28th September 2020

Starting up in a time of scaling down 

Starting up in a time of scaling down

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an undoubtedly huge impact on businesses of all shapes and sizes. With the UK now supposedly at ‘critical point’ in the fight against the virus, the current trajectory suggests that it’s likely to stay this way for some time. For entrepreneurs who are in the process of getting their businesses off the ground, growing their client pools and building a staff base, there has never been a more daunting time.

With crisis comes opportunity

It’s not all doom and gloom though, as for the most agile entrepreneurs this also presents an exciting, life-changing and liberating opportunity – to grow your business in a time when others are scaling theirs down. After all, some of the best innovation happens during a time of crisis.

Being part of a brand new creative agency in 2012, I wanted to give a first-hand account of how brave, and sometimes tough, decisions can potentially turn into something special. Hopefully my account will offer some perspective for entrepreneurs to help their businesses move forward.

Working to your strengths

Coming from a creative background, one thing I quickly learned is the importance of focusing on your ‘niche’ – in other words, the core skills that you excel at. For me, that was building meaningful brand and digital experiences for my clients to help them grow, so I focused the business and team on just that – delivering exceptional creative brands and campaigns that achieved results. This was where White Leopard was born, a small talented team that quickly grew in respect and credibility amongst the Milton Keynes business community. Significant growth year on year gave us opportunities to work with a number of brands and businesses across an array of sectors. This success and growth also provided us with the opportunity to acquire another agency.

In 2016, White Leopard and Cygnus became one. Today the team span four core disciplines including creative, digital, production and client services. We are a team of 40+ and in contrast to the early days, we now manage brands and multi-channel marketing campaigns from SMEs to household brands across a long and varied list of industries. What started out as creative, branding and campaign management has now evolved to include a full suite of digital marketing services including website and app development, SEO, paid advertising and social media management. This all happened because we focused on what we did well and grew our internal business talent accordingly. At the end of the day, our team is our business.

Systems, software and processes

The tools you use and the way you use them is a critical part of any business. Robust systems that provide you with clean data are crucial for any fast moving business. Without decent foundations a business can fall down quickly. At the start there was significant investment setting up the right systems and software to ensure we could move swiftly and increase the team without any distractions. As we all continue to work remotely our cloud based servers, files and operations have provided us with seamless communication and workflow. Our processes have certainly been tried and tested and, although we may adapt slightly, the same processes remain a firm layer in our day-to-day way of working.

Diversification and adaptability

During the growth phase of the business, I experienced a few challenging times – something to be expected when growing a business and team. COVID is another one of those times, not only with the challenges of new legislation and restrictions in place, but where we begin to feel the impact of another potential recession. One major theme that has been evident during periods of economic instability is the huge shift in consumer behavioural patterns. Some brands enter crisis mode, budgets are cut and the ‘nice to-have’ services are superseded by the ones that consumers consider ‘essential’. The ‘essential’ businesses, like Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft can sit back and enjoy the boom, but it’s a very different outlook for the ‘nice-to have’ services. For these to survive (and thrive), it is a complete necessity to adapt to changing preferences by shifting strategic focus – in some cases, almost overnight.

Take some of our client partners as an example. Some have experienced a significant loss in revenue since the pandemic hit, while others are celebrating notable growth. The successful businesses are those that have been quick to innovate and diversify their offering to adjust to the new needs of the consumer. One of our client partners, a car care brand, enjoyed a huge increase in ROI during lockdown. What did they attribute their success to? Shifting to a direct-to-consumer strategy to tap into the ‘lockdown car cleaning enthusiast’ market. Having previously relied on retailers for the majority of their revenue generation, this was a quick move that paid off massively. The interesting thing, though, is that it was also a fairly straightforward decision that required little time or investment to execute. All that was required was some fresh thinking. The message here is that it’s all about changing focus in an agile way that taps into the ever-changing demands that arise. With the fickle nature of the consumer, coupled with the rise in technological advancements and the impact this has on the way consumers shop, it’s important to adopt this approach now more so than ever before, particularly for businesses in the younger stages who have the ability to flex more easily.

Adapting to new ways of working

Are we sick of video calls yet? Has the novelty of wearing our pyjama bottoms on conference calls finally worn off? The debate goes on. However, one thing is for sure, remote working in some form is here to stay. At Cygnus, we have always prided ourselves on our flexible culture and many businesses will say the same, but until now how much flexibility has actually been adopted? I will be the first to admit that we were largely a 9-to-5 agency pre-pandemic. That’s until COVID hit. Now I am absolutely thrilled at how quickly our team adapted the way we work and embraced a new kind of normal, investing in additional technology and agile workspaces to keep us all connected as a team and business. The only measure we focus on is output, rather than the hours and location that people work. It took a while for businesses to get here, but we did in the end. And who do we have to thank for this? Startups – the original pioneers of the flexible workplace.

Behaviours and values

Building brands is what we do. A brand is not just a logo marque, it’s everything from the way you act to the way you look. We understand that when you reflect back to your own brand, you need to be objective and honest. This can be tough and challenging but you can only improve if you can see what needs enhancing. At Cygnus, we engage with our client partners with the same value we have amongst the team. This builds relationships on pillars that we are all a part of. It gains trust and respect, along with clarity on who we are. The way we behave is joined up across the entire agency, this makes us robust and a team that works together to deliver the very best work and experience. Together we live and breathe our business values as this keeps us all aligned and all moving as one. This means we attract the right brands to work with, the right talent to join our team, and most importantly,  retain the right skill set within the team to ensure quality and sustainability.

Building a business community

Both when I started out and to this day, I have always believed that being an active member of the local business community has played an essential role in the success of the agency. Afterall, this is key to securing repeat referral business. Conversations with other entrepreneurs not only lead to an exchange of information and potential business opportunities, but also provides a sense of support when the going gets tough. Having a robust and respected soundboard adds a lot of value. It gives us access to other industries that we are not in competition with, making conversations feel more open and less constrained by our own internal world. I personally feel that this is absolutely key for startups during any crisis. It’s all about building a sustainable and supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem that encourages businesses to work together to weather the toughest of storms.


Moving forward with confidence

Like everything, this time will pass and things will eventually go back to a new normal, markets will likely rebound and employees will return to the workplace (at least for some of the time!). However, the timing of this remains unclear and it’s likely that we will be facing the consequences of the global pandemic well into next year and perhaps even beyond, so we have some adapting to do. Whatever the post-pandemic world looks like, one thing is for certain – entrepreneurs need to adjust the way they communicate value propositions to their clients and look for opportunities to maximise on changing consumer preferences. However, with every crisis comes great opportunity. So let’s stay connected, keep pushing forward and use this period to our benefit to explore how we can build our business for the future.


Author: Martin Carmody