Rob Pollard launched his business in a cubbyhole ten years ago. Now his fast-growing digital agency has been named Birmingham’s best small business, as George Arthurs reports.
Passion is a key quality for any entrepreneur. And Rob Pollard’s passion for Lightbox Digital is clearly paying dividends.
The Birmingham-based business has doubled its number of staff from six to 12 in just two years to meet demand for its website design, marketing, e-commerce and bespoke digital solutions for companies of all sizes. Turnover in 2016-17 was up by a record 210% and the agency picked up the “small business of the year” title at last October’s Birmingham Awards.
The recent awards and impressive turnover are recognition for Pollard’s passion for Lightbox. He launched the company from a spare desk in an unused corner of a friend’s company in 2005, surviving the global financial crash of 2008 and adapting to fast-changing digital trends and technology.
Pollard, from Walsall, studied art and design at Sutton College, which gave him an insight into a broad spectrum of design application. He then went on to study product design at Birmingham City University before getting his first job with a retail equipment company in Swindon, designing point-of-sale material and other in-store promotional items.
After 18 months with the company, Pollard realised product and retail design had limitations and he wanted to find something more creative. His next job was with a Midlands property company, creating architectural visualisations and computer-generated images of new developments.
It was during this time he completed a marketing diploma at night school to help his understanding of business strategy, which in turn gave him the confidence to go it alone.
“I was in my mid-20s and even at that age setting up on my own was always part of my thinking,” says 37-year-old Pollard, a father of one and keen football fan. “I was picking up tips and guidance as I started my professional career, but I just wanted something more.”
Pollard acknowledges he was still quite young to be setting up a company, particularly at a time when the digital sector was in its infancy.
“There was always a limit to what I could achieve and the impact I could have at someone else’s business,” he says. “It was around 2003-4 and energetic young ‘techies’ were few and far between. Lots of business logic was still based on experience and how long you had been with a company.
“This was a time when younger, talented, and creative people were beginning to explore what they could realise and look beyond traditional limitations.”
Pollard explains how he formed Lightbox with a professional partner – a graphic designer – because he wanted to share business ideas with someone else.
“I wanted to go on the business journey with someone,” he recalls, “and her partner had a kitchen business and let us use a bit of space there. I suppose you could call it a cubbyhole, but it was great.
“I didn’t want to work from home. I still don’t enjoy it. I like to feel I’m going to an office to get in the commercial mind-set of a day’s work. It was so helpful having that desk space to help us start building something.”
After a year, it became clear the growing company needed its own base and with a relocation came changes to management. Pollard’s business partner wanted to stay working near her partner, so she left Lightbox and he found a small space on a farm-turned-business park near Lichfield, working alongside a design agency, sharing ideas and outsourcing work.
Like countless other small businesses, the fledgling agency was bruised by the financial crash of 2008, with the commercial property market and Lightbox’s core client-base hit particularly hard. “Lightbox started in architecture and property, generating visuals of new buildings, but this stopped in almost an instant when the 2008 crash hit and the property sector almost collapsed overnight,” explains Pollard.
“I needed to shift into a different area quite quickly. The financial crash was a major blow and slowed down our progression. I learned a lot about planning and strategy and building up cash reserves for when this happens.”
Pollard repositioned the business into web design and build, focusing on a very local market of small- to medium-sized businesses from all sectors in the Lichfield and Staffordshire area. “Back then websites were a strange part of a business,” he says. “It was a period when a company might say: ‘Oh, we need a website’, but they weren’t exactly sure why. However, the website market started to shift quite quickly from companies wanting a basic site with a couple of pages to something more in-depth, when they realised how important it was to have a presence online and how it could get them seen by more potential customers.
“The very local businesses all started to want something. These were small to medium-sized businesses nearby who had heard about Lightbox and wanted to work with us.”
Further repositioning of Lightbox was needed when open-source software such as WordPress emerged. This meant small businesses could for the first time host their own blogs and websites, albeit with limited functionality. Pollard switched from outsourcing the time-consuming work needed to create bespoke content management systems to using WordPress. He describes this, and a change to Lightbox’s approach to fees, as a breakthrough moment for the company.
“We restructured our pricing model to appeal to small businesses with ten-month payment plans to include branding, logos, marketing material and websites,” says Pollard. “It came in at a couple of hundred pounds per month, which was very affordable for a small business. We secured quite a bit of work through this approach.
“We were always trying to differentiate ourselves from others. The new pricing model gave us this and clients not having to pay a big, five-figure bill at the end of a project seemed to prove popular.
“We also started using the new open-source software on the market, choosing WordPress. Bringing all development in-house gave me total design and systems control. We could have some really strategic conversations about where development was going and manage this better.”
A move to a major commercial centre such as Birmingham was another major milestone for Lightbox and saw the business change once again.
“I’d always wanted to move the business to Birmingham to get our foot in the door of some of the larger Midlands businesses,” Pollard says. “We had a great time in Lichfield and Staffordshire but it felt like a natural progression, so we chose our current office on John Bright Street in the heart of the city.
“I was very young when I started, with zero commercial experience. I had to learn quickly. When we moved to Birmingham, the business changed completely. Everything prior to that I see as a ‘beta’ or test version of what we are today. It was all about learning.
“Being in Birmingham, things got serious. Our ambitions and expectations went through the roof. We now have great people – really talented, really experienced people. If I can let these people do what they are brilliant at, we can achieve so much.
“I’m still learning all the time, but we now have the processes, the structure and we know what we have to do to be successful.”
Recruiting the right people has always been ‘a challenge’ for Lightbox, particularly during periods of rapid growth and new client wins. “As a tech business, we need a balance,” Pollard says. “We need a senior team who can demonstrate experience and trust, but we also want the up-and-coming designers with flair but who might be raw.
“In the early days, I had to grow the business around younger people who had creativity and energy but less experience. You will always hire based on talent but for me it’s more about the person and the attitude.
“Staff with the right attitude and who are keen to develop themselves as people and workers always stand out. It’s this I will always look for. We can then develop the talent within the business.”
The agency has worked with major public-sector institutions such as the NHS, Ministry of Defence and Staffordshire Council. And it recently built websites for Birmingham-based companies Associated Architects, Skirting Boards Direct and global fan manufacturer Elta Group. A good example of how Lightbox’s approach has worked is at Skirting Boards Direct, which has seen a 126% increase in online sales since its website was redesigned.
Pollard is now working with a branding expert to give Lightbox a new identity and strategy with the proposed tagline “Making digital human”, which is due to be launched this year. The phrase is intended to explain how the agency works jargon-free and is a “digital specialist for ambitious businesses, making life easy for our clients, their customers, and their teams”.
Pollard says: “We try to move away from an approach that sees us tender, complete a project, and that’s that. Whether they’re ambitious start-ups or established global businesses, we want to build long-term partnerships with our clients.
“We will do everything we can to help businesses get the most out of technology. We want to educate businesses and help them understand how they can streamline their workflows, systems and appeal to customers.”
And, with what’s expected to be a healthy £600,000 turnover for 2017-18, Pollard’s partnership approach for Lightbox seems to be working.