Interviews

Circus Street: Why keeping it in the family can be a good idea

10 min read

12 June 2015

Despite the plethora of horror stories about working with your nearest and dearest, it has been smooth sailing for brothers Richard and Jonny Townsend so far – one of whom is the "conscious thinker", while the other an "ambitious plate-spinner".

There are numerous reasons why working with family can be a pretty terrible experience. Gordon Ramsay was locked in a tricky legal battler with his father-in-law, who was previously the business manager of the Gordon Ramsay Group

When it comes to brothers, you only need to look as far as Noel and Liam Gallagher to question whether it’s ever a good idea to team up with relatives on projects you’re both passionate about.

For Richard and Jonny Townsend, however, it has been a recipe for success. Since establishing Circus Street in 2009, to teach people about media technology and its impact on marketing, the multi-platform online learning company has seen 60 per cent year-on-year revenue growth.

Their education product is used by businesses and individuals in 34 countries and internationally by four of the six major agency groups. The number of employees has steadily risen to stand at 25 today.

The brothers feel there was something serendipitous about the creation of Circus Street. Richard had worked across digital marketing and was previously MD at Starcom Digital, while Jonny had been in online education. Their working paths hadn’t crossed up until that point, though Richard said the two realised if they combined the two, a scaleable business proposition would be created.

“We were both really ambitious, had started in different sectors and kept advancing. I finally became MD of an international business, but that wasn’t enough. So, I contemplated what would give me satisfaction and I realised it would be starting my own business.”

He also pointed out that their father, a salesman, ran his own business, while their mother was a teacher. “Now we’re selling education, so sometimes things happen without you really knowing, but for a reason,” he said.

Despite the fortuitous arrangement, surely there are still clashes in opinion as to how things should be done when you have two driven individuals vying over delivering a high-quality product?

“We both have very commercial backgrounds, but realised we have very different skill sets, so we can get on without stepping on each other’s toes,” Jonny explained. “We’re selling to Richard’s sector, and we recognised that ultimately someone has to make the final decision. So, he gets to be MD and I’m the ops director.”

“I’m the older brother, but I’m effectively second in command,” he said. They feel that dithering over who gets the final say would cause more trouble. “You have to remember it’s better to make a decision than not make one at all,” Jonny added.

The advantage of working as brothers is the lack of social niceties needed. “There are no politics between us, there are short-circuit conversations and we get to the nub of matters very quickly,” Jonny explained. “We can circumvent worrying about how something said is going to be received, and we can say things you’d never say to anyone else. If one of us gets offended, we’re over it in a couple of minutes.”

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Interestingly, Richard is the more “collegiate” of the pair, admitting he tends to “look for consensus”, whereas Jonny is “more forthright and makes decisions clearly” which suits operations nicely. When describing them, Richard says, “I’m the conscious thinker, while he’s the ambitious plate-spinner”.

The brothers’ ability to mesh their strengths has showcased itself in the education offering that has been a hit with so many big companies looking to train up staff in the world of digital. The team is so confident in the product that when potential new clients ask about the services, Circus Street tells them who its main competitors are, providing a direct side-by-side comparison, allowing them to trial all the options and plump for their preference. Which, it seems, more often than not, turns out to be Circus Street.

The crucial criteria for the content they create is making it engaging through immersive environments and impressive animation – with a real emphasis on interaction. Brands or agencies often hope to train numerous employees about media and communications technology and its impact on marketing, so Circus Street has to invest in content, interactivity and engagement, so the courses are delivered properly.

Image: Shutterstock

To illustrate this point, they cite David Attenborough. “If the BBC did Life on Earth and said to David Attenborough, ‘put some slides together and we’ll put them online’, it wouldn’t be the same. You wouldn’t stick David Attenborough in front of a flip chart – you’d send him to the Galapagos Islands.” The same principle of cultivating interactivity and engagement is the same with their product – combining entertainment with education.

Customer feedback is monitored extensively – the sales team are in regular contact with clients to hear about what they like and what they don’t. “Some would say it’s great we can access it out of hours, but I really want to be able to use it on my commute,” the brothers explained. “Up until then we had been focused on desktop, so this triggered us looking into apps.”

Circus Street also offers a talent map to test people on the way in and the way out of the courses to assess how and where they’re learning. “It’s all about making it more personal and constantly experimenting with it. Google Cardboard was recently announced, so we’ve been experimenting with how we could put a VR lesson onto Google Cardboard.” The brothers reinforced that they “always have time for innovation”.

Those recruited to the Circus Street team are encouraged to consider how the product can be improved – the brothers mention a few under-25s who had found tech they thought could make a difference. “We’ve incorporated them and seen improved communications and efficiency,” Jonny said.

The next steps then, involve planning for the future, as the client base keeps growing. “Initially, it was about developing and now it’s about scaling. We’ve just done a deal with a major brand that will give us a presence across 119 countries,” said Richard.

When the company launched back in 2009, they had expected it to be a UK-based company, but now Circus Street is having to think of itself as an international business. By the end of this year, the brothers are expecting to have increased staff to 35 and are looking towards international offices and other markets, including America.

“There are some very distinct characteristics – they like to buy American products,” Jonny said. “You also have to start planning everything from international lawyers to setting up offices in other countries.”

The company is currently in the process of moving offices to Charing Cross, but had been based in Shoreditch up until then. The general populace of the area is known to consist of “hipsters, hackers and hustlers”, and Richard says their company makeup has all of those – setting them apart from some other businesses. He pointed to “the creatives” as the hipsters, “animators and coders” as the hackers and “marketers, sales and managers” as the hustlers. Having all the skills existing within the organisation “has made all the difference” in their opinion.

Reflecting on their progress so far, the brothers mentioned starting up a company in the depths of a recession and seeing it grow, as a particularly proud achievement. 

“Banks weren’t lending to anyone – let alone us! We had to use our own funds, and we’ve turned over £1m in sales last year and are predicting £2.5m this year,” said Richard. 

The recognition from clients has also been notable. Jonny said with international media businesses saying it has the best product in the world, and achieving that in three and a half years from nothing, “is something we’re proud of”.