Over the last five years, the South West has seen an astounding number of new creative businesses start up and last year was no exception. With the toughest financial conditions of the last 50 years, increased competition, tighter client budgets, huge changes in consumer behaviour and the shifting media landscape all colliding together to squeeze the bottom line of even the region’s most established companies, why decide that now is the best time to launch a creative business when it seems the world is stacked against you?
At first glance it’s not as if the South West is short of TV indies, post houses, PR consultancies, design and digital agencies. When you look through last year’s Top 100 (and the 259 who didn’t quite make it and, of course, those who didn’t submit a survey), the volume, shapes, sizes and sheer diversity of creative companies peddling their wares in the region is nothing less than staggering.
Okay, yes, a chunk of these, some would say are ‘embryonic’, ‘fragile’ and with the wrong wind would be blown speedily away along with last night’s fish and chip wrappers. Others of course would contest this is all part of an exciting, dynamic business ecology and sector life cycle.
Whatever the position, the reality is that lots of us agree that creative and business life across the region (and of course all over the UK) has been and still is immensely challenging.
So what exactly makes anyone want to invest their hard-earned cash in starting a new venture, risking it all to join the creative throng in an attempt to take a slice of the market?
The best time to start up?
“The downturn gave me the confidence to go it alone and build a design consultancy that could offer clients better value for money without making any creative compromises”, said founder Matthew Fairweather. His company opened its doors at Paintworks in June 2009 and has subsequently shot into the South West Top 100 at position 74
“Yes, budgets were cut, clients were anxious, and if you believed everything you read, you wouldn’t bother getting out of bed in the morning”.
But having worked as a consultant for numerous other firms, Matt says the motivation to “go it alone” and develop and grow his own client relationships was an opportunity he just couldn’t ignore.
“I started my consultancy in Bristol because I’d heard so much about the dynamic and exciting sector that existed here. I was sure that, with the right approach and ability to offer clients great creative, strong account management and a focus on value and ROI, whatever the conditions, prospects would give us the chance, even if the economy was tough.” So for us, the downturn gave us a huge opportunity to put our plans and ideas into action, highlight and communicate our proposition in a compelling and easy-to-understand way. So far there’s been no looking back”.
The same goes for mobile developers, Mubaloo, who started life in early 2009. In spite of very tough trading conditions, founder Mark Mason believed there was just a huge opportunity to start something new.
Having sold his previous company, Mason Zimbler, a few years earlier, Mark was on the lookout for his next venture and his recently acquired, shiny, new iPhone seemed to have some of the answers.
“After playing for a few days and researching what sort of apps were being developed and the apparent growth around the mobile sector, I got hugely excited by the potential of the B2B and B2C smart phone apps market”.
Mubaloo was soon launched, offering smartphone and iPhone development for companies wishing to venture into the mobile space and broaden their brand experience.
“I wanted to launch and grow the business as fast as possible. It’s clear that there is a small window of opportunity in the app market and I knew that we needed to establish ourselves very quickly and steal a march on our competitors”.
Peter Swain of AlwaysOnMessage, another mobile company which formed in mid-2009 agrees:
“The motivation behind starting AlwaysOnMessage was simply to fill the gap in the market. Obviously the recession was a concern, but we felt (and still feel) that the growth in this particular market far outweighed the risks of the recession.”
Getting down to real business
Personal drive and a passion and belief that they can make it on their own are all enviable traits and of course many of us can only dream of having our fingers sufficiently on the pulse so as to be able to identify potentially lucrative gaps in the market. But the real hard work only starts when you fling open the doors and tell the world you are officially open for business.
So how did some of our new Top 100 stars turn all those ideas, that energy and drive into hardcore, tangible business?
“Play to your strengths and employ the skills you possess, the ones that made you want to set up the business in the first place ”, says Swain. This was the case at AlwaysOnMessage, as Peter’s background in marketing helped him accelerate the growth of his company in the early days, leveraging SEO and online marketing to ensure a “steady stream of early leads” knocked on the door as soon as possible.
For Matthew Fairweather, it was a case of aggressively seeking new business in an area that was rapidly expanding and where they had already developed strong case studies and experience.
“We targeted the renewable energy sector and really focused our attention around that market. We fully believed that clients, especially in tough times, would buy solid experience and agency track record. We also ensured that our first employees, two designers, were happy and comfortable to pick up the phone and talk to prospects about our work. It was imperative in the early months that everyone could help each other out and that we all pulled together to do whatever it took to grow and develop the business.”
And the strategy appears to have worked. Just weeks after taking on their first employees, Matthew Fairweather picked up new accounts with green energy companies Timoleon and Airvolution.
Mubaloo employed a similar strategy. Having launched the company, according to Mason, it was “all about acquiring the first major blue chip client” and it soon came in name of financial giant AXA insurance.
The team designed an app that allows users to make a car insurance claim on their smartphones. It proved a huge hit and it wasn’t long before the AA came knocking wanting something similar.
“After that first big business win, the rest seemed to follow. It wasn’t until January 2010, after a stream of wins and existing clients coming back for more, that I finally felt we’d crossed the line and that the business was going to be a success.”
Cutting to the chase
We asked many of the company MDs who’ve made the Top 100 list for the first time this year to highlight their ‘top tips’ for starting a business when times are tough. Not surprisingly, many came back with the same answers. So to conclude, here’s an insight into the minds of those who’ve bucked the trend and turned apparent adversity into one very big juicy opportunity and have successfully established themselves on the South West’s creative scene.
The overriding and most fundamental piece of advice was to clearly define and communicate what you do and what you’re offering. With a never-ending amount of social media tools available, take the opportunity to set up company blogs, LinkedIn profiles and use Twitter to build up interest in what you’re doing. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how many potential clients are lurking; so never miss the chance to engage in industry chat and post insightful comments.
Target the right sort of clients. When times are hard, clients tend not to like to take risks, so they appoint and work with people who tend to be a safe pair of hands. Demonstrate your experience and expertise with relevant case studies and results, and always try to show a solid return on investment.
Conversely, if you can’t do that, then don’t worry. Try going for the value for money approach. When clients’ budgets are being squeezed and they’re looking to get more for their spend, a timely phone call or e-mail form a young, ambitious entrepreneurial company might just pay dividends.
We’ll leave the last word to Mark Mason, who encapsulates simply and perfectly the key attributes of any new business, whatever the outside world is gearing up to throw at you: “Employ great people, keep an eye on the detail, look after clients and, most of all, market the hell out of your business!”