Coffs Harbour local Justin Clarke is the founder of two very successful companies – Social Ally and Digital Ally. FOCUS found out how and when it all started for Justin, and what his plans are for the future.
What’s your back story, Justin?
I’m a Coffs local. I did my schooling here, moved to Canberra for a journalism and psychology degree I didn’t complete (the internet lured me into programming), cut my programming teeth in Sydney, and eventually found my way to London, where I led a software team for Europe’s leading digital agency and more importantly, met my wife, Samantha.
She fell in love with the Coffs region when we visited, and we ended up getting married out in Bellingen in 2011. We moved here permanently two years ago. I never would have thought as a teenager, surrounded by the red bricks of Coffs Harbour High School, that any of that would happen.
I can see that red brick from our balcony, actually.
Your business, Social Ally, is a tech-based company with a unique online platform. What is it exactly?
We actually have two businesses: Digital Ally is our digital agency/consultancy, which has been running for eight years, designing and building websites and software for small businesses through to national brands. The experience and success from Digital Ally enabled us to start our first digital startup – Social Ally – a few years ago.
Social Ally builds digital experiences and provides content marketing services to global brands. A part of our offering is our realtime platform: it enables us to build realtime voting, quizzing and gaming experiences – so you can see other people voting and interacting with content (primarily on Facebook) in realtime.
What type of clients do you work with?
We work with a bunch of very diverse, interesting and globally distributed clients.
Digital Ally works with local small businesses, city clients like Jimmy Barnes and AMP, and even international clients like Hexagon Classics in London (London’s leading classic car dealership).
Social Ally primarily works with global brands and media and creative agencies including Clinique, Estee Lauder and REST Superannuation, to name a few.
How easy is it to work remotely with clients from your Coffs Coast office base?
This was the big question for us two years ago. We were still in Sydney, and after almost a decade of living in big cities (including five years in central London) we had the crazy idea that we should take a punt and move to Coffs.
But would clients read it as “dropping” out and drop us? Would there be more requests for face-to-face meetings we couldn’t satisfy? From a business perspective, were we being incredibly foolish?
In the end, every one of those fears was unfounded. Thanks to a visionary council, we have the best internet in the country, clients are busy and generally prefer emailing and calling, and when face-to-face meetings are required, we simply line up a few meetings and jump on a plane.
It helps that getting on a plane in Coffs probably takes less time than any other airport. It is easier for us, in Coffs, to fly to Brisbane, Newcastle, Sydney and Melbourne than it is if we were living in any of those cities. A few minutes of no-traffic commuting to the airport and a ridiculously quick check-in and boarding process makes you wonder why you put up with the traffic and pollution of metro existence for so long.
Can you share with us an example of one of your proudest career moments to date?
Not giving in to fear by quitting a job I was stuck in, even though I had no plan B. That was the trigger for a year of amazing backpacking experiences in Asia and India, and a couple of long, scary months looking for a job in London, thinking I had nothing to offer.
This totally changed my career and life trajectory: I cracked into the nascent digital industry in east London, met my future wife, Samantha, and gained enough experience and confidence to start and run our own businesses when we moved to Australia.
For most businesses, learning to be flexible and adapting to change is an everyday occurrence; what has been the most beneficial way of dealing with the challenges in running your own business?
Be okay with impermanence. Pitches are lost and won. Projects can turn bad, and good, clients come and go, and so will your business – and even you.
In fact, our wedding rings are engraved with the phrase: “This too shall pass, but our love remains – eternal”. We thought that classic phrase on the ephemerality of the human condition could do with an update to include the idea of love as a universal constant.
I think that’s applicable here. Adopt a philosophical mindset about the transient nature of business highs and lows and check in to make sure there’s still some love for what you’re doing: whether you love who you work with, what you’re doing, or what you’re about to do.
If you come up empty-handed, keep in mind that although quitting might seem like total failure right now, it could end up being your proudest career moment.
Living abroad and returning to your home town, what are the benefits of living on the Coffs Coast?
Clean air (always underrated), effortless commuting, friendlier regional attitudes, breathtaking natural beauty, café and restaurant options which can now hold their own against city cousins, and a surprising number of cultural options a city-me may have previously suspected wouldn’t exist in regional Australia. I’ve been thoroughly educated!
What do you see as the next trends in your market?
This may sound surprising coming from someone deep in digital marketing, but I think privacy and personal sovereignty (enabled by encryption) will be a big public trend.
We’ve had a wild-west approach to tracking and analysing everything you do, and as the public becomes more digitally literate and society begins to understand the power of Artificial Intelligence, there will be pushback against platforms that don’t respect privacy and transparency. I expect much of what happens now will eventually be illegal.
This will have implications for how people are marketed to, as whole new technologies and platforms will arise which are distributed, rather than centralised. It’s possible things like Facebook will be replaced due to a philosophical and architectural shift in how we build things. It’s already happening, in fact, with things like IPFS (the InterPlanatery File System – because we can’t just consider one planet!) One unstoppable force which is enabling this shift is cryptoeconomics – a field that has arisen thanks to blockchain technologies popularised by Bitcoin, and more recently Ethereum.
Expect cryptoeconomics to have a bigger societal impact than the internet. Yes, that’s a big call, but there it is.
What does work-life balance look like for you?
I failed at the balance a few years ago and had a period of burn-out. Once you realise work-life imbalance is terribly inefficient, you learn to stop putting off life and then discover – rather counter-intuitively – that you’re more productive in every area. And much happier.
For us, moving to Coffs was a big part of this, and so was picking up a hobby: partner dancing. We joined a local non-profit community organisation called Coffs Latin Rhythms, and regularly dance Salsa, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Zouk, Tango and Bachata in town every week.
It’s hard to overstate how positive a contribution this has been to our work-life balance, and life in Coffs. Moving to Coffs to build social networks, and being desk-bound in a home office, it’s been amazing to get out and socialise and dance which people from all walks of life (and ranging in age from 18 to 80).
You should come join us, especially if you have two left feet.