We caught up with Alex Packham, Founder & CEO of ContentCal as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. ContentCal is a simple to use, visual tool with custom approvals for content creation and publishing.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Alex: My name is Alex, I am the founder of ContentCal, we are a content marketing SaaS platform that provides tools to combine Trello, GoogleDocs and several other different marketing tools into one place. The purpose is to allow SMEs and enterprise businesses to have everything under one roof, so when it comes to planning, video content and the strategy roadmap, all of the assets you need to collect; whether that be videos, pictures, key creative assets, you can calendarise them, schedule them and publish them to wherever you want them to go. All under one roof. We then provide analytics off the back of that so that you can measure performance. The key thing for us is giving these features and toolsets to as many businesses possible. We want SMEs to be able to use our products to make their lives easier and it is configurable for larger enterprise businesses as well. It’s a big market that we are going for!
In terms of myself, my background was in social media and marketing before I became an entrepreneur. I started in social media and marketing at university and I ran Odeon Cinema’s and NOW TV’s social. So I have been in and around social media and content marketing for around 10 years and I have been an entrepreneur since I was 14, there is definitely a mentality of entrepreneurs and it shows itself when you are very young!
Alex: It’s been great! It’s been a mad journey because the phases of building a start-up are so different, whether on your own or within a founding team. I originally founded ContentCal on my own and one of the first hurdles was validating that the idea could actually become a business. Once you have funding, you have proven that the business should work in theory but then you have to make the business work in reality.
It took us around 2 years to find the product market fit. You get to the point where you are building a company in reality and that holds its own challenges. Everything about a start-up is challenging, we have been through Brexit and now Coronavirus.
I feel like I have aged massively in the last 4 years but the experience I have had and the people I have met are amazing and everything has been worth it! I like to be pushed out of my comfort zone as much as possible and although I don’t want to be in that mode forever, I do like being challenged. Most entrepreneurs thrive on being challenged, and I have certainly had plenty of those over the years.
Alex: In the really early days, it was more about who I could get involved that was able to do the things that I couldn’t. I don’t design or code, so I had to reach out to my network at the right time and finding the right product designer was a real challenge. I had tried to design it 3 or 4 times before and then I was introduced to Lawrence Smith, who is still with us and is now our Design Director. He understood my vision and designed it exactly as I had imagined it.
It’s hard in those early days, you can’t afford recruiter fees, you don’t really know where to start. I was only 24 when I founded the business and you have to go with the flow to a certain extent. My initial method was, who can I find in my network that would be interested in getting involved in a start-up and can do the things I can’t do. Another guy who joined in those early days was Noel, I know nothing about sales, he is an amazing salesperson but was also able to build a team.
Over the years the recruitment process has become more sophisticated but in those early stages, everything is just about building the momentum and getting the business off the ground. We progressed relentlessly in those days, it is much more structured now.
Alex: Being resourceful is a big thing for me, if you ask someone to do something and their initial answer is ‘I don’t know how to do that’, that isn’t helpful. No individual knows everything, but I like the attitude of, ‘I will find a way’. Alongside that, it is really important in a start-up environment to have a good work ethic and to want to have fun along the way.
In those early days hiring was mainly based on an instinctive feeling, but there are negatives to that because you end up hiring people that sometimes work out really well and sometimes you make a hiring mistake by hiring someone who just interviews really well.
We definitely have had experiences like that, when you are in the interview room and you have this strong feeling that they are the right person, but then they don’t work out or they can’t scale up to the next stage of the business, maybe their tolerance for change isn’t as high as others.
To anyone in the early stages, my advice would be to have your entrepreneurial gut feel but layer on another level of more professional rigour around your interview process. Whether that is through tests or bringing other people into the interview process. Make sure that gut feeling is ticked, but then have a really thorough process alongside that. You won’t always get it right, but you will minimise those hiring mistakes.
Alex: I have hired virtually before, so luckily this is not something new for me. You have to be really focused when you do your interviews, look at the person in the eye and pay real attention and minimise distractions. During these 5 virtual hires, I have asked much tougher questions in the first stage, that I would previously have saved for a second interview. By reversing the process and asking the tougher questions first and then building the rapport afterwards, we have found it easier to know if someone is a good fit. We have also been much stricter on collecting references and if the hire has been a strategic role, we have taken longer to make a decision.
Alex: My original business was an agency that morphed into ContentCal over time. Because I had built relationships with Sky and Odeon in those early days of my career, they became my first two clients, so I have always worked with large corporations. The challenge was learning how to sell into smaller organisations. When we initially started selling ContentCal, we were trying to sell it into larger corporations and I realised we were selling through founder relationships, rather than the product.
When we flipped it to SMEs, they wanted to know whether the product solves the problem that they are facing. From there, we had to go on a different journey and I played a very small role in that. We brought someone in called Andy, who is a key player in our founding team and he had SaaS sales experience. He was so important to the business as he is great at selling through demos of our product, which I am terrible at. In the last year, where we have built up the business to a decent size, we have been acquiring corporate clients organically. The big customers want a really robust product, they need it to work, it takes longer to make a decision, whereas for SMEs the process is much shorter. So, it is a completely different sales process compared to larger corporate businesses.
Alex: We just closed funding in February, and we had been planning this strategy day with the team, to showcase the vision for the next 2 years and the night before, I had a call from our VC funders, that there had been a coronavirus case in the office, so we were no longer able to be in the office. That was a bit rubbish, we had some great stuff planned. And then we had to quickly attune our attention to remote working, which didn’t take long practically.
I had never realised how much some people love the office. Being around people and having comradery, is probably the thing that gives them the most energy throughout the working day. On the opposite end, some people have loved working from home.
It’s so interesting, the indexes of the team, lockdown has really showcased that dynamic. So we have created a structure which can support both these types of personalities. Daily optional zoom calls, team events and socials, but we have to be mindful that some people are on zoom calls all day, and sometimes they need time off calls. We have already made the decision as a business not to go back to the old way, there are so many benefits to working flexibly. We will have one set day where everyone will be in the office, but every other day will be flexible and hopefully, this will have a great impact on everyone’s mental health.
Alex: Speak to someone who has done it before! There aren’t many people in the UK that have done B2B SaaS, who are accessible that you can have a coffee with, so I had to navigate the funding rounds myself. I have had mentors over the years who have been fantastic in term of business, but I have never had a close mentor around getting to VC funding. We did a friends and family round, then an accelerator and I spent a lot of time networking. My angel investor mentor really liked ContentCal from the beginning and he helped to make introductions and in the end, he invested himself and is still very involved in the business today. The accelerator was great to get exposure and to really evaluate the business plan. We have so far raised £2.7 million in angel funding, which was over 5 mini rounds. Getting into VC funding is a whole other ball game. I contacted our accelerator contacts who organised a networking breakfast, it was pure chance I sat next to Stan from Fuel Ventures, who have most recently invested. So, my advice for other start-ups would be to set your goals, look at different avenues, introduction, networking events, accelerators etc.
Alex: We are at a stage where things are scalable now, but we need to start scaling different layers. We plan to double our output across all areas of the business, from sales, tech, marketing and we need to do that at a reasonably fast pace. We will try and get all the resources in place, ready for that growth. We will analyse whether we need to do a top up phase. I am already thinking about the next pitch and I hope to give myself a year before the next funding round. We definitely want to do a Series A, but our business ambition is to be the number one content marketing platform for SMEs and we need to deliver on that. We have to piece together the plan to get there knowing the journey is going to be wobbly in reality.
Alex: There is so much! But my advice would be to speak with as many people who have built similar businesses and eventually sold them. Ask loads of questions and have multiple. Don’t just go and read books and blogs, get the real story from speaking to people in person. And then once you have learnt, get into execution mode and get the business off the ground.
Thank you so much for your time today Alex, it has been really insightful to hear about your journey and thank you for all of your advice!