Search and rescue: How Nick Bell created a $45M start-up from his bedroom
You may have heard of Nick Bell. He is a serial entrepreneur. A former Smart50 finalist and at one point a skin care business owner. He is now in charge of a $45 million dollar digital agency with 450 employees across Australia, New Zealand, the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, China and Thailand. Nick speaks with Business First about how he built a global business.
The constancy of having every SEO ‘expert’ tell you they can make your SEO better can be a bit frustrating, but when a company does its SEO well, it can launch into another stratosphere.
Nick Bell found this out first hand while running his first serious business SkinB5.
It was that skincare business that provided the catalyst for Nick’s current success.
We’ll get to that shortly, but to understand Nick’s motivations we’ll backtrack slightly to find out where his entrepreneurial streak emerged from.
It was partly from growing up on a small cattle and sheep farm in country Victoria where to stave off boredom he became a salesman.
“I started my first semi-business in school selling my school lunch,” Nick says. “That’s how I made my ‘pocket money” in my teens. My mum and dad didn’t believe in pocket money, so to reach my goal of moving to London when I finished high school, I begun selling my semi-gourmet school lunch to the other students.”
His mum would pack Nick’s lunch box – two lunch boxes in fact – full of chicken and avocado sandwiches, chocolate bars and cakes.
“Mum thought I was just a hungry kid with a very high metabolism as I was quite skinny. So what I used to do, was go to school and then at recess, lunch and on the way home on the bus, auction my food off. I took $2 for a peanut butter sandwich, $3.50 for chicken & meat sandwich. You’d be surprised how hungry kids become from 3pm onwards, so prices would increase. I look back now and laugh.”
What he was doing was grounding himself in a business mentality.
He dropped out of university because he wanted to be more hands on: theory about micro or macroeconomics held no appeal.
“I needed to be hands on, at the time I had no interest studying for a further 3 years. I wanted to experience the real world.”
So Nick dropped out of university, worked in hospitality and took an entry level role as a data entry assistant in recruitment firm. Within two and half years Nick was General Manager of their Sydney operation.
Yet the entrepreneur bug that had seeded in high school was still biting.
And thus SkinB5 was born.
Partly out of the need to do his own thing and partly to fill a gap he thought was evident in the treatment of acne.
“I had acne for 10 years and so I engaged a pharmacist and together we developed a product that helped combat the oil production in the skin. It worked extremely well. I decided to bring a partner on board and then we went to market.”
It was a global business from the outset, with the product sold online throughout Asia/Pacific and the US.
“I worked day and night in the business for four years before I was bought out by my business partner in 2010,” Nick says.
There were challenges however, mostly to do with manufacturing.
“The challenge with that business is you rely on the manufacturer to deliver on time and within budget. We agreed with the manufacturer that orders would be delivered within 12 weeks, 12 months later we were yet to see a product.
We weren’t big enough to demand large quantities, so they just weren’t giving us the love we needed. We firmly believe in the saying, ‘what doesn’t break you, makes you stronger’. It was a tough business to make a decent dollar.”
The great thing Skinb5 is the digital marketing skills he learned whilst running the business. He had developed his knowledge in SEO (search engine optimisation), PPC advertising (pay per click) and the basics of digital marketing.
“I thought, I’ve got three options. I can continue to struggle with this business, I can go back and work for someone and make a decent salary, or I could start a boutique digital marketing business and hopefully earn $100,000 a year and be content.”
Nick says at the time, he felt if he could earn $100,000 he’d would be on top of the world. So with his last few hundred dollars, he had poorly designed website built in Vietnam, bought a mobile phone and started cold calling businesses from his bedroom.
Within seven days he had received a cheque for $10,000, but to grow the business further he understood that he needed to reinvest in its operations.
It also helped that he understood where the market was heading.
“The yellow pages was in decline and the market was obviously headed towards digital and every single business was going to need a website and online marketing. There were digital marketing agencies in Australia charging ridiculous prices, a minimum $2,000+ per month with no guarantees or assurances. I thought I can come in at half the price with guarantees and deliver better results. That’s what we did and that’s why we grew extremely fast. No need to re-invent the wheel, only improve it”
WME grew from Nicks bedroom to now 450+ staff with offices in seven countries.
And as it grew so did the product offering.
“We developed a web design & development business called Nothing But Web, or NBW. Then, we developed Appscore, to cater for the booming app development industry. We now have clients such as Telstra, Mercedes Benz, NAB and even small start-ups who are looking to develop an app. Appscore is a very strong business with global potential. We added the app business to the digital group five years ago with just $3,000 in seed capital.”
You would think corporations would be savvy to the requirements of digital marketing, however that couldn’t be further from the truth for many of them.
In fact according to Nick some corporations have a distinct lack of understanding.
“Choosing a digital agency that lacks the resources or capabilities can burn a great deal of money, time and also severely damage your brand. I strongly recommend corporations and any business choose a digital agency that perform the technical work in-house rather than agency that has 3-5 staff in-house and the rest in a 3rd world country where the work quality is questionable. You need people on the ground who understand the Australian or US market.
From there you can develop the correct strategy.”
It is that attitude that has facilitated the rise of WME in an industry that is saturated with digital marketing players. It is that attitude and care taken with a business’s most prized possession – its brand – that has enabled Nick to build WME’s own brand and reputation.
And the business continues to grow with Nick’s broader ambitions currently in play.
“I want to further expand our social media division. As you know, Google been the leading marketing platform for 20 years but now it has some competition. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, they’re booming and will continue to boom. We’re currently evolving our social media department to cater for the huge demand. If a businesses doesn’t evolve it dies, it’s that simple. I believe in the basics, evolve, re-invest, hire well and train. Follow these principles and watch your business grow.”
Nick speaks like a true entrepreneur; one that has had successes and failures. One that has built businesses and expanded operations, but one also that knows the fine line between success and failure.
He says his biggest achievement was WME’s move into Asia.
“I remember when we first took the business to Asia, we didn’t have enough money to fit out the office so I laid the carpet myself. Thankfully, our Singapore office broke even within six months and that paved the way for further expansion throughout Asia.
The other major achievement is the growth of Appscore.
“To take that from a $3,000 start-up to now a multimillion dollar business with huge clients, amazing staff, is a big win. I can’t take credit for Appscore, my business partner and great mate Alex Louey is the driver behind Appscore. “
The biggest achievement is yet to come. It is to list the Group of Companies within the next few years.
“Recently I was asked, what’s your hobby outside of work. Honestly, I don’t see what I do as ‘work’, I am passionate about growing and investing in businesses. Watching a small start-up go from nothing to a multi-million dollar company through hard work and passion, is extremely rewarding. No balls no glory. Work smart and think big!”
It’s an ambitious plan, but when you think back to the farm boy who sold his lunches, it’s one that is expected to be achieved. BFM