In our latest blog, Simon Challis talks to Andy Last of global PR agency Salt.
Why did you decide to set up your own business?
My co-founder Richard Cox and I had worked together in a PR firm in the early 1990s, and although we had gone to work for other agencies, we had a nagging sense that there was a better way of doing things. We finally took the plunge and set up on our own at the beginning of 2000. The start of a new millennium felt like a good time to start afresh.
Neither of us had a burning ambition from the start of our careers to set up our own business. But we both worked for large organisations in which we had been dragged away from our day jobs by having to perform bureaucratic management functions. We wanted to get back to what we loved doing and we also wanted to see if our ideas would work. Richard and I both had quite clear ideas on how things should be done and how we could help clients.
Is this your first start-up?
Yes it is. I hope it will be my last too – in a good way. I love it here.
Where did you get the money from to start the business?
Financing was something we were concerned about at the beginning, but PR doesn’t require a heavy capital outlay. All we needed was an office, with a couple of desks, computers and telephones. There were people who were interested in investing in us, but instead we took out an overdraft to tide us over for the first few months. We picked up a couple of clients pretty quickly and we’ve run cash positive ever since. We’ve grown organically, including setting up our office in Singapore, which is now paying for itself.
How has your business plan changed since you first wrote it?
It has in some ways, but not in others. Our basic belief that we could help clients to communicate better, by providing straightforward and challenging advice to senior managers hasn’t changed. Our commitment to charge clear and proper fees and to pay our staff decent wages – because at the end of the day, all we’re doing is selling their talents – hasn’t altered either. We’ve stayed true to these core principles, just as we have to the ideas of being commercially astute and to promoting a strong culture, which helps to clearly differentiate us from the competition.
But the business plan itself has evolved. We go through a pretty rigorous business planning process each year. We split up the group into three separate business units – with another one now in Singapore – each of which has its own P&L account. The people running those businesses also do their own business plan each year, so the whole process has grown bigger.
What’s been your biggest mistake?
I think we kept ourselves quiet for too long. We probably didn’t concentrate on sales enough in the early days, but it’s something we have focused on in the past 18 months, and I must admit the returns we have got by marketing ourselves have been eye opening. Our business is to offer advice to companies on how to market themselves better, but we hadn’t taken our own advice.
I think the reason was that we had some pretty good clients and we didn’t want to let them down by chasing after other ones. But we’ve now realised that having a stronger sales pipeline enables us to be more confident in making business decisions, such as hiring new people or developing new specialisms, which, in turn, enhances the service we can offer our existing clients.
What’s been your biggest achievement?
Setting up our office in Singapore. Now we’ve done it, it seems like such a natural, positive step forwards for the business. But before it seemed like a complete leap in the dark.
Giving people interesting and fulfilling careers is also very satisfying. We’ve always wanted to create a strong culture where people can explore their talents in a supportive environment in which they feel valued. Without that, the workplace becomes just an unpleasant machine. And it does pay off. People want to do a good job and they’re just as passionate about the business as Richard and me. That’s pretty humbling.
Entrepreneurship – is it nature or nurture?
I didn’t grow up dreaming of owning my own business. But there are probably facets of your nature that make you more likely to become an entrepreneur. For example, I’m very competitive: I think everyone who owns a business wants to win.
Nurture plays a part too, though. My father wasn’t an entrepreneur, but he always praised people who owned their own businesses, and said it was a great thing to do. It’s probably no coincidence that I, along with my two brothers, all own businesses now. I also really admired the people who owned the agencies where I worked before setting up on my own. I liked the idea of being master of my own destiny.
What’s the secret of success in running your own business?
Hiring very good people. Full stop. You need to have the confidence to hire people who are better than you and to give them the freedom to follow their own skills and ideas. All you need to provide is a safety net in case they fall, so they’re not afraid to take risks.
Do you still manage to do the job you love when your business is growing? Are you distracted by management tasks?
We have a great managing director, who runs the business brilliantly well, as do the people who run the individual business units. So I’m able to devote a lot of time to working with clients in the areas that interest me.
What’s the next step for the business?
The new structure of the individual business units still needs a little time to properly bed in. We also need to fully establish our Singapore office; once that’s done, we can explore other overseas offices. We need to strengthen our sales pipeline and to introduce ourselves to new companies, so we become known as one of the best and smartest agencies in our field.
Do you have any heroes?
I’m in the communications business and I believe strongly in the power of communications to effect change. So I really look up to people who are great communicators: Barrack Obama is such a brilliant orator; I love the journalist Caitlin Moran – she is bringing about real change through the power of her words. Lennon and McCartney have always been big heroes too, because of the way in which they communicated to the world. A soppy choice, perhaps, but there you go.
What tips do you have for anyone thinking of setting up a business?
First, just do it. It feels like an enormous leap of faith before you do it; afterwards, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. Also, find a good partner. I was very lucky to have Richard. I trust him implicitly, so we’ve never had to worry about what the other one might do. A good partner is as rare as gold dust, and just as valuable.