Growing business online

Posted: Thursday 19th November 2009 in Retail Strategy, Thought Leadership.

Set in beautiful countryside, Townend Farm is Summit's Headquarters in the UK

By Steph Welstead – 19/11/09 Growing Business Online

Summit’s office on the Yorkshire Wolds is one of three bases of a business that’s one of the fastest growing digital marketing companies in the UK.

Housing the firm’s media centre, programmers code, phones buzz and clients frequently visit account managers to discuss their needs. Other than being dressed uniformly in grey, long-sleeved shirts (not the typical get-up for fashion-conscious marketing types), there aren’t many giveaways that most of the staff here have found themselves on the wrong side of the British judicial system.

On leaving the confines of the office, it’s more apparent. Summit’s media centre is based at HMP Wolds – a private category C prison in East Yorkshire, run by G4S.

Of the firm’s 100 staff (across its three sites) 20 are serving custodial sentences. However, unusual origins aside, Summit is already pretty extraordinary. Thanks to some notable technical innovation in reporting and search marketing, it’s standing out in a crowded sector, and has even found a niche in retail. With two of the top three online retailers in the UK (Argos and on its books, Summit has, unsurprisingly, been the subject of a number of advances from investors. As yet, all have been unrequited. For now, founder and managing director Hedley Aylott is committed to staying at the helm. Launched in 2000 by Aylott, his mother Marion and sister-in-law Victoria, Summit has grown into a £20m-turnover operation. This organic growth has earned the firm a place in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for two years running. It has largely been driven by the firm’s reputation as a thought leader, and a culture that has evolved from an unfaltering desire to help its customers grow.

Calling the tune

Aylott shares a chronic restlessness, boundless energy and sense of self-belief with many business owners. Early ventures range from servicing vehicles at Norwich School his English Master would excuse him from lessons to work on his car to fishing for and delivering fresh trout to his neighbours, which earned him and his twin Caspar hundreds of pounds each weekend.

A former chorister, Aylott played the trumpet and piano at school. He moved on to writing music in his late teens and worked as a professional composer. His gift for music took him to Norwich Prison for the first time in 1989, where his mother was head of education.

Invited to run a songwriting workshop with the prisoners, Aylott was given three weeks, 10 inmates and a small budget to fund equipment. He had complete freedom to do what he wanted, and charged them with writing and recording a three-track EP. 
The project was a big success, leading to further work at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison, which resulted in the release of a top-20 hit, The Summit. A dance track recorded by 10 incarcerated gang members, it sold 18,000 copies and raised money for the charity Victim Support.

In 1995, Aylott founded Summit Records to release the song, setting up a base at HMP Wolds after being invited to run similar workshops there. Over the next few years, Summit Records wrote and produced a number of successful music projects, not least a collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. These experiences showed Aylott what could be achieved through hard work, raw talent, the right attitude and direction a formula that still drives the success of Summit today. 
“It really laid the foundations for meeting a group of people in a prison and empowering them, but also for working with a large number of individuals in a creative, musical sense to bring the best out of them,” he says.

Base camp

Aylott and his team were already using the internet to promote Summit’s work, building websites and hosting webcasts. “The internet was just blossoming in fact, the dissertation for my master’s degree was about how it was going to be used to promote music,” he recalls. “As an arts company, we were doing some great work. We were great at writing rock operas and records, but it was very hard to get funding to live. It was all very hand to mouth.”

However good they felt their work was, commercial reward depended upon a combination of luck, timing and other people’s opinions something Aylott found highly frustrating.

“It felt like spinning a roulette wheel,” he says. “That’s when I realised we were doing things that could be highly valuable. We make films, we write music, so why don’t we create a digital media company that’s building websites, producing and editing film and multimedia, and charge other people for doing what we do for ourselves? It meant we were in charge of our own destiny.”

Running a highly skilled, client-facing operation from a prison was still quite a leap, but Aylott was encouraged by the professionalism of Summit’s products up to that point. “We had no experience or knowledge of running a digital media company, but we had the will, the confidence and the people to make it happen at our fingertips,” he says.

With a base and staff already sorted, the cost of setting up the company was relatively low. Although far higher than the average income for jobs such as wing cleaning or spud-peeling, even today inmates at Summit are paid prison wages of just £10-£35 a week. Summit’s first job was building a website for the local clay pigeon shooting club for £350, which the business still manages today.

So, has Aylott encountered much prejudice regarding the location of his business? “Not really,” he replies, adding that only one client has ever declined to do business with them after learning the truth (something he is always upfront about), at the insistence of its US parent. “There may be companies that have never contacted us because of it, but I wouldn’t know,” he adds. “When clients visit, they enter a very smart place, with a group of intelligent people. They quickly forget where they are.”

A look at Summit’s accomplishments would surely silence the most obstinate of cynics, and Aylott believes this success is largely down to the ideals that the business has been built on. While he acknowledges that most entrepreneurs would say this, he insists that it has always been a core belief that, first and foremost, you should set out to put the audience and the customer first.

“It has always been about asking how we can make our client’s business better,” he says. “That desire has driven the business, and I think it’s attracted some of the right people to come and work at Summit.”

The business has no sales infrastructure, and, for the most part, its growth has been driven by word-of-mouth referrals.

A new direction

Summit has developed a rigorous screening process to try to identify those committed to a life on the straight and narrow. Anyone who sees it as a way to “blag themselves onto a training course” is in for a surprise. Applicants are given an information pack and tasked with giving a 40-minute presentation about digital marketing.

“It’s really tough,” Aylott says. “We’re looking for people with the right attitude, for those who really put themselves out and are highly motivated. We don’t necessarily choose people for how much they know.”

The necessary skills are then taught over a six-month period, but they’re very much learning on the job and given the opportunity to fail as well as succeed. “While they do train, they’re immediately working with clients and learning. They have to take responsibility very early,” explains Aylott.

The result is a straight-talking, honest culture, and a refreshing lack of the pretence often associated with the marketing industry. This has helped to create strong relationships between Summit and its clients, he says. “I think we’re respected for delivering them results, but doing it in an honest, decent way.

“What’s nice in prison is you get people who are genuinely highly motivated by the opportunity, who come from a very diverse set of backgrounds. On the one hand, I might have an accountant, and on the other someone who’s barely ever been to school. You’d never find those people working together, but it creates a really interesting dynamic, where people support each other and there’s a damn good dose of common sense. No one wants a favour and people behave like ordinary human beings.”

A job for life

Running a business from a prison is not without its challenges, of course. While a category C institution will not house the most dangerous of prisoners, according to the Criminal Justice System’s definition, inmates “cannot be trusted in open conditions”. Any recruit who transgresses the prison’s strict IT policy, for example, is sacked on the spot. Sex offenders, those in for threats to kill or computer fraud, and those with less than a year left to serve are automatically disqualified for a job at Summit.

Not every offender is merely a misguided opportunist, but Summit’s success does seem to give traction to an argument put forward by The Big Issue founder and former offender John Bird that crime is often entrepreneurial. These skills are sometimes honed by a necessity to fend for yourself at an early age, he says. Would Aylott agree?

“You’ve definitely got people who have been highly entrepreneurial and creative in the things that they’ve done that have landed them in prison,” he says. “They’ve taken an opportunity in their eyes, which happened to be against the law, and they’ve pursued that, and it’s landed them in trouble.”

Giving these minds more ‘legit’ applications and opportunities, along with the prospect of a good living on the outside, seems to work. Currently, two thirds of ex-prisoners reoffend, often within weeks of release, at an annual cost of £11bn to the UK taxpayer. This is partly due to the barriers confronting those looking to ‘go straight’ in the jobs market.

Contrast this to the reoffending rates of Summit’s employees, and the numbers speak for themselves. Of the 350 prisoners who’ve worked there, Aylott knows of less than 10 who have reoffended. 10 have continued working for the company at its other Yorkshire base at Townend Farm. Currently, there are seven ex-offenders on the payroll. One heads up Summit’s technology centre in Prague, others have set up their own businesses, and a few have gone on to work for Summit’s clients.

Scaling the Summit

While he says the greatest challenge he’s faced in growing the business is “not knowing what you should know”, one thing Aylott has learned is the importance of identifying which growth strategies you should not pursue. For him, that’s meant positioning Summit as an agency focused on retail, rather than offering a host of digital marketing services.

It’s a decision that continues to pay dividends. Summit has the capability to look after a business’ entire online marketing and ecommerce infrastructure, and clients such as Comet, Play and Argos have some impressive technology powering their online campaigns. “We’ve invested virtually every penny of profit back into developing new technology that powers a lot of these marketing channels,” says Aylott.

For example, if you’re a major retailer, you might have 100,000 products coming in and out of stock every day, with changing prices (for, it’s more like 1.8 million). Summit’s technology can reflect that up-to-date information on a search page on Google. “We can take product feeds and turn them into amazingly detailed and deep search campaigns, that reflect the economics of the moment for a business,” Aylott explains.

Summit’s coveted technology provides a new growth opportunity too offering the tools as standalone products to direct clients running their marketing campaigns in-house through the Software as a Service model. This kind of innovation has also stood Summit in good stead for the recession, aligning it with a growing trend of business owners questioning the value of their spend and demanding greater transparency from marketers.

“You need to use data to give clients proper insight, which they can then exploit for more gain,” Aylott says. “I could say: ‘You got 1,000 clicks yesterday,’ but what you really want to know is what you can do with that. We’re continually refining the model we use to look at campaign results to make better recommendations to our clients.”

At Summit, this is something they’ve always done, and Aylott believes this open dialogue has been a major driver of the firm’s success. “I think honesty and trust is the most important scent that people pick up on,” he says.