Thank you for visiting this page. Below you will find a copy of the presentation and some speaker notes to help you remember the context of the slides. Connect with me on Linkedin.
This talk was written to share Jamie’s 20 + years in digital marketing building three successful digital marketing companies, all of which have had an SEO element to them. The content herein remains the property of Escaping Gravity Ltd. and cannot be copied or remixed without prior written consent.
How to build an agency with no funding, and succeed.
In order to succeed in anything you need to overcome what is holding you back. To launch into space you need to escape gravity, the very thing that holds us all down. In life as in business, we need to overcome what is holding us down if we are to succeed. Speakers at Brighton SEO will overcome anxiety and nerves to get up and speak. They will have had to do the day jab and find time to research, write and practice their speech. For every success there are barriers that have been overcome.
My business trajectory
My name is Jamie Riddell and I have been building digital agencies since 1999. My first business was founded with a £5,000 overdraft growing to a twelve million pound exit just seven years later. My second business started with an idea I had, building it to sales in 120 countries that came to a close in 2018. This third business called Escaping Gravity is just 3 years old and heading for the stars.
I have never raised any funding and cannot claim to be an expert on other types of funding. But what I can share is my experiences of building agencies with no funding. Some of the early successes and early failures I had continue to shape how I build businesses today.
So what have I learnt? Let me share ten learnings which I hope may be valuable.
There is never a good time to start a business!
I put these slides together in August and you can see they are out of date! To be fair if I had made them last week they’d be out of date! Most importantly there is never a perfect time to start your business or go to freelance. Never. I started my first business in December 1999 when just 21% of the UK’s population had internet access. Your mobile phones today will have faster connection speeds than we did back then. It was great to be ahead of the curve but our job back then was to convince brands about the importance of ‘the Internet’ not just paid search vs SEO.
The year 2000 wasn’t too great either. Our first full year of trading saw the Daily Mail label ‘the Internet’ as a passing fad and later that year we saw the start of the Dotcom bomb. Any interest brands had in trying online advertising was rapidly disappearing.
But we soldiered on, into 2001 and things were looking up. We had a growing team and a growing business with travel clients. On the morning of 9/11 we watched the news, sent our teams home and assumed that was the end of the business. But we kept going and ultimately succeeded.
1999, 2000, 2001 were not great times to start a business but then when is? Carpe Diem – seize the day. We cannot change the world today we just have to make our own moves.
Define Success and Identify your gravity
What does success look like for you and what is holding you back? If you can answer those two questions you can build a plan to overcome them. Success may be private jets, fast cars or a box at Brighton & Hove Albion or it may be working for yourself or being there for your family. It doesn’t matter.
Defining your gravity can be lack of experience, I was 24 when I launched my first business. It could be a lack of savings or a lack of confidence. All of these things can be overcome with planning and effort.
My goals were to be around for my newborn daughter. At the time I was living in Suffolk and commuting to London every day. A 5 hour round trip in the days before mobile internet and decent laptops. I wanted to get paid a decent wage for the job I loved without the commute. There were no such jobs in sleepy Suffolk so I had to make my own.
What was my gravity? Apart from no-one using the Internet, lack of experience, lack of funding, a five hour commute and parenthood our local village did not have ’the Internet’ so we had to the it wired so I could start working from home. At that time, as now< I got asked “where is Suffolk?” And “how do you get out of bed in the morning?” The answer to that question was very simple. If I didn’t work I didn’t get paid. I also had lots of people saying, “yeah I was going to set up my own business” but never did.
Finding the right business partner
If you are setting up your business you might need some help. If you can do it alone then great. But think about how you are going to build this business and what you want it to be. Can you find a partner that shares your vision, your goals. And potentially without funding, can you afford a business partner?
I was very lucky, my business partner is my wife. We met in a London agency and shared the same vision and goals. We considered other business partners but they wanted the big salaries, the company cars and all th trimmings on day one, which we just couldn’t afford.
So I stand here today as just one half of the story. Together we have made sacrifices, escaped gravity and built three successful businesses without funding. As a business partner she has my back and I have hers. She has skills that I don’t possess and vice versa. We cover each other’s blind spots and become stronger for it.
Building a business can be a lonely process. If you can find, and afford a business partner it could make things easier.
Establish Your Point of Difference
You need to find where you can excel, where you can make a point of difference that is not about price. For any service business, not just a self funded startup you need to find that niche. For every potential client you can work with, there could be 4, 5 competitors in this room alone. So you need to find that point of difference.
It is something I am proud that we have found in all three of our companies. I am not saying we woke up on day one with this point of difference but that we worked and evolved to clearly present a difference and a reason to talk to us.
The first business Cheeze, initially stood out because there was only a handful of independent agencies in the UK. We then built a specialism in the travel sector and used that to establish our point of difference. For our our second business, BirdSong Analytics we spotted a gap in the market for ‘pay as you go’ analytics. Everything else was monthly fees so it wasn’t hard to stand out. With great SEO we took it to sales in 120 countries making it truly the world’s leading pay as you go analytics platform as competitors started to appear.
With Escaping Gravity we position ourselves as an SEO consultancy for Challenger Brands. As a challenger ourselves we understand the unique challenges these businesses face so we can better support them. It means we have a clear point of difference to anyone else and it works.
Consider how you can find that difference. Is it sector specific, is it one discipline like local SEO or is it a unique approach that you can demonstrate clearly.
Encourage Cash Flow
Here is another slide that hasn’t dated well over the past month! To grow the business without funding you may need additional capital. But do you have to borrow it?
In our first business we bought advertising on behalf of our clients. That meant we were liable for the ad spend so it was crucial that our clients paid us. There was no way we could afford to pay up hundreds of thousands of pounds in ad spend if our client went bust. We were too young to get credit insurance so we had to ask for prepayment. Hands down the best decision we ever took – and one I credit to Katherine, my business partner.
With prepayment we could get rid of our overdraft and never ask for funding again. By managing our costs and our spend we ensured that the company could grow without asking for loans or investment.
Think about that today. Are there ways you can encourage shorter payment terms or prepayment? Can you offer clients a discount in return for better terms? To use some basic numbers, if you wanted to borrow £100,000 it could cost you upwards of 10% a year. At the same time the client may be sitting on £100,000 and getting, at best, 1% interest. Is there a half way house? Can you offer a client discount that is better than keeping it in the bank? In these challenging times this has to be something to consider.
Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves
Or in short, don’t spend money you don’t have to. If you have done the hard work of encouraging cash flow, don’t throw it away by singing up for annual subscriptions or the gold plated option where the basic will do. In time you can upgrade or take the annual discounts, but whilst you are growing and self funded try and pay for what you need when you need it. Look after your cashflow and everything gets easier.
Hope for the best plan for the worst
Again this doesn’t have to be just for self funded companies. By nature I am an optimist, my business partner is a realist! You can get lost in dreaming about all the wonderful thing a business can achieve, but have you planned for what could go wrong? What happens if your client’s website gets kicked out of Google or a client goes bust owing you money? Plan for the worst and you won’t be kept awake at night worrying about the future.
Get it in writing. Always
There are no friends in business. Getting agreements in writing, like a contract, ensures you have a solid foundation for working together with clients. A contract sets out what is expected on both sides – maybe an SLA, an agreement on which markets you are optimizing for – and how and when you will get paid.
I am unapologetic about the size of our client contracts. They are here to protect both parties.
In our first business our contracted clients would need to sign off any additional spend. They would fax it back and the office would rejoice as another fax came in giving us the green light to book advertising. One Friday afternoon as we were slowing down for the weekend, the fax pinged. A team member rushed to the machine to grab the good news, only to bring it directly to me. This was a legal letter informing us we were being sued. Instead of going home I had to call our lawyer, than find a barrister who could represent us. Not the best start to a weekend.
Don’t scrimp on professional costs
In the morning Katherine got up around 5 am and started writing our defence. By mid morning a first draft was done so we tried to make the day more positive. With a sick feeling on our stomachs but a smile on our face we took our daughter to the seaside and taught her to ride a bike. That’s the picture you see.
If we didn’t have a contract, or didn’t have a solicitor I wouldn’t be on this stage today. Because a £100 cform downloaded from the internet would not have saved us.
On a more positive note, when you sell a business for £12m you may have to pay a lot of tax. Without a decent accountant we may have paid the wrong amount or fallen foul of rules we didn’t know existsed.
This may seem contrary to previous statements but do not scrimp on professional services. They are there to protect you. Pay up.
Look after Yourself
Something I am not good at doing. There are no prizes for burning out, there are no rewards for limping into the weekend drained. Building a business with no funding is really really tough – you have to build the company, win the business, do the business, make the tea, write the presentations and so much more. Find a way to cope with these challenges. Run, Pray, Meditate – find the coping mechanism that works for you. I struggle to meditate and cannot find the time to run so please do what I preach not do what I do.
And finally, accept luck. Business as in life with have it’s share of bad luck and good luck.
What a Way to Make a Living!
Escaping Gravity, or building a business without funding can be very very tough. But it can be equally rewarding. I hope this morning that you have found at least one point that you can take away and build upon. Or if you are an entrepreneur you are already looking at this and thinking I can do better. All power to you!