Web marketing expert: How serial entrepreneur Nick Bell is taking his $45 million digital agency WME to the world

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Web marketing expert: How serial entrepreneur Nick Bell is taking his $45 million digital agency WME to the world

 

Nick Bell had just $400 in his bank account when he started his own search engine optimisation business from his bedroom seven years ago. He describes launching Web Marketing Experts, or WME as it is now known, as his “last crack”. The now 34-year-old Melburnian had spent the previous few years running his own skincare company but by 2008, that business was not tracking well.

Bell started cold calling businesses and in five days he had his first SEO client. Seven years later, WME employs 150 people in Australia and its Australian operations are turning over $20 million.

Globally, the former Smart50 finalist employs 450 employees and turns over $45 million. WME has offices in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, and opened its latest office in China in May. The group will expand to Thailand in October.

I started my first business when I was 24. Before that I worked in a recruitment job, finding candidates for the right position. I left that to start my own skincare business, SkinB5.

SkinB5 was based on a tablet that people could take to control acne. I had dealt with bad skin for 10 years so I was passionate about developing a treatment.

I did that for three years but it was tough; I didn’t have much funding. But because it was a purely online business, I learnt all about search engine optimisation.

When I turned 27 I thought, why not start my own internet marketing company?

I had $400 in my bank account. I had no money; I was done and dusted. I had a choice: I could go back to working for someone else or have my last crack.

I had my website built in Vietnam for $250 and I just started cold calling companies that I found through Google.

I had my first client in five days. I did their SEO by myself and reinvested every dollar I earned back into the business.

It was like uni days except that I was 27. I furnished my room with furniture I found in hard rubbish collections on the street. It was very primitive.

My mum told me to get a real job, to go back to the corporate life. But I said let me do this. I can do it.

One of my early clients sent me a cheque for $10,000 for SEO work. It was a large sum of money but I put it back into the business and six months later I opened my first real office and hired my first team member.

Over the seven years I have reinvested everything back into the business. At the start we were purely SEO. It was our bread and butter. But now we have evolved into a full-suite digital agency.

We’ve opened offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, the US, Dubai and New Zealand. We launched in China a month ago.

China is such a big market and it is very competitive. But if you can crack it, it’s a game-changer. It is like the US but on steroids.

I chose to expand to China because it is a challenge. If I don’t challenge myself in business, I get bored very easily. I don’t know the Chinese market, I don’t know the search engines there. That’s why I went to China.

We will open an office in Thailand in October.

About two months ago one of my employees who is from Thailand came to me and told me he wanted to go back. He asked if he could take WME to Thailand and I said that’s brilliant, let’s do it together.

I want to invest in my staff if they come to me with a good idea.

All of our international managers train here and then we send them overseas. We replicate our business model when we open new offices. If Google is operating in a country, we know our business will work.

It’s important from a cultural point of view. I have to like the people I work with and there is an element of trust. They need to understand me and learn the processes and know how it all works.

My background in recruitment has been a major help. I learnt how to understand and read people.

I also spent four years working in hospitality. I worked in bars and restaurants and did a diploma. It taught me the service side and to do things now, not later.

A sense of urgency is absolutely critical. If you are not evolving in this game, your competitors will beat you.

Our industry changes every week. We have around 4500 small competitors in this country and each week they try to take our business. There is a very low entry point in our market; you can start your own digital marketing business with very little money.

About four years ago we launched our own app development company called Appscore. We’ve taken it international to Singapore and China.

We’re launching Appscore in Hong Kong in two weeks. The app space is booming and we’re planning to expand this further in the next six months.

I don’t do business plans. I’m very flexible; I tend to wing it. I go with my gut instinct and what feels right.

I’ve learnt over the years that you need to surround yourself with smart and talented people who care about your company.

You have to employ the best people possible. I learnt the hard way at the start how important it is to have good people. Otherwise you are constantly pushing uphill.

WME is a people resource-heavy company and we need a lot of people to service our clients. At times this keeps me awake at night. I have to rely on other people; there needs to be a lot of trust.

There also needs to be trust between all the general managers I manage overseas. My day starts at 7am with a call to our general manager in New Zealand and our last offices open are in Singapore and Hong Kong, which are a few hours ahead of us. My day usually finishes around 10-11pm.

There are non-stop questions but I love it. I don’t know what I would do if I wasn’t doing this.

It has been tough but I have had an amazing ride; the opportunities this business has given me in seven years, the people I have met.

I always want to be better. When I reach a milestone, I want the next thing. I used to think I would be happy once we had reached 10 staff members or a certain level of revenue, but once we got there, I just wanted the next thing.

My advice to other entrepreneurs is to always be on your game. Have a sense of urgency and be a perfectionist.

If you are in the service game, always deliver on what you say. We don’t have a product out there that sells itself, we have to sell ourselves.

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Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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