At the age of 27 Chris Donnelly already runs a very successful business, Verb Brands. He’s the founder and managing director of the digital agency that works with luxury brands, including Jimmy Choo, Claridges and The Wolseley.
Chris started the business at university and then developed it into what it is today when he saw a gap in the market. It’s an inspirational story and one I feel lucky to have talked to Chris about for this week’s podcast.
On today’s podcast:
- Finding your niche
- Building relationships, and trust, with prospective clients even before a pitch
- How culture, and spotting the right talent, is essential
- Pitfalls to a merger
- Pitches, and how organising them like a military operation has led to a fantastic win rate
- And why he wants to give back….. plus, LOTS more
Finding a niche
While studying at the university, Chris started building websites for local businesses. It was both a hobby and a way to make some money.
During his third year more and more people were asking for his help, so he went out and found some freelance designers and developers.
They launched Verb Brands formally as a business in 2014. The reason why they decided to launch a business instead of choosing to work for another company was the fact that they spotted a gap in the market. At that time luxury brands were being quite underserved by digital agencies.
Adapting to the millennial workforce
Nowadays they work for established luxury brands like Jimmy Choo or Clive Christian. They are now almost a full-service digital agency, offering services such as website or app creation, SEO, content creation, social media, paid advertising and paid social.
If you’re a luxury brand, you have a certain style. Luxury brands tend to be really exclusive and choose their suppliers very carefully. So when Chris and his team pitch against other agencies they can play the fact that they are a luxury specialist and get the upper hand.
The millennial workforce wants to work for brands that make sense to them, brands that they would buy themselves. Chris tries to find new employees who are genuinely passionate about the brands they get paired up with.
The business in numbers
Their revenue is now about £3 million and they employ around 45 people. Their net profit is around 20-25% and about 75-80% of their revenue is now recurrent.
Having a comfortable recurrent revenue has allowed them to stop making rash decisions. They can have months where they don’t need to bring in any new business. If they do, it’s a bonus. It also stopped them taking on projects that aren’t profitable.
They still pitch and negotiate, but they also get contacted a lot.
Building trust before pitching
Everyone is now telling them to sell the business because it’s the right time to do so. Their plan is different though. They want to be recognized as one of the leading agencies for luxury brands in the world.
Chris believes that there is a lot happening between an initial meeting and a formal pitch. When they decide to pitch to a certain company, they will do a lot of prep work. He thinks that building a relationship before pitching is essential.
Verb Brands acquired another agency, and the transition was not perfect. It was a good commercial deal but a bit of a tough one culturally.
If Chris could go back in time, what would he do differently? He used to be really upset when people resigned. Nowadays they kind of celebrate this because they want the person to leave with a really good impression. The ironic thing is that the more you’re like that, the more people will stay and respect the brand.
Another mistake he made was not giving back. They’ve now fixed this by implementing giving away 5% of their profits towards trying to support the conversations behind wage equality and the environment.
A business book Chris would recommend is: Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant