Role and company:
Founder and managing director of TopLine Communications.
Company turnover (and most recent ebitda/most relevant profitability metric):
£920,000, profitability = 12 per cent
Growth forecast for the next three years:
Our target is £2.5m turnover / 20 per cent profitability within three years.
In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace:
TopLine stands out for three reasons: we take a data-driven approach to PR and digital marketing, making decisions based on evidence and reporting on results based on business outcomes. Our services include digital marketing, PR, video and animation, social media and SEO. Our people are smart, professional and process-driven.
What’s the big vision for your business?
To be a top-five European communications consultancy by 2023.
Current level of international business, and future aspirations:
We do a lot of business in the US and Canada, especially helping technology companies to gain traction in Europe via the UK. This is an area of the business I would like to expand eventually, but there is still a fair bit of opportunity in the UK too, so we are focussing our efforts domestically at present.
Biggest career setback and what you learned from it:
When I set up the business I gave too much equity away to investors in the hopes that they would introduce new clients. This was a mistake and I had to fight very hard to get the equity back after the business started turning a profit. It was a very expensive lesson, but I am glad I learned it early in my career and I will be very careful who I go into business with in future.
What makes you mad in business today?
Spinelessness makes me mad! If you have to have a difficult conversation, man up and do it. Don’t just skirt around the issue or avoid talking to someone.
What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?
Marketing is going digital, which is great news for agencies like us. That’s because digital campaigns are easier to measure, test and adapt than traditional campaigns, which means better business value.
Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?
It’s not easy. We’re service businesses, which means we don’t have many assets, which makes securing finance difficult. We applied for a loan from our bank earlier this year to finance our office move and we were offered 14 per cent with personal guarantees from both company directors. When you consider that we had a healthy bank balance at the time and a great relationship with our bank, this was an awful deal.
In the US, accessing finance through government schemes that support small business is far easier and I would love to see some of those initiatives piloted here.
How would others describe your leadership style?
I think the team at TopLine would say that I expect a lot from them, I’m honest in my feedback, I don’t let them get away with missing details and I take feedback on board to make changes to the business. It’s quite a democratic environment, but I am also extremely blunt and not very tolerant of excuses.
Your biggest personal extravagance?
I have many, but the two that spring to mind are taxis and yoga. I justify spending a lot on taxis by the time they save and I have a personal yoga instructor who comes to my house on Saturdays.
You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:
Mr Cameron, I think you should apply the Boris Bikes model to the UK small business sector. Five years ago, no one cycled in London. We were all terrified of being knocked over and it hadn’t really occurred to us that we could cycle to work when there was a perfectly good Victoria line to take us there instead.
Now, thanks to better infrastructure in the form of dedicated cycle lanes, tax breaks for people who bought bikes, and opportunities to test out cycling by hiring Boris bikes, London has become a cycling city. We’re not scared of cycling – we celebrate it. You should do the same with entrepreneurship. Improve the infrastructure, make it quick and easy to get online (it took us three months to get BT to set us up with phones and internet when we moved office earlier this year), remove the fear by easing employment legislation and run a campaign to show people how to become entrepreneurs – use mentors, get the banks and business schools involved and celebrate risk by making bankruptcy less of a black mark on your credit history.
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