rare to hear about web companies that have been able to figure out that sales piece of the puzzle. So, you guys started operating in 2002. And I’m sure you’ve just had a flawless business, no problems over the last 12 years. Which congratulations for being around for 12 years. Was there ever a moment over the last 12 years where there was like a moment of crisis for you guys where it was like not working out?

George: Yeah, several. You know, whenever we… As we’ve grown over the years, I mean, I would say the last ten maybe 11 years we got lucky a lot of the time. Because we had work coming in to us, we had referrals, we did great work. But we were just having fun doing what we were doing. And we really didn’t look at the business fundamentals. And I joined up with EO, Entrepreneurs Organization. And through other colleagues just started to look at things a little different. And myself and my business partner started to say you know what, we’ve got to look at the fundamental parts of the business that make us a profitable company. And as we started to do that, we started to tinker with things. And as we started to tinker with things we’re like oh this works, this doesn’t work. You know, and over the years what we found is like certain things like products.
We went ahead and we tried to build our own product internally. And everybody around me was telling me don’t do it, don’t do it you’re a services based company don’t do products. And I said no you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m too thick headed, we’re going to figure this out. And you know, lo and behold, we screwed it up. Like it was a distraction, it drove us away from our core mission which is to do services for our clients. And so we killed it. You know, we just one day decided that’s it we’re not doing this any more and we’re going to go back into doing all services. And if we do a product it’s going to be in the future once we’ve met certain business metrics and we can say we’re going to invest in this product because this product’s going to make us a better business.

Brent: And that’s really interesting. I mean I think one of the recurring conversations I’ve had with people on these interviews has been this product and service dilemma. And you know, I guess I went through that exact same dilemma and ended up dropping the service business and focusing on the product business. But I mean obviously any service company we’re interviewing has typically chosen the service path and focused on, you know, that stuff. So it’s interesting that you guys have found the same type of result there. In terms of, you know, like personal growth, big lessons learned. I mean obviously you’ve got the product thing. But is there something in terms of like your habits, what you do on a daily basis that you’ve really learned over that period of time?

George: I’m still learning. It’s constantly an evolution. You know, I think being clear on like what your roles are. I mean we just had a really great discussion yesterday. The three of us went down to the Rockefeller habits down in Denver and did a great workshop. And I think the one thing we really took back from that is execution. And accountability. And trying to really define that as a business. When we were a small business, you know, we were only six people, it’s really easy to yell across the office and say hey you got this? Yeah I got this. And everybody’s really clearly communicating. But to grow and get larger, you need to have goals and you need to have expectations, you need to have processes in place. And I think for many years I personally fought that. I am not going to blame 37Signals[sp], but I did put a lot of emphasis in their model of working. And I feel like that works really well for a product company but for a services company you need things more locked down. You need office hours, you need expectations, you need all these different things to be in place. And we’re starting to have that now. And we’re at kind of this metamorphosis period as a company. And I really feel like now that we’re getting these things in place I’m like stoked on where we’re going to go because we’ve taken the reins off where for years we looked at the company and said we’re only going to get to 25 people, but we don’t want to get bigger than that. And it was just this idea, we really didn’t want to be a big agency. We wanted to be a small team that works together well like we’re doing. And we didn’t want to screw that up. But now we looked at it and said we’re not going to screw that up. We’re going to grow because we need to grow. And we’re going to do great things, we’re going to hire great people because we want to build a great company.

Brent: I think sometimes, you know, it’s hard to look at… I mean 37Signals is obviously a leader in web.

George: They’re fantastic.

Brent: And you sometimes look at what they’re doing and you apply it to a service model. And it can cause some problems. We’ve… Now that we’re on the product side we’ve maybe tried to implement more of their types of methodologies. But sometimes it even feels like they kind of drive the car with no hands, you know? Like they just kind of go wherever they feel like going. Which I think works for some people. And Rockefeller probably works for others.

George: Exactly. And it’s just a matter of finding the fit. You just see the success that they had as a product company and it’s like whoa we can be doing the same thing. It’s like no, you know, they’re running a product company. They’re not running a services company. So what we’ve tried to do is really look at what services companies are doing really well. And before EO I would go around and talk to other agencies and see what are they doing? How are they thinking about things? And I realized that in doing that, I was still talking to people within the same space. So we all kind of had the same perspective. And so I started then talking to architects and saying to the architects well how do you guys go after your projects? Do you do fixed bid, do you time the materials? How do you go about the sales process?
And that’s sort of opening my eyes up to other things. And then after joining EO, you know, I have all these business mentors now that are in a bunch of different industries that offer a ton of different perspectives. And it’s been great because I pull in all those expectations that they have… Not expectations, I’m sorry. All the experiences that they have. And it’s been great because I make them my own and I try to incorporate them into Imulus.

Brent: Now in terms of… That’s interesting. So you were contacting other agency owners and going out to lunch or whatever. And I think a lot of people have some fear around like talking to their competitors. What was that like for you? I mean, were people like screw you I don’t want to talk to you? Or?

George: So, I’ve got a great story for you on this one. So back in the day when I first came out here and coming from Philadelphia, you don’t talk to your competitors, you crush your competitors. That’s the way it is, it’s East Coast mentality. And when I came out here that was my mentality. I just didn’t want to work with my competition. I just wanted to crush them. I want to destroy everyone. And the guys over on Mango, Jason Asher. He’s out of the business now but Jason sent me an email and he goes I hope you’re not as much of a dick as I think you are. And I’m like well let’s go grab coffee. So we went out, we grabbed coffee and we hit it off. And he’s like listen, this is how things work in Colorado.
You know, we all work together, we’re all friends, we’re all colleagues. We all try to help each other out. Your mentality from back East isn’t going to fly out here. And I said thanks, that’s great. And from that day on I changed my whole mentality with that. I truly do look at it and I say well if we’re all open and vulnerable and sharing information, we’re only going to get better. And I think that’s one thing that’s unique about Denver and Boulder. That you really don’t see anywhere else. Is we all try to get along, you know, we all try to get along we all try to work together. And it’s great, we all get better.

Brent: And I found almost, to some degree, you have to like teach people to do that. And then they have to take a little bit of a risk to share information. I mean, at least in our business when we started literally publishing what we were doing in our agency, like people ate that up and it made us better for what we were doing.

George: Yeah. So that’s… I guess that’s a snippet that I’ll give credit for to 37Signals, right? They give that example all the time. They talk about you know, Emeril Lagasse and they say he gives out his recipes. Does that make him lesser of a chef? You know, does it make him less competitive? No, I mean people eat that up. People like to take that information, they see him as a leader.
Well when we’re working with other agencies we talk to them and say well how do you guys do project management? You know, we have… I just went out to breakfast the other day with the folks over at QuickLeft. And just got to hear what they do and how they work. And there were some things that I took out of that that are going to make us better. And I’m sure there’s things that they took out of my conversation that will change them. You know, and it’s great having that kind of discussion.

Brent: Absolutely. How big is Imulus right now in terms of people?

George: There’s 17 of us across the company. We’ve got two people that work remotely and the rest are all here.

Brent: So recruitment and management are probably two things that come up in your life a lot?

George: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brent: What do you do on the recruiting side? Like any secret sauce there?

George: So, I think it’s really about networking and getting out in the community. And getting to know who’s out there that can come work for us. I mean one of our measures going forward is going to be the number of resumes we get that are unsolicited. And we get more and more resumes like that each week. But going forward one of the things we’re trying to do with Imulus is we’re trying to become this platform for makers. Where we want to cultivate the best talent and we want to bring in the best people to do great work for our clients.
I mean a lot of people say that, but it’s really our mission is to get rid of the crap that everybody has to deal with from a production standpoint. And give all that to the administrative team and let them really just focus on building and creating great things for our clients. And you know, in the Boulder/Denver area I think it’s really tough to find talented people because you’ve got all these start-ups that are out there snatching up all the great talent. And there’s a lot of talented people that are just starting up their own companies. And they don’t really want to go work for an agency. So our last hire was out in Indiana and one of the key things we did this year that I think is really going to help us going forward is we took all of our HR, all of our hiring systems and outsourced that to ADP. And that’s going to enable us to bring in people from all over the country. And not have to worry about dealing with all the paperwork and the taxes and everything else like that. So it just facilitates and eases that whole process up.

Brent: So you’ve got a little bit of remote work going on, but mostly in the office. I mean are you guys… Using any specific techniques in terms of team management, culture building that you’d like to share?

George: Yeah, in terms of team management we do almost daily stand ups. Our design team is going to start doing daily stand ups. I mean they do stand ups as it is. And from the development side we’re doing every other day we do a development stand up. We do a weekly meeting where we pool everybody together. Remotely we use the TV back there and we get everybody together and we do a pow wow for like 30 minutes. What’s been going on this week? What’s great, what’s not working, what can we do better? And just talk as a team for just 30 minutes a week. And then each month we do a directional meeting where we take the senior people in the team and we talk about what’s working, what’s not working, what can we do better? And we have really just open, honest discussions.
You know, if I say I’m going to do something and I don’t get it done, I guarantee you one of these guys are going to call me out on it. I’m okay with it, right? It was funny because over the break Addie[sp] said to us I’m going to put together an expectation stock. What do you expect from the employees at Imulus? I said great, I’ll get that done. And she said when are you going to get that done? I said I’ll have it done right before the New Year. So I got sick over the holiday break and I came into work and I went right to Addie and go I’m sorry, I’m late, it’s going to be two days late is that okay? She said yes it’s totally okay. But that’s how we work. We keep each other accountable and it’s a really dynamic group.

Brent: And I think that’s really good because sometimes the owners can kind of put themselves into this like accountability bubble where everybody else has to be accountable but they don’t. And all that does it kind of breed no accountability, you know?

George: And for years that’s what it did do. You know, to be perfectly honest with you. I mean and that’s the thing that we’ve worked on and we’re going to continue to work on. Because that accountability has to start at the top. I mean if we’re not accountable for anything, why should anybody else be accountable? And that’s one of the things we’ve really put an emphasis on, especially in this New Year. Setting clear goals to say this is why we’re doing what we’re doing and we expect the same of you and we’re going to do this. And if we’re not doing this, hold our feet to the fire. Because it’s not cool that we don’t do what we say we’re going to do.

Brent: Sure. So what have you learned over this 12 year period of time that you think other web professionals should know?

George: That’s a really great question. I think the most important thing that I’ve learned over that time is get mentors. You know, get people that are going to help you from an outside perspective. You know, for ten years I didn’t have that other than my colleagues in the industry. Now I have EO, I have a coach that works with me, I have friends that are in the industry or other industries that I contact once in the while to ping them to say hey I’m thinking about the problem this way, what do you think about that? I just get their feedback. And it’s one of those things where I really wish I did that at like year three, not year 11. But it’s worked great.

Brent: And you know, we find that with folks that will… I’ll tell them to find consultants or mentors or whatever. And you know, they might either say it’s too expensive or drag their feet on it and I think that’s the one, you know, if I were to look back… We first looked at EO we were doing just under… Or at least the accelerator program when we were doing just under a quarter of a million. And we didn’t feel like it was something that was right for us. And then we got into EO and then it was like a… We started learning these techniques and tactics that were like… Revenue was just like popping up every year. And I think you can’t get into that stuff really enough.

George: No, you can’t. I mean that’s one of the things that I debated when we first got into it, right? Like is it really worth the amount of money? I mean it’s a couple thousand dollars. I could use that thousand dollars for other things like paper click or whatever it could be. Am I really going to get the ROI on that? And the answer is, it’s up to you. Right?
If you’re going to put the effort into it, you’re going to get something out of it. If you’re going to not put the effort into it and you’re going to drag your feet and you’re not going to commit to things and you’re not going to try to change as a person, then you’re not going to get anything out of it. Right? So I think it’s really up to the individual and the mentality that you’re bringing to the table. But I find that most entrepreneurs, they want to improve themselves. They want to get better.
So I think it’s an oddball that comes into it and says I have it all figured out, I don’t need any help. Well hey, good luck. Because I think we all need help.

Brent: For sure. So what trends are you guys following right now?

George: Mobile is huge for us right now. I mean we’re doing mobile apps left and right. And the re-design piece of the business… We still do that. And we still focus on that. But I would say most of the trends that we’re seeing are towards doing more and more mobile apps or integration with existing sites. So we’ll work with companies to build out the API’s to talk to those systems. Design out the app, do the development, and we’re really putting a lot of emphasis now into the whole UX, the whole UI and I cautiously use those two together because I know it creates a lot of confusion. But we try to use those two… We try to focus in that area a lot.

Brent: In terms of what’s next for Imulus, you mentioned that you guys are kind of taking on office restrictor[sp]? You know, you had this like 30 person restrictor. Are you now in kind of growth mode? I mean what’s the next step for Imulus?

George: Oh hell yeah we are. You know, for all those years and you know, we didn’t want to go over that 25 person limit. And when you’re 27 years old when we started the business. I’m 38 now. I don’t feel like it, but I’m 38 now. But I looked at that and I said hey, we can get to 25 people in 25 years. Like that’s not a hard goal. But now that we took that restrictor off, we’re looking at it and saying well we’re only going to grow when the work is there. And it dictates us to grow. And if we have our foot on the accelerator, I have no doubt that we’re going to grow like mad. But we’ve never purposely have tried to do that. We’ve always sat back and said oh the work has come in, we’re going to do great work and then we’re going to wait for the next project. And that’s no way to build a fantastic company. And we’ve realized that at this point.
So taking this restrictor off is just awesome. Because it frees us up, it makes us think about long term plans and where could we be? What could we do? Who could we hire? And so we’ve come up with all kinds of plans in terms of reaching out to the community as we grow, try to develop a kind of youth training program here at some point as we grow. But it like opens up all these other possibilities that we weren’t looking at before. And it’s invigorating. Because I feel like now that we’re at this point in this metamorphosis that we’re having, it’s just going to open up the company to be so much more than what it is.

Brent: Very cool. Well, George, best of luck to you guys. It’s been cool hanging out for a little bit and hopefully we’ll keep tabs on you guys as you continue on your growth path. And maybe you guys can join us for some courses or other content on uGuru some time.

George: Love to.

Brent: Absolutely.

George: All right.

Brent: Very cool. Well stay tuned for more great content from uGurus.com.

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