By Richard Bruton, Founder and CEO of Propeller
Let’s start this off on the right foot – this is my experience of building a digital marketing agency after 20 years in the industry. There’s no one ‘right’ way – and I certainly don’t want to put you off your approach, but here’s the journey of Propeller. According to Startups, SMEs account for 99.9% of the UK’s business population – a critical part of our economy. Over the years I’ve made my fair share of decisions – some right, and some wrong – but I’ve learnt a lot along the way.
Overall, I’ve found that building a sustainable business boils down to four key areas:
- Client relationships
- Your team
How you build and grow each of these is totally up to you, but here’s my two cents on how to build a business that is more than just an extension of the founder.
Think about the problem first, then the product.
Keep it simple. If you can’t explain your product or service in under 60 seconds, it’s too complicated. If in doubt, go back to Seth Godin’s marketing principles; you can make a key for a lock but if you don’t have a lock in the first place, the key is useless. In simple terms, if you haven’t found an audience with a problem that needs solving, you’re going to struggle to sell your product to them.
Your plan and vision should always be front and centre.
Take it slow and steady.
When it comes to capital, it’s about retaining, rather than diluting.
Two important questions to ask when considering any sort of funding/capital/investment:
- What can I afford?
- What’s the risk?
I personally have a lower risk appetite than most founders but the speed at which you want to grow and manoeuvre will determine how much capital you need. Just make sure you can retain control, play a part in the big decisions, and be strategic in your approach.
And remember, anything you borrow… will need to be paid back one day.
Of course, my approach was more conservative, but a high investment and rapid growth strategy has worked with brilliant ideas in the past. The concepts that are first to market need to accelerate quickly with an investment infrastructure to get it off the ground – but this doesn’t apply to everyone.
For me, the ‘slow and steady’ approach was the right model.
Many businesses get swept up in the ‘success’ of raising a lot of money – don’t get me wrong, it can work and be profitable, but your cash position as a start-up needs to be carefully considered, and your ambitions need to be set accordingly.
Focus on them, not you.
When we invest effort into building relationships with a client, we’re looking for more than just a sale – we want to build a partnership and something long term. One of our early success stories is Young’s, the pub group. Over 10 years ago, we digitised their business with simple brochure websites that included all the info a customer would need in deciding to make a visit. And now look at the hospitality industry – completely driven by online info and recommendations. Now, I’m not saying we single-handedly revolutionised digital in the hospitality sector but our relationship with Young’s is stronger than ever and we continue to push boundaries to drive customers into their business. Partnerships over sales, any day.
Do you know why?
Because when you’re trying to help someone win their battles, it becomes your battle too. It becomes personal.
A great company keeps great company.
In terms of hiring and recruiting it’s about more than capability. Interestingly, even though I’ve been part of building a tech-driven agency, I’m not a natural tech guy. I understand how we bring products to market and can challenge the way we do things, but there are many better tech brains in our business who have their finger on the pulse. In a nutshell, hire people whose strengths are your weaknesses…and whose company you enjoy.
This is vital in building a sustainable business. You spend more time with the people you work with than anyone else, and when you have senior people that are loyal and in it with you, its infectious and it makes people want to be part of something. So, when it comes to your recruitment strategy, think about more than capability. There are lots of capable people out there. Think about personability, individuality, and the type of people you want to have a beer with.
Now that’s my experience of building a sustainable business that is more than just ‘you’. A lot of it is about structuring your business so you can enjoy the process for a long time to come.
- Sell a product that solves a problem and makes a difference
- Take your time to make educated decisions on what you can afford
- Treat your clients with the same respect as an age-old friend
- Hire talented people who you enjoy spending 8 hours a day with
With a pinch of patience and a sprinkle of courage, these four things will put you well on your way to building a sustainable business.
Propeller is a web development agency with over 20 years of experience creating unique digital experiences for brands. Our approach to website development fuses creativity, technology and data analysis – giving you the platform you need to reach new audiences and engage your existing customers.