’Do what you know,’ that’s the advice from Nicola Ellison’s mum that propelled her into the world of entrepreneurship, prompting Nicola to leave corporate life and set up a digital marketing agency.

Fast forward nine years, and the agency, Digirank, has grown into a thriving, award-winning business, with 11 employees and a much-coveted Premier Google Partner rating.

From University in Leeds, Nicola moved to London, working client-side in a range of corporate digital marketing roles for ten years, where she met and married a Bristolian. They moved to Bristol, where she fell in love with the city too.

What made you want to start your own business?

I’d been thinking about running my own business for a few years. Then, after continuing down the corporate route in Bristol for 12 months, I started to feel like it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t particularly unhappy with the job, it just seemed the time was right for change, but I was struggling to come up with that one killer idea to make it happen. That’s when my mum told me, ‘just do what you know’. It was superb to have that breakthrough, and I realised I needed to focus on digital marketing services. It was hugely exciting.

How did you start your business?

In the beginning, things were challenging. It took a leap of faith for me to jump from a steady corporate role with a regular income into a situation where I didn’t draw any money for five months. When starting a business, you can get a long way on resilience and confidence. You just need to do it, you need to keep going.

I knew there was a demand for digital marketing services for the SME market, so I decided on that as my focus, providing a range of services around SEO, PPC, content, user journey and social media. From the outset it was all about getting the sales pipeline in place, nurturing the leads and feeding the funnel until I won a client. From that first client win, five months in, things accelerated and I employed my first team member within nine months of setting up.

How have your previous roles influenced how you run your business?

I needed the ten years under my belt before going it alone. Not just for the experience in digital marketing techniques and campaign planning, but to know how it feels to be an employee within a corporate environment, what you need from an agency and how the landscape looks from the other side. Before starting Digirank, I hadn’t worked agency side, so it was all new to me, but my years in London have given me many insights that have been invaluable along the way.

What have you learnt along the way?

In the early days, I didn’t have a plan for the business and if I had to do it all again, that’s the one thing I would change. Initially, I knew I needed clients to survive, so my time was entirely focused on sales and marketing, with the other aspects of running a business put to one side. Once Digirank began to take off and the clients were building, most of my  time was taken up with billable hours, so the business planning took a back seat again.

When you’re a small company you can get away with it a bit more, but if I had introduced a business plan earlier, we would be further ahead than we are today. I’d advise anyone to put together a thorough plan for their business from the outset; it’s not just all about making the sales. That said, keep it flexible, you need to have a pathway, but you also need to be able to alter your direction when you need to. If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to make adjustments.

How are you growing your business?

We still have many clients from the early days on the books.

One such success story is ForrestBrown, an award-winning R&D tax credit consultancy, which engaged Digirank’s services over four years ago. ForrestBrown was a team of two that needed help with raising its profile, driving relevant website traffic and educating target industries about R&D tax credits. Digirank’s ongoing marketing strategy of paid search, website optimisation, content marketing and more recently social media promotion has helped drive relevant, quality traffic to the website at different stages of the customer journey. From those small beginnings, ForrestBrown’s team is now more than 60 strong – and still growing – with offices in Bristol and London.

ForrestBrown is a great example of how we work with a client to scale their business.  As they’ve expanded, they’ve introduced an in-house marketing team, who have been excellent to work with and our role has evolved as a result.

What is your proudest moment?

One of my proudest moments is when Digirank achieved Premier Google Partner status at the end of 2016. The Premier Google Partner award is the pinnacle of Google’s awards and reserved for only the highest performing digital agencies who meet the most stringent standards and criteria for qualification, transparency and customer service.

Then last year Digirank entered and won the Best Use of Search category in the Wirehive100 awards, the leading digital awards for outstanding work and exceptional individuals in the southern counties.

It was our first year of entering awards. We knew that we’d put together a great search strategy for Permagard, but Best Use of Search was the most-entered category in the awards, with nine other finalists, so we didn’t really expect to win.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?

Think big and spend time on the bigger picture. It’s not that the reactive tasks don’t need to be done but people need to be aware of how they spend their time, because that’s what’s going to steer the business.

Only do what only you can do. For example, if there’s a crucial call that needs to be made to a client it can only be me, as the owner, who can do that. You have to do the things that make the most impact. As the team grows, try not to get stuck too much in the day to day; don’t order the laptops for new starters; that can be done by someone else. To be honest, I’m still working on this, as – at 11 people – we’re relatively small. Everyone employed needs to be billable, so I still get involved in some of the non-billable tasks, which can get in the way of the strategy.

It’s something you may hear a lot, but I’ve found that recruiting on attitude, passion, drive and a fit for the business has been key to success. Most other things can be taught, especially in digital where the skill set moves on rapidly as the industry evolves. Get the right team in place and you’re most of the way there.

For me, this was particularly important, as I had my first child two-and-a-half years after starting up, and my second arrived three years after that. I have an amazing team who have been fantastic at running the show in my absence and who have been very supportive of my circumstances.

What challenges have you faced as a female founder?

There are the obvious challenges of balancing the demands of a young family while simultaneously running a business, but I feel that’s no different whether you’re running a business or working as an employee. For me, it’s all about the passion and the idea, and I believe that if you’re good at what you do gender doesn’t come into it.

Every circumstance is different. It can be hard for women who have time off to start a family, and the early years of business can be all-consuming. All credit goes to my team, as I was able to take a good amount of maternity leave twice.

The nature of the work means remote working is possible. I’m lucky to work in an industry where I can blend work and leisure, I don’t have to be sat in an office all the time. I can be on my mobile, picking up emails and doing non-work things at the same time.

What does the future hold for Digirank?

We have our largest ever growth target to hit this year. We’re reviewing the strategy and revisiting our proposition, as well as taking on new people in more senior roles. It’s a very big year for us and the market opportunity is still huge. There’s no reason we can’t achieve the projections that we’ve set ourselves.

Looking to the market, voice search and video will be a big area over the next few years, along with data informed marketing. We’ll be focusing more on understanding the data which is central to delivering customer experiences, identifying and growing customers, and optimising marketing performance.

Discover more about Digirank

Read more in our female founder series:

Female founder of Collab Associates, a marketing consultancy
Female founder of Stage & the City, a performing arts school
Female founder of Snap Fashion, a fashion tech company
Female founder of Fearless Futures, a social justice training agency
Female founder of Availexe, a recruitment agency

Find out more about our Hiscox small business insurance