Setting goals and setting up an agency - Marketing Consultant Alex Curtis

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After leaving agency life behind in search of autonomy, Alex built up his freelance web design career around a full-time working from home gig.

His goal was to run his own agency, but he was stuck working on client-led projects that he didn't really believe in. Alex knew he could do a better job for his clients if only they'd let him take the driving seat.

He re-positioned himself as a marketing consultant and began to take on projects where he'd play a leading role. Business grew, and soon Alex was ready to hire his first member of staff.

His agency, The Lead Engine, is now 6-people strong, and Alex is working hard to get to a point where marketing and strategy can be his sole focus.

(Well, that and being around more for his family. Fridays off, anyone?).


Alex Curtis: I was working at an agency, and I've worked at quite a few agencies, and I was just getting kind of fed up, I didn't like being told what to do, and the owner the agency, he was big in advertising in the 80s and this whole digital thing for him back then, that was all, he didn't really get it, so he was just asking me what to do, and I was like, yeah, so I was just getting frustrated.

Alex Curtis: And I always wanted to run my own business, and then a girl who I went to school with just put a thing on Facebook, can someone help with a website? And I almost didn't, and it turns out it was two guys from Finland. They asked me how much money I was earning and I think I said more than what I was getting paid, and then they added another six grand on.

Alex Curtis: They said we'll pay you that, so I think it was like three and a half grand a month just to do their work, and then I started doing freelance outside of it, if that makes.

Steve Folland: I'm sorry, a girl you used to go to school with on Facebook turned out to be Swedish men?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, no she was working with the two Finnish men, yeah, sorry. I didn't explain that very well. Yeah, so she was working with them, and I met them and then they needed someone to do the web support and the marketing, and then that got me working from home, if that kind of makes sense, and then doing freelance stuff on the side of it.

Steve Folland: I see, yeah. So were you mainly just working for them at that point?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, yeah, pretty much and then I was picking up the odd website I think. I was doing more web development then, and then I started sharing an office with a couple of guys, and then get more referrals and stuff like that.

Alex Curtis: I didn't have a website or was marketing myself massively. It was just like picking bits up.

Steve Folland: So you didn't have a website saying this is what I do?

Alex Curtis: No 'cause I didn't want them to know 'cause I was full time with them, yeah.

Steve Folland: So this whole experience with the Finnish people, so you were working full time, and then doing that in the evenings?

Alex Curtis: No, no, no. So I quit the agency to work with the Finnish guys.

Steve Folland: Right.

Alex Curtis: And then got freelance stuff around their work and they flexible with times and things like that, so that's how it all kind of started really.

Steve Folland: I mean you just said you were doing web development, so were you just doing like one thing or like you had a smattering of skills that you were pimping yourself out with?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, I suppose, 'cause I had always worked at small agencies, and then it's really helpful to be multi-skilled, I did film production at uni, 'cause I thought I was gonna be the next Christopher Nolan who was like my idol at the time.

Alex Curtis: But I quickly realised that's probably not gonna happen, and if I want to work in film, I'll need to run tea for people for five pounds an hour, I didn't fancy that in London, but then we did modules on design in Photoshop and things like that, and I was really kind of interested in doing design. So I started designing websites, and we did a module on coding websites, and then I started designing the sites, and you'd send it to a developer and they just didn't make it how you designed it.

Alex Curtis: So then I taught myself to code, and then I got really annoyed with people asking me to make websites you know weren't gonna work for them, if that kind of makes sense. So then I got into it, and I was like I actually want to be more of a marketing consultant, so I'm sort of guiding them on how the website should be rather than them seeing something they thought was fancy and they wanted to make that, if that makes sense?

Steve Folland: Yes, I see. So you were being asked to make something, but you didn't believe in it and just wanted to be able to say to them, "actually, why don't you try these sorts of things?"

Alex Curtis: That's it, and then as soon as you say you're a marketing consultant, and then you sort of position yourself the sort of way we do now, everything is like led by us rather than led by the client, 'cause you just end up getting frustrated, I think.

Steve Folland: Yeah. So you just us because now you are a company actually with employees and stuff, so I feel like that is jumping forward, how did it evolve from you deciding to call yourself that marketing consultant?

Alex Curtis: Okay, so I guess the Finnish stuff, they were just crazy. They jumped around from different ideas to the next and they just ran out of money, and again, it was them making silly decisions, not focusing on one thing, and I was kind of saying why don't we do this, and they just wanted to do their thing.

Alex Curtis: So that petered out, and then I suppose the fully on me freelance kind of came about from them, that was maybe a year, I think, so this probably brings us up to like 2014, maybe. I said then I was like fully on, I've always had the Lead Engine as the name, but I started doing stuff just design and web under Identity Shack, I think it was called 'cause I thought I'll just get the websites in, and then charge, I think I was only charging like a grand or something a website, and then that was getting more of people just saying, "oh, we want this, this, and this," and it was like, yeah, I wasn't enjoying it.

Alex Curtis: And then I completely switched to consultancy led, although I thought I was with Identity Shack, but it wasn't. It was still people saying, "can we have this, this, and this," or "I saw this amazing thing on this website, can you do that, that, that?" Rather than at the beginning me saying, I think this is what we should do, this is the plan that I think this will get you more business.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so it was actually calling yourself the Lead Engine, and defining yourself as a marketing consultant that made people listen to you in that way?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, I think so.

Steve Folland: And so, at what point did the Lead Engine go from just being you, did you just hire other people as freelancers at first or like, what happened?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, no, pretty much. I think I got to the point where I was charging, I think it was about nine day rates a week, like killing myself, working every evening, every Saturday, no holidays for like four years, and sort of like a breaking point I think.

Alex Curtis: And so the business centre we are here, they had a guy, his name is Mike Green, he did Secret Millionaire on Channel 4. At that point he was coming in every Thursday donating his time to give advice to people, and I kind of thought, I pinned all my hopes on him, I was like he must want to invest a hundred grand in me to set up an agency or whatever. He didn't.

Alex Curtis: He gave me the direction that I needed and so I met him in April and then set the limited company up in June, and hired my first two people that June, and then we were seeing each other like, sounds a bit wrong. We were meeting once a meet at that point.

Alex Curtis: I think the first thing was having a kid, and then when she got to one, and then we wanted to make sure that my partner could look after her and not have to work, so that was kind of like one thing I was like, right, we need to motor on this, and then getting a mentor, steering me in the right direction, doing proper planning, proper goal setting.

Alex Curtis: I was always like I want more clients, I want more clients, but I never had a plan of how I'm gonna do it, if that kind of makes sense? And then setting like three months, six months, nine months, 12 month goals, and then having someone to talk to about that who's been and done it and achieved everything that he has.

Steve Folland: So how did that feel for him? It's one thing to have somebody to talk to and thinking, "yeah, how about you try this," but then actually stepping into that point where you're hiring people?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, I know, it was very quick. I suppose I needed to, it was always a fear 'cause I had been made redundant about two or three times, I think it was. I also joined an agency, they hired me and another girl, and we got to the end pay day, the first pay day and they were like you know big client's not paid an invoice, we haven't got the money to pay you, and then that was like a three month saga, I had to take them to small claims in the end, but I've kind of experienced those sort of things, so I never ever want to do that to anyone else.

Alex Curtis: I hired later than I should have. So I guess the money was there, but also I was like, oh what if I lose a client, what if you lose that client? And it was just like taking that leap too late, I suppose I did the two pretty much in the same month.

Steve Folland: That's cool though, so you were waiting until financially you were in a place that you knew you could support other people even if the work wasn't there, or rather if the money wasn't coming in?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, yeah that's it. Absolutely.

Steve Folland: Well, good for you. How did you find, though, suddenly being a boss?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, all right I think. I've just kind of naturally taken all the things that I hated about other bosses, and all the things that I liked about other bosses, throw a bit of David Brent in there and you're all good. Just watch a lot of the Office, and then just bring that in I think.

Steve Folland: Yeah, that's nice. So how many of you are the Lead Engine now?

Alex Curtis: Okay, so including me, there is six.

Steve Folland: Wow, and so what is your role within that?

Alex Curtis: What it is and what I want it to be. I've got Tom who's kind of like, he's the second latest person we've hired. He's kind of like a co-founder, but on the payroll. He hired me as a contractor, a company that he used to work for, and then I got him in, so he's quite senior, so he's senior account manager, I guess key account manager. Manages the team and their workload. Day to days like the office manager if that kind of makes sense.

Alex Curtis: And then him and I stew kind of strategy together. In the beginning I took him on, he was coming with new client pitch meetings, etc. Now I just do that. So I just want to be sales and marketing for our company, and then kind of obviously do strategy, but I'm doing the majority of the paid ads, so we do a lot of Facebook ads, Google ads. I do the majority of that, I'm teaching one of girls to do that at the minute and then we've got, she's like a copywriter, so we've got two copywriters, a web developer.

Alex Curtis: The developer's now, he had never touched a WordPress site before, and now he's at the point where I don't have to give him hardly any input, so that's really good. When people are on holiday, I've got to dive in and cover them as well as my stuff, so yeah, I think that was a bit of a ramble, but a bit of everything, but trying to be strategy and sales, as much as possible, but then still sort of diving into stuff, hands on a bit.

Steve Folland: And does that mean you have to bring in quite a lot of work, I guess, in order to sustain a team that big? Is that like a tricky thing, that balance of when do we hire, when do we?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, no definitely. So everything is on retainer at the minute, so we don't tie people to contracts, so they could leave at any point, but essentially, you get to a point where you need the extra man power to manage the clients you've got, and then what we do now is all clients, the billing is automated, they pay at the start. We use GoCardless, so the money is there, if they start, they're paid, if that makes sense?

Steve Folland: Yes, yeah yeah. So you don't do anything without them putting money down?

Alex Curtis: Well, we shouldn't. We've actually got a meeting this afternoon with someone who hasn't, the refuse, they're the one people that have refused to go on a direct debit and I guess they had a direct debit scam or something before, and the chairman wouldn't sign it off.

Alex Curtis: So we've only got one that isn't, but essentially yeah. It's one of the lessons learnt really in terms of billing and things like that, it's a bit of a tricky one for freelancers, and it's always an awkward conversation, is it, about money and chasing payments and things like that.

Steve Folland: How about, then, the way that you get clients now? So at one point it basically through a reputation, I know you just mentioned Facebook ads for example.

Alex Curtis: Yeah, so yeah pretty much LinkedIn, our LinkedIn ads. So we specialise now in just financial services, so lead generation for financial services companies. So a lot of that's like mortgages, life insurance, all kind of insurances, loans and things like that.

Alex Curtis: So we're specialists in that area, so as far as we're concerned, there's no one better than us, although we don't say that sort of thing, and then every financial services company need leads inquiries like all the time, and a lot of them buy leads in, so they'll be companies that have got their own version of Compare the Market for say, mortgages or for boilers or for whatever, and they sell those inquiries to these people, and then we offer them that we'll do it for you through your own brand through your own website, it'll be cheaper, more efficient and then we get that proposition across to them in their LinkedIn feed, and then we re-market on every sort of channel. Most of the inquiries come through on the re-marketing.

Steve Folland: Was going off to financial services as niche, when did you do that?

Alex Curtis: Only recently, actually. So before I met you at the conference, so only probably about a month before we actually, I made the decision to actually change the website and say that, so only recently.

Steve Folland: Okay, so maybe it's too early to know the difference that might make?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, no, I think it's good in terms of easily being able to say no to stuff that you don't want to do. I always find it a bit awkward saying no to people that you know you can't help, and so it's say we only specialise in financial services, but it's made our marketing a lot easier in terms of going after like the SOE work that we're doing. We're much more focused on just going after the financial services rather than trying to compete with everyone on everything.

Alex Curtis: And then the marketing and everything, yeah, I think our just whole approach is a lot better, and then we were only advertising to financial services before, 'cause that's where our best ones came from, but now we've just made it better in terms of the website and the way we come across.

Steve Folland: And have you always worked out of an office?

Alex Curtis: No, so in the early days, I want to say in the stuff with like the guys from Finland, I was working in, I had like a spare bedroom, I had a townhouse, it was like a top floor kind of office. I did like this six months, got real cabin fever, really bad cabin fever from there.

Alex Curtis: Then got an office with some guys that I used to go to school with, and then went back home for a bit and then found a co-working space, a bit like the thing you're in at the moment, and then they got a co-working here, and then we moved from the co work space in this building to an office in this building.

Steve Folland: What's been your main sort of learning of like transitioning from just being yourself to being a company of more than just yourself?

Alex Curtis: I guess it was a lot of stuff, it's like planning, goal setting, not just concentrating, you're always concentrating on getting client work done first, and you always leave yourself last, and I think that's why I was stuck for literally years wanting to have an agency and recruit people, but never getting there 'cause I was spending all my time looking after my clients.

Alex Curtis: So I guess that's probably the biggest, and then planning what am I gonna do to grow and actually doing what you do for everyone else for yourself, 'cause you just get trapped doing it, and then sacking clients that are no good, that take the biscuit, that you under-quoted and undercharge, but carry on doing it out of a sense of loyalty.

Alex Curtis: So yeah, there was one where I was charging, it was only about 130 pounds a day I think it was for my first ever client for myself, and then I was just doing so much work for so little, and it sort of got so frustrating, but I kept them for three, four years and then finally went back and they took the new rate, which was about five times more and then I helped them hire people internally, so we don't work with them anymore, but I could have done a lot more a lot quicker if I had done that.

Alex Curtis: My mentor says, "conflict leads to clarity," and it's like awkward conversations you don't want to have, you know you've got to, but if once you do that, it's awkward for 30 seconds, and then they still want to work with you, you still want to work with them, you find some sort of way of doing it, so having those awkward conversations I think is one of the biggest lessons.

Steve Folland: How has work life balance changed for you over the past few years? You mentioned having a kid as well?

Alex Curtis: So yeah, when we first had her I was freelancing day rate, if I wasn't working, I wasn't earning, so I was back to work within one or two days. So that wasn't great, and that was at the time when I was still working six days a week and evenings, so like six 14, 15 hour days.

Alex Curtis: So this summer, I took my first holiday in like four years. I'm on my, the Youpreneur summit that we went to, the thing in 30 days from now I will only do dot dot dot?

Steve Folland: Yeah, so it was basically like a challenge card that we had to say, I guess it was so that we didn't just leave that conference with so many things in our head that we didn't do anything.

Alex Curtis: Yes.

Steve Folland: The idea was to write down actual things that you were gonna do in the next month.

Alex Curtis: Absolutely, that's it, and one of those was to only ever work late on a Wednesday because that week I had a public speaking gig on the Wednesday, and I spent the Monday night rehearsing for it, and then I turn up and it's absolutely dead. It was like a B to B exhibition and like no one was there, no one marketed the whole event, it's all these exhibitors with no one there.

Steve Folland: Oh no!

Alex Curtis: They cancelled the two speakers before me and I think I spoke to about five people, so I was really annoyed with myself that I didn't put my daughter to bed on the Monday night, and then I worked late Wednesdays normal, and then I went away for the weekend obviously on the Youpreneur summit.

Alex Curtis: And then obviously Carrie Wilkinson, she opened up that conference and she was talking about your family being your stakeholders and then yeah, I found that quite emotion actually, that talk from her. It was a lot of tough love I think it was on that side of things 'cause like I'm doing it for them, but then I'm not really 'cause I'm just working all the time.

Alex Curtis: So yeah, I'm working on it, definitely that's a really hard thing to do, but I do take every weekend off now, and then I am just working Wednesday evening.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so that real conflict of saying, "oh, well I'm doing this for them," but actually they'd quite like to have you around.

Alex Curtis: Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Folland: Yeah, it's a tough one to balance, but you're now trying to figure out how to do that?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, ideally, when Chris Ducker is like, "oh, I don't ever work Fridays, I haven't done it for a couple of years," I mean that'd be ideal, but yeah we'll see.

Steve Folland: Yeah. Well, you've got this team around you now.

Alex Curtis: I know, it's hard. I've got really good guys, really good guys and then three of them are fresh graduates who, they can do the stuff really well, but I think it's experience where you learn why you're doing it and what if this happens?

Alex Curtis: So you still need to keep a lid on 'cause if you're running advertising campaigns, just spending tens of thousands of pounds of advertising budget and something goes wrong, and they didn't know what to do, that you do 'cause you've been in that situation many times, then you can't just leave it.

Steve Folland: It sounds like you have been really at learning from others over the years, obviously you've mentioned being at that conference and the business advice that you got from Mike Green as well. Is that like an on going thing?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, yeah, so we meet up once a month, he still gives me tough love that I need, and then he has helped us out with this new office, so he sort of introduced us to the guy, it's basically the old RNIB charity's head office, massive massive building, and he works with the guy that's bought it, we did some work for the guy that bought it before, and then because of that, we've got a really good deal on this new office 'cause of that relationship.

Alex Curtis: So yeah, we're going into an office about five or six times the size for about the same price, which we are snug at the moment, I can assure you. I've got five or six of us in the office in a three person office.

Steve Folland: So what do you find that you then bring to that sort of a monthly meeting? Do you have to come along with something in particular, then, like a?

Alex Curtis: Not really, I think he sort of, he will pick up on things and I suppose it's what have I actioned that we talked about last time. So I think it's like the other month, he was like, he's all about growth and he was like telling me to switch off my ads to not take on any new clients for the rest of the year because we'd grown enough that year.

Alex Curtis: So it's little things like that, so he was like, "have you done that," and it's like, yeah, it feels a bit weird, but it was actually great 'cause it gave us a little breather to like train up one of the guys that I mentioned about, one of my copywriters doing the technical stuff on the ads. It gave me time to teach her a load of stuff, and now she's taking a load off my plate.

Alex Curtis: So yeah, stuff like that, and then I suppose things always come up. He's always got challenges and things that are, whether it's like an awkward client or whether it's, you know, you've got a whole month of things hitting the fan that is good to chat to him about, and then it's great that we've had that relationship now for what is it, a year and a half, that I can just ring him up if anything happens, as well, and just run it by him.

Steve Folland: It's so interesting that concept, though, as in growing too fast?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, I think you can burn out and then just your, I suppose ours is the business model where it's the retainer, if you're constantly bringing new ones one, are you looking after the ones you've got, and then are you sort of bringing on three to lose two? Rather than stepping back for a bit and just bring on two a month or one a month or something, then you could grow quicker if you go slower, if that kind of makes sense?

Steve Folland: And using that time to grow your team as you've done as well.

Alex Curtis: No, absolutely.

Steve Folland: Or hey, see your family.

Alex Curtis: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Yes.

Steve Folland: Okay, now if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?

Alex Curtis: I think, lots of things, I'd definitely say about the automatic billing, get that done straight away 'cause we sink a zero with GoCardless, the invoices are automated, the payments are automated. Don't have to have any awkward conversations about money, so certainly.

Alex Curtis: And then getting them to pay at the beginning of the month, not the end, so I used to invoice and give them 30 days, and then invoice at the end of the month, so it was like two months later, really, you were getting the money.

Alex Curtis: And then I'd probably say like, rather than doing all this, set up a life insurance website and get it position one, and do that back in 2008 because life insurance leads are incredibly, it's like the holy grail.

Alex Curtis: You could make an absolute fortune selling life insurance leads, like it's ridiculous.

Steve Folland: Brilliant. So your tip to your younger self wouldn't be necessarily about being freelance, but it would be, no just trust me on this one.

Alex Curtis: Yeah, yeah, and maybe do a car finance one as well, 'cause you can equally make a mint just doing that. Honestly, I could have two, I would be sitting here now, completely automated, earning bucket loads of cash and doing zero work.

Steve Folland: I don't believe that you would actually want to do zero work, though.

Alex Curtis: No, I think I would do what Mike's doing, he's semiretired, he does a couple of days work, couple of days charity, and then the rest of the week with the family, and I think he gets a lot out of our meetups and I'd love to do that for other people that are struggling as well. I see it as him passing on the baton when I sort so sell up sort of thing.

Steve Folland: Yeah, so you mentioned making goals, that sounds like a good goal to have, that's like your end game goal?

Alex Curtis: Yeah, I think so definitely. Financial freedom, give a load back, not just to entrepreneurs, but like doing some charity work as well. Especially since I think having kids as well you just can't watch things like Children In Need and Stand Up To Cancer without just being like what can I do? So I'd love to actually be able to do something like that or spend, if it's one odd day a week or something for charity, I feel like I could do loads, but be in a position where I could just do that, and not have to worry about paying the bills. Yeah, definitely.