As of January 16th, 2022, Bluetrain is celebrating 15 years of business! So much has changed since 2007, and as we reflect back on both challenges and triumphs, we thought we’d share some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years.

President and Founder of Bluetrain, Bryan Smith, shares his insights after 15 years of running a business, supplemented with gems from a few of our longstanding Bluetrainers.

1. Be yourself. (Bryan)

It’s a challenge at times not to look at the market and just copy what everyone else is doing. However, looking back over the years, we have resisted that urge and stayed true to ourselves. We have had remote team members since 2007, we have been cloud-based since 2007, we have fought to remain balanced since inception, and we have stayed focused on only digital marketing. Over 15 years, all of these aspects have been viewed by others (prospects, peers, advisors, etc.) at some point in time as either negatives and/or weaknesses. 

What’s that saying… “Who’s laughing now?” —admittedly a bit over-the-top, but the point being  — be yourself!

2. Have fun! (Bryan)

The one thing we all have in common is we need to make a living (unfortunately it costs money for those coffees, SkipTheDishes orders, and our Netflix subscription!). Since we all have to work anyway, we might as well try and enjoy it at the same time. I realize this can’t be 24/7 and there are going to be times we’re swamped in a season and/or stressed with a deadline, but the point is to pop your head out of the sand and remember to have some laughs with your team, enjoy moments with your customers/partners, and simply be silly at times—together.

Some of our best Bluetrain memories are around activities like fencing, climbing, volunteering; or supporting live/work abroad experiences for team members such as Australia, Colombia, Scotland and more. Enjoy the journey!

Action shot from our Team Retreat in 2017 at the Snow Valley Aerial Park!
3. Never ask your SEO a question if you don’t want “It depends,” as an answer. (Terri)

Because the answer is legitimately almost always ‘It depends’. Doesn’t matter if you’re talking about your favourite ice cream flavours or directives in a robots.txt — it always just ‘depends’ (usually accompanied by a *shrugging emoji*).

4. Have a good luck charm. (Bryan)

When your toddler nephew gives you a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train when you start a business, hold on to it! It’s just possible there’s some magic in that special gesture and it’s the only reason for your company’s success. (and no, our name has nothing to do with a toy train.) 😉

5. Never stop learning and trying new techniques. (Kathy & Andrei)

In this industry, change is a constant. Not only are the platforms on which we work constantly evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of consumers, but so are the strategies and practices required to excel on those platforms. Even down to the nitty gritty details, we approach our work like a feedback loop, constantly learning and using the data to adjust as we move forward. We could go on, but the point is what you know now as your reality will be very different in a few years and dramatically different in ten. (Fun fact: Amazingly, when Bryan graduated University both Facebook and YouTube did not exist, how’s that for change!)

6. Expect the unexpected. (Bryan)

Yes, no matter how well we plan, $#!+ happens! That doesn’t mean don’t plan, but instead plan to be flexible and open to adjust course. These changes may come from team members (babies, health, opportunities), clients and partners (contact changes, financial challenges, growth/mergers), or those fun external macro events that you have no control over (financial crash, oil price, COVID).

So let’s just all give ourselves a break, it’s not just happening to one of us, we’re all in this together. Take that moment you need, play with your fidget, and let’s all get back out there and enjoy the ride on this crazy wave! (Too cheesy? Oh well, that’s what too much time isolating does. 😉)

7. Celebrate Your Wins! (Matt)

We’ve done some great things with great people. Whether that’s helping UNICEF Canada drive well over 6K in online donations in 30 days for the Haiti earthquake, or receiving a Digital Alberta Ember Award for the team’s amazing analytics dashboarding work with EPCOR, don’t forget to take a step back and enjoy those moments.

As Canadians we can sometimes be overly humble and I know at Bluetrain we’re definitely guilty of not shouting from the rooftops enough about our achievements — so remember to ‘Celebrate Your Wins’!

Our mission, inscribed on the wall of our boardroom.
8. Communicate. (Ciprian)

It seems obvious, but in any relationship—professional or personal—there is almost always an instance where good communication falls to the wayside. Maybe it’s the human condition, but communication will always be an avenue that requires intention and dedicated practice. Through transitions, setting expectations, providing feedback, or simply giving updates, it never hurts to over-communicate. 

9. Family is everything. (Bryan)

This may be a cliché statement, but when running a business for 15 years you see the truth in this over and over again. First my amazing wife, who not only enabled me to start Bluetrain full-time, from scratch, with zero clients, because she was working and willing to live frugally for multiple years, but also was the company’s first Bookkeeper (passing a CRA audit with flying colours!). 

My Mom then became our next Bookkeeper in 2010 (when baby #2 arrived), and was a rock keeping us financially strong until retiring five years ago (yes, our team still craves her baking). My sister joined Bluetrain in 2011, and was a key leadership team member through a lot of change and growth into 2018. My oldest sister hasn’t worked at Bluetrain (yet!) but to her credit, she not only has advised on multiple HR questions over the years, my brother-in-law’s company was one of my earliest clients. My Dad has been a wealth of accounting knowledge and I will always cherish our breakfast meetings to finally learn the value of budgeting rather than just trying to outsell any challenges. 

Lastly, the Bluetrain family — not only do we have both siblings and spouses that work on our team, we have always viewed everyone as family, which has taken on an even deeper meaning over the last two years. Whether actively on the Bluetrain team or pursuing that next career path opportunity, once a Bluetrainer, always a Bluetrainer.

Bryan and his sister, Shauna.
10. You can go on that well deserved vacation—there is always someone to back you up. (Ciprian)

Don’t fear taking time to enjoy life with family and friends. Trust that capable hands can handle things while you’re away. Plus, you’re more effective to your team if you’re recharged!

11. Don’t date yourself. (Bryan)

One crucial lesson was to never hold a laptop in a picture, as it will look extremely old, extremely fast! Just look at that clunker! My shoulder is still recovering from carrying that bag to meetings…yes, I realize the whole outfit doesn’t look so hot either!

12. Content is ‘still’ King. (Bryan)

I recall at Bluetrain’s 5 year Anniversary party, we ordered some custom M&M’s, which included little phrases that we’ve always said at Bluetrain, one of them being “We Need More Content!” Amazingly, 10 years later, probably one of the few things that continues to hold true for the digital marketing work we do is that we still need that content.

The form of content has evolved over time — such as going from mostly text to much more engagement with video, imagery, audio, gaming and more — but it’s still content. There is no shortcut; if you want to have success with SEO, social media, advertising, and marketing in general, then there needs to be the will/effort/resources towards creating quality content that users love (and yes, that search engines love too).

Do you think they’re still edible?
13. Try to be the best—for you, for the company, and for your clients. (Ciprian)

We are constantly aiming to grow as individuals and that translates to growth within the company. We encourage education as a lifelong pursuit. We emphasize trust within our team. We prioritize quality and hold ourselves and our team members to high standards. That doesn’t mean we don’t have fun, we just believe that bringing your best self to the table means positive results for the company and our clients.

14. The office is where the heart is. (Bryan)

Fun Fact! I’ve had the same desk for all 15 years. Purchased from Staples, the desk has not been changed, even when new furniture was purchased office-wide for the new location. The lesson here—and no, it’s not about my taste in office decor—is that there’s no need to over-value location, furniture, or equipment. What truly matters are the people, their skills, and the resources to do quality work. 

This has only become increasingly true during the pandemic, where most of our team transitioned to remote work. We also expanded our hiring pool across Canada (not including Bluetrain veterans Ciprian and Andrei leading the charge in Europe). The office is more than a place, it’s something we embody every day by prioritizing connections and support across the team — shout out to our Remote Culture Club for helping us do just that!

From left to right, the desk circa 2007-09, and the desk in all it’s glory, today!
15. Build a support network. (Bryan)

You can try and go it alone, but you will miss out on valuable shared experiences gained from building a support network. This holds true from being a student all the way to being a business owner or executive. Finding both mentors and peer groups to lean on, learn from, and share your own experiences with drives massive value.

I was lucky enough to join EO Accelerator in 2012 and then graduated to EO Edmonton in 2016, and can honestly say both the peer relationships and education I have received have driven constant change in both me as an individual and Bluetrain over the last decade. The entire business system we follow today was initially introduced by an EO speaker, multiple templates shared amongst peers, and so many challenging issues talked through with sincere empathy.

If you’re truly serious about growth for yourself and/or your business, start building that support network in whatever form fits you best.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is one of gratitude. To our clients, partners, friends, family, and fellow Bluetrainers, thank you for leading us to where we are today. We couldn’t have done it without you.