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What a start-up today really needs: Get out of the blocks fast!

Start-ups have to be out of the blocks fast, revving their engines and turning over a decent income quickly to avoid disaster. Here some who have seen it all share their thoughts

Few businesses sound like a Lotus as soon as they open their doors for business. That guttural roar of power and acceleration often takes a while to develop, no matter how hard the pedal is pushed to the floor in the formative years of any business.

More often than not, the early days are more like a stuttering Austin Metro as the business finds its feet and begins to shift up the gears. That said, with an economic climate that has more in common with a Lada than the new Lotus Evora, start-up businesses no longer have the luxury of time to sit on the blocks in the garage, tinkering with their spark plugs until everything is ticking over just perfectly. Start-ups have to be out of the blocks fast, revving their engines and turning over a decent income quickly to avoid disaster.

The statistics for new business survival remain depressingly low, with only around 40% of new businesses surviving past their fourth year.

But there are some businesses in the marketing and communications industry that have got out of the blocks fast and are proving that forging ahead despite the economic climate is the best tactic if you want to finish ahead of the chasing pack.

The Drum has spoken to a number of new agencies, ranging from digital to PR and from media to design, launched with the last 18 months who are ignoring the downturn and smoothly gliding through the gears to build successful marketing businesses.

They say that the best things in life are free. That is not always the case – the Lotus Evora pictured below being a perfect example with a starting price of £45,000 – but over the following pages perhaps you can get a bit of free advice to help make your business tick over a little smoother.

THE WEATHER
Following the sad demise of Graphic partners earlier this year, The forecast is looking bright for one recent start up

The recession actually prompted us to launch our new business,” says Darryl Davidson, co-founder of Edinburgh-based digital agency The Weather. “We were previously Greenparka – the digital division of Graphic Partners. But when Graphic Partners went into liquidation we saw a great opportunity to continue to work with our strong digital client base.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the nature of the start up (forming following the liquidation of a previous firm), Davidson reveals that, to date, everything has been relatively smooth. In fact, he says, one of the biggest challenges he has faced so far was in convincing co-founder Charlie Cutler that The Weather was a good name. “The amount of positive feedback from clients and other creative agencies, though, ended up persuading him it was the right choice.

”The agency was, in fact, set-up and launched in under a week – following the news of the demise of Graphic Partners – by a trio of ex employees, Charlie Cutler, Aaron Harper and Darryl Davidson. Cutler was head of digital at the previous firm having also worked at Loghar and run his own web company. Harper (now creative director at The Weather), worked at BlackID, before helping to start up Greenparka, working there as a senior designer. Davidson worked at Sun Microsystems before moving to Manchester in 1995 to work at Wilson Cooke, a creative marketing agency. He moved back to Edinburgh to join the Greenparka team at Graphic Partners.

“We aim to focus on the business benefit of what we are providing to the client,” says Davidson. “As excited and passionate as we are about design and functionality, what is most important to the client is that our solutions deliver.

”Already, during the agency’s short existence, the team has produced a raft of work, including winning its first new clients, including Turnberry Resort, for which it has created a interactive room explorer for showcasing the luxurious new rooms.

However, maintaining the overwhelming majority of the client base when setting up the new company has been very important to the directors. “The support we had from our client base really highlighted to us that we were providing an excellent service,” says Davidson.

However, he also predicts a few hurdles in the near future – managing the company’s growth being the main consideration. “Current workloads look excellent and are growing, but we need to ensure we continue to deliver an excellent quality of service.

“We also want to expand the offering we provide to our clients by exploring new technologies.

”But are there any mistakes that the new agency could learn from – either from the demise of their former employer Graphic Partners, or from the past few months at The Weather? “Well,” says Davidson, “I think the main mistake we may have made so far is the length of the full title of our company name “The Weather Digital & Print Commnications Ltd” as we couldn’t get the whole name printed onto our sign at reception!”

MARKETING SCOUT
Marketers at heart, the duo behind this recruitment start-up claim it’s service not sales that is the bedrock of the new firm

The biggest challenge for the recruitment sector remains the same – fighting the preconceived ideas that agencies have about recruiters. However, Karen Staniland-Platt, co-founder of recruitment firm Marketing Scout, has been on the other side of the fence and can understand why recruiters are viewed in a negative light.

“We are not and have never been recruiters,” she says. “We’re marketers at heart and always will be. Our biggest drivers are delivering exceptional service for the very people we’ve previously worked alongside and we’re most definitely not about sales.

“We’re from the industry ourselves. This has shaped everything we do, from the type of services we offer, to the terminology we use. Being able to talk of our own experiences with clients and candidates creates a far stronger relationship.

”In fact, both founding partners have held senior positions at some of the UK’s leading brands and marketing agencies. Staniland-Platt began her marketing career with major brands Wella, Hugo Boss and Barclays before moving agency side where she spent the last decade prior to starting Marketing Scout, most recently as an account director for BJL. Her partner Helen Dolce-Lund, on the other hand, gained all her experience client-side managing and directing marketing campaigns for the likes of Easyjet, Matalan and Iceland.

As it seems that the UK might finally be crawling out of the recession, it is hoped – across the board – that agencies are going to start to see clients budgets start to increase again. However, it’s going to be some time before recruitment gets back to ‘normal’ as companies will remain hesitant about investing in new staff.

“It’s fair to say that a lot of agencies will revert to doing their own recruitment in an attempt to reduce costs and avoid working with recruiters,” says Staniland-Platt. “It’s up to us to create products that benefit agencies that want to work differently and keep control over costs not just now but long after the recession has passed and that’s something we’re already working on...

“We didn’t chose to launch in a recession, it was just pure rotten timing,” she continues. “We literally went to market the same week that the recession broke in all the press. However, as tough as it’s been, we really couldn’t have launched at a better time.

“Being a new business and in the thick of recession has meant our costs are continually examined and we survive on a lot less cost than would have been the case in a boom time. In fact, we believe that’s one of the reasons we’ve survived when other more established businesses have failed, because we’ve been able to strip any unnecessary costs out right from the very beginning.

“In fact, after 12 months there’s not much left to cut! Our biggest cost remains advertising but we’re already pretty tight on that and utilise our contacts within the industry to get most of our awareness. Our smartest cost cutting exercise was moving to working at home. Most of our meetings take place in agencies’ offices or coffee shops and technology means we can work anywhere. If we swapped white chocolate mochas for tap water we’d save a fortune so maybe thats something to aim for.

“In addition, we’ve created products specifically to help agencies in these tough times and so oddly enough the recession has made us much more creative and far more responsive to customer needs.

”For now, though, for Staniland-Platt and Dolce-Lund it’s simply about continuing to grow awareness and build on the service Marketing Scout offers. “How we’re perceived within the industry has always been more of a driver for us than profits alone and we’re keen to build on our reputation with new, innovative ways of working in the next 12 months. That’s where our focus will remain.”

KONG MEDIA
‘we just want something different’ is a typical client request, and that is just what one entrepreneur has set out to offer 

For a long time I have wanted to start my own agency that offered clients something different,” says Ross Barrett, Kong Media founder.

His past experience has certainly geared him up for the task of creating something different. Barrett worked for Viacom in London and in Manchester which, he says, taught him a lot about the outdoor business, gave him the opportunity to pitch to blue chip clients and work with some great brands. He then moved to CBS in Manchester where he was Impact manger, developing sponsorship packages at key commuter and sporting events, including the Grand national, Great North Run and Glastonbury. He also worked with Mediacom and Universal, generating new ideas for the outdoor space. All of which has geared him up for the launch of Kong Media – which aims to create new ways to reach audiences.

“The amount of clients I would speak to in my old employment that would say ‘we just want something different and innovative’,” says Barrett, “I new there was enough demand and a place for a non-traditional agency. And for me, this was probably the best time to launch.

“Kong Media’s ethos is don’t spend more, spend smarter. Our campaigns elevate and amplify any message – and what better time for clients to hear this than in the current economic climate. Yes it is a challenging time to launch a business but to us it’s the norm.

”When Barrett started Kong Media nearly a year ago it was difficult for him to convince banks or investors to give any kind of credit for his new business, so he has had to become self funding right from the start. But that isn’t the only challenge he faces... “I hate staying in hotels. I hate to be away from my family, but it is a necessity,” he says.

But Barrett has been quick to learn from his challenges. “I think the biggest hurdle for us is not to think regional, but to think national,” he continues. “We are based in Leeds and it would be easy for us to focus on just business in this area. But plans are already in place to expand our team in other areas of the country – the north east, to start. We are effectively opening a new office in a new area with all the logistics that go with that.

”But what about plans for the future? Well, “a steady growth of the business, coupled with the formation of long-term relationships with partners and suppliers, founded on a collaborative approach,” he claims will see the business into the next 12 months. “Perhaps I should have started Kong Media a few years ago,” he laments.

And perhaps he should have. But perhaps it is the current market that is helping fuel this “different” offering, building it up for future success.

AURA PR
Fast cars and fancy coffees – a pipe dream of many an aspiring pr. this firm has combined that formula with real business accumen

For a new company, Aura PR has a lot of experience. Headed by Laura Campbell and Scottish PR stalwart Flora Martin, the firm has already handled a host of high profile business, including the glamorous launch of the new Lotus car.

Campbell original worked in hospitality (for Big Beat) before starting her career in PR almost a decade ago, working both in agencies and in-house.

Martin – a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and holder of an Outstanding Achievement Award – has been in the industry for 30 years and set up Flora Martin PR in 1989. She sold to Citigate in 1996 and purchased Smarts in 2000 creating CitigateSmarts – one of the first integrated agencies in Scotland. She stayed on as MD for eight years and left intending to take time out. The rest is (recent) history.

“We didn’t deliberately decide to start in a recession,” says Campbell, “but we both decided that we wanted to offer something fresh to clients and I was ready to take the next step in business. My last agency couldn’t offer me any sort of progression so I had to think of my future.

“The recession was setting in, but we both knew that with our determination and hard work, along with two clients on our books, we could make it work."

As with any new business cash-flow is often the biggest challenge, with banks and accountants all wanting to see good cash-flow, however, Campbell says that Aura has been fortunate in that a lot of business has come through referral, so the duo haven’t had to embark on any major business development drives.

Come November, Aura will be celebrating its first birthday, and Campbell reveals that she will soon be looking to recruit a full time member of staff. But that has its challenges for a new business too. “The hard part will be finding someone with the right credentials who fits in with our personalities. We are only a year old, but we still have to be careful with our cashflow and we need to be reserved in our spending. That doesn’t change.”

“We wanted to get back to basics with our company,” continues Campbell.

“We offer a personal service, but we also bring an element of fun to our clients. We firmly believe in the saying, people buy people.

”Over the next 12 months Aura aims to maintain the level at which it is working, as well as developing the “brands side of the business”.

But almost a year in, what mistakes have been made along the way?

“Trying to do it all,” says Campbell. “We started the company but both of us sit on committees which are time consuming. It was too much.”

And has she learnt from these mistakes? “Yes. The business is our first priority. I still sit on the CIPR Scotland committee but I see that as part of our commitment to the industry.”

THEAGENCY
Confident that its offer is unique outside the largest London agencies, this agency is one that aims to grow places, fast

With any expanding business it’s important to maintain and nurture the start up culture,” says Saman Mansourpour, co-founder of TheAgency. “It’s never about an individual but working collectively as a team.”

The Bath-based agency is achieving this by recruiting “the right kind of people”. Those who are engaged, collaborative and passionate about what they do.  “We look to employ people with a range of skills and experience, so our teams complement each other and we ensure diversity,” adds Mansourpour.

The agency launched last year at a time of cost-cutting and saving. However, its founders were confident that its service was one well suited to the climate. “We knew that starting a business with low overheads that offered high level, senior strategic and creative thinking to blue chip organisations was not a risky strategy,” says Mansourpour. “The recession has given us a tremendous opportunity to acquire large pieces of business from very large competing agencies.”

The core team comprises of several strategic and creative directors that have known and worked together for some time. Mansourpour began his career with Air Products. He switched to agency life after becoming European marketing manager at the age of 23 – prior to establishing TheAgency he worked for Rapier; Partner Amy Stobie has held executive and associate director positions for The Goodwill Group, Crystal UK, Crone Corkill and Financial Search Selection; while exec creative director Rajnish Razdan began his career with Omnicom, launching the American Express Black card as well as working for the likes of LloydsTSB and Vodafone.

But, after a successful launch, which included winning UK brands like BSM, how can the partners continue to push the business forward? “With any fast growing business, it is the practical issues around the management and expansion of head count, infrastructure and financial planning that we all know give us growing pains,” suggests Mansourpour. “Thankfully, what we don’t need to worry about is our new business. That is why we spend a considerable amount of time forward planning our growth, minimising its effect on the day to day operation. We’re confident we have put a robust plan in place to continue to grow successfully.”

“However, because of our rapid growth,” continues Mansourpour, “the issue of finding the right new people in the short term has been one that’s needed addressing.” To that end, TheAgency has set up an exclusive partnership with a recruiter to manage the time and vetting process. “We now have first pick from the brightest talent, most of them with a London agency background, which gives us a distinct advantage as we continue to expand,” adds the co-founder.

And that’s probably just as well, as when asked what to forecast for the near future for TheAgency, Mansourpour is quick to respond: “Rapid, managed growth over the next five years.”

BEYOND THE BOOK
Reputation is just one measure of success for this firm that is reversing the perceptions of the recruitment industry

We’re not a traditional recruitment agency,” says Beyond The Book’s Anna Smith. “We have structured ourselves so that we can adapt to whatever is thrown at us.”

Just as well, as the recruitment sector was one of the hardest hit as the economy nose-dived last year.

Whilst a recession would inevitably mean there would be fewer people to find on behalf of the industry, Beyond The Book felt that its vision would align itself well to the challenges that the industry is facing. As such, it is focussing on developing a business that fits with industry needs. With that comes faith that, as the caution lifts, the business will gain the success it deserves. 

“There are clients out there still wanting to work with a number of recruiters and generate a robust amount of CVs and we are able to work this way,” says Smith. “But, we are also operating like a silent partner to save our clients and prospective clients time when they have a freelance, interim or perm requirement.

“Our strong network of partners, friends and past colleagues, coupled with how we are embracing emerging technologies, is enabling us to search very effectively for talented people.”

Smith and her business partner Sally Moist have many years of industry experience. Smith worked agency, client and supplier side for 16 years. She worked in the DM industry, rising through the ranks of account management at agencies such as The Chapter One Group, Interfocus, WWAV West, Golley Slater Direct and EHS Brann, and client side for Barclays Retail Marketing team, before moving to Blue Skies recruitment to manage the freelance and interim sector.  Meanwhile, Moist has spent 12 years within the recruitment industry.

“I guess the biggest challenge,” says Smith, “has been opening up conversations with businesses that have been heavily swamped with recruiter and candidate communications. We were prepared for that and totally empathise and, as such, our objective of any approach has been purely informative and personable.

“Challenges are not a negative thing as far as we are concerned and we are hoping for lots of challenging briefs to be thrown our way.”

As is the case for most start-ups in this climate, the founders are keeping costs as low as possible, but their investment in networking means that they don’t rely on advertising or expensive office space. “We are a people business and we need to be out there meeting people and prospective clients,” says Smith.

“Our model is working and we couldn’t be happier that the way we want to work is also working for the industry. We’ve helped clients with quick last minute creative/artwork support, fresh thinking strategic support for pitches, cost-effective long term partnerships, urgent permanent account management (post pitch win) and plenty of digital support.

She continues: “I have no doubt we’re going to get very busy and the trick will be maintaining the model and values of our business. We are confident we can achieve this by working with a core number of businesses as partners combined with a manageable number of briefs.

“We hope that next year will see us emerge as every agency’s preferred freelance and interim supplier and for our unique permanent recruitment proposition to have gathered pace.  But, by far the biggest measure of success for us will be a great reputation in the industry.”

ZEUS PR
While experience and knowledge are vital in business, the power of negotiation is a black art that we could all brush up on

PR is perhaps one of the easiest professions in which to start a business. It takes very little resource – as little as a phone and a computer – to get such a business off the ground. However, what it does take (to launch a PR firm successfully, at least) is plenty of knowledge, and no little experience. And, after 15 years earning her stripes in the PR industry, Anthea Fosti felt that the time was right to launch her own consultancy.

As such, Zeus PR was formed just over a year ago. In that time Fosti has built both her team and the agency’s client list. In fact, she claims that reaching her first anniversary in business with 15 strong, retained PR accounts – all of which are leaders in their own fields – is the proudest moment in her businesses career. To date.

Prior to the launch of Zeus, Fosti worked for two national PR consultancies before moving onto large retail chain Focus DIY (subsequently Focus Wickes) where, over a seven year period, she oversaw, in her role of Group Communications Controller, the PR comms to support the acquisitions of competitors Do It All, Great Mills and Wickes.

But in such a busy market, full of firms all looking to offer clients a PR service, what – except from the wide-reaching experience of the founder – sets Zeus apart from the other new firms entering the sector? “Complete transparency,” says Fosti. “From day one we align PR objectives to support our client’s business growth strategy, these then translate into deliverables which through our evaluation systems we ensure optimum delivery.”

This approach seems to be working. Fosti claims it’s hard to find the time to do her own PR such are the demands of the clients. Yet she aims to keep a finger to the pulse of the industry, which continues to morph and grow quickly. “Digital is moving so fast. We are keen to stay ahead of the competition with our online PR strategies,” she says.

Talking of future developments, what are Fosti’s plans for the future of Zeus PR? “We plan to grow our business by continuing to offer our clients hard working and creative campaigns, to develop our talented team and become ‘the first port of call’ for any company wishing to grow its brand. 

And as for the mistakes that she has learnt from? Well, one that we could all learn from, perhaps... “Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate – there is always a better deal!”

THE LITTLE BLACK BOOK AGENCY
Being the sole owner of a business can be daunting, with tough decisions to make and lessons to learn fast

In many ways, launching The Little Black Book Agency was a ‘no-brainer’,” says founder Gareth Wright. Like, most entrepreneurs, Wright had always intended to start up his own agency; “somewhere I could run the way I felt recruitment should be done and without a target-driven, sales environment,” he says.

“The company I worked for previously was struggling and eventually our Northern office was closed. After speaking to a number of clients and candidates to run the idea past them and receiving very encouraging feedback, I bit the bullet. With ad spend moving increasingly online and clients adjusting their propositions accordingly, the market was there; couple that with the gap in the market left by my previous company shutting its Northern doors and it was an obvious idea. We have a small operation that has the flexibility to adjust to client requirements and minimal overheads to keep costs down – the recession was a great time for us to launch.

”The Little Black Book Agency claims to be the first employment agency outside of London to specialise purely within the digital marketing sector. “We have a real passion for digital marketing and the development of the sector,” says Wright. “We wouldn’t be trusted by the best digital agencies in the region to help them grow, otherwise.”

While clients have been quick to work with The Little Black Book, Wright says that it hasn’t all been a natural progression for him. “Being the sole owner of The Little Black Book Agency, I have been responsible for all of the decision making, which has sometimes been rather daunting. I have some excellent friends and advisors in both the advertising and recruitment industries, who have been fantastic, but ultimately the buck stops with me. As well as decision making, I’ve had to become a laws and regulations, accounts and technology boffin in a very short space of time.”

However, his background in the industry has certainly helped. After completing a “highly useful” degree in Music, from The University of Manchester, he decided that busking was not his career of choice, so headed for London to begin a career in recruitment.

“I have now been recruiting digital staff for marketing and advertising agencies for six years and am proud to have placed some of the world’s most talented digital marketers into some of the UK’s top marketing companies. In London, I worked with the likes of Ogilvy, Saatchi & Saatchi, AKQA, Glue London, Dare Digital and Wunderman, and, in more recent years, I have been working with the best that the North of England has to offer.”

Despite getting off to a good start, it is perhaps ironic that one of Wright’s greatest hurdles could be in recruitment of his own staff. “I think that finding the right people to represent the brand as we grow will be challenging, largely because the business is so personal to me and so there’s a big element of trust needed. I’ve been lucky that the people who work for me now are people I already knew, so I’ve not had this issue. I’m sure I’ll be able to let go and be a little less protective in due course, though.”

And, if he could cut one cost from the business, what would that be? ”Recruitment costs,” he jokes. “Well, really, our biggest outlay, by a clear mile, is advertising. Advertising is really important to us – both for roles we are looking to fill and our own brand awareness. We advertise with all of the relevant trade press, their associated sites, industry-specific job boards and more generalist job boards, so there’s an awful lot of money goes on this and I’d be a very happy man if it was all free.

“But we definitely want to grow. Equally, it is important that we don’t grow too large, as I want to retain the flexibility we have, for the benefit of the clients we work with. There are still a number of companies in the region with whom we are yet to secure relationships and we will be working on developing this business a little later in the year.”

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