Frugal Living: How do you start a successful business?
What does it take to start a successful business? Ted Lau, Owner and CEO of Ballistic Arts, joined Jim to discuss how he launched his business and grew it into a thriving digital marketing agency. You can listen to Frugal Living with Jim Markus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Anchor.fm, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
How do you start a successful business?
I originally reached out to Ted Lau to ask about email marketing, and our conversation starts there. We talked about why a business might collect emails and then moved into a conversation about how to start a successful business. Ted started his company out of the home, tenaciously found his first clients, and eventually grew into a position where he could invest in real estate as the agency grew.
This interview also discusses how to run a business during difficult financial times, notably during 2008, and how to leverage your strengths. The conversation covered several major business milestones. You can find Ted at Ballistic Arts or co-hosting Marketing News Canada.
Read a Transcript of This Episode
This is Frugal Living. I reached out to Ted because I was interested in a marketing expert’s opinion. And I found something much more valuable. Ted shared a story. He founded his own business and he shared some of the insights he learned along the way. Like some of our longer conversations, this will be split into two episodes. You’re listening to part one.
Hey everybody. My name is Ted Lau and I’m from Ballistic Arts, an award-winning lead-generation digital marketing agency. And I also co-host Marketing News Canada, a national podcast for all things advertising, communications, and marketing.
Over the past 10 years, it seems like I’m getting emails from all sorts of places that I don’t remember signing up for. Why does everyone have my email address?
Well, I mean, that’s a long-ended question or a short question with a long answer. I think everyone has your email address for a number of reasons. I mean, you know, we use our email addresses synonymously for things like, you know, when we sign into Google or we sign into Facebook. And, you know, advertisers are able to creep this and bots have that and whatnot. A lot of times, yes, we do sign in for our emails, like for email subscriptions. But there’s some unfair players out there that do get your, your email. And sometimes when you sign on and, say, you know, for a larger company that you accept their terms and conditions that, that’s, like, that 200-page terms and conditions, there is probably a clause in there somewhere that says, “Hey, we can use this and share it with our partners for, you know, blah, blah confidential reasons or whatnot.” And I think eventually, you know, your, your email will make its way out into that atmosphere.
My wife will do something very sneaky where she has multiple emails for multiple things. And so she’ll sign up and do her shopping on some random email that actually, I, I don’t even know the email address. And she uses a number of them. And then she keeps her own personal emails pretty private. We don’t publish her email on, on our website. She’s our HR director. She’s my business partner as well. But yeah, so we don’t have that in public domain. So for me, my email is fricking everywhere. So yeah, I get, I get a ton of email. But I also am very mindful of making sure that I do take the time to unsubscribe from things because that can help. But I think once it’s out there, especially if it’s in some, you know, offshore China, Vietnam, Russia, I don’t know, Belarus domain, then, you know, unfortunately that, that email is probably gonna stay around in some marketer’s, spam marketer’s list for some time.
I think you’re totally right. Once you’re in a database, it’s there forever. There’s no taking it out. The reason I wanted to bring that to you though, you’ve got a very unique experience with this. Like, because your firm does lead generation, you understand probably the number one, number two through number 10 way that people gather emails. Because emails, in a lot of cases, are leads. You give your email address to a company when you’re like, “Hey, I like your site. I wanna know more about you” or “I wanna log in. Here’s my information.” How do I get people to understand that they’re giving away their information for free for things they don’t wanna hear about.
With regards to, you know, your audience who are regular consumers, I think it is imperative that they think a little bit about, you know, who’s behind all this. Now, at the end of the day, you could do what my wife does, right? She is very good at just gaming this system, you know, where she’ll, “Okay, yeah, I’ll, I’ll sign up for your free whatever even though it doesn’t really matter to me.” And she will have an email that is specifically for filling in for these contests, and, you know… I don’t know if you know who Jillian Harris is, but she, she’s a celebrity in her own right. And my wife signs up for all sorts of Jillian Harris-related goods. I’m positive she doesn’t use the company address or even her second or third email address. So if you’re able to keep track of that and you, you know, you’re someone that still wants to get all this free swag and stuff, then do it. You just gotta be mindful. Like, you know, why are they doing this? There’s no free lunch, right? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. So if you’re giving this information away, realize that because we live in the information age. And information is power and the information that they’re grabbing is our information.
And so you gotta think that company that’s looking to, to grab information, they’re gonna try to get it as free as possible. And you’re the way. You being the consumer, you know, you’re that free data. So the moment, you know, you sign up for something, you go into their database, and, and they track all, you know, kind of, like, your different activities and stuff. And this is why if you sign in using Google, your Gmail, right? Well, everything you do, not just SEO, like, everything you do, Google knows your behaviors and whatnot. And in turn, they are, you know, selling it back to advertisers like myself, marketers like ourselves. There’s gonna be ethical companies and there’s good players and bad players. And I think you gotta be mindful of the traffic that you use. Like, you know, what websites are you going to when you’re signing on? So, you know, you’re using your regular, everyday Gmail that use for everything. And then you’re going to certain, you know, garbage-type websites. Or, you know, you’re surfing things that maybe you wouldn’t be proud of if your, your kid or grandma saw you, you know, surfing. Well, that’s gonna get, you know, caught up into your tracking that these, these platforms have.
And so you just gotta be mindful of it because every time you go to a particular site, if you’re logged in, you know, under, you know, email@example.com. And there are, uh, websites that are dropping what’s called cookies onto your device. Well, they’re gonna be able to track where you’re going on the internet in that journey under your firstname.lastname@example.org. So just be mindful if, if you’re gonna surf and you’re really wanting to surf on thing–And I think a lot of your listeners are probably pretty savvy on this. At least use the incognito mode or something like that. So they’re not gonna track you for, for a lot of that kinda stuff. Or you can use some VPN blockers. A lot of people do those kinds of things as well. Ultimately, you know, we’re all trying our best in, in this world of information. So you just gotta be savvy about what you’re doing. You know, on our side as marketers, it, it doesn’t work for us to have a bunch of unusable data either. So for us, you know, our team is very, very precise as to who we’re tracking so that we don’t, you know, waste our clients’ dollars. And, you know, we provide relevant content to people, not just garbage that, you know, floats out there and it doesn’t do anybody any favors.
This episode, as always, was brought to you by Brad’s Deals. There’s a community of people here scouring the web for the best deals on everything. The site is B R A D S D E A L S.com. One trick for deal hunters: You can sign up for the Brad’s Deals newsletter. That way, you’ll have a better chance of snagging something stellar before it sells out. Thanks for listening. Kind of a recurring theme from a lot of our episodes is: If you’re getting something for free, ask why. You know, like, what is the real price you’re paying? Is the price your data? Is the price your privacy? Mint is great.
Mint is a good example. Useful service, but you need to understand and weigh whether that’s worth it for you. Or, like your wife does, you know, are you using a separate email where you can say, “Okay, this is my Intuit email address where anything I do that’s Intuit-related has that specific email address.” And if I get marketed to that email address, I’ve known they sold the information and I can track that back to them, which is useful. So this leads me to much more interesting topics. You have a really interesting story, a really fun story. You started your own business. You are the CEO and founder of Ballistic Arts. Can you tell me about starting a business? Where did you begin?
Yeah, I mean, I’m glad that someone like yourself thinks it’s an interesting story. For me, sometimes on Marketing News Canada, I interview a lot of very adventurous people like, you know, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, you know, who was a crash test pilot before he became an astronaut. And he had to work in Russia first because there was at the time you can’t be an astronaut if you’re Canadian ’cause there was no Canadian space program. Anyway, all this kinda stuff. And I’ve, I’ve met, you know, the CMO of Peloton and the former CMO of Bumble and stuff like that. And, and so they have, you know, crazy, very interesting stories. And I’m humbled that you think that I have an interesting story too. I mean Ballistic Arts. Yeah, it’s my agency.
Yeah, I started this, well, it’s 20 years ago in June. So I, uh, I started that in the room above my parents’ garage. I actually… What I wanted to do, I came outta, uh, kind of, you know, university wanting to be a documentary filmmaker and very shortly thereafter realizing that, well, you can’t make money being a documentary filmmaker. And it didn’t really help that, you know, 9/11 had just happened, you know, six-ish months prior. And so all my friends that were in the film industry, you know, they were like, “Oh Ted, come on. You know, we’ll film, we’ll make tons of money doing film and all”– And then all of a sudden they have no jobs. I certainly couldn’t get a job. And, uh, I just started freelancing. I started, you know, “Okay, well, what can I do?” And, and, you know, I think as an, uh, child of an immigrant family, we’re blessed with the fact that, you know, my mom was like, “Yeah, you could live here ’til you’re 40.” And I’m like, “Ummm, I’m not really sure I wanna do that.” But, you know, we, I had the safety of home and shelter. They weren’t booting me out of the house right after school kind of thing. And so it gave me an opportunity to, you know, explore, you know, running my own show, running my own business.
At the time it was just I wanted to see who could hire me to film something for them. You know, this is back in the day, though, of VHS and DVDs. Like, I remember, like, duplicating DVDs one at a time. And DVDs, blank DVDs were, like, $15 a pop or something like that. And, you know, I was knocking on doors. Just, like, I was trying to figure out how to make a go of it. And you know, cold calling, knocking on doors of, like, restaurants and mom and pa shops. I was, you know, using the Yellow Pages–I had to, I was actually telling the story to my daughter last night. I was like, “Do you know what a phone book is?” She’s like, “Uh, it’s like a book with everyone’s numbers or something like that?” And I’m like, “Yeah, well, kind of.” And yes. And, you know, they would separate them into different categories and industries. And so today I’m gonna do restaurants, and tomorrow I’m gonna call, you know, pharmacies, and, you know, and Wednesday I’m gonna call dental offices. And so I would just call and call and call and be like, “Yo, do you need a, do you need a video?” And so I’d get granted a meeting.
And I’d get there and they’d be like, “Well actually we, we don’t need a video ’cause I don’t even have TVs in here. But I noticed that you did your own brochure. You know, I need menus for my restaurant. Can you, can you help me do that?” And you know, I was, like, 21 and, like, I need to eat. I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, of course I could do that.” You know, “How much?” And I just made a number on the spot. I’m like, “Oh, I was gonna cost you this.” I don’t know, like… And I had to go back and, you know, tell my–I had a partner at the time and I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t sell any video. Instead I got a brochure and so we’re gonna do brochures.” And then, you know, shortly thereafter, you know, websites were not going away. Then inside clients were calling, “Hey, this fad, you know, called websites? You know, you think I should get one? Like, I noticed that you, you built your own. You know, could, should I get one?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, absolutely you should.” And it was like, they’d be like, “Oh, well how much?” And I remember this one, I was like, “Oh, it’ll cost you a thousand dollars.” And I just, like, number out of the air. And, “Well, okay.” And I’m like, “Oh man, I don’t even know if I can do this for a thousand dollars, but we’re gonna do it.”
And, kinda, slowly grew the company from there. You know, we, for a number of years, probably for the first two, three years, we were in the room above my parents’ garage. And, and, in fact, my now wife, she was my girlfriend at the time. She was our first employee and people, including my business coach, were like, “Are you nuts? Like, you’re hiring your girlfriend? Are you crazy?” And, and I found that those that come from immigrant backgrounds, like, newly immigrated backgrounds, they think it’s a great thing. You know, having it, keeping it in the family or whatever it is. That, that’s fantastic. But anyone… I grew up, you know, here. And so growing up here, it’s, kind of, like, “Well why would I wanna work with my partner?” And so, either way, it worked out and we started growing. We ended up having a, we got married and, and turned our basement into a studio. And crammed, like, I think, like, six or seven people into my basement working. And we broke all these bylaws, city bylaws of, you know, everyone’s parking in front of our house and they’re working. It was, it was fun. It was, you know, we were in our twenties.
It was, it was great. And then we had our daughter. And my wife was just like, “Time to, time to leave.” And, you know, you know, getting space and, and, kinda growing it from there. And we, we actually were lucky enough to buy our first office space because I don’t like to pay rent for other people. And we were cognizant of that one day we’re gonna make that move. And then we grew into a bigger office a few years after that. And it, it’s been a fun ride. Like, we’ve had to, kind of, ebb and flow with the times when we first started. It was like anybody that could take us we were gonna do work for them. And then we got into the junior exploration, kind of, mining space. My business has actually had offices in Vancouver, Canada. And so there’s a large junior mining exploration contingency here. And so I had a friend whose dad runs one of these companies. And so we were doing a lot of work in that space. And then 2008 happened and the market crashed. And I remember having this client who I was chasing him for, like, money for, like, weeks and finally got a hold of him.
And he’s like, he’s like, “Ohhh yeah, come on, come on over. Uh, you know, I’ll, uh, I’ll, I’ll write you a check and you know…” And so we get there and, and he, but he was really good and he wrote me a check and he’s like, “You know, gimme a call on Monday and I’ll, we’ll, we’ll have more business then for you.” And so I’m like, “Okay, I gotta cash this check.” So I cashed the check and then I called him on Monday. Phones were dead. Like no phones, no nothing. I haven’t heard from this guy ever again. I don’t know where he went. But I was just like, yeah, I was just like, “Oh, thank, thank goodness that I actually got paid.” So that was really nice. And then, you know, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver happened. And so we were, we were extremely lucky and, and gotten into the real estate development marketing space. And we helped a lot of, you know, big developers here for about a decade, you know, market a lot of their properties and, and projects and whatnot. And it was really fun. And then, you know, three years ago or so I bought out my partner that I had. And, you know, we got into lead generation digital marketing.
And it was something that, you know, one of my clients actually had suggested, “Maybe, you know, you should get into, you know, social media marketing.” I’m like, “Why would you want me to do that? I hate social media. I’m not even on it. And, and there’s so many other companies out there doing it.” And he’s like, “Well, you know, Ted, you guys are really good at storytelling, creative storytelling. And a lot of these other companies, you know, they’re good at, like, the data and, like, you know, reaching people. But they always ask us for better content. And, you know, then we have to hire someone like you. So, like, it’d make my life a whole lot easier if you could do that.” And I, kind of, went away and I was like, “If I have to pay someone every month to do marketing for them…” ‘Cause we were doing creative at the time. I’m like, “You know, I damn well better actually have a return on it.” And so I went back to a couple of these clients and I said, “Hey, you know, what if I actually, you know, with this got you business, got you leads?” And I know it sounds kind of crazy that, you know, a lot of people would think, “Well of course this would happen.” But in marketing it’s actually a lot of companies do marketing for brand positioning and awareness. And a lot of the times for, especially for small businesspeople, it’s for ego. But the bottom line doesn’t really factor into it. They know they have to do it, but they don’t really, you know, weigh whether or not this is working.
So, so, you know, “What if I got you leads?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’d be fantastic.” But I had no idea how to do this, right? So, like, well we had a lot of turnover because I had changed the direction of the business. We had, like, 80% turnover. It was terrible. Like, you should, you guys should read my Glassdoor reviews. It’s hilarious. Like, this, you know, I changed, I changed the direction of the business and it was a tough time. But I ended up taking this, this course because none of my staff would want to do digital marketing at the staff at the time. So I ended up taking this course that I was gonna pay my staff to do. And in my, my final project, I just swapped the school’s logo with my client’s logo. And I pitched my client with this particular deck. And the client’s like, “Wow, that’s, that’s exactly what I was looking for! And I’m like, “Oh really? How much would you pay?” And this client’s like, “I’d pay,” and then, you, you know, “X dollars.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s exactly what we were gonna charge! Like, that’s fantastic!” And I think that’s the entrepreneurial thing where a lot of times, you know, you’re, you’re flying the plane while you’re building it. And that’s exactly what we did. We had half a body doing this, you know, new division on the side while running the main business. And we slowly grew over time and, you know, actually over COVID.
And I think we’re hiring our eighth or ninth person in that team. So it, it’s been a wild ride, a journey, you know, 20 years and, you know, being able to raise my family. And, and that’s really the most important thing is, like, just doing something that I wanted to do. I’m certifiably unemployable. That’s what I joke with my team on that, like, you know, no one’s ever gonna hire me and… But it’s just ultimately I didn’t wanna work for anybody. And I was willing to take a lot of the, the hard hits and some of ’em were harder than others, I’ll tell you that, to, to make it work. And you know, I have a supportive wife, partner, life partner, um, Marisa. She’s fantastic. And just been, you know, solid for me through this entire journey. We met in, in ’99. So our relationship actually is older than the business itself. But I mean, if it wasn’t for her, my parents, the great team that I have around me, I don’t think we’d be here 20 years later, so. And the clients, I guess the, you know, the supportive clients too.
Thanks to Ted Lau for sharing his time and insight during this interview. The episode was edited by Genny Blauvelt. I’m Jim Markus.
More about Frugal Living with Jim Markus
To hear more episodes about how to build a successful business, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living. Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season four, out now.