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How to grow a start-up: Flexible working, investing in staff and team bonding are crucial, say these entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurs behind fast-growing digital marketing agency Impression share their tips on how to grow a start-up - and what they'd have done differently

Getting up and running is the easy bit for a budding entrepreneur – but finding the right strategy on how to grow a start-up is a step too far for some.

Luckily for Tom Craig and Aaron Dicks, the young entrepreneurs behind Nottingham digital marketing agency Impression, they have stirred up their own recipe for success.

Not only have they grown from a duo when they set up the agency in November 2012 aged 26 and 22 respectively to a team of more than 40 now, but they have picked up numerous mid-sized clients and awards along the way – including being named the fastest-growing company in the Midlands with 949% over the past four years in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 earlier this month.

Mr Craig talks to Compelo about the secrets behind its rapid growth, the importance of a company culture and his thoughts on the four-day week.

 

What’s the story behind how Impression started?

We both met while studying at the University of Leeds. I relocated to Nottingham for a graduate job, with Aaron soon following.

Having worked in-house, client-side with a number of agencies and spotting a gap in the market in Nottingham, Aaron and I decided to set up Impression.

 

How have you grown since and what’s been the reasons behind this?

As we’re profit-funded, growth at the start was relatively slow, but the growth really started to gain traction during the summer of 2014.

Since then, we’ve quite rapidly grown to a team of 42 across search engine optimisation (SEO), paid media (PPC) and web development.

Many of our new business enquiries come through referrals from existing clients and word of mouth.

We also practise what we preach and our own digital marketing efforts are paying off as we receive a steady volume of enquiries through our website.

 

How does it feel to gain recognition such as the Deloitte Fast 50 Technology award?

Deloitte UK Technology Fast 50 Awards 2018, Impression, how to grow a start-up
Impression founders Tom Craig and Aaron Dicks picking up their award for the fastest-growing company in the Midlands at the Deloitte UK Technology Fast 50 Awards 2018

This is huge for us. We are one of only two businesses in the Midlands to feature in the list and we were networking with some of the UK’s leading fastest growing technology businesses.

 

You’re both young entrepreneurs – tell us what that’s like? What challenges have you faced along the way and how do you manage to keep on the ball with a company that’s constantly growing?

I’d say there are pros and cons. Being younger means we may be able to take slightly more risk than if we were settled with a family, for example.

It meant we were able to work longer hours in the early days.

At the same time, we may lack in experience compared to some business owners who are onto their third or fourth business, or who have previously exited in a specific industry and then started up again in the same industry – with their contacts and industry knowledge.

We’re constantly working to find new ways of doing things, and are always trialling and testing new processes and software to help us to manage our growth.

We also take part in professional growth programmes, including Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses and Google Partners Accelerate.

The Impression office in Nottingham

These courses have helped us to fully understand the importance of planning in achieving the business growth we’re looking for.

Where possible, we recruit experience into the team and, where required, we use external consultants too.

 

There seems to be a never-ending stream of digital marketing agencies popping up now – why is this and how do you manage to create your own space within this sector to remain competitive?

I’d say more digital marketing agencies are probably starting up as there’s relatively low barriers to entry, and it’s a growing sector.

The area has always been competitive and will continue to be.

For us, it’s really about building the best team we can, and being “customer-obsessed”.

Retention is a key factor in our growth and we need to deliver on each and every client account, or we’ll start to lose clients and future referrals.

To help us do this, we place a huge emphasis on training, from technical to client service.

As myself and Aaron are both developers, we also look to automate where we can and implement software to make our team and client’s lives easier.

This also helps us to get a better understanding of everything going on in the business, from staff happiness to client results and satisfaction.

 

You employ lots of young people – what are the benefits and challenges of having a youthful workforce?

We are quite a young agency overall, with the average age around 27.

Employing a number of graduates onto our grad scheme each year certainly contributes to a lower age average.

With that said, our senior team members in some cases have ten years’ experience, having worked in other agencies and in-house roles.

Impression staff at the European Search Awards 2018

The benefits of having quite a young team are that we tend to have quite an active social life together.

I believe this facilitates greater collaboration and a willingness to be honest and open among friends, rather than feeling they have to be “on show” among colleagues.

Each and every member of our team is hungry for success and everyone pushes hard to achieve that, both individually and together.

Another challenge, I guess, would be perceptions – though even this has never really been a problem.

Because we’ve invested a lot in our brand, the agency is well-placed to be perceived as expert and authoritative, while the work we do speaks for itself, which means that when people do meet us face-to-face, though we may appear quite young, they’re bought into our ability to deliver great results.

What’s been really nice about having a younger team is that everyone’s growing with us, so we’ve got people going on maternity/paternity leave, getting engaged, getting married, buying first homes – everyone’s maturing personally as well as professionally as a part of Impression, which is really cool to see.

 

How important is establishing a company culture and how would you describe yours?

A strong company culture is essential, particularly in a fast-growth business.

We are trying to create a great place to work and this is very much led by our culture.

We invest a lot of time into training and personal development.

We very much have an “always learning” culture, and encourage attendance at conferences, as well as setting aside time to read blogs and watch digital marketing-related videos and talks.

The Impression office in Nottingham

We’re keen to innovate and have an internal “Impression Labs” initiative, where members of the team are constantly running experiments and sharing the outcomes of these during our bi-weekly lunch and learn sessions.

We’d like to think we’ve created a very open and supportive culture too.

For example, some of our seniors run drop-in sessions where more junior members of the team can drop in and ask questions or request support on creating a strategy or delivering certain tasks.

The culture of the business is bound to change as it grows, but at its core lie our values of innovation, commitment to excellence and the drive to create the best place to work.

As long as we stay true to these values and we continue to behave them as well as speak of them, we’ll be able to retain it.

 

What’s your thoughts on the four-day working week and would you ever consider implementing one?

We believe in flexibility in the workplace and recognise that, especially in more creative industries, different people work better in different settings.

Something we implemented quite early on was the “core hours” around which people can flex depending on their preferences.

So everyone is in the office from 10am to 4pm, but some start early and other stay later.

That’s allowed our teams to feel more in control of their working hours, whilst still having consistency to ensure someone is always available to our clients.

We also allow people to work from home where appropriate and are open to unusual requests such as longer leave or making up hours elsewhere.

Impression, Tom Craig, Aaron Dicks, how to grow a start-up
Impression founders Tom Craig and Aaron Dicks

Four-day working weeks have been proven to work for some companies but, to be honest, it’s not something we see ourselves implementing soon.

With the flexibility we already have in place, one of the things our colleagues’ feedback shows is that they appreciate the level of work-life balance they’ve been able to achieve at Impression, so it’s really not necessary for us at this time.

 

Is there anything you’d have done differently since you started out? What’s been your biggest mistake?

Looking back, our first day rate (price) was probably lower than it should have been and this had an impact on growth and profitability in the early days.

If we were to do the same again, I’d suggest allocating time to completing a thorough competitor research project and thinking about positioning.

In the early days, we were also a little naive around payment terms and quite slow at chasing overdue payments.

We have since signed up to direct debit collection software, and this has been one of our best investments to date.

We also used to try to do our own contracts but have since learned that it’s better off to leave this sort of thing with professionals, so I’d suggest investing in a good client services contract as early as possible.

 

What advice would you have for other start-ups trying to find their way?

My top tip is to always invest in your team. For us, there’s no more important part of our business than the people in it, so we do a lot to create a great place to work and to facilitate everyone’s personal development.

With a great team in place, as a business owner, you can then look to delegate and the support you get from your team can really surprise you and change the way your business grows.

For myself and Aaron, that’s meant building a really solid senior management team who we can rely on to make positive changes and contribute to our ongoing success, and I’m sure that’s what the guys would say about their teams too.

In addition, it’s worth investing properly in external advisors, too, such as lawyers, an accountant and an insurance broker – just in case!