How I Made It: I grew up with nothing but with my Journey Further SEO ad agency I’ll take Manhattan
When Robin Skidmore sold the decade-old digital marketing agency he had co-founded for £18 million in 2014, the world was his oyster. He went on a round-the-world trip with his wife and young daughter before returning to the UK and embracing life as an investor and adviser to other entrepreneurs. But then he got bored.
“I was a bit lost,” said Skidmore, now 43. “I felt unfulfilled and that the one thing I’d been focused on for so long, Epiphany, was missing.” Encouraged by his wife Laura, he started again, setting up a new agency called Journey Further in 2017. The aim was to take what he had learnt from building Epiphany and “do it better and do it quicker”.
He has achieved what he set out to do: last year, Journey Further made pre-tax profits of £2.3 million on sales of £13.3 million. “I set myself a goal to get to the same profit number within five years that we did in ten years [at Epiphany]. We hit that on the fifth anniversary,” said Skidmore, who recently moved to New York with Laura, and their two children, to spearhead the company’s US expansion.
Making it in Manhattan is a long way from a childhood spent in Enfield, north London. The youngest of three children, his life was first upended when, aged eight, his parents divorced and he went to live with his dad. Soon after, his father lost his well-paid media job and the family had to relocate to a smaller property on a council estate. “We didn’t have any carpet in our house for two years — we just couldn’t afford anything,” he said.
“My dad never really got another job that paid the same salary so he was doing multiple jobs, which meant he wasn’t around a lot. So I was … brought up by my older sisters and self-sufficient from a really early age,” said Skidmore, who recalls regularly cooking himself dinner at the age of 12. The experience shaped him: “I don’t think I would have had the drive and determination that I have in business … without that.”
He took on several part-time jobs to earn pocket money — from working on factory lines to sweeping the floor at a local mechanics’ workshop. He did “just enough” to get by at school and eventually went to Leeds University to study business. Without any support from his family, he “maxed out three credit cards” and claimed hardship loans to pay his way through higher education.
His first job was at NatWest, where he aimed to be a financial adviser but failed the exams. “When I did some reflecting on why, it was because I had no real desire. I was just doing it to make money … but I never really had a passion to do anything other than work for myself.”
Skidmore fared better at a web development firm called Chapter Eight, where he was hired as the first sales person. “It was tough. They said, ‘Here’s the Yellow Pages — go through [it] and call these companies up and convince them they need this thing they really don’t understand.’ ” It gave him a vital opportunity to hone his sales patter. “You’ve got to have really thick skin because you get a load of rejections. Again, going back to my upbringing, I was quite resilient from a young age.”
It was while working at Chapter Eight that he became interested in search engine optimisation (SEO), which helped websites rank higher in search results, and was still in its infancy as a discipline. In 2005, he and a colleague, Shane Quigley, decided to strike out on their own with a specialist SEO firm. “That was the epiphany moment and why the company was called Epiphany,” said Skidmore.
They started out with £10,000 in cash and a “tiny” office in Leeds that was subsidised by the university. “We got a list of the top 100 companies in Leeds and we just started calling them,” said Skidmore. Within three months, they had scored their first deal and Quigley had taught himself SEO so that the co-founders could deliver for clients.
Because they funded the business themselves, they had to be profitable from very early on to survive. “You just don’t see those stories any more because of the amount of money that companies raise upfront. That wasn’t around at the time — there was no [venture capitalist] that was going to give two kids £1 million seed funding,” said Skidmore.
As they won more clients, they hired hungry young graduates and trained them up. “We just made it up as we went along.” The tactic worked and by the time the business was acquired by Jaywing, a larger marketing agency, it had annual revenues of £10 million and 170 staff.
The duo continued working for the new owners but, like many entrepreneurs, found being employees a struggle. Quigley left after about three months and Skidmore lasted a year.
At first, he had no plans to start a second business, but gradually the founder itch returned. At Journey Further — where Skidmore owns 74 per cent of the business, with the remainder held by senior management — the concept was to create a firm still doing SEO but also helping clients with other digital marketing strategies, such as social media.
It was a totally different experience second time around. Skidmore was more confident and had the cash to back up his decisions. “The first time, I remember looking at certain things and saying, ‘Oh God, we can’t afford this.’ And it would just be a couple of hundred pounds … But because I had sold Epiphany… and seen that money is attainable, I had the confidence to spend more of it upfront.”
But challenges remain, particularly finding skilled people. “Clients are buying the expertise of the people who can use the tech, so every time we grow, we’ve got to find more people and they have to be good,” he said.
Skidmore explained that it is easier to do this in the US, where two-week notice periods are common. “We wait six months for certain people in the UK.” He has hired ten people in the US and is about to sign the lease for an office in New York.
“We want to emulate the success of the UK, and a big part of that is people and culture — and we think that culture is fostered a lot better when you get people together,” said Skidmore, who believes in office working and says his US colleagues agree. “Part of the reason we’re able to attract some great people is because they’re fed up with working in their bedrooms,” he said.
Skidmore is aware that cracking the US will be difficult, but he is determined to give it his best shot. “I’m more motivated than ever.”
My best decision … turning down an offer to sell half of Epiphany for £50,000 and a BMW 3 Series car in the early days. I was very young and seriously considered it.
My worst decision … to set up a mortgage brokerage as part of Epiphany because we knew how to generate loads of sub-prime mortgage leads. It was about six months before the sub-prime mortgage crash [in the global financial crisis] and we lost about £350,000.
Funniest moment … receiving a strongly worded email from the owner of a campsite in Wales, after our summer social, telling us we were never allowed to come back.
Best business tip … Think about what you’re trying to achieve and seek out others who have been on a similar journey. Ask them for advice so that you don’t have to navigate all of the problems by yourself. You will be surprised at what comes back.