How being sincerely passionate can make all the difference

People who know me even a little bit, could tell you that I don’t like to be in the picture and that I don’t like to talk about myself a lot. Hell, I don’t even give birthday parties.

But with 2015 coming to an end, I started looking back at the past year. And the years before that. When thinking about it, I didn’t always make the easiest choices on a professional level. I hardly ever took the easy way, but always the way that I felt was right. I trusted my gut feeling more than once. I made a lot of friends (and probably some foes) along the way. I had the luck of getting to know a lot of interesting, clever and fun people. And I wouldn’t be where I am today, without some of those same people.

So I wanted to take the rare opportunity of me having a few hours to spare to write down my story. Why?

  • Writing this down makes me realize that I’m not doing awfully bad and should be more grateful about it
  • I want to thank the people who helped me along the way, something I didn’t always do at the time (or didn’t realize at the time)
  • I want to share some of the mistakes I made along the way, so maybe you can avoid them
  • I want to inspire people that are having a hard time chasing their dream or passion. Even if it’s only 1 person who decides to take action after reading this, it’s enough.
  • I want you to know that with the right dedication and passion, a lot can be achieved

A bit cheesy? Yes, maybe. But hey, it’s my story. And it’s my blogpost which you don’t have to read if you don’t want to, right?

The question that I get a lot is how it’s possible that I’ve been working in (digital) marketing for over 7 years, while I’m only 27? Well, that’s because I never went to college or university. Yep, that’s right. When I was 17, my mom got terminally ill, passing away when I was 18. This made me really think about what I wanted to do with my life. And the idea of spending 3–4 more years at school to just get a (in my eyes) worthless piece of paper, wasn’t exactly my top priority at that moment.

So… I started working just after I graduated from high school. My very first job was as a webmaster at a small web agency in Ghent. Despite being rather small in size, we worked on quite some interesting big projects, mostly as a subcontractor. My role there could be described as: Jack of all trades, master of none. I basically did everything. Designing in Photoshop, Drupal configuration, basic PHP programming, sending out email newsletters, content migration (translation: copy pasting) etc.. While mostly working on client projects, I also worked as an on-site consultant for specific clients. Most of the time this was not very challenging or even dirty work that they wanted to outsource. I also didn’t make a whole lot of money. But looking back at it, it was a good experience that made me humble and respectful towards anyone’s job. No matter their place on the corporate ladder.

And then something happened that would have a huge impact on my future career. I got fired. The company didn’t do very well and out of the 3 webmasters, only 1 could stay. And that person also had to work fulltime as a PHP developer, instead of allround webmaster (as we were used to). And it was pretty clear that I wasn’t the best choice for the job. What I didn’t know back then, was that this moment would become one of the best things that ever happened to me.

So there I was. 20 years old, with little experience and without a proven track record, looking for a new job in an increasingly competitive market. But in my last months at the web agency, another seemingly random event would later become a turning point in my life. I got an SEO training from one of the pioneers in Belgium at that time. Fun fact: he got out of the industry a few years ago and is now running a speed-dating company. The thing is, that workshop inspired me. I thought it was really interesting to try to understand how the Google search algorithm works and how you can make your website rank higher.

So when I saw a job opportunity at an online marketing agency in Ghent that was looking for a junior SEO marketeer, I applied without much expectations. And then I got surprised.. After 2 (apparently) successful interviews, I got hired! This is where I would like to thank Marnik D’hoore & Gerd De Loor, for giving me the chance to prove myself back then.

But of course, I still had a lot to learn. A 4-hour workshop doesn’t make you a skilled SEO marketeer. And that’s where the next 2 people come in the picture. I had the luck of being coached & mentored by Edwin Kersten and Pieter Verbeke. I will never forget that Pieter made me do my first keyword research 7 times over again, just until it was perfect. As of today, I’m still not sure if he did that on purpose. If it wasn’t for these guys, I probably would have never made it this far.

And this is where the passion comes in… Being new in the field and in a fast pacing environment, knowledge was key. Being mentored is one thing, but it only gets you that far. So every single day after coming home from work, I started to educate myself further. 2–4 hours a day, I read countless blog posts from every single industry expert that you can imagine. Not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was sincerely interested in the topic and I wanted to know everything there was to know about it.

I started setting up dummy websites to test a random SEO hypothesis and to game the Google algorithms. So instead of reading about it from other people, I started to test it out for myself with the limited resources that I had at the moment. And after that, I started to create real websites. Local communities, forums, made for Adsense website, affiliate websites, etc.. Nothing even close to shocking or impressive, but these were the projects where I actually learned the most from.

If there’s anything that I’ve learned after all those years in the (digital) marketing industry, I’m sure about one thing. People who claim to be passionate about digital marketing but don’t have a side project of their own, are simply lying. I’m not saying that it’s impossible that they’re pretty good, but they will never be excellent at it. Nope, never. Why? Because they’re not fully passionate about it. It’s never been easier to have your own blog or webshop. You could have a website up and running within 2 hours, without spending a dollar.

Sure, not everyone has a lot of spare time. But everyone should be able to set up a simple Wordpress blog and experiment a bit. Even if it’s just a travel blog, or about sports, or about marketing, or food… Skip 3 lunch breaks at the office and you’re done. There’s no traffic jam along the extra mile.

The project that I’m probably most proud of until today is a perfect example of this. A couple of months after I started as an online marketeer, one of my senior colleagues left and I got to manage the Adwords account of one of our biggest clients at the moment (and at the same time, my first account Adwords account ever). I was told to just keep on doing whatever she was doing, optimize in the same way, etc.. But what I saw didn’t made much sense to me. Weird account setup, strange bidding strategy, .. I read a lot of articles and forums topics about managing Google Adwords campaigns and those best practices didn’t match with what I saw. So instead of continuing her efforts, I deleted everything and just started over from scratch, without telling anyone.

The results: instead of spending 15K and generating 600–700K in monthly ecommerce revenue, we went to a monthly spend of €12K and roughly €1.2 MIO of recurring revenue. Not bad for a first Google Adwords campaign, right?

My point is: if I would have just assumed that what I was being told at that moment was the best thing to do, without asking myself much questions and keeping a passive attitude, the results wouldn’t been as good as they turned out to be. And I would have never had the guts to make the call to start all over again, if I didn’t feel confident enough after reading all of the global experts advice.

6 years have gone by since then. In those 6 years, I worked at 2 of the biggest digital agencies in Belgium. There have been several occasions where there was an opportunity to move up the corporate ladder for me and other colleagues. I’ve been so fortunate to have gotten that opportunity both times I applied for it. And I’m very sure that it wasn’t always because I was a so much better choice than my colleagues. But just because I was more passionate about the opportunity. I never cared much about titles or anything. I cared about the opportunities that the new job could give me to make a bigger difference. To help the company to make better and faster choices and take the digital marketing to a next level. To hire even better people. To achieve even better results for clients. For me, getting promoted was only the beginning, while for some others it was the end goal.

And that’s also one of the reasons that I joined Realo 2 months ago. Some people I talked to don’t understand why I made that choice. From a comfortable position with 12 direct reports, leading what has been awarded as the best digital marketing team of Belgium in 2015, to no direct reports in a new startup with everything to prove in a very competitive market. And with the sole ambition to become the nr 1 online real estate platform in Europe. But for me, this is the perfect opportunity to build a scalable (digital) marketing framework from the ground up. To help to build the perfect team. To prove that some of the old-school tactics that some marketeers and competitors take for granted can be greatly outperformed by quickly adapting to new channels and features. To work in a very agile way, without long development cycles and walls between marketing and IT. Without politics and long decision cycles. In probably the most passionate team that I ever encountered. And that wasn’t something I could do at an established agency that’s been around for 21 years. But more on the difference between working at an agency vs client-side in a next blog post.

In the long run, someone who is really passionate about digital marketing, will always win it from someone else. And winning can mean a lot of things. Getting that signed contract from a potential client. Getting that job offer. Convincing that excellent candidate to join your team instead of a competitor’s. Winning that award.

So even if you didn’t had the right education, even if you don’t have that proven track record yet, even if your team hasn’t worked on such big clients yet, …Just go for it. You miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. You would be surprised how far you’ll get by being sincerely passionate about what you (want to) do. It gets noticed and rewarded.

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