A CEO’s perspective: Reflecting on leadership, success, and the future of CRO

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be at the helm of a rapidly growing business in the fast-paced world of digital marketing?

Since taking over in 2018, Matt Smith has driven Webtrends Optimize to be a leading technology vendor in the Digital Marketing space. Webtrends Optimize have been big players in the experimentation game since early 2000, with most of the team working within with the business before we separated from Webtrends Inc. and became a standalone business in 2018.

Whilst there have been some brilliant successes in this time, it has not been without its difficulties too, particularly when Covid-19 hit. It has certainly been an interesting journey to get to where we are now.

But with a wealth of experience in the industry and a passion for CRO, Matt, along with the board of Directors, has led the company to new heights of success.

In this blog post, we take a closer look at his journey, leadership style, and vision for the future.

Why did you decide to acquire Webtrends Optimize?

So, to take you back a bit, I actually joined Webtrends Inc. in September 2015. It wasn’t my original plan, as I left Thomas Cook and intended to take a year out to spend time with my first-born son. I wasn’t looking for a job, Webtrends found me.

Then I went through a series of quick interviews, and I really liked it and the people I engaged with. And I got the job… So rather than having a year off, I had a weekend off!

If we then fast-forward to 2018, the catalyst for all of this was when Webtrends Inc. sold Infinity Analytics to Oracle and were also looking to potentially sell Webtrends Optimize too, where I was now Services Director.

I took my team to one side, and told them ‘Webtrends Optimize is a good business, with great clients, if they decide to sell, someone will buy it…’ And then jokingly added, ‘and if they don’t, I will!’ – little did I know at this point that this flippant joke would become the reality!

I put together a business plan of what I thought we should do and how I thought we should proceed, and presented this to the Webtrends Inc. management team, and investors. Essentially with a view to show them the potential Optimize had (should they choose to keep it).

Their feedback was basically, ‘if you believe in your plan so much, why don’t you take it off our hands?’ From there, it was just a snap decision… and I basically said ‘alright, fine, what do I need to do?’

When did you bring Matt Goodchild, Ben, and Sandeep in?

Prior to me presenting my plan for Webtrends Optimize to the Webtrends Inc. team, I was with Matt Goodchild (probably helping him with someone DIY stuff!) and told him what was going on, and he said ‘ooh, we should buy it!’.

And it was kind of like, I’d made this joke to the team, then he said that… so the seeds were sewn…

Matt Goodchild was in a good job but had ambitions to do something different. Ben was also in a comfortable job at Thomas Cook. The three of us had worked closely together previously, had lived together, we were best friends, we’d spent so much time together, and it all seemed to fit.

We all have complimentary skills too, me for the management side, Ben for marketing and Matt Goodchild for IT.

So, we decided to press forward and went ahead with the purchase, but it took 18 months to do it. It was long process of being in and out, then in and out…

During this period, we also strengthened our team by bringing Sandeep into the fold too. Sandeep had been part of the Webtrends Optimize team since before I joined but had recently left to do his own thing. He knew the product inside out and is an absolute genius.

I felt we now had the perfect team to take it forward. We still had to learn a hell of a lot, but we did it, and it happened!

Are there any cons to owning a business with people you know so well?

There are absolutely no cons to working with those three.

The positives are that we all have complimentary skills, and we all know each other’s weaknesses (which are strengths in the other three), so we all balance each other out. If one is down, we pull them up, so we all drag each other through this journey.

I guess the only con for me, is I don’t see as much of them personally, outside of the office, as I did before we started working together again.

We are all so busy at work, it’s harder to find time, and we don’t socialise enough. And if we didn’t work together, we would probably find more time to do more stuff than we do now. But that’s the only negative.

So, you’ve taken on a new business, you have the big job of separating from Webtrends Inc. and you have pressure to deliver not just for yourselves and the clients, but for the staff too, then Covid hits about 18 months later. How was that for you? Did you ever think it was a mistake?

It was incredibly scary. But I never thought it was a mistake, even though my wife might disagree! Hard, doesn’t even begin to describe it… It often felt near impossible. But so many people were in the same position at that time.

We actually went into Covid in a very strong position. We had good cash-flow, and long-standing clients.

We even had some big contracts that were going to be signed the week the first lockdown was announced, but of course they were all dropped or postponed as people waited to see what happened next.

No-one had experienced anything like this before. 4 weeks became 12, 12 became 24, and it just went on and on.

We couldn’t take on any new clients. Our existing clients were impacted just like everyone else. Life goes on pause.

So that was an incredibly tough time. But now we look back, and the fact that we got through it shows how resilient the team is, and we’ve come out stronger than ever.

We’ve continued to grow, and that’s not just our clients, the size of our team is growing rapidly too.

Why do you think we’ve come out of the pandemic stronger than ever?

More and more people are buying online, so people need to invest in their online properties to continue to maximise that market and to continue to capture every sale.

Every pound they spend on PPC, SEO or any paid marketing, they want to ensure they are getting as much ROI for that as they can, so we need to be there, and be on site - CRO generally I mean in that respect, not just us.

As a business, we are still cautious. We are investing in the right people in the right areas. For example our Sales Team. Adding a bigger spearhead to win more business will mean we can then start to grow other areas of the business too.

Is it significant that a big business like Google is scaling back and withdrawing their free Google Optimize tool? Is this a reflection of the recession?

I don’t think this reflects the recession or even the industry, I think it’s a reflection of Google.

One thing people aren’t talking about in the Google Optimize discussion, is the fact that 1200 people got made redundant that day.

I believe Google Optimize is going due to complexities in their tech stack, as we all know they’re currently on a journey to migrate to GA4. To then blend Optimize into that is just one headache too many.

Google have lots of users on their free tier and nowhere near as many on their paid tier. So, I think it’s purely business decision on their part.

Ultimately, it’s good for other businesses in the industry. But having said that, I feel a lot of technologies in our industry have taken the wrong approach.

Businesses suddenly launching free tiers… If they didn’t think it was worth it before, why do it now? It doesn’t feel like it is for the benefit of the people looking for a replacement technology…

Businesses will accept they have to start paying for CRO. Set realistic expectations up front; ‘we don’t offer a free like-for-like, but we can do you a deal to help you transition’.

Having said that, we do have a free account level ourselves, but we launched ours with a different mentality, we launched ours through Covid.

At the start of the pandemic, we saw a huge trend of people moving online as people couldn’t get to the high street. We wanted to support these smaller businesses maximise their opportunities and grow, so we launched a free account (for sites with users up to 10k sessions per month) and we’ve had that ever since. Morally, we felt it was the right thing to do at the time and we still do.

You posted something on LinkedIn when the Google news was announced outlining some advice for Google Optimize users, is there anything else you think businesses need to think about?

Loads. It’s happening at a time where cash is tight. So, I obviously understand that to remove a tool which is free in the market is a problem, and I worry it makes people think ‘oh, maybe we don’t need to do CRO’.

Before people go down that route and think they can’t move forward, I think they should have some conversations and understand the market.

It is important to invest in experimentation to ensure you can deliver good experiences for your users, customers, and for yourself.

CRO is as much a commodity (and good business practice) these days as SEO and PPC. Strategy for using these disciplines is becoming more and more joined up.

Google rewards good usability as they recognise that people staying on your page or website for longer probably means that the user has found what they were looking for.

Getting people to your site in the first place is only half the battle, helping them find/achieve what they want, as smoothly/easily as possible completes that online journey.

It's also important for people to do their own research, particularly across free independent outlets (such as G2.com) where you see reviews/feedback from the physical end users of these platforms.

As well as using other sources you trust (for example if you’re working with an agency who you know well).

Last time I looked on G2, there was 131 businesses in the AB testing sector. So, you can’t get the best scope from just reading one or two top 10 lists online (where you may not know all the motives behind writing the article).

And do you know what, a lot of people won’t pick us, and that’s fine, because different platforms are for different people. But importantly, there’s enough vendors around for people to find the right one for their business.

What does success look like to you?

Success in the business and for me personally isn’t about having a massive army of thousands of employees, sponsoring a football stadium, having an enormous car, or having a beach house.

When we started I felt early success for us would just to be considered. To be part of the conversation. Whenever anyone is reviewing the market, I wanted us to be part of their review.

I accept we are not the right fit for everyone (no one is!). And I feel we are getting to that point now.

There’s still more we need to do of course, but big brands and businesses are approaching us to be part of their RFP process, and when I talk to people in the industry at events, and in agency meetings, they have heard of us and always talk positively.

I always want to be part of the consideration process because then outside of that, I know in many ways, our destiny is in our own hands as to whether we win or lose.

It’s also about maintaining our high renewal rate, we’re at 97% this year, and was similar last year too - and long may that continue as hopefully this means our clients and partners like what we are doing.

It is also remaining true to our values and the ethos we’ve tried to build. The passion we’ve got within the team. If we continue to do what we are doing, continue on the same path, and be seen as a leader in the industry, that’s what success looks like to me.

Beyond that, who knows what is possible!