Rik Courtney: From Solopreneur to CEO of one of the UK’s Largest Social Media Marketing Franchises

Yorkshire is bursting with entrepreneurial talent and inspirational business leaders. At The Yorkshire Press, we love a business success story and we’re always fascinated to hear about about the individual journeys behind them.

To kick off our new series, Yorkshire Talk, in which we will be talking to inspirational leaders from across the county, we spoke to Rik Courtney – founder and CEO of one of the UK’s largest social media marketing consultancy groups.

Here’s what Rik had to say…

Could you tell us a little about yourself and your career prior to launching Be More Social?

Prior to launching Be More Social, I was a wantrepreneur (wannabe entrepreneur). I had multiple business fingers in pies. 

Yet, my career story really started way back when I was, unfortunately, a failed student at 14 and made the decision to leave school. I expected to walk straight into a college, which obviously I didn’t. (Definitely not the advice I give to my four kids!). 

I miraculously managed to hustle my way into college. I accused the lecturer who turned me away initially of ruining my career, forcing me to go and stack shelves for a living and it was her fault that was going to be the rest of my life. I think she took the responsibility and put me through the course I was trying to do, which was great and I’m always thankful to that lecturer for taking a chance on me. 

After completing my course, I went on to do an HND in Advertising – this spurred me on to go to London and do a stint working in big city advertising agencies, where I was paid absolute peanuts! 

I came back up North and was lucky enough to be put on a pretty good wage for my age at that period in time. Six months into working for someone else, I realise I didn’t enjoy being creatively limited and being told what to do, so I decided to go it alone – setting up as ‘Courtney Creative’. 

After spending a few years fumbling around trying to find my way into becoming a proper entrepreneur. Which, I wrongly thought at that point in time was to have multiple businesses and multiple income streams – despite not having my basic foundations in place. 

As soon as the internet came, I saw it as a massive opportunity for me to amplify my skills and my business and I really put my all into using the internet. This is what made me decide to set up Be More Social in 2010, and I’ve not looked back since.

Looking back, were there any indications during childhood that foreshadowed your becoming an entrepreneur?

Wow, that’s a really deep question. I would say yes, for lots of reasons. Reason number one, my dad wanted me to be part of the family business, which was construction. 

I turned my back on that because at a young age as it wasn’t where my heart was at, and that really scuppered our relationship for a while, as my dad was at a time in his life where he wanted to retire and pass that business on to me. 

This meant my dad didn’t really believe in or understand my pursuit of a marketing career initially, so he didn’t really support it or me through college, leaving me to keep three jobs down to support myself, which I suppose made me feel a little insecure.

I felt that sometimes, I didn’t make the right decisions. That really was a little bit of a shadow as I was always continuously doubting myself in the early years. And being an entrepreneur, making multiple mistakes on a regular basis, you look back on those times thinking, wow, maybe my dad was right.

Maybe that had a large impact as I didn’t come from a family that had the opportunity to support me in becoming an entrepreneur, like financially, they couldn’t fund a period of my life where I could have time to experiment. So I also had to hold down multiple jobs to make it happen, which is very typical of a lot of entrepreneurs.

What was your mission for Be More Social at the outset and how does it differ from the business today?

My mission, right from the beginning for Be More Social, was to educate people through the transition through the digital age. 

As I was involved in the first internet bubble, I saw the power the internet had for businesses. I created multiple websites that sold garden furniture, Christmas decorations, sporting equipment and gear and so on. 

I got a taste for it and thought, it’s great. Yet, I knew that not many people knew how to shop online then. They didn’t really trust it. So, I felt a duty to educate people on how to use this new social media thing. 

At that point, everybody thought it was going to be a phase and didn’t believe in it. So, I went from educating into providing a full digital marketing service or do-it-yourself service that we support businesses with. So, to answer your question, not one little bit has changed. It was only circumstances that changed my direction. I always knew that people needed that hand holding to go from what they’re used to, which was TV, radio, press, door knocking, cold calling, to be able to understand and trust in the benefits of digital marketing.

Getting a business off the ground can be pretty challenging. Was there ever a time you wanted to give up? If so, how did you overcome this? 

Yeah, so many times, I felt up against it. I was at the point of introducing the consultative education stage of Be More Social and continually hearing, ‘this is just a phase I’m not interested, thank you very much’. 

I was really busy, working eight hours a day trying to build the business up and I think I was earning about 250 quid a month. And, I was embarrassed, having to be honest with my family about this, who was telling me to go and get a job. At that point, I thought, I’m going to have to go back to what I knew – which was agency life. 

So, I freelanced for a short period of time, I didn’t go and work for anybody. I still wanted to be self-employed because I wasn’t very good at being told what to do. During the time I freelanced, I was miserable, absolutely miserable because I wasn’t effecting change like I wanted to. 

So, I went back to having my own agency, which was great for a bit. But that comes with demands and expectations, not that I’m afraid of them. It’s just that I know how social media works and being on the agency side isn’t a complete process for clients. 

Although I would have a large attribution of customers at times, it was lonely and I used to get frustrated and despondent. Going back to my point earlier, the beginning was hard, whereby I thought that everybody, everybody was right about me, particularly that I wasn’t cut out to be in business, that I wasn’t an entrepreneur because I wasn’t very good at all the stuff that you require to run a business. 

I’ve got the vision. I’m a big dreamer. But in terms of everything else, I fell short, and it was those reasons that made me doubt being in business at times. 

What would you say is the most challenging aspect of starting a new business?

The most challenging aspect from what I can see is, it shouldn’t be about finances anymore. 

For example, if you’re a good technician, and you’re good at your trade and you’ve got a few tools, you can make a start. 

What we identified very early on at Be More Social is people can’t find the first runner, having customers, delivering a good value proposition that people buy you, that’s often a real challenge for people.

If you do need finances, it’s hard to come by. I’ll be honest with you, it’s really really difficult to go to a bank and say can I have this. Especially if you’ve had a similar upbringing to me where you’ve had to hustle a little bit and you’ve made a few mistakes along the way and certain issues that you had when you were a child stop you from getting decent finance to get a foot on the ladder. So, for me, identifying customers and finances are the most challenging aspect of starting out.

If you could travel back to day one of Be More Social, is there anything you would do differently? 

There is so much I would do differently. There’s so much I understand now about the systems and procedures in place that are absolutely vital to enable growth. 

Without a precise understanding of your numbers. You cannot identify a system and a procedure that will continually deliver those results. And I don’t mean financially, I mean, how many people that you need to speak to, that you need to in turn then convert into a customer. 

Throughout the whole 14 or more years that I’ve been in Be More Social, I didn’t have a full grasp of that. It’s only been the last three-four years that my life has changed exponentially. That is due to me growing up, realising that to have a grasp of my numbers, I need to be completely aware of how many people I need to speak to, how many people I need to set a free review with, to then become a customer and refine each of those processes. That for me has changed my life and if I’d known that when I started out, I’d have managed things that way all along.

How do you personally define business success? Is it money? Freedom? Influence? Creative expression and innovation? Something else?

I have to say all of it. I’m striving for every single one of those pieces. 

I’m definitely striving for freedom of choice. To choose where I want to go, where I want to be, how I want to do it, having a job and responsibility does not give me the freedom to go and do what I want, whenever I want. Because I have a responsibility to 717 other people in the office. 

So, I need financial gain, to have more freedom. To be able to do things that I want to do in the way that I want to do it. So, this is a tough question for somebody like me to answer and give you one simple answer – I honestly have to say, it is all of the above. 

Every last one of those things is really important to me. 

I believe a leader should always work both on and in the business, as I know for a fact that if I decided to be free with my time and spend the cash now, the business would suffer a great deal, which would be really unfortunate. It would be irresponsible of me to do so, therefore I think definitely, all of the above is business success. 

How did you initially distinguish yourself from other social media marketing agencies?

I distinguished myself really early because I knew that nobody can market a business like a business owner themselves. 

Every business owner knows their business inside out, they’ve educated themselves on their trade their entire life. Only the business owner knows their reasons for starting, which should shine through in the story they tell online. 

That’s why at Be More Social, rather than act like a typical agency, we form a partnership. We don’t only create a do-it-for-you service. We guarantee our results based on the fact that we work closely together with our clients to ensure they get the attention their business deserves.

Be More Social has moved away from the standard agency style company and now operates as a consultancy. Can you tell us a little more about this? What led you to make this change and what does it mean for your clients?

As I alluded to a couple of points previously, this shift is due to that sheer frustration and negativity that the industry faces, through lack of true results.

There are various things like algorithms, for example, that work against an agency platform. 

I can create adverts, I can post daily for people, however, if clients are happy just to let results happen with little involvement. Then, there’s plenty of other people and agencies out there that will happily work with them in this way. 

But, I want to genuinely deliver the best results. I know that to switch an algorithm on to educate the artificial learning that these platforms have, you have to do a very, very consistent mix of everything. You personally have to engage, you have to outreach, you have to post consistently, you have to have a very, very strong value proposition and story to even be considered. 

This is why I changed to a consultancy model. I got sick to death of big, big companies paying me a lot of money and expecting huge results yet, not cooperating with anything I asked them to do. And because they were paying me big money, their expectations were huge. Unfortunately, with mismatched expectations and a lack of willingness to understand how to get the best results, relationships were inevitably frayed.

In what ways do you think social media marketing has changed since the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic?

For us, it hasn’t changed very much. I think for everybody else, it has become a realisation. 

We have always known that on social media, it’s more about community and connection. It’s about entertainment. We coined the phrase, entertain, educate and inspire. And for me, that’s what social media is all about. 

It’s a discovery tool. It isn’t a search tool. It allows people to discover something new and fresh. I think what has changed is the realisation of that. Businesses are realising they’ve got an opportunity to really inspire people, and the only spontaneity that social media gives you is that leap click ‘That’s interesting. I’m going to go over here and check it out’.

And then, the everyday assets that, I think we don’t really pay much attention to, our landing pages, blog articles or the stuff that we refer to as long-form content, the educative things that give people more information they need, the valuable bytes of information that helps them make that all-important purchase decision is required. 

I think the change or shift has been that people are now taking social media marketing seriously. We have really gone full circle, and now rely heavily on this digital space and the shift has been to really look at this in a more important light. 

In your opinion, which Yorkshire brand has completely nailed social media marketing?

Wow, well… I think my team in Doncaster would all run off and work for someone else if I named another Yorkshire brand when we’re all working so hard to be the best in social media marketing haha! 

However, in all seriousness, and not to sound arrogant or rude, it’s easy for us to pick flaws in other people’s broadcasts as – it’s what we do. It’s also hard for me to stick my head above the parapet and identify all the people that are doing it great in the Yorkshire region, when I’m trying to help so many other people to master it themselves. 

There are many, many local brands doing great on social media, I couldn’t pick just one. Those that tend to be smashing it are the ones really invested in learning how it works and trying to provide a good mix of entertaining and valuable, informative content to their audiences – not those using it solely as a sales platform.

What does the future hold for your company?

The future is looking very bright. We are rolling out a number of different services that are making understanding social even more affordable. 

We’re creating our own academy, which every single month allows those involved to be fed the basic information they need to keep up to date, along with weekly webinars and various other bits and bobs. 

Our national rollout of the Be More Social franchise is making sure that we are educating people to use social media properly, and is set to see huge growth nationally in 2022 and potentially, internationally as well. 

We’ve just dipped our toe in the water, engaging in online networking events in the States, South Africa and Jamaica, believe it or not,  just for well, in the first instance a bit of a laugh for Jamaica to see how we would be received over there because I would like to go there regularly and visit. Surprisingly, as it happens, it’s been received very very well and offers some interesting potential for both the franchise and having maybe another shift that considers international trade.

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