The founders' story: 10 lessons from 10 years at Croud
A view from Luke Smith

The founders' story: 10 lessons from 10 years at Croud

Luke Smith reflects on how he and his co-founder Ben Knight turned their start-up into one of the UK's biggest performance marketing agencies and what's next.

Back in 2010, Ben Knight and I sat opposite each other at the Boisdale of Victoria (anyone else remember?), and came up with a concept for a new type of digital agency that we launched at the start of 2011.

It was only in our wildest dreams that ten years later, we would be heading up Croud, a global digital agency, made up of 250 internal staff and over 2,500+ Croudies based around the globe, with a £30m turnover. 

I wanted to celebrate this milestone and share a few reflections, tips and lessons we have learnt over the first 10 years. (Without overly congratulating ourselves, because there’s still so much to do):

1. Have a plan, be differentiated

Croud’s core mission to disrupt the agency model is unchanging. The combination of the best in-house talent and our Croudie network, underpinned by our proprietary technology, Croud Control, was the same on day one as it is today. That’s not to say the plan hasn’t evolved. We pivoted away from working with SMBs and evolved our proposition from PPC and some SEO to the full-service digital agency we are today. 

It’s important to have a vision and goals, even if you are six people working out of an attic office (see picture). 

2. Hard work, hustle and luck

The three are linked. In the early days you have to roll up your sleeves and do literally everything. Including the bins. 

I spent three months living in Liverpool running an SMB roadshow for Google, in year one. I did door visits to trading estates in the Wirral to secure a £200-per-month contract from Merseyside's leading Holy Communion dress manufacturer (NB: don’t rock up to a café on a trading estate in a suit in Liverpool). 

Hustle remains a popular word at Croud; when things are slow we knuckle down and get out there, and every time we do things happen. And the luck follows. 

3. Build a cohesive team  

It may sound a cliche but I read all of Alex Ferguson’s books and papers on team building at Manchester United and learnt there’s a skill to putting the right people together in a way that works best for your goals, including having an eye on the future and where people are headed. Is there an SEO person that can evolve into a commercial role? My philosophy is always to develop from within. You don’t always need big-money signings. 

But you aren’t Alex Ferguson, really. Sometimes you have to accept that when hiring someone, if you hear they are a toxic influence who will cause divisions, then they probably are (no matter how much you think you can “sort them out”). I have learnt to have more diligence in senior hiring - don’t get star struck by a “name”, run a proper objective process. 

4. Make that team shareholders in the business – and be generous 

It seemed obvious when launching Croud that we should make everyone in the business a shareholder, because they’ll care more and feel a sense of ownership and entrepreneurship. We have a brilliant team of people with a collective sense of purpose and a shared mission. And we had a lot of happy people on 21 November 2019 when we sold a minority stake to LDC. 

A note of caution, enterprise management incentive schemes are fiddly and prone to errors in set-up. Get professional advice if you want to take this route – we didn’t and it cost us.

5. Keep your integrity and don’t forget where you came from 

Never try to over-charge or under-deliver, do as promised and you’ll be respected for it. Integrity is one of our values, and our biggest customer told me it was the reason they began working with us six years ago.  

Lend time to others, give back. Never forget those who’ve helped you on your way up, you might need them in the future. 

6. Enjoy it and embrace humour

You have to do things with a smile on your face. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in the position I am in the company of such great people – what’s not to love? We work in a fast moving, dynamic growth industry doing good things for clients. What’s not to enjoy? Enjoying it really helps when working long hours and making sacrifices in other areas. Humour is the sure fire way to diffuse pressure and build lasting relationships, so keep looking on the bright side. 

7. Invite feedback and find a mentor   

Ten years ago I knew nothing about running a business, having worked in corporate all my career. I could barely read a P&L. But my co-founder Ben knew his stuff and we had an angel investor and then a chairman, Tim Ward, who has been a brilliant guiding light. He helped set the bigger picture vision and the roadmap to get us to where we are today. 

A huge benefit of choosing LDC as our partner was them bringing Jerry Buhlmann in as non-executive chairman. Jerry has been there, seen it and done it, building a huge business with Dentsu. His strategic guidance is invaluable.

8. Enjoy the big moments 

Some (but not all) of our big moments include, Mark Mitchell (of all people) letting the cat out of the bag that we’d been selected as Netflix’s launch partner across Europe in 2014. Launching our US business in 2016 and succeeding where many have failed. Signing over 2,000 documents in a glass office at 2am to sell a minority stake to LDC in 2019 – being in a cab to JFK in New York and learning the Jerry Buhlmann is interested in becoming chairman. And just this month being named global performance agency of the year by Campaign.

9. Be competitive 

Know your competitors and desperately want to beat them. But respect them. 

Get to know them personally, you have lots in common and being competitive doesn't mean you can't be friendly. Competition makes us better, every time we lose a pitch we are introspective and come back stronger.

10. The brand 

It’s become pretty clear over ten years that our brand isn’t some pithy phrase we parrot. It’s what our customers and talent say about us. It isn’t just management and marketing's responsibility – but everyone's. And like DNA, it’s in every single aspect of Croud – the proposition, customer experience, every strategic and tactical decision we make. 

So here’s to the next decade of Croud, because we’re only just getting started.

Luke Smith is co-founder and chief executive of Croud