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“How to create a fantastic work culture”, with Sabri Suby and Chaya Weiner

The biggest determinant to someone’s productivity is their emotional state, and if you don’t foster an environment that really creates a good emotional experience and support network for that team member, the quality of the work that they produce is going to be severely impacted by that. As a part of my series about how leaders […]


The biggest determinant to someone’s productivity is their emotional state, and if you don’t foster an environment that really creates a good emotional experience and support network for that team member, the quality of the work that they produce is going to be severely impacted by that.

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabri Suby, a serial entrepreneur who runs Australia’s fastest growing full-service digital marketing agency. Having originally founded King Kong in 2014 from his bedroom, Sabri has bootstrapped the company since day one and in under five years has successfully built a team of 54 specialists now achieving $20 million+ in total revenue (year to date). As a pioneer in the digital marketing arena, his business has impacted 250,000 businesses in 42 different countries, and has generated in excess of $400 million in sales for him and his clients. Sabri launched his first book ‘Sell Like Crazy’ — the ultimate guide to marketing — in January 2019, quickly becoming an international bestseller on Amazon.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I am the founder of Australia’s fastest growing full-service digital marketing agency (Australia’s 28th fastest growing business), with clients around the world. My experience and my success led to me writing Sell Like Crazy which became an international bestseller within days of launching.

But like many entrepreneurial efforts, my business venture was created in a bedroom. Five years ago, I discovered an irresistible gap in the digital space and committed to starting the first full-service digital agency in Australia that not only focused on ROI, but also guaranteed its clients results.

With zero capital and no connections, I started cold calling 150 prospects a day in an attempt to get the ball rolling on what I believed could be a massive operation — but my dream wasn’t without prior experience.

I initially developed my thirst for sales and marketing in my first corporate job when I was just 17. After a slow start, my dedication to mastering my craft saw me quickly become an expert in cold calling and soon after I became the company’s top salesperson.

After some time in London dedicating myself to sales positions and seeing continued success, I decided to return to Australia to take the next stage in my professional development and pursue a degree in business and marketing.

While studying, I worked at a digital agency selling Google AdWords. When I was asked by a prospect if I could get their business on the left-hand side of the page (otherwise known as ranking organically), my enthusiastic nature overpowered me and I committed to delivering the solution.

The problem? I didn’t even know what search engine optimisation was; I was just eager to make the sale. So, when I got off the call my boss told me I had better figure out how I was going to deliver on my promise — so I did exactly that.

I dove deep into research about SEO and, soon enough, I was offering SEO services within the business I was working for. However, after realising my potential, I recognised that I could do a better job selling and executing the digital services than the agency I was currently with.

So over the summer, at the ripe age of 22, I started cold calling to get my first clients. By the end of the break, I had a sizable business on my hands. For me, it just didn’t make sense to go back to school to learn how to do business when I already had a business. So, I dropped out and refocused my efforts on building my first digital agency, growing it to about 16 people and $1 million in revenue. I later sold that agency and went on to start other ventures, including a sports group-buying site with Australian Football League football clubs.

After running and selling a number of successful ventures (and a few failed ones too!), I had honed my skills and understood what clients wanted. I realised no digital agency in Australia would talk to me about what the return on investment would be for my business. With a service so measurable I couldn’t understand why agencies were hiding behind vanity metrics like impressions and click-through rates. So I decided it was time to shake the trees and call out the digital cowboys by starting the first full-service digital agency in Australia that focused on ROI and guaranteed results.
 
 My sales expertise, combined with a passion for customer satisfaction, set me up to score my first client for King Kong by the end of his first-week of cold calling. Less than 12 months into my venture, I invested in a radio campaign which generated enough revenue to help King Kong move from a bedroom operation and to an office and bring on my first employees.

With a small team on board, I was able to scale the business and, as the company gained momentum, they were generating of leads and tens of new clients each week. I learnt very early on about the importance of having systems in place to scale.
 
 The team was making 180+ phone calls per day, feverishly trying to follow up every lead-up. I then set up marketing automation that would nurture each lead and service them before they even got around to calling them. This meant one person could service the level of enquiries of a team of 5–10 salespeople.

Fast forward to five years after inception and I have since transformed King Kong from a one-man operation into a digital powerhouse with an ambitious team of 54 of the sharpest digital marketers in Australia — with the expectation of having more than 100 staff over the next year as a result of the sustained business growth.

King Kong and I have won a number of entrepreneur awards on top of many company awards, including being named Australia’s fastest growing full-service digital agency on the AFR Fast Starters List (second year in a row) and Smart50 List, having achieved an overall growth of 314% and total revenue in excess of $20 million.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Some of the most interesting stories have come from the people that have been following me for a long time, and then have gone to impressive and creative lengths to apply for a job here.

For example, we’ve had applicants create video submissions to join my team, and they’ve known about everything that we’ve been doing from following us along the way. I always find it really interesting to see what the perception is from people looking at your company from the outside in. I’ve worked so hard to create a culture and to create strong branding and to really push a theme for King Kong’s brand. It’s been crazy to see how that affects people from the outside, who are looking for employment in a company, and to see that dedication to the culture pay off. And the job application process is an opportunity to see if people’s perception from the outside reflects what is happening on the inside.

We’ve had a variety of extremely interesting applicants from all over the world being very creative with their applications. I had an applicant send me a 10 kilo box of bananas (in line with our King Kong jungle theme) and a cover letter in a bid to get a job here. There’s been so many wild applications from people trying to stand out and get attention, to secure a place with my team — and that is in a shortage of digital talent in Australia. And that speaks to the reputation of our work culture, because you can promote your business as a great place to work but if your work culture doesn’t match the marketing messages, it won’t take long for the word to get out.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am creating a product for King Kong to offer small businesses — it is basically a platform for businesses that may not be able to afford paying us as an agency on a retainer, to plug in and get all the elements that they need in order to grow their business. It will make our methodology and our process available to everyone, all over the world, so it’s going to have a much greater impact than just the clients that we can service as an agency.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

An unhappy workforce is usually caused by a lack of vision and leadership from management. You need to be able to rally your team and get everyone to buy into the same mission. Most people tend to be unhappy when they don’t know where the company is going, what that company is trying to achieve, and how they contribute to that plan. If you look at the places that have the highest satisfaction in the workforce, with the most engaged teams — it’s places where you have people rallying together, agreeing on a strategy and really trying to make big things happen. I think it comes down to management being transparent with what the vision of the company is and what their goals and targets are on a yearly, to quarterly, to monthly basis.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

We’re in a service-based business, so our product is the people that we have inside this building. A happy workforce really impacts everything. The quality of the inputs into a system will determine the quality of the outputs, and you need to make sure that your team is really happy.

There’s a myth that business success comes from putting your customers first. That might work when you’re a start-up, but if you want your business to grow, your team is the most important thing to get right. Hire good talent, treat them well and give them a reason to be happy when they step into the workplace and they will look after your clients for you.

The biggest determinant to someone’s productivity is their emotional state, and if you don’t foster an environment that really creates a good emotional experience and support network for that team member, the quality of the work that they produce is going to be severely impacted by that.

Employees satisfaction, happiness, and progress is really everything when you’re scaling a service-based or human-based. It will impact how many client referrals you get, and that’s going to impact how fast you can grow, and that’s going to also impact what your retention rate is.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

If your talent has the right skills and attitude, and you are compensating them well, but they are still not delivering like you know they can, then look at the culture of the team. If the team doesn’t gel, it does not work. Retaining the right culture while scaling your business is challenging. It was the culture that helped you achieve the initial growth in the first place so you don’t want to lose it.

There are a few ways you can grow while retaining the culture.

Hire right

Everything comes back to the culture of the company. It is imperative that you do not hire only based on the resume. Qualifications and experience are great, but if they are not the right fit, it won’t work.

Take the time to get to know the prospective employee in the interview and don’t base your decision on one interview. A great candidate can still give one bad interview, and you don’t want to lose them. For this reason we hold three different interviews with our candidates, and this also helps them to relax and be themselves over time.

For senior management hires, second interviews with some of the existing staff gives the opportunity to see how they resonate with the team and you have the opportunity to hear second opinions.

Always take the time to consider a hire, because one wrong hire could cost a lot more time in the end and could risk losing some of your existing team.

Winning together

Making it onto a list like Australian Financial Review’s (AFR) Fast Starters two years in a row, or winning an award, without acknowledging your team’s contributions along the way, is like taking home a Grand Final trophy without cheering each goal or celebrating each winning game all season.

It is all too easy to be heads down and concentrating on making the business succeed, but it is vital that all the small wins along the way to the big wins are celebrated together.

Attributing success to respective team members can be as easy as a weekly meeting where the past week is reviewed. At King Kong we look at where are we going, how are we tracking, what can we do better, and highlighting recent success. By doing this you are rewarding the team while being transparent about the operations of the business.

And, of course, make sure the whole office knows about a big win. We have a massive Chinese gong in our office and when a new client comes on board, we hit it. We also have a cowbell we ring when a client gets a new lead or a first sale, or their new campaign goes live and their first lead comes through; we celebrate our clients’ wins, because they’re ours too. If you are busy working and you hear something like a gong or bell it brings you all together. You all stand up and recognise the win.

Have fun

Having fun is not just about baristas and ping pong tables in the office. Let’s face it, most of us spend 40 plus hours a week at work, which is probably more time than we spend with our family, so the team need to enjoy being at work — if they do, they will smash it.

It starts with the people you hire. Yes, they should be really good at what they do, but they need to be able to get along as a team. I want everyone in the office to come to work looking forward to seeing their team.

And the team that plays together, stays together, so on the first Friday of the month we finish at midday and go have fun, whether it’s a team lunch or laser tag.

Invest in your team

So, if you’re doing things right, you’re celebrating small wins and working towards some big targets. How are you going to reward the team if they hit those?

A couple of years ago I took the entire team — from department heads to admin staff to Bali for a week when we reached our goal. Yes, it was expensive — not just the travel costs, but the wages and loss of income from having the office closed for a week — but it was worth it. Last year the whole team went glamping. It is a great opportunity for everyone to come together, relax, get to know each other and celebrate the wins.

I am not saying you have to take your whole team on holiday but you can’t afford not to invest in your people. Not only does it rally your staff and serve as team motivation, it means people want to stick around and help you succeed so you kill it with great retention rates.

Investment also goes beyond fun rewards: you need to support your staff in their careers as well. Each member of the team should see a future in your company. Investing in them could be giving more responsibility, honing the leadership and management skills or further education. Investment should be seen as long term. If your team can see a bright future ahead they will stick with you.

We have grown a great culture and put processes and structures in place to continue to scale. I am looking to double the headcount in the next 12 months and hitting our business goals. And with that, the team will be celebrating in Thailand.

Training, training, training

Training is something that should never be neglected — it is part of the team investment. Not only does it help the company in ensuring the team has the skills it needs to succeed, but it means your talent know you are willing to spend the time and effort in them. They have the opportunity to grow their skill set, which will lead to new opportunities and promotions. At King Kong we have created our own online King Kong Academy so our team can regularly upskill at a time that suits them.

Always remember to look internally for training avenues. Most of the time there will be people in your office that have a skill they can share with the rest of the team. It recognizes that person for the skills they have and gives everyone the opportunity to learn from their experience. The fact that they are part of your company also allows them to give relevant examples and scenarios that will resonate with the trainees.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Well, for me, I like to boil everything down to its fundamentals. When I started this business five years ago, I had had lots of jobs because it was a bootstrapped start-up. Prior to that, I worked in corporate environments, I’d worked in startup environments, I’d worked for bad managers, I’d worked for great managers, and I really just wanted to create a workplace where I would love to come in and work in every day.

Our business is very much based off meritocracy, where its people are directly compensated and rewarded by the amount of value and merit that they bring to our business. It’s not about how long you’ve been here and how much experience that you’ve got. It’s all about value and how much value that you can provide. It’s very much how it works in the marketplace.

If you go to see a top surgeon or the best strategist, they’re not going to be compensated by how many hours it takes for them to do an operation. They’re going to be compensated by how effective that they are at doing that operation. That’s the way that we look at it as a business. It’s not just about clocking in and doing your eight or nine hours a day, but it’s about the value that you can provide.

I think that when you find people that are super effective and are very good at getting the outcomes that you want, it’s not about pushing them as hard as you possibly can and making sure that you’re getting eight or nine hours out of them, if they’re able to achieve what an ordinary person is in a five or six-hour day.

You have to give them some autonomous environments and give them some leeway to kind of do the other stuff that they want to do within that working day if they’re very, very effective. I think that gone are the days where it’s about the production line where you’re putting people on a conveyor belt and trying to get the most output out of them. It’s more about how can you increase the potency of that outcome.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I try to lead from the front. I have done every single role in this company from sales to account management to PR, to operations, to being the person that changes the toilet paper rolls in the bathroom. I literally know exactly what it’s like to do everything, and I try to just lead from the front and not talk about leading and not talking about doing stuff, but actually leading by example. I’m one of the first people in the office, if not the first person in the office. I work ridiculously hard. I don’t really have a weekend and I just stay after it. I want people to see that I value managers that are doers. We don’t have any managers in this business that aren’t actually on the tools to some capacity, because you lose touch if you are.

This is exactly what makes me effective as a leader. I can still do the job of everyone in this business to the same quality, if not better because I’m an actual practitioner. I’m not just talking about this stuff, I know the drawbacks and I know the positive outcomes from each role. I know what to do. I’m not afraid to jump in the trenches and deal with the hard things as well.

I believe that business leaders should work like a soldier, so it is hard to spot the general. I still work really hard. I’m still learning. I’m doing all the things that I require my team to do, and if there’s any uncomfortable conversations or anything challenging has to happen, I’ll also be the first to jump in and help somebody deal with those problematic things rather than trying to shy away from having to deal with them.

You can never grow too big or be too important to be ‘in touch’ with every aspect of your business. Yes, you need to delegate and outsource, but that should not mean removing yourself from understanding what each team member is doing and helping them grow in that.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I grew up in a small regional beach town in northern New South Wales, Australia, called Byron Bay. It has a population of 9,000.

My older sister and I were raised by a single parent mother. I watched my mother hold down three jobs and work tirelessly to give us a great life.

She would wake up before the sun and go to work before we left for school, and she would often get home after we did. She would then head straight to the kitchen to cook us a healthy dinner. As exhausted as she was, she did all this with a smile and the affection and warmth only a loving mother can provide.

There were times that were rough and we had no money. Yet she always found a way to pull through.

When I was eight years old, I started waking up early so I could help her set up the café where she worked before I went to school. I would sweep the ground, take out the tables and chairs, and set them up. When I was finished she would give me a hot chocolate and some breakfast as my ‘reward’. Afterwards, kissing me on the cheek, she’d tell me she loved me and send me off to school.

Watching my mother work so hard to provide a great upbringing for my sister and me taught me the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned.

And that is this: Nothing in life comes without hard work. Nothing is given to you. You don’t get what you ‘deserve’. You get what you push, shove, scratch, and work your ass off for. My mother taught me firsthand that having a strong work ethic is the number one determining factor for success.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am a big proponent that business is a huge vehicle to help the world, because the life that you want, the relationships that you want, can be fueled by the business that you build. I am now in the fortunate position where I have thousands and thousands of students all around the world, and I get messages every single day from them, telling me how the information that I have put out there has impacted their life. Explaining how they’ve transformed and gained so much value out of my teaching. People have sent me messages telling me they’ve been able to give back to a charity or send their kids to college, because of the impact my teachings have had on their life personally and on their business.

What I’ve tried to do is send the elevator back down to people who are in less fortunate positions, and give them the tools and information they need in order to be successful with a no-nonsense approach. So just cutting back all the bull and telling people exactly what they need to do, rather than what they want to hear.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There can be no progress without struggle.” That’s a lesson that has stuck with me throughout the years. When you feel like you’re coasting or things are getting easier, that usually means you’re not chasing your goals with the level of intensity you probably should. I know whenever I get comfortable I am not making progress and I know the times that are really testing me and my will, is where I advance and grow most.

When I first started the business and was making 150 cold calls a day from my bedroom, that was a very challenging time, but I knew that because it was so difficult and there was so much pressure and resistance, I was making a lot of progress along the way. A lot of times you plant those seeds, and you might be working on something now and you’re not going to see the direct benefit of that hard work right now. It may take a year; it may be two years down the track; it could be three years away! Fundamentally, all the work that I’ve put in very diligently in the first two years, I believe that I’m only fully reaping the rewards for that right now.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My passion is about growing businesses, and starting a business is very, very difficult. The movement that I really want to push from is that a lot of business owners get stuck in a rut where they forget why they started their business, usually two or three years in. They kind of create a job for themselves and not a business, and that limits their ability to be able to give back to their family, to their community, and help others. I’m all about getting business owners to strive to build something that’s a lot bigger than themselves.

It’s easy to think, “Oh, I only need x amount of dollars to survive in this business. It’s fine. I don’t need to really grow it.” But that’s really a selfish mentality because you’re only thinking about yourself and what you’re able to provide for yourself. You’re not thinking about what you’re able to actually give back and provide to other people. When you build a bigger business, it allows you to have more of an impact and help people.

That’s really what I’m passionate about: helping people build wildly successful businesses.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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