Adopted Business 2004: Freshminds, MeetingZone

We catch up with Freshminds and Meeting Zone to see how they are getting on


In the last issue we revisited two from our pool of formidable adopted businesses. This month, we catch up with a couple more.

All introduced over the past two years, the companies have followed divergent paths and have experienced varying degrees of success and strife.

The positive news is that all bar two are still operating and forging on with growth plans. And the missing pair only left the group because bigger players in their markets saw fit to snap them up.

 

We talk to Charlie Osmond, co-founder of Freshminds, who explains why continually expanding the range of services has been the key to his company’s success, while Tim Duffy, founder of Meeting Zone, tells us why the past 12 months have exceeded his expectations.

Fresh minds

Like an excitable accountant tapping away at his calculator, Charlie Osmond has been busily revising his company’s annual targets upwards. The expected £2.5m turnover for the 29-person business in 2004 is likely to hit and possibly even exceed £3m. Not a bad increase on the £1.3m revenues of 2003.

And he’s buzzing with ideas. “We’ve always had a problem focusing,” he admits. “There are lots of ideas and the temptation is to do them all, but we’re narrowing it down to keep on top of the few we go with.”

Freshminds started three years ago, providing FTSE-100 clients with bespoke research, not already catered for by the bigger names in the sector. Osmond and co-founder Caroline Plumb, tapped into their Oxbridge roots, as well as a number of other universities, and created a pool of the best in undergraduate talent willing to undertake their projects.

This quickly evolved into using a core group of graduates and PhD students, with experience of corporate life, for more complex tasks. The result has been the ability to charge clients more, strengthened by Freshminds’ growing reputation and standing in the market.

And alongside all this sits an outsourced research house in India, set up to take care of the more straightforward assignments where language skills and local knowledge aren’t essential.

However, Osmond feels the company still sells itself short on occasions. “Only last week I heard from a client who couldn’t believe how cheap we were. I get comments like this perhaps once a month. But the good thing is that some now say they’ve given the work to someone else because of our fees. So I think we’re finding a happy medium and are beginning to compete better with big name research companies.”

When we first spoke in 2002, high on the list of priorities was increasing the average spend of existing clients (it had worked with around 20 of the FTSE-100 and now works with around 30), increasing the ratio of client wins to proposals written, securing funding for new ventures and doubling marketing and PR spend.

The first two have certainly been achieved and Osmond says the company has reined in its natural instinct to shop for new clients. But key to building the business has been product diversification. It has launched new subsidiary, Higher Insights, offering online polling of the student population in 53 universities, which is run by another member of the long-term staff. “It’s useful for brand marketers and recruiters, yet before this nobody effectively canvassed student opinion,” says Osmond.

There are also events hosted by Freshminds for its students and graduates interested in increasingly hot sectors of employment, such as hedge funds and private equity. The idea being that big names in given industries get direct access to their future intake and educate them all at once.

“They may have done an MBA, are interested in private equity, and want to know how to get into it and what it entails.” This is all part of the business’ role as a graduate recruitment intermediary for large companies.

On the university front, Freshminds compiles a book each year of ‘ones to watch’, with students at top universities offering views on which peers will be high achievers, with those mentioned most making the list. This is backed up by impressive CVs and research carried out on the candidates.

The book is then sold for £8,000 a time to up to two players in a sector, such as two FMCG companies, two investment banks and two management consultancies, with a limit of 10 companies able to buy a copy.

The idea has now extended to France and Ireland. “The great thing is, that these fantastic people then walk around with ‘Freshminds’ plastered on their CVs, which is a fantastic marketing tool,” says Osmond, once again proving he rarely misses a trick.

Targets

Moving to larger premises

Consolidate new markets abd opportunities 

Meeting zone

A significant point in the lifecycle of any new company is the moment at which it reaches profitability. Our adopted teleconferencing business, MeetingZone, has just reached this point, even though, when we last spoke they were only anticipating breaking even in the next 12 months. For Tim Duffy who set up the company with fellow communications expert Steve Gandy, it’s part of a year in which all his growth predictions have been exceeded.

“When you start up a business, you’re going to be optimistic about your growth potential, but at the same time you’re always pleased when your company becomes profitable. The past year has more than lived up to our expectations. We’ve continued to grow month on month by double-digit percentages, which has been fantastic.”

Even though MeetingZone’s more than achieved its aims, Duffy still has a grievance with how difficult it can be for a smaller company, such as his, to gain business from the big boys. Buyers are often unwilling to take a risk on a relative unknown, despite a better offering.

He also believes the government, for its part, could be doing a lot more. “They claim to encourage small companies, but it’s still too easy for the likes of BT to muscle in. There needs to be a more positive bias towards entrepreneurs with government procurement tuned specifically to help businesses like ours thrive against larger competition.”

MeetingZone was created on the principle of offering teleconferencing services to businesses, but with a focus on using technology to be more cost-effective and therefore more competitive. Despite picking a terrible time to raise finance, the impressive management team and a well-thought out business plan eventually secured the company just over £2m.

With or without the government’s help, you’d have to say MeetingZone’s done pretty well so far. When Growing Business met them in May 2003 the pair were keen to make inroads into what they saw as a rapidly developing market. And they’ve certainly done that, with a customer base expanding at an impressive rate.

“We’ve gained clients month on month,” says Duffy. “We chose to broaden our base and then look at how we could expand our services to incorporate more users within that business. Although we have secured some large contracts, there’s not one or two that we rely on for our business, which I think at this stage is one of our strengths.”

With feedback from these new customers, MeetingZone has continued to develop its product to stay ahead of the game, with a major service upgrade just being completed. The teleconferencing industry is a highly competitive one, and Duffy understands the importance of staying ahead of his competitors, which includes the likes of BT.

“To get into this market we’ve had to compete hard with established suppliers. We’ve done that but they will fight back and we have to be prepared,” he says.

Targets

Increase international presence

Continue rates of growth and profitability

AT A GLANCE

MEETINGZONE

Founded: 2001

Business area: Teleconferencing

Location: Oxford

Turnover: Undisclosed

AT A GLANCE

MEETINGZONE

Founded: 2001

Business area: Teleconferencing

Location: Oxford

Turnover: Undisclosed

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