Yes, that’s my mug that has been gracing TV screens across the country in the early days of 2016.

In fact, I was interviewed by a good friend of Systemato, Gordon Pace of Y Ltd Public Relations Consultancy Services, for his weekly programme about entrepreneurship in Malta, Business Chat, which is the top-rated programme on the station it airs on every week.

We did our interview at the wonderful Nenu – The Artisan Baker in Valletta, where the fine folks there served us a traditional Maltese stew and ftira after we wrapped up the interview.

During the interview, Gordon and I spoke at length about the digital industry, how the internet and social media are changing our work and personal lives, and generally share our wonder at an industry that didn’t even exist not that long ago.

I also talk about the beginnings of Systemato and share the occasional nugget of wisdom about starting your own business and how to survive to tell the tale.

You can watch the whole interview on the link below. The interview is in Maltese, however David has thoughtfully translated the whole thing in English and posted the transcript here. He even highlighted the bits that impressed him most.

Transcript

How did you start your business?

I started working after I graduated from university. After finishing my degree, I began working in this field. I used to work at a Swedish company; it was one of the first here in Malta to make that kind of investment (in digital marketing) and there I learnt a lot of things about this work on someone else’s dime, because I wasn’t spending my own money and I learn plenty of tricks of the trade. It was a great opportunity for me to start this way.

After that, I went to work at a government agency, but there was no way I could be happy working for others. I always wanted start my own business. I didn’t care that I’d have to work even harder, at least I would be doing all that for myself and I’d have the freedom to choose who to work with and what kind of work I’d do. And that’s how it all started.

It was in 2011, when my company was launched. Before I left my previous employer, I was already sizing up opportunities and doing some work on the side. As soon as the time was ripe, I seized the moment at once.

How did people start hearing about you?

I didn’t leave my old job without having my own clients already. When I left I already had some clients. I had only a few; nowhere near the number we work with today, but it was enough to begin with. My first clients came through personal contacts. So they were people whom I had already worked with in my previous jobs and were impressed by my work…

[…]

When I got started in this business, most people wouldn’t be willing to trust a person who’d come up to them and say: “I can do all the work of a marketing agency, but I’m going to do it all by myself. Oh, and I work from home.” This kind of arrangement was not yet common enough back then. Now things have changed a lot, because many companies have decided to change tactics and instead of working with marketing companies, they’re working with individuals who are skilled in specific areas of online marketing.

[…]

I employ five people and none of them come to my home to work there. Everybody works where it suits them; I have some of them who are students and work at university or from home. Others live in Brussels, where they have a fulltime job, and work from home, from bars, wherever they like. As long as the work I assign them is done and they hand it over on time and up the standards required, I don’t care where they work. I’m not going to waste money on renting an office simply to check whether they’re really working or not.

[…]

Well. In my industry you can’t really make do without the internet, because in the digital industry everything’s done online… let’s say 99 per cent of the work is carried out through the internet, it would be ridiculous on my part if I insisted things had to be done without using the internet. If I earn a living from the internet, then why shouldn’t all my work practice be based online?

[…]

It could be. But I’m not sure because I don’t have any hard numbers. There might be a difference between Maltese and foreign business. But it could also be something endemic to the state of our industry and not just on an individual level, and it could be the case that in that industry decisions aren’t taken by an individual but by a board or a group of people.

A decision taken by a group of people tends to be more conservative than one taken by a single person who might just think: “You know what? I’m going to risk it!” If you have five people involved in taking a decision, then it’s likely there’s going to be some dissent or a “voice of reason” that discourages people from going all out.

What’s social media? Is it just Facebook?

No, it isn’t just Facebook. Social media, or as some people call them, social networks… Let’s start with a definition of social network. A network is a group, a collection of people or computers. Its purpose—since it involves people—is essentially social, and that’s why we call it a social network. Now there are tonnes of social networks. And all of them are different.

However, fundamentally, they all do the same thing.

They all connect people, allowing them to share information. Now it doesn’t matter if this information is the form of text, images, videos; or a bit of all; or maybe a life event like there is on Facebook… it’s all ‘social network’.

There are social networks of all shapes and sizes, a few of them become very well known, and some become so popular that they become part of our everyday language. “I found this on Facebook” or “I was on Facebook”. Others we never even hear about because we never see them, because we never get to use them.

For example, Orkut was a very famous social network in some parts of the world; it was especially popular in Brazil and India, that’s where it was mainly used, it was owned by Google… however it was basically only used in Hindi or Brazilian Portuguese. Why have we never heard of it in Malta? Because almost nobody was using it in Europe. When Google shut it down in 2013, the user base was almost exclusively Brazilian and they decided to discontinue it because the user base was diminishing rapidly due to Facebook.

[…]

A lot of people ask themselves – but how do companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram make any money?

Twitter still has some ways to go before they earn money. So far their valuations have been positive, although at the end of 2014 the figures they published weren’t overwhelmingly positive.

Facebook does make a lot of money however, and a big chunk of their revenue comes from advertising. As everyone who uses Facebook know, there are plenty of adverts on Facebook. You have them on the right hand side, and in the newsfeed what they call boosted posts…

Their positioning has changed a lot over the years and even their precision in targeting the audience has changed because if I show certain tendencies… let’s say I like cars. If I look up a lot of pages about cars then I have a higher chance of being shown adverts about cars rather than about kitchen blenders, for example.

And that kind of precision is important for Facebook, because if I’m advertising, I’m paying money, and my advert is seen by someone who’s not interested in the product I’m selling, then I wouldn’t be willing to pay as much. It’s in Facebook’s own interest that whatever it shows, I find relevant, because that way they can charge the advertisers more money.

[…]

A newsfeed is entirely tailored to the individual’s preferences and behaviours.

If you’re using Facebook in Malta, or you’re abroad, you’re using it in France, then you’ll have two different experiences altogether. You wouldn’t see the same adverts in France that you’d see in Malta, instead you’ll be served adverts for somebody using the English language version of Facebook in France.

And it isn’t just adverts that are a source of revenue for Facebook. Demographics, the personal information they have about their users can also be monetised.

If I were to analyse just a single day of your Facebook usage then I’d be able to determine approximately at what time you wake up, when you switch on your mobile phone, and at what time you log onto Facebook. If I showed you five adverts, I would know which ones you clicked upon and which you didn’t. Which messages posted by your Friends you liked and which not. Whether you’re more likely to respond to images or videos.

And don’t forget that I also have your email address since you used it to create an account on Facebook. The amount of data that Facebook has is enormous and there are many people who are ready to pay through the nose to get access to that information.

Nowadays social media are steadily increasing in popularity. Which ones are the most used and why do you think that is?

Locally, I’d have to mention Facebook once again as the most popular.

I don’t know the exact figures, but in Malta internet usage penetration is at 90 per cent and around 80 per cent of those people who use the internet also use Facebook; which is a phenomenal rate.

That means in Malta, everyone who wishes to sell directly to the consumer and isn’t using Facebook is probably committing a mistake. However, there are other social networks used locally too.

There’s Twitter which for a while was really gaining a lot of ground in Malta. Sometimes it peaks, sometimes it falls, but there’s still quite a substantial cohort of active users there.

Google Plus isn’t as important as it used to be even in Google’s eyes because basically they decided it wasn’t working for them anymore. That’s what happened. One might say that it was a failed experiment for Google, however I’m sure they learnt a lot from it.

Instagram is an exceptional social network too. It’s owned by Facebook, they bought it for an obscene amount of money a few years ago. Instagram is a fantastic social network; it has certain features which you won’t find in any other social networks.

[…]

Let’s say you’re a small business, but you deal with local and international clients… If you’ve just started up or are about to, how can you get there?

Step by step.

Step by step and don’t exaggerate your goals. However, it’s good to be ambitious too. In my case, maybe I was lucky too that I am good at what I do and people noticed that early on. That’s important, to be good at your job. If this is what you’re going to do, you’re going to do for a number of years or even your whole life, then you can just treat like a hobby and not be very good at it.

Personally, I believe that you have to be really good at what you do and that you must truly love it and will not get bored if you’re going to spend many hours, many days, many years doing the same thing.

There some stuff in my own business that I don’t do anymore. When I grew to the point that I had to employ people, I stopped doing certain things because I found someone who’s way better than myself at doing them. It’s also good for the client, who pays the same amount but gets better quality work. So being good at your job is what I always recommend.

[…]

Integrity is important. I believe that you should never lie to a client because you only have to be caught in a lie once and you’ve lost that client forever. I don’t think that’s worth the trouble. A client’s trust is immensely important because if you do a good job for them then they’re likely to mention it to others and maybe even recommend you to them, so you’ll have more work. If you do a bad job, or worse, you try to swindle your clients or take them for a ride, then they’ll tell everybody about that.

The internet has changed the way business is done. What opportunities are there nowadays for businesses in Malta and Gozo?

For a Maltese business owner, I think the most important opportunity they have now is the ability to go beyond our shores. Here we are very limited.

Even in my case, although my business is a small one and doesn’t bring in billions, I still wouldn’t have enough work if I only worked with Maltese clients because the budgets of local companies are nothing like foreign ones, and especially for the skills we have, there aren’t enough opportunities to use them all here in Malta, and that’s why we didn’t have any choice but to seek work overseas.

That’s one opportunity. A second one is that the internet democratised a lot of things. For example, if I wanted to sell a car back then, I had no other option but to buy an ad on a newspaper, or the radio, or on TV. Or I’d have to tell my friends one by one. Nowadays in five minutes I can create a listing on a website. I can post that listing on Facebook. If I have a thousand friends, then surely a good portion of them will see it.

That’s just for a car. If you own a holiday rental property there are websites dedicated for those, whereas previously you used to have to pay somebody to develop and design a website for you to promote your apartment online.

The internet has democratised everything, so whatever a company in Germany, Taiwan, or Canada is doing, we can do the same thing here in Malta. Not just that, we can also collaborate with people from all over the world. I work with Maltese who live here and abroad too, as well as with foreigners who live here. Most of our communication takes place through the internet because it’s effective, efficient and instantaneous.

[…]

Do you think that traditional media has lost its significance? When something happens we get to hear about it immediately on social media or news portals… There used to be a time when we had to wait for the news to come on TV…

The change has been great and we’re still in the middle of it. I studied media in university, even though I knew I never wanted to work in traditional media. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything back then that matched my preferences more specifically.

The change is big for sure, but I think that the media still has a central role.

First of all, these people have years of experience at what they do; they know how to spot a story. They know where there is a story to tell whereas I wouldn’t even realise there was one at all just because I don’t have the skill, the ability or experience they have. They also have an established platform and all the resources they need. They’ve spent years producing programmes and broadcasting high-quality news, and even though I, with my smartphone, might get there five minutes before they do, I still cannot do…

In most cases they also have impartiality, something which I as a private citizen might not have. My word won’t necessarily be given the same level of trust by other people as they would to something said by a news organisation.

And they’re at the heart of this change, because even social media themselves… they have this partnership with news organisations.

In fact, social media and social networks on their own are worth nothing without content; if you and I don’t post our images, and without the BBC and other organisations uploading their own material… without content there is no social network. So everyone needs everyone else.

Obviously, you always have to take the proper precautions. However, I think that the media still has a central role in today’s world and I suspect that we are actually consuming a whole lot more news than before and that the majority of this extra news we’re getting compared to 10 years ago is still being created by the mainstream media.

Before we end this programme – we mentioned social media a lot. The most popular is undoubtedly Facebook. Sometimes it seems like we don’t realise that what we post will be seen by everyone, and that it will remain online for many years and that it can even be downloaded by third parties without permission. What’s your advice to whoever uses Facebook?

There are many ways you can go about changing your privacy settings on Facebook and I agree with you that they’re quite complicated and probably they’re that way on purpose, because Facebook can get out more from a post that’s posted public rather than privately or semi-privately.

I personally have one rule: “Does this thing that I’m about to post right now show me in the best light possible or not? Is there any way this can come back to bite me in the ass someday?”

Now, even when you absolutely positive and certain that it won’t, there still can be some way that you’ll come to regret it somehow; however, with this method of thinking you’ll already have eliminated most of the risk. Obviously, you also need to think in a practical manner.

If you’re looking for a job and you’re going to write something obscene or full of foul language, or that doesn’t make any sense, or racist or something along those lines; think if the person who’s going to employ would want you to express that type of opinion on the workplace, because that’s exactly the kind of impression you’ll give.

So be careful, not everything should be shared on social media.

{Due to time constraints, Gordon couldn’t ask me the last question he had planned for our interview. I’m appending it here because I felt that this advice could be of help to others, just like it was helpful for me in building my own business.}

From your own experience – what advice would you give to somebody who wants to start a new business?

  • Save at least six months’ worth of wages before setting out out on your own. Two months to hunt down more clients, two months to do the work, two months to get paid.
  • Be good at what you’re doing, and stay good. Keep learning and don’t slack off.
  • Be ready to work hard. 
  • Take a chance.

Author Mark Debono

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mr LazyBones says:

    Aw, this was a really good post. Spending some time and
    actual effort to generate a top notch article… but what can I say… I put things off
    a whole lot and never seem to get anything done.

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