Sam Sheppard

Co-Founder of Cabana

Sam Sheppard is the co-founder of Cabana, a digital marketing agency based in Manchester, UK. The team at Cabana help businesses in a range of industries to acquire, convert, and retain new customers through the use of digital technology.

After graduating from the University of Sheffield in 2014, Sam took an entry-level marketing job, giving him experience in a wide-range of marketing disciplines. It quickly became clear that one field in particular, digital, was the future of the industry.

Sam then joined a leading digital agency in Manchester. With the opportunity to learn from some of the best marketers in the industry, over four years he specialised in search marketing, client management, and digital strategy.

Now at Cabana, an agency he started with a couple of friends in early 2020, Sam is responsible for the agency’s search marketing function. He helps clients increase the amount of website traffic they receive through channels such as search engine optimisation (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising (PPC).

Where did the idea for Cabana come from?

There’s three founders at Cabana: Jakub, Ricardo and myself. We’ve known and worked with each other for years. We always had the idea of starting a digital marketing agency together, but it’s only recently that we decided to combine our efforts (we had all been freelancers or at agencies prior to Cabana).

I think one of the main things that held us back was the saturation in the market. There’s hundreds of thousands of agencies across the world, so we all wanted to be sure we could offer something better for clients first.

Once we figured out how we could do that, we launched. As for the name, we’re remote-work friendly and we all do a lot of travelling, but we rent a small, converted shipping container in Manchester to use when we’re back home – hence ‘Cabana’.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m fully remote right now, working from Wellington in New Zealand. I would usually go to a co-working space but with the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been asked to stay indoors as much as possible.

So I’ve set up an area of the house I’m staying in as my office, using an ironing board as an adjustable desk (highly recommended!). I also “commute” by going for a brief walk around the neighbourhood before starting work each day. They’re little touches but I’ve found they help put me in work-mode.

As for my day, it can be really varied depending on which client I’m working on. But in general, I split it between morning and afternoon. In the mornings I switch off all distractions and focus on bigger pieces of work, like completing audits for existing clients or putting proposals together to win new clients. In the afternoon, I have a couple of hours where I answer emails and do any calls or meetings I have scheduled. Finally, towards the end of the day I’ll complete any smaller tasks which don’t require much brain power.

How do you bring ideas to life?

In digital marketing it’s fairly simple but requires a bit of collaboration. Through data, experience or auditing we’ll find issues and opportunities for our clients, then we work together to consider possible solutions.

I’ve found it’s really important to get client buy-in on any the solutions or ideas we have so they feel engaged and valued, plus they may be able and willing to help bring that idea to life!

What’s one trend that excites you?

I think there’s a changing attitude towards flexible and remote working – partly as younger generations value it and partly as employers want to offer it as a workplace benefit. Given how much of lives we spend working, I think that’s a positive and exciting trend.

Plus, there is research showing that when companies offer flexible and remote working options, their employees are happier and enjoy better work-life balances. Happier workers are more productive, so there’s a real benefit for the business too.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m easily distracted so one thing I’ve found which works for me is temporarily switching off my phone, Slack, WhatsApp, and not checking or answering emails. I save all comms (unless it’s absolutely urgent) until the afternoon, leaving the morning free to be productive.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Stop waiting and go do whatever it is you’re interested in. It took me a few years to figure that out, but I’ve since done lots of things – both personally and professionally – that I had always wanted to do.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Over the past few months I’ve met plenty of new people while travelling and working remote. They often ask what I do and I tell them I work in digital marketing. It always surprises me how many wish they were able to work and travel at the same time.

I try to tell them most people can, but very few agree. But really, how many workers need to be office-based? Surely, with a little trust from their employers or by starting their own company, they could easily complete their work from anywhere with a decent internet connection?

There’s very few silver linings from the current global pandemic, but one thing coronavirus shows is that it is possible for large portions of society to work remote. Once we’re over the worst of the virus, do we fall back to traditional, time-measured office-based work, or do we trust our employees enough to give them the flexibility and responsibility of working from where they want, when they want, as long as the work is done well?

Like I said in before, there does seem to be a trend towards more flexible working, so it does look like we’re heading in the right direction.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I try to make sure I keep learning each day. I think that’s important for anyone, regardless of position or experience. Before Cabana, I was fortunate enough to work in a marketing agency that really encouraged and valued personal development, and that’s really stuck with me.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Well, we’re fairly new. Building an inbound marketing strategy, which is a more scalable means of getting leads, takes time and we’re in the very early stages of that.

But in the meantime we’re having to put a lot of our time into outbound marketing. We’re having as many conversations as we can with local businesses and other people within our network to find opportunities and potential leads. It’s not scalable, it’s extremely manual, we do it naturally (no copy and paste messaging), it takes forever – but it has helped us find a great first set of clients and get our agency off the ground.

‘Do things that don’t scale’ is one of the most valuable pieces of advice for new businesses – I think it comes from Paul Graham at Ycombinator. It’s worked for us so far to find new leads, but it’s also part of other areas for us, like how we convert and retain clients.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As a team, we have had plenty of failures. Sometimes we lose a pitch. Sometimes we miss a deadline. Sometimes the results just aren’t good enough.

Failures are never through a lack of effort though, so we don’t worry about it too much. We’re honest with each other, we figure out what went wrong, we discuss what we could improve next time and then we move on.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’ve always really liked the idea of brewing my own beer, giving it to friends until you find a winning formula and then seeing where it goes from there. It’s completely unrelated to my area of business, but it’s beer – it’s the easiest thing in the world to sell and there will always be a market for it.

And if it doesn’t work out then at least you’ll have loads of beer on tap. Maybe I’ll give it a go…

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I spent about $100 on canyoning in Queenstown, in New Zealand’s South Island. We spent a day abseiling, climbing, diving and ziplining through a beautiful canyon in the nature reserves around Queenstown. I love anything like that, it’s a great way of doing something completely different from my day-to-day.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I like having all my work and upcoming tasks planned out day by day in my Google Calendar. It keeps me on track throughout the week and ensures everything gets seen to. I just tick things off once they’re done.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

That’s tough!

I love everything by the likes of Avinash Kaushik, Yuval Noah Harari and Seth Godin. But my old boss brought a copy of ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon into the office a couple of years back and I read it over lunch one day (it’s only 150 pages and half of them are pictures).

I think it’s a brilliant set of lessons that anyone can read and get something useful from. Lesson two, “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started”, particularly resonated for me.

What is your favorite quote?

“I came to this world with nothing,
And I leave with nothing but love,
Everything else is just borrowed”

– The Streets

Key Learnings:

  • Don’t worry about failing. Be honest about what went wrong, work out how to improve and then move on.
  • If you want to grow your business, try doing things that don’t scale.
  • Never stop investing in learning, whether that’s time, money or both.
  • Stop waiting and go do whatever it is you’re interested in.