Craig connects with AFR Rich Lister Nick Bell, an incredible entrepreneur who has turned a $350 start-up capital to a personal fortune of $217 million in less than a decade.
Recognized as one of Australia’s leading entrepreneurs, Nick is the Founder of 12 digital agencies globally and specializes in brand management, online content removal, app/web development, digital marketing and cyber security.
Nick Bell has made a name for himself in the digital marketing space and is considered by many as a hero for his work with Removify, which specializes in removing unfavourable content and revenge porn from online platforms.
In 2017, his company WME was sold to Melbourne IT for $39 million.
By 2019, Nick’s group of companies grew to 850 employees and $100 million in revenue. AppsCore Digital, a leading Australian digital agency, has won the Gold and multiple Silver Stevie Awards in 2016 and 2017 and works with major brands like Nestle, Etihad and NAB.
Nick is on the verge of co-launching Lisnic.com, a one-of-a-kind platform that connects mentors and mentees in relevant industries, featuring interviews with the likes of Marc Randolph and Robert Kiyosaki.
Nick Bell grew up on a farm in Victoria and dropped out of Victoria University, Australia.
“I don't have a degree in IT or a degree in Marketing and I’m not a technician; but over the years, I’ve learned the fundamentals of building businesses because you learn on the job. After doing it for 12 years you pick things up.” – Nick Bell
He started a digital agency in hopes of earning enough to survive.
“When I started the digital marketing business, I had no idea what I was doing. I was a kid trying to make a buck just to pay the rent as I’m sure you were back in the day.” – Nick Bell
Nick drew inspiration from an article he read on the importance and popularity of Search Engine Optimization in 2008 and believed he could carve a name for himself in that industry.
“I went to the first page of google and started cold calling businesses for pagelook views. I said, ‘Look if you're on page two, I can get you on page one.’ Within a few days, someone sent me a check for $10 thousand dollars.” – Nick Bell
Nick didn’t even have a company registered at the time; however, he was not about to lose that client. He took on the role of project manager and middle man, outsourcing the legwork to professionals and making a cut of each project.
“I’m in my bedroom calling businesses from my laptop with no actual business. I don't think I had a business registered at that stage. In the early days I’d take my cut. I was the middleman and I’d run all the account managers for the finances and the sales while a company overseas delivers the work.” – Nick Bell
Once he made enough money, he quickly invested in hiring his own team to create a sustainable, profitable business.
“In the early days, it's the Wild West. There were no structure and no processes. I was running around trying to manage the client's expectations, win deals and get payments. As time went on, you're refining and getting better.” – Nick Bell
When acknowledged for his incredible success building these businesses, Nick reminisces about the business that didn’t make it and the lessons he learned from these experiences.
The first loss Nick experienced was a due to an ineffective business model and leader who was not a right fit for the business.
“A few years ago, I had a business called CRO or ConversionX. I was the investor and wasn't running the business, but I was still part of it. The business model was wrong and the person driving a business - even though he's a mate - wasn't a right fit. As a result, that business failed.” – Nick Bell
Nick’s second experience with loss was because of the challenge with scaling the services offered and showing measurable ROI to clients.
“I had an organic social business called the Social Media Team. The challenge with organic social is it is very resource heavy and to actually make any money you need pretty substantial root tenants. It's very hard to show ROI. You can show likes and comments as well as engagement but that doesn't necessarily lead to sales. So, I ended up selling that business a few years ago for next to nothing.” – Nick Bell
These failures were opportunities for Nick to learn the right strategies to carve out real success within his industry.
From that bedroom, Nick has grown to becoming the Founder of 12 digital agencies with offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, California, Dubai, Melbourne, Thailand, Vietnam and every major city in the world.
Social media platforms each offer unique resources that marketers can capitalize on to create winning campaigns that convert leads.
It’s important for entrepreneurs to be strategic about the social media platforms they use and ensure that there is alignment between the nature of the business and the target audience online.
“Social media started really taking off in Australia around 2010. That is when we started taking notice of it. Around 2012, Google started rolling out Facebook Ads and then Instagram came to play, followed by LinkedIn - an absolute beast unto itself.”- Nick Bell
Craig draws Nick’s attention to LinkedIn, a platform that has differentiated itself from other social media platforms, offering a database of professionals and B2B accounts.
“I want to talk to you about LinkedIn because it is a platform that I'm dedicating most of my time to at the moment in the social space. The features that are popping up like Stories are moving a little bit towards some of the features of Insta’s of the world.” – Craig Schulze
Nick agrees that LinkedIn’s popularity is due to the unique targeting resources available on the platform.
“On Facebook, you don't have your job title and your work history. It's more towards what you’ve done over the weekend and when you're on a holiday. It's not really business-related unlike LinkedIn which is still a B2B business platform.” – Nick Bell
Nick urges all entrepreneurs to create a strong presence on LinkedIn and take advantage of its resources.
“If you're not on LinkedIn and you're not creating content or you're just not active on LinkedIn then you’re missing out. Get on LinkedIn; it is an absolute goldmine.” – Nick Bell
He advocates the use of the LinkedIn Sales Navigator to build and nurture customer relationships.
“I use Sales Navigator only so I’m actually prospecting myself. It doesn't matter how big you get, you should always be selling and trying to win business. I'm on Sales Navigator and I’m posting content almost daily on LinkedIn.” – Nick Bell
Nick recommends entrepreneurs put in the time to design effective targeting campaigns on LinkedIn.
“LinkedIn is generally a B2B platform and you have full profiles of the users’ history, job profiles and job titles. So, targeting certain people from certain companies is easy. If you want to target the people from the big four banks, you can at one click your Sales Navigator.” – Nick Bell
When it comes to LinkedIn Groups, Nick believes it aids with building connections and audience groups; however, it does not drive engagement.
“I haven't needed to use Groups. If you want to build your connections and build your audience, Groups are great but your engagement will be quite low. Groups is useful if you want to build likes, connections or numbers; but it's not great for engagement.” – Nick Bell
Finally, Nick shares from his experience that audience prefer video content over text-based content.
“You get better engagement with videos. When it comes to articles, I found the engagement quite poor. People want to visually see and listen rather than having to read the line article.” – Nick Bell
On International Human Resource Management
It is widely accepted among successful entrepreneurs that the people make the business. When it comes to internationalizing a business, strategic decisions need to be made about human resource management in a global context.
One of Nick’s winning strategies is working with in-house employees rather than off-shoring any part of the business operations to minimize management challenges.
“All our team is hired local. So, if we have a team in Singapore then they're based in Singapore and we'll target the local market in Singapore. I used to outsource to India and the Philippines but I just got burnt so many times, so I no longer outsource anything.” – Nick Bell
Nick also connects with general managers for five minutes every morning to talk about their responsibilities and deliverables of the day.
“Every day I do a Huddle with each general manager. It's a 5-minute Huddle in the morning where basically he or she will outline his/her day. It includes who they are going to see today, what they are going to do today, and exact details of what they can do.” – Nick Bell
In addition, Nick meets with the Global Management Team twice a week to ensure that the company is doing all the right things to market itself and reflect the success they promise their clients.
“Every Monday, we do a Global Management Team Meeting for about one to one and a half hours. Every Monday and Wednesday, we do a Global Marketing Meeting about the data our marketing shows. I think if you're a digital marketing agency and you're not marketing your business then it makes no sense.” – Nick Bell
Nick also recommends that entrepreneurs hire A-players in order to scale quicker and achieve organizational objectives effectively.
“It's very important if you want to scale your agency and grow beyond one person to have A-Players within the business. If you're cutting corners, paying low wages and hiring C-Raiders then you're never going to grow. It's so important to have great people in the business who can help you scale that company to a whole new level.” – Nick Bell
This one strategy has helped Nick to magnify growth within his own organizations.
“I’ve had probably 10 to 12 of them over years who have come into the organization and it's blowing up business. We've gone from 500 people to 1000 people in a matter of 18 months.” – Nick Bell
Finally, Nick allocates one responsibility to each employee, adopting a specialization strategy to allow employees to focus on one aspect of business operations and perfect it.
“Every single person has one priority. We don't have a jack of all trades; at our scale it's just not feasible. So, it depends on your size, if you're a small agency, I think you need a jack of all trades because they can get their hands dirty, not complain and just do what needs to be done to get the job done.” – Nick Bell
Organic vs. Paid Advertising
Craig has a strong social media presence and personally invests in paid advertising online. He asks Nick to share his expert opinion on organic vs. paid advertising.
“I spend a lot of money on paid advertising. I've got my digital team that's outsourced. It’s in Australia, not offshore, but they work on my paid digital advertising content. What's your take on paid verses organic advertising?”- Craig Schulze
Nick advocates paid advertising if you’re a new or smaller company as organic reach is quite limited on social media platforms.
“I think the organic reach has really dropped off. It's great if you've got a massive audience already established, but obtaining a new audience is quite challenging.” – Nick Bell
However, he recommends entrepreneurs revisit their business model and making informed decisions when it comes to marketing strategies.
“It really depends on your business and your business model.” – Nick Bell
In Nick’s own digital agencies, there is heavy focus on marketing to present a case for prospective clients on the kind of success they can expect.
“So, we're very strong in SEO. If you go to Singapore, we’re #1 in SEO and the same with Hong Kong and in Thailand where we dominate in Google Ads. We don't do Instagram Ads because the quality of the leads isn’t great for our business. We don’t do LinkedIn Ads because the CPA is quite high but we post daily on LinkedIn as the organic reach is unbelievable.” – Nick Bell
When it comes to the right marketing strategy for your company, it’s important to focus creating value for customers.
“We're giving them value to basically improve their business, improve their lives and make life easier. Basically, we practice what we preach. Everything we do for our customers; we do for ourselves.” – Nick Bell
“I’ve had 5 fitness clubs and I’ve set up 22 franchises but I’ve always had the philosophy since 2002 when I started my first business to build cash and then invest into property.” – Craig Schulze
Learning how to invest money after earning it is a key factor for creating sustainable wealth.
Entrepreneurs are recommended to have a diverse investment portfolio built around business, property and shares investments.
“I'm all about diversity as long as it doesn't distract you from the main focus. My main focus is building agencies and the other ventures are secondary.” – Nick Bell
Before considering investing, it’s crucial that entrepreneurs focus on the business they are growing and limit the number of industries they expand into.
“If start one business then another business and another … It's very hard to focus on one and nail it. So, I focus on agencies. It could be multiple businesses but they're still very similar businesses. If I had an agency then decided to open restaurants and then a hotel, they're completely different businesses and that's distraction from my main focus. When I just focused on building the agency group that's when we began growing exponentially” – Nick Bell
Once the business is running like a well-oiled machine, Nick recommends being aware of current economic trends when investing.
“I do buy a lot of property and I invest a lot into stocks especially with COVID-19. It's just opportunity galore right now. Any capital I accumulate I invest into property or in stocks.” – Nick Bell
Finally, entrepreneurs should analyse investment opportunities carefully and do their due diligence before investing.
“I made a lot of dumb decisions with stocks and property and just bad investments so now I’m super diligent with what I invest in. If you've got a bit of money, be very careful what you invest in. Keep the money in the bank or somewhere safe and be very careful with what you invest in.” – Nick Bell
Mentors as Game Changers
Craig credits much of his success to having mentors guiding him and has always advocated the need for mentorship and a circle of trusted advisors.
“One of the key things that I’ve always built my success on is having good mentors and advisors and hanging around the right type of people.” – Craig Schulze
Nick shares Craig’s mentorship mindset, revealing that once he discovered the power of mentorship, he never since went a day without one.
“I’m a massive fan of mentors. In the early days, I didn't see value in having mentors and I thought I could do it myself. I believed I didn't need any help or advice. In 2010, I met a client and we got on really well. He started advising me on what I should do like get a proper accountant or a proper lawyer and from there I started asking more questions.” – Nick Bell
As an entrepreneur, you must be intentional about networking and surrounding yourself with the right people.
“You need to start networking more, asking questions and learning from people that are doing far better than you.” – Nick Bell
Nick recommends shedding shyness when it comes to learning from successful people within your network and asking questions no matter how trivial they may seem.
“I network a lot and I ask a lot of questions. If someone's business is far larger than mine, I’ll ask them a thousand questions. I’m not shy and I really want to learn from you.” – Nick Bell
There are many strategic ways to expand your network, so find the right strategy for you and develop a solid networking plan.
Nick also addresses the challenges people have with finding mentors through a business he is currently co-founding – Lisnic.com
“The new business I’m working with lease they're called Lisnic.com. It connects mentees with mentors because I think there's no platform on the market that actually does that efficiently. I wouldn't be where I am now without mentors. It's been a game changer for me.” – Nick Bell
Craig adds the importance of having the right mindset when it comes to networking, adding value to mentors and deriving value from them. It’s crucial that you get advice from the right people who have already amassed the success you wish you emulate in your own life.
“You need to be curious. You do need to be open-minded. You need to ask the right questions and stop listening to your broke brother or your best mate that's got zero interest in entrepreneurship and business.” – Craig Schulze
Strategic International Expansion
There are many reasons for taking a business global such as access to new markets, talent acquisition and foreign investment opportunities.
However, global expansion also comes with its own set of challenges and must be executed strategically in order to truly succeed.
Nick’s digital agencies operate in almost all the major cities around the world and Craig probes his mind to learn the secrets of his global success.
“Is there a strategic reason for you to have businesses in different countries for different agencies? By doing that you'd be dealing with different tax laws and various circumstance in the business.” – Craig Schulze
Nick’s primary reason for expansion was in order to magnify growth.
“The reason I expanded to different countries is because I wanted to scale faster. If I could have an agency in Australia and one in Hong Kong at the same time, the idea was to scale both at the same time. I went to Thailand and Singapore to scout and the only way to scale faster was to go international.” – Nick Bell
Nick has set in place processes which have increased the efficiency of their expansion.
Firstly, Nick ensured he had the right people in leadership positions who were well equipped to represent the brand and lead the agency towards stronger local market positions.
“I’ve got very good people running those agencies. When you've got someone managing your business internationally, there's a lot of trust because they're basically running your baby and representing you and your brand. If you've got the wrong general manager or the wrong senior management team right in your company, I guarantee it's going to fail.” – Nick Bell
Secondly, to streamline the management process, Nick chooses to train prospective international leaders for a year in Australia rather than hire a local manager from the host country.
“What I would do is train the person in Australia for one year on our systems and processes and how I operate as a business owner. I will then send them off to run the business internationally. I wouldn't hire someone locally who comes in starts working in the business or running the business. They just get too much pressure that they can't handle.” – Nick Bell
Thirdly, Nick chooses cities that he personally loves and enjoys.
“Business should be fun. I never take it too seriously. I don't have fears and throw things around. There's always a solution to a problem. It does get stressful but you'll find the angle to find a solution. When we opened in Hong Kong it was because I really enjoyed going to Hong Kong, I had some friends there and I enjoyed the nightlife. I decided to open an office there so I can go back more often.” – Nick Bell
Finally, Nick ensures that the agency has strategically implemented and standardized the basic operations in order to exceed client expectations.
“If you get the basics right, you're going to grow. For us it's marketing, lead generation, closing deals, servicing the client, exceeding expectations and delivering results. If you nail that, you're going to do well in everything you do.” – Nick Bell
On the Impact of COVID-19
COVID-19 has been a challenge for all business due to the economic and logistic impact of quarantine.
Nick reflects on the positives when it comes to the impact of COVID-19 on his own business operations.
One of the positive changes was the working-from-home initiative as a result of quarantine. Many businesses have learned that it’s not necessary to have employees gather in offices for their performance to remain competitive.
“I’ve enjoyed working from home so it's comfortable. I probably will go to office one day a week. I think a lot of people will never return back to the office because working from home now is such a normal thing” – Nick Bell
Nick’s business has also been able to benefit from the closing down of competitive agencies that were not able to survive.
“The agencies that have been run poorly are getting wiped out. If you don't have strong processes and strong systems and you've got a poor balance, you're facing immense challenges. The ones that have a great balance sheet and great processes are the ones that are thriving. During COVID-19, we've employed over 150 people so far and hiring more, so our business has been good.” – Nick Bell
Another opportunity brought forth in response to COVID-19 was the speed of digital and operational transformation adopted by companies to meet changing consumer demands.
“Digital transformation is kicking in. People have to innovate and create conveniences to make people's lives easier. Customers want low-touch solutions and because they're not leaving their homes, they want everything at their fingertips, they want to order online and do their banking online. The whole market has changed. You're going to see a lot of banks close as a result and I think it's never going to get back to what it was… ever.” – Nick Bell
COVID-19 has also had a horrific impact on certain industries which depended largely on travel, tourism and boarding massive amounts of people.
“I do feel for the companies in hospitality and tourism that have been absolutely decimated and there's nothing they could have done to prevent it. It's not survival of the fittest. It's very hard to pivot in this type of climate so I feel for certain industries.” – Nick Bell
Craig agrees that some industries are very limited in what they can do to survive during these times. In addition, he explores the second and third-tier consequences which have come about as a result of the ‘new normal’.
“There're always second and third tier consequences to decisions that are made. The second and third tier consequences of COVID-19 might be that everyone starts working from home and then the commercial real estate industry tanks and all the little cafes and restaurants that relied on the workers going into office also tank. It’s quite interesting how this will all play out.” – Craig Schulze
Nick agrees that the impact runs deeper than the inevitable closing of businesses, such as future impact of the economic downturn and its effect on individuals.
“You're going to see an absolute catastrophe come October such as people having defaulted on home loans or when the free money runs out then unemployment is going to increase. Employers aren't going to retain staff as well. There's a storm brewing and I don’t think people are ready for it.” – Nick Bell
What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Nick’s Story
Nick Bell built his fortune by streamlining business operations, expanding within the digital marketing industry and doing good through the services of his companies.
Here are the key take-aways from Nick’s experience:
- It doesn’t matter if you are ready to start your business. Take the first step – no matter how small it seems – and the path will unfold.
- Focus on creating a solid business model to guide business operations and be very conscious of individuals you hire and partner with.
- LinkedIn is an effective tool that allows you to target professionals and brand yourself as a thought leader in your industry. Take advantage of its numerous resources to gain a competitive edge in your marketing strategies.
- Develop strategic human resource management activities such as daily or weekly meetings with key employees and hiring A-players equipped to help your business expand.
- Focus on creating value for customers and consider investing in marketing to boost your reach online.
- Mentors are invaluable to your success. Be strategic in your networking efforts and take advice from those who have already achieved the success you are working towards.
- International expansion has the potential to exponentially magnify your growth. Choose cities you personally like and develop internationalization strategies that align with your business model and local demands.
- The full impact of COVID-19 has yet to unfold. Solidify your business processes, be ready to pivot and devise ways to meet changing consumer trends.