Concept Cupboard: Chris Dodson
The co-founder on the power of social media and pioneering a new model of low cost marketing
Tell us what your business does
Our website matches businesses with creative students, who can produce quality low-cost design and marketing tools. The businesses post projects on the site and their allowed budget, and then students send in their ideas. The businesses decide which idea to go for and the two are matched together. The students whose ideas don’t get chosen do however get feedback from the companies.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
We were all working in marketing and realised how difficult it was for small businesses in particular to get low-cost marketing. At the same time we saw a big pool of graduates who were really talented but were finding it difficult to find jobs. So we wanted to create a platform where these two groups could meet.
How did you know there was a market for it? What’s your USP (unique selling point)?
It was evident from all of our previous experience that it was hard for small companies to market themselves when they didn’t have the funds to pay big agency fees. There is nothing really like us in the UK at the moment. Our USP is that students can send in ideas that businesses can see upfront and decide if they like them or not. There is no risk involved for either party – as long as they are signed up to the site, they can see the proposals and ideas for free.
What were you doing before starting up? Was it hard to leave your job?
Before starting up, I was working for Archibald Ingall Stretton as business director on the O2 account. Guy and Julie co-founded the integrated marketing agency Burn, which they still run, and Simon is still SMB general manager at O2. It was hard to leave my job because I had built an amazing team and was working with some great clients. It was a leap of faith, but I’m glad I’ve done it.
Have you always wanted to run your own business? What appealed most about being your own boss?
Yes, I have always been keen to start a business. The appeal of running your own company is being able to do things your own way. We want to make an impression and we feel we’re doing some good by helping small and medium businesses as well as students and graduates.
What planning did you do before you started up? What advice did you seek?
We wrote a business plan, although it seems to change weekly, so it’s a case of being flexible with it. As a team we have quite a lot of business experience which is a big advantage, however, Simon has been in close contact with Doug Richard, who has given us lots of valuable advice. The great thing about being a small business is that everyone is so nice and willing to help out.
How did you raise the money?
We are entirely self-funded. But we will probably look for investment at some point to take it to the next level.
What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
The main challenge has probably been getting the word out about our venture. It’s really difficult to tell such a diverse group of businesses about our service and then convince them that it is a legitimate way of marketing. We have used lots of social media and have an active YouTube channel to promote the site.
Where is your business based?
The business is based in the offices of Burn, where I have my own desk. It’s good to be around lots of people as it could be quite lonely otherwise.
How have you promoted your business?
What has proved successful and what won’t you do again? Social media has been invaluable for promoting the business. We got 1,000 unique users to the site in the first week, which is pretty good since we’ve done nothing but tweet. We’re going to use PR and also want to communicate directly with our business audience via email. Natural search is another tool we’ve used, and we have our own blog and resource centre on the site.
How much do you charge? How did you decide this?
Registration is free plus it is currently free for businesses to add a project and will be until the end of February. After that, for a business to list a project on the site, the price depends on the size of the project. We ran the pricing model passed businesses we knew and asked what they thought. We will always keep an eye on the pricing.
What has your growth been like? Are you where your business plan said you’d be?
We are way ahead of our plan in terms of growth, which is great. To have 1,000 unique monthly users on the site in the first week is a really good sign. We want to be profitable in six months to a year, and by the end of the year, we hope to be the go-to resource for small businesses that need marketing help. But while we want to help small businesses, we also want to get some more big names on board.
What’s the impact on your home life been like?
It’s not really much different to when I was at the agency. I used to work 80-100 hour weeks. Running a business does give you more freedom, although it also means it’s more difficult to switch off.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up?
It’s hard to get the balance between developing the site and also doing all the admin – which can be very confusing. Setting up the internet merchant account in order to be able to take payments online was probably the greatest difficulty – it took three months to get it right. It was like jumping through hoops.
What was your first big breakthrough?
Talking to the Federation of Small Businesses was great because they loved our idea – that was a huge boost. Also getting a brief from Hewlett Packard was pretty good news as they’re such a big name.
What would you do differently? ie what have you learnt?
With the website – I would have written the copy upfront rather than leaving it to the last minute. Also I think we’ve learnt we need to be a lot more explicit about what we want the site to do with the web designers.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?
Just go for it. I’ve spoken to so many people who said they had a great business idea but didn’t try it. It’s good to use your network and get people who’ll support you – you don’t have to go it alone. Go to a few seminars and listen to successful entrepreneurs who can give you ideas and inspiration.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan?
We’d love to open our site up to other countries – we’ve got the functionality on the site right, so there’s no reason that it can’t work in other countries. We’d also love to create a feeder marketing agency one day out of the best creatives we see on the site. There isn’t really an exit plan now as I want to see this through and make it a massive success.