Alastair profile 2

Alastair Banks

Enterprise success stories

Alastair Banks

What did you study at the University of Exeter?

 Straight Computer Science

What is your business all about?

I run a Digital Marketing Company called Optix Solutions in Exeter. We also run an Email Marketing business called OptixMail, a gap year website business called TravellersConnected.com and a local job site for Exeter called YourJobsBoard. The digital marketing business helps its clients build their businesses using the wonderful tools and channels given to us by the Internet

What is your business’s unique selling point (USP)? What is your main form of advertising? Who are your main competitors?

I'll focus on Optix Solutions for the rest of these questions. In terms of USPs, we're one of the only companies in the region who start our process by spending at least a day with our clients, actually in their business, learning what makes them tick. This way we can map our knowledge of the Internet to their business needs.

Our main form of advertising is the best form - word of mouth and referral business.

We don't have competitors ;)

Where did your idea come from? What is the start-up story behind your business?

I think you can take it back to early 99 and a few friends debating how we could make some serious money from this new 'Internet Thing'. If only we'd known what we knew now. From the original 4 in that conversation, 3 went on to form the business in that same year (our second at Uni) and there are now 2 of the original 4 left. We've built a great team around us totalling 14. The first year we focused on getting a few websites from friends and family so we actually had a portfolio to show others outside these circles. In 2000 we graduated and pretty much the day after, we moved into a 4 bed house and set one of the bedrooms up as an office. We had three desks in a triangle and shared a printer and a dialup connection, which was interesting as we had to up and download websites as well as make and receive phonecalls!                 

Starting your business whilst at University, juggling your academic studies with your new business as well as still having a social life must have been a challenge. How did you accommodate the three and what did an average day, if you had one, looked like for you?

Well its 13 years ago now so I can't remember exactly. I do know that we didn't really have lots of clients in the year where we were 'juggling' so it was fairly easy. Not much happened around revision and exam times and for the rest of the year we used time when our housemates were in probably in bed! If you want something badly enough you find time.

What things helped you learn how to run a new business? Has there been anything or anyone in particular that has helped you along the way?

To be perfectly honest a lot of it was learning as we went. Its important to make mistakes and learn from them. My Dad is a business consultant and kept us on the straight and narrow by making sure we held regular board meetings and set us up with cash-flow forecasts and taught us how cash is king - a lesson I think about on an almost daily basis. In the early days I can safely say if he hadn't been around we wouldn't be here now. In the last few years I owe a lot to the audio books that keep me company on car and train journeys around the country. They fuel many of the ideas and inspiration that has helped me take Optix forward.

What support have you received from the University? Were there any particular curricular or extra-curricular activities that were instrumental in your and your business development?

When we started Optix we attended a course put on by the University called 'graduate business partnership'. We learnt some key business skills on this course whilst meeting some of our first clients (a couple who remain to this day). I have a great on-going relationship with the University and they've always been very supportive. Now a client of ours for many of our services, I'm incredibly proud to call myself an alumni of Exeter University and being able to put something back into the institution I cherished my time at.

What do you think has been your key to success so far?

Wow, hard question. I don't think its possible to put this down to one thing. There are so many aspects to business. Sheer determination and hard work is certainly up there and in the early days its almost all about that. As your business matures its about innovation, marketing and separating yourself from the rest by working out how you can add value to others.

Have you made any mistakes along the way? Is so, what have you learnt from these? And further, if you could go back in time, are there any things that you would change or would do differently?

I've made hundreds of mistakes. I make them all the time. The key is learning from them so you don't make them again. I think the one thing I'd do differently if I had the chance again is recruiting slowly. We've had a few people work for us that were not a good fit (none of whom are still with us by the way :)). I made speedy decisions because I thought I needed people in quickly. Hire slowly is a good tip for anyone looking to employ.

What can we look forward to in terms of your business? Have you got any future plans for it?

I have a vision statement for the next three years which will see us reach 3/4 of a million by September 2015. I have plans to re-launch TravellersConnected.com this year as well as adding another new business in the first quarter of the year. Alongside an office move to bigger premises and a wedding that's probably enough for now.

How about yourself? Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?

I don't tend to think much further than 3 years ahead. I have my long-term personal goals of course but for now I'm focussing on the next few years and making sure my business is on track to hit the vision we set out for 2015. Ask me again in a couple of years :)

What advice do you have for University of Exeter students who are looking to start their own business?

1) Take advice - talk to the Innovation Centre as there are some really good people up there.

2) For more specific tips I run a blog where I'm always trying to share tips and advice about running a business.

3) Read Business Books, Lots of them.