I am the founder and MD of Grow, one of the UK’s most respected and experienced small business marketing consultancies.
I’m also the current Marketing Expert in Residence at The British Library where I develop and teach marketing workshops and mentor entrepreneurs.
I also deliver marketing workshops to businesses and universities. I have taught for UCL and the prestigious Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme.
As a consultant, I’ve worked with over 150 small businesses. I’ve managed to make a huge difference to their growth and success by advising and mentoring them on marketing strategy.
I get a real kick out of seeing people take action and get results. I love what I do.
Even if it took me a while to become a consultant, entrepreneurship has always been in my blood.
Research suggests that the key indicator of whether someone will become an entrepreneur is that their parents were entrepreneurs. This is my case.
I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland on a hill farm. My father and uncle ran the two biggest restaurants in the local area, and my dad also managed the farm, which had self-catering accommodation, sheep, beef, cows and a handful of chickens.
From the Scottish hills to a thriving marketing consultancy in the most vibrant neighbourhood of London, this is my business story and the 15 vital lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Lesson #1: Don’t rely on just one revenue stream
My father and uncle shared an office with desks opposite each other for over 30 years. My dad kept an ongoing record of all the restaurants’ takings. He could compare year-to-year figures going back 50 years.
The main restaurant lost thousands of pounds in the winter but the entire profit for the year was generated during the summer tourist season.
The downstairs of the restaurant was a self-service and in the summer, the upstairs hosted traditional Scottish music – with bagpipes of course.
There was also a disco at the weekend. The restaurant offered all manner of functions. Weddings and parties were held upstairs. Talk about making a property work hard in lots of different ways to generate money!
To this day, I still encourage the businesses I work to have as many revenue streams as possible. This allows both profitability in the short-term and long-term stability and growth.
Lesson #2: Hire your weaknesses
The business had hundreds of staff.
There was a joke in town that at some point everyone had worked at Mctavish’s.
When you have a large team, you have to manage them properly. But my dad and uncle were quite soft when it came to dealing with their staff.
Instead they employed a key manager from the “old school of management”. He was known for his tough and uncompromising style. But as my Dad said: “He brought in the figures”.
It made sense. You have to hire to your weaknesses to succeed in business.
Lesson #3: Whatever you’re told, when people buy stuff it’s an emotional decision
I went on to do a business degree at Sheffield Hallam University. I spent my second year studying at a university in Pennsylvania, in the US. Because I wanted to do a third-year work placement there, I sent out 300 letters to companies but didn’t get any replies.
So I decided to embark on road trip from Pennsylvania to Alaska during the summer holiday. But
when I got to San Francisco, I ended up staying there for a year and a half. I made friends, found a
place to stay and managed to get a job selling second-hand Volkswagen cars.
Yup – I was a used car salesman in California.
The low point of the job was when a car was stolen from me during a test drive – and I’d only been
in the role for 2 weeks. When I came back to the dealership, the team said: “Welcome to America!”
Amazingly, they managed to get the car back from the thief pretty quickly.
But in this role, I learnt the art of negotiation. I learned how to seal a deal that satisfied the
customer, made my boss a decent profit – and me a decent commission.
During a negotiation, one customer started crying and I realised that people do not buy based on logic. People buy on emotion, whatever they tell you.
Lesson #4: Get your admin straight
Eventually, the car dealer had to let me go after his business was hit by a recession.
I had to get myself another opportunity which I found pretty quickly by selling silk ties on the streets
of San Francisco.
On my first day, I was picked up by the police!
I thought it was game-over, but the supplier of the ties understood the legal bureaucracy in San Francisco. By paying a fine and saying the right things, he managed to get my stock back within a few days.
This was a good lesson for me. I thought: understanding and correctly managing administrative processes and bureaucracy is essential to business success.
Without a solid backbone of administration and good operational processes, the world’s best marketing can’t help a business.
Lesson #5: Protect your relationship with your suppliers
I ended up moving out of ties because there was too much competition. I started selling bootleg T-shirts instead.
Business went well. I even got someone else to work for me. But I made the cardinal error of allowing him to visit my distributor to pick up stock. Eventually, my “employee” started buying stock directly from the distributor and selling it himself. I wasn’t buying in enough volume to stop my wholesaler selling to anyone else.
Lesson learned – even in the age of the internet, it’s extremely important to protect your business and supplier relationships, and these shouldn’t be shared without serious consideration.
All in all, thanks to my time in the US, I ended up getting a distinction from my university for my work placements.
Practical experience in business always beats theory!
Lesson #6: Your pricing strategy can make or break your business
I finished my degree, but after the experience of being my own boss, I didn’t want to follow my friends into jobs at large companies.
I absolutely hate wearing ties. If someone wants to wear a noose around their neck with a slip knot so someone else can strangle them, that’s up to them. But it’s not for me!
I moved to London and started a part-time sales and marketing role so that I could work on several of my own promising business ideas.
I also ran a market stall on Saturdays selling raw cotton clothing where I learnt the importance of psychological pricing: £12 for one item and £20 for two never stopped working brilliantly!
Lesson #7: Listen to your heart and gut feeling about business situations
Next, I got a sales and marketing role based in Hampstead, London. It involved cold-calling property lawyers to sell them legal reporting services.
I worked out that lawyers who took out decent-sized adverts in the Yellow Pages were more commercially minded and more willing to look at what I was selling.
I was on a good commission of 10%. I could see myself earning a decent part-time income, which would allow me to invest and spend time building up my other business interests.
But after working there for a few days, I noticed a few odd things. There was no name on the door of the offices and the boss had hired people with poor English to write up the legal reports to sell to lawyers. My gut feeling was there was something not quite right about this company.
I asked the director how many people he had working in his second office, which I had never been to. He said there were 8 people working there. This didn’t seem right, so I visited this “second office” and found it was just a front – it was one of those places that people use to forward mail to other businesses. There were no staff members, just one person on reception.
The next day I again asked the director how many people worked at the other office. When he replied 8. I told him that I’d been to the “second office” and knew he was lying. I was recording him, and at the end of the conversation I showed him the recorder.
The poor guy went a shade of grey and gave me a cheque there and then to cover my wages.
I contacted the clients I’d won and recommended that they didn’t do business with my previous employer any more.
I didn’t do this out of malice, but out of a sense of responsibility. My clients could have been endangering their own reputations by using the company as a supplier.
This taught me two very valuable lessons.
Firstly, always pay attention to your gut feeling in business.
And secondly, never mess your salespeople about. Salespeople are often the hardest people to successfully hire and manage.
Lesson #8 and #9: Choose your business partners wisely and always have a written agreement before you jump into any joint venture
Thankfully, I’d been exploring some new opportunities, so I was able to walk straight into another part-time sales and marketing role.
To this day I’m always considering new opportunities. The ability to spot new opportunities and take advantage of them is a fundamental skill of successful entrepreneurs.
You have to be a bit like a hunter who is constantly scanning the horizon for game. It’s never ending!
Whilst doing these part-time roles, I’d teamed up with a business partner to sell natural perfumes. Having been blessed with a great sense of smell, I’d always hated chemical perfume. When I first experienced these natural products, I knew I had to get involved. And I still wear the perfume every day.
I created the marketing strategy and was involved in the branding and design. We sold into a good number of shops, and eventually we got distribution in all the London branches of the Wholefoods Market. The buyer there loved our products and gave us a lot of great advice about our point-of-sale display unit.
My business partner brought someone else into the business and decided he didn’t want me involved anymore. He offered £3,000 to buy me out. However, I’d previously negotiated a deal with him where I would get a lifetime percentage of sales from up to 100 online and retail shops. Unfortunately, there was no written agreement between us, which was a huge mistake on my part.
I ended up taking legal action against my former partner. This went on for a year and a half. Luckily I had a few friends who worked in the legal field, and they helped me to take my case forward with minimal costs.
If you do want to take someone to court, be aware that you’ll have to write down everything that happened, in chronological order, and provide evidence such as emails and documents. It’s a lot of work and stress.
In the end, my ex-partner settled out of court, paying me £4,500 and reimbursing my costs. I know that he also spent a lot of money on legal fees, as his lawyers just loved sending me letters.
For me, the case was much more about principle than money.
As an amusing footnote, years later I was at a music festival taking part in a dance workshop. The person leading the class said: “Turn to the person next to you and say hello.”
When I turned, I saw my ex-business partner!
Talk about a death stare.
The worst business opportunity in the world – hands up, I tried it.
As Vince Lombardi said: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up again.”
Lesson #10: Without a really intelligent business model you’ll never succeed
If you want to guarantee business failure, go into network marketing.
I set up a business that sold a nutritional product through network marketing. I love the product and still use it today.
The problem with network marketing is that everyone is making commission from the other people they bring into the pyramid and it’s very difficult to get a genuinely honest view or insight.
The company I was involved with completely changed the compensation plan several times, which meant that eventually my time and investment became worth nothing.
What network marketing companies often claim, especially in the nutritional area, is that they have some special intellectual property, formula or product that is unique to them. This is rarely true and with the establishment of e-commerce giants like Amazon, people can buy anything they want from whoever they choose. Given that, I struggle to see a future for most network marketing companies.
The reality is that only a very small percentage of people in any given network marketing company make a significant income. There are very few genuine and reputable companies in this space.
If you get offered a “once in a lifetime” network marketing opportunity, run a mile.
You can have the most brilliant product or service, but without a really intelligent business model, you’ll never succeed. A great business model is the backbone of any businesses.
Many entrepreneurs aren’t familiar with business models because they haven’t studied business or marketing – if they had, they would probably be working for someone else.
If you’re in this category, I can highly recommend the business model canvas. This one-page visual approach helps you to instantly understand and critically evaluate your business model. It’s something I love to teach as everyone gets it immediately.
Lesson #11: You must understand who your ideal customer is
Next, I landed another marketing and sales role, this time at a recruitment company. The business was a start-up and the directors had just quit their jobs to work on it full-time.
My job was to target and bring in new clients. At the beginning, it wasn’t clear who the ideal customer for the service was. I’ll never forget making 20 test calls to businesses, only to be told they weren’t the type of business that would buy the service.
I quickly learnt the importance of taking the time to verify and identify your ideal customer before spending money on marketing.
Imagine splashing out thousands of pounds on a sophisticated campaign, only to find out it was targeting people who would never buy your product.
I was really successful in this role and made the company a significant amount of money. After a year, the directors suggested I might be promoted to Marketing and Sales Director. Nine months later, it still hadn’t happened. At that point I decided it was time to move on.
Lesson #12: Don’t blow all your money on office space or a fancy website when you start up a business
I had consistently been building up my knowledge of marketing – there is something about it that I find endlessly fascinating.
I’d been doing a great deal of study online, and going to training and networking events. I had also been working with a few other companies, helping them with their marketing and getting good results.
I felt that it was now time to step out on my own.
I had no website, no office; just a business card with some testimonials on it. But that’s all I needed.
One of the myths about start-ups is that you need a fancy website and office space, and all manner of other things.
I see business programmes where people are given money which they spend immediately on office space. As a start-up, investing lots of money up-front in office space, or marketing and sales, is not a good idea.
You don’t need a fancy website, an office space and sophisticated stuff to start a business. You don’t even need a business plan.
You need to begin by identifying exactly what it is that you’re selling, road-test it, and road-test it again.
The story of the start-up guys who create some unbelievable product in their bedroom, launch the product then makes billions, is outdated and inaccurate propagated by people who are not in business.
I worked out of my front room for the first few years. I started to get clients quickly and built up Grow through blood, sweat and tears. Then one day, my wife said: “Get an office or I’m going to leave you!”
So I quickly found a lovely office in Brixton, 400 metres away from where I live. I’m still there today.
I now have a small team, including a marketing assistant and freelancers who work remotely.
During my consultancy sessions I realised that a lot of entrepreneurs were lacking the essential knowledge they needed to create a successful marketing strategy, both online and offline.
This is how I started to teach marketing workshops. I lead monthly marketing workshops at The British Library in order to share my hard-won marketing expertise. I’m proud to say I’ve taught thousands of entrepreneurs, many of whom would not have been able to afford consultancy with me.
I know my workshops could be charged out for a lot more and I could just stick up a few PowerPoint slides, babble on endlessly, and not provide a detailed workbook.
But I’m passionate about sharing my marketing knowledge with small business owners, as entrepreneurship is crucial to the success of our economy and society.
The exposure I get from teaching means that many of the people I end up working with have seen me in action at a workshop. An entrepreneur I know says that in order to succeed you need to out-teach your competition. It’s true!
Lesson #13: Get good at hiring people and avoiding hiring duds
Two of my key business beliefs are playing to your strengths and hiring to your weaknesses.
When I first started my business, I ended up hiring a string of really poor people. People who work very slowly, who cannot write well and don’t have passion are a drag on a business, as opposed to an asset.
Knowing how to hire good people is a key driver of small business success.
Eventually, I decided enough was enough. I brought in an ex-Marks & Spencer HR expert to help me reboot my hiring process. I’m not a great fan of using traditional recruitment companies to hire staff. LinkedIn and a variety of other online platforms have made it easy for anyone, at a reasonable price, to get their job descriptions seen by a large number of the right people. The problem I had was that my hiring process was poor.
Now, I know the ins and outs of hiring excellent staff.
Amongst other ninja hiring tactics that I use is a two-hour written test which every single person we interview must take.
You will not believe the difference between how people present themselves in an interview and their written test. It really sorts out the wheat from the chaff!
Lesson #14: A business mentor can steer you in the right direction
Two good friends of mine, who both run multi-million pound businesses, have two habits that I’ve noticed are key.
One is their ongoing commitment to learning, developing and growing as business people, even though they’re both already successful.
The other trait is that they both have business mentors who they speak to regularly.
After having an experience with a business mentor that didn’t work out for me, I found someone who I really clicked with. I speak to them twice a month, which is fantastic and makes me accountable for taking action in my business. It allows me to focus on the strategy and growth of the business, as opposed to being involved in the day-to-day running of things.
A great business mentor can help you see things that you wouldn’t otherwise see, and steer you away from making bad decisions.
It’s also what I do for other people as part of my consultancy, so it’s essential that I get to experience the benefits myself.
Lesson #15: Entrepreneurship is the new rock ‘n’ roll
Entrepreneurship has come a long way since the 1970s image of a scruffy, slightly shady character like “Del boy” in Only Fools and Horses.
I’m so glad that entrepreneurship is the new rock n’ roll. It’s just as much of a roller coaster, but without the drugs and smashing up hotel rooms. And there are a lot more successful entrepreneurs than there are rock stars!
I believe entrepreneurs solve many of the world’s problems by creating innovative services and products that are backed by sustainable business models, which in turn result in a better society.
I’m still as passionate as ever about working with committed small business owners and trying to get to the heart of their marketing conundrums.