Episode #4 - Ashley Wheeler

The making of a performance growth agency

Nic sits down with Ashley, co-founder and CEO of HdE: A Bristol-based performance growth agency for the tech and digital sector. They discuss what “performance growth” actually means for businesses and why Bristol has been such a great place to set up an agency. 

Ash shares his top tips on how early-stage businesses can attain performance growth by paying close attention to processes and data. They discuss marketing strategies for early-stage companies to attract their first followers and customers, and which marketing channels work best for B2B companies. 

Nic and Ash talk about Ash’s role at TechSPARK as partnership director, and how this role has allowed him to understand the tech cluster in Bristol. They also touch upon his career within the BBC and what drew him towards working for himself and setting up HdE.

Finally, Nic and Ash speak about having a co-founder and board meetings, underlining the importance of seeking accountability from others…

Read the transcript

Nic:
Hi and welcome to the Tough Cookies podcast, where we interview individuals who build, scale and support startups in the Southwest. Today with me is Ashley Wheeler, cofounder at HdE. So Ash Wheeler, thank you very much. I wanted to talk to you today about you specifically and HdE. I know that you’re involved in a lot of different things that we’re probably going to talk about today.

Ash:
Sure, yeah.

Nic:
Can you tell us a bit more about you yourself and HdE, basically?

Ash:
Yeah, of course, of course. So I’m Ashley, I’m the CEO cofounder of HdE. We are a performance growth agency for tech and digital businesses here in the West of England.

Nic:
So that’s specifically for tech industry?

Ash:
Absolutely, yeah. It was one of the things that when we were looking at opportunities, I come from a sales and marketing agency background. Just on the sheer amount of amazing companies that are here and the amount of innovation that’s going on here, and the amount of companies that are striving to do brilliant things. It just seemed like an untapped territory for somebody of my skills, and the team’s skills, to move into.

Nic:
So obviously, growth can be applied and can be done in various ways. What’s your sweet spot? Is there anything that you’re particularly good at?

Ash:
Yes. When we say performance growth, it’s one of those ambiguous terms that can mean anything. But what we focus on are acquisition, sales, marketing and performance driven activity that’s actually going to drive the bottom lines for businesses. So that’s potentially building out processes, both in the front and back end, that’s going to deliver performance growth for a tech company. And that’s sometimes the missing link for a lot of the, especially start and scale businesses that are here, really good at developing product, really good at developing technologies and doing awesome things. But the knowledge and the skill set when it comes to actually taking a product to market and actually commercializing that product, is something that we’ve seen that lacks. And that’s the niche that we fill.

Nic:
And why Bristol specifically? Is it just you were living there or was there a reason to come to Bristol?

Ash:
Well Bristol’s home, Bristol’s always been home. We’ve done the London thing, as everyone else does, but came back with tail betwixt leg. But no, Bristol’s home. And in terms of the fit for us, obviously looking to work with attractive early stage tech companies. Bristol is an absolute hub, it’s the fastest growing, most productive tech hub within Europe. So those factors, this is home and this is a great opportunity for us.

Nic:
So obviously new year, new decade, where do you see Bristol going in the next, let’s say five years? It’s typically 10 years, but let’s say five years, where do you see Bristol going?

Ash:
I think the next five years are going to be really, really interesting for the city, and for the businesses and founders alike that are within it. I think we’ve seen over the last decade, the amount of growth that is coming into the area, the amount of investment that is coming to the area, is significantly more than it was 10 years ago. But also the infrastructures that have been put in place, places like the Engine Shed has really laid the foundations six years ago for businesses to accelerate rapidly. And it’s become an anchor and an interest from cities like London and investors in London coming to the city.

Ash:
So for me, that’s only going to be accelerated over the next couple of years. It’s going to be a great opportunity for the founders and for the companies that are here. So yeah, I think we’re going to see more of the same, but I think we’re going to see bigger organizations happening here. We’ve seen unicorns popping up here and pre-unicorn status has been applied to quite a lot of businesses. But there’s a lot of opportunity. There’s a lot of talent here. So I can see that pushing on quite considerably over the next couple of years.

Nic:
Do you work with any unicorns just yet?

Ash:
No, not yet.

Nic:
Not yet.

Ash:
Not yet. We’ve got a few on our radar. We’ve been quite strategic in our approach to growing our business at HdE, not running before you can walk. And we’ve purposely gone after some of the early stage ones to apply our methodology and our strategies around performance growth. Making sure it works and then scaling up those operations. Because, the bigger accounts you take on, or the bigger clients you take on, the more manpower that you’re going to need behind the scenes. Which, as a business owner, costs money. So we’ve been cutting our teeth for the last few months, but we are moving quite swiftly into those realms.

Nic:
How big is the team?

Ash:
So we’ve got a team six all together. So it’s not huge, but from our point of view, it’s been awesome. We started with nothing, started with me designing our logo on Canva and just registering at Companies House. And actually, it’s grown into something tangible that people are recognizing and respecting as well. And we’re delivering real value for our clients. So for me personally, that’s a great thing.

Nic:
Any particular stories behind the HdE name?

Ash:
I was hoping you were going to ask me that. It’s totally made up, if I’m honest. It’s totally made up. So the origins of the story is, my sister lived in Germany for five, six years. And I went over there a few times and completely mine swept with the whole German ideology, efficiencies and service and things like that. So it’s actually HdE stands for House of Exile in German. It was meant to be a rebellious culture, we do things differently, all that kind of stuff.

But then I swiftly realized that people pronounce the name differently as well here. So they’re like, what’s the [foreign language 00:06:22] and I was like, “Shit.” So we’ve dropped that and it’s HdE. It’s always good when there’s a funny origin story behind the name. Ours isn’t the greatest, there’s nothing amazing behind it. It was a stupid name. But actually it’s now become part of our identity and part of our brand and the HdE brand, we think, is quite strong. So we’re quite proud of it.

Nic:
I’ve been glued to a Cookie’s name for the past ten years. It can’t be more stupid as it goes as a company name than Cookies, really. I mean, growth tech, what I’m going to try to do with this Tough Cookies series is to bring the value to the people. So today, if I was a early stage founder, probably working on my own app, like one, two people, one co-founder and I’m talking to you and I’ve got an hour of your time for free. What’d you tell me today?

Ash:
God, there’s a million and one things which I could tell you to do. If we’ve only got an hour, we’ll have to keep it short and sweet. I think of the main things and the main talking points when we go into to small businesses and an early stage organizations is, just building an awareness around processes. I’m very process driven and quite methodical in our approach. And sales, and especially marketing, less so marketing but sales specifically is seen as quite a chaotic sometimes process.

Ash:
But, in the methodology and strategies that we use with our organizations that we work with, is a thoughtful process. And there’s a a very reactive based process within that. Developing out funnels and processes, and both on the front end in terms of how the customer, or how the potential business is going to engage with you. But also in the backend as well, in terms of how you use that data. And building out those processes early stage. So you’ve got the foundation then to scale as things go well. And you bring in more customers on and more people interest in your business.

Ash:
Developing those processes early doors is perhaps the first thing that you should be thinking about when you’re looking to either take a product to market, or start getting out there. Simple things, we have a vlog that you’ve seen. Instead of just putting that up, there’s a subscription process where you can subscribe and we send weekly newsletters, et cetera, et cetera. Within the back end of that, that’s not just us hitting a link and off it goes and you’re on, there’s a backend CRM process. So, we monitor all the engagement, we understand the companies and the individuals that are engaging with us, which then plays out into our sales strategy.

Ash:
So we can understand who’s looking at us, who’s potentially interested in us, and we can develop a funnel methodology around that as well. So yeah, processes is definitely one of the things I’d say if we only had an hour together and you were starting out. Not that I need to tell you how to bloody do it. But yeah, that’s the one thing I’d say, lock on early doors. Because, once you’ve got it, it becomes part of your work flows and it becomes part of the process.

Nic:
Ingrain the process to get as much data as possible from the audience that’s consuming or interested in your content, app.

Ash:
Yeah, yeah. I mean the data is totally useless if you don’t know what to do with it. Totally. And there’s probably a million and one processes I probably should put into HdE, for example. But, we don’t need that yet. So, the early stage stuff is, I’d say, fairly linear in terms of what you need to be doing. Just understanding how people are engaging with you and what that means in terms of what I can do with it.

Ash:
If companies are looking at me and observing and regularly tuning into a vlog or to your article or to content you’re putting out there, understanding how that applies into a sales strategy or sales picture. I think is a really, really important thing.

Nic:
But in order to get this data, in order to start to get people looking at your things, you need to cut through the myriad of other content that is out there and it’s always fighting for attention. How do you elevate yourself on top so people actually start to consume your content? And therefore once they have seen you once or twice, if they think the content is good, they may actually subscribe and come back. But how do you get that first engagement that they actually see you? Do you have any tips on that?

Ash:
Yeah, definitely. And by no means I’m not like a Gary Vaynerchuk. I’m not pumping out millions of views or stuff that we do. Our sales pitch and our customer base are very much centered in the West of England, predominantly in Bristol. They’re our targets. So that’s the companies we look to go to. So we’re not talking millions, by any stretch. I think there’s, there’s a couple of things. Authenticity is definitely one of them. So in terms of our position with the vlog and how we try to portray it, or hopefully how we portray it, it’s very much coming on a journey with us. We’re just starting out, pretty much. We’re only one year in March, April time. So it’s all about we’re trying to bring them onto the journey in terms of the struggles and challenges, the ups and downs. And come along on that journey with us. Hopefully be supportive, but just seeing how things are progressing. There’s a nice narrative there as well. So, building in that authenticity, I think it’s really important. Definitely.

And I suppose the second thing is, a bit like what you’re trying to do with Cookies and the block here, is around the value stuff. The channels, we’re putting it out via Twitter and via LinkedIn. Our audience is very much B2B. LinkedIn, they’re predominantly using during office hours. So their time is really, really valuable. So we have to use that and give them back something that we think is going to be valuable, we think has some sort of impact or something that can take away.

So yeah, authenticity and just having some value and giving something back sounds a bit fluffy and all the rest of it. But, just things that you’ve learned, or people you’re engaging with. And learning from them and sharing those thoughts and those learning points. I think it’s a really, really good mix.

Nic:
That’s something we try to teach to all the developers that join us, is trying to… There’s no lost content, you can write an article that may sound very simple, but somebody else will need it. And somebody else will find it, and when they find it they’re really glad that you solved that problem for them. And it’s become, for the past eight years, our blog is prominently our main lead generation tool, basically. All our technical articles are the ones that sell the company. So, it works. It’s just it has to be applied into a large chunk and a large audience. So am I right, you’ve got HdE but you also split your time with TechSPARK, is that still the case?

Ash:
Yeah, yeah.

Nic:
So what do you do?

Ash:
I am the director of partnerships within TechSPARK. And I worked with them for quite a few years now, both in an official and nonofficial capacity. But effectively what I’m brought in to do there is to basically keep the lights on in terms of commercializing some of the outlets that they have. They do some amazing work, it’s a non for profit organization. It’s only as good as the support that they can get from within the cluster, both in terms of manpower and in terms of commercials as well.

So, my role there is strategizing with the team, developing a go to market strategy, commercializing the products and ensuring that we have the income to allow us to go in and deliver the programs we want to. So the Spark School, the SHIFT Program, all these really awesome programs that making a real difference and impact. And also the events and things as well, it’s actually pulling all that that together, commercializing that so we can go and do some awesome stuff that we do every year.

Nic:
Sounds stressful.

Ash:
Sometimes, don’t get me wrong. Especially when you start talking about money, it can be stressful. But no, working with and for TechSPARK’s just being like the greatest thing, it really has. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things. It’s allowed me to get close to a market and really understand some of the challenges that they’re having. So for me personally, it’s been awesome. But it’s really put me in a position of privilege, in terms of understanding what’s going on and the lay of the land, and how things work. I think that’s one of the complicated things for say startups and scale-ups, either starting in the city or moving into the city and into the region, there’s a lot of moving parts.

There’s a lot of great people and a lot of great support and networks and associations and organizations. But understanding and getting your head around it, that’s really pretty difficult. We’ve had big organizations looking at Bristol for the last few years, and through working with TechSPARK, we’ve been helping them trying to land in Bristol and relocate to Bristol. And they’re just completely overwhelmed at how it all works and operates and things. So it’s been great. Yeah, it’s really been really good.

Nic:
We have a startup guide on our websites and if you go to our websites, there’s a resource section. And there’s a startup guide and I list every organizations that do good and great things for startups in Bristol. And that at list is huge.

Ash:
Yeah.

Nic:
There’s so many people trying to do well. Most of them are genuinely just non-paid help.

Ash:
Yeah, exactly.

Nic:
But the amounts, and it’s vast, the sheer amounts of support you can find is great. But you need to know where to find them.

Ash:
Correct.

Nic:
So that’s why we tried to curate it and keep it up to date. And then sometimes people send us saying, “Can we be added there?” Can we drop that one down because that one doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been replaced by a new program. But keeping on top of it is like… It’s not a full time job but-

Ash:
It could be. Yeah, it definitely could be. Yeah, absolutely. It is quite, I wouldn’t say overwhelming because I’ve got my head around it now over the last few years. But, I can empathize with someone coming into the cluster and into the city region. Just the sheer amount support that is there is mind bending. There’s so much stuff that you can do. There’s so much in terms of access to grants and funding, and support as well. So many different places where you could look. And I’m not saying I know all of them, and I definitely don’t, there’s probably loads out there that I have no awareness of. But there is a lot, there’s an awful lot. And that can be quite daunting, I think. Which is why organizations like TechSPARK are so important. Because, it is an aggregator, it’s an anchor for all that kind of stuff, which hopefully makes it better to service the cluster.

Nic:
So early on you said that you’ve done the London thing, was that a long time ago, this London thing?

Ash:
God yeah, well it feels like a long time ago. I was previously working for the BBC, so my job there was going into big publishing agencies and big creative agencies like your OMDs and your Mediacoms and GroupMs, et cetera. And working with their media planners and buyers and developing out campaigns. And then hopefully bring back a big bag of cash to BBC Bristol, to deliver those. So yeah, I did that for about three years. I just heard it go off.

Nic:
Yeah, I think we’re going to be losing the battery again. Let’s continue, we’ll see.

Ash:
That’s all right. So yeah, on paper it wasn’t that long ago. But, it feels like an absolute lifetime. But again, it was a really good way… Jobs like that and going into like big organizations and big agencies when I was quite young, really, really helped cut my teeth and learn some really good personal skills. That was really important. Just silly stuff like how to operate within a big organization with multiple decision makers. And the process that those individuals have to go through in order to get sign off. And just that awareness of how big organizations actually work and operate. That was a really cool lesson for me to learn.

Nic:
Right. So Ashley, nine year old, what do you wanted to do?

Ash:
Ashley as a nine year old wanted not to be who I am right now, to be honest. I wanted to be a fireman, an astronaut. A bit cliche, but that’s…

Nic:
That’s very cliche. But yeah, I could picture yourself as an astronaut.

Ash:
I know. I think I could imagine myself in the suit and looking down on the world. But yeah, I wanted to be an astronaut more than anything. But then I couldn’t go that high so I thought I’d be a fireman because they still go high, right?

Nic:
And when did the whole, “I want to do sales,” came up? Were you a very entrepreneurial kid?

Ash:
I was. Yeah, I was quite an entrepreneurial spirited kid. I would always like doing things my own way and I always wanted to own a business. But it’s weird how things work out. I’ve always worked for somebody else, pretty much. I’ve worked for startups and the rest of it, and helped form companies and bring them to heights and all that kind of stuff. But, I’ve never actually worked myself until HdE. So it’s always been an aspiration of mine to actually own your own business. It’s not just about the merits of owning a business, but it’s actually doing stuff for yourself. And it really changes your outlook, in terms of your day to day. You go to work when you work with somebody and you do your output and you go home. When I go home, I’ve done my work, done my nine, 10 hours in the day. I go home and all I’m thinking about is work, to be honest.

All I’m thinking about is work, wages, paying people’s salaries, making sure that we’ve got enough coming in to go to the next level. We’ve talked about lead generation for leads, inbounds. Making sure we’ve got inquiries coming in, and that we’re reacting quick enough to them and being smart about how we work and how we handle ourselves in the market. So yeah, spinning many plates and juggling many things.

Nic:
Is your partner entrepreneurial spirit as well or does he understand that? Does he share the load with you?

Ash:
Yeah, 100%. I think that that was one of the things, we’ve been friends for many, many years, me and Del. Socially and the rest of it. He used to run a creative agency as well, so he’s got experience of running businesses and all that kind of stuff. But I think it’s really, really important that if you have a cofounder or you work closely with people within your business, either at the board level or even just on like a day to day basis, is how you get on with them. If they’re there driving you and pushing you on. And that accountability thing as well that I’ve spoken about loads, that accountability is something that I really thrive on.

Nic:
I think that’s what a lot of early-on businesses do miss. And we’ve seen dramatical changes in Cookies when we started to have a board. And it felt almost like a joke at the beginning, “Oh, we’ll have a board meeting every month.” Kind of thing. And as soon as you have this accountability, yeah that tremendously helped.

Ash:
It really puts a rocket up your bum, doesn’t it? To go and get stuff done.

Nic:
For me it’s more the, on a personal level for me it’s more the, I would hate to go into a room and say that last month that was meant to do ABC and actually haven’t done anything. So, it’s just the ego trip for me to get into action.

Ash:
But also the impact on the team though, if you don’t do your bit. And you’ve got all these different moving parts around you and you’ve got other team members going in doing their bit as well. One, it doesn’t set a great example. But two, it actually might hold up to the detriment of the organization, or the business actually kicking on or doing something. Be it within a campaign or actually within the business itself. So yeah.

Nic:
Cool. So I guess if anybody wants to learn more about you, they’re probably going to see you around at the Engine Shed or one of the various events that TechSPARK hosts. But if they want find more about you or HdE, where do we direct them?

Ash:
Yeah, sure. So it’s @growwithhde, we’re on Instagram. LinkedIn preferably, because you can see all our updates and our content that we’re putting out there on our weekly dash vlog, which is kind of following our journey. But yeah, Twitter @growwithhde and it’s @asleywheeleruk, so go check me out.

Nic:
Cool. Well thanks a lot.

Ash:
No worries, Nic. Speak to you very soon, thanks for having me.

Nic:
Yep. Bye-bye.

Speaker 3:
This podcast was brought to you by Cookies HQ, a Bristol-based software agency who builds apps and websites for early-stage founders and growing startups. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, you can drop us a message @thecookieshq on twitter or head to www.cookieshq.co.uk/podcast for more episodes.

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