Cancan Communications: Nick Fulford

Startup profile: Nick Fulford tells us about his new business

Nick Fulford of Cancan Communications is the third of our Startup profiles, where we go straight to the hub of the action by speaking to entrepreneurs who have literally just started up.

We find out what made them decide to start their own business, how they got it off the ground, the obstacles they’ve overcome and the barriers they still face. We’ll look at their hopes and aspirations for the future, and then, in six months time, we’ll go back and find out how they’re getting on.

Name: Nick Fulford Age: 28 Business: Cancan Communications Type of business: Marketing and PR agency Start date: April 2002

When did you first decide you wanting start your own business?After University I started my own business with friends. We learnt a lot and worked hard but ultimately it failed due to a lack of experience and finance.

I subsequently worked for other companies and enjoyed the stability of a regular salary, until that is the .com bubble burst. With the lessons of self-employment and the marketing skills acquired over the years, the timing was right to ‘start up’ once again. I also was able to bring the financial and operational skills of my brother on board to further give the business a chance of succeeding.

Tell us about Cancan CommunicationsCancan Communications is a PR, marketing and branding agency that specifically works with start-ups, small businesses and entrepreneurs. The agency is run by myself and my brother Anthony. We are based in London but have clients across the South East. We got going from my kitchen at the start of the year and officially launched in August. We have now grown to six clients.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from?This certainly wasn’t my first business idea. I am the type of entrepreneur who has a new idea every month or so! Typically I see a gap in the market and immediately try and think of a solution to try and fill it. I actually find it fun and stimulating to do this. However, cash and time stop me from following all my dreams – maybe one day!

The idea for Cancan came from the fact that most decent PR and marketing agencies want to work with the largest possible clients. As a result start-ups and small business typically get short changed. Cancan doesn’t work with big business. We are totally committed to helping small business grow.

We were helped by a former client of mine starting his own business – MeetingZone.com and asking us to look after the new companies PR, marketing and branding. We obviously owe MeetingZone a great deal.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals?There can be very few people in the UK who can say that PR and marketing are in the blood as much as my family. My father and my grandfather both had their own small marketing agencies. Our great-grandfather is a classic entrepreneur. After losing his leg on The Somme in the First World War he decided to pave over front garden and open a petrol station. By the 1960s he had built it into a major company called VIP Petrol.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business?Cancan recognises that for the typical small business, the fee structure of a standard PR and marketing agency makes it impossible to afford. We have therefore tried to position our business model around what is affordable for the start-up. We obviously need to be very strict about our own costs in order to maintain margins.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first?Proper research to establish that the opportunity was real, and then think of a good name for the business. It was actually my wife who came up with Cancan, but we love it. I think it not only represents our attitude but also have connotations of colour, energy and maybe being a bit cheeky.

What research did you do?We had to be able to use the domain name for the company and this must be a first check for all new businesses. Both .com and .co.uk were available so our name was viable.

Using the internet it is also possible to get a feel for competitors’ activities and where their focus lies. We found that no London agency was specifically targeting small companies and start-ups. We filled a gap in the market.

PR is a relatively small industry so it is quite easy to find out what others are doing with their companies.

What advice did you seek?With a client already on board we were in business from day one. Business Link was approached and for operational information about the legally required structures, they provide good solid fact-sheets.

We also brought in a friend who is an accountant to make sure that we were clear on our financial projections and dealing with VAT etc.

What other help did you get?A family friend acts as a mentor and guide for us and his input is invaluable. All companies need an independent third party to bounce ideas off and to help calm things down when the storms of confusion are threatening. The most important thing they can do is help to keep your ambitions in perspective.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? Yes, give new businesses more tax breaks. The biggest problem we see for new businesses (apart from their need for a good image and promotion) is raising finance. Few start-ups want to approach venture capitalist because they don’t want to loose any control and venture capitalists are driving too hard a bargain and as a result are doing less deals. There needs to be more of a middle ground between both sides so that we can see more small business launch with proper money behind them.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. My brother has a MSc in Entrepreneurial studies so has an appreciation for how to put together a business plan. We are also using role models of businesses which already exist to guide our growth. No specific software was used. However, well constructed financials are crucial as you can make numerous assumptions but they only become real when you see the numbers.

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow?Small business is so much about responding to external forces. We are trying to stick to our financial projections and this guides our activities. We review these projections every week to keep them relevant.

How much did it cost to start the business?About £20,000 which includes our salaries for the first six months.

How did you fund this? Personal funds so that we can keep total control over the business.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? Personal funds, too, but we also use a low-interest rate credit card which is incredibly flexible and does not bring with it the complications of typical external business finance.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? When reviewing the financials, we are always considering best case / worst case scenarios. Putting these numbers into the spreadsheets means we can be sure that we can stay viable and encourages us to think about how we can maintain the business even if we see a sharp fall in sales, for example.

When did you stop working and how did you find the transition from full-time employment to self-employment?The security of being paid at the end of each month is a big attraction for most people. The transition has not been easy and we anticipated that there would be difficult times in the early stages of the business.

However, the benefits of self-employment are too exciting to allow any thoughts of going back to the bad old days. I also decided to really spice things up by getting married at the same time as starting the business!

Are you working from home or from premises? Cancan operates from The Media Centre in central London. This is a serviced office building with excellent facilities. We did begin at home in the kitchen and this has its advantages of not having to commute, but I prefer to separate home and office life very clearly.

Are you pleased with your premises? The Media Centre has been an excellent place for us to start the business proper (after being in the kitchen proved to be too stressful).

Our biggest problem is now trying to find more space to cope with expansion without paying the high square footage which serviced offices in central London attracts. However, the disruptions of moving cannot be under-estimated.

How many hours are you working at the moment? Typical day is 9.30 to 6.30 (so about 45 hours a week).

How are you managing your day and what steps have you taking to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock?By dividing the responsibilities between clients and operations, we are able to ensure that no part of the business gets ignored. Unlike my first business where I would work into the night without fail, at Cancan we tend to work very hard in the day with a view that we can stop at a reasonable time – this means an opportunity to have a relaxing home life.

What about staff, is it just you? Staff are just coming on board in the next few weeks, although we have been using contactors to help out. We used the University of London careers service and word of mouth to find the right people.

The business that we are in is totally about people and we must therefore look to bring in the correct skills to the team. I think that this is our biggest challenge to making sure that Cancan grows.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you?We have yet to get fully involved in this, although we had to arrange a work permit for an American which turned out to be an educational, if relatively straight-forward, experience.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? As you can imagine being a PR and marketing agency ourselves we have applied our own expertise to this area. We have undertaken a PR programme, advertising, exhibiting at various events, direct mail, a launch party, an online campaign and to top it all off, lots of networking.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months’ time? With a team of approximately six to eight staff with a range of specialist skills.

What are the main obstacles to growth? Finding the right people to bring on board. Finding the time to keep up the level of marketing we would like, while ensuring that existing clients always come first. Finding a bigger office without it costing the earth.

How do you plan to overcome these? An extensive interview process (a new recruit typically has to go through four interviews, including an evening out with the team!). Bringing in more senior people who can handle the growing workload and focus on exceeding clients’ expectations.

We will wait until the last possible moment before moving out to a larger office and then get somewhere that should be able to cope with our expansion for a further 12 months.

Tell us about your website. Our website was designed and constructed by an agency called Nowwashyourhands. They are fantastic at coming up with original and eye-catching ideas. Their work is always worth looking at: www.nowwashyourhands.com. We would say that as they are one of our clients but they are definitely an agency to watch. Our site hopefully reflects the brand values of the business: creative, energetic, exciting.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? Both – the latter being the most important as if you are an enthusiast then the former will follow in due course.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?Its hard to say what we would have done differently as the business appears to be going in the right direction, but I think we could have made the commitment to employ additional people a little earlier.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business?Lots of enthusiasm and energy. Good nerves to be able to keep going when things look a bit wobbly, and the ability to be a salesman one-minute and an accountant the next – not an easy combination.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? Get some good financial help; find a mentor from the beginning, and make sure you invest as much as possible in projecting a professional image. You need to be punching above your weight and trying to level the playing field with your competition as quickly as possible.

Thanks a lot and the very best of luck. Will you come back and tell us how you’re getting on in six months’ time? Of course.

For more information on Cancan Communications, visit www.cancancommunications.com

If you’d like to feature as a Startup profile, email Matt Thomas at matthewt@crimsonpublishing.co.uk

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