Invest in your people so they can grow with your business. I’ve always been proud to see people in my business build a career with us and I think it is critical for great companies to retain people that have been part of the journey whilst complementing that with outstanding external hires.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Robbins.
Neil started his agencies’ parent company, N21 Group, in 2002, and has grown his affiliate marketing agency, Silverbean, into a global leader in the affiliate and partnership marketing space, with offices in the UK, US and Australia. He values a positive culture where people are supported and helped to grow with the company.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My path to becoming the founder of his own business, one that now spans three continents and works with many famous global brands, was rather unusual. Born and raised in London, I met my future wife at university. After she decided the bright lights of the capital were not for her, at the age of 22 I found myself on a train with an old suitcase heading to Newcastle upon Tyne to try a new life.
After a few internet sales jobs, I found myself working at a startup digital marketing agency run by a guy that taught me everything about how to not run a business! This chap was a brilliant salesperson, one of the best I’ve seen. But the rest of his approach to leading a business was something of nightmares.
It’s at this point, in 2002, that I decided to take the plunge and go it alone, and I’ve never looked back since.
I hired my first employee after nine months, and early on I built Silverbean into the leader for the online sports betting industry in Europe. At the end of 2008, when the global economic crash was starting to bite hard, the firm lost most of its clients in a three-week period. You really do grow as a business leader when that happens.
In an effort to save the business, I introduced new services in early 2009 and moved the agency into new sectors. Fortunately, all of this had the right effect, and we managed to win new clients and start to shape a fresh and exciting future for the business.
Since then, I have created a group of performance marketing agencies which operate across Europe, Australia and the US.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Being frank, I didn’t face any hard times in the first five years, it was quite the opposite of what 99% of founders now have to contend with at the beginning.
When I launched the business, it specialised in a niche that was high growth and under-served. It was 2002, so it was easier to do that then!
My biggest challenge came at the end of 2008.
The global economic crash meant that investors in the markets were pulling their cash out, and many of our clients were backed by investors. In a three week period in late November, I took calls from virtually all of our clients to say they were having to pull our contract. Some went out of business, and others just held on.
At the time I had twelve people in the business, so we were like a family. But I had no choice. I had to make some tough decisions, and reduced the team down to six people, including myself.
I knew I had less than twelve months to successfully implement a new plan, otherwise I was likely to go out of business. When the pressure is on you have no choice — you have to go on! I’m fortunate because I enjoy pressure. I know it’s not for everyone, but it works for me.
Fortunately, I made the right decisions back then and by the end of 2009 we were in calmer waters and ready to push on from 2010.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’ve made many mistakes! And I look back now at many of them and wonder how I did that. But it’s about experience, when you are a founder of a business you can read books, listen to podcasts and take advice from people. But, it’s your own experience that ultimately shapes you as a leader.
The funny mistake actually turned out to be a life saver for the business. When it was just me in the early days, I managed to get a pitch opportunity with a major business. Like many one-person businesses, I had spent time creating the perception that I had a bigger operation than just me, so customers had more confidence to buy from me.
I was halfway through this pitch when the Director I was presenting to calmly said to me: “Neil, tell me the truth, is the business actually just you at the moment?” My immediate thought was that I had blown in. And the hundreds of pounds I spent on the flights and accommodation for the pitch.
Of course, I confessed that the business at that moment in time was just me.
He immediately said he was going to give me a contract, but it was going to be paid on a results-only basis. That’s not what I was after: I needed a guaranteed income stream so I could hire someone to join me. I had little choice but to accept, so left a little deflated.
The irony is, that contract was one of the most profitable we’ve ever had and played a major part in keeping us afloat in 2009!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are just embarking on the next stage of our growth journey. One of my strategies for this was to break the company up into three brands, and operate them as individual business units under the umbrella for the holding company, N21 Group.
I’ve done this to give each area of the business a better opportunity to stand out as specialist agencies in their own respective disciplines. I started that process in 2019 with one of our agencies, Silverbean, and it has really paid off for us because we have attracted more and more high value clients that only need the expertise that particular agency of ours offers.
Aside from our brand positioning, the real areas we stand out with are our people. They are forward thinking, they lead our clients in new directions, but combine this with the utmost care for delivering the client experience I want. I have found that it is truly a unique combination in our market.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I find that most founders that are driven to grow their business are in danger of burn out at some stage. I’ve been there myself and, through experience, I’ve learned when to slow down or re-evaluate what I am doing to get the right controls around it.
The best thing a founder can have is a mentor, someone who has been there and done it, someone who can help you shorten your decision making process, who can guide you through some of the trickier times all of which helps reduce stress — which is often the biggest driver of burn out.
I learnt pretty quickly that consistently working long hours is counter productive. As a business leader you need time to reflect, time to think. That’s when you can make the right decisions. So, my advice is genuinely to take stock of the hours you work, delegate or stop doing the tasks that are not moving your business forward, and use that time to consider the decisions that will make a difference to your business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s true no one can build a great business on their own. I’ve found the combination of some brilliant wisdom from people outside of the business coupled with some great people inside the business is what is needed to be successful.
I’m definitely grateful to the guy that gave me my first contract, without that my life as a business owner wouldn’t have started so early, and maybe not at all. He took a risk on me and it paid off for us both at the time.
I’m grateful to my wife for her never-ending support. And the fact that she walked into my office after the first 6 months, saw the amount of admin work that wasn’t getting attended to (most of it!) and jumped in and helped. She then stayed until our first child was born.
One of my team has been with the business almost from the start and she has built a great service and a great team, so much so it allowed me to focus on other opportunities with varying degrees of success — which as a business leader you need to be able to do.
And of course, I am grateful for everyone one of my people in the company right now who turn up each day and do their very best for our clients and the business. Without them I would not be able to try and build a great business across three continents.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
For me, a good company is one that has a quality product that they deliver to the market in an efficient and profitable way, demonstrating consistency in their growth. And of course, there are many businesses like this.
I would define a great company as a company that does this, but is committed to its people’s well-being and personal growth, consistently achieves above industry averages in positive customer feedback and retention and ultimately takes responsibility to help its community and causes.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
I think the fundamental difference between good companies and great ones is their people. After all, this is where the majority of our competitive advantages come from. I believe if a business leader wants to build a great company, they need to focus on these five things:
- Create the right direction and frameworks for managing performance, and then trust your employees. Give them autonomy, whilst ensuring they are accountable for delivering agreed outcomes.
- Create an environment where people can do their best work — give them the tools they need to be great.
- Hire the best people you can afford. And make sure they have the attitude you need to be a great member of a team and buy-in to your vision.
- Invest in your people so they can grow with your business. I’ve always been proud to see people in my business build a career with us and I think it is critical for great companies to retain people that have been part of the journey whilst complementing that with outstanding external hires.
- Have a vision, align a clear strategy against it and communicate it well, regularly. I’ve come to learn that even your best people are so focused on their own jobs that a gentle, consistent reminder of what we are trying to achieve keeps them moving in the right direction and simplifies the decisions they have to make.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Well, first of all It’s the right thing to do. I am a firm believer that businesses should be investing back into their communities or supporting local causes. Not for any other reason than we often have access to resources that can make a difference — and we should be seeking ways to help.
However, I do believe there are reciprocal business benefits to being purpose-led, or to having a clear commitment to creating social impacts. I think employees really value it. In my business we give 100 working days a year to our community or causes, meaning our people can take time off without using their annual leave to do this.
I find our people respect the fact that the business is trying to support social causes and is encouraging its people to participate without taking away from their personal time.
That said, I still feel that being committed to a cause relevant to your business or customers can be a point of difference for a business, and that it can actually help to drive revenues.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Business growth is never linear, despite the fact that all of us business leaders would love it to be! I started my business in 2002 and have experienced stagnating growth on a few occasions. Each time that has happened to me, I have taken a big step back and analysed the major factors, and they have been different at each growth stage.
I think the first lesson I learned was to find time to work on the business and not in it. Only then can you proactively identify the blockers to growth so you can reduce the chances of needing to find solutions to kick start growth once more.
Experience really does count with growth too. I’ve needed access to different advice and experience as my business has grown, and I think for any business leader this is invaluable. When a business starts to see a slowing down in its growth, bringing in an experienced consultant or adviser can really make all the difference.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I’ve implemented three strategies in the past two years that have been key drivers in our growth, even through 2020 when the COVID pandemic was in full swing.
First of all I made sure we understood from our clients what type of experience they wanted from us, and then implemented a plan to deliver that. Since then our client retention has never been stronger.
I then narrowed down our focus, invested more to hire more experienced sales talent than we had before and implemented a defined sales process using an outside consultant. This doubled our new client win rates, and increased the average value of a new client.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The aspect of running a business that I have underestimated, and to an extent still do, is how much time you should spend communicating and talking to your people.
It is so easy to focus on strategy and growth, and of course handling the myriad of challenges that come your way. Taking time to connect with your people, especially when you are growing and hiring new people can be forgotten.
It’s an area I really fall short on right now, and will be making this a key priority to get right in the coming months.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Naturally, the approach required to improve conversion differs from business to business, sector to sector, country to country. I run a B2B services company and there are two main things we have done in the past couple of years to improve our own conversion rates:
- Firstly, we focused far more on our ideal customer fit. We have worked out which businesses are more likely to buy from us and we focus hard on that.
- Secondly we implemented a sales methodology that each of our salespeople fully understand, and most importantly are accountable for using.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Building a trusted brand can mean different things to different people, including your customers who are ultimately the ones whose trust you need to earn. I feel there are some threads to what a business leader needs to try and achieve through their teams in order to build a brand that is trusted, regardless of which industry they operate in and the type of customers they serve.
Honesty goes a long way! Social media has made it impossible for businesses to hide behind their mistakes or their issues. I think most people accept no business is perfect, but by being honest and transparent with customers you can manage any negative stories whilst building a brand that people come to trust.
One thing I focus hard on in my business is delivering on our promises. Making sure our clients get what they need on time, that we focus religiously on what they are paying us for which is ultimately to grow their revenues. As simple as it sounds, customers just want what was promised. If you deliver time and time again, then eventually you become trusted for this, when often many of your competitors will be failing — and most likely not being transparent about their issues in delivering, too.
Once you have a business that is prepared to be honest, and focuses hard on delivering on its promises, then for me it’s about exceeding customer expectations, giving them pleasant surprises, delivering more than you said, and delivering it early.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
For me there is only one way to deliver a wow customer service: fully understand what the customer values.
As a business leader, once you are armed with the right insights from your customers then you can start to challenge your teams to work out how to deliver against these needs.
But customer expectations change, often fuelled by their experiences in sectors that don’t relate to your business. Look at Amazon, who have re-imagined how to deliver convenience to customers.
The challenge for all of us business leaders is that our customers will likely be customers of Amazon in some form. And, in time, they begin to expect that immediacy with all of their professional and personal transactions.
The key for me though is to speak to customers regularly, speak to them directly as a business leader too. Find out what they want, what they truly value and go all-out to provide this for them.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
I do understand why business leaders are fearful of social media and the risk it poses to the reputation of the business. But, we can’t control the social media conversations, we can only join them.
It is far riskier not to have a proactive strategy for social media engagement than to pretend it’s not happening! Business leaders need to employ the right knowledge in this area, whether that be hiring an employee to look after this or an outside consultant who can help create the right frameworks and internal guidelines for employees’ social media usage.
Business leaders need to ensure they have a social media crisis management plan in place should the very worst happen. In the past, a negative brand conversation on social media could last days, it seems to last hours now. But normally, when the brand engages with the story, is transparent and actively seeks to take it offline, it can turn a bad conversation into a great one.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
All of us business founders are making mistakes all of the time. There is no rule book out there that tells you what to do all of the time! If it was easy, more people would be doing it.
If I look at some of my peers who have launched new businesses in recent times and I check that with my own experience in the first three years or so, I think these three mistakes are common:
The founder doesn’t raise enough money at the outset to go big, fast. This means they can’t hire the experience they need, they can’t promote the business at the scale they need to, they have to compromise on where to invest. I’ve never run a business that has taken investment so I couldn’t advise on what founders should do differently other than get someone on their board early who has been there before, leant the lessons and can help the founder raise the right level of capital.
Another mistake is looking for a silver bullet, the one big thing that will accelerate growth. Of course there are stories of businesses that have just taken off, sometimes on the back of a moment, but these are few and far between. Growth is hard work, you need clear direction, good people and an appetite to take some risks to grow. There is rarely one big-ticket play you can make, it’s doing a number of things well, consistently.
The final mistake is one that is more personal to my experience and that is hiring big earlier on. I have a great leadership team in my business now, but too often in the past I tried to create leaders rather than hire them in. I think it should be a balance of supporting people to grow into leaders, and bringing in that experience from the outside.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is a huge question! I think change starts with children. If I was to start a movement I think it would focus on helping children find a way out of poverty or the circumstances that can hold them back. My business works with a few charities and one of them is local to our UK headquarters — they do some incredible work with local families to break the cycle of poverty. I’d love to start a movement that could do this on a huge scale.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!