Introducing Alastair McDermott
Alastair McDermott is a business strategist and marketing consultant. He helps professional services providers get more visitor website traffic and sell more online. Building websites and software since 1996, Alastair is the author of Running a Website with WordPress: A Quick Guide for Business Owners.
Tara: This is Hallway Chats, where we meet people who use WordPress.
Liam: We ask questions, and our guests share their stories, ideas and perspectives.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by Alastair McDermott from Websitedoctor.com. Alastair is a business strategist and marketing consultant. He helps professional services providers get more visitor website traffic and sell more online. Building websites and software since 1996, Alastair is the author of Running a Website with WordPress: A Quick Guide for Business Owners. Hello, Alastair.
Alastair: Hi, guys.
Tara: Hi. So glad that you’re here today, Alastair. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Alastair: Sure. I live in the rural west coast of Ireland and I’ve been kind of geeking out on web stuff for years. My background is originally in software development and back in the day, I used to do stuff on IBM mainframe, writing assembly code. I’m fairly geeky in that sense but I’ve kind of moved now towards the business and marketing end of the spectrum, which I find very rewarding, I think is the right word. So yeah.
Liam: That’s fantastic. We’ve only been chatting just a little bit here, Alastair, out in our virtual hallway and I clearly could tell that you’re from Ireland. I didn’t realize you’re from the west of Ireland. My wife’s family is from the west, right along the Westport – Newport Road. I don’t know how close that is to where you hang your hat every night.
Alastair: Yeah, I’m moving to Westport next week, and I live in Newport, so pretty close. [laughter]
Liam: So I probably drank in some of the pubs that you might have visited over the years?
Alastair: Absolutely. I’m actually originally from Dublin, which is why I don’t really have a strong western accent. I have a fairly neutral accent, actually, for an Irish guy. People sometimes don’t know where I’m from. But yeah, it’s interesting living in a rural area. Much smaller market size for business. For a long time, we had some kind of challenging technology issues with trying to get online. I was very good at diagnosing slow websites because I could see them loading in real time because they were so slow.
Tara: Well, we should note that the last little Irish mention perhaps is that we have Liam, Tara, and Alastair. We have an abundance of Irish happening here in the podcast today. Proud Irish heritage myself. You talked a little bit about your background and you kind of transitioned a bit from the more technical stuff to the more marketing stuff, but can you tell us how you even got started in tech? You’ve been doing it for a long time.
Alastair: Oh, yeah. I guess back in about 1995 when I was in what you guys would call high school, I guess I was a bit of a geek anyway. Like read a lot of sci-fi and stuff like that. But my parents got a computer that wasn’t– because we had an old computer that you couldn’t really do anything with. An old IBM 80808. Anybody knows 80806 but kind of even slower. Anyway, they got a Mac. It was a Performa 630 with I think four megabytes of RAM. I used to play around with that. Basically, I broke that and I had to fix it. That’s how I got into computers and then I went to college and I did software engineering, software development. Yeah, I got into websites around the same time. I had a website on Geocities. That was my first website, kind of old school–
Tara: Yeah, we had a couple of other guests who had Geocities websites and they had some old sites that we could actually see. Like flashing stuff happening.
Alastair: Oh yeah. I’m sure I could dig something up for you.
Tara: How did you make the transition from the software tech end of things to marketing? What led you down that path and into that transition?
Alastair: I guess I was a terrible corporate employee. I probably wasn’t very good to work with. I have since apologized to all my old workmates. I was probably always destined for self-employment because I would be the annoying person at the back of the meeting because I was still smart enough not to get into trouble but I was smart enough to cause trouble. Yeah, I realized I just wasn’t enjoying my job and I needed to get out, I needed a change. I thought back in 2007, I don’t know if you guys remember, the economy was really booming. Things were great in early 2007 so I thought, “Hey, now is a good time to quit my safe corporate job and start a business.” I did that.
Tara: Then came 2008?
Alastair: And then came 2008. Yeah, that was really fun. I had built a couple of commercial website projects at that stage just as kind of nixers what we call it here, small jobs. And kind of side just for pure money, basically. What I did was I was looking for something, what skills do I have that are kind of technical in nature that people would pay me for. SEO was one of those. Back in 2005, 2006 when I was getting into SEO, it was really technical. Whereas, nowadays, there’s a lot more tools available that make it a bit easier. Back then, you kind of needed to be a bit of a techie, a bit of a programmer sometimes to be able to do something. SEO was my route into that whole world of marketing and website. I guess, conversion rate optimization, that kind of stuff.
Liam: So in 2005, 2006 really, there’s still a lot of static sites back then. CMSs were available but still just about every other developer was making their own CMS before some of the bigger open source projects began to get some momentum. When you were doing SEO back then, were you doing SEO on static sites and having to go back in and take technical steps on 87 different pages?
Alastair: Oh, yeah. Of course, I had my own self-built CMS–
Liam: Of course you did, of course you did.
Alastair: Calling it a CMS would be going way too far but yeah, it was basically a couple of PHP frameworks that had hardcoded CSS and things, it was terrible. It kind of worked if you kind of stuck one finger here and twiddled this style over here. It was okay. Anyway, I was doing that and then I realized in, I guess, 2008, I didn’t like selling SEO. I didn’t really like the kind of lack of reliability in terms of what you could offer your customers. I just didn’t like the whole premise of selling SEO, which is basically, “If you give me lots of money, I’m going to do a lot of work and maybe it’s going to work and maybe it’s not.” It’s a bit more complicated than that but that’s effectively what you’re saying to people. I didn’t really like doing that. I had a lot of people ask me for websites so I started building websites and it’s just a much cleaner sale.
Tara: Less pressure. It’s similar to advertising. Before the net, people would spend money on advertising and you can’t really prove that what you’re spending on advertising is really getting you any direct return. With organic SEO, anyway, it’s similar, right?
Liam: It’s such an interesting offering that the only guarantee is that there are no guarantees, and if anybody is trying to sell you a guarantee, you should not buy it.
Alastair: I did actually do the whole money back guarantee. I was offering a guarantee, which is a money back guarantee, but then people were saying, “If anybody ever offers you a guarantee in SEO, then that means they’re doing something sketchy.” Then I was like, “Well, I actually have to back off on that.” Because people were associating– even though it was kind of a risk-free option for them, people were seeing it as negative.
Tara: I’m going to back up a minute and go back to your talking about how you weren’t really cut out for the corporate life or the corporate job, and that you were troubled in your own way. Can you talk a little bit more about that and what that meant? I also feel like I wasn’t cut out for the corporate world so I’m curious to hear what your take on that meant more specifically.
Alastair: I’m trying to find the right words to describe when I get myself in serious trouble. I guess I was just a bit of a troublemaker. I wasn’t good at being a small cog and following orders. I never would have made a good soldier, either. I’d always kind of strike at my own direction. I find it very constraining and also, because– I was in a very big company, it was in Sun Microsystems. I think at the time, they had 50,000 employees. It was a big, big system to be in and yeah, it just didn’t really fit me because I was doing the same thing. It’s funny now. At the time, I was doing the same thing over and over again. I didn’t enjoy it. Whereas now, I want to do the same thing over and over again and I can’t. Yeah, that’s interesting.
Tara: That is interesting. You struck out to be your own boss and how did you learn how to do that or was that something instinctive?
Alastair: Oh yeah, through trial and error and I was terrible at it at first. That took me years to get right.
Tara: What was the hardest thing?
Alastair: I gave a couple of talks at various different business events and things. I had people coming up asking me to partner with them on projects or come in on startups and things and I said yes. That was a mistake. It was great, it was really flattering and it was great experience, but at the same time, I wasn’t concentrating on my thing and I wasn’t concentrating on my own personal business and moving that forward. I effectively let my consulting business die over the course of three years between 2010 and 2013. I had to kind of resurrect that from nothing. And that was a bit of a mistake because those other projects didn’t pan out for whatever reason, because the odds of a startup succeeding are pretty low. Yeah, like I said, it was really flattering but at the same time, you have to say no to some things and I didn’t. But really good business experience. I had a lot of meetings where I was in a boardroom where the prospective CEO of a company is pitching for VC money and I have to support that with the technology stuff or the marketing stuff. Being in those kind of pressure situations is very interesting and you learn a lot from that.
Tara: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve spoken to anyone who as a new business said no. I think that a new business can’t really say no. Part of learning is that you say yes to things to figure out what you need to say no to. There’s trial and error, as you said. That’s I think a good challenge to have overcome.
Liam: Yeah, I imagine a temptation would have even been more so if you’re spinning out of 2008 and 2009 and somebody in 2010 says, “Hey, Alastair. Want to make some money with us?”, “Oh, yes, please.”
Alastair: Absolutely. Because it was tough. My first year in business, 2007, was really, really good. It was a brand new business and it was a six-figure year. That was really good because my salary in comparison at my previous job had been tiny. To do that, and then 2008, 2009, I was living off savings from the first year of business. And then that stays, then you’re kind of scraping the bucket. It’s like– I don’t know if you guys have an E rating on this but it hit the fan. [laughs]
Liam: Alastair, you’ve walked us through a few different career flows and the way to where you got to now. What I want to ask you about is one of our more signature questions and it’s about success. I’d ask you to define or share with us your definition of success. Maybe a personal definition, a professional definition, or a mix of both?
Alastair: I had a think about this because I listened to a whole bunch of these podcasts in the car and I was trying to think what would that be for me. I think that it’s helping people. I’m not a liberal hippie tree-hugger type. But I do like helping people and I think that in general, most people are inherently good, that’s my position, and want to help other people. I think that helping people is success in its own way, and usually, you get a reward from that. I think success is helping people and getting rewarded for it.
Liam: What sort of rewards are you looking at? How do you measure that success then?
Alastair: Ideally, in the bank. That’s the best kind of reward, really. But just when you help people and you can see that you’ve helped them, and they really, truly appreciate it. You can see it in their eyes and they say it. And sometimes, you don’t get a reward straight away, sometimes you don’t get a reward at all. But I believe in karma, it flows back.
Tara: I think that’s true. And I also think it can be true– as much as the bank– I understand what you’re saying, I think being paid for something that you know someone appreciates and has helped them is great, being paid for something where you feel like they were not satisfied and you haven’t helped them is not enjoyable money. It’s still money but it’s not the same thing, right?
Alastair: I think that some people are happy anyway. It depends on your philosophy and your worldview, I think. I think it’s better, it’s clearly better when people truly appreciate it.
Tara: Yeah. If your idea of success is helping people, then that comes hand in hand.
Alastair: You also do need to protect yourself because sometimes people will take advantage of that. Particularly, if you’re the kind of person who volunteers a lot. You just need to put some kind of guidelines and rules around it for yourself. And you get probably mistakes where I didn’t say no enough to some volunteer-type stuff early on. But again, it’s all experience at the same time.
Tara: What do you do toward this idea of success? How are you involved in helping people? Today, you were talking about the local business center that you’re working in. Tell us a little bit about what you do?
Alastair: The stuff I’m in today I’m getting paid for. It’s not very high-rate tier but–
Tara: But you’re helping people.
Alastair: It is paid work but I find this really useful. Today, this is my seventh meeting of the day, I think. Yes, I met with a lot of people today. Small business owners. I got to talk to six different business owners who I was helping with various different challenges with their business. Usually related to website or online marketing but sometimes, again, they’re not related, they’re something totally different. I’ll give you the example beforehand of a guy who thought he had a website problem. And when I dug more into it, I realized that he used to have an assistant and that the assistant quit the job so he was now doing the work of both and he never replaced him, and he was getting totally stressed and snowed under at work because he hadn’t– he thought, “Oh, I have a website problem.” And I guess it sometimes takes somebody external to see that issue. But yeah, talking to business owners about all these different kind of issues. That teaches me what people are looking for and tells me what kind of language people are using to describe their problems, which is really good for SEO, for example. It’s just really useful to talk to people, to talk to your clients and potential clients and learn from them and learn what kind of issues they’re having. There’s a whole bunch of wins there for me in that, one, I’m helping them to get a result. Two, I’m learning what people are looking for and I’m kind of keeping up to date on what people need. I find it really useful. And three, I’m getting paid for it. It’s a big win.
Tara: That’s a really interesting perspective, I had never thought about that before but in helping other businesses and pulling from that the language that they use, that’s a fascinating thing to come out of that type of experience with. That’s really cool.
Liam: Tell us a little bit about The Website Doctor and what that means? It sounds like from what you just shared with us about your conversations today is that maybe website is the avenue in and the backdrop, if you will, but maybe perhaps a wider business consultancy. But you tell us?
Alastair: It’s quite interesting. I was talking to Phillip Morgan who’s a specialization coach, specialization consultant. The way that I feel like my business is going, I’m going down the route where in maybe 10 years time, I’m going to be a manageable consultant and that’s the way it’s kind of bearing. I don’t mind that. I don’t want to get too much away from the original premise of the website doctor because I do find the technology stuff really interesting. I do tend to see a lot of business issues that are not necessarily website-related and online marketing related. I guess I talked to people about those issues a lot. I think that my background in the startups and I’m also a big reader. I love reading books. I think it’s probably the best investment you can make in your business is to buy books, because you get access to the brains of these really great people and you get their best work for 20 books. It’s a crazy deal really. So I read a lot and I find you can get a lot from that. Yeah, I think when you talk to business owners about the issues over and over again and when you’re in these situations like when you’re in pressure situations in a boardroom meeting where somebody is trying to kick you off the board of a business, your business partners want you out and you have to try and handle that situation. Things like that, that I’ve been through, that gives me perspective or a bit of knowledge about the like and then bring to the table when I’m talking to clients.
Tara: Is there a specific type of clients that you like to work with?
Alastair: I struggle with this a bit in figuring out exactly who or being able to nail it down. I like working with what I call b2b professional service providers. The problem with that is nobody who’s actually a b2b professional service provider calls themselves that. They tend do call themselves consultants or maybe it’s a financial planner or it’s an accountant. It’s a whole wide range of people who provide professional services of some kind and ideally to other businesses. They’re the ones who I feel like I can help the most. For example, I know that I don’t like doing retail e-commerce. If somebody sells 20,000 SKUs off a huge e-commerce site, that’s not really my kind of site or my kind of business. Yeah, I do struggle and I haven’t really nailed this down. That’s one of the reasons I was talking to Phillip for example.
Tara: That’s a common challenge that people have is figuring out who their ideal customer is. We have show notes on this so I won’t have you go into it now, maybe you can share with us after, but maybe you could name a couple of the books that you have gotten the most from?
Alastair: Sure. I think that probably the best business book is The E-Myth by Michael Gerber. The premise of the book, I think it’s probably the best business book and the most useful but it’s also one of the worst written. I hate the way that he kind of makes this fake scenario where ‘Sarah gazed longingly across the table at me’ and this kind of stuff. But the material in the book is brilliant and it’s probably the most insightful for me, understanding– it was probably the thing that helped me the most when I started out turning from a software developer or a software engineer into a business owner, in viewing these three hats of the technician, being the person doing the work, and then the manager managing all of the work, and then the visionary, having that future vision. And that as a business owner, we need to swap between those different hats. That’s the crucial message. And then the myth itself is that somebody who’s good at doing something is good at running a business that does that thing. I recommend that book to every business owner, The E-Myth.
Liam: I will add that to my purchase and reading list, thank you. Alastair, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that I’m on the microphone and ask you one of our other signature questions, and that’s really about advice and not so much advice that you might give to your clients and those that come to you for help, but what is the single most valuable piece of advice that you’ve ever received and implemented in your life, in your business, maybe some of both?
Alastair: I think it might have been when back in maybe January or February of 2007, I was back home in Mayo and I was up late with my mom, it was about 1:00 AM and we were both kind of sitting in front of the fire drinking whiskey. I was trying to figure out should I quit my job. She said to me, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if it doesn’t work out in business for you?” And I said, “Well, I’ll have to go and find another job.” And that was it, decision made. If that’s the worst thing that can possibly happen, okay, this is a no-brainer. It was just going through, okay– and that was kind of a crucial decision for me but it made it so easy. So the next day when I went into work, I handed in my notice. That was probably– it may not be the most insightful piece of advice somebody could ever give but it certainly was the most important for me.
Liam: Yeah, that’s really great. “What’s the worse that can happen?” And analyzing that to know what to do is really helpful. I’m glad you shared how long it was before you handed in your notice because that was going to be my next question. How long between the last sip of whiskey in front of the fireplace and when you turned in your notice? That’s pretty quick.
Alastair: I had decided at that point, it was clear for me, the path forward was clear.
Tara: Yeah, that’s a great story. I don’t think we’ve heard that spin on advice before. I love that. What’s the worse that can happen? You take that approach to many things. That’s a big change to make and that advice really seemed to guide you there. Do you have any interaction with the WordPress community in your area? Is there one in your small town there in the west coast of Ireland?
Alastair: I don’t know, actually. [laughter] How do I put it? I used to be big into the WordPress community so I would go to– there was a WordCamp in Ireland a few years back but it’s not something that happens like it does in the States, really often and things like that. I did go to WordCamp and spoken on few events, but what I found was I was writing– back in 2007, 2008, I was writing a lot of blog posts about technical WordPress issues and I was writing for my peers, not for my customers. When I caught myself doing that about five years later, I realized I need to stop writing about things like how to integrate the new WordPress menus and stuff like that that was coming out, because my clients really don’t care about that.
Tara: Yeah, I used to do the same thing.
Alastair: That was the time where I kind of disengaged a little bit from the community because I was focusing much more on my clients and what they needed. It’s not really that I had a problem with community, it’s just it wasn’t my focus anymore. I started focusing much more on what my clients needed.
Tara: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think the WordPress community is peers when you work alone or you have your own business, it’s nice to have that community but it does take your focus away from clients often times, I find the same thing. I find something interesting, I learn something interesting, I want to share it in a blog post, but I’m like, “My clients don’t care.” You’re absolutely right. And probably 25 other people have written the same thing at least about it in WordPress. Point well taken.
Liam: I was going to ask you about what do you do, what do you get up to, what are your hobbies, what do you enjoy when you’re not helping businesses with their business? What do you do? What’s fun for you?
Alastair: I guess I’m a bit of an introvert. I like reading and stuff like that. I don’t seem like an introvert but I am. I’m big into sports, rugby is a fairly popular sport here. It’s a bit like your football without the padding. The hits are a little bit not quite as hard. I played rugby for 20 years and I still go to a lot of matches and things, that’s big for me.
Liam: Who’s your team? Who do you support?
Alastair: I support Leinster. That’s good because they’re doing really well. I live in Newport, but Leinster’s where I’m from so I decided to nail my colors to the cross. Yeah, Leinster’s very good, Ireland are a very good international team. We’re doing very well at the moment. They’ve just beaten New Zealand, the number one team.
Liam: That’s an impressive feat.
Alastair: Yeah, that’s it. I guess I’ve become a bit of a business geek to the point where I’m reading business books for fun. [laughter] But that’s cheating on the question.
Tara: No, that’s good. Thanks for sharing that with us. I think we’re out of time, Alastair. I’m getting a little signal from Liam here that our time is up.
Liam: Can we ask one more question?
Tara: But Liam wants to ask one more question.
Liam: Alastair, you had that conversation with your mother in front of the fireplace that went until one in the morning that you shared with us. I have to ask, do you remember the whiskey and is it your tried and true, was it just what mom had in the shelf, share us with that if you will?
Alastair: It was probably Jameson.
Liam: That’s a fine call.
Alastair: That would be pretty staple, I’d say. There you go. Good question.
Tara: It’s been a pleasure having you with us. Thanks so very much for joining us, taking the time out of your evening over there to chat with us and let us get to know you a little bit more.
Alastair: Thanks for having me.
Tara: Where can people find you online?
Alastair: You can find me at Websitedoctor.com and hopefully, I will have a podcast sometime probably early next year and that will be at Iwillincreaseyoursales.com.
Liam: Fantastic. Alastair, what a pleasure getting to spend some time with you and get to know you a little bit. Thank you for stopping by our hallway.
Alastair: Cheers, thanks guys.
Tara: Thank you.
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