Interview with Elmar Platzer, PhotoMerchant
What’s your day job?
CEO & Co-Founder of PhotoMerchant which provides photographers with the tools they need to manage their photography business on the Internet. Responsible for operations, business development, financial management, and capital raising.
What type of projects does your company work on – how long do they run?
No projects, we run a SaaS business. It’s an application that’s hosted in the cloud. We constantly evolve the application adding new functionality, improving it and so on.
How did you get started in digital?
In the mail room. No, I’m making this up.
I came into digital via systems integration, content, mobile aggregation and enablement and finally landed in a digital agency, MassMedia, as COO for 4 years. Have been in software development and product development ever since.
What’s your current favourite book, website, blog or source of inspiration for your business?
One of the most influential books I’ve read was The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It’s a must for anyone who runs a business or develops products. So for all the agencies out there, while it’s not necessarily applicable to everything you do, it’s certainly applicable to how you run and develop your own business. It will probably also apply to some of your projects, mainly from perspective of helping your client to approach their projects more effectively.
What’s the ratio of project managers to developers/producers?
We’re not really structured that way. Please bear in mind we’re working on the same application day in day out and we don’t have external deliverables that are deadline driven projects. Our development methodology is agile. One day we’re hoping to make the transition to a continuous deployment process. In agile, you have a scrum master and a business/product owner. In our case the roles are concentrated in one person, our CTO who also happens to be a co-founder of PhotoMerchant, so he’s quite comfortably wearing the business/product owner hat as well. We intend to split those roles as the team gets larger.
How many staff do you have in total
6 full time employees and 5 part timers.
Have you introduced in new roles/jobs title in your business – is the nature of your business changing?
We’re not big fans of traditional titles here, although we’re frequently drawn into using them when dealing with the outside world and I’m probably the person most guilty here. So the job titles you’ll find at PhotoMerchant are Engineering Czar, Raconteur, Support Sherpa, Search Assassin and Rex Imperator. I’m dreaming of a world with no titles at all!
Being a start-up, the nature of our business is constantly changing. New roles are being added as quickly as we can support them. Our next big push will probably see us add foreign language support staff who’ll ultimately be able to step up and manage a region for us, e.g. Latin America.
How do you keep hours and costs on or under budget?
From our perspective, the lean start up methodology (LSM) holds the key to making every hour count. Some of the essential principles of LSM are not to spin your wheels on doing redundant work, i.e. you develop in very small batches, release, analyse the impact and pull the feature, roll it out to all customers and/or tweak/expand it. It all starts with an assumption though, aka a hypothesis.
An example of a hypothesis would be, I believe doing x will result in y. In our case, the y has to be better conversion, more revenue, less churn. If it doesn’t do any of these, you pull the feature. In order to test your hypothesis, you run an experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to either validate or invalidate your hypothesis. In our case, experiments often are done by developing a feature, and then split testing the impact of that new feature by only exposing the feature to some customers. We then do a cohort analysis to evaluate what difference the feature made to the application when compared with the control group, that wasn’t exposed to that feature.
The whole point of the exercise though is not to spin your wheels on building the Taj Mahal only to find out your customers actually wanted a log cabin or the Buckingham Palace.
What tools do you use to manage time and job tasks?
I use a web app called Toodledo. It’s GTD compliant and allows me to organise my tasks by context, e.g. @web, @calls, @errands. I can then sort my tasks based on the context and do them when I’m best positioned to do them. E.g., when I’m out and about I check @errands and see what I can get accomplished while I’m out.
I also always estimate the time I think it’ll take me to complete a task, no matter how large or small. When I organise my day, which I often do the night before but always in the morning, before I start my day, the time estimates allow me to assess whether I can get all the tasks accomplished on the day. If not I move them to another day. I also use the timer in the application which allows me to look back on my day or previous days and see how much time it actually really took to complete a task and what I’ve actually really accomplished on the day.
Any suggestions on dealing with difficult clients?
We have thousands of subscribers. I rarely deal with them though as it’s our support team who looks after our clients. Actually I’m reading a great book at the moment I recommend that provides you really useful strategies for resolve sticky issues when conversations get heated and when there’s a lot at stake. It’s called Crucial Conversations and I highly recommend it.
What’s your or the company’s biggest challenge currently?
Running a tech startup with global ambitions and scale out of Australia where funding is scarce and where our business generally is little understood. But we’re getting there.
What particular skill set do you look for in your new hires?
Above all, cultural fit. Then a good EQ and good IQ and a great attitude. Domain expertise in their field. Quite simple really. We don’t employ prima donnas and we don’t employ people with no integrity. We’re not your usual workplace either. No 9-5 compulsion here, come and go as you please. But don’t bother applying if you don’t love what you do and if you’re not outcome oriented.
How do you ensure that your team is performing well, and focused on the same goals? Do you have any special team activities that you do to maintain a good culture?
Pick the right people to start with. Then treat everyone the same way you would want to be treated. Be open and transparent with everyone and instill enthusiasm and excitement by living and breathing it yourself. Act with the utmost integrity and be humane. Don’t be patronising; your employees aren’t kids, they are adults and can hopefully think for themselves, can cope with reality and don’t need to be protected from the evils of this world (e.g. a difficult situation your company may be going through).
Take the hit first before everyone else if you’re the leader. That’s a mantra we’ve been leaving by as founders of the business. Be generous, don’t be mean spirited or penny pinching (even if things are tight).
And don’t only just pay lip service to these things. You’ll be found out sooner or later.
We don’t have any special team activities but we do like to hang with our staff. That said, team activities aren’t a bad thing as long as they come natural and they’re not contrived.