The first time I met Nick what impressed me most was his straight forward and cut throat approach to marketing. He's a rare marketing guy who rejects flash and instead focuses on the cash. Does a marketing effort pay back in leads? In sales? In measurable online ranking? It's this "show me the money" approach that has earned him a loyal following and a growing list of very happy and profitable clients.
While every marketing professional looks at analytics and results, Nick looks once, looks again and then turns every report upside down and looks deeper. He reads between the lines and questions all the angles to ensure every dollar a client spends on marketing delivers leads, sales or both. If it doesn't, he kicks that approach to the curb and attacks the problem in a new way.
As the Editor-in-Chief at Influence Magazine, I personally nominated Nick Fotache as one of our esteemed 100 Authorities. I chose Mike Ulmer, one of my most curious and brilliant Editors to sit down and conduct the interview. What we learned through the interview is how Nick came to be a master of marketing, a truly brilliant interpreter of data and of telling it like it is and a guy who really doesn't sugar coat anything. Not surprisingly, his story starts in childhood as all the best ones do...
How old were you when you left Romania for Canada?
I was seven. I was only a kid when my dad, Neculai, fled Romania in 1988 when it was still a Communist country. Yugoslavia was Communist as well but their border security was a lot more lax. You could take a day trip to Yugoslavia and then once you were there, you might just disappear, which is what my dad did. No one knew where he was. We have a pretty massive family, my dad had seven kids in his family, my mom had six. We had our version of the Gestapo, the secret police, in Romania. They interviewed my mom for hours but there wasn’t anything to tell them. She didn’t know what happened. It was a very scary thing.
When did you see him again?
About a year later. Communism collapsed. A few days after that he called and he said: ‘here's what's been going on.’ He had escaped to Austria to a refugee camp. You had a choice. You could apply for three countries that were taking refugees: Australia, Canada, and the U.S, Canada ended up being the first one that got back to him. He had been gone about a year and a half.
Do you remember the conditions in Romania?
Romania was trying to export everything it made so that it could eliminate all national debt. Plus, they were under the control of the Russian government. There were trains of food and resources leaving every day for Russia. For Romanians, there wasn't really a lot to go around. The only type of meat you could get was pig's feet, pig's head, chicken feet, chicken head. Nothing else.
Nothing in between?
Right. No in-between. There were little bits of rice and sugar. You’d have to wait in line for hours with a punch card to get your weekly ration from the government. People used to buy cough drops because they had a bit of sugar in them. That was candy for the kids. It tasted horrible.
What did your dad do in Canada?
He worked in forestry in British Columbia. It was a seasonal job. You cut trees to stop forest fires. We ended up driving all the way from Ontario to BC, four days across the country to Prince George.
Do you remember arriving in Canada?
The first thing I remember when we landed were those floral signs when you come into Toronto. There were names of companies in flowers. I thought, ‘that is so amazing.’ It felt like Canada was a theme park.
How long did you stay in British Columbia?
Just over a year. BC was nice. Everyone was warm and friendly. Then we moved to Hamilton where my dad had a steady job lined up and that was rough. We lived near Gibson and Barton Streets. You had kids coming to school with a bag of Doritos for lunch because their parents were crack addicts.
It was a rough school and a rough time for me.
Kids that grow up neglected tended to become bullies. The school was filled with them, and I was some immigrant kid who barely spoke English. Guess who they picked on everyday? We lived in a house where the guy above us was getting drunk all the time and getting high.
When you come from a country where there is no opportunity and you see somebody wasting their life away on drugs and alcohol, constantly complaining how hard life is and how he feels that the world somehow owes him something, it’s very irritating. We were coming from a place where they ate chicken feet because that’s all there was to buy.
That background must have instilled the importance of being independent.
You know how people put the quarter in the shopping cart at the grocery store to unlock the cart? When we were living in BC the grocery store we went to had one of those motorcycle arcade games in the lobby. It was only $0.50 to play, but my parents were poor and looking to save every penny. I was a kid, I wanted to play. We didn’t have arcade games in Romania. I used to go around the parking lot in the grocery store rounding up all the carts people left behind. Most Canadians were too lazy to return their carts and get their quarter back. For me it was a gold mine.
When you're in a country that you don't really know, you have to be more self-sustaining. That’s why people who travel a lot tend to be a little bit more confident, a little bit more outgoing. You can't depend on the outside world to give you those feelings of comfort. You have to be able to self-generate them. It forced me to basically take some risks. You don't have any other choice.
Do you think in a sense you were advantaged from that experience as opposed to the middle class kid who never really knew what it was to go without?
When I was a bit older I realized how much of an advantage that was. When I was a kid, obviously it really sucked because everything we had was from Value Village and Goodwill.
Not having much forces you to be a lot more innovative, forces you to be all the more courageous about things. You start to appreciate it over time. I think that was a huge advantage.
As a kid, I grew up thinking ‘man, life sucks. I don't have anything other people have.’
My dad worked at a wood shop in Hamilton. He was sanding, painting, that kind of stuff.
When I was 13, they asked ‘hey, does your son want a job to sweep the floors?’ I jumped at the opportunity. They were paying less than minimum wage, but it was enough money to buy a video game once in a while, which was really exciting for me.
You’re not a humanities kid; you're math and sciences in high school?
If you're the son of an immigrant family, you're going into math and sciences or you’re probably going to get a beating.
My parent’s philosophy was that if you wanted to go into art, you can go an buy some paints and brushes and create art in your free time. You want to go into history? Go to the library and borrow some books.
And you know what? I completely agree with them.
These days so many kids spend thousands of dollars to go into philosophy and they graduate school with a fancy receipt and no practical skills only to get pissed off at the world about why they can’t get a job. As if the world owes them something. It’s a common tend among millennial's. Most of them don’t understand that if you want to be successful, you have to find ways to generate value for other people.
You were a straight A student?
I was until I grew up older, and then I was a failing student.
I didn't see a practical sense to what I was learning. It was like I'm winning all these awards and I know I can do it, but I don't really see how that benefits me in a practical sense. If the class was teaching me something I thought I could use later to get ahead, I would be at the top of the class. If I was in a class that offered little practical knowledge, I’d do just enough work to pass.
When I was returning carts to get the quarters, I had an objective to accomplish. I wanted to play that game. Without that, why would I do it? I almost feel like a lot of people here, they don't quite really tie back anything to a real goal. What are you trying to accomplish? Is it working for you? A lot of people just go through this fog where they don’t question why they do what they are doing.
This is one thing about you I've noticed, Nick: you’re really a bottom line guy. To you, the bottom line is a metric. It may not be a dollar metric, inevitably it is, but the bottom line's the bottom line with you.
You’re trying to generate a profit. You're trying to generate a return. People who connect a lot of money with ego think the more money they have the more important they are. I don’t get that. I see money as a resource, not an end goal. The more money you have, the more you can invest into growing things even further.
When I was growing up, a lot of my friends were volunteering their time to go to Africa to dig trenches. I was thinking Africa doesn't need you to come there to spend $5,000 on a fun trip for you to dig two trenches. If you actually wanted to help that place you'd donate that $5,000 to them or fund an engineer who actually knows what they're doing. You're doing this for selfish reasons. I felt a lot of people were anti-corporate or anti-money, it was just a way for them to fuel their ego to say, ‘I'm the good person.
For me it's not about money, for me it's about making a difference.’ It's about making a difference for me too, but it's a lot easier to do that when you have the wealth of Bill Gates than if you are just some student that is getting nothing done. For me, it's growing revenue and opening the door to making greater change.
What kind of change do you mean?
I don't understand people who devote all their work to charity when they could spend their time on education, get a better paying job, get more connections, learn who are the real decision makers, and leverage their resources - both social resources and economic resources - to actually make something happen.
To me, that’s a whole lot more significant than saying ‘when I was 15 I went to a soup kitchen and served a cup of soup.’ Let's look at the bottom line. How many people did you really help? What did you truly accomplish there that will have a long-term impact on people in need?
What are the causes that are dear to you in terms of making change?
There's quite a few. I want to create opportunities for people who don't have any.
My digital agency RevUp, hires a lot of people overseas, because you have a lot of very smart people without any sort of opportunity. We've hired people in Poland, Romania, Kazakhstan, we have people all over the place. We're trying to connect that talent into a way that can help a business here, but also help someone else over there. That's why our internal team is only three people. Our external team of remote working contractors is 12 people. On the marketing side you're able to promote the good that people do. We worked with Food 4 Kids, for example. We made a really awesome TV commercial that aired for a month for free. It got them a lot of exposure. That’s a way we can give back. We do what we’re really good at and deliver a lot more value.
What was your first business?
It was a computer company.
And it failed but before that...?
I was doing my pilot’s license at the time. I was preparing to take my final test and then the flight school went bankrupt. The only way to finish was to go to a different flight school and learn to fly on a different type of plane. It was going to cost an additional $2,000 or $3,000 to finish up my license, which kind of sucked because I already spent a bunch of money, close to $10,000 just getting up to that point. The other option I thought is that I could start business, which for me could be a more long-term.
So much for follow your passion, right? Follow your passion, the money will find you.
Yeah, it doesn't. Not in the aviation business. Everyone I talked to that worked in aviation hated it. Long hours, low pay, very risky career. I mean don’t get me wrong, flying is awesome. What isn’t awesome is being in your 30’s and 40’s as a pilot and making about the same as an employee at McDonalds.
You opted for the start your business option.
Yeah, and it failed in three weeks.
I partnered up with a friend of mine in a computer business. We tried to start a traditional computer store. We blew through a bunch of money getting wholesale access to computer parts only to find there's no margin on any of that stuff. If you try to sell a computer, for, $600, everyone thinks ‘oh I'll give you $450 for it.’ It's like ‘dude, that laptop cost $585. I've made $15. The only way I can make any money here is if you continue to come back for service to me.’
We realized you need scale. If you’re sourcing 10,000 laptops and you're getting that price at $550 instead of $600, you make a little bit of money. Then you also have ways to monetize that relationship where the customers comes back to do repairs, buy additional software, etc. We didn't really know any of this stuff. There wasn't any how-do-you-run-a-computer-business-book. We blew through all of our money just buying parts and buying wholesaler access, because every wholesaler said ‘oh yeah, we're going to give you great prices, but in order to see our price list, you have to apply, which costs you $800.’ Then once you get the list, you realize they’re selling you parts at $5 off what you could get it at Canada Computers.
How old were you?
You're broke and you're living at home?
I went to apply for an IT job. I had worked in IT for a couple of years. I realized that I was really good at IT and not good at starting a business. They don’t teach you that in school.
People who start businesses tend to be really phenomenal at what they do, only to realize that doesn't matter because finding good people is not that hard. Doing everything else is really hard. The sales, the marketing, the accounting, the HR, etc. I didn't know that either.
I went for a job interview with this law firm downtown here in Hamilton. The lady that met me downstairs was this young receptionist. I was just talking, trying to be friendly, joking around and this woman looked like she had no soul left in her. She was like someone who seemed ready to jump off a building. It really threw me.
I was just like why are you so dead inside?
After the interview I knew why. I was interviewed by a woman – I don’t even know how to describe this person – she was the rudest, coldest person I’ve ever met. I came really prepared because they had a website filled with spelling mistakes and technical errors. I thought ‘how can you be a law firm that is all about precision and you’re forgetting periods and commas and you misspell words?’
I figured I came in extra prepared, ready to go above and beyond and show them problems they weren’t even aware of, and a plan for how I would fix it all.
She looked at my resume and said: “Oh, you're an entrepreneur. Yeah, we don't hire entrepreneurs here." I was like, ‘what?’ I tried to run a business for a month. I'm not going to call myself an entrepreneur. I just gave it a try. It didn't really go anywhere. She said: ‘the problem with entrepreneurs is you’re never happy with what you make. We've had some entrepreneurs here and they come into work late because they're working on their own stuff at night. We're looking for people who want to commit to us.’ I didn't even know how to respond. I really was looking for a job, I wanted a proper career. I was thinking that maybe business wasn’t for me. I’m going to work my way up the corporate ladder.
In 10 minutes you know this isn't going to work for you, either?
At one point I got really angry and I said, ‘You know what? Why did you call me here?’ It's the first thing on my resume. If you won't hire an entrepreneur and you have such a bias towards me, why am I even here? This lady that brought me up, the receptionist, she was typing away, trying to transcribe some notes and she stopped and looked at me with disbelief when I said that because no one had ever stood up to this mean old lady. This woman looked like the, the Wicked Witch of the West.
She asked me why I was angry.
I said ‘because you're wasting my time. Why am I here if you're going to disqualify me based on the first thing on my resume, which you could have read before you even called me here? Obviously this is not a good fit so let's not waste each other's time. I've got better things to do so let's just wrap this up. It was the worst interview I ever had.
This person got to me because it was just like you're putting all your passion into trying to make something work and you think that people would appreciate that and say, ‘hey, we like that innovation, we like that sort of idea. We're looking for people who can bring a sort of energy to our business.’ It turned out to be the exact opposite.
I walked home thinking, ‘man, I do not want to work for anyone ever again. I do not want to be dependent on people like that to pay for me to survive and pay my bills.’
There was no upside in that for you?
I connected that emotion to what it's like to work in a job. That’s what it had felt like, starting with that first job at 13. I felt like no one valued me. No one cared. It came down to how much they could squeeze out of you at the lowest cost possible to themselves. I went back home and said ‘ I don't care if I have to live at home until I'm 50, I am not going to work for anybody again.’
I started giving the business another go and really thinking a little bit more logically. I went into the repair and service side of the computer business. I started building a website.
I thought ‘hey, we'll just put out some flyers with some advertisements and maybe that'll bring in business, ‘ only to find out no, it doesn't. I had to do a lot of this stuff myself and whatever little money I had, I would put it into trying a different advertising method. I realized none of these people seem to have the answer because they're all selling a magic pill that doesn’t work.
Random people who call you up to do flyer advertisements, all your typical sales people trying to sell some junk marketing service that hasn't worked for 20 years but they're still trying to milk it kind of thing. I lost quite a bit of money.
How much did you blow? Three thousand bucks, four thousand bucks?
Yeah, somewhere around there, probably more than that, actually, because it adds up. It's like $500 here, $200 there, $600 there. It seems like little stuff, but it's like the gamblers that go to the casino, $5 here, $10 there, all of a sudden at the end of the night, you just lost two grand.
Most advertising companies out there operate like slot machines at casinos. A lot of bells and whistles, a lot of shiny lights. When you don’t know what you’re doing, when you’re a small business looking to grow, you don’t realize you’re flushing your money down the drain with these types of marketing services. What happens when you run out of money? The lights shut down, the sounds turn off, waiting for the next sucker to come by and put their money in.
When does the dime drop and you go, ‘Hell, I can do this better than these guys can.’
One thing that clicked was you cannot be successful by doing the same thing people have been doing for 20 years.
Yeah, maybe news papers and radio ads worked, 20 years ago.
Okay that's great, but you know what? Someone else has been milking that channel for 20 years. You're not going to get further than them or even at their level by trying to do the same thing. If the gold mine has already been tapped out, you'd be an idiot to go there trying to pick away at it, like oh, maybe there's some left. There isn't anything left.
Go for something that's a little fresher. For me that was digital marketing. It sucks that I lost so much money trying every traditional advertising method under the sun, only to realize afterwards that there’s a reason they don’t work anymore. They’re old and out of date. The world changed, and radio, flyers, news papers, they didn’t change, so they got left behind. I started learning Google AdWords, SEO, digital marketing, landing page design, etc. I spent months trying to learn that kind of stuff and getting involved in the communities of people that were like-minded and sharing strategies and tactics online.
Unfortunately, those sort of communities also tend to be filled with sales people who are trying to sell their “magic pill” solutions.
This time around I was more prepared for this kind of thing. You start weeding through advice that seems practical and is tangible and measurable, versus stuff that sounds too good to be true, and of course it is.
After about six months, I started seeing a lot of traction with my website. I started getting a lot more phone calls. We went from getting one to three phone calls a week to five to ten a day. Obviously that had worked. Now you don't close all of them, because some of these people are just looking for a $20 fix to a $300 problem, but it still broadened business significantly. I grew the business from there. We started getting more commercial clients, which bring in a lot more stable revenue. Then we found out all of these people have the exact same problem we had. They were using all kinds of old marketing tactics like mailing out flyers, advertising on Yellow Pages, etc. The only thing that was really working for them was word of mouth, networking and getting referrals, but you can't scale that at a certain point.
There is no magic bullet, right? Every solution is unique to itself.
Because I had an IT background, for me it's all very data-driven.
If I’m putting $1 into a certain marketing activity, I want to generate at least a $1 return. From there I can optimize and improve the strategy so it returns $2 of profit, then $5, then $10, etc.
Most companies out there are not really data driven. They spend a few hundred or thousand dollars on a website for example but if you ask them ‘how much money did this make you?’ or ‘how many visitors come here, how much time do they spend, what pages do they look at?’ or any similar question, and they have no idea. I don’t really get it. You’re putting time and money into something and have no idea what you’re getting back?
I learned that most companies out there have a marketing strategy that is about as sophisticated as playing slot machines at the casino. They’re putting little bits of money into different things hoping they’ll hit the jackpot.
Why the name RevUp?
Revving up your business. Make revenue increase. Make revenue go up.
I look at marketing kind of like a Formula 1 race. If you want to cross the finish line first, take home the trophy, the fame, the glory, and most importantly, the prize money, then you need more than a 4 cylinder Honda Civic. You need a Formula 1 race car with a powerful engine.
Like a marketing engine?
Exactly. And those engines are made up of components.
When you say, ‘Components,’ you mean everything from Facebook, to Google AdWords…?
Facebook, different analytics tools, different website tools, different marketing channels, different types of components. Each thing serves a different purpose.
Most people use AdWords for their business and it's like ‘well it's not going anywhere, I guess it doesn't work.’ That's like taking a fuel injection system and nailing it to the side of a cart and saying ‘well it didn't work. I guess fuel injection is just a scam.’
If you look at a traditional engine, you have four stages. You have induction, compression, power, exhaust. Each serves a purpose; one pushes the next one forward. In marketing, it's the exact same thing. Your induction is turning strangers into visitors, not random people but people who actually might want what you have. Now from there, you are turning them from website visitors into leads, that's the compression stage where you're basically weeding out the people wasting your time and creating value for the people who may want what you have. Then you're turning them from leads into sales. That's the power stage where something happens and something transacts. The exhaust stage is where they're happy with the service, they love what you've done and when they leave, they become promoters that get you more clients. During the exhaust stage of the car, the cylinder is pushed and that restarts the induction stage.
Larger companies do this kind of stuff. If you can afford $200,000, $300,000 a year for a marketing team, they will build you something like this. A powerful marketing engine that brings in a lot of business and makes a lot of money.
For your average small business, it doesn't exist because no one's going to waste their time working with a coffee shop or a doctor or a lawyer to build this type of sophisticated marketing campaign.
So a business can get that from you?
With new technology, we can do this a lot easier and a lot faster. That fact really hasn't caught on yet. Most small businesses out there don’t know how any of this stuff works. They think ‘I don’t really understand how the internet works and how to generate business online, so I’ll just stick with newspaper ads because that seems safer.’
Why do you think that is?
People are cautious of what they don’t understand. Small businesses always want to play it safe. It’s like trying to play last week’s lottery numbers with the logic that ‘well these numbers won before, so maybe they’ll win again.’ This is why most small businesses remain small forever or go broke. They’re afraid to take advantage of new opportunities.
After a few years, when they see everyone else doing something, they think ‘okay maybe I’ll give this a shot’ but by then it’s way too late. The gold mine has been picked clean.
So they remain always one step behind?
Because they aren’t data driven, everything seems risky when you don’t have real numbers to guide you. They try to do a bit of digital but they don’t know how it works so they play it super safe and put a little bit of money into Facebook, a little bit of money into a website, try doing a bit of Twitter, etc. Basically the slot machine approach. Put a little money into many machines and hope you win the jackpot. Of course it doesn’t work.
If you want to get serious results, then you have to approach your business and your marketing as serious company would. At the end of the day it’s not really about having a website, or being on Facebook, or doing SEO. It’s all about hiring a really smart team of people to help you grow the business.
So, there has to be a great deal of trust between you and your client.
Yes. If they don't understand the internet or they don't believe in it, that pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You need people who are very like-minded, who are going to work together and say, ‘Let’s take all the old stuff that used to work in the past and merge that with all the new stuff that works today, and that’s how we’re going to beat the competitors.’
So it’s not so much a marketing service as it is a partnership.