Interview with Ashley Baxter

Introduction

Many years ago when I first setup a Twitter account, Ashley Baxter was one of my first follows. Years later as I’ve got to know Ashley more and watched her progress in pursuing learning new skills I’m proud that she will be speaking at Industry. More so, I feel proud and privileged that Ashley was kind enough to sit down and intimately answer the questions in this interview where she talks about the passing away of her Father, the effect that this had on her life and what is next. Thanks, Ashley.

Where’d you grow up?

I grew up in Dunoon, a small peninsula in Argyll, Scotland. To reach any form of civilisation, I had to get a bus followed by a boat. It’s a fishbowl kind of place where everybody knows your business, and if you don’t leave by the time you’re 18, you’ll likely be stuck there for the rest of your life.

How did you get out? Did you go to school there?

I was contemplating finishing high school in 4th year just so I could leave Dunoon (I don’t know if it’s similar in England, but in Scotland you have 6 years of high school, only 4 of them mandatory), but I would have been just 15. My heart was set on music, yet I had teachers pulling me into classrooms and asking if I’d consider investing my time into something more academic. I didn’t listen to them, I followed my heart, and at 16 I went to college and studied music, drums as my first instrument. It was a big commute to college (and I hated those boats in winter), so at 17 I moved to Glasgow.

You know, to this day it really bugs me that teachers were trying to talk me into changing my mind about music. Most kids go into school every day as drones, but I was genuinely passionate about something and so hungry for it to be a big part of my life. Instead of recognising this and encouraging it, I was made to feel I was doing something wrong because I showed a bit of potential in the more academic subjects.

What happened to you when you reached Glasgow as you were only 17, were you by yourself and what happened next?

I was in my final year at college, living a typical student lifestyle and playing in a band, regularly gigging around Glasgow. At this point my life began to take a detour. My dad fell ill, and — while it was never announced in black and white — I knew he was dying. I also knew he had about a year to live. I just knew. So, I gave up every afternoon in college to be by his side in the hospital. For this reason I missed a lot of college, including exams. Not once do I regret that decision. Not once.

It was during my dad’s illness that I asked him to train me up on the family insurance business, Brokers Direct (he was in and out of hospital, so was still running as much of his business as he could). While he was thrilled at the idea of including me in the business, and possibly passing it onto me, he never did train me. Instead he’d throw random jobs at me to complete and I never really learned anything. Just a few weeks after I’d wrapped up college, he died.

How old were you and how did you cope with the situation with just leaving college, being ‘in mid-training’? How did you become an employee of Brokers Direct, and why? Was it something that you wanted to do even though you were so heavily involved with your music?

I was 18 at that point. It was all very surreal. I was in the office the next day, making sure things were ticking along as they should be, and I returned the day after, and so on.

Not long before my dad died, he told me to look after my mum, and that became of the greatest importance to me. I moved in with her, pressed pause on my life in Glasgow, and swooped in with the business (not very successfully), but I didn’t greave. I didn’t want my mum to see me upset, I wanted to be her rock. In hindsight, that was the worst thing I could have done.

The business made me feel closer to my dad, but I hated every minute of it. I had become one of those people I said I never would; the living for the weekend type. Although I think I work quite well when left to my own device to just do stuff, I was 18 and very inexperienced, naive, with little self confidence and nobody to learn from. I had to learn new skills immediately, like HTML, CSS and managing the websites, SEO (SEO was still about keywords back then!) etc. I still have the email I sent to my agents, which basically said,

“Look, I know there’s an 18 year old kid in charge of this business now, but you have to believe in me, because I know I can do this.”

As for music, my fire for that had burned out long before my dad had died. Whether it was down to his illness, or something I had just grown out of, I do not know. But the passion was gone. In fact, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t passionate about anything. That frightened me.

What did you hate about the business? What wasn’t successful? How many websites were you managing and what were you specifically doing?

You have to understand that, while I enjoy my job now, I had come into it as a result of something bad, and it had happened very much overnight. Music was at the core of my identity and I felt like a musician, yet — all of a sudden — I had become an insurance saleswoman. It just wasn’t me.

As for what wasn’t successful, to come into the daily operation of running a business with no prior experience, it is naturally going to take a hit (not to mention that, at 18, I had no experience of buying the service I was selling!). But I think the biggest factor that let it down was my apprehension to change any of my dad’s work; to edit the content he’d written, to tweak the design, to change the direction. This was his work, his vision, and I was too sentimental and afraid to change it. Naturally, the business grew stale.

We had about 14 websites at the time, all of which were positioned very highly in Google. At that point, Google was responsible for most of our traffic, while these days everyone is flocking to the comparison websites, which is sad. We had also just released a new product for property owners, which was tricky for me to get to grips with. I pieced together enough information from my dad’s email archive to understand what it was.

Fortunately for me, I have a real thirst to learn. If someone presents me with a challenge, I feel an overwhelming sense of optimism that I can achieve it, whatever ‘it’ is. I flew to London and spent a few days with my agent’s in-house web designer. He showed me what CSS was, so that got the ball rolling with being able to build websites. There was enough educational content on the web regarding SEO, and that helped me get our sites back up the top of Google after their positions dramatically fell. I was reading every one of my dad’s work emails to see how he dealt with customers and other matters, which also gave me insight into where he saw the business going, and I had recordings of him answering calls when we handled the phones ourselves (nowadays we use our agent’s call centre). The latter two were perhaps the most educational, if only because they inspired me.

Now, that last paragraph wasn’t akin to those ludicrous 3 minute montages in movies, where the lead character begins to make sudden, abundant progress towards his goals. I did what I could to keep the business ticking along for years; things moved very slowly, and I still wasn’t particularly enjoying what I was doing.

Having spent a great deal of time looking at the competition and becoming more involved in managing the websites, I became increasingly passionate about the web. It was at that point I began to realise how backwards the insurance industry was, particularly from a technology standpoint. I figured that my age may not be such a disadvantage after all, that maybe this industry needed a fresh perspective.

What became your ‘role’ at the company? How did things progress over time as I also recall seeing your Rockers Delight website?

Roles are kind of obsolete in a small business, in my opinion. You wear many hats and get stuck into a bit of everything. I didn’t become Company Director until 4 years later, though, once I felt I had earned that title. But my role within the business wasn’t any different.

I think a big turning point for me (business wise) was 2009 when Sam Brown redesigned our website. It was a massive shift in direction, which made me feel that the business was becoming mine (because, despite a few years having passed, I still couldn’t shake the fact it was my dad’s business). It went down a treat, but my agents didn’t particularly like it. “It isn’t corporate enough.” Good!

Oh yeah, the video game thing. Okay, well this goes back to what I was saying earlier, about not greaving properly when my dad died, and how — in hindsight — putting on a brave face was the worst thing to do. I was pushing a lot of my emotion to a place I thought I wouldn’t have to face it, but in doing so my grief manifested in a different form; an anxiety disorder. I began having panic attacks, which took over my life for a period of time.

I had a panic attack in a car, on a boat, in a train etc, so I would no longer travel for fear of that happening again. I had a panic attack when out for dinner, so I stopped eating in public places. Basically, I cocooned myself into my house. This is how I got so heavily into video games, because I stopped socialising and my Xbox became my gateway to a social life. Seriously. How pathetic is that? But hey, I made Elite in Rainbow Six: Vegas and have the Mile High Club achievement in Call of Duty, so it wasn’t a total waste (I hope you detect my sarcasm).

I still love gaming, but just don’t have as much time on my hands to do it.

So for those 4 years, what were you doing within the company, how did things progress as SEO and online marketing have changed a lot even in recent years? You’re quite involved in the ‘web community’, travelling more and visiting conferences, have these helped you in what you do day to day?

We have quite a few websites, some targeting students, others targeting landlords, then a few that focus on the whole property insurance spectrum. My job was to build, market and manage these websites, get the visitors through the door and (hopefully) sell them a policy, and of course deal with any customer enquiries that came via the site. Obviously marketing covers a broad spectrum, but we’ve tried different approaches. In the beginning, knowing nothing about business, I made a major cock-up and spent £17,000 on advertising through the Yellow Pages. I’m ashamed to admit that, because nobody even uses the Yellow Pages anymore!

The SEO thing changed big time. We used to dominate Google, and even though we’ve still got high positions for the same keywords, everybody’s going to comparison sites. These sites have really changed the industry, and not in a good way. They’ve driven the prices of insurance right down, so the only companies making any money within insurance right now are the comparison sites. The industry is a bit damaged because of it. We tried liaising with one of the comparison sites, which is costly to get on and you’ll only make money from renewals 1 year on, so it’s harder to sustain when you’re a small business.

What happened to the panic attacks? Ach, I couldn’t even begin to condense 4 years into one paragraph. Honestly, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, because I never knew whether I was going to get better or if I’d be carrying this anxiety around with me for the rest of my life, which would suck pretty bad as I had no quality of life. It was always one step forward, two steps back. The best thing I did was get out of my serious relationship. That was kind of like whipping my security blanket away, and it forced me to have to start socialising again, which travel and eating out are a big part of.

The point that made me snap was when my sister, who lives in Edinburgh, called to say she had free tickets to see The Fratellis. I really enjoy one of their songs (Flathead), and I probably hadn’t socialised in about 6 weeks. I was desperate to interact with people and make some memories, but I was afraid of driving or getting on a train in fear of having a panic attack. So, I didn’t go. Instead, that night, I’d do the same thing I did every night and finish work then sit in front of my Xbox. The next day I worked up the courage to get on a train. It was only one stop, less than 5 minutes, but for me that was the beginning of my recovery.

Yeah, I always feel like a bit of a fraud at these conferences as I’m not a designer or developer. But, like I said earlier, when running a small business it’s financially not feasible to delegate everything, so I try to do as much of it myself — this includes building the websites. Plus, I get to meet so many talented people who are passionate about their work, and that’s probably the most important part. Recently, Paddy Donnelly did a stellar job designing a quote system I built, and I would never have struck up a relationship with him if I didn’t go to these conferences.

How has your role progressed over the years then? Are you still managing all of the websites?

Many of the sites are now defunct. It seemed a bit unnecessary with how the industry has changed over the years. I now channel most of my energy into Brokers Direct, but have kept a few others kicking about for experimental purposes. They still bring in revenue.

I’m mostly doing this on my own, but work with others on a freelance basis. Recently, more than ever, I’ve toyed with bringing somebody in full time to work alongside me. That may still happen, but after my recent visit to London for work it looks like I’ll be spending more time there. I’d be happy with that, as I think it’s time I’m regularly working with people as opposed to on my own. There comes a point where you stop growing when stuck in a routine for long enough.

You’ve recently been learning Ruby, how has that been for you?

Actually, I’ve been unsuccessfully chipping away at RoR for a long time. I found the learning curve to be quite steep, but that was likely because I was coming from a non-programming background. I heard people singing its praise because they got their web app up and running within one day, which sounds perfect, right? It didn’t work that way for me. The basics are simple to get down, but elaborating on the basics has been difficult. I’d still class myself as a n00b, but it’s helped having a specific product to build.

How did the project go with Paddy Donnelly, was it quite easy as you’ve worked with Matt Brett and Sam Brown in the past?

Working with Paddy was easy. Paddy designed the quote system prototype I took to London to demo. He’s very good at what he does, and it was his idea to calculate the quote in the sidebar so we could minimise another page in the process. He made smart design decisions, and the quote system wouldn’t be as good as it is if it weren’t for him. I really hope to roll the quote system out soon.

Do you see yourself with the company in the future? Or veering off in to a tech related role?

I definitely see myself with the company in the future, but I will be steering it into a more tech related field. I don’t want to rely solely on insurance for revenue, but monetise our existing user base doing something I’m passionate about (which happens to be software). Right now I’m building an app for landlords, which I can tie in with the insurance side of things quite easily.

You’re also a very keen and incredibly talented Photographer, is that not something you’d like to do more of?

Thanks, Gavin! Photography has become a bit more serious for me as of late, particularly in regards to shooting weddings. Friends started picking up the phone and asking if I’d photograph their wedding, then friends of friends started picking up the phone and asking if I’d photograph their wedding, and now I get enquiries from random people who have come across my work, or from a recommendation through the cake maker at a wedding I’ve shot etc. It’s really humbling, because I never picked up a camera with the intention of shooting for anyone else but myself.

Having said that, the answer would be no. I’m quite happy to take on a few weddings and jobs throughout the year, but I don’t currently aspire to be a professional photographer. It’s my hobby, something creative I can dive in and out of when it (mostly) suits me.

How do you find working by yourself from home? What’s your current hardware setup?

I have mixed feelings about working from home by myself, though this is a recent development. Six months ago I was very much pro working from home and pro spending a lot of time by myself. Now I’m thinking I’d like to experience the office environment and working alongside others, though when I pipe up and say this on Twitter, people zealously respond to tell me the grass is greener.

Right now I’m doing all my dev work on my 13”, mid-2010 MacBook Pro, which I recently fitted with a SSD and upgraded to 6GB of RAM. I do my photo editing on my 21”, mid-2010 iMac, which I’ve upgraded to 12GB of RAM. Both are running Mountain Lion. I like working with Apple products, but I’m not one of those people who have to have every latest Apple product.

Any thoughts on goals that you’d like to achieve in the next 5 to 10 years?

Whenever I attempt to plan something, life veers off in another direction and kicks me in the proverbial balls. I’ve learned to let it do its thing. I believe that if you do something you love to the very best of your ability, success will never be far off. So, my plan is to keep learning and doing the things I love and trying my best at them. I think it’s important to remember that happiness is a state of mind, and I can chase goals with the mindset of thinking I’d be complete when attaining them, but really, life is pretty sweet right now.

What does a typical day look like for Ashley? If there’s one piece of life advice you’d give to anyone reading this — what would it be and why?

I set my alarm for 7.30am and get my dog, Indie, walked and fed. I sit down at my computer at 8am and, if I have any photography work to do, that’s when I slot it in (i.e. editing wedding photos). At 9am I’ll jog to the gym and spend an hour there. Exercise is a really important part of my day, and should be for anyone. When I return home an hour later, I check my work email and deal with any customer enquiries or anything that’s arisen from there, and then log into our quote system to see how many quotes or purchased policies there were from the day before. After that I get stuck into the fun stuff. I usually pick one major task to work on for the day, which — most recently — has been developing software for landlords to manage their rental properties, but I’ll juggle it throughout the day with other odds and ends. I’ll generally tackle work until bed time unless I’ve made plans to, gasp, socialise with the world.

Oh, I can’t give one piece of life advice. I’m 25 and feel inexperienced at everything. All I can offer you is an unfiltered brain dump of what goes on in my head. Are you ready?

Life isn’t rocket science, so quit making it more complicated than it needs to be. Make the most of yourself; don’t get lazy with the way you look or the work you do or your relationships. Speaking of relationships, if it isn’t making your heart sing, move on. Whatever you do, don’t get complacent with life, it’s beautiful and really is all about the little things. If you can’t see that, you need a slap. Be in the moment more often. Dig deep. Above all else, just be a better version of you.

You’ve started taking working out pretty seriously. What do your workout’s consist of? What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Lots of deadlifts and squatting! I much prefer lifting weights to doing cardio, though many (uneducated) people raise an eyebrow when I tell them this as they think I’ll end up looking like one of the results in Google images for ‘women body builders’. That’s not going to happen.

I’m racking my brain about work-related situations I’ve been in that have proved risky. I’m pretty decisive when it comes to my career, though, that I know what I ultimately want and the steps I need to take to make it happen.

What’s a favourite song, movie and game?

Favourite song: I love the drums in How Many More Times by Led ZeppelinFavourite movie: Monsters, Inc.Favourite game: Lost Odyssey

What kind of little imprint do you want to leave on the world?

Not so much a little imprint on the world, but more so a little imprint on the insurance industry. I want to do something fresher in this industry — a field that’s typically saturated with stock images and corporate jargon — and do so with design at the core of my business. I’ll get there.

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