Ben Harris

Ben Harris has just started his own online marketing company

Ben Harris was inspired by his old boss to set up his own online marketing business for small firms. He tells how he’s put that idea into practise to launch

Startup profiles 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: Ben Harris Age: 28 Business: Type of business: Marketing Agency Start date: 1 September 2003

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, a natural development in your career or something else? The answer is both. It was during the dot com revolution when a friend launched his own business. He recognised that he needed professional assistance to create a brand, devise an advertising campaign, build a website and generally to market his concept.

He found it very difficult to find an agency that offered all the services he required under one roof, and at prices he could afford.

Learning from his experience and others I had heard about, I saw that it was clear that start-ups desperately needed their own dedicated service.

Tell us about your business is the result, and is the UK’s first online marketing service, dedicated to start-ups and small businesses. The site offers a one-stop-shop for SMEs to design and build their own marketing campaigns.

By operating exclusively online, our clients benefit from pricing levels designed to suit the tight budgets of most small companies.

In addition and supporting the service, are our team of professionals that has gained its expertise whilst working on top international brands.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? Yes, it was the first idea. My background was working in large agencies, and it became apparent to me that there were serious industry failings to properly or promptly address clients’ needs.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? If so, who? My inspiration was an old boss of mine, who built an advertising agency that in just a year grew from 35 to 150 employees.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business?There are a large variety of agencies and individuals that cater to the commercial world. However, none of them offer comprehensive marketing services at affordable rates specifically to start-ups and small businesses. is the first marketing agency to operate on a volume basis, enabling organisations to gain access to creative talent and expertise at a fraction of normal agency prices.

Uniquely, our clients’ can get objective advice from us, as we are not obliged to push any one service over another, just to recommend the appropriate one.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? I defined and expanded the concept, and then wrote short, medium and long-term business plans, as both a way forward and a “reality check”.

What research did you do? I talked with 350 small business owners over a year, and from those conversations, was able to identify what services they wanted and required, and the problems they had encountered in acquiring them.

Did you approach any of the government advice centres such as Business Link? If so, how was this experience? Yes, I approached Business Link, and they referred me to Centa who were very helpful.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. How did you find it? Did you get any help? Did you use any specific software? No. I identified all the issues that I believed needed to be addressed and spent much time modelling costs and revenue. I then used a basic “how to write a business plan” type book to make sure no areas had been overlooked.

How useful has your business plan been and do you think you’ll stick to it as your business begins to grow? I refer to it from time to time. It’s a crucial document because it made me think about my long term plans for the business. I’m very aware of the goals that I set and I’m careful not to drift away from this.

How much did it cost to start the business? About £10,000, for basic start-up requirements.

How did you fund this? From my own savings.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off? We’re cash positive, as a result of early take-off.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected? Yes. Very careful investment policy and good-housekeeping at all times.

When did you stop working? How did you find the transition from full-time employment to self-employment? How big a moment was this? This was always going to be a big decision – but was actually a very natural progression in the end. The transition from the last day of planning to the first day of going live was a momentous one.

It took several weeks to build confidence and adjust and define a routine. I’m very comfortable with the diverse range skills I have acquired to run a business.

Are you working from home or from premises? I work in a dedicated office in my house and the environment makes for a high degree of professionalism. The decision was one of simple economics.

I either visit clients in their own premises or meet in our Soho meeting room which we rent on an hourly basis. My anticipation is that with the growth of the business and the need for additional staff, permanent office space will be required in the next 6 months.

How many hours are you working at the moment? About 55 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? I like to start early to clear the work that requires careful consideration, and I leave the creative matters until later. I try and keep office hours to make calls and answer emails. I never let emails get out of control.

This is a complex and highly detailed business so all work has to be prioritised. I continually ask myself how important each task is, in terms of revenue-generation, as I must balance forward planning with the vital monitoring of clients’ work-flow.

What about staff, is it just you? I have a team of 40 freelancers. We’re currently looking for a full time sales person though finding someone that you can trust to sell the services of your business is difficult.

I keep reminding myself that the first member of staff will be the hardest but I must train someone if new2marketing to grow and prosper.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you?

No. I’ve factored in the cost of a freelance HR consultant and legal fees to draft a contract and generally advise. I consider this essential as the possibility of falling foul of the employment laws is of great concern.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? The website is the main communication tool we use. This is backed up with PR and online search engine promotion. I find that networking uses many hours of the day when I’d otherwise not be constructive.

It’s an easy way to make some contacts and it’s good to talk to like-minded business people.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? To have achieved 25% brand recognition with start-ups and small businesses – leading to three new clients every week.

What are the main obstacles to growth? Converting prospective clients. Small business owners do not always recognise the importance of investing in their own marketing efforts, however modest.

They like the ideas and the prices but the nature of their day is that they’re busy, and usually have limited budgets. If you don’t grab the moment, they’re onto the next thing.

How do you plan to overcome these? To take on a new business person that can invest all day every day into the developing relationships and closing sales.

Tell us about your website. How important is it to your business? Pivotal. I see a website as one of the most important tools for any business. Our team devised, created and built it.

It’s part of what we do and the individuals have had a great deal of experience of building very complex sites.

Ours took some planning, but we phased every step of the project to make it as seamless and efficient as possible – not forgetting to test it with prospective customers at each step of the design process.

We’re very pleased with the result and have had many compliments since we launched.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? My ambition is obviously to develop a successful business but also to consolidate our position as the UK’s leading marketing agency for start-ups and small businesses.

The first step will be to build our brand, reputation and a formidable team to deliver client-work.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?

A greater focus on revenue as opposed to concentration on less important details of establishing the business, from day-one.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business?Strategic thinking, the ability to make decisions, the strength to deal with and learn from wrong decisions, to be resilient and to keep focused.

One must have confidence, belief in the business concept and to be decent, honest, and hardworking.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? Don’t do it. Only joking. If it’s a real and practical idea and you believe it’s sustainable, then plan it out on paper, trust your instincts and put it into action.

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? I’ve enjoyed answering the questions, as it focuses the mind on the business journey. I will be back to let you know whether my plans are on track.

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