Digital Design Leadership: Matt Bertulli

by Richard Banfield

Matt Bertulli is familiar with facing and embracing the unknowns of business. Describing himself as “loosey goosey,” the CEO and Co-Founder of Demac Media takes a specialized approach to digital design by focusing on building digital commerce platforms for retailers. In this interview, he discusses all the ins and outs of his leadership style, as well as his striking ability to confidently face the unknown.

Hear from the other digital design leaders we interviewed

Transcript

Matt Bertulli: So, my name is Matt Bertulli, I’m the founder of Demac Media, or one of the founders of Demac Media. We effectively were a team of strategist, designers, and developers that focuses on, I guess, helping retailers and brands build e-commerce platform, or digital commerce platform. E-commerce is bad word now. So, we’ve been in business about five years, and largely design and– Half design, half development.

Richard Banfield: Great. Tell us a little about your journey in this particular business. Was it your idea? How did you get together with your partners, and where did it go from there?

Matt Bertulli: Sure, yes. So, I left company called Netsuite just after we went public, late, but two days actually after we went public. And I was working in their presale engineering team. So, I knew I wanted to start a business, I come form a family of business owners, largely in the retail. Didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that… You know, my background is development, my wife is a designer, my partner is a developer. And none of us had any experience sales, like the front office of how to run one of these things. So, I took a job in NetSuite in presale engineering knowing that at some point, you know, I’m gonna, I wanna do this myself. So, we went public, left the business and start Demac. Did it on my own at first, ’cause I didn’t have a business plan. Like we actually didn’t know what we wanted to be. So, what we are now is like not even close to what we started as. But I just like saw kind of a market, like a market evolving. Particularly Canada, you know, e-commerce here is probably six or seven years behind the States. So, we started with this idea that we’re gonna do something in e-commerce. We’re not sure what, but we got a pretty big network of people we know, we know a lot of like industry folks, lot of good talent, great designers, great developers.We’ll figure it out, right? And that was the business plan. It was like one line. We’re gonna do something–

Richard Banfield: So, there’s no formal business plan?

Matt Bertulli: No. There still isn’t. It’s an Evernote document that– I don’t even gonna call it documents, but it’s like, we change it every year. So, I’ve got like a new one each year that kinda just evolves.

Richard Banfield: So, what’s in the document? Is there any kinda direction in there? It must have some kind of–

Matt Bertulli: Yeah. I mean, we break it up in like the various like parts of the business, right? So, there’s like a high level strategy of where we’re going as a company.

Richard Banfield: And where is that strategy come from? How do you figure that out?

Matt Bertulli: Oh. Customers. Like that’s… It’s… The simplest thing that we know how to do is we’ve got a really good relationship with about 15 or so of our best customers. We’ve known them for years. And we talk to them regularly. So, based on a lot of discussion we have with them. That’s pretty much what my job has evolved into. Now, is like all I do is talk to our best accounts. I just try to figure out what are the, you know, what do they see in their business. Then we take that and we kinda like distill it down into what would we like to focus on. This is business, like we’re pretty narrow in what we do. Like we say e-commerce, we say design and development, like we only work with one platform. Now two, but like that’s six months. Now, we’ve had two platforms. So, we’ve– That focus is kinda limited what we can work on. We try and take as much customer feedback, come up with a high-level strategy and then in this document just basically like what we’re gonna do from a marketing perspective, sales perspective, operations and delivery process, how we structure the company. All comes from “what’s the next year gonna look like?”

Richard Banfield: Okay.

Matt Bertulli: We’ve actually for the first time ever that we’ve got sort of a five year forecasted plan now for the business. It’s just kind of weird, because we don’t actually know what that means. We just did it, and I’m like, “I don’t know what this thing is. So, let’s try.”

Richard Banfield: And when it comes to things that are less operational or say activity or task based, how do you give direction to the company at a philosophical or cultural level?

Matt Bertulli: Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. So, we’ve been like loosey goosey around culture. More just because it’s something that we’ve– I think we’ve done pretty well. I think first time ever we’ve just had one of our engineers tell us that he’s leaving the company. So, we’ve never lost anybody. Nobody has ever left. And he’s moving close to a home, he commutes way too much, like I’m totally supportive of the decision. So, culture to us just been that like we try to create an environment, or I try to create an environment, where like I just want to hang out with these people, right? So we always hire on, you know, like that personality first, I’m like, “Can I see myself having a beer with this guy or this girl?” And as a result we’ve naturally found ourselves really… like we’ve got four or five really anchored personalities here that I think like they represent what the company culture is. And they kinda carry it for us, right? We started with a small team, my partners and I. Now it’s our team that actually loses form, right? And that… So like the– You know, we do like some regular things like stand-ups, you know, I’m always talking to everybody as much as I can. But there’s no like defined methodology about how to communicate with the staff. It’s just, we all see each other a lot. So,let’s chat.

Richard Banfield: So, let’s talk about that for a little bit. The physical space that you have here is great. You are divided onto levels, but–

Matt Bertulli: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Tell us a little bit about how physical space works for you in terms of, you know, leading the company and making things work in the structure.

Matt Bertulli: Yes. So, we hate the two levels. That’s born strictly out of necessity. We outgrew the upstairs space. So, first we outgrew down here, then we outgrew upstairs, then we took over down here as we have both. And running now we’re kinda split. Like upstairs, as you’ve seen, is development, dev-ops, down here is all design front end. And, yeah, the two forests have now developed their own personalities, right? Like the developers are, they’re, they go out for their own kind of beers or they– So, it’s actually causing us more work to try and keep company as like one cohesive team and one unit. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to with finding new space, it’s finding one big floor where everybody can sit and be a team again. ‘Cause we were like that up until, you know, the last 12 months. So, that’s been… It’s now a challenge, having broad force.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. When it comes your style of leadership, you obviously pointed out that culture is loosey goosey, and that’s okay. But, in terms of your particular style of leisure, how would you describe that?

Matt Bertulli: So, when I’m– We’re looking to recruit someone here. I usually like to warn people, but I’m a really, really bad manager. I’m a particularly good leader. And by that, I like being the guy to kinda rally the troops and I’m generally pretty upbeat dude, and I’m very casual. So, like my style is, I just… I’m your buddy, right? Like we’ve got a pretty clear vision of what we wanna do with the business. And I think we do a good job of telling people where we’re going. We’re quite transparent as a company. I like to be as transparent as possible. Like tell people if we’re doing good or we’re doing bad. You know, if we’re working on like retailer developers and our designers like we were trying to-We’re gonna go out and like try and get business. We’ll get them involved in that process, like we’ll let them know do you have any interest in this kinda customer, right? And that’s more just ’cause I want people to feel like this inherent trust between like myself and my partners as the owners and us as team. Like I don’t want there to be a separation, right? We’re all kinda trying to do the same thing here and have fun with it. So, like transparency is really important to me, and I guess like the social aspect of it has been really important to me. So, leadership from that perspective like that’s kinda how we like to approach it.

Richard Banfield: So, your leisure of style sounds quite natural to you. Do you think it was always natural? Did it evolve? Was it something you learned?

Matt Bertulli: I think I learned it from my grandfather actually. So, he’s… Our family had a large like home decor design business. Born north in Ontario, and I grew up in that business. Like we didn’t had babysitters or day care kind of stuff. Like I basically grew up in that backroom or that office. So, I got to see kind of my grandfather, and my grandmother, and my parents, my brothers. We all grew up in an environment that was highly social with customers coming in all the time, like going out to strangers’ homes. Like my mother, so she could design something for them, it was very weird. So, it’s… the social side has always been pretty easy, just because of how I was raised. I think that having like staff, like people that work for you is really weird. I don’t know, I’m still not quite used to that. And I tell my mom all the time, “I don’t know how you did this.” Like, we’re five years in, and like I still find this strange. But, it’s fine. My grandmother, she just moved down here, and I was just talking to her recently. She had that business for like 40 years. She just still just shrugs it off. She’s like, “You’re never gonna know what the hell you’re doing.” Well, you’re never gonna have the feeling like you know what the hell you’re doing. So, I don’t know. I guess like leadership for me is a funny word. Like I think of it just in terms of like daily actions and like, you’re the leader, by sort of title or responsibility, but it’s not much difference.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. So, apart from your family are there other sources of guidance and maybe mentorship that you get– Yesterday you mentioned you have good relationship with another company.

Matt Bertulli: Yeah. Like the guys at TWG are, you know, they’re less than a mile from us. We’ve gotten closer over the last couple of years. And it’s, we all met– So, like Toronto has got a pretty decent, I’d say more than decent, great community of like digital shop start-ups, agencies. And we all kinda came up together. And, I met the TWG guys and whole bunch of other business owners at this thing here in Toronto we started Lee Coffee. So, when the whole like Lee methodology was coming out, and like Eric Greasen’s guys were, you know, becoming famous, there was a meet-up that was started like, “Let’s get together every Tuesday and have coffee.” It was like 10 of us or 12 of us that started this thing. We all kinda met that way and, you know, we still like every now and then we get together as a group of founders that started Lee Coffee. There’s like 400 members in this thing now in Toronto. That’s like twice a week and it’s still going. But it’s been– That support network has been crucial. ‘Cause we all didn’t know what we’re doing together. And we all still don’t know what we’re doing together. And we all kinda like, you know, Chris and I get together for lunch probably once every four or six weeks and we just sit here, it’s like “So, what did you learn this month?” And, you know, “What’s new for you?” So, like having those guys in that network has been good. We’ve been really fortunate that we’ve got a pretty decent group of sort of advisors that have been with us from the start.

Richard Banfield: Is that formal advisors or informal?

Matt Bertulli: It’s more informal. They’re– It’s kinda grown into friends now. And we meet socially probably more than we meet just for the point of business. But like good friend of ours, his name is Bernie– Wait.
[phone ringing]
[laughs]
Sorry.

Richard Banfield: Start that sentence again.

Matt Bertulli: Yeah. So, a good friend of ours, of Dimitri’s actually, now a friend of mine, his name is Bernie Lee. He was a former, a recovering venture capitalist. And his guys now own a solar power startup. And– But he is in VC side for 10 years, right? And he’s given us probably some of the most valuable advice that we could’ve gotten, just because of his perspective on startups in business. Like he was seeing, you know, hundreds of them, and what made them work and tick, and like how to be a decent founder and a good leader. Like that stuff, and even though he’s a finance nerd, that out of his perspective was like super valuable.

Richard Banfield: Where would you not go for advice?

Matt Bertulli: Uh… [laughs] That’s a good question. I don’t know. In our industry? I can only speak to our industry, ’cause I would just not, I would stay away from like, you know, payment companies, right? Like I wouldn’t get anything from– I’ve never gotten anything from them. I find like– I was learning something from somebody. So like… Give you an example. Friends of ours, like close family friends, run a very successful industrial cleaning and restoration business. They have for 30 years. So, nothing even remotely close to what we do. But I’ve still learned like really good things from his parents running that business over the years. So, I don’t know, like, there’s industries you wanna stay away from. So, I know in our particular vertical in commerce there’s certain types of companies that, there’s so many of them. It’s very hard to hear through the noise. Payments at once, like hundreds of payments coming. I don’t know who the leader is anymore. So, it’s tough. But like we pick up stuff from everybody, it’s just a matter of listening.

Richard Banfield: Yeah. So, when you think about what’s the next for Demac, and for our industry as a whole, how do you know where to point–
You just said you had this five year plan. How do you know where to point the business? What direction? What trend? What are you looking for as signals in this noise to give you guidance?

Matt Bertulli: There’s a few things that we’re always kinda looking for. I think the one that we’ve been having the most success with in the last year or so, is just when we actually have fun to work on. Like more focusing on that, like what’s gonna make us happy, what we’re gonna have a fun with rather than like what would be the best business opportunity, like where we’re gonna make the most money. And I think now that we start to think more about what kind of projects we wanna focus on, what kind of technologies do we wanna work with– Other platforms, right? We were so focused on Magento for so long that we just never really picked our head up. So like, “Is there anything else we kinda wanna play with?” And the guys were like, “Yeah, let’s try Shopify, like, let’s mess around with some CRM stuff for commerce.” So, I think we’re taking a lot of guidance now from our team and what they wanna do, and less and less on what we think is the best business opportunity. So, I think our plan now actually when I look at just a forecasted, you know, pineal and where we wanna derive revenue from for the next five years. A lot of it has to do with that as opposed to “I think we can do a lot with, you know, in-store tablets or something,” right? Like, maybe that’s not the best place for us to spend our time, but great opportunity, just not for us. So, I think it’s more that now.

Richard Banfield: Is that a functional effect that our industries also becoming more specialized and fragmented?

Matt Bertulli: I think so. Yeah, I definitely think so. I like it too. I like that the industry is getting– I think that the more specialized companies like ours get with more success they’re gonna find. And I think it’s actually good for the industry too, right?
To have more specialists less generalists. Get away from this concept like everything, like companies like ours just like, we’re all part of Wild West. I hear that all the time. Like, “You guys are just, like, we don’t know what the hell you even do.” So, I’m tired of hearing that. I think that the more we all specialize the better. You know, we can narrow our focus or our message and it becomes clear to the customer, it becomes clear to your team. You can rally people around that, you can get your customers to come and get around that. So, that, I think that’s– I’m big fan of specialization.

Richard Banfield: Right. Let’s talk a little bit about partnership. How many partners do you have?

Matt Bertulli: Yeah. So, legally it’s myself and my co-founder Dimitri. But my wife is actually creative director. So, legally in Canada, she has half of my ownership. So, the three of us actually started the business. And so the three of us are partners in the business.

Richard Banfield: And what’s your perspective on having partners, including new partners, finding partners? You know, just your perspectives on that.

Matt Bertulli: I… I actually… So, it was… So, I started the business, started on my own. I invited Dimitri to come and be my partner in the business, and along with Jen. Just because I could– I didn’t know that I wanted to do it alone. I don’t think it’s a matter of capability, whether you can or you can’t. I like people that own business. That are there with you through that sort of thick and thin, good or bad. It’s great to have that extra person that you got to talk to about like ownership level stuff. So, I would– And I get that question a lot, like “Do you think you should have co-owners?” I think you should. I think you should have somebody to share that journey with, like share the burden, right? I… Yeah… I don’t know. Sometimes I wish there was like– There’s definitely days where I would say, “God, I really don’t want any business partners today.” Like, “You guys are just pain in my ass today, ’cause you’re fighting me on something.”
But then, you know, the next day you’re like, it’s probably good that you, fought on matter, provide sort of a balance. Like, I’m a very optimistic individual, and Dimitri is very a realist, and, you know, he’ll shit all over anything. And that’s good, right? I’ve always got a million ideas, he comes along and he craps all over them. He says, “99% of it was bad. Let’s do that.” Alright. It’s nice to have that counterweight.

Richard Banfield: So, if you were to do the last five years over again, would you do things differently? Would you change anything?

Matt Bertulli: I would probably have been a bit aggressive early on. I think we’re–

Richard Banfield: In terms of growth or?

Matt Bertulli: In terms of growth and like, and confidence, right? And I think the confidence comes with experience and knowing that you can do it. But if, you know, hindsight being 20-20 I would definitely go a little faster. You know, some of our competitors went a lot faster than us. It’s not a necessarily a size thing, but it’s definitely like the type of work they were getting into. And there still is a fear in the business of taking on too big of a project, too big of a client, because we’ve never done it before. And it’s like there’s a question of “Can you do it? Can you do it well? And are you gonna enjoy it?” So, I think I would probably go on a little more on market, faster. Because there are the capabilities there, we’re all experience people, we just weren’t experienced at doing it for ourselves.

Richard Banfield: What’s your approach to growth in general? Do you see growth as a strategy or do you see it as being a consequence of other things you do?

Matt Bertulli: I think it’s a strategy for the next year. And then we’ve– Right now, we’re kind of in this “let’s see what we finish, you know, 2014.”

Richard Banfield: Does that mean you have an extra strategy in mind? Or is that just that you–

Matt Bertulli: No. We just kinda like the size of the business we are right now. I think there’s–

Richard Banfield: Which is what?

Matt Bertulli: We’re 33 people. And it’s nice. Like we still know everybody, right?
Like we know personal things with everybody. You know, we have holiday parties are the just the team events. Like their spouses come out and you can actually talk to them. There’s that feeling, I’m a little afraid of getting away from it if we’ve got too much bigger. I think we’re gonna definitely grow. I think the plan is to get about 40 or so this year, in similar roles that we’ve already got. So, just expanding the team a bit. But then I don’t know beyond that. I think then growth just might be a consequence of being in business. And in my opinion, being in business in demand far outweighs supply.

Richard Banfield: Right. So, going from 30 to 40 is a fairly significant jump?

Matt Bertulli: Yeah.

Richard Banfield: Twenty, twenty-five percent increase. What changes then for you as the leader? Like, what do you need to fill in terms of gaps to be able to run that kind of business?

Matt Bertulli: Yeah. So, I guess I’ve kinda been going through this exercise in the last couple months, trying to figure out like what is it that I’m doing right now that I’m not particularly good at. And I can probably bring in somebody who would like to do that and be very, like much, much better at that thing than I am. So, I’ve, you know, I’m trying to free up that kind of like “I’m not good at this work,” onto people that I think do a much better job of it, so that I can focus on things that I like to do. I like the human side of this business. I like dealing with our team, I like working with customers, I like the strategy of what we do. I think that the more I do that the better leader I am, right? And for a lot of reasons, right? When you’re doing something you like you’re in great mood and everything is good, and when you’re doing something you don’t like you just wanna put your put your head through a screen. So, I think if you do need to focus more on that stuff is probably a good thing for everybody here. You know, we’re always doing that.

Richard Banfield:  We’ve heard from a lot of guys we’ve spoken to about those leadership changes that it’s sometimes hard for some people to make those changes and you’ve evolved from being technically good at something to being the leader or the entrepreneur in the organization. So, tell us a little bit about how you’ve evolved, because still you’re on that path. You’ve gone from just being a technically comfortable person to somebody running an increasingly large business. How do you make those adjustments personally? Like, how do you change your, the way you are in order to be a different person?

Matt Bertulli: I think the biggest one is fear, right? For me, there’s always a fear like the more I become the leader and the entrepreneur in the like, out of sort of operational side, like being on things all the time, there’s– I’m always afraid– My biggest fear is that people would not know I do. And they won’t know like what’s your value to the business. Like, “Why are you here?” Like I don’t ever wanna, I don’t wanna ever hear that question. So, I think, as the business is growing my role has evolved. That’s like my biggest worry, is that like team has just no idea what the hell is that the dude written in back does, right? So, I think getting that over that. Every time I like to take a part of what I do and give it to someone else, like let go of that thing. As hard as that is to trust someone, especially if like we’re in critical business things, it just comes down to that fear. Like, you’re asking another person how to take on more your responsibility. So, I’ve always got this fear of like “Am I gonna become the unknown guy in the company?” I don’t wanna do that, so… But I think you kinda, you know, being a leader is a full-time job. Like, being the vision directions and steering a ship. That is a job. But it is a hard– I think it’s a hard job to describe to anybody who has not done it.

Richard Banfield: Right. Matt, thanks for your time. This has been awesome. Really appreciate it.

Matt Bertulli: Cool. No problem, guys.

About Richard Banfield

Richard is a the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil. After completing a degree in Biology, Richard was attracted to the...