While in Sydney this summer I had a chance to sit down with Michael Sallander and pick his brain about why he got into web as well as his new venture with the BC Training Academy.
Brent: Hey. This is Brent Weaver from bcgurus.com. I'm here today with Mike Sallander of Chicago Digital. Welcome to BC Gurus.
Mike: Thanks Brent. Glad to be here.
Brent: So you guys have been introduced in voice through several of your project features on your site, but this is your debut.
Brent: How's it feel?
Mike: Feels excellent. I'm glad people get the chance to maybe meet myself in person or in video and get to know a little bit more about me.
Brent: Absolutely. So, tell me about your background. I mean, what got you into web? Why did you do this versus going and working for the man, you know?
Mike: Sure. I think I really got my start really early on in life. My dad was an entrepreneur, and he had a computer assembly business and so I was always surrounded by computers and technology and so I really developed that passion pretty early on. It was in high school where I kind of took my first computer science class, where I really got excited and really kind of decided this is what I want to do, and so Scott Scheffler and I were good friends in high school and we started doing some freelance web design on the side.
We kind of did that throughout high school and college, even though we had some other jobs here and there working for corporations. When we got home we went and did web design as a hobby. It was like, you know, this is what we really enjoy doing. It was what we were really passionate about, and so, really it just became a natural decision to say "Hey, instead of doing this just in our spare time, what would our life be like if we did this full time?"
It was really, not that working for another company or a corporation is bad or anything like that, not that I kind of see it as working for the man necessarily, but at the end of the day we really just want to do what we're passionate about, and really kind of be in control of our direction and our destiny, and so that's kind of why we got started.
Brent: Very cool. So, tell me about Chicago Digital. That's obviously the business that came out of it, and I think if you're a BC partner and you haven't heard of Chicago Digital now's a good time to check our your work. You guys have been doing great things. So, tell me a little about how Chicago Digital started, and what your vision there is.
Mike: Sure. So, we got started in June of 2009 when Scott Scheffler and I graduated from the University of Illinois. Our vision really was to help small-medium businesses utilize new technologies to grow and manage their businesses. So, in terms of the web, we sit down and work with the client to figure out what their real needs are, their business needs are, and how to use a combination of design, development and online marketing techniques to really accomplish that goal for the end business.
Brent: So, it's very cool about Chicago Digital. I think you guys have a really good thing going on there. Tell us a little bit about what the staff situation is. I mean, how many, what's the make-up of Chicago Digital?
Mike: Right, well, we have five full-time employees right now. We're looking at expanding that team, currently, as we see demand for Business Catalyst and our services continue to grow. It's an exciting time right now. We're kind of changing offices and doing all that.
Brent: Very cool. So you guys have enjoyed the entrepreneurial pursuit of Chicago Digital. Like, the actual running of the business seems like something that you're also passionate about.
Mike: Yeah, I mean, my background is I have a business degree, and kind of going back to my dad's entrepreneurial roots, it's something that's always really fascinated me. So from the early on I've always had a vision of it's not just a freelance or a two-man operation. You know, it's just something that I'd like to continue for the business to grow, and to see that evolve over time into a larger agency. So, it's definitely been a very, very interesting ride, a lot of hard work and I'm just really excited to be a part of this community.
Brent: Yeah, for sure. So, who's the ideal customer for Chicago Digital?
Mike: Sure. Well, it depends on, you know, there's probably two different ideal customers. One, the more traditional one for us would be the small to medium business, who has a particular objective in mind and really kind of lets us run with that, and create the solution. And kind of execute that for them, without a lot of kind of micromanaging of it. So, we see our probably most successful situations is "Hey, I want to double my sales next year" or "I want to increase customer retention", whatever it may be, and then give us a budget and let us go and run with that and bring all the different elements to the table that need to be done in order for that to work, instead of just "Hey, I want a simple website in two weeks" type thing.
Brent: Got you.
Mike: On the other side as we've kind of gone, gotten into more of the partner to partner business within Business Catalyst, our ideal customer, or ideal business catalyst customer is someone who really wants to take BC to the next level, or do some other things that business catalysts might not do out of the box, and really deliver some very compelling things for their clients.
Brent: Very cool. So, speaking of Business Catalyst, how did you get introduced to BC and what's that journey been like?
Mike: Sure. That's something that I feel very fortunate and very lucky to have kind of happen to find out about Business Catalyst. We were a little embarrassed to say, though we were working with Drupal and WordPress and .net nuke all of those sorts of things, and when we first got started we were kind of trying to find our way. Right? We figured "Hey, we're going to find a customer and we're going to try to recommend the solution that was best for them, and then pair that up right" and then, so, we actually got introduced to Business Catalyst by a potential client. We pitched him "Hey, we're going to build you a platform and we're going to build it off of Drupal". It was a vertical, which you're very big into, and we were going to use Drupal to then replicate that 10, 20, 50 sites, and create like a whole platform for her on it. But, she was using a different designer who had already been building in Business Catalyst and she kind of fell in love with Business Catalyst, the whole idea of being able to create a template and replicate it. She's like "I want different vendors for my solution, but I like the same platform". She wanted that standardization. So, seeing the opportunity, we probably had, like, four projects off the bat that we were going to deliver for her. So I decided "Sure, we know Business Catalyst. Well, we'll build you a Business Catalyst website", right?
Brent: So there was maybe a little white lie in there? We've had 10 years experience.
Mike: No, no. Absolutely. I mean, we didn't lie about anything, absolutely. I mean, initially she came to us and said "Hey, I need some HTML slicers" right? And then I need to put into a CMS, and so, never heard of Business Catalyst before then, but figured "Hey, we can figure this thing out." This was back before there was the BC Gurus and the Kiyuco and Tribevita and all that kind of stuff, which would have been a great, great help back in the day. So, we had to deliver about four sites in a month and a half and these were, I wouldn't say overly complicated, but they weren't just, you know, your very basic BC sites. So, it was a lot of learning by trial and error and a lot of late nights and a lot of support chats and tickets and all that kind of good stuff, trying to figure out exactly the system works.
Brent: Very cool. So, it sounds like you guys have had a good amount of work with BC. I mean, you've done an assortment of projects. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about the types of projects you picked up with BC.
Mike: Sure. I think we've worked with about 120 different Business Catalyst websites. We've worked with a lot of partners where we worked behind the scenes to deliver all the functionality on the platform and it might be underneath their partner portal. Then, we have a lot of direct relationships as well. Our clients really span a lot of different industries, a lot of different vertical markets, a few different sizes. In some respects, you know, it creates a little bit more work for us, in some instances, but it also gives us a wide variety of experiences and different challenges, which I really think has helped us get to the point where we are today. We might not have really got to the scale that we are today without having that diverse set of experiences and challenges.
Brent: Very cool. So, obviously we're here in Sydney. We're actually at the Pretty Pollution office. We've hijacked Brett's conference room. So, how have you enjoyed this? You know, you actually went to the San Francisco conference as well.
Mike: I did. Yeah.
Brent: We've been on this two city tour. How have you enjoyed the conferences, you know, you can talk about San Fran and Sydney.
Mike: I mean, these events and conferences have been fantastic. I mean, I remember Brett when we were at Adobe Max back in 2010.
Brent: [inaudible 00:009:12]
Mike: Yeah, maybe 10.
Brent: Well, it was you, and Scott, and me, and there was like a couple other people.
Mike: The BC team outnumbered the partners for sure.
Brent: Yes. That was actually quite interesting.
Mike: So, it's very, very encouraging to see the progression of the community, over the last couple of years, and the fact that over 200 people, I believe, showed up for the Sydney conference.
Brent: A lot of people.
Mike: It was fantastic. It was very, very encouraging to me. Without getting into too much detail about the information that was presented at both of those, which I'm sure you'll cover in probably some greater detail later. The big takeaway for me was just the BC community is thriving. Although we're small we're growing. People are collaborating. They're working together. They really want to help each other out. I think, I hope the main takeaway too from Adobe is that "Hey, these partners can't be ignored". You know, we need to work with these partners. We need to do more events like these. We need to keep continually growing and fostering the community.
Brent: Absolutely, and it's been a lot of fun to be in just in general in Sydney collaborating with a lot of people that I feel like I see them on forums, we talk on the phone or Skype, and you get to see little avatars of people and stuff, and it's been nice to get that face to face for sure. So you guys have a little bit of an initiative coming up. I don't know if you noticed, Mike is sporting a quite nice t-shirt. I'd like to get an understanding of what you guys are trying to do with the BC Training Academy. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Mike: Absolutely. Before get kind of into that let me get into kind of how we came across the idea, if you will. Kind of going back to our first encounter with Business Catalyst, when we really had to create a lot of projects right away, and there weren't really a lot of resources available. We kind of thought "Hey, what would we have liked to have been out there to teach us about how to become Business Catalyst developers, right, so we can go and build projects more effectively?" We really tried to, we thought about the answer to that question, and then just kind of, that planted the seed for the training academy. Then, also, probably the need of Business Catalyst developers out there right now. If you're an agency or a designer or a partner who would maybe want to hire someone internally or do it contract, or even just partner with another BC developer. We noticed that there wasn't really any sort of standardization or any sort of like accreditation or any way to really have complete confidence that "Hey, this person actually knows Business Catalyst". From an agency standpoint a lot of times you've got to go and hire an HTML/CSS programmer, someone to front end, and then go train them about Business Catalyst. So it might be three, six, nine months before they become productive on any of your projects. So, it was kind of that need that really spawned the BC Training Academy. So, what the BC Training Academy aims to do is provide a structured one-on-one learning environment for people, to get over that BC learning curve quicker. So we have weekly webinars, live chat, structured course and agenda, and weekly assignments to really get people from not knowing how to do anything in Business Catalyst, to productively building a BC website.
Brent: Very cool. So, some of the details on that, I mean, I'll include the link to bctrainingacademy.com, but also I know you guys, your first course is coming up here. I mean, give us some more details. The cost and when people need to be able to sign up by.
Mike: Absolutely. Our first course launches July 16th, and we have a special going on right now for all the people that sign up early, by June 15th, it's half off, so only $800. Typically the course is $1595, so it's about 50% off. We really think this is going to be a very effective way for people to learn the system in 12 weeks, so really kind of reduce the entire learning curve down.
Brent: Absolutely. Very cool, so good luck to you guys with that program. I'm sure we'll see, get to see some feedback here in a few months once the first crew of student have gone through the BC Training Academy, so best of luck there. So, one last question here. There was a lawn bowling game, it's not a US sport so I keep getting my tongue wrapped up on how to say it, but you guys were, you had a competitive team for lawn bowling.
Mike: We did.
Brent: How'd you turn out on that one?
Mike: We ended up getting third place.
Mike: It was, I don't think many people expected that of an American, so, it was pretty nice showing up in Australia and at least placing.
Brent: And just to explain to the non-Australian viewers of BC Gurus. Lawn bowling is like regular bowling but it's on grass. You go barefooted, so you don't wear shoes, and the ball is actually weighted to one side so it kind of curves or flips around. If you bowl like I did, which is, you know, it just kind of goes off and goes the wrong direction every time, so congratulations that you guys got third place there.
Mike: Appreciate that.
Brent: Adobe was kind enough to give us some prizes, some free year-long subscriptions to sites. So I can tell you that the next conference that comes around there's lots of goodies and competitions that you guys can win free stuff on, so that's good stuff. So, appreciate your time today Mike. We'll definitely include links to your Chicago Digital website as well as BC Training Academy. Definitely appreciate you taking the time today.
Mike: Thank you. I appreciate it Brent.
Brent: Well, stay tuned for more great content from bcgurus.com. Thanks.