How extravagant is your office? These days it wouldn’t be that surprising to find a pool table in the break room or a fridge with free drinks. Many a business has followed the likes of Google in making their premises more homely, in the hope of improving employee engagement (and perhaps encouraging them to stick around past 5pm...).
But chances are your office isn’t quite as flamboyant as Money.co.uk’s Cirencester pad. It’s in a renovated castle, for starters, has ‘ice cave’ and ‘ski lodge’ themed meeting rooms and a cinema decked out like the death star. And of course there are arcade machines, a pool table, table football and a free gym. The renovation, led by Laurence Llewelyn Bowen (formerly of Changing Rooms fame), came in at a whopping £3m – a not insignificant sum, especially given the company has never taken any outside investment.
Launched by former Oracle worker Chris Morling back in 2008, the financial comparison site remains a relative minnow compared to that sector’s ‘big four’ (MoneySuperMarket, comparethemarket, GoCompare and Confused.com), but it has grown quickly, reaching revenues of £25m last year, with a healthy £8m profit to boot. MT spoke with Morling about how he built the business and where he plans to go next.
Why did you decide to set up your own company?
I graduated in electronics but I realised that was far too difficult and went into computing, which I enjoyed much more, and worked for a company called Hoskyns (now Capgemini). Then I spent three years in the City at an insurance software house before moving to Oracle.
There I taught myself to create websites and I really enjoyed it. I realised there was an opportunity to learn more than just coding, but all the other aspects of running a website as well. I created a site called financelink.co.uk, which was `a financial directory. I started to develop it in my spare time and realised there was an opportunity to perhaps create a living out of it and learn all the exciting things that I'd never touched before like copywriting, sales, marketing, SEO, PPC.
The trigger was a conversation with my wife. She wanted me to get my focus back onto my job and she said, if you're not enjoying it why not just give it up? So I resigned the next morning. I did the classic thing of setting up the business in my spare bedroom and off I went.
Money.co.uk's castle HQ near Cirencester
How did you fund your company's growth?
Although I used a couple of 0% credit cards just to see me off in the first few months, very quickly the company was making a profit and I was able to build profit over time. Since then I've managed to avoid taking on any debt or investment at any point in the history of the business.
How does your business model work?
We compare the whole market wherever we can. And we have a commercial agreement with some of the companies who have products listed on our site. It depends on what the product is, but if you apply for and get accepted for a product, or buy insurance, then we will get a commission off the back of that.
You’re operating in a busy market. There are low barriers to entry and you have four large competitors. How do you stand out from the crowd?
We've always had a very strong focus on providing really useful, helpful comprehensive guides as well as comparison tables and we see the two going hand in hand. The first step is to understand what you're looking for. Then we go out of our way to check and compare more products than any other site so that users have the full picture.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced when growing the business?
I think it's that transformation from a small group of people who overhear every conversation around a couple of tables, to a large company working in separate rooms and separate teams, and ensuring the information continues to flow throughout the company - so everybody still understands what the objectives are, what everybody else is doing, and making sure we're all moving towards the same vision and goal. As you expand the business you need to introduce more process and procedure to make sure the right things happen.
Are there any other entrepreneurs or companies you take inspiration from?
I'm a massive fan of Seth Godin, he's an American entrepreneur and marketer who thinks very differently and approaches problems in a different way. I love that kind of attitude. He has a massive focus on delivering. It's all very well talking about stuff but you've got to make things happen, and when you do deliver it don't make it mediocre - make it something special that people want to talk about.
The comparison site's staff can use a cinema, gym and yoga studio
How would you describe your company's culture?
It's really inclusive and supportive. We're very conscious of nurturing an environment where there's no blame culture, no politics and backstabbing. It's just about getting things done and helping each other do that. If something goes wrong you don't point fingers and blame. You look at what went wrong, what we can change to prevent that happening again in the future. I think empowerment is key - don't tell people how to do their job, just give them a direction and help them understand what the overall objectives are. There's nothing worse than micromanagement.
You’ve invested a lot in your office, and your employees get free beer and breakfast, monthly socials and a paid trip abroad each year. How much do people value those kinds of perks versus higher salaries, for instance?
I'd like to think that our team get a decent salary as well. But in general terms I would say that as long as people are paid fairly and feel they’re paid enough the quality of your working day is more important for most people. It's far more important for people to enjoy what they do and enjoy working with the people they work with than to earn a crazy salary. Clearly there are variations but on the whole I think it's true that salary is not the be all and end all.
How big a challenge is recruitment for you?
It's certainly more difficult for us being based in Cirencester, compared to being in London or Manchester. We're not in the middle of nowhere because we can pull from Swindon, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Bristol. But there's a lot less people here to pick from and therefore it can take longer to find the right quality of candidate we are looking for. But we always find them in the end. And clearly if you treat people well they will remain with the business. People are more likely to remain with a business that treats them well outside of London, because there's less competition.
What are your Plans for next 12 months?
We've got lots of irons in the fire. One of the big pushes for us is getting our brand out there. We launched a new brand campaign on the 2nd of January this year, with a new TV ad and lots of out of home advertising and digital display as well. We will continue to improve all of the tools on our site to make it easier for consumers to find the right product for them.
What’s your vision for Money.co.uk - how big do you think it can get?
We want to be on a level playing field with the ‘big four’ within three years, we believe we can do that. We do focus on slightly different product areas to most of our key competitors. They tend to focus on home and car insurance or energy, whereas our key focus is on banking products - loans, mortgages, credit cards, savings, current accounts. We are operating in a slightly different space, but I think a good benchmark for us would be for the press to reference the 'big five' rather than the 'big four'.
Have you considered taking the business abroad?
It's something we've looked at. We haven't done to date for two reasons. We've got more than enough to do in the UK and we want to maintain focus - if you spread yourself too thinly then you can't deliver something of quality on the one thing you're focusing on. Even more than that, the legislation and compliance in different countries, as well as the products, are very, very different. So it's not a cookie cutter approach - we couldn't just lift our software and launch it in another country.
What do you do when you're not working?
I enjoy a lot of sport. I play football and tennis and squash and taekwondo and I'm in the gym regularly now as well. I also enjoy a round of golf, but it's harder now I've got three children. And I love reading business books, almost as a hobby. I play the guitar and the piano - but not to a beautiful standard.
Would you ever sell the business?
I've no crystal ball, so who knows? I certainly wouldn't say never but right now I've got so many projects to get stuck into, it's not going to be in the next year I don't think. Who knows what the future will hold.