The stars weren’t exactly aligned when Craig Somerville decided to turn online marketing upside down in 2008. For starters, he was a 19-year-old uni student and the world had just plunged into a bitter recession.
But a great idea can spark a successful business even at the most inopportune time. The Brisbane-based entrepreneur, now 23, and his co-founder Llew Jury spotted a gap in the market. Back then, the digital space was considered the terrain of techies but the unlikely duo approached it from a marketing perspective and struck an immediate chord with clients hungry for assistance with SEO, pay-per-click (PPC) marketing and social media.
Reload now has a staff of 55 people across offices in three different countries. Read on to learn more about Somerville’s journey from business student to co-owner of a multi-million dollar international company.
What inspired you to start Reload?
I was still completing an undergraduate business degree when an opportunity arose to join serial entrepreneur Llew Jury in a new venture focusing on digital and search marketing. When we started looking into that market, there really was a gap and a great opportunity to approach it in a way that no-one else was. At the time, many of our competitors saw digital marketing as more of an IT activity than a marketing exercise. We took the opposite approach and it immediately resonated.
Business is booming. How much growth have you experienced?
We’ve averaged 100 percent revenue growth for each of the last four years, growing from just the two of us in 2008 to around 55 staff worldwide now. We now service around 500 clients from offices in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland and London. That growth has seen us make BRW Fast Starters, SmartCompany Smart 50’s and Brisbane Innovation Finalists, amongst others.
What’s the most challenging thing about your industry?
I’d say the growth of it. The rapidly growing nature of our industry is both a blessing and a curse. It’s certainly allowed us to grow, but at the same time creates challenges with finding and training the right staff. Because our industry is so new and moving so quickly, typically we find that universities can’t keep up with that so our recruitment and training has had to really evolve. Our company culture plays a big role in that.
That must have taught you some lessons. What’s the biggest?
That as the company gets bigger your approach to managing it needs to change and mature. When you’re a small start-up you can be incredibly responsive and change the company overnight. As a bigger agency now, we have to balance that innovative streak with the longer term vision. That’s not to say stop innovating, because obviously that would be disastrous, but your selection criteria for which ideas to pursue needs to change.
Who do you look up to?
I like hearing stories from a range of entrepreneurs and business managers, taking bits and pieces from a lot of different people. Whether it’s the disruptiveness of a ‘classical’ entrepreneur like a Richard Branson or a more local story who I hear about, I tend to look for people who not only had a great initial idea but turned it into a long-lasting business.
What tips would you give to someone starting a new business?
To be as flexible as possible during that first 12-18 months. The original idea for the business is likely to look nothing like the actual business that’s standing two years down the track. You’ve got to be prepared to adapt and morph as you work out what the market really wants, not what you thought it wanted when you came up with the idea. Flexibility is key.
Any other hints?
Give it a go on the cheap first. Nowadays, it’s incredibly easy to launch a business on a shoestring budget through clever digital marketing and a lot of hard work. Prove the concept first. If it shows it has legs, then investors will come knocking, and you’ll be in a much stronger position to negotiate.
What’s next for you?
Personally, I’ll be finishing off the last year of my MBA, which has been incredibly valuable in a whole range of areas. From a Reload point of view, the International markets, in particular the UK, are big growth areas for us. There’s some really positive signs that the market over there is embracing digital and we’re in a great position to take advantage of it, having done the hard yards during the GFC when rents and set-up costs were historically very low.