Our journey from day 1 to year 1
Well, it’s official, Retro Digital is one year old today! How time flies when you’re having fun. There have been tears and sleepless nights, but they wouldn’t change it for the world. I have been fortunate enough to work with this passionate, focused duo as they built Retro Digital from the promising start-up business they were just a year ago, to the formidable force of digital marketing leadership they are today. With an incredible team, they are continuing to grow at a phenomenal rate! They have proven success throughout Europe with an ever-expanding client base and a thirst for more. I sat down with the co-founders Sarah and Alan to find out the secrets to their incredible success so far and see how they’re feeling a year on.
One year in already, I’m sure you’ve both learned so much! What have been your biggest learning curves so far?
Alan: Absolutely everything! I’m only joking, this year has been great. I’ve learned so much. I think one of the things that stands out is how difficult it was to set up in Ireland. For me, it was straightforward – but getting Sarah set up as the other director/shareholder was tough. There’s so much bureaucracy to go through e.g. getting a pps number, proof of address (she lives with me so she doesn’t have any bills in her name!), and bank accounts. You’d think anywhere within the EU would be easy enough, but it turned out that the Czech Republic is considered a high-risk country, so that caused a lot of headaches!
In the day to day running of the business, I think I’ve learned how important it is to have a good rapport with both your clients and your team. Making sure that you are on the same wavelength as your clients when it comes to marketing approach is really the key to success, otherwise you’re in for a hell of a ride!
In the same way, it’s so important to have the right team behind you. We’re fortunate to have a wonderful team on board as well as Rosi who’s been with us from day 1; but we’ve had our share of disasters and lessons learned along the way. However, probably the most unexpected thing I learned this year, as a man, is that I had never really given sexism a second thought before. Not only have I realised that it does exist; I’ve been shocked to see first hand the sheer scale of this problem and just how much my partner and other female colleagues have had to put up with. I’ve been blown away by their resilience and I’m really eager to have Retro Digital prove, as we continue to grow year on year; there is a better way.
Sarah: Oh everything that Alan just said! But on a practical level, I’ve found that being the accountant, lawyer, copywriter, programmer, translator, content writer, digital marketer and boss, it can be so hard to manage the immense workload. A lot of the time, there just are not enough hours in the day! But from speaking to other business owners, this sounds totally normal and it’s a phase every new business has to go through. This leads me to the advice I’d have for any new business: Get good systems in place! Before we started using Protemos I would be spending hours on invoicing and editing spreadsheets to check the finances. Now with a click of a button, it’s all done for me and I have time to work on our clients.
We’ve also learnt so much about the management side of things. You really have to be fair to your staff and contractors. To be a good leader, you have to admit when you’re wrong, you have to be fair, but at the same time you have to have boundaries so that everyone knows where they stand – having favourites gets you nowhere. When it comes to payments, I always pay our suppliers before ourselves because I know personally just how hard it is when clients pay late. We had one month where every client paid late as we were just starting out and it nearly broke us – we couldn’t put our team members through that.
Looking back, we were crazy to have just quit our jobs (both at the same time) to start a business. Self-funding a business is tough. We had very little savings at the time so nothing to fall back on, which made things really hard at the beginning. But, it meant we couldn’t possibly fail or we’d literally lose everything and end up on the streets if we couldn’t pay our rent. It was stressful but made us work even harder.
The most important thing I learned this year is to believe in yourself and believe in your clients. It sounds so cheesy but you have to have faith in your clients’ brands if you want to have any hope of helping them grow and succeed. Likewise, don’t undervalue yourself and your business. We started out being so grateful for any work that we would underprice ourselves and it took a little while to realise that these core beliefs are paramount to success rather than just the money.
Can you tell us some of the low points you faced during your first year as a new business?
Alan: Of course! We were as the Irish say ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ going into this with so much optimism. I think the low points were just the realities of how tough it really is to start your own business and make it successful. Constantly being broke while knowing that we had no savings, reminded us that we had no choice but to make this work. Looking back, it was probably a godsend in disguise though.
I also really looked forward to our first business trips, naively I assumed they’d be akin to a fancy holiday. I was wrong! Being a new business, each trip was both a marketing and networking opportunity not to be missed, so we really put in 110%. I’m so glad we did, it’s helped our business immensely and we’ve made some invaluable connections and great friends. As for my holiday idea? Needless to say, I ended up more tired than before I left, wishing for a recovery week after each one!
Sarah: Oh good question! I think for me, as a mum I find the financial uncertainty of building a new business is by far the toughest part. I remember one month, due to late payments we had just €40 to our name to feed all four of us for almost a month. That was a struggle! Alan then bought a bloody pencil for €2 so he could ‘do some drawing’. Let’s just say our wedding was almost canceled!
On the way back from an early business trip we stopped off in a burger king and realised that it was so expensive we could only afford one meal between us. Just as we ordered, an incredibly kind-hearted man gave us his employee meal, telling us that he overheard our conversation and didn’t want anyone going hungry. That experience was extremely moving, though we thanked him profusely at the time, I regret not getting his details so we could take him out for a meal now. I am grateful for the struggle though! Having powered through tough times of uncertainty, I really appreciate how far we’ve come; now we can stop off at any fast food place and order two meals with a smile.
We’ve talked about the lows, what were your highest points so far?
Alan: There are really so many. I’d have to say that being able to travel the world, meeting new people has been brilliant. The people we met at conferences across Europe made each event something to remember. I remember having to bring our needy rescue dog (and his dog sitter) along with us on one business trip, much to the amusement of many of our colleagues! Ah, for all of the lows there are 100 more high points that make this journey so worth it. We’ve had so much fun planning our first conference; Retro Live and we can’t wait to hold it next month. All in all, though, I think that surviving our first year in business, growing to now running two ltd companies, managing a bigger team and not being broke anymore is the best part so far.
Sarah: I think that the flexibility of being your own boss is invaluable. With two children at home, it’s been the best thing we could’ve ever done, allowing me to find a work-life balance that really works for our family. In the same vein, I’ve been blown away by the kind and supportive friends and colleagues have been as we set off on this new adventure. It’s been so touching, and I credit our success to the support we have from everyone who believes in Retro Digital like we do.
What achievement are you most proud of as Retro Digital heads into its second year?
Sarah: Oh! So much. Having Retro Digital grow to having regular clients in over 16 countries just within our first year has been a labour of love. Of course, also seeing each of our clients grow is a wonderful experience – that’s what we’re here for. We were even privileged enough to speak at two conferences this year and have been nominated for Bank of Ireland’s Start Up of the Year, which is a huge honour.
Alan: All in all, I think that surviving our first year in business, growing to the point of running two ltd companies, managing our expanding team and not being broke anymore is pretty great! We can’t wait to see what we can achieve this year.
You’ve had such impressive first year, what are your plans for the future?
Sarah: We have loads of plans. We both agree that our primary aim is to push existing industry boundaries to create our own solutions. We built retro Digital on basic core values; honest, ethical marketing that gets results, and we feel it’s paramount that we carry these values forward. We’re still so passionate about that and we want to think outside the box to help our clients grow and gain that edge in the global market. We’re not afraid to do things differently, we love innovation. That’s why each of our team members has been carefully chosen because they share our vision for our brand. We’re looking forward to growing, even more, this year.
Alan: I couldn’t have put it any better than Sarah. We’re so excited for what the future holds. First off, we can’t wait to welcome people to Retro Live in a few weeks time!
Who would you most like to acknowledge as part of Retro Digital’s success?
Alan: We wouldn’t be here without our friends who have supported us along the way. Therefore we’d like to do a big shout out to Elia for teaching us so much and for the kickstart at Bucharest, as well as Agata, Volodymyr, Igor, Yepanoff, Christian and Thomas Faust, Tobias, Pernille, Gordana, Ronan, Anna, Justine, Gaetan, Jaroslav, and KantanMT as each of you have offered amazing support that means the world to us. We wouldn’t have made it where we are today without you. Ali and Andrew truly made our first conference an experience to remember and a huge thanks to Elena, Zana and Malon for being there for me when we needed advice.
In all seriousness, I wouldn’t have made it through this year if it wasn’t for the love and support of my beautiful fiancee as well as the occasional strong cup of Irish tea!
Sarah: We’re also so blessed to have a great team behind us. We rely on Rosi, Daire, Brian, Florencia, Salome, Poulomi, Seosamh and Michaela every day and we appreciate all you do, your dedication really helps Retro Digital grow to its fullest potential.
Alan has also been my rock this year, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather be on this adventure with! (I hate tea though…I’d much prefer a nice glass of Moravian wine!)