My business story… TopLineComms
Heather Baker, talks about how she founded the integrated marketing agency, TopLineComms , and shares her advice on starting a business.
Tell us the TopLineComms story…
I spent four years studying Psychology at the University of Cape Town, only to graduate with the realisation that it wasn't a path I wanted to follow. PR has proved a far better match for my personality and has even allowed me to draw on my training (I'm a neuromarketing geek), so at least my degree hasn't gone to waste.
TopLine opened its doors in 2008, slap bang in the middle of the recession. My timing could have been better, but the opportunity to start my own agency was too good to pass up on.
Those early days were hard, but I'm glad I stuck it out. During the past eight years we've grown from a two-man show with a few small clients into a thriving integrated comms agency with more than 20 staff members, an international client base, and offices in London and Cape Town.
How long have you been running TopLineComms?
I've been running TopLine Comms for eight years now.
Have you run any previous businesses?
No, TopLine is my first, although I did have a small maths tutoring consultancy at university.
What was your first job?
After graduating and subsequently realising that the last thing I wanted to do was practice psychology, I decided to move to London and find an easy job to pay the rent while I considered my options.
I started looking for PR roles. Why I assumed that would be easy, I'm not sure, but I don't regret it for a moment. I fell in love with the industry almost immediately and haven't looked back since.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
It was a combination of old school crowd funding and a whole lot of bootstrapping. Basically, I found some investors and then worked like crazy for the next two years to pay them back.
What has been your biggest hurdle in the early days?
Aside from the 'recession' elephant in the room, I'd say my biggest challenge was mindset. Starting a business is tough anyway and the financial crisis didn't help matters much. I accepted any and all work that came my way and I never negotiated the terms. When I made the decision to be more discerning about the kind of work we took on, our creativity and turnover both increased dramatically.
What is the hardest part of running a business?
Without a doubt, it's making those tough decisions. We all want to be the nice guy, but when you run your own business that's not always possible. Sometimes (a lot of the time) you have to make a call that your staff or clients won't like. It's not easy, but if you can master it your life will be infinitely easier.
Who or what has been your biggest influence?
I've been blessed to enjoy a multitude of positive influences on this business journey, but more recently I'd say that Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown has been the biggest influence in my life.
I used to be one of those people who not only thought I could do it all, but that I had to. Essentialism taught me the importance (and value) or focusing only on the right stuff. As a result, I'm much more productive and more importantly, I'm a lot happier.
How important is customer service to your business?
At TopLine we believe that customer service, creativity and good coffee form a holy trinity.
When did you realise you needed a telephone answering service?
We'd finally reached that happy place every new business owner hopes for: the phone was ringing a lot. Maybe not off the hook, but enough that it had started interfering with the team's productivity levels. That's when we decided it was time to find a solution.
Best business move?
Buying back the equity in my business.
Worst business move?
Giving away more than 50% of the equity of my business is hands down one of the worst mistakes I ever made. Ironically, a week after I signed the papers a client told me never to do that. Their advice arrived a little too late, but it motivated me to work that much harder to buy it back.
What is your plan for the next few years?
TopLine has been going for eight years now and we're always on the lookout for opportunities to learn and grow, but at the same time I don't believe in expansion for expansion's sake.
I recently became a mum for the first time, so for the immediate future my focus will be split between baby and business. As for the next few years, I'm not sure: ask any parent, planning is something other people do.
If you did it again, what would you do differently?
For one thing, I wouldn't be so quick to hand over my company's equity.
What piece of advice would you give to a start-up?
We tend to judge our progress according to other people's end results and when we don't measure up we think we're not doing a good enough job. It helps to remember that most success stories failed at some point along the way. It's part of the entrepreneurial journey and how we grow and learn.
Complete this sentence: If I wasn't running TopLine Comms, I would be running a citrus farm in South Africa