In 2002, Neil Robbins started N21 Group, which is the parent company of his agencies, including the “affiliate marketing agency” called Silverbean.
Since then, Neil Robbins has grown Silverbean into a “global leader in the affiliate and partnership marketing space, with offices in the UK, US and Australia.”
Neil Robbins also “values a positive culture where people are supported and helped to grow with the company.”
According to Neil Robbins, his brands stand out because of their people. He says that the people are “forward thinking,” and “they lead our clients in new directions.”
Likewise, Neil Robbins says that their people “combine this with the utmost care for delivering the client experience I want.”
According to Neil Robbins, this is “truly a unique combination in our market.”
Additionally, Neil Robbins says that “the best thing a founder can have is a mentor,” or “someone who has been there and done it,” or “someone who can help you shorten your decision making process.”
Neil Robbins also believes that “consistently working long hours is counter productive.” Business leaders also need “time to reflect, time to think,” because that’s “when you can make the right decisions.”
As a leader, Neil Robbins wants leaders to “genuinely take stock of the hours you work,” and “delegate or stop doing the tasks that are not moving your business forward.”
Aside from our brand positioning, the real areas we stand out with are our people. Neil Robbins, Silverbean
Jerome Knyszewski: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Neil Robbins: We are just embarking on the next stage of our growth journey.
One of my strategies for this was to break the company up into three brands, and operate them as individual business units under the umbrella for the holding company, N21 Group.
I’ve done this to give each area of the business a better opportunity to stand out as specialist agencies in their own respective disciplines.
I started that process in 2019 with one of our agencies, Silverbean, and it has really paid off for us because we have attracted more and more high value clients that only need the expertise that particular agency of ours offers.
Aside from our brand positioning, the real areas we stand out with are our people.
They are forward thinking, they lead our clients in new directions, but combine this with the utmost care for delivering the client experience I want.
I have found that it is truly a unique combination in our market.
Jerome Knyszewski: Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Neil Robbins: I find that most founders that are driven to grow their business are in danger of burn out at some stage.
I’ve been there myself and, through experience, I’ve learned when to slow down or re-evaluate what I am doing to get the right controls around it.
The best thing a founder can have is a mentor, someone who has been there and done it, someone who can help you shorten your decision making process, who can guide you through some of the trickier times all of which helps reduce stress — which is often the biggest driver of burn out.
I learnt pretty quickly that consistently working long hours is counter productive. As a business leader you need time to reflect, time to think.
That’s when you can make the right decisions.
So, my advice is genuinely to take stock of the hours you work, delegate or stop doing the tasks that are not moving your business forward, and use that time to consider the decisions that will make a difference to your business.
Jerome Knyszewski: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Neil Robbins: It’s true no one can build a great business on their own.
I’ve found the combination of some brilliant wisdom from people outside of the business coupled with some great people inside the business is what is needed to be successful.
I’m definitely grateful to the guy that gave me my first contract, without that my life as a business owner wouldn’t have started so early, and maybe not at all.
He took a risk on me and it paid off for us both at the time.
I’m grateful to my wife for her never-ending support.
And the fact that she walked into my office after the first 6 months, saw the amount of admin work that wasn’t getting attended to (most of it!) and jumped in and helped.
She then stayed until our first child was born.
One of my team has been with the business almost from the start and she has built a great service and a great team, so much so it allowed me to focus on other opportunities with varying degrees of success — which as a business leader you need to be able to do.
And of course, I am grateful for everyone one of my people in the company right now who turn up each day and do their very best for our clients and the business.
Without them I would not be able to try and build a great business across three continents.
Jerome Knyszewski: Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Neil Robbins: For me, a good company is one that has a quality product that they deliver to the market in an efficient and profitable way, demonstrating consistency in their growth.
And of course, there are many businesses like this.
I would define a great company as a company that does this, but is committed to its people’s well-being and personal growth, consistently achieves above industry averages in positive customer feedback and retention and ultimately takes responsibility to help its community and causes.
Jerome Knyszewski: What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Neil Robbins: Business growth is never linear, despite the fact that all of us business leaders would love it to be!
I started my business in 2002 and have experienced stagnating growth on a few occasions.
Each time that has happened to me, I have taken a big step back and analysed the major factors, and they have been different at each growth stage.
I think the first lesson I learned was to find time to work on the business and not in it.
Only then can you proactively identify the blockers to growth so you can reduce the chances of needing to find solutions to kick start growth once more.
Experience really does count with growth too.
I’ve needed access to different advice and experience as my business has grown, and I think for any business leader this is invaluable.
When a business starts to see a slowing down in its growth, bringing in an experienced consultant or adviser can really make all the difference.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Neil Robbins: I’ve implemented three strategies in the past two years that have been key drivers in our growth, even through 2020 when the COVID pandemic was in full swing.
First of all I made sure we understood from our clients what type of experience they wanted from us, and then implemented a plan to deliver that.
Since then our client retention has never been stronger.
I then narrowed down our focus, invested more to hire more experienced sales talent than we had before and implemented a defined sales process using an outside consultant.
This doubled our new client win rates, and increased the average value of a new client.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Neil Robbins: The aspect of running a business that I have underestimated, and to an extent still do, is how much time you should spend communicating and talking to your people.
It is so easy to focus on strategy and growth, and of course handling the myriad of challenges that come your way.
Taking time to connect with your people, especially when you are growing and hiring new people can be forgotten.
It’s an area I really fall short on right now, and will be making this a key priority to get right in the coming months.
Experience really does count with growth too.
Jerome Knyszewski: Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Neil Robbins: For me there is only one way to deliver a wow customer service: fully understand what the customer values.
As a business leader, once you are armed with the right insights from your customers then you can start to challenge your teams to work out how to deliver against these needs.
But customer expectations change, often fuelled by their experiences in sectors that don’t relate to your business. Look at Amazon, who have re-imagined how to deliver convenience to customers.
The challenge for all of us business leaders is that our customers will likely be customers of Amazon in some form.
And, in time, they begin to expect that immediacy with all of their professional and personal transactions.
The key for me though is to speak to customers regularly, speak to them directly as a business leader too.
Find out what they want, what they truly value and go all-out to provide this for them.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Neil Robbins: I do understand why business leaders are fearful of social media and the risk it poses to the reputation of the business.
But, we can’t control the social media conversations, we can only join them.
It is far riskier not to have a proactive strategy for social media engagement than to pretend it’s not happening!
Business leaders need to employ the right knowledge in this area, whether that be hiring an employee to look after this or an outside consultant who can help create the right frameworks and internal guidelines for employees’ social media usage.
Business leaders need to ensure they have a social media crisis management plan in place should the very worst happen.
In the past, a negative brand conversation on social media could last days, it seems to last hours now.
But normally, when the brand engages with the story, is transparent and actively seeks to take it offline, it can turn a bad conversation into a great one.
Jerome Knyszewski: What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Neil Robbins: All of us business founders are making mistakes all of the time.
There is no rule book out there that tells you what to do all of the time! If it was easy, more people would be doing it.
If I look at some of my peers who have launched new businesses in recent times and I check that with my own experience in the first three years or so,
I think these three mistakes are common:
The founder doesn’t raise enough money at the outset to go big, fast.
This means they can’t hire the experience they need, they can’t promote the business at the scale they need to, they have to compromise on where to invest.
I’ve never run a business that has taken investment so I couldn’t advise on what founders should do differently other than get someone on their board early who has been there before, leant the lessons and can help the founder raise the right level of capital.
Another mistake is looking for a silver bullet, the one big thing that will accelerate growth.
Of course there are stories of businesses that have just taken off, sometimes on the back of a moment, but these are few and far between.
Growth is hard work, you need clear direction, good people and an appetite to take some risks to grow.
There is rarely one big-ticket play you can make, it’s doing a number of things well, consistently.
The final mistake is one that is more personal to my experience and that is hiring big earlier on.
I have a great leadership team in my business now, but too often in the past I tried to create leaders rather than hire them in.
I think it should be a balance of supporting people to grow into leaders, and bringing in that experience from the outside.
Business leaders need to ensure they have a social media crisis management plan in place should the very worst happen. Neil Robbins
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Neil Robbins: This is a huge question! I think change starts with children.
If I was to start a movement I think it would focus on helping children find a way out of poverty or the circumstances that can hold them back.
My business works with a few charities and one of them is local to our UK headquarters — they do some incredible work with local families to break the cycle of poverty.
I’d love to start a movement that could do this on a huge scale.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!