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Secrets of Success: Andrew Armitage, founder and MD of A Digital

Ensuring that a website works hard for its business, A Digital has shone above its competition.

Andrew Armitage has grown A Digital from a spare bedroom project into a thriving team. Working with clients including the NHS, Hawkshead Relish, Windermere Lake Cruises, and most recently James Cropper PLC, He shares his insights with Business Matter.

What products or services do you provide?

In a nutshell, we provide bespoke website design and development with digital marketing that supports business and digital transformation. This includes e-commerce sites as well as more complex sites such as subscription services and online booking.

What type of businesses do you work with?

We work with business to business and business to consumer companies – some are even both! Most of our clients have a revenue between £1m and £100m, from start-ups to plc’s, across a wide range of sectors including travel and tourism, food and drink, professional services and manufacturing.

What problem does your company solve?

Customers want anytime, anywhere access to your products and services. Moreover, they expect it to be personal, relevant and simple to use. This is where your website comes in, and when done right, it can be your hardest-working asset.

At A Digital, we build advanced websites that fully integrate with business systems, building operational efficiency. As a result, the problems we solve can be complex, involving several systems and services. For example, a subscription service will also require a payment service that enables payment reminders by email and the option to manage your subscription. Ecommerce websites will also often require a connection to a financial account or stock system, or allow the business to streamline their operational processes such as packing and despatch.

In addition, every website needs to be promoted. The days of building a website and expecting people to find it has long since passed, so we help people ensure their website is visible in front of their desired audience. From the customer’s perspective, we’re solving problems such as helping them to find specific information, resolve a customer service issue or buy a product.

What is your USP?

While many companies see a website as a marketing tool, we see it as much more than that. Websites can help businesses in so many different ways, and they will often sit at the centre of their digital activity. We’re not afraid of complex challenges and being able to show how the entire organisation can benefit from the website and the processes behind it. It’s not just about making a site look good, but it needs to work at the highest technical level as well.

What are your company values? Have you ever had them challenged and if so how have you dealt with it?

There’s a huge trend to talk about values, and while they’re important, it’s too easy to talk the talk without walking the walk. Our overriding value is to do our best work and always act in our clients best interest. I see so many companies say their values are honesty, loyalty and trustworthiness, among a host of other buzzwords, but wouldn’t you expect that as a minimum when you’re working with someone?

Your values are challenged all the time, and while there’s sometimes going to be an element of compromise, it’s important to know what your ‘red lines’ are – the things you’re not prepared to compromise on. These will be your guiding principles (often called your ‘north star’) that ultimately define who you are and the qualities and value you bring to your business relationships.

How do you ensure that you recruit a team that reflects your company values?

It’s got harder, to be honest. With most interviews now being held online, it’s not as easy to make a connection with someone, and given the state of the market for recruitment, you have to move fast with potential candidates; otherwise, before you know it, they’ve accepted a role somewhere else.

With most people, you get a feel for what they believe in and their general attitude. Can you agree on a variety of topics, do they share similar interests to those on your team, and what does your gut tell you. I know of various approaches, such as DISC profiling which I’ve never done, but when someone has a genuine passion for their art, I think it becomes fairly obvious, and that’s a great starting point.

Are you happy to offer a hybrid working model of home/office post-covid?

Yes – this is the new reality where it’s now expected that companies like ours will offer hybrid working as an option. Since we’ve been doing this for a while now, we’ve had plenty of time to adapt to it. Although the practicalities of working remotely [with digital services] are straightforward, we must ensure everyone on the team feels comfortable with it and don’t feel either left out or overwhelmed and suffer in silence.

Do you have any tips for managing suppliers and customers effectively?

In our business, so many of our suppliers are ‘digital’. They’re often subscription-based services, and we feel so far removed from them that the relationships are purely transactional. This has been exacerbated through the pandemic, but I think it’s really important to have suppliers you can trust and meet with face to face from time to time.

Putting the boot on the other foot, I’m keen to ensure we’re not a digital supplier at arms’ reach from our own clients. I want to have personal relationships with those we work with, as I believe that people buy from people. Relationships are fundamental to collaboration and, therefore, achieving results. Being able to talk to clients opens up opportunities to hear about what’s influencing them and learn about the challenges they’re facing in their own words. Relationships aren’t just about business, though – connecting with other people is what makes us human and brings a new level of enjoyment to our work.

Any finance or cash-flow tips for new businesses starting out?

Cash is, of course, the lifeblood of every business, so it’s crucial to stay on top of your cash flow. When you’re starting out, you’re busy, often juggling multiple aspects of your business, and it’s easy to let admin fall by the wayside as you respond to clients and chase new opportunities. Setting an invoicing schedule to make sure you send out invoices on time helps you to get paid on time. The moment you fall behind, it becomes twice as much effort to keep up and juggle your bills.

Think carefully about how you finance your business. Taking on debt finance can give you a cash injection but becomes a burden longer term. There are so many more ways to attract finance now with things like Crowdfunding. Think carefully about what you’ll use the money for, investing in assets wherever possible over transient costs like advertising or people.

If you could ask one thing of the government to change for businesses what would it be?

Choosing just one thing is difficult as Government decisions impact many aspects of running a business.
The government has introduced a range of schemes to encourage young people into the workplace, and there are now far more pathways for school-leavers and those at the start of their careers. There are still large skills gaps, though, especially when it comes to softer skills and, in our case, digital skills.

Introducing entrepreneurial skills to the school curriculum would give students more opportunities to experience business first-hand and develop their confidence, from developing their personal brand to helping them stand out when applying for jobs, giving presentations and problem solving. Whether students choose to start their own business or not, the experience they’d gain from this would provide them with a range of valuable non-academic skills for a wider range of careers.

If I was to sneak another one in, I wish engaging with Government contracts was easier as a small business. There are many opportunities, but I have little faith in the procurement process. Tenders of this nature are costly for us to participate in. It feels like the buyers are usually so far removed from the project delivery team that we’re never going to get a fair opportunity to present our capabilities. It’s often hard to engage with the buyer, and it feels like they focus on the cost element – yet ironically, you can run the risk of being too cheap! There have also been times when we’ve submitted a tender, and then it’s been withdrawn without reason – that’s hugely disrespectful of the time and effort given to the process.

What is your attitude towards your competitors?

I think it’s important to know who your competitors are but not to be influenced by them. Competitors can easily become collaborators, and it’s good to have a healthy respect for each other. In the normal day to day, though, I think it’s best to focus on being the best version of yourself. Most people start a business because they have a dream, specific experiences that led to developing a new product or service, or insight that showed a need for a fresh approach.

There are many other agencies I have huge respect for – either from the quality of their work or the similar values I might share with their approach. I think spending too much time looking at your competition does two things. Firstly you risk being lured into a feeling of being an imposter and worrying that your own work will never be good enough. Secondly, it causes you to take your eye off your own focus and drive to get things right or make things better for your clients.

Any thoughts on the future of your company and your dreams?

Like most companies, the challenges we face are unrelenting. After the pandemic, we’re seeing rising costs across the board and difficulties recruiting the skills and people to our team. I’ve never wanted to ‘take over the world’ with my agency, but to do great work for great clients and solve meaningful problems. I’ve some personal goals, too – being able to support my family, especially my kids as they grow up in an uncertain world and look forward to opportunities to travel, particularly in the US.

I’m passionate about developing digital skills with young people and, in the future, would love to give more opportunities to young people starting their careers.

Cherry Martin

Cherry is Associate Editor of Business Matters with responsibility for planning and writing future features, interviews and more in-depth pieces for what is now the UK’s largest print and online source of current business news.