Steffan Aquarone

Steff is a film producer and technology entrepreneur who speaks internationally on innovation, entrepreneurship and digital marketing

How to get your first clients

I found myself writing a longer-than-usual response to a request for advice recently. I’ve only done this a few times in my life and it’s usually when someone asks a really smart question that deserves an answer.

I’ve turned my response into some tips you might find useful if you’re starting a business or know what you’re going to do but need to find your first paying client. Almost all of the clever stuff comes from other people – but these are very select personal recommendations from across the five business I’ve started, so think of it as meta-curation if you like.

1. Work out your business model

I would take a good hard look at decent business start up books to help you understand your business model and what you’re selling that’s of value. One of the only books I’ve read on business is this one

2. Start selling sooner rather than later

Assuming you’ve worked out what you’re doing and who for, it’s time to start selling.

The most powerful technology I’ve found in growing business is Linkedin. A few quid a month extra buys you the ability to get better search, and contact people directly who aren’t in your network. Throughout the five businesses I’ve started, Linkedin has been the single most valuable channel for business development.

3. Network

You can’t feed a machine with thin air, and for me networking fuelled the Linkedin machine. This will always be easier if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing (see even if you’re networking in relatively generic environment. At the beginning of my career it was local Chamber of Commerce, BNI and other small business networking events that got me started – I discovered the more focused, relevant events in time, for example industry specific ones. However even now my networking skills help me get leverage. If you have a big client then you can even network within that client. Nowadays I promote myself on the international speaker circuit which earns me money as well as boosting my network and delivering exciting opportunities for whatever I’m working on (currently There are always people in the speakers’ room that would make for fantastic contacts so it never really stops.

Below are the slides from a seminar I did recently on the power of networks. It was aimed at people’s individual personal development but exactly the same approach applies to company business development and you are selling yourself for a large part of the process before you get on to talking about whatever you’re going to do for someone.

4. Try writing useful stuff

Content marketing cost very little, yet publishing stuff online that’s useful, interesting or entertaining and that people will want to watch or read and share is a powerful way to boost your reputation. If budget allows, then running your own seminars to teach people something cool or powerful they can do for themselves is a more concentrated form of this. If you’re aiming high up the organisational structure you might need to throw in a dinner in order to get interesting people and potential customers together.

5. Get some customers before you start spending lots of money

Try wherever possible to do things that don’t cost very much money. When I worked in a restaurant the owner taught me a valuable lesson (amongst many less valuable ones): in most businesses every £1 you spend has got to generate £10 of sales.

Good luck!

Filed under: selling creative, successful businesses

Judge at Your Peril

Last week I posted the script from a speech I delievered to a group of business leaders in Birmingham about Michael Porter’s concept of ‘shared value’. One of the points he made was that where stuff gets made, matters, because that’s where a lot of your customers live nowadays. Companies can no longer afford to treat some stakeholders (for example, the people on their doorstep, or who work in their factories) differently to others as any one of them could be an important customer.

The same can be applied to the way you talk to people calling your organisation from outside. It might make short-term profitability sense to outsource customer service. But where does this leave the brand and the customer?

Dell famously reversed their position on social media when the number 1 spot in Google’s natural results became a complaint forum they’d thus far failed to have a presence in. Now, when you find complaints about Dell machines, you’ll probably find someone from Dell responding, or at least trying to solve the problem.

The same can’t be said for Ikea. I spent ten minutes on the phone to them today, trying to get through to someone in particular. The operative didn’t know that this person was the marketing director, because all his screen was set up to do was handle customer service enquiries. His system didn’t have any telephone numbers. He himself was able to speak to Anna’s PA, but couldn’t put me through. All he suggested I could do was write.


Nobody in that chain of communciation had any idea what I was calling about, or why I wanted to speak to Anna. They just seemed sure that I was a salesperson, trying to flog something.

The insight I got into their organisation made a big difference to my opinion. Even on its own this has serious implications for a brand. Brand hatred travels faster and further than love. Ryanair was listed last week as one of the top most hated brands in Britain. Short-term profits may be healthy, but for how long? Until fuel prices go up? Or a competitor offers a less frustrating service?

The assumptions firms make about people when they try to get in touch are as insulting as any prejudicial stereotype. Smart brands should be aware that the hats of ‘buyer’ and ‘seller’ are not mutually exclusive – and the same inconvenient truth can be applied to virtually every other ‘stakeholder group’.

Filed under: successful businesses

Shared Value: an idea best explained in reality when we look at people’s motivations

I want to talk to you about two things that are very close to my heart: making the world a better place, and business. Two fellows you don’t often see in the same room, or even the same street. And I’m not talking about Corporate Social Responsibility.

Here’s a quote: “CSR is like a tax that businesses pay in order to be seen as the good guys.”

“It’s a truce – creating a zero-sum relationship between business and society, not a joint- value one”

“For too long, business has been profiting from the needs of society without asking ‘are our products good for our customers?’ ”

This sounds like pretty standard stuff from an anti-capitalist, right?

Well, this stuff came from Michael Porter. Yes – the same Michael Porter who invented the five forces theory of marketing, who is a Professor at Harvard Business School, and who is probably the closest thing to the inventor of business strategy we’ll ever find.

He says that businesses are stuck in a definition of value-creation that is around a narrowing economic definition i.e. making money. Not just more money, but more money pretty much regardless of the consequences, because what matters is shareholder value. And, given that most of our shareholders aren’t shareholders for very long, shareholder value means delivering profits this quarter, regardless of the long-term.

But external and societal factors have a profound effect on productivity and efficiency – and on the long-term game when it comes to profitability.

This idea, he calls Shared Value.

Porter says “Business has been so blind to these needs. We’re seeing social entrepreneurs coming up with ‘business models’ for self-sustainability through generating revenue, and people saying ‘they’re doing it better than companies’ – well, they are businesses!”

Meanwhile ‘companies’ are missing out.


Let me give you an example: globalisation. We leaped in there and assumed logistics were free, that we could source from wherever, and ship to wherever. Aside from the environmental impact, companies are starting to realise that this isn’t true – the cost of transportation is something they’ve not thought about before. So the place where stuff is made, matters. It matters too because that’s where a lot of your customers live nowadays.

If we want people to carry on living and engaging with our products, we ultimately have to be doing things that are good for them.

We need to be creating profit through satisfying social need.

So Porter, one of the most respected thinkers in the business world, is saying it’s time for a re-think. He says there’s a “hunger for purpose” in the business community that we need to find within the institution itself (not by legislation).

Within the institution itself.

And that means you guys.

Let me tell you about someone else with some interesting thoughts on this. Dan Pink. American author. Very interested in motivation theory. And he says the science is freaky.

Traditional thinking says if you want a certain thing, then using reward you’ll get you more of the behaviour you want, and by using punishment you’ll get less of the stuff you don’t.

Let’s ask some scientists – at MIT, Chicago and Carnegie Mellon. They did an experiment where they set people some mini challenges – memorising digits, solving puzzles, throwing a ball through a hoop and that sort of stuff. And they used a three-tier reward model. The guys that did ok, they got a small reward. The guys who did well got a slightly bigger reward, and the guys who did really well – well, they got a big reward.

For mechanical tasks, the higher the pay, the better the performance.

But – and this is the freaky bit – once a task called for even modest cognitive skill, larger rewards led to poorer performance.

This sounds vaguely socialist… But these are eminent professors from respected institutions… and this research was funded by the Federal Reserve Bank!

The trick, says Pink, is to pay people enough money to make them not worry about it. Take it off the table, so they can get on with their work. Then the things that matter are three things:



And Purpose

Autonomy – the ability to be self-directed, lead our own lives

Mastery – having the satisfaction of getting better at something

Purpose – contributing to society.


So inside this big structure of performance-based incentives, within an organisation that’s only looking as far as its next quarter’s reports, we find that all the people have more or less one thing in common: the fact that they perform better when they have autonomy, mastery and purpose.

So here we have a situation where companies could be massively under-performing. Not only because their customers want them to have more of a stake in society, but because their staff actually perform better when they have purpose too.

And how could you possibly lead a more purposeful professional life than by working for a company with a strong social purpose at its core?

A purpose like “be disruptive but in the cause of making the world a better place” – Skype.

The effect is that the smart people go where they CAN get this, and everyone else who could be performing really well but perhaps they’re not so into social theory – they stay put but consistently underperform their potential. Even – and especially – when they’re financially incentivised.

The solution to these problems is that companies have got to start investing in shared value.

They need corporate cultures that encourage autonomy, mastery and purpose.

And they need to seize the opportunity to create profit through satisfying social need.

When you understand how the long-term interests of your customers matter – AND that the core productivity driver for people in your organisation is not money but PURPOSE, then you see how this idea of shared value changes the argument.

It changes the argument from being the whining protest of liberals to being “the biggest driver of innovation and growth opportunities in the economy” – and it was Porter – the guy who invented marketing – who said that.

References and fantastic further reading/watching: (Porter) and (Pink)

Filed under: future of capitalism, social enterprise 2010, successful businesses, , , , , , , , , ,

What about words?

Whatever happened to the Ad Men of old? Undoubtedly it’s a good thing that the gross misogyny of Lionsgate Films’ US series Man Men has subsided. But where are the witty strap-lines in adverts today, that were once the preserve of these men?

Advertisers have becomes fixated with price, celebrity endorsement and whiter-than-white imagery. Billboards scream their value propositions as loudly as they can. So-called “blog” copy is hyperbolic rubbish written by marketers who’ve had their common sense glands removed.

The language of advertising has turned from dinner party to Saturday market.

Success in the digital space requires a different approach. Good brands are being established on the old-fashioned principle of delivering a great product and letting the customers do the talking. Screaming about your USPs has no place here. Honest, straightforward language wins.

Just look at

A few words can have tremendous power, especially in digital marketing. There are strap lines from the 90s that I still remember: “I’m a smarter investor: Alliance & Leicester”.

Online or offline: it’s time for a softer approach. Give a customer something in your advertising that makes them think, laugh or smile and they’ll love you forever. Goodness knows you might even stand out.

Filed under: digital marketing, successful businesses, , , , , , ,

TEN KILLER QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF before you set up a business:

I’m about to have a conference call with two excellent chaps who are starting out in business. They’ve asked me to be a business mentor to them, which I’ve agreed to do in principle, but what I’m interested in finding out is what they’re looking to achieve and how I can help them.

I’ve made a few notes for myself before the conversation which I thought might be useful general questions for anyone about to set up a business to ask themselves – and perhaps their support group too (the first bit is of course about what they’re looking for from me).

– What are you looking for from me? My experience is:
– Marketing, especially digital
– Company secretarial – compliance, tax, legal
– Leadership
– Strategy, growth, business planning, performance measurement
– Financial – investment, forecasting, financing

1. What is your vision in setting up the business?
– What do you want it to achieve in your market?
– What do you want it to achieve for yourself – financial / other?
– Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

2. What makes you different?

3. Why do your customers like you?

4. What does your brand say and do, and why would anyone care?

5. Is the business (or idea) profitable, scalable, saleable, sustainable? Which of these matters to you?

6. What happens if it goes really well?

7. What happens if it goes really badly?

8. How will you know?

9. What are you going to do next?

10. Whose needs to know about this in order to support you in these crucial early stages?

Filed under: successful businesses, , , , , , , , , ,

Philip Green and Andrew Marr: two professionals at the very top of their game. But both of them make for poor critics.

Philip Green is a retail magnate; retail is one of the simplest industries out there. So why was he given the task of assessing the government’s spending efficiencies?

Now, I thought, don’t be like one of those bloggers who Andrew Marr so vilifies. Even though you think he’s probably 80% right.

So I read the report in full, and in truth I’ve read press releases that have had more substance.

Sketchy at best, The Sir Philip Green Review sounds like it’s been written for press soundbites and nothing else. If its constitution of bullet points was genuinely shocking that would be different, but in summary the report (the cost of which was undisclosed):

– Found a successful project to reduce energy costs had already yielded a 500m annual saving. Surely whoever ran this would have made a better investigator than a celebrity slasher?

– Observed that Her Majesty’s government achieves, in my opinion an impressive cost-per-night of between £77 and £117 for central London hotel rooms…

– …But that they could do better in pricing of office paper and printer cartridges

– Ok, so they have wasted a shocking and irredeemable amount of money at the hands of opportunistic, greasy IT contract salesmen

But: what was worrying was Sir Philip’s apparent lack of real-world appreciation for any sort of business or organisation whose operations are more complex than “buy it, mark it up, flog it”, with alarm bells that included:

– His total misunderstanding of the fact that comparing the price of leaflets is meaningless. My seven years of experience of government communications tenders makes me confident in saying it is one of the most closely tendered items in the creative industries and that leaflet ‘production’ isn’t just about printing costs.

– An apparent lack of understanding that different laptops have different specifications and, therefore, prices

– Seeing the fact that the government has only 68 contracts for 105,000 mobile phones as inefficient

– Placing no price on either the suggestion that “all transactions [including personal expenses] should require authorisation” or the cost of running central procurement for all this stuff.

Maybe there is a more detailed answer to this hidden beneath the report – but just like a low-grade maths student, he failed to show his working out. Maybe amongst his directorships there’s an IT procurement consultancy somewhere…

Government accountability should, in the absence of really pithy criticism on efficiency be about impact. And I’ve seen my share of pointless, money-wasting government schemes run by incompetents over the years. Their impact should be judged on their competency though, not whether they’re buying paper at a sensible price and in this respect this particularly bluntly-chosen part of the spending review completely misses the point.

So: I have been fairly direct and personal, albeit properly read. And so to angry bloggers writing of an evening, and back to Andrew Marr. I’ll let you spot for yourselves on which page the comparisons to Nazi Germany start in the Great British Public’s (so far, 123) comments on Sky News start:

Happy shopping!

Filed under: successful businesses, , , , , , , , , , ,

Reaching the top of the hill

“Over the hill” often means “past it” or some notion of being near the end. I prefer the meaning that says it’s when things get slightly easier, and achieving momentum in whatever you’re trying to do takes a bit less blind huffing and puffing.

The tricky bit is that you rarely get to see how much further you’ve got left to climb, and when the hill you’re encountering is a business or a big campaign to grow something, it can be tough motivating yourself with the idea that you’re nearly there when so far that’s not come true.

The answer is, of course, that you’ve got to keep pushing. If there’s genuine evidence you’re getting somewhere, and that what you’re doing is working, then keep the faith. If you’re getting steadily higher, keep going. No matter how far away the top is, you’ll eventually get there. So long as you don’t stop doing what’s keeping you going.

Sometimes, though, there’s a point when you need to give up. Some of the most robust of characters see this as par for the course of having ambitious plans. For others, though, it only happens when you look back after you’ve lost everything and you really are worse off than when you started.

Responsibility for taking this decision doesn’t just lie with you. Those of us watching with admiration at the determined and motivated around us have a duty sometimes to say when enough’s enough. If you know someone like this and can only talk about their determination, and never honestly say “they’ll get there – it’s such a great product / service – they just need time”, saying what you really think could be the best thing you ever do for them. Who knows – a small bit of honest feedback could be the breakthrough the very barrier to progress itself.

Filed under: successful businesses, , , , ,

Give your company to your workers and enjoy long-term profits?

“It is wrong to have millionaires before you have ceased to have slums” were the immortal words of John Lewis’ founder, John Spedan Lewis. Regardless of moral persuasion, the fact that this month the John Lewis Partnership announced an increase in group sales of 8.4% (on 52 week basis) with operating profit across the group up 22% is impressive. They paid partners a bonus worth almost 8 weeks’ pay and made a one-off contribution to the pension fund of £150 million. All that in a recession that’s wiped out scores of businesses, not least in the retail sector.

In the spirit of John Spendan Lewis’ philosophy, the John Lewis Partnership is made up of all the 70,000 people it employs. Its annual report modestly states that “Our purpose is the happiness of all our members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business, with success measured by our ability to sustain and to enhance our position both as an outstanding retailer and a thriving example of employee ownership”. This takes Nick Clegg’s statement last night that work “is the way you reward people, but also where you find self-esteem” to a new level.

By rewarding employees with a tangible share in the benefits of their work, John Lewis has benefited from extraordinarily high commitment from its workers, a likely contributing factor to their success. “They’re interested in what they do and they’re knowledgeable about what they sell” says their own website. This is patently clear when you visit a Waitrose or John Lewis store. One of the things I’ve always found most impressive is the way staff are happy to refer to colleagues’ whose expertise about a particular product might be greater. This is a marked contract to commission-based incentives that reward sales people only when they close the deal.

The damage done by taking a short term view of rewards goes deeper than this without even mentioning bankers. Our private sector supports executives who are paid phenomenally high amounts. Today the average CEO earns 81 times more than their average employee. In 2000 this ratio was “just” 47. The worrying thing is that it appears no amount of corporate cock up can even threaten these salaries – just take a look at Ruth Sunderland’s list of the hightest-paid executives and work out for yourself whether they added value to the extent of their remuneration. A classic example she cites is BP’s shareholder meeting last week, where there were protests at chief executive Tony Hayward’s 41% pay rise over a period in which profits fell. Will one of the biggest man-made disasters in 20 years have an impact on next year’s salary do you think?

This isn’t a side-effect of capitalism. It’s a side-effect of a new type of capitalism that places a layer of impenetrable unaccountability between executives and shareholders. Richard Lambert, secretary general of the CBI, said that executives risked becoming “aliens… in a different galaxy from the rest of the community” and said this “Jack Welch capitalism” had tarnished the reputation of business such that it can never be “a positive force for good” while short-term shareholder value is the main boardroom aim.

Left-wingers often talk prophetically about the end of capitalism. But perhaps examples like John Lewis are indicative of an alternative type of capitalism – no less profitable – with longer-term interests and a broader recognition of its stakeholders. “We believe our model, where commercial success is a driving force but where the needs of Customers, Partners, and long-term financial ambitions are balanced, represents a sustainable, compassionate and fairer form of capitalism” says John Lewis’ Annual Report.

Welch was famed and derided for stating that CEO compensation should continue to be dictated by the free market, without interference from government or other outside agencies. Maybe it’s consumers’ turn to influence things. And with more businesses seeing for themselves how employee ownership can pay in the long run, they might not even need to be conscientious objectors to do so.

Further reading:

Bill Waddell on The End of Jack Welch Capitalism

Filed under: successful businesses, , , , , ,

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