How a Failed Venture Led to the Birth of a Successful Social Media Agency

How a Failed Venture Led to the Birth of a Successful Social Media Agency

One of the themes we see over and over again from the entrepreneurs featured at Founder Reports is the importance of acting quickly and getting your product or service to the market even if it’s not perfect.

Phil Treagus-Evans and Kane Lodge have an interesting story because they spent a year (and a lot of money) planning their first business, a social network. Then, they went from idea to implementation with a service-based business, Giraffe Social, in a single day. In this interview, Phil shares how quick action helped them succeed with Giraffe Social, while the much more planned out social network flopped.

Phil also shares openly about his struggles with mental health, specifically anxiety. This issue impacts many entrepreneurs, and Phil has some excellent advice while sharing what’s worked for him.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • Giraffe Social started as a simple service-based MVP (minimum viable product) and grew.
  • Phil emphasizes the speed of implementation and not missing out on opportunities.
  • Starting with local clients allowed them to get very familiar with the clients’ needs.
  • Phil struggles with anxiety and started a company-wide mental health initiative.
  • Phil warns against the dangers of hustle culture and its impact on mental health.

Overview

Business Name: Giraffe Social
Website URL: https://www.giraffesocialmedia.co.uk
Founders: Philip Treagus-Evans & Kane Lodge
Business Location: Portsmouth, UK
Year Started: 2012
Number of Employees/Contractors/Freelancers: 14

Tell us about yourself and your business.

Growing up, I quickly realised a passion for entrepreneurship. Whilst there were many ‘ventures’ we could discuss in my childhood, I started my first ‘proper’ business at the age of 21. My close friend (and now, business partner) and I decided we’d like to start a business together. With an act of naivety only possible at the age of 21, we attempted to launch our own social network. Go big or go home, I guess.

To market this business, we used exclusively social media. This was partly due to a natural flair for it, and partly because we’d spent all of our money on what was a rather complicated website build. Through this process, we discovered our ability with social media marketing and began offering it to friends’ bands and family businesses. We decided to start a ‘safe’ business, which was a social media agency we called Giraffe Social.

Giraffe is a specialist social media agency that provides social media marketing services to ambitious brands around the world. Unlike its predecessor, the social network, Giraffe will be celebrating its 12th birthday this summer. 

Giraffe Social Website

What was your inspiration for starting Giraffe Social?

We started Giraffe as a safer plan B. We often joke that we spent a year planning our first business, whereas we started Giraffe in an afternoon. One of these businesses is still going!

Without meaning to, we created a minimum viable product by quickly launching a service to support friends and family. Success with these smaller projects provided us the confidence to pursue local businesses that weren’t capitalising on the potential social media marketing provided them. Success with these local businesses led to working with larger brands, and so on.

How and when did you launch the business?

We came up with the idea for a social media marketing agency in the morning in the summer of 2012, and by the end of the day – we had a brand name and a website live. Albeit an extremely basic brand and website.

We have a phrase we say a lot, which is ‘speed of implementation’. Taking too long to deliberate and perfect things can often lead to missing the opportunity all together. The sooner it launches, the sooner you can see the issues and fix them.

Phil Treagus-Evans
Photo courtesy of Phil Treagus-Evans

How did you find your first few clients or customers?

Excluding friends and family, we got our first clients by adopting a marketing strategy that started locally. As a brand new agency, we knew attracting larger more established brands would be challenging, if not impossible.

Instead, we focused our SEO and social media marketing on our local area in Portsmouth. This allowed us to get out and sit in front of small business owners and learn of their struggles and goals – giving us a much better idea of our customer needs.

Our first few clients were small local businesses that included a lovely cafe, an independent driving school, and a talented local writer and photographer who made travel books. To this day, I am eternally grateful to those small businesses that took a chance on us, as they allowed us to continue playing this game of business.

Tell us about your first year in business.

I can’t remember the exact timeline for beginning to make money, but I do remember the day we decided to quit our full-time jobs to give this a fair chance. I believe we may have had one or two clients, barely paying enough between them to even cover a day’s salary in our existing job. Walking back to my business partner’s car, we were both excited and scared. We now had to make this work.

In the early years of a self-funded startup, a typical working week would be anywhere between 60 – 80 hours. If in those nascent steps, you aren’t so excited that you barely notice the ridiculous hours you’re putting in – it might be time to think about a different career path.

What strategies did you use to grow Giraffe Social?

We were focusing a lot of our time on building our blog content to support our SEO strategy (calling it a strategy at these stages, may be generous), and growing our social media presence. We talked about building a foundation for the business that we could grow from.

At the time, Google was rewarding websites heavily for frequent posting of blog posts, so we were developing systems to try and grow our blog content as quickly as possible. To this day, those early efforts pay off – with our website consistently ranking highly for our key search terms.

Tell us about your team.

We have grown an amazing team of 14 people, all full-time other than one person. Whilst we had our own office for the longest time, we decided to go fully remote in the summer of 2019. We had been experimenting with remote working for a while, and with our lease up on our office – it felt like the right time to take the plunge.

Coincidentally, six months later – the world went ‘fully remote’ due to a global pandemic. We were fully geared up for remote working at this time, so we felt very lucky.

We still have an office in Portsmouth and we meet as a whole team twice a month. We use this time to develop our skills, collaborate creatively, and strengthen team bonds.

The Giraffe Social team
Photo courtesy of Phil Treagus-Evans

Can you tell us about your experience with depression and anxiety?

My experience of anxiety began in the car, on my drive to work. I would find myself getting panicky without any real reason to be. I’d find myself having to pull over to try and calm myself down. I wasn’t really sure what was going on, and only really discussed these feelings with my wife.

Several months later, I was standing up delivering a training session to our whole team when I felt my heart begin to pound in my chest. I suddenly felt like I was going to pass out. I excused myself in the middle of a session and retreated outside to get some air. Whilst I wasn’t sure what was happening at the time, I can now see that I was experiencing my first panic attack.

I phoned my wife that day and admitted to her and to myself that I needed to speak to someone. I was suffering from anxiety and didn’t have a clue what was causing it, or how to manage it. I needed help.

Whilst I am by no means completely clear of mental health issues these days, I now have a much better understanding of what it is and how it feels, and have techniques in place to help me manage it effectively.

What has helped with improving your mental health?

The biggest thing that has helped is talking about it. Over the years I have had a few rounds of therapy and am on medication to help me manage my anxiety. Both have been extremely effective.

A big turning point for me was sharing my story openly and honestly with my team. As part of a new mental health initiative we launched, I felt it was appropriate to demonstrate an openness about my own mental health struggles to help remove any stigma.

It was an extremely difficult and emotional meeting, and tears were shed. However, I have found that being around people who know about your mental health challenges actually makes me feel less anxious. 

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs and business owners who are struggling with mental health issues?

My advice to entrepreneurs is three-fold:

Firstly, be open and communicate how you’re feeling. I spent a long time hiding what I was feeling because I had convinced myself that as an entrepreneur and business owner, I had to never show weakness to my team, clients, and business partner.

The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Nothing shows strength like demonstrating vulnerability and confidently discussing your own challenges. You don’t know, there may be someone in your team feeling the same things, who finds so much strength in learning of your struggles.

Secondly, don’t get trapped in the toxic ‘hustle’ culture that permeates our profession. Does working hard increase your chance of success? Yes, of course it does. But does working so hard that you damage your own health, relationships, and happiness help? No.

Try to understand your own boundaries. As entrepreneurs, we know that we’re all secret workaholics who actually get a buzz from the long hours. My motto is if you find yourself working evenings and weekends because you feel you NEED to, you need to stop. Work outside of typical working hours should be because you WANT to, try to find the distinction.

Lastly, build yourself a ‘toolbox’ of things that help you unwind. Owning and running a business is incredibly stressful; on top of the world one minute, the world ending the next. Try to find a few activities or hobbies that allow you to ‘get into the zone’ and not think about work. For me, this has been building LEGO, doing jigsaws, and playing video games. Find what works for you, and use it when you find yourself feeling overwhelmed.

Of course, it goes without saying – but seek help when you need it. If you’re struggling with your mental health, speak to a professional.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned growing the business?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned (and am still learning!) is to be open. I spent the longest time viewing business like a sport, where for us to win – someone else had to lose. The moment I stopped thinking that way and began building relationships with other business owners, including competitors, I was able to see more opportunities to grow Giraffe.

My wife is a renowned luxury destination wedding photographer and she used to say the phrase ‘community over competition’, which I love. She’s always right, but just don’t tell her I said that.

Giraffe Social team members working
Photo courtesy of Phil Treagus-Evans

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as an entrepreneur is definitely my own mental health. Balancing my burning desire to work hard and grow my business, with the needs of my health has and will likely always be a challenge for me.

In many ways, I have to overcome this challenge every single week. It may look like taking a day off to be with my family, it may be finishing at 17:30 and closing my laptop, or it could be speaking openly and honestly with my business partner. 

What is your favorite quote?

My favourite quote is “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” For the longest time, I believed this was a quote by Aristotle, but apparently, it isn’t!

If you had to start from scratch, where would you begin?

At the kitchen table, with an A3 pad, some pens, and a big cup of coffee.

What are some of your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels?

Books have played a big part in my entrepreneurial journey. As a teenager, I read the classics:

These books began an addiction to reading non-fiction to learn and develop my skills as an entrepreneur.

These days I find myself reading more on topics like psychology, history, philosophy, and technology.

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