#SuckItSurryHills and the importance of doing risky things publicly

Back in 2010 Tony Burrett and I started a digital agency and software foundry called The New Agency.

We had to start it in a hurry so we actually chose the agency name and registered the domain while I drove us to our first client pitch, with me driving, Stephen (our CTO) searching for available domains on his laptop and Tony (our client director and COO) going through his little black book calling other business we might be able to pitch to.

At the time, everybody we knew in that space was working in Surry Hills, and Tony and I had worked much of our careers there too.

Not only were we sick of the long commute, we were sick of the hipsters, the food and coffee prices and the queues.

I’d recently moved with my wife and son to Newport, 60–80 mins drive north of Surry Hills and the city. And in my first week of exploring Newport’s little main strip I’d discovered Surry Hills-quality coffee without the queues at Zubi, and a brand-new coworking space with high-speed internet at NewportNet, thanks to the lovely Karen and Simon Bond.

So we decided (actually I decided – Tony reluctantly agreed) that we had to setup our agency in Newport instead of Surry Hills.

It was closer for both of us than Surry Hills, it had a beach (rather than a major rail terminus and a lot of pubs and brothels) and it had a relaxed, casual beach vibe (rather than a hipster and stressed-agency-people vibe.)

Surry Hills could suck it; we were doing this in Newport.

People thought we were nuts for doing it and sometimes we thought we were nuts too.

But I decided to reinforce our decision so we wouldn’t cave in to popular opinion. I also wanted to make a weakness look like a strength. So I started to use the #suckitsurryhills hashtag on photos of what it was like to work at the beach.

It became a bit meme-y as other people started using it too.

Some people even started posting with a #suckitnewport tag!

It even got a lot easier to persuade clients to come meet at our office when we could show them how nice it was. How they could take their shoes off and go walk at the water’s edge just 400m from our office.

Which saved us travel time and made them happy.

What we learned from #suckitsurryhills was: make a weakness a strength

At the beginning when it was just Tony and I, we could have pretended to be based in Surry Hills. We could have done all our client meetings at their offices or at one of Surry Hills’ many coffee shops and coworking spaces. We worried that not being based in the city was a strategic weakness for our business.

By using the #suckitsurryhills hashtag we made our weakness look like a strength. It also made us look decisive and determined even when much of the time we were still unsure.

It forced us to publicly commit to the decision and made it harder to change our minds because we’d have to tell all these people who knew about #suckitsurryhills we were wrong.

It made us find ways to solve some of the many challenges of running a team and a client service business an hour’s drive in the wrong direction from where most of our industry was based.

In the process of finding those solutions we committed early and heavily in mobile and cloud-based tools that allowed our team and our clients to work from where they were, instead of with us in Newport.

In fact, the most desks our Newport office ever had was five, and that was during the great year we shared an office with the schmazing Em and Stu of Stem Media, who became best friends and collaborators on projects like The Big Smoke Bottle Boat and The Nascondingos.

We were early in to Google Apps, Google Hangouts, Basecamp, Xero, Squarespace and Tumblr, Quotient and QuoteRoller, Redpen, BugHerd, Dropbox and DropSend. Even our business cards were from Moo.com. If there was a way to do any business function online, we’d try it.

Once we’d figured out how to run an agency from Newport, it also allowed us to run an agency from a meeting room at a coworking space, a coffee shop, a client’s office, and when we were travelling, in Melbourne, San Francisco, Anchorage and Buenos Aires.

We weren’t just an Australian company using a remote team, we were all remote, most of the time. When we came together in the same place it was to celebrate a good project delivered and enjoy a few drinks.

All of this was huge differentiation for us at a time when our competitors were still faxing and printing out and couriering their work. It made us seem more cutting-edge than our competitors, saved us time and money and made our team happy because they could stay in the places they loved to live and work too.

Our remote location started as our biggest weakness and became not just our greatest strength but the thing that made us much, much better than our competitors.

Although The New Agency is no more, Sydney’s creative industry is still mostly in Surry Hills. And it is even more expensive, grungy, and over-rated. And it still doesn’t have a beach.

These days I mostly use the hashtag when I take a photo before a workout at the beach.

When the gravitational pull of the city beckons I can search on images with the hashtag and remind myself how great it is to live and work here and not in Surry Hills.

That is the story of #suckitsurryhills. And also why you should consider making difficult decisions early, make them public as a way of committing to them. That weakness might become your greatest strength.

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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