Talking entrepreneurship… with Neil Stephenson

Not all entrepreneurs are made equal and some don’t even enjoy speaking about themselves as such.

As part of our series delving into the realities behind entrepreneurship (we’re cutting out all the fluff), we caught up with FanFinders’ co-founder and acquisition marketing maverick Neil Stephenson.

A crucial part of the journey that has seen the company grow to having over 5 million parents signed up on a self-coded data platform and operating in two continents, Neil discusses why his real passion is actually ‘building success’, going beyond marketing and lessons in leadership.

What does ‘entrepreneur’ mean to you?

I think I am by definition an entrepreneur, but I would never call myself one – like walk into a room and say ‘Hi, I’m Neil, I’m an entrepreneur’. You can say you’re a creator or have founded a business. I’ve realised semi-recently that to be an entrepreneur means that you wouldn’t be happy working for somebody else to earn a fixed wage. You’ve in a sense won an opportunity – through your own output and ability – to generate more money for yourself or your company. It all comes down to you.

What was your first business idea?

Well I wasn’t one of those people that had a lemonade stand as a kid or delivered papers. It’s only when I got to university that I began to learn about affiliate marketing and started thinking that way. Probably my first fleshed-out idea was trying to build a ‘future poker stars’ type thing at uni with a friend. We wanted to create a student poker tournament and company, and then do a deal with one of the big outfits to get affiliate commission.

Do you think anyone can be an entrepreneur?

No. Anyone can start a business, but that doesn’t necessarily make you an entrepreneur. Going back to your first question, people start businesses for two reasons: one is as a passion project, so someone who loves vases starting a vase design business. That’s their motivation and they probably haven’t thought through the monetary side of it, the economics or the commercial opportunity behind it. Whereas an entrepreneur might see that the vase vertical is really taking off and the gaps in the market, then build a team around that and delivering products for that niche. There’s a big difference there. I don’t start things because I’m necessarily interested in them, but because of the opportunities that exist.

You’re CMO at FanFinders. Where do all the responsibilities that come with being a co-founder fit in?

I realise more and more that my passion isn’t necessarily in just ‘marketing’ as such. Instead it’s more ‘doing business successfully’ and the way I achieve that is through my ability to use effective online marketing channels. Day-to-day, I’m not worried about losing the ‘doing’ because there’s a natural transition to reclassify that doing as ‘making sure the business is operating successfully’ – and I’m happy building in those procedures.

Is the thrill in real-time growth or plotting next steps?

Definitely while it’s happening. The biggest thrill is when you’ve just put a campaign live, you refresh the stats every five minutes and can see people buying or converting. In my role, there’s a lot of testing. 1-5% of it works really well and that’s the reason you do the other 95%. Because when you do find those 5% of ideas that convert, it can make a massive difference to the business and that’s exciting.

Do you take anything from your methodology with ad campaigns into running the business?

How I approach ads is just the way I think. It’s about using logic – if you’re setting up a campaign, there’s no point testing 20 different images and 20 different headlines because that’s 400 different combinations. You only want to spend a certain amount of time and money, so it’s first working out what the big things are that can move the needle in a significant way, and then getting down into the minutiae.

Can this strategy be applied to different businesses or sectors?

Whether your business is about your products or an agency model where you deliver a service, it’s still about getting the whole thing nailed down with a small number of clients or customers. Then you tweak it so you have a definitive roadmap from acquiring your customer though to conversion and delivery. Get it perfect and then scale the f*ck out of it on the acquisition side. Because you’ve got a proven formula and can go from spending £5k a month to generate 50 customers to £500k for 10,000 customers, then you’re making millions.

How do you handle different voices within the business?

We all have the same goal and we’re all working to get there, but sometimes our opinions differ. It was an important step when Alec [Dobbie] assumed the role of CEO, so we have that one mediating voice in the discussion and to take the final decision. When we first started out, I think we were all a bit raw; I’ve definitely become more assertive in my views and try to be as frank as possible in conversations.

Given FanFinders’ strong growth, how do you decide on next steps?

You look at the risk/reward ratio behind decisions. Most of the time, we like to test small, prove the concept and then once it’s proven, scale up. Whether that’s in marketing, recruitment or elsewhere, we make sure that there’s definitely a benefit before committing. If there’s a huge potential upside, then we’re prepared take a decent risk.

What about mistakes?

As a collective, we’re all of the mindset that mistakes happen and we push forward. We make sure it doesn’t happen again and learn from them – and that’s it. There’s not much to be gained from dwelling on mistakes.

Finally, you travel back in time to your first day at FanFinders, what advice do you give yourself?

Be prepared for the long haul. I’ve learnt so much about running a business here. I didn’t set out to learn about how to grow and run a startup, but even if in some ways this hasn’t been the journey I initially signed up for, it has been really valuable.

Read more from the ‘Talking Entrepreneurship’ series by checking out our chat with Adam Gillett.