There are those serendipitous moments where everything just clicks. After working in the CMS industry (ExpressionEngine, Craft CMS) for two decades, Leslie Camacho kept coming back to an idea for a consulting service that gave agencies better decision making data. On the ground at Owner Summit in Austin, he connected with a Dutch company called VOGSY that was bringing that idea to life.
Today, as VP of Customer Services at VOGSY, Leslie is helping digital shops to gain visibility into what is and isn’t working, to get ahead of problems before it’s too late. Leslie joins us to talk about business intelligence, how shops are getting smarter and the cultural implications and impact of getting serious about ambitious goals.
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Carl: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. I'm excited today. I'm excited almost every day, you know that if you listen to this. I start off every damn show that way. I'm excited, but I am excited to calm down.
Today we have somebody who was in the room at the very first Bureau event. You've probably heard me say before it was called Shoptalk and then it became Owner Camp. But this person was very influential also at the company that I ran, nGen Works, because he was over at EllisLab working on ExpressionEngine. We had this back and forth, and then we ended up sitting in a room together, and teaching each other, learning from each other, all these things. Then he's gone on this crazy career path, done all these great things, and now he's the VP of Customer Services at VOGSY, one of the newest partners to the Bureau in the community. It's like this great coming around, and it's wonderful to have on the show today; Leslie Camacho. How's it going, Les?
Leslie: Hey, hi Carl. Let me [inaudible 00:01:05] by getting your name right.
Carl: No, actually it's fine because I'm just in some weird mood. You call me whenever you want. I'm here. I'm good.
Leslie: That sounds good. It is absolutely great to be here. It also feels a little bit strange because we've known each other, I don't know, 15 years? I was trying to figure this out, but it's been a long, long time.
Carl: You've seen me at my worst.
Leslie: Yes, and your best.
Carl: I think I may be able to say the same about me, but no, but about you as well. It's like we've had this great relationship over the years. It's just fun to have you on the show today. Tell me a little bit about this new role at VOGSY. We were hanging out at Owner Summit in Austin. That was the first time VOGSY came around. Then did y'all just meet there and the conversation started, or how did this whole thing go down?
Leslie: Yes. The way that it happened, just for full transparency and just because I don't like stigmas around things, I flew in Saturday morning to that Owner Summit and I had actually just gotten let go from Pixel & Tonic the night before.
Leslie: The whole thing was like a huge shock to me. I saw part of that coming, and then part of it I didn't. We could do a whole show about that. The short version is that it was absolutely the right decision. I'm friends with everyone there. There's no drama, and I'm thankful for the time there. But in terms of how I got started with the VOGSY, once what Pixel & Tonic did for me that I was very grateful for is they timed it so that I would be at Owner Summit. Originally I was going to be at Owner Summit to represent Craft.
Leslie: They said, "You go, and go network, and go be with this great community there, and we really want to do everything you can." They actually paid for my entire weekend. They kept the corporate card active, and it was really a godsend.
In the back of my mind, I'd always had this idea for a consulting service based on the former consulting work that I done; but in order to pull off the consulting service, I needed a dashboard that showed financial information for an agency based on operations. I didn't want something like a P&L statement but more things that related to how do I see and generate KPIs for companies, for agencies to get them good data? I had no idea what I was looking for at that point. It was really just raw in my head just thinking about it in a more serious fashion.
So that Saturday morning I went to go to the first Owner Summit talk, and outside I took one look at the VOGSY screen, because there was a couple of guys [crosstalk 00:04:08] ... VOGSY there, and in my brain I just said, "I got to talk to them after, you know, between breaks."
During one of the breaks I went up and started talking to them. I ended up talking with them for two hours. I skipped the next talk, and we just really dug into what it meant to give agencies better decision making data from the finance and operating side.
Unknown to me at the time, the people I was talking to was Mark, who's the CEO, and [crosstalk 00:04:40], who's the founder. I had-
Carl: [crosstalk 00:04:42] Couple influential people at the company, whatever.
Leslie: I had no idea. After Owner Summit, Mark got in touch with me again, and we just kept talking for a couple months. We talked about taking some of the idea I had for the consulting and combining that with what they want to do with the customer service that their software needs, because VOGSY's software is ... ultimately it's about getting you good, I would call it operating financials, out of that and customer service on that end doesn't mean technical support, but it means like now I have all this data, what do I do with it? That's where they wanted me to help out customers in there.
After talking with my wife Laura, and getting some opinion of some really good friends of mine, ... and because they're a Dutch company, and there is something I really like about the Dutch and all we have. There is sort of a straight forwardness to the Dutch that is awesome. You rarely have to wonder about where you stand, and even when they're upset about something, it rarely impacts the personal side of things there. At least that's been my experience.
When they made me an offer, they basically said, "You can hire us as your clients, or we can bring you on board full time with us, and here's what we need." After we talked about their requirements, it was one of those things where I would regret not just joining up and seeing what we can do together. That is the shorter version of that story.
I got fired, I started looking to how ... Immediately my brain went, "I got to figure out how to help agencies and get paid for it." And I talk someone's ear off about operations and customer success, and then I got a job.
Carl: Well, there you go. [crosstalk 00:06:42] That is such a Bureau story that you end up out of what you thought was going to be your career for awhile, and then you walk into the next phase. You hear that all the time from people leaving one Bureau shop to another Bureau shop, or it could be mergers, it could be ... We have all these things that are going on, which is just so much fun.
You mentioned something that I really want to hit on for a second, and that's KPIs. We hear KPIs circle around the Bureau all the time. We've got almost 3,000 digital shops in the Bureau now. As I watch these conversations ... They're not all talking at once, that would be a disaster. But as I watch these conversations, there is a newer shop mentality where people are a little more business focused. Shops that came out, I would say, 2015 and on, they have this mentality of shops being a business. But then you see shops, like when I started mine and a lot they were in that like late 90s, early 2000s, we were crafts people. We're building things that are amazing. The idea of being business, we thought we were anti-establishment, you know?
Carl: The thing is a lot of those people are super smart business people. They're running great companies today. A lot of the people who just started are also running great companies and building great stuff. But for those of us that were in the late 90s, early 2000s, I think KPIs are tough. We want them, but we don't know how to get started on them. It's just a challenge. As you've gone through thinking about it, getting on with VOGSY now, like how do you recommend that shops get started with KPIs?
Leslie: Just to start with the definition in case someone listening is really, really new, KPI stands for key performance indicator. That's really just a fancy business way of saying is something going good, sort of blah, or bad, and having something solid to measure against there.
In terms of getting started, if you are a services shop and you're not starting with anything, what I recommend doing is starting with figuring out what your revenue per project is, because that is often what can make or break a shop. It's directly related to the quality of work that you can provide there, because if you're not making money on the project, you're not going to have the client for long. Of course as budgets get tighter, the quality of work drops dramatically.
Leslie: Or someone's going to lose a lot of money, and normally that's the shop. That's something I see very whelmingly super smart and extremely skilled shops do when they're just getting into that point where they're working with client they really want to impress, where their business practices in the past have been enough to pay the bills and grow, but then they hit like their first big contract, whatever that might mean or brand that they really want to get invested in.
Regardless of whether the brand is big or not, but it's the brand that your heart says, "This aligns with the thing that I really want to do with this agency that I built." It's not uncommon at that point to over-invest. The issues that I typically see is not necessarily that a shop over-invests, but they don't know how they're over-investing and they don't know about how much, and they don't know how that impacts everything else.
Being able to track a project's revenue in close to real time and then using that to make good decisions so you can see what the impact's going to be and plan and adjust for it, and basically see that business data like this can be a tool that you can use to do better work. It doesn't have to be translated into a cold hard spreadsheet of no, you have to stop doing quality work or you have to go [crosstalk 00:11:00] ... client for more money. But it can really just be a factor of if you want to keep doing this work, and pay your employees, and keep a roof over your head, then something has to change.
You can start thinking through options before there's a real financial problem, which is usually after three or four weeks of going over budget is usually really terrible ... especially if you're in a growth phase there because you're probably have concurrent projects at that point. That's where it can just sneak up on you, because you can be losing a little bit in each, and then a lot in one, and then it can quickly be overwhelming. If you're not using any particular KPIs at the moment outside of maybe your P&L sheet, getting your head wrapped around on whether a project is profitable or not and trying to track that in real time is where I recommend a shop starting.
Carl: Yeah. I think one of the toughest things is feeling like suddenly you're going to expose all of your weaknesses to yourself, first of all, and your team, because you've never done this before. It's almost like going to the doctor when you're not sure if anything's wrong. Is this just the way it is?
Because you hear people talk about service shops all the time and they're like, "Well, that's just the nature of the business." I don't think it has to be anymore. It's like you see shops that are super well-organized. They have their operations down. They have their sales down. They seem to weather every storm I hear about.
It just feels like the idea of adding a layer of business intelligence right on top of the work versus saying, "I've solved it. We just have to do crappy work, and ... everything will be fine and we'll live for two months."
Carl: What are some of the KPIs that people should pay attention to in your experience? Because you've done some research on this, right?
Leslie: Yes. Yeah. I'd help consult on this and figure it out. The new thing for me is approaching KPIs from the financial standpoint first because I come from an operations background and a leadership background where I'm looking at big pictures, or more like delivery workflow; which I also really love. Here I'm trying to pull those things together to understand project KPIs.
The reason I like project KPIs as a starting point, too, aside from aside from not losing money on projects as generally a good thing, the work that you have to do to get a project KPI you can then leverage into other good business data with very little effort relative to getting the first one in.
Usually the obstacle is getting people to record their time consistently. I have yet to meet people that really love time sheets. I certainly don't like time sheets. It's one of those things where people will do all sorts of things to have to avoid recording time, and make a bunch of different ways around it. Some more successful than others.
But at the end of the day, if you're doing time and materials, value pricing, fixed pricing, you need time sheets because you need to know your cost. Once you have your cost, then you can take your sales, you know what your sales are going to be, and then you have a really loose nitty gritty way to calculate your margin on a project. Once you're tracking your costs in terms of time, that's the hardest part culturally, most of the time. Because even if you're already tracking time, it could be that you have to switch products, or you have to track time in a different way, or you have to track time daily instead of just weekly, or maybe you want people to use a timer versus just taking guesses.
There can be all these little cultural implications and that's where it can feel like you're working for the man and you've become the thing that you wanted to avoid in a lot of ways. The trick is to just give yourself some time and leeway to really work with your team so that tracking time is anchored to a better life for your shop and your clients as an outcome. Because once you have that, everything else you're probably already doing. Then you can just begin to categorize your costs so you can track, if you're already tracking time, then you can start tracking revenue for your lines of service, for example. You can track is development, how, ... what is the revenue like on my development versus design versus branding versus copywriting versus content strategy.
That's all just a factor of it usually tags in a spreadsheet or in a software application of some sort. Then you have another really good way of looking at potential profitability or lack thereof and projects because now lines of service in terms of whether they are profitable for the shop. Again, going back to the idea of turning a profit doesn't necessarily mean good or bad. Certainly you want profit, but it's okay for some lines of a service to be breakeven because you make the bulk of your revenue elsewhere.
You're not trying to make a moral judgment of any sort, so to speak, from all this data. What you want to do is understand the reality that your shop is actually working in, and then you decide does that reflect the type of shop you want to build and what adjustments you need to make in order to continue to grow and pay the bills. The data doesn't tell you what to do. The data just helps you make better decisions that can line up with who you want to be as you go.
Carl: When we start looking at this, it is one of those things, and I think you know this, a lot of people that know me know this. I hate spreadsheets.
Carl: I wanted to do the T shirt, I hate spreadsheets, but then everybody's like, "I love spreadsheets. Why do you hate them?"
I'm like, "Oh, you're killing me now." I could even feel it when you were just mentioning this, like tracking time was never that big of an issue. We were pretty good at it because we always made sure that people knew that when you put your time down, it's not a judgment on you. It's a judgment on us, like how well did we do? We need this so that we can get better.
All those things that a lot of shops do that explain that. But when I start hearing about the data and watching it, and paying attention to it, that's when I start to zone out a little. When you see shops that are successful in establishing and maintaining these KPIs, what's the type of person, either based on the role or based on their psychological profile, or whatever that can take this and make it successful? Because I think a lot of times if the founder tries it, it just falls apart.
Leslie: Yes, I would agree with that. As I see shops grow, there's usually a project manager that loves data more than they like managing projects. Having all the communication, and planning, and on that side of things where they prefer then to take that information and help people make good decisions. The people I see that help shops successfully implement KPIs tend to be enablers. They tend to be really good communicators.
They don't necessarily need to be math or even spreadsheet experts, but it's more like they like organizing things, and condensing and summarizing information for people. Because even if you're using a software package that automates a lot of this, or whether you're using like a Rob Carr style spreadsheet or some combination thereof, there's always [crosstalk 00:19:24] ...
Carl: ... two more times he's going to show up.
Leslie: [crosstalk 00:19:26] ... Yeah, I love his talks. There's no doubt about that.
Carl: Keep going though, I'm sorry.
Leslie: Once you have that information again, you still need someone that can help you think about it and detach it, and detach it from personal stress, or am I going to have to fire someone, or to have a positive statement. Then the question, like what if you're doing really well and this shows you how well you're doing? Then you have to go into how do bonuses work? How do you raise this work? How do I apply this newfound wealth and grow in a responsible, strategic, ambitious fashion, whatever that looks like.
Good news can often be just as anxiety inducing for the founder and-
Leslie: [crosstalk 00:20:17] ... It's one of those things that that's another conversation because what happens as soon as you find ... At some point in your career as a founder, like 5,000 feels like a tremendous amount of money.
"I can't believe anyone paid me 5,000 to do this thing." That number just [inaudible 00:20:36] time. Then it's like 15,000 then it's 50,000, then, "Oh my God, 150,000."
Leslie: Somewhere in there you realize how little money that actually is.
I still remember one of the Owner Camps I went to where one of the owners said, "I tell people I'm a founder of a business and they think, 'Man, you must be really successful.' In the back of my head, all I can think is we're rich, we're poor, we're rich, we're poor, we're rich."
Going back to that, like who is the ideal person to help? It's someone that you really trust to be a sounding board for the data, and who you feel confident enough that they like the double check. Because whether you're doing an automated system or spreadsheets, the thing is that data has to be good; and especially if you're tying multiple systems together. You may have like 10 spreadsheets or one Google sheet with 20 different tabs, or Air Table, or Notion, or a solution like VOGSY, or whatever else in there. There's someone that has to pull that thing and make sure that system's working. They have to enjoy that part of it and enjoy making sure there's integrity to it, but they should also be able to help you think through what you should be able to do with this information.
As the founder, you may have a vision, and I don't mean like the business-y vision statement thing, I just mean, "This feels right. I want this agency to go in this direction."
Then this person is the enabler that says, "Okay, if you want A, here are all the options to get you there based on what we know. So how do you feel about this versus that?" The best operations and senior PMs really help it break down to the founder so as much as possible, they are making yes/no decisions and sparking a curiosity of what's possible with the information giving them versus going through it themselves. Because those are two separate processes, and there are certainly lots of owners capable of doing both. But when owner's time gets stressed, they try to do both at the same time. That's where I think a lot of the mistakes happen when the owner does it themselves is because they try to put that vision process with the collecting the data, analyzing the data and trying to think through, is this good, bad, ugly or what does mean all in the same process as determining the vision for the company.
You put all those anxieties, and financials, and complications together when they should be two different brains or two different timeframes to spread those processes apart, and to kind of back off the business languages. Just give yourself some time to breathe. Here's the data, take a weekend, do something that gets you out of your head, and then come back and try to apply it later versus, hey, let's try to tackle this all Monday afternoon.
Carl: What you just said I think that was great, and this is something that I heard at Owner Camp as well, is there's now, there's near, and there's far.
Leslie: Mmhmm (affirmative).
Carl: One person cannot do all three.
Carl: With what you're talking about with the KPIs, that's now and near, but most founders with that vision are looking far.
Carl: They're trying to get ... In my experience, and I would say from some conversations I've had, that's part of what really gets frustrating if you've got the wrong person doing it because they're like, "And then we will climb the mount ... what do you mean we don't have enough bread? I don't know. We're climbing the mountain, and you're telling me that we're running out of ... I don't care about water. We're climbing the mountain."
It's that thing where it's like, "People don't understand what I'm trying to accomplish. They keep telling me how we're falling apart today. I'm telling them we're gonna succeed tomorrow."
It's like that to me makes so much sense that you have a different person doing it. I'm wondering with your new role as this VP of customer services, how much are you actually working with new clients at VOGSY and helping them figure out how they're going to run things?
Leslie: Daily. That's one of the reasons I said yes to this role is because we take someone through a sales process, help evaluate if the software itself is going to be useful to them. If they say 'yes,' we make the assumption that just giving someone financial software is going to change very little.
Because the other thing is that when people really start to take the idea of a business intelligence and KPIs, there's usually something ambitious that they want to accomplish or something critical. It usually signals that there's going to be a cultural change of some sort, or that they're going through a pivot, or a transition, and sometimes they know it and sometimes they don't.
When VOGSY was implemented, we want to be really serious about being there for our customers on the other side of things in a real way. For example, I spent an hour and a half this morning helping brainstorm a way to rethink billing for one of my customers on the West Coast. They were having an issue where they have some contractors and they want to transition those contractors, some of them into W2 employees and smooth out billing, and then they have retainers. Then the owner has these other things that the owner wants to do versus what ops has to do.
My role in all that is not to be the consultant that tells them what the right move is because I don't know. But what I can do is go into their install, see their setup, look at the data, talk through at a very high level, and provide that aspect of I've been there to some extent. I've made the mistakes. I can be that calm in the center of the storm. Oftentimes that outside voice is what they need to get the spark started.
The person I was working with is a very accomplished COO and just as capable helping me as I am providing customer service to her. But it goes back to the idea of it's so hard to do it for yourself in the moment.
Leslie: On the service side of stuff, we want to really acknowledge that, especially since we want to work with a lot of shops that are in a growth or transition stage. It's a way for us to acknowledge that there's going to be a cultural impact. The support side and customer success side can't just be about technical and feature set and ease of use, although all those things are critical. There's also the thing of this is a major thing. You're replacing a lot of systems in there. That's what one of the things we really want to take seriously is that very direct human touch and understanding.
That also goes back to that, like a friend of mine would describe it as, you have to have a lot of humility when you're going in to help someone because if you don't have humility about it, they're unlikely to show humility, and rarely they're talking about what's important. That's one of the things that they want me to help figure out and how do we replicate. I am, at an individual level, I am really good at talking to a stranger that runs a business and 10 minutes later we can be working on their life secrets because I'm a really open person; but can you scale that? Should you scale that? How do you design a system where there is good boundaries in place and then you begin to communicate that trustworthiness that it's not just about software but it's about outcomes.
If you're using financial software and your financial outcomes aren't getting better, then we're not doing our jobs. That's not a promise on the website so to speak, but internally it's how we think about it.
Leslie: That's a really long answer to your question of yes, I work directly one on one with CEOs, CFOs, COOs, senior PMs, to try to figure out workflows, billing, whatever they want to throw at me. If I don't know an answer, I will try to go pull my network, find it. It's got a very, I would say Bureau-like ethos to it, which is another reason that I said yes to working there. I went and checked them out, spend some time in Amsterdam with the team, and walked away knowing that these were my people, so to speak.
Carl: Could you hear me rolling my eyes when you said spent some time in Amsterdam?
Leslie: I know.
Carl: [crosstalk 00:29:32].
Leslie: ... for work to go to Amsterdam with 10 days with my wife while the kids were at summer camp with the grandparents. It was challenging, Carl, really challenging.
Carl: Very difficult. Well Les, I'm so happy for you, man. Everything you just described, the passion and the way you're saying it, it's obviously you have landed in a great place.
Leslie: Yeah, thank you.
Carl: Yeah, and I'm just glad that the Bureau, on some level, helped facilitate this for you. It's like these events and these people, and the people that we're attracting ... I mean from the Netherlands, right. Have VOGSY contact us about coming into North America. It's just amazing. Dude, I'm so glad you were on the show today and thanks so much for sharing what's going on.
Leslie: Yeah, you're very, very welcome. Thank you for having me.
Carl: You got it. Everybody listening. Thank you so much, and we'll be back next week. All the best.