What I've Learnt: Bryan Adams, CEO of Ph.Creative
You wouldn't accuse Bryan Adams of lacking ambition. He wants to make a movie (he's already written the screenplay). He wants a pilot's licence (he's had a couple of lessons so far). Oh, and he wants £15m in his back pocket by the time he's 40 (he's 36 now).
But more of that later.
His company, Ph.Creative, is one of the fastest growing internet marketing companies in Liverpool, and indeed the North. With a growth trajectory mirroring the ambition of its founder, the company - which celebrates a decade in business this week - has enjoyed a rocket-fuelled expansion since winning a £500,000 investment from the North West Fund last year. It has some way to go yet - by Adams' estimate, turnover needs to increase at least five-fold over the next four years - but to listen to the man who openly admits to once having a "horrific" fear of public speaking, you wouldn't be surprised if the numbers materialised.
A Matter of Facto
Born in Fazakerley in north Liverpool and bred in Aintree, Adams initially leaned towards art and after an interest in film special effects was triggered by a poster on his cousin's bedroom wall, he wound up at the University of Teesside to study graphic design, branding and corporate communications. His first job after graduating saw him type-setting for an independent monthly magazine in Liverpool called Facto - "it looked beautiful but the business model was non-existent" - but after developing a profound dislike for his boss during 18-hour shifts, Adams vowed to go it alone so he could be a better one.
He started doing more and more web design but was so inexperienced he felt like a "fraud". Out of his depth and lacking confidence, his big break with a London agency was hardly helped by an excruciating incident involving a £300 Hugo Boss suit, an absence of underwear and some staples. "After that, I thought there's no suit on earth that's going to give you confidence, you've just got to be bulletproof with your knowledge."
He continued to live something of a hand-to-mouth existence - "my business plan at that stage was 'find work so you can eat'" - but Adams found a certain bliss in discovering, and remedying, his weaknesses. With his fear of speaking proving a real handicap, Adams happened upon an advert for a stand-up comedy course. Six weeks later his life had changed.
"It was a once-a-week course in how to write your own material, how to craft it and how to deliver it. I lost weight in that six weeks and it was the scariest time I've ever experienced. To graduate, you had to perform 10 minutes live at Southport Comedy Festival in front of 300 strangers with their arms crossed. It was horrendous - I've got goose bumps thinking about it now.
"But the second I came off stage, it was as if a switch had flicked. From that moment onwards, speaking to three or four people about graphic design or web design or whatever was an absolute breeze. That was a pivotal moment in the history of the business, and if I hadn't done it I would have shrivelled up and done something else."
The learning continued at a pace - "I remember constantly looking back and thinking how stupid I had been the month before" - and he went into partnership with a friend. They called themselves Pantomime Horse - "I did front end design, he did back end" - and although it only lasted six weeks, the name explains the "Ph" part of the company name today.
He started to take on more staff and benefitted greatly from a couple of mentors. The first, former Liverpool Echo journalist Peter Phelps, advised how to look for business and work it through a pipeline. "That made me think that I needed to get organised and get a routine. At the time I didn't even have a diary."
Then in 2006 he met Bob Evans, a business coach. "I spoke to him because I didn't know where I was going to get enough business to sustain me. He gave me one bit of advice - 'you need to double your prices'. It was a bit of a last throw of the dice, so I doubled my prices and I started to get double the amount of work at double the price. The perceived value of my work had been too low. It changed the business."
Evans' involvement set off a passion of entrepreneurship in Adams. "I started to think of myself less as a designer and more as a guy managing designers running a business."
A few years later Evans was brought on board in an official capacity as the company's part-time chief operations officer. "One of our big weaknesses was missing deadlines," Adams adds. "He's added a layer of quality and a layer of process. He's been a significant hire."
As it grew, Ph steered away from just web design, offering more marketing services and embracing the "inbound marketing" philosophy that became popular in the late 2000s. Outgrowing a dingy office space on Rodney Street, the company moved to an impressive new base in the Queens Insurance Building.
Replete with all the trappings you'd expect to see in a San Franciscan start-up - table football, space invaders machine, well-stocked bar and an array of motivational posters that advise things like "GET SHIT DONE" - it's achingly cool. There's some hard numbers among the brightly-coloured frippery though - one poster leaves staff in no doubt as to the expectations placed upon them: "Ph will turnover more than £10,000,000 each year before we reach 2018 because we will generate more than £100,000,000 each year for our customers."
That's some target, given that last year Ph turned over £1.8m with £270k of profit. It was this desire for rapid growth that convinced Adams to seek half a million pounds of investment from the North West Fund for Venture Capital in return for a 20% cut of his business.
"We flirted with doing it for about nine months and they must have thought I was just wasting their time. In the end it actually took six weeks for the deal to be done, and it was the last working day of the year. We got the money in the bank and then everybody stopped and we went for our Christmas party. It was mixed emotions, but I digested it a lot quicker than some of the employees. For a split second I thought 'yes, we've done it', but that quickly became "oh shit, we've got to deliver!
"The exact moment when I thought 'screw this, I've got to do this' was when I was getting divorced. It was the realisation that I'd just traded my personal life for the business. So I thought I'd better make it worth it. Everyone around me, including my parents, said I was doing the wrong thing, but I went with my gut and it turned out that it was absolutely the right thing to do."
The company has since doubled in size, staff-wise, and introduced a greater degree of rigour through "more grey hair around the boardroom table". "That has been a real learning curve," Adams admits. "I didn't know at the start that I needed to prepare the board papers and an exec summary, but now it's part of my monthly routine and we run the business based on numbers and intelligence and decisions we make strategically in those board meetings."
Mother of all appointments
Perhaps uniquely, Adams has installed a familiar face as the company's finance director - his mum. Helen Adams was formerly the management accountant at Edge Hill University and while her son confesses he was worried about the arrangement, it has worked well. "You need someone you can trust, someone with expertise and someone who's razor sharp - and who better than your mum. The only downside to that is that I now see my FD on a Saturday and Sunday!" Aside from the books, Adams Snr also manages the IT and HR.
The clients have increasingly become well-known brands. "Two years ago I could reel off 50 customers who you've never heard off," he admits, but now they're working with the likes of Nationwide, Dulux, Bruntwood and Sun Valley. "We're still punching above our weight to a degree, but actually we're starting to warrant being in the running for these contracts." He says that the company is imminently waiting on the outcome of big-brand pitches that "will define the growth over the next few years".
Although he admits to a dislike for rigid long-term planning - "I've got a five-year skeleton plan, a focused 100-day plan and a fairly robust 12-month plan" - Adams is crystal clear about his own future with Ph.
"I want to be in the position to have the choice of selling in when I'm 40," he says. "It's possible I won't cash-out but will attach myself to the wealth, the thing that's making money continually. I want to be financially free by the time I'm 40.
"If I was to cash-out it would be for £15m in my back pocket. People value businesses differently, but I think it needs to be over £10m turnover with over a 30% margin."
As to where that level of growth is going to come from, Adams points to the opening of a London office "when we hit a financial trigger" and the repetition of Ph's formula in other countries. It already has a presence in New York, although for the moment that amounts to just a desk.
"The challenge for the next 12 months is not necessarily to grow - last year was our growth year," adds Adams. "Now we've got to deliver more profit than we've ever delivered, more productivity and more quality products than we've ever done. That's how we'll grow this year."
Amid all the growth, he wants to keep hold of a "small team mentality" and does what he can to keep staff on board with his vision. "I like to sit right in the middle of the office. I'm a team member, no different to anyone else. In fact, a lot of them are cleverer and more creative than me, and that is true. The biggest thing is that if anyone has a problem, issue, suggestion or idea, I'm so receptive to that and I'm really approachable.
"I get anonymous feedback from the team every week, and sometimes it's really painful. But you have to take it on the chin and react to it. We celebrate success and I think we've done fairly well at maintaining a small-team mentality as we've grown." An EMI share scheme to incentivise the directors has been introduced and "in the not too distant future" that will be extended to senior staff, although right-hand man "Google Dave" Hazlehurst has already benefitted.
Now settled in leafy Blundellsands with his new partner and two-year-old son, Adams looks a contented man despite the sizeable challenge ahead. Is he really? "I couldn't be happier," he says.