Founder Focus: Apprentice winner spills the beans on startup success

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When it comes to tapping into the entrepreneurial mindset to mine some golden nuggets of inspiration for business growth, who better to speak to than a winner of the BBC’s Apprentice. Therefore, when we had the opportunity to speak to 2014 champion Mark Wright, founder of Climb Online and the CLIMBCON business event, we jumped at the chance.

Not only did Sir Alan Sugar select Wright as his business partner from the 12-strong team of competitors, the subsequent winning entity broke numerous Apprentice records, including being the first to turnover in excess of £1m in its first year. Therefore, when looking for an individual for our regular Founder Focus feature, we thought who better to offer entrepreneurial advice, particularly in today’s challenging times.

After viewing previous series of The Apprentice, one might have pre-conceived ideas of what winning candidates might be like in person. However, the first thing that strikes you when speaking to Wright is his down to earth demeanour, coming across as someone who’s as equally at home in a pair of board shorts with a beer in hand, back in his native Australia, as he is in the cut and thrust of a boardroom.

Indeed, it’s his roots down-under that have laid the foundations for much of his business ethos. Wright recalled that everything he’s founded or created during his career has come through seeing something being done poorly, or not being done at all – citing an Australian saying, ‘don’t get bitter, get better’.

Early ambition

It was recognising fundamental flaws in the way marketing businesses were being run, that prompted him put together a business plan for what he hoped would the best digital marketing agency in the UK; with a culture of high ethics and transparency, and which was affordable for all businesses. Wright picked up the story: “When I was unsuccessful in my attempt to secure a £25,00 bank loan to get started, I made the decision to try my luck with The Apprentice. Thankfully, Alan Sugar thought more of me than the banks did and gave me £250,000 instead of £25,000!”

That significant investment, and the obvious publicity from winning the show, enabled Wright’s new company to really hit the ground running and break those aforementioned records. “We grew tremendously fast,” said Wright. “The Apprentice allowed me to really inject steroids into the business. We were on the Startups 100 list for three years in a row and have won multiple UK entrepreneur awards. However, whatever the acclaim the ethos always comes back to the basics - which is that marketing is important to the people we do it for, regardless of whether their budget is £300 or £300,000. We look after them, show the customer the ROI, and educate them on what works.”

It’s this caring, customer-based, and results-driven approach to marketing, that Wright feels sets his company, Climb Online (which got its name on the final task of the show), apart from the crowd. “Rather than charge people, then do the work, customers don't pay us until they get the results. And that’s meant that our sales levels are unbelievably high – you have a guaranteed chance of success by working with us,” he added. Indeed, this approach has upset a lot Climb Onlne’s competition because of the change that this business model has brought about in the market.

The Apprentice factor

An Apprentice winner or not, Wright believes that part of being an entrepreneur is all about the continuation of learning, adding: “You need to constantly be watching podcasts, reading books, going to events to learn what’s happening in the market and in your industry, what your competition is doing etc.”

The publicity and cash injection from The Apprentice win has allowed Climb Online to invest in getting people and attention. “Almost instantaneously we were able to have a marketing budget, an office, build a team of 10 or 11, and the business has never looked back,” he added.

Unsurprisingly, Wright praised Lord Sugar, who is still actively involved in the business, as a mentor and coach. “People would give their left arm to have people like Lord Sugar give them advice on a weekly basis,” he continued. “But what also makes you successful as a startup is that founding team that you’re surrounded with, and their skill set. So, to have Lord Sugar’s lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, and IT team etc in your immediate vicinity, meant that we had a structure laid out in front of us from the outset.

“Where former Apprentice winners have failed is not having enough knowledge or expertise in their sector. Lord Sugar puts the correct business structure in place, but the rest is up to you.”

Startup companies and entrepreneurs were the main reason for Climb Online’s early success. “A fisherman can spot another fisherman, and entrepreneurs love other entrepreneurs,” said Wright. “And I think when you meet us you get the vibe that we’re an entrepreneurial company.”

He added that the aggressive nature of how Climb Online has scaled their business was in-turn naturally attracting other entrepreneurs. “People want to scale alongside us,” he added. “And our early pitch was – ‘you’re small, we’re small, we want to be the biggest, you want to be the biggest, so let’s grow together’. And that approach has been fantastic.

“I've worked closely with the Prince’s Trust and do a lot of speaking around the country. Coaching has actually helped me get clients (which was never the intention). And it’s also helped me craft my own business knowledge - sometimes by helping others you end up learning more yourself.”

Startup advice

We clearly couldn’t speak to Wright without asking for his expert advice for other startups out there. Interestingly, one of the prominent pitfalls entrepreneurs fall into is one we certainly hear on a regular basis – that being a failure to delegate, which leads to issues around scaling the business (because the founder is essentially trying to do too much on their own).

Indeed, this is something Wright fell foul of himself in his early days, commenting: “When I first started, I wanted to do everything because I knew I was going to give it the effort and passion required. But to really scale and grow a business, you need a good team around you and you have to be able to delegate.”

Another word to the wise came in the form of funding – again an issue we see crop up regularly. However, in this instance Wright was keen to point out the dangers of overfunding (which I confess, I didn’t even realise could be an issue). He added: “You have to have the right level of funding in your business. We see a lot of startups who get over funded - they go on crowdfunding websites and get millions of pounds when maybe they needed £150,000.”

There are businesses littering the Companies House graveyard that have been overfunded, and have tried to scale at an unsustainable rate. “It happens because people don’t watch the costs,” he added. “A company creates a reputation and brand, more money comes in, they go crazy, and the business model ultimately breaks.

“If your eye is not on the finances, you’ll start hiring people on crazy salaries, you take on an office that’s too big or expensive. Overfunding gives you a false economy, i.e. it enables you to live at costs that your business could not normally sustain at normal trade. So, when suddenly, it’s business as usual, that overhead becomes huge, the model can’t sustain it, and the business just drops off the face of the earth.”

Wright highlighted that the biggest thing he’s learnt from Lord Sugar is watching the costs every day - knowing the overheads and what is the worst-case scenario, adding: “We’re currently living in a world with a very serious virus - watch the amount of businesses that go to the graveyard over the next three months.

“A lot of businesses unfortunately live payroll to payroll, and over this period we’re going to see people unable to maintain their stability in the market. You should always be aiming to operate with six months cash flow, and if you don't, that should be the first goal of your business.”

He did qualify this by urging startups not to be afraid to set audacious goals, as often mindset and self-belief are what holds back many entrepreneurs and startups. And, being able to test yourself and push boundaries is key.

CLIMBCON

Again born from his ability to recognise when something was being done poorly, last year saw Wright launch his own business event, CLIMBCON. “I was going to events and paying £1000 for a ticket in some cases and listening to speakers that weren't actually successful in their space,” he commented.

Therefore, the CLIMBCON business event was launched with the goal of providing insight from highly successful business owners, that have scaled up businesses and made millions. The inaugural event in 2019, saw contributions from Lord Sugar himself, Piers Morgan, Maris Interiors CEO, Michael Howard, and Robin Deller, CEO of Imagine Cruising.

Wright added: “The reviews we had from the first event were just breathtaking so we’re going to continue to host the event every year. Entrepreneurs are crying out to be helped, but we need to make sure they’re being coached by the right people.”

Due to the coronavirus outbreak the 2020 CLIMBCON event has now been rescheduled to take place on 4th June 2021. However, the line-up of speakers is expected to be no less illustrious for the delay. Check out climbcon.com/ for further speaker details as they are announced.

Key takeaways for attendees will be how entrepreneurs can create their brand story; how to scale up and understand the numbers; and how to analyse the numbers of their business and take it forward.

Wright stressed that it’s serious stuff and certainly not for the feint-hearted, adding: “You go to some events and you jump up and down and sing to Beyoncé. You walk out and feel a million bucks, but you haven’t actually learnt anything about business. We’ll go through P&Ls, how to analyse costs and reduce them, how to increase sales and margins etc. So, if you are serious about business, this is the event for you.”

COVID conundrums

Clearly the coronavirus pandemic is impacting on everyone so we certainly couldn’t leave that stone unturned. Wright described the current situation as akin to being in the eye of a storm, adding: “Each business is getting slammed by the waves and we will learn who the skilled sailors are over the next few months.

“As a business owner right now, the key is to create a plan. What is your worst-case scenario? What is happening in your industry? How are your customers faring? What is your supply chain doing?

Wright added that under the shadow of COVID-19 things need to be reviewed daily, with the biggest killer of businesses being indecision. Business owners are going to have to make some tough choices over the next few months (some of which they may not want to make), but everyone will have to roll with the punches.

Wright concluded: “We’re probably heading for a bit of a bloodbath to be completely frank. So, you’ve got to watch the costs of your business. We will come out of it, we always do. But the key is all about being intelligent.”