As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kasey Kaplan the CEO & Founder of KWK Studio and Co-Founder of Urban FT.
Kasey Kaplan is a lifelong entrepreneur with a proven track record of success across multiple industries. He is the Founder of KWK Studio, which focuses on helping unleash the potential of every business by providing simple to use marketing, product, and strategy services and Co-founder of Urban FT, which is a leading FinTech company and one of the fastest-growing FinTech Cores in the U.S.
An Eagle Scout, photographer, and avid outdoorsman, Kasey’s adventurous spirit has taken him all over the world. He’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, road-tripped in the Middle East, and in 2017 completed his goal of visiting every continent. During his collegiate years, he was a national champion in downriver whitewater canoeing and kayaking as well as a member of a NCAA Swim Team.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I credit a lot of who I am today and much of my entrepreneurial grit to skills that I’ve developed through competitive sports, particularly swimming. Swimming didn’t come easily for me, though I put in the time and effort and swam competitively throughout high school and college, training 5–6hours most days. I learned the value of self-discipline, hard work, and the correlation between commitment, effort, and outcome. Swimming is also a very lonely sport, you spend hours in your head, in the water just thinking, unable to communicate with anyone. As an Entrepreneur, there is a sense of loneliness. When you have an idea and build a business you need to have a strong resolve and sense of direction to continue to push and challenge yourself, self-correcting, and bringing to life a vision against all odds.
When I started swimming, I often had different thoughts and ideas, and even though I wasn’t thinking in a business sense, one day I remember being worried that by the time I am older, there are not going to be any more new business ideas left. The reality is that it couldn’t be further from the truth and this is what I love about being an entrepreneur!
Another program that had a massive impact on me was the Boy Scouts. I am an Eagle Scout, and this is something for which I am incredibly proud. The list is endless of the skills and behaviors that I learned through The Boy Scouts. I use these skills daily such as leadership, strengths-based teamwork, strong communication, acting under pressure, problem-solving and creative thinking. It also exposed me to one of my other great passions, travel. Starting with the scouts and I continued to travel as, throughout my life, I went to so many interesting and wonderful places and learned so much from all the people I met.
While finishing college, I started doing freelance digital marketing work. I loved how through the power of the internet, and the emergence of social media, businesses could operate and grow online, reaching more people than ever before. There was also so much innovation happening, I became obsessed with following the new tech companies springing up and their feature functionality.
Ultimately, my love for digital marketing would land me a full-ride scholarship to grad school where I performed digital marketing for the university and obtained my master’s degree. Meanwhile, I also started working for a startup where I was one of the first employees and I felt so inspired by the startup concept of innovating. I could take ideas, skills, and knowledge and apply them to new industries to create new companies and products. Even at a young age, I realized I had a talent for digital marketing and product innovation and after attending a Startup Weekend competition, I decided that I wanted to start my own business. That is when my entrepreneurial journey truly began.
The largest company I’ve co-founded is Urban FT, a fintech company. We had more ups and downs than you can imagine, and over the years we gained significant traction — the experience has been invaluable. In that environment, you learn to roll up your sleeves and get involved in everything (in many cases even if you have never done it before). More recently I’ve been focusing on KWK Studio. I’ve had a historic dislike for Agencies, so I started my own because I felt I had unique insights to improve the traditional agency model. So far it is working.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are so many things that come to mind, but I’ll to stay practical. I remember some of the original product demos we did. The designs were great! But the software wasn’t fully completed… There were a number of occasions where we’d have to show high fidelity designs, that looked almost real, but were nothing more than a basic prototype with screens linked together. We never said it wasn’t a prototype and anyone who was tech-savvy could tell what it was, but most people just assumed what we had was fully functioning. In the early days, we wouldn’t have gotten far without those great designs.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am a huge fan of audiobooks and try to get through as many as I can, so my list of influential books is not short. I’m generally a fan of anything Jim Collins writes, his concepts are timeless. I enjoyed a lot of the concepts in Blitzscalling which is exactly as the title infers, building a company to scale, fast! As an Entrepreneur, I can relate to and I learn so much from hearing other founders’ stories. A few that come to mind are; Shoe Dog, The Everything Store, How Google Works, Creativity Inc, and Delivering Happiness. For Podcasts, I like How We Built This and My First Million.
What all of these books have in common is they discuss growing a business, the struggles, different perspectives and approaches. Building a business is difficult, challenging, time-intensive and you have to make many sacrifices — hearing the struggles others have overcome to make their businesses successful is very inspiring and motivating.
Through learning and reading you are constantly gaining new ideas or approaches which can be essential when you’re in the day-to-day grind. By reading, you are engaging in lifelong learning which allows you to take a step back and examine things from a different perspective and continue your self-growth journey.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
To understand our purpose, you have to first understand the services KWK Studio offers are around strategy, marketing, and technology and we bundle this all together through being a digital partner for our clients.
From first-hand experience, I know how hard it is to grow a business and manage a business on a day-to-day basis. We work with different sized businesses, from individuals to startups to local businesses to SMBs and in all cases, these businesses generally love what they do. However, these businesses are often frustrated by the need to use digital marketing and technology to succeed and grow. They are experts in the product or service they provide, but don’t have the time, skills or patience to also become a digital expert. This is where KWK comes in — traditional agency and consulting models are generally not affordable for small businesses, so we wanted to find a way to provide high-quality services that would have positive impacts on our clients in a financially viable way.
Our purpose is to truly be the digital partner for our clients, we support them on their digital strategy, products and marketing, and everything in between. We view ourselves as a member of their team. By being the digital partner of many businesses we can have a much more meaningful impact, engaging as a member of their team, learning their business, and helping them serve others. The impact is exponential.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Anyone who knows me knows that I am very big on motivational quotes. Being an intrinsically motivated person, one quote that is always front of mind for me is “the only thing that limits you in life is yourself.” Every person and business is limited by time and resources, to be successful you need to be very discerning on how you use that time/resources for the biggest impact. For me, this also guides our vision — it is important to me to provide an excellent product and customer experience, I need to work out how to do this with the limitations in place.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I normally split my time between the United States and Australia. This is for both personal and professional reasons, but with COVID this hasn’t been possible and in many instances, I have had to work around the clock. There’s been a lot of personal stress, balancing the growth and stability of my business, while at the same time ensuring I have quality time with my family and friends. There is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in business and life at the moment, which introduces many levels of stress and challenge. It requires all people and businesses to reassess priorities and values. Working across many time zones, I’m not able to have a normal routine and the lines between work and home have become very blurred, even more so than it already was being a remote business. My family is directly impacted by the blurriness and conflicting demands. We’ve worked out some key principles and increased our communication around schedules, this reduces some of the uncertainty and helps us manage through this time and make sure we send quality time together. I considered implementing morning and evening stand-ups for the family but thought this might be taking it too far and I didn’t think my wife would go for it….
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many businesses, some of the projects we were working on fell over. In some cases it was large digital marketing campaigns and in others, it was technology platforms builds. COVID forced us to take a step back and really examine what was core to our business and also why some of the projects fell over. What we realized, if it wasn’t obvious already, was that many organizations are having cashflow issues. So we decided to introduce a new business model for website builds and digital marketing that is well known in the tech world, but not so much in the agency world. We have effectively made many of our services operate on a subscription basis and function like a SaaS model.
As part of our COVID pivot, we rolled out a new model. We took the traditional website pricing model of charging a large upfront fee and then an hourly work rate for future updates and transitioned it into a SaaS model. Under the SaaS model, we charge a small upfront fee and an all-inclusive fixed monthly fee that covers EVERYTHING a business would need like hosting, security, email setup, copywriting, optimization, SEO, updates/content changes, etc. This is a win-win because businesses don’t need to do a heavy investment upfront and know that they will always have an update to date and relevant website while at the same time allowing us to implement automation and other efficiencies to make the model affordable and scalable. So far the response has been amazing. In the first week of marketing, we received dozens of inquires and have since gone live with all those sites. From our first kick-off with a client to go-live, on average the turn around is 10 days.
Moving forward it is our plan to transition other services we offer to this model. It works better for our clients and still allows us to provide a very high quality of service, with digital products tailored to each business. While there is a large amount of upfront work required to get their the sites live, we are investing in a long term relationship with our clients and are confident through our high-quality relationship, they will stick with us for the long haul. This approach ultimately works out to be very good value for our customers because while there is an ongoing fee, they get a top-end website, fully supported, and avoid the large upfront expense. The lifetime value for them is great because generally, business will refresh their websites every few years, meaning another large investment, but with our new model it works out to be much better value in the short, medium, and long term.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think that everyone’s reaction to COVID is different, it depends on their circumstances. Some people have lost their jobs, businesses, others may be in a panic or lonely, while others will see it as an opportunity and thrive. There is not a one size fits all approach to the response or how you offer support. For those that are feeling lonely and anxious, I think it’s important that they find ways to connect, whether this be phone, video chat if possible, or other means.
Having regular communication with people is important and knowing that it is “ok” to be feeling the way we are helps us move through the uncertainty. The other thing that could help and is something that I’ve been more strict about, is implementing a schedule every day. Block out times that you’re going to do specific things every day so that your day has structure to it, this may involve ensuring those “connection” times each day like a family meal or calling your Mom. Finally, try to be optimistic, this is a unique opportunity to start new projects, learn his things, and develop new skills that you’ve always wanted to do but have not gotten around to.
Life will likely never return to exactly the way it was before COVID, too many things have changed and we all need to be open to the adaptation that follows.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Now more than ever businesses and people are adopting digital channels and remote communication. This is an opportunity for people all over the world to start, modify or redefine businesses and have an impact like never before. Businesses that have previously been limited by geography, now have the opportunity to engage and connect remotely and over distance more than ever before. During this period, any hesitation to embrace remote working has been removed. The world truly is your oyster.
I also think from a startup perspective it could be a great time to launch a business. In some cases, investors might be looking at new places to invest money since the stock markets could be volatile for the next 12+ months. Many talented individuals are looking for work, so you might be able to attract good talent, they might even be remote. People are looking to save money, or to be healthy, so if your product can accomplish this, it could be adopted fast. Finally startups take time to get momentum, so starting now means that when the economy starts to recover you could ride the wave up.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think COVID has given a lot of people time to reassess their values and priorities and there may be a lot of change as a result of this. People are eating at home more, cooking dinners, baking, exercising and connecting. I hope all of these positive behaviors continue.
From a habit perspective, I think of the medium-term people will continue to follow safe practices like social distancing and washing their hands regularly (my wife loves this, she has always been a germ-a-phob). Additionally there will be an uptake from businesses supporting this behavior.
I think from a business and collaboration perspective many organizations are going to be much more open to remote working.
But in some ways it’s too hard to tell right now, because there’s also the chance that there could be additional waves COVID virus. So until we really find a way to stop the spread, I think we will be seeing a lot of the same.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As mentioned, I’ve restructured KWK Studio so that we continue to be the digital partner to businesses but also introduced the new SaaS subscription model or fixed monthly fee model. We like working with small businesses and I think that by offering quality solutions at affordable prices, we can gain traction fast and work with more businesses helping them achieve their business goals and service more customers. The other aspect I like about our new model is that it really adds balance to the relationship between us and our clients because we’re constantly under pressure to provide value so their businesses can grow.
As a sneak peak, we are in the process of developing another model which will appeal to the everyday business and allow ultra DIY convenience in establishing your digital presence…I can’t give too much away, but watch this space www.getquuie.com.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
COVID has given everyone the opportunity to slow down. Reflect on your business purpose, strategy, and take this as an opportunity to do a retro, and pivot where required.
If you are in the situation where business has slowed down, you can use this time to focus on improvements. For example are there processes or solutions you can put in place that would improve your business and/or save money?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’m going to give some of my favorites:
-The only thing that limits you in life is yourself.
-If it was easy everyone would do it.
-Do today what others won’t so that you can do tomorrow what they can’t.
-Left Foot. Right Foot.
Nothing in life is simple or easy, these quotes always remind me to persevere and push through the hard times. Keep on the 20mile march (Jim Collins quote).
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’d encourage people to follow me on LinkedIn, I have a number of articles published on digital strategy and marketing. I’m pretty easy to find, there aren’t too many Kasey with a K. Or check out the KWK Studio website (kwkstudio.com), we have a lot of great content about how to grow your business.