It’s been a busy 12 months for the Cooper Parry Corporate Finance team. Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve been up to. From securing over £300m in deals spread across the healthcare, business services and tech sectors to over £33k raised for charity and growing our team. It’s been an exciting time.
You’ll also find links to our published sector insights and guides. They could just help you secure investment or sell your business. We’re always happy to hear from you if there’s anything you’d like to follow up.
Take a look here.
And here’s to the next 12 months.
At Alton Towers there’s a ride called Rita. After queuing up, you strap yourself in and wait. The suspense builds as a giant clock counts down. BOOM! You’re off. You accelerate to 100kph in 2.5 seconds and a force of 4.7G pounds your cheeks into Play-Doh…
Lounge Underwear is the business equivalent of Rita. Its co-pilots, Brummie couple Dan and Mel Marsden, are rocketing along at stomach-churning, cheek-rippling speeds. But unlike the thrill-seekers at Alton Towers, these co-founders don’t know if their ride will slow down or get faster. Last year for example, things accelerated to an utterly deranged pace as the company grew by 250%. For perspective, during Black Friday 2020, Lounge Underwear despatched more than 150,000 orders, sometimes hitting 25 sales per second. With such stats it’s not surprising that the company was fifth in 2020’s Sunday Times Fast Track 100. Which makes it even wilder that Dan and Mel launched their business from their front room five years ago. Now it turns over £50m+, employs 120 staff and has recently moved to a 54,000sq-ft global HQ in Solihull.
During Black Friday 2020, Lounge Underwear despatched more than 150,000 orders, sometimes hitting 25 sales per second.
“There wasn’t a specific launch moment,” says Dan, who met his business partner and wife Mel at primary school – they were childhood sweethearts. “When Mel finished university, we started a company called Fashion-eyes and imported dresses from China to sell on eBay. We built Lounge from that – but we kind of built it backwards.”
He explains what he means: “It wasn’t like we had this amazing idea to build an underwear company. Instead, we knew we wanted to build a business and underwear happened to be the right product. We wanted something that would be cheap to import, brandable and easy to mail out. We also wanted something that would give large margins and be cheap to store. It had to meet all those criteria because we only had £1,000 to invest. Underwear was the perfect solution.”
Few people turn a £1,000 investment into a £50m+ Fast Track 100 Company in five years, so something special has happened. But what? “A key reason for Lounge’s success is that Dan and I are like yin and yang,” says Mel. “We tackle totally different sides of the business. I focus on marketing, customers and brand. Dan focuses on business strategy and growth. Our motivations and roles are very different but complementary – that’s a big reason for Lounge’s success.”
Let’s look at Mel’s influence first. She sets the brand values and controls the messaging. She does it so well that Lounge has built a community 2.3m Instagram followers. How has she achieved that? “In the early days, we used influencer marketing to great effect,” she says. “But more generally we talk to people like they’re our best friends and use a tone that creates an authentic connection. Customers feel like they’re having a chat with us; they come to our social feeds for a lift. We’re a group of women together and we try to make each other feel good.”
Mel describes Lounge Underwear’s followers as the “Female Family”. She crafts inclusive, uplifting, friendly posts. For example, under a Instagram picture of a model wearing Lounge Underwear and showing some tummy cellulite (an image that would be shunned by traditional underwear companies), she writes: “A little Monday reminder for you girls… every angle of you is beyond beautiful. Your body deserves comfort and love, always!” Another message says: “Size does not define beauty and you are gorgeous exactly as you are.” Indeed, Lounge Underwear works with amputee models, plus-size models and others you wouldn’t traditionally associate with lingerie. Differences are celebrated. Everyone is welcome except those who spread division and negativity.
We use our platform responsibly to reflect the real world. We are humans; we are all different. If we didn’t do that I’d be ashamed of our company and brand.
Mel says: “We use our platform responsibly to reflect the real world. We are humans; we are all different. If we didn’t do that I’d be ashamed of our company and brand. The old idea that you should look a certain way is the opposite of what we’re about. It sounds super-clichéd but our approach comes from a very real and genuine place. I run the Insta account and I feel like a hidden influencer. These are my personal values. I talk to young women in a way that I would talk to my daughter when she’s grown up [Dan and Mel recently had a baby girl].”
Behind Mel’s all-important branding and messaging, Dan steers the business financially and strategically – a task that’s akin to piloting the Millennium Falcon through a meteor storm at lightspeed.
“Scaling the business so quickly is full of challenges,” he says. “Few companies of our age have done it, so there are virtually no templates to follow. If we were growing by 10% year on year it would be easier to plan for. But because we’re young and expanding so fast, predicting how much stock to bring in and how many people to hire is extremely tricky. We could grow by 50%, 100% or 200% next year. They’re amazing problems to have but tough to solve.”
Furthermore, Lounge Underwear is not just growing in the UK, but also in Europe, the US and Australia. “We haven’t gone out of our way to target a particular area or country. It’s happening organically,” says Dan. “We don’t say: ‘I reckon Germany might work, let’s give it a go’. We say: ‘Germany’s growing naturally, so let’s put a strategy around it’.”
And of course there’s now far more to Lounge Underwear than two co-founders. At the time of writing (they’re hiring all the time) the company comprised a team of 120. Mel says, as Dan nods enthusiastically: “Our team are brilliant. We’ve all stayed closely connected during the pandemic. There’s a genuine family feel even though we’ve more than doubled our headcount in 12 months. It’s an amazing culture. The average age is 25 and we can’t wait to get back into the office to enjoy the energy and the vibe.”
The story of Lounge Underwear shows how far and fast a home start-up can grow organically, with zero outside investment. “Lots of companies get investors in early but that can kill the spark,” says Dave. “When you start adding a corporate culture it dampens your internal hype and excitement.”
Lounge Underwear’s stellar growth proves that with the right business model, the right team, the right branding, and the right conditions, it’s possible to accelerate at warp speed. This company may have started life in the co-founders’ sitting room but it’s already well on its way to becoming the biggest underwear brand in the world. So strap yourself in – Rita’s about to go again.
In 2019, a then 41-year-old Lyndsey Simpson exited the Curve Group, a business she’d helped to build. A few months later, a significant sum of money landed in her bank account. Wa-hay! Feet-up time. For some, maybe, but not Lyndsey. Rather than relaxing, she launched another company. Her new business, 55/Redefined, has turned into something bigger than even she bargained for. What began as a simple observation that there was an untapped talent pool amongst the over 55s, led to Lyndsey spotting more widespread ageism. She began noticing key challenges that this age group was facing such as accessing mortgages (even if they were quite wealthy), the unappealing images of ageing used and people being spoken to like they already had one foot in the grave. She began to question… Where’s the adventure? Where’s the opportunity? Where is being empowered by the fact that you’ve reached a point where you know yourself better than ever, having broken free of the shackles of doubt and are more confident than ever and have experience in bucket loads? This was the start of Lyndsey’s initial idea blossoming into something more impactful and intriguing that has since gone on to be an agent of social change.
“55/Redefined is for aspirational, affluent over-55s,” says Lyndsey. “It’s a membership platform and board concierge service, but it’s unique because it treats over-55s as the active, dynamic people that they really are. Traditionally, businesses – and society generally for that matter – has talked down to over-55s as if their best years are behind them. But that’s ridiculous, especially now. Today, over-55s are more active than ever; they’re creating jobs, buying cars, going on holidays and living their best lives. What they’re not doing is installing stairlifts, hiding away eating ready-meals in bungalows, or planning their funerals. But judging by the way they’re treated, you’d think most were virtually at death’s door.”
So, Lyndsey wants to change how the market – and wider society – thinks about over-55s. These people are not past their prime but enjoying the most exciting, dynamic time of their lives. They are knowledgeable, decisive, empowered and healthy, with decades ahead of them. What’s more, they are blessed with more disposable income than any other group.
55/Redefined recognises that the world has been guilty of pigeonholing and miscategorising millions of people 55 and over
“We’re counteracting that by giving over-55s the lifestyle inspiration, the legal and financial tools, and the jobs they really want. We’re here to break the mould and knock down stereotypes. Our holidays, for example, will bring our members options like the best restaurants with rooms, the most exquisite hotels with private cinemas, or the most incredible wilderness trips. We’ll offer interesting, exciting travel experiences rather than identikit cruises or dour British walking tours.” Lyndsey says.
However, it’s the jobs market that Lyndsey thinks she can shake up fastest and hardest. 55/Redefined recently surveyed more than 250 employees and employers and found that more than 65% of over-55s want to work beyond age 65, yet most employers continue to force retirement at state age or earlier. Part of the reason could be HR departments: a mere 24% of HRs aged 25-30 are “very motivated” to hire over-55s. 55/Redefined’s study also shows that many older people want to change jobs, usually because they’re bored, but often can’t and therefore quit. Lyndsey argues that employers are effectively binning gold by letting these experienced, motivated over-55s slip through their fingers.
So, as is her style, she’s doing something to fix this wanton wastefulness. “We’re creating new ways of working,” she says. “For example, we’re partnering banks to create over-55 apprenticeship schemes. We’re convincing gym chains to hire older personal trainers. And we’re working with professional services firms to hire ‘returners’ – retired accountants, tax advisors and M&A specialists who come back to work for two or three months a year.”
Not simply content with only disrupting traditional working practices, Lyndsey and the 55/Redefined team want to shake up the legal industry, too. She explains: “In corporate life, we have commercial lawyers who do everything for their clients from contract law to EIS schemes. Yet in our personal lives, we have different lawyers for wills, mortgages, divorces… you name it. You buy your service, say goodbye and never speak again.”
Therefore, 55/Redefined is working with law firm Slater and Gordon to create a holistic, whole-of-life personal legal service to cover everything from estate planning to helping grandkids with school fees in the most tax-efficient way to divorce. Such a move, if marketed correctly, could send ripples of change through a staid legal industry.
Over-55s are the highest spenders online, are cash and asset rich, and are healthier than ever.
Unsurprisingly, investors have been quick to back Lyndsey, and not just because 55/Redefined has first-mover advantage in the UK’s market of more than 17m over-55s. She raised £350,000 in January 2021, another £400,000 in August and is plotting a Series A raise next year. “We have two groups of investors,” says Lyndsey. “First, we have over-55s who are saying: ‘At last, we have a business that’s on my side and talking to me like I want to be spoken to.’ Rosaleen Blair CBE is one of them. Second, we have more financially motivated investors. They realise that over-55s are the highest spenders online, are cash and asset rich, and are healthier than ever.”
In 55/Redefined, Lyndsey is creating a business with massive potential. She and her team recognise that over-55s are living longer, have more money than ever and are keen to spend it, yet for some reason, a large part of society still writes them off as bus-pass-touting has-beens. This represents a commercial opportunity but also shows that we have an ageism problem in the UK and the West generally. As a result, 55/Redefined has before it not one but two open goals: millions of under-served older people and the badge of being anti-ageism campaigners (with all the team motivation and powerful PR that provides). Therefore, it’s hard to escape the idea that 55/Redefined has an exhilarating future. If Lyndsey ever did consider putting her feet up after her previous business adventure, she can certainly forget about it for a while now.
Following Cooper Parry’s successful partnership with Tech Nation of Upscale 6.0, we’re delighted to support the tech scale-ups participating on its new Upscale 7.0 programme.
Tech Nation provides ambitious tech entrepreneurs and scaling businesses with the coaching, content and community they need on their journey; fuelling their growth so they can transform societies and economies in a positive manner.
Now in its seventh year, Tech Nation’s latest Upscale programme consists of 31 of the UK’s best performing, most promising tech scale-ups.
This dynamic cohort is made up of businesses who have demonstrated an average growth rate of 250% and cover a broad range of sectors; from healthtech and edtech, to foodtech and cybersecurity. The cohort has already raised an incredible £311m and that’s just for starters.
The six-month government-backed Upscale programme is designed to support and scale the most promising mid-stage tech companies in the UK. Companies accepted into the Upscale programme receive over 60 hours of support at world-class coaching sessions (delivered by over 20 expert scale coaches), attend networking events with key stakeholders, peers, corporates and investors, and have access to a range of online resources, designed to tackle fundamental scaling challenges around culture, talent, international expansion and financing.
We’ve continued our partnership with Tech Nation following the success of the earlier round. As Steve Leith, our Head of Tech & High Growth says;
“Giving scale-ups the opportunity to learn together on their high growth journey is really valuable. We know they need advisers who are experienced in dealing with the varying challenges of rapid growth and fundraising. It is at this time that risks and opportunities present themselves during diligence and we ensure our clients are ready for whats coming.
“The scale-ups in the Upscale cohort are typically reaching that inflexion point, where professionalising their finance function is coming into focus, and solving finance-related challenges is becoming critical to their next phase of growth.
“Often, it’s at this point that scale-ups consider working with an accounting firm with the right experience and fee levels to support the next stage. We are that firm. Our Tech & High Growth team only work with companies in high growth mode. And we have the culture to match the scale-up mindset to boot.”
HOW DO WE SUPPORT SCALE-UPS?
Despite being consistent in their growth stage, the Upscale cohort won’t all be facing the same challenges. So, understanding strategy and trajectory comes first, then, we’ll be able to flush out which finance-related challenges they should (and shouldn’t) be worrying about.
That could include:
1) Considering whether they need to appoint a new adviser who can cover audit and tax-related matters, giving them speed of advice when they need it most;
2) Joining up this work with their R&D claims process to drive cost and time savings;
3) Supporting their fundraising activity at Series A or B with our specialist Raising Finance team; or
4) Finding solutions to any issues around corporate expansion, including international aspects like market entry, transfer pricing and IP considerations, employing people across borders, permanent establishment issues, cross border VAT and sales-taxes, and share option planning.
We can’t wait to get stuck into helping this cohort of amazing companies and look forward to making a difference to their business.
The Cooper Parry Corporate Finance team have sealed another significant deal supporting Simply Conveyancing in their ambitious growth drive.
The national property conveyancing firm has acquired Peterborough-based Pirie Palmann as part of an ambitious growth drive that will see it become one of the largest and most experienced conveyancing practices in the UK.
The CP Corporate Finance team is no stranger to Simply Conveyancing as they supported the management buy-out of the company in 2019 which was backed by private equity investors Livingbridge.
The acquisition of Pirie Palmann by Simply Conveyancing will see the number of employees increase to over 300 and brings together two top 30 companies to create one of the top 10 conveyancing practices in the UK.
Niall Chantrill, Director at Cooper Parry Corporate Finance, said:
“Having worked with Simply Conveyancing before to secure their MBO we’re particularly pleased to have worked with them to secure this deal. Together Simply Conveyancing and Pirie Palmann create a formidable force in the conveyancing sector with their innovative approach to flexible ways of working and investment in technology. The deal underlines our long-term relationships with clients and our ongoing support for Simply Conveyancing as they continue with their ambitious growth plans.”
Here at CP Raising Finance, we’ve been head-down over the last month preparing for several exciting new fundraises to hit the market in September. July and August are always super busy months for us as advisors, as founders target deal completions for the end of the calendar year.
While we’ve been chatting to many founders over the last few months, we’ve noticed some consistent themes, particularly when it comes to their expectations regarding what raising Series A+ money involves. Everything from understanding what ‘Series A’ really means and when it’s suitable for you, to the process involved, the time it takes and the step up from earlier raises, all the way through to completion.
We’ve decided to summarise these questions/challenges into a mini-series of insights, titled ‘SERIES A: SET STRAIGHT’.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be walking through the chronological process of Series A fundraising and the key things you need to consider along the way. So, watch this space for content involving high-profile Series A investors, professionals and founders who have walked the walk, and learned the lessons.
To kick off, let’s set the scene by defining the Series A round…
What do we mean by Series A? And how do investors classify it?
In the UK, a Series A round is defined by what stage your product/service is at in terms of tangible traction with customers. This round is all about scaling your existing sales and marketing efforts: funding you to do more of what you’re already doing, in a faster, more efficient manner.
By the time you raise a Series A round, you will have proven your product/market fit. This round isn’t about further product development or R&D. You’ve ironed out your value proposition, your product/service is fully developed (and has possibly been through various iterations based on customer feedback), you have a sales and marketing function and, crucially, you have paying clients and an exciting pipeline.
In terms of quantum raised, a Series A round is usually anything between £2-10m.
What do investors mean by ‘traction’?
While there will always be nuances, Series A investors are looking for proven revenue models and evidence of repeat custom.
For tech businesses with license/subscription models, this will look like ARR of £1m+.
For businesses selling products or in sectors without recurring revenues, the benchmark is usually £2-3m revenues.
The important thing to note here is investors deal with actual revenue, not forecasted. So, you might be forecasting £2m of revenue for this year, but if your actual MRR is £60k, you’ll be viewed as a £720k ARR business.
What are the risks of going for a Series A round too soon?
This is a very common one for us. There’s a lot of hype around closing a Series A round – it signifies you’re a serious player in your market and you’ve found seasoned investors that back you and the business you’re building.
Where discrepancies can lie, is when founders think Series A is defined by the amount of capital they want to raise, brushing over the crucial benchmarks for customer traction and product/market fit.
We get it. Wouldn’t it be great to raise all the money you’ll ever need for your growth plan in one fell swoop, getting it over and done with so you can get back to what you’re best at?
This isn’t how fundraising works. There are milestones and step-approaches to raising money, and we’d strongly recommend following them for your own long-term interests.
As a founder, the risks of attempting a Series A round too soon are four-fold:
1. You waste precious time – an obvious one. Fundraising can take 6-9 months from first meeting to cash in the bank. Making sure you speak to the right profile of investor from the offset is important to minimise time spent outside the day-to-day running of the business.
If you go out to speak to Series A investors before you meet their benchmarks, they may happily take meetings with you in the interest of building a relationship for future funding rounds. This is great, in principle, but can give false hope that they may make an exception. Then, you sink a lot of time into those discussions when, in reality, you don’t meet the pre-requisites for a funding round for them right now. You’ve then potentially lost 2-3 months of momentum and have to go back to the drawing board to build a shortlist of funders better sized for your business.
2. You accidentally make your next round harder – investors remember the businesses that cross their desks. If you approach them with a business plan too early and then reapproach them when you’re better sized, they’ll have previous business plans and financial models to cross-compare. If growth has been slower than you’d hoped, or forecasts have been wildly off, it can raise questions over the pace of growth and confidence in the plan you’re trying to pitch to them.
3. You overprice your business or have to sell too much equity to make a deal work – for loss-making, early-stage businesses, valuation at Series A is typically derived by a multiple on ARR or current year revenues. Clearly, if revenues are very small but you’re trying to raise a large sum, the amount you’re seeking will contradict the maximum value an investor would place on the business.
The only way it would work is to sell a majority stake, meaning you’ll get overly diluted, which isn’t what investors want either. We’ll be publishing a dedicated piece on valuation later in the series, but in short, you always need to be thinking about your next round when you raise money. How will you justify an increase in valuation between this raise and your next, and will the maths work on typical industry revenue multiples?
4. You get caught in a ‘funding gap’ – simply put, your revenue traction is too small for Series A investors that can write £2m+ cheques, but you’re asking for too much capital than earlier-stage Seed investors can deploy. As a result, you lose momentum on your round and have to reassess your strategy completely.
Still unsure about your readiness for a Series A round? We’re always here for a phone call to chat through your specific business and what we’re seeing in the market.
Feel free to drop me an email at email@example.com and we can arrange a time to talk.
For the next piece in the mini-series, we’ll be chatting to a seasoned Series A investor, asking all the hard-hitting questions you want answers to. So, watch this space.
The past year has seen a stellar year for CP with 13% organic growth and revenue surpassing £34m.
The only way is up as we continue our trajectory with first quarter results underlining a record-breaking revenue growth of 48%. All our teams are delivering impressive year on year growth – with Corporate Finance concluding their biggest ever deal and Audit (up 22%), Tax (up 17%) and Wealth (up 30%) driving the firm-wide success.
Central to our growth is growing our presence in the London entrepreneurial space with the launch of the new CP Futures Tech & High Growth team. Led by two ex-Grant Thornton partners, Steve Leith and James Peck, we’re building the #1 team focused on the scale-up space.
Working with founders and CFOs, the fast-growing team is collaborating with a wide ecosystem of accelerators, investors, and networks to support high growth companies. These include partnerships with Tech Nation (Upscale 6.0 and 7.0), Crowdcube, Superscript, Cap Desk and StartUp CFO.
Post pandemic we’re welcoming people into our cool new office space in Shoreditch which will be home to our 45 strong London team. Our award-winning Wealth Management and Corporate Finance teams are also strongly represented in the new space.
Our CEO, Ade said:
“The past 18 months have been monumental for CP. At the start we acted superfast, pivoting swiftly to deliver our clients the right experience for the strangest of times. We then took the brakes off equally quickly to turbo charge our growth.’
As Ade says:
‘Attracting top talent and only focusing on key areas where we can lead – London is core to our ambitious growth plans – we’re looking to double in the capital every 12 months. Ambitious, yes. Achievable, for sure.”
Across the total team of 440+ people (10% up YOY) working from three UK hubs, as well as from anywhere/anytime, we’ve added 83 new talents, as well promoting more than 10% of the team – all during the pandemic. And just recently, CP welcomed on board 57 new graduates, trainees, placements and school leavers.
Your one-page September Indirect tax summary. Grab yourself a fruit and vegetable juice and by the time you have drunk it and considered whether it is a beverage or food, you’ll be up to date.
- Company submitting claims for mis-sold PPI considered themselves to be an insurance agent and fall under the insurance intermediary VAT exemption. Claims Advisory Group lost their appeal – their services were too remote and concerned with the way that PPI was sold and not the policy itself.
- Are you considering a property purchase, where the property has both residential and non-residential use? You might be entitled to a lower rate of SDLT but can be tricky to prove and you need to consider the use of the land. Read The How Development 1 Ltd
- If you wish to request a statutory review or submit an appeal, the 30 day period is an effective remedy and a taxpayer who fails to exercise that right should not expect to be allowed to submit a late appeal. Read Hampton George Hewitt
- What is a business for the purposes of recovering input tax? Need to consider the Lord Fisher tests and the principles laid down in Wakefield College regarding ‘whether the company’s supplies were made for the purposes of obtaining income on a continuing basis’
See Babylon Farm Limited
- A form to appoint a UK tax representative if you’re distance selling to Northern Ireland has been published
- HMRC have updated their guidance with additional information to the VAT treatment of distance selling between Northern Ireland and the EU with effect from 1 July 2021.
- Problems understanding monthly postponed import VAT statements? See new guidance from HMRC here
- HMRC also released information to address an issue with monthly VAT statements – if you’ve used simplified declarations for imports, see the updated information on how to deal with this.
- HMRC updated their guidance to state when you cannot import goods on a simplified frontier declaration.
- Details on record keeping requirements for goods arriving into and leaving Freeport customs site operators can be found here.
- Guidance on the use of suppliers declarations to support proof of origin has been updated with information on how to pay less Customs Duty on goods from a country with a UK trade agreement.
- Guidance has been released explaining new safety and security declarations applying from 1 October 2021 on goods leaving GB post-Brexit.
- Submit your One Stop Shop Return and VAT Payment guidance was released this month, to help businesses registered for the OSS Union Scheme complete and submit the OSS Return and pay the VAT due.
- SDLT – Confirmation of appropriate steps where contingent consideration is later ascertained and updated examples of contingent or uncertain consideration. See here
- New online service and checklist for PESM applications – HMRC have launched a new online service for submitting proposals for partial exemption special methods (PESMs). Notice 706 has also been updated with a checklist setting out 43 pieces of information
that must accompany a PESM proposal.
- VAT liability of Coronavirus (COVID-19) testing services: The service of COVID-19 testing is treated as medical care where it involves administration of the test to the patient and the provision of the results by a medical professional. See here
Flamboyant Victorian architect, Watson Fothergill, had a wicked sense of humour.
Commissioned back in the day to create a stunning new HQ for the Nottingham and Notts Bank, he carved a cheeky monkey into the stone to subtly suggest that taking a mortgage was tantamount to having a monkey on your back. Only the eagle-eyed spotted it. Not the client.
I mention this because 2021’s residents of Fothergill House also have a great sense of humour. As well as some seriously hard-wired entrepreneurial business sense.
…a great sense of humour. As well as some seriously hard-wired entrepreneurial business sense.
These two points were brought into sharp focus when I recently caught up with the trio behind the award-winning digital marketing agency, Impression. Tom Craig (Co-Founder & MD), Aaron Dicks (Co-Founder & Performance Director) and Mikey Emery (Commercial Director) are the aforementioned trio. Chatting in their cool and expanding Nottingham loft style offices (they are also spearheading rapid growth in London), several things become quickly apparent.
These guys know their s**t. Simple as.
They know how to engage audiences and how to convert clicks into customers. They’ve been there, done that and all wear the T shirts to prove it. If you don’t believe it, I’m sure their analysts will drill down the data to underline the point.
They are also laser focussed on creating a business that doesn’t just answer their clients’ questions, it completely shapes their strategic digital thinking (so, frankly, they know the next set of questions to ask, and the ones after that).
So, where and when did this digi-journey start?
Like many cracking stories/urban myths, it began on a Leeds Uni Business School Society coach trip back from Amsterdam in 2010. Society President Tom bumped into fellow student and self-taught software developer Aaron. The two immediately hit it off. Unusually, they were not only both students, but hustling self-taught freelancers too – picking up invaluable experience wherever they could and helping fund their full-on student social life. Post-Uni, they were drawn to Nottingham’s regenerated Creative Quarter and, a few years down the line, both were ready to boldly leap into business ownership.
“It was the back end of 2012 and we could see a massive opportunity. We’d both worked with agencies around Leeds, London and across the UK. Some were wicked and we aspired to be like them, others were absolutely awful and, to be honest, we didn’t have any time for those. Whilst starting the business was a leap of faith, it was one which felt so right, for so many reasons.”
They knew they had the skillsets. They had the drive and ambition for sure. Their mindset was set. Work hard. Play hard. But, like pretty much every entrepreneur ever, they didn’t know how things would pan out. That’s part of the buzz though, right?
Their mindset was set. Work hard. Play hard. But, like pretty much every entrepreneur ever, they didn’t know how things would pan out.
The next milestone occurred halfway up an Alpine ski slope (you recognising a pattern here?). It was here that Aaron and Tom met Mikey. Bonding over après ski and black run camaraderie, it wasn’t long before Mikey became the ‘awkward third wheel’ as he puts it – joining to drive sales. Effectively, Mikey was to become the business glue.
Things went well; really well. They were a well-oiled machine. Business boomed. Headcount grew rapidly. Space ran out. So they moved to much larger ones. Competing against and consistently beating regional rivals, they’d reached another crossroads. The fledgling business journey was getting very interesting.
Mikey picks up the story:
“It’s a bit of a rarity, but the three of us are incredibly commercial. Pretty soon, we realised that the model we had needed to be tweaked. The web development projects were incredibly labour intensive and new players Itwere joining the market all the time. We knew we needed to define our niche. So we did. We’ve always been comfortable challenging ourselves, but we became more and more critical of every aspect. We made tough decisions and we were decisive. The result was that we doubled down on our marketing services and swiftly increased minimums. Achieved higher retainers. As sure as night follows day our accounts grew by 20+% YOY and 90% of our clients are now on recurring annual contracts.”
The agency had become much more focused, less full service. Now, every aspect orbits around the values of data-driven, results-first digital marketing. Integrated and intelligent marketing campaigns are created from a mouth-watering smorgasbord of digital marketing skillsets; SEO, Paid Media, Digital PR, Analytics and CRO.
This is where the creative alchemy really happens.
But don’t take my word for it. I’ll leave that to Impression’s industry peers. At the recent 2021 UK Agency Awards, Impression scooped a mind-blowing three major awards; Ecommerce, PPC and SEO Agency of the Year. The virtual trophy cabinet bulges further with B2C Campaign of the Year and Shopping Ads Campaign of the Year*, to name a few. Most sectors will claim theirs is the most highly competitive. Digital marketing is savagely so.
And, as the awards keep rolling in, so do the clients – every one of which has been an inbound approach. The breadth of the client roster is delicious: The FA, Topps Tiles, Cancer Research UK, Rutland Cycling, Vaillant, Marmalade car insurance and Clarins.
Co-Founder, Aaron puts his finger on why the business continues to flourish.
“Our DNA puts people front and centre. We won’t do anything unless we think we can absolutely smash it. Right from the get-go, we’ve been all over collaboration and having a good time as a team. Our people buy into our value set. Resourcing right now is a massive issue. There’s a massive shortage of digital skills. Yet we continue to attract some of the UK’s top talent. And, vitally, retain them.”
And how about the ‘C’ word? As you’d expect, the response to the pandemic was swift and decisive. Every one of their 100 or so clients was immediately contacted personally. Despite some revenues being cut, Impression put their money where their talent was. Preaching the proven mantra that if you switch off your marketing, gaining that ground back later would be like pushing water uphill, Impression offered not to invoice particularly hard-hit clients during the maelstrom. Then, when businesses got a grip on their own situations, things were
The result of this brave ‘in it together’ approach? Boom. Pre-pandemic Impression’s headcount was around 40. It’s now double that at 80 and heading north of 100 by early 2022. As they say, the data doesn’t lie.
And looking ahead? Tom picks this up with typical passion.
“The world is a very different place now. But our three business pillars for growth – Profit, People and Planet (they are awaiting B Corp status to land shortly) – have never been so vital. Our latest figures show a £5m+ business. Next year’s will show us hitting the £8m mark. We will continue to nail our UK operating system. Then perhaps we will develop this into the massive opportunities presented by international markets. One thing we know for sure is that however we evolve it will be based on our trusted values.”
As we wrap up our conversation, talk shifts to their upcoming day/night social for the whole team. It will be a celebration of all things Impression. Collaborative. Creative. Strategic. Social. And serious fun.
Leaving the offices into the warm afternoon sunshine, I think of a detail I meant to ask. Nevermind. I’ll search online. That’s the nirvana of quality data. And nobody does it better than these guys.
*UK Content Awards and UK Biddable Media Awards
Al Kingsley is Group CEO of NetSupport. He’s been at the helm of this Peterborough-based edtech company for 25 years, helping to mould it from a small business to a multinational that serves more than 18 million customers in 120 countries. So, it’s not surprising that Al’s opinions hold great sway in the edtech world, nor that he was Management Professional of the Year (Education Technology) 2020 in Corporate Livewire’s Innovation & Excellence Awards, nor that he sits on Forbes’ Tech Council.
Discover the critical nuggets of how Al Kingsley has created a successful global company. The relevance of his insights stretch beyond his sector, so whether you’re an up-and-coming manager, a product developer, an entrepreneur, or simply passionate about business, they are worthy of your time.
1) The best leaders prioritise other people.
Al says: “Good leadership is about recognising that success depends not just on yourself but on other people. So, the best leaders understand that the most effective way to evolve their businesses is not to drag people with them but to have everyone willingly marching in the same direction.
Over time, as I’ve improved as a CEO, the word ‘people’ has risen up my priority list. It’s very easy to focus on the next project, the next market, the next product, but actually, your ability to grow as a company depends on having people who are motivated and invested in the business. Your colleagues, not you, are the facilitators of progress.
You hear a lot about well-being at the moment. The best leaders create well-being by communicating regularly with their teams, supporting them, and mitigating some of their stresses and fears.
Doing that becomes more challenging as you move from small business to medium-sized business. How do you retain a ‘local team’ ethos as the numbers grow? How do you keep the glue that provides a feeling of togetherness as you open new offices? I don’t have all the answers, but I have found this to be true:
When you’re busy or worried about the bottom line and competitors, it’s easy to forget to ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and to fail to say, ‘Thanks, you’re doing a great job, we appreciate you.’ Saying those small things and meaning them is not just small talk but the foundation of your business. Lose sight of that and it will become almost impossible to achieve your targets.
At NetSupport, we have just over 100 staff in the UK. Our average UK tenure is nearly 15 years. Bearing in mind we have quite a few newer arrivals, I’m very proud of that.”
2) Predict where the market will go – rather than focusing on where it is now.
“Every year, the pace of technological change accelerates. You can either look at that as a challenge or as an opportunity. In truth, it’s both. I often compare it to shooting ducks at a fairground. If you aim straight at the target, you miss. You’ve got to aim ahead and predict where the target is going to be. It’s not crystal-ball gazing; it’s understanding the problems that customers are facing and identifying those that are becoming more significant. In education, you do that by rolling your sleeves up and getting involved. Look for the pinch points, recognise where the tech is moving, understand where it will be in a year or two, and create your product plan, aiming for that point in the future. Then, release when the marketplace is ready.”
3) Get deep under the skin of your target market before wading in.
“I have four tips for anyone looking to grow their business overseas.
First, understand your market. This is obvious but often gets overlooked. Don’t assume every market is the same; there will be nuances in every region. Be willing to adapt your tech or solution to fit.
Second, understand your market from a commercial perspective. Who are the movers and shakers? Which players make the most noise? What channels do they use to amplify their noise? Who are the key players in terms of PR, social media and online?
Third, how are different products delivered to the core market? Find out by attending trade shows and events. Engage with some of your potential customers and work with them directly to create reference points and case studies. By working closely with a small number of customers, you get to know the main media outlets and discover potential sales partners.
Fourth, make sure you capture user feedback. We do this by joining user communities and focusing on social media. This tells us where the pain is and reveals the main groups. By following and engaging with thought leaders, you gain insights and language to build your credibility.
If you’re engaged in the conversation, people start to trust your knowledge and understanding. So my advice is to grow your credibility (and experience) by writing articles on best practices or being available to speak at events or sector roundtables. Then potential customers gain a good level of confidence that your products are fit for purpose because they are shaped by people who ‘get it’.”
4) Confidence plays a massive role in business success.
“There are two types of confidence: effective confidence and ineffective confidence. When I was in my 20s, I was full of the latter. I was sure of myself, but my faith wasn’t always justified. Over time, you learn – often by your mistakes – that you can’t rely on yourself alone. Instead, you must learn from others and work in partnership with your team. As you grow to understand this fact, you gain effective confidence.”
“Confidence also plays a big role among customers, especially in the tech sector. What we’ve seen in the past few years is the rapid adoption of technology. The single biggest barrier to rapid adoption is a lack of confidence. If people aren’t confident using a product or solution, it fizzles out quickly. It’s not about who can develop the most all-encompassing solution; it’s about who can develop the easiest solution that meets the need. And sometimes, developing an easy solution is harder than developing a complicated one. Why? Because every click, every button, every signpost must be intuitive.”
5) Listen first, speak second.
“You are born with two ears, two eyes and one mouth. Use them in appropriate proportions. It’s easy to be the person who, in your self-confidence, always starts the conversation and wraps it up. But don’t miss the opportunity to listen to other voices. As you get more experienced, you learn that listening carefully to the room first is best. Then, when the time comes for you to say something, you speak from a position of knowledge and empathy. That’s especially vital if you’re trying to move a project or business forward. In those situations, it’s never wise to be the first person to speak. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for others’ opinions or advice but a sign of strength.”
6) Listen again
“No matter how much you know or think you know, assume you know nothing. Go back and check again. You might be convinced that you understand the opportunity or the project, but I guarantee that you will always discover something else whenever you take the time to look again. That something will, especially if you have peers around the table, give you extra. It might only be 0.1% extra, but it will be worth it. Trying to find out more can only benefit you, even if you discover you’re an idiot, not a genius. After all, it’s better to know before hanging your hat on it.”
Al Kingsley has spent 25 years working in his industry yet remains as motivated, excited and keen to learn as ever. His overriding message – one of his many great pieces of advice – is to elevate the skill of listening. Over time, he’s discovered that one of the keys to success is to suppress one’s ego and natural desire to ‘run the show’ and instead focus on learning from colleagues, customers – just about anyone else in the room except yourself. By bringing other people along with you on the journey, you have a greater chance of evolving your business, growing it and achieving genuine longevity. Just as Al has done.