All the best of luck with that culture shock

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014

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OPINION: Dear Bruce,

Thanks heaps for your email last week about PwC buying Optimal Experience, New Zealand's homegrown user experience company. I don't think we've ever met, but I appreciate you letting me know. I responded but didn't hear back, so thought I'd try a more old-school approach.

Firstly, well done. These guys genuinely rock, but more importantly, they pretty much own the user experience market in New Zealand. As you will know, Optimal Experience (or Optimal Usability as it used to be called) has two birth fathers - the perennially youthful-looking Sam Ng and Trent Mankelow, the man who singlehandedly made the beret fashionable again.

The folklore is that these two guys shared a start-up desk at Creative HQ back in 2003 and found a common interest in making the world more user-centred. I understand they also both liked beer. A lot of beer.

I first ran across them a couple of years later when Sam agreed to Optimal having a go at tweaking Trade Me's user experience over a few weeks. They came up with some good suggestions and I recall the bill for that was $2000. You may want to check if their charging is still quite so, well, Protestant.

Over the next 10 years, the boys built a good business and a good team around them, about 30 in all, I understand. But both Sam and Trent subsequently found other itches to scratch and moved on, making it a perfect time to snap up the company.

So the question you must be considering is, what else could you sink some of those hard-earned PwC dollars into? Well, I have a few ideas, Bruce. I trust you will keep them to yourself.

Being from Timaru, I like simple things, so I have a simple way of looking at online ventures, or businesses with an online side. Assuming the business can convert traffic into revenue, there are three big levers to pull. The single biggest lever is user experience, and you, Bruce, have yanked that lever good and hard by snapping up Optimal.

The next biggest lever is search engine optimisation (SEO). Considered by some to be the last dark art - a bit like tuning sidedraft carbs on a BDA Escort - SEO is all about ensuring your client's website comes up early in search results. That means on the first page, and ideally above the fold line. And there are large parts of science too, with numbers-driven decisions being critical.

In a world where most consumers' online journey starts with search, SEO delivers great bounce for ounce. And while lots of people say they are good at it, that's not my experience.

The smart thing here would be a freemium play, I reckon. A site where you could drop in your URL to get a basic health check of how well it meets the Google webmaster guidelines, but charges for smarter and more customised delivery.

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The third lever is search engine marketing (SEM), or paid search advertising - the sponsored results. As you probably know, Bruce, any fool can have a go at paid search. And quite a few do, and charge others for their efforts. But in my experience not many are any good at it.

Setting up a commoditised SEM service with a measure package that any fool could use would go down a treat, I reckon. And with a transparent charging schedule it would likely put the fear of God into a few lazy advertising agencies. There's a good measurement opportunity here too. For all its amazing tools, Google Analytics is still too tough for normal folks to use and there's a whole cottage industry of characters making money off it.

Bruce, I'm guessing the immediate challenge will be around culture. One of the great things about Optimal Experience has been its culture. And as New Zealand's web guru, Nat Torkington, regularly remarks, it comes down to he tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.

Optimal's people have displayed a weird and wonderful cocktail of discipline and passion, informality and seriousness. Together with its maverick founders, this has proved a potent recipe for great results.

PwC has more than 170,000 employees and 2000 "digital specialists". Ensuring that Optimal's secret sauce stays potent as its 30 staff sail their way among the ocean of PwC folks will be the real challenge, I'm guessing. And as more small and innovative firms get snapped up by large ones, it's a challenge shared by many.

All the best with that, Bruce.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he's a regular but infrequent customer of Optimal Experience.

- Stuff

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