Welcome to the latest edition of Growth Stories, a series in which we sit down with entrepreneurs and business leaders and find out what got them where they are today. Focusing on businesses with a track record of growth and success, we aim to tell their stories while providing practical guidance that could prove useful in helping you scale up your own business.
Here, we’re chatting to Christopher Clowes, Commercial Director of award-winning, Essex-based digital marketing agency, HC Media Group. In the space of two years, Christopher transformed a family business into a million-pound enterprise, which has helped in the sale of over £50 million worth of products and services online. Having struggled with personal issues early in his career, Christopher is testimony to the notion that hard work and dedication always pays off.
In our Growth Stories Q&A, we chat to Christopher about his journey, experiences and the steps he took to get HC Media Group where it is today. Read the full interview below.
To begin, could you tell us a little about your business? Specifically, its history and how it has changed since you first launched?
HC Media Consultancy started in 2018 as a small SEO business. My father-in-law and I went into business to help out a few companies and consult with their Google search results.
It quickly became apparent that we could do more than that, so we added a few other services as we grew. PPC, Social Media, Web Design, Email Marketing, Lead Generation and teaching all became services that we knew the clients wanted. We then adapted and hired in the correct places to allow the company to grow, resulting in a £1m valuation within two years. We decided to change our brand to HC Media Group, to show that we offered a group of services, rather than just consult on one.
Growth is without question one of the most challenging aspects of running a business. What challenges did you face as a business leader, and what strategies did you employ to overcome them?
For me, it is about supply and demand. We look at what our clients need, test the market on the sales element, and if we feel that there is a need and a profit to be made from that specific service, then we either employ or train an existing member of staff to deal with that service.
The main issue for us has been staffing. The sales element isn’t that much of an issue due to the brand that we have created, but the staffing to deliver the work at a cost-effective rate has been an issue.
To begin with, the idea was to have a number of freelancers working together to offer the service. This would mean that we would keep our cost down as we would only supply work if we were granted the contract. We could easily assign a cost to each project and ensure that there was a healthy profit margin within. We then didn’t need to worry about pensions or taxes for that individual as they were technically self-employed, and just working on a white label basis for us.
What we found, in reality, was that this was totally the wrong way to go. The quality of the work was incredibly poor, we spent hours of time chasing and project managing, and the sub-contractors didn’t really care about what they were doing. The client was our client, not theirs, so if the work was not done, it’s no issue to them.
We then started to look at actual employment, but were not able to reach the salary threshold for someone with experience due to our location of being just outside London. Qualified staff wanted more than we were personally taking from the company as business owners.
From there, we went down the apprentice route, hiring an incredible young lady who came in and blew all our expectations out of the window. We trained her to deal with clients, she then got too many, so we employed another awesome team member. We are now up to eight members of staff, and it’s a cracking team.
To what extent have external factors (like changing trends, the financial landscape) affected your business over time? And what can businesses do to future-proof against these kinds of peripheral shifts?
External factors change our business on a day-to-day basis. There is always a new trend or tech to learn, a new way of marketing and getting in front of the client’s target audience. As an example, the release of home appliances such as the Alexa and Google Home Hub has certainly been disruptive. Because we work a lot with organic search, now we have to think about Voice Search. It is a totally different ball game, but should be included in a basic search campaign.
To future proof, we need to be on top of all of the education that is out in the market, ensuring that we stay up to date and current. The risk of becoming a dinosaur company or a one-trick pony is quite high, so we need to ensure that we build the ethos of education and change into the business environment, so this happens naturally and we adapt to the change without having a big shift in the business.
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Following on from that, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business operations? What new areas of activity has it spurred within the organisation?
The current pandemic has definitely affected the business in the case of our clients not having any cash to pursue continued marketing. We have had three clients that have gone bust overnight, through no fault of their own, simply due to the fact that they have no demand in their service any more.
During the pandemic, there has been a glimpse of success for us. We have noticed a trend of businesses laying off staff, and these staff now focusing on their own business. Due to this, we have switched our focus service from core marketing to marketing training for small businesses, releasing a course, free webinars, a YouTube channel, and a podcast to ensure that we are in front of these people when they need us.
Can you identify three lessons you’ve learnt in your time as a business leader? And how have they affected your own role as a manager and owner?
Only 3? I will try!
Healthy business growth often relies on several factors. What facets of business would you say have promoted growth in your organisation the most? And what should SMEs look to improve/develop to maximise their chances of success?
The biggest facet for us, in terms of growth, was to have someone looking into the business from a third-party perspective. Sometimes when you are so bogged down with the day-to-day running, you can’t see the potential that the business has.
A company is just an engine, with all the cogs turning in one direction to produce revenue. If one cog is not working correctly, then all the cogs have to work harder.
Spending time with a third-party business coach for us was invaluable. Spending time working ON the business and not IN the business changed our whole perspective of what we were doing, and also made us accountable for the work that we were doing.
After our meetings, we had homework - we had a job list and things to do. Now we had to get them done before the next meeting to get value out of what we were spending. This meant, that the company was growing naturally as we were working on pulling it forward.
For an SME to grow, they need to develop a growth mindset, and become a (calculated) risk-taker. For us, we always say that there is a three-step process of running a successful business.
We’d like to thank Christopher for taking part in the Growth Stories series. If you’ve found this article helpful or insightful and would like to learn more, take a look at other Q&As from the series below:
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