In our regular series, we catch up with Audio Agent, recently rebranded FocalAgent after merging with another property marketing technology business to form one of the largest companies in the sector. To find out more about their business and their experience as members, Croydon centre manager Saffron Saunders chatted with technical director Matt Gates as the business prepared to move out of Sussex Innovation Croydon.
Saffron: It's been a big jump in scale this year…
Matt: Yeah… we've got 119 staff in the new office and a 10-year lease… We've set up the people department now, which is exciting. We've got a people director who was the operations director at the [acquired] company.
Did you have to lose a lot of people?
No, we've not let anyone go, so I think when we put everyone together there were 75-80 people across both companies. We've hired 40 people in the last 3 months and we didn't want to lose anyone when we moved offices.
So the culture - are you modelling it on another company or are you creating it as it goes?
Not really... I would say there's other people in the business who are way more evangelical about the culture. I always had culture by [staff] following what I do. But we're too big for that now. I think that's an interesting thing about the growth of a company. When there's 20 of you, you can be the leader and the culture-setter but as soon as you get over 50 people you can't, because you can't influence that many people. I'm lucky that all the directors are the same and really engage with the staff. We had a staff party on Saturday and there's a new guy who's started for a week. He said 'I can't believe the directors are talking to me' and I thought 'in what kind of company do the directors not talk to you?'
How many directors are there?
We've got five. Jeremy who is the CEO, who [business development director] Ben and I appointed four years ago; Ben can get on with what he's good at, and I can get on with what I'm good at and Jeremy does the rest while running the company. We've also got Tom who is our operations director, Tim who is the product director on one of our products and Ralph – whose role we are still defining, much like mine. I'm currently the technical director. I do want to move more into innovation of products, hopefully freeing myself up from the tech side... We also have our account director Emma. Each customer goes into account management and each account has multiple account managers within it, since they are big companies with 500 branches. Ben works with them for three months, then they’re handed over to Emma and her team. We now have six people in a new business team to support Ben.
So, the next step is international and that's what [Sussex Innovation's Research Advisor] Chloe Peacock is helping with?
We're looking at it but still need to decide whether we go for it. We've got some products now that don't need people on the ground and those are a bit more suited to international, so Chloe is helping us with an Australian market report and a US market report. Australia, although it's a long way away, is a very similar property model to the UK. A lot of UK companies go to Australia because of this, and because there are no language barriers. The US, however, is a completely different model, it’s more of a people business there. Chloe is going to do a market report on the UK, USA and Australian markets. Although we know the UK well, it's good to have another view and strong evidence.
How do you go about marketing?
We don't do any marketing and we haven't even got a marketing department. We just go and get business. I deal with stuff personally, it's all about networks and relationships. That's how we've always done it, but we will start marketing ourselves properly. One of Ralph's areas of expertise is digital acquisitions and digital marketing. But I don't think we'll change the model that much, it's quite old-school in terms of getting customers in. For some of our products, however, we'll definitely be using digital marketing.
I know you haven't used much of our support till now, but we would like to know more about your time here and any feedback you have for us?
One of my biggest areas of feedback would be access to that support. I’ve looked at it more since I've left - I always knew you did a lot of stuff, I just didn't know what it was and how to apply it to our business. It was always one of those things I would have liked to do, but never got around to doing! I also think as a company we became very inward looking; as we had so much going on internally we weren't looking outwards for extra help or support. I think that's something I really want to change now we're here and have a few more people on board. We'd like to look at our place in Croydon and in tech, even within the estate agent industry, where I call us the best kept secret tech start-up.
Did you feel a lot of the other companies were smaller in Sussex Innovation?
We weren't just a two-room company, we were a three-office company! I think we weren't very good at accessing that kind of thing. I think where you guys are great is with flexibility - the amount of times I've gone to reception and said "I've forgotten to book a meeting room today, can you sort me out?", and you did right away… the breakout area is nice and always filled with great people to chat to. Of course - the reception staff are great too!
Audio Agents were tenants at Sussex Innovation from June 2016 to January 2019. We want to wish them the best of luck as they make their move. Read more '5 minutes with...' interviews with our other members here.