Steve Brennan began his entrepreneurial career in his early teens, but it was later that he realised the advantages counter-intuitive thinking can bring.
What’s your story?
As a child we were not particularly well-off so I became entrepreneurial creating businesses in my bedroom. At age 13 I created a business selling football magazines and later a larger business publishing them, winning several national awards. In 2001 when the internet arrived I co-founded my digital agency Bespoke. I’m in my 40s now and my team run the agency whilst I assist select clients with strategy. I also coach other entrepreneurs on setting up and growing their businesses.
What excites you most about your industry?
I’m actually excited by how poorly most digital strategies are. Generally speaking companies are quite happy to feel busy, feel like they are publishing lots of marketing. Only around 20% of business understand that a strategic approach is actually needed, with only a few tactics in play, executed brilliantly. This excites me because when we work with a client it’s always possible to really elevate them to become the most visible in their sector. In time, everybody will catch up and take a strategic approach and it won’t be so easy but that is likely a decade away.
What drives you in business to push beyond what other people consider normal?
Simply that the opportunity is there to do so. By pushing beyond what’s average we’ve been able to deliver exceptional results for the businesses we generate online leads for. And because we do that they renew with us and refer others to us. We’re driven to do better than others first because it impresses our clients, and when our clients are happy our working day is good, and second because doing so grows our business. The results we’re able to achieve have the knock-on effect that people want to spend more with us which has seen us grow consistently.
What have been the most useful skills you have learnt and applied in your journey?
I’ve been in digital marketing 20 years now with Bespoke and my most useful skills are those which I’ve learned by observing what happens over and over with the in-house marketing teams we work with. Over the years I’ve worked with over 250 in-house marketing execs or managers and see the same patterns repeated over and over. For example, it’s typical for a team to have a website that isn’t operating at its highest possible conversion rate. This is just one of many classic mistakes in-house teams make and they’re relatively easy for us to address.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
In the early days running Bespoke we took on almost any project that came through the door. For years we kept hearing that it was good practice to specialise, for example in a particular technology or sector. We weren’t brave enough to do that initially but once we did focus in on lead-generation for service and manufacturing sectors sales actually grew. Also because we were suddenly doing lots of similar work for similar business we became true specialists and were able to deliver better and better results which leads to good feedback that has helped Bespoke grow.
Who inspires you?
Over the years I’ve often been inspired by members of our team. The nature of running a digital agency like Bespoke is that you have to hire younger staff who are yet to achieve their potential but who often have real curiosity and hunger to do well. There are few things more satisfying than watching a member of our team grow in skill and confidence whilst they are with us. We tend to find that marketers and developers can join us and over 3-years elevate themselves up the career ladder to be well established professionals in their field.
What have you learnt recently that blew you away?
I’m often fascinated by the counter-intuitive. For example to get more leads we often need less traffic – less but better quality. Similarly we often get more leads from less work – again by doing better quality work. The principle is always about getting the asset in place and working well. If we build a great marketing asset such as a great website, online tool or free download it works for us. We spend less time doing repetitive marketing and instead we’re simply fine-tuning the marketing assets we have already built.
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
When we founded Bespoke 20-years ago there were only 3 people in the business and we were hands-on with work every day. Over the years I’ve transitioned to do every role in the company at some point, from designer to coder to accounts person to sales person. It has been fun and helped me build a very good broad skillset. But I know it isn’t the best way to lead a business and grow a business. So if I were to build a new company I would hire my team immediately and I would simply lead them.
How do you unwind?
I think for entrepreneurs there isn’t much distinction between work and play. That’s because running and building the business is what we love so to some extent we never truly want to switch off. But to stay healthy and to perform well in our roles we have to look after our health and fitness. I’ve always liked running because you can do it anywhere at a moments notice. This year I also bought a bike and have enjoyed doing long distances in the countryside on it. Exercise is fuel for the brain of course so it is a win-win.
What is a major mindset change, belief shift or ‘ah ha’ moment that you’ve experienced in relation to your business?
One of my favourites in recent years has been to stop trying to grow the business. It’s quite an unusual position to take perhaps, but in fact, since we stopped trying to grow we established an ideal capacity and ideal team size for Bespoke. We’re now generally fully booked all the time and more profitable as a result. When you’re growing a business it’s hard to keep it at full capacity and you are constantly in a state of flux. So we are happy for Bespoke to stay at a fixed size now – it’s easier and more profitable.
Everyone in business should read this book:
I must recommend my own book of course, ‘Build Your Digital Marketing Strategy’ by Steve Brennan. It’s the sum total of what I’ve observed watching 250+ in-house marketers build their digital strategies over 20-years. Having written this book I’d also encourage any other senior professional to do the same. The process of writing is a brilliant way to take stock of the knowledge and experience you have accumulated and you also have to think about how to communicate it simply and accurately. That makes you better in other areas too such as pitching or giving workshops and presentations.
Shameless plug for your business:
Bespoke is one of the longest established digital agencies with 20-years in business. In that time we’ve generated over £1bn of leads and sales through our clients’ websites. We specialise in service and manufacturing sectors and serve clients in the north-west of the UK and in London. We offer a free discovery call for any service and manufacturing business wanting to generate more online leads, and run strategy workshops before any project to establish exactly what is needed to hit the business’ goals.
How can people connect with you?
Or by searching Steve Brennan on LinkedIn
This interview is part of the CallumConnects series.