In this episode of the Digital Agency Series Podcast, I chat with Henry Ng, Managing Director of Singapore-based digital agency, Verz Design. Henry started the agency in 2009 at a time when digital marketing was still emerging in the city-state. Today Verz Design has experienced stellar growth with over 100 staff working across 4 locations. When I spoke to Henry he had just picked up the keys for an additional office, expanding their Singapore HQ to over 5,500 square feet. Building on this recent growth, Henry is now eyeing other markets for growth - there's an exciting future ahead for Verz Design in 2021.
Listen to the full interview (21mins) on Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts or jump to the interview transcript.
Interview with Henry Ng from Verz Design
I've been looking forward to chatting with Henry. He's a local industry legend in Singapore having established Verz Design nearly 12 years ago. The agency has grown from strength to strength over the years and it was quite telling when I learned one of his favorite quotes is from none other than Steve Jobs: "Stay hungry, stay foolish".
Its clear this inspired Henry and his team as they've notched up some significant achievements including multiple award-winning digital projects. They won their first Awwwards nomination in 2017 and as of writing added 13 more nominations in just 3 years!
Henry pointed out the agency's tagline "designing web excellence". He believes this boils down to three simple ingredients:
- Awesome design
- Compelling content
- Qualified traffic
But achieving all three is easier said than done. Something that struck me when visiting the agency's website is how they clearly communicate their values & ethics, mission and vision:
This naturally led to us discussing the agency's hiring process. Building an agency of over 100 people is no easy task, especially given the high churn rate in digital agencies in general and how competitive it is to attract talent. I asked Henry about what he looks for in potential hires:
"Attitude means everything"
While he values experienced practitioners he tends to favor new grads and hires for attitude. This is especially important in a business which is heavily process-driven. "Hire for attitude, train for skill" is a common approach among agencies but again, its hard to get right.
"The challenges of growing an agency are much like the challenges of growing a small to medium enterprise. Hiring and retaining talent is the key challenge."
I really like Henry's pragmatism when it comes to staff retention. He's cognizant of the fact that its impossible to retain 100% of staff so instead he focuses on a core group of around 30-40% where the earning benefits are better. He then expects a higher churn rate among the other group but encourages them to grow into the core group over time.
For generating new business leads, Verz Design practice what they preach, leaning heavily on SEO and inbound tactics. Verz Design no longer run outbound "cold calling" practices. Part of the reason for this is performance. Henry's team sees much better Conversion Rates on inbound enquiries to the website vs outbound lead generation.
As COVID-19 lockdowns in Singapore began, locally dubbed the "circuit breaker", the Singaporean Government recognized the disruptive effect on businesses and offered SME's a Productivity Solutions Grant which covered 80% of the costs involved in going digital. This very generous Government grant covered expenses such as website development, e-commerce and back-office IT requirements. Being one of Singapore's leading digital agencies, Verz Design were well-placed to help SME's utilize the PSG grant to get online.
Today, 95% of Verz Design's inbound enquiries are from the domestic Singapore market but with COVID-19 changing the way the agency communicates with clients, this got Henry thinking about how they could tap into neighbouring international markets quickly. With Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta not far away, Verz Design has set their eyes on international market expansion for 2021. Henry's also interested in the Australian market, with Melbourne being a key target city and one that Henry knows quite well.
Digital Agency Resources
We have plenty of guides for how you can start and grow your own digital agency:
- How to Start a Digital Marketing Agency in 2020 + Free PDF
- 6 Principles for SEO Success
- SEO Leads: Our Simple Guide on How to Get SEO Clients
- Professional Development Plan Template (with Completed Examples)
- Website Design Questionnaire (with PDF)
- The Ultimate Guide to your Digital Marketing Audit (with PPTX Template)
Tim: Hey, it's Tim Hill here from the Digital Agency Series Podcast, where we meet digital agency founders from all around the world. We find out how they started their agencies, how they grew in the early days, and how they scale their businesses today. Digital Agency Series is presented by SEOptimer.com. The world's best SEO audit and reporting tool, trusted by over 1,500 agencies to automate their SEO audits and generate new business leads. If you haven't tried it, check it out. Sign up for a free 14 day trial at SEOptimer.com. Today. I'm chatting with Henry Ng, managing director of Verz Design, a multi award-winning full-service digital agency based in Singapore. Henry's team of nearly 100 digital experts spans four locations, including Singapore, Vietnam, India, and the Philippines. Henry, thank you so much for joining me today.
Henry: Well Tim, thank you for having me on board.
Tim: It's great to chat. You started Verz Design nearly 12 years ago. Can you think back to 2009, what actually led you to start the agency?
Henry: Well, actually when we started off, we started off as a consulting company back in 2009, helping our SME clients to tap on various grants. We stumbled upon an opportunity back then to help clients without any online presence to set up their website. How it works is that the government provides a grant for business owners who do not have an existing website, and that's how we started our business.
Tim: Yeah. When you were starting out finding those first clients, do you remember how you actually got them? What methods did you use for lead gen?
Henry: Okay. As mentioned earlier, we have a grant which allows clients without presence to only pay a few hundred dollars and then the government will pay the remaining $2,000 for them to develop this website when we are done with the project. This was popular back then, and because we managed to get on board this, so there were many companies that were without a website and sales was easy back then. We managed to sell more than 60 of such government grant projects in a period of three months.
Tim: Yeah, wow. What kind of businesses were they, just out of interest?
Henry: Most of our clients that come on board, they are a wide range of clients going from oil and gas, from education, from e-commerce. They don't have any specific industries.
Tim: Yes, okay. Something that I really thought was interesting about Verz that you publish your agency's values and your company culture on your website. I really liked that. I wondered what informed this, and how do you actually make it part of your everyday processes?
Henry: Oh actually, it's interesting because that you actually managed to take a look at our website and find out about our values and our culture, appreciate that.
Actually, we feel that our values define us on how we treat our employees and clients. The information posted online is not for any marketing purpose, but to tell people who we really are and how we treat our people, including our clients and our employees. The working culture is listed on the website because this is one of the more popular questions that we get during interview of new employees. That's why, instead of answering them one by one, I find that it's more productive for me to put up everything online so that they can read about our company before they come to join us.
Tim: Did you find that they've always been interested in that, or is it just more recently that prospects, like new hires, are becoming more interested in that?
Henry: Well, I think all along, I think for the past five years, whenever we come to the questions, we pose to the candidates who walk in for interview, like "Do you have any questions for us?" They would definitely be asking what is the working culture like.
Tim: Yeah. On that point, when you're going through hiring, I'm always interested in how agencies hire, and with the fact that your values and culture is there on your site, what do you actually look for in new hires to match that?
Henry: One of my favorite quotes that I love is from Steve Jobs and it says, "Stay hungry, stay foolish." When we hire, I actually look at how hungry a person is in terms of his commitment to achieve success. To answer, we look more at the attitude, and to us attitude means everything.
Tim: Yeah. If you are hiring from agency side, like people who have come from other agencies versus, perhaps, from the brand side, do you see any different work cultural differences between those two groups?
Henry: Of course, we have, over the past 10 years, had opportunity to hire people with experience. I believe there are merits in both ways. We have come across people who came along with other agencies, and so they were able to contribute ideas like how other agencies are doing this, and how they are doing overcoming of some problems that they face. But we do also hire a lot of fresh graduates. The thing is that, when we have a system and we need people to follow our system, it is better to always hire fresh graduates, someone without a real experience in it, because they would able to follow according to the rules and regulations and the procedures that you implement in the company, where some of those who come from the web agencies, they may not be able to follow these as well.
Tim: Yeah. That's a really good point. Yeah, very interesting. I think one thing I'm really interested to learn from you as well is how you're ... Switching gears now, how you're prospecting and finding new potential clients today. What tactics are you using there?
Henry: Okay. This is related to what SEOptimer is doing [for us]. Basically, we rely on clients visiting our website and submitting their inquiries a lot. Our tagline, I just want to focus a little bit on our tagline. It says 'designing web excellence'. To me, designing web excellence actually refers to three things which we strongly believe in, and they are, having awesome design, compelling contents, and qualified traffic. As such, our clients are basically coming from our qualified traffic, which is what we believe in. They are either using SEO, SEM, or social media marketing. We find that in this way, when we attend to inquiries submitted through online, they have a higher closure percentage as compared to us doing cold calling of clients.
Tim: Yeah, interesting. Do you still do cold calling or is it all inbound these days?
Henry: No, we have stopped using any cold calling techniques and just focus on online inquiries.
Tim: Yeah, fantastic. As well, just on that point, out of interest again, do you a service only clients in Singapore, or other countries as well?
Henry: Oh, okay. Most of our inquiries that are submitted online, I would say about 95% are based from Singapore, but we do have 5% of inquiries coming from over the world. We have also managed to develop websites in languages that we actually do not understand. One of the rare, more challenging project that we have done is in Myanmese, which is the language is almost like in characters that is unrecognizable to us at all.
Tim: You literally have the global market open to you. Yeah, that's excellent. In terms of agency growth, what do you think is the biggest challenge?
Henry: Okay. I would say growing an agency has the same problem as most, if not all, small and medium enterprise. And to us, that is manpower. To me, I'm always looking at strategies in terms of hiring and retaining good people. That is the most challenging aspect.
Tim: I really relate to that. I'm an ex-agency person, and the amount of churn of staff is really high. I feel like in our industry, in marketing and agencies, there's really high churn. Apart from the company culture and the strong values that you have, what, do you think is a good retention model for staff?
Henry: What we have is, we have to understand that just like an agency or any business owner, any small and medium business, it is impossible to retain 100% of the people all the time. It is almost a certainty that it is impossible to retain 100% of the people. We have to be able to give up on that idea. Instead, we have to tell ourselves that we need to focus on a core group of people. We need to focus on, let's say in our company, we focus on 30 to 40%. We have a core team of people whereby the benefits could be slightly better, and we could even have a bond for these employees in our company. Whereas the other 60 to 70% of the employees, we will have to be able to ... It is not as if we do not have benefits, but we still have benefits for them. It's for them to show their interest in continuing work with our company, and there for them to grow into this core group of people.
Tim: Yeah, that's a great idea. Excellent. Regarding the services that the agency offers, you cover both the technical development side, as well as the marketing consulting side. I was really interested in your region, where do you see the most market demand at the moment?
Henry: Okay. At the moment, due to COVID, we have seen a drop in terms of technical development, very customized mobile apps or web applications, there has been a drop in terms of the inquiries. But on the bright side, what we see on a growing trend is inquiries for e-commerce websites.
Tim: Yeah, I see. What about on the marketing services side?
Henry: Okay. I think, in terms of marketing services like SEO, SEM - I believe a lot of new-comers, or a lot more business, is going to e-commerce. They will now realize that it is more important for them to have such marketing techniques, so that they can drive qualified traffic to their websites instead of ... Otherwise it is a waste for them if they are to come on board having a website, but then no visitors come to their website.
Tim: Exactly, yeah. Related to that, what are the common problems that business owners face when they set up their website for the first time?
Henry: Okay. I believe that there are two common problems faced by our clients, even after their website is developed. A lot of SME business owners now understand the importance of having a professional and good looking website. However, there's still a high percentage of customers who do not take website copy writing seriously. The first problem is that we have many clients with nice website, but the content itself is not so convincing or persuasive. The second problems faced by customers are that a lot of customers believe that a website is a one-off investment. They pack a sum of $3,000 to $5,000, set up the website, and they expect miracles to happen, but we have to be able to convince them that more efforts are required. No, such customers, they do not take effort to post content or blog articles, or do not invest in SEO or SEM itself. When they do not participate in this on a monthly or regular basis their inquiries from their website actually do not improve or won't come in. These are the two common problems faced by our clients, and it is where we try to educate them on and try to bring them on board these two services that we have.
Tim: I think that's a great point about education. I think that's really half the job of an agency, is certainly advising, but almost being this educator for your clients, and actually telling them why, showing them the journey, the use cases, and all that stuff. I think that's the unspoken job of a lot of agencies. Also, when COVID-19 started affecting Singapore, I'm interested to know what your agency did to react and adapt to that new landscape.
Henry: Okay. Fortunately for us, the government understand that most businesses in Singapore need to move into e-commerce. The government provided this grant for business owners to set up an e-commerce website. We were one of the fortunate one. As such, when COVID-19 hit Singapore, we were actually flooded with inquiries about setting up e-commerce website using government grant. COVID-19 did not affect our industry in that much, but it affected us positively because there were more inquiries coming in for e-commerce websites.
Tim: That's really fantastic that the Singaporean government had this great initiative. I think for a lot of people around the world, in other countries, some governments have reacted very differently, even large markets like the US that they're still trying to catch up with supporting small business. Is it right that the Singapore government enhanced this grant to 80%? They were covering 80% of the cost of development. Is that how it worked?
Henry: Actually, this is only a slight improvement. Before COVID hit, actually there was this productivity solutions grant, which you mentioned earlier, but the government only fund up to 70%.
Tim: Oh, 70. Okay.
Henry: Yeah. There's a 10% increment, which our finance minister increased from 70% to 80%. And it will only last until December 31st, 2020. In my opinion, I believe that COVID-19 has forced every business owner to relook at how things can actually work. Even in our company where some of our staffs were telling me that they cannot work from home as they have to meet up with clients in person, but when COVID-19 hits, they suddenly were able to work from home, because they know that if they are not able to work from home, they will be left without a job. Likewise, I believe this productivity solutions grant has benefited others. I believe this COVID, it has ... I believe that there are many business owners who think that their business cannot rely on website or e-commerce, in the past. However, when Singapore went into the so-called lockdown, a lot of business owners start to reimagine how website or e-commerce can help them. This will definitely affect how they work in future, even when COVID is no longer with us.
Tim: Yeah, you're right. I feel that this has just changed the game, hasn't it? You've got so many businesses that are coming online now. Even a lot of the tools that we're using and communication tools between businesses and their customers has evolved so much in just the last year because of what's happened. What does that mean now for Verz Design in the future when you look to 2021 and beyond? What are you working on? Or what do you expect that's going to come into market that will change the way that you do business with clients?
Henry: Okay, this is interesting because you're talking about all the different communication tools. I think in future, what we are looking at is that COVID-19 has actually affected our way of thinking. It has affected on how we work, and one of the possible era whereby Verz Design is looking at is that we are looking at potential opportunity to explore overseas clients. As we discussed earlier, only about 5% of our clients are from overseas, but with COVID-19 hitting around and even in Singapore, we actually went into the so-called lockdown. We have to do a lot of video calls via Zoom or Google Hangout with our clients. This set our management thinking that if we can reach our Singapore customers and explain to them, find out what are their requirements using Zoom and Google Hangout, maybe we can also do the same thing by reaching out to clients, let's say from Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. Or even from where you are, Melbourne or Sydney, which is just two hours time zone difference away from Singapore. In this way, we hope to penetrate overseas market and then we won't become so reliant on just one domestic Singapore market.
Tim: That makes a lot of sense. If you were to pick one city out of all of those, where do you think is the natural next step?
Henry: Well, I would like to try Melbourne or Sydney.
Tim: Yeah, great. Perfect.
Henry: I believe the exchange rate for Aussie and Singapore Dollars is very close to each other. I've been to that place itself, and I believe that there's a good chance that if we set up originally just doing Zoom call or Google Hangout with them, eventually we will need to have a technical team in these cities. I believe they are good places in which we can expand to.
Tim: I agree. I think that's actually a very interesting idea as well, because when you look at Australian population, there are a lot of residents who are from you name it, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong. It's such a multicultural place, especially when you look at Melbourne and Sydney, that there is, I think actually, some soft landings almost when you look at business owners who are ex-pats, or when you look at organizations over here who are trying to target various demographics in Australia. I was talking with a brand the other day that is wanting to really use, say for example, WeChat, and using other platforms that are emerging, but they're not fully mainstream in Australia. But I think that's actually a fantastic market opportunity. Do you think that would be certain, in the next year?
Henry: There is ... We are tapping on when our employees and government grant to look into that. It is something that I am interested to work on. I've been to that place, Melbourne two or three times. I love that place. It's just a short flight away. One of the things that keeps Verz ongoing is we do not stand still. We always try to let our staffs know what is coming up in the next three to six months. What is coming up in six to 12 months' time, things like that. Just for example in our case, in Singapore, because of COVID-19, before COVID-19 hits, we actually have an office space of about 3700 square feet. But because of COVID-19 inquiries and we had to hire more project managers and more sales to handle the inquiries for e-commerce websites, we have to take on a new rental space, additional of 1800 square feet. I just collected the keys today. We are renovating.
Tim: Oh, wow. Congratulations.
Henry: Thank you. We are going to do a renovation and move in some of our new staff to the new office in a month's time. The staff has been informed this in October. This is the strategy which we adopt, we try to let the staff be part of what we are. We do not hide things from them. They know what is ongoing. This Australia thing has always been on my mind, but it's a challenge. We do not want to fly all the way to Melbourne to set this up. But before COVID, we would think that would need to do that. But right now with COVID happening, actually what we can do is we can set up online business, a new name, having some traffic from Melbourne or Sydney, try coming to this website, then setting up a phone conversation with them and Google Hangout calls. We've done things like that. I believe this is something that is doable and that we would like to try for it.
Tim: I think that's a great plan. Well look, Henry, thank you so much. It was a pleasure chatting with you. For anyone that wants to follow your story, we'll check out the Verz Design. The website is VerzDesign.com. Give them a like on Facebook, their username is @VerzDesignSingapore. Join us next time when we chat with another agency founder about starting and growing their digital agency. I'm Tim Hill, and thanks for tuning in.