Underwired, unlike the name suggests, does not make bras. It is a digital agency specialising in 'eCRM' - otherwise known as keeping customers happy and engaged online. Felix Velarde founded one of the UK's first ever digital specialist agencies back in 1994, and launched Underwired in 1996. He talks to MT about being a pioneer, watching the industry evolve and his adrenaline addiction!
You're a digital pioneer across several industries. Just how many 'firsts' have you notched up?
I started one of the UK's first digital agencies in 1994, then the first SEO agency, and the first interactive TV agency. It was never my intention just to be the first. Each agency evolved out of a desire to make clients more money.
What happened to the other agencies?
I've sold five of the agencies I founded. I even sold Underwired back in 2009 but then I bought it back last year. The company that acquired it made a mess of its expansion so I decided to take it private.
That sounds stressful...
It was. It was made all the more awful because I had to spend six months with lawyers doing the deal, which took me away from the day-to-day running of the business. It was a very protracted negotiation. But when we sealed the deal, it was fantastic. Liberating! Having spent so much time selling business and being caught up in earn-out agreements, it was great to be able to make entrepreneurial decisions with my own business again.
What exactly does Underwired do?
We map a customer’s lifecycle from the first time they interact with the brand all the way through to lifetime loyalty. Our job isn't just to map that journey, but to use 'nudge' theory to move customers from one place in the relationship to the next and create fierce loyalty. We're a digital agency but we don't just confine ourselves to social media or email, we reach customers wherever they are.
How has the industry changed over the years?
The world has changed and now the customer is in control. It is the customer who makes the decisions and talks about brands on social media. It’s not the brands talking about brands. The job of the brand is to be there if and when it is appropriate.
There is nowhere to hide any more and I love that. When you see the demise of high street brands that have a reputation for terrible attitudes or service, you cant help but think that social has had a hand in that.
Do you work with any company? What if a gambling firm or payday loan company came your way?
We do turn down business. The old world of advertising where anything goes and it’s all about manipulation is dying. Ethics has a big part to play at Underwired, partly because it makes the people in the agency uncomfortable to go against their own ethical code. We turned down Nestle 15 years ago and my feeling hasn’t changed. That’s what’s great about being independent.
Are you planning on launching any more agencies?
I'm taking a long-term view with Underwired now. I’ve sold enough agencies now. It’s been interesting but now I'm much more engaged in building big rather than starting from scratch again.
What do you do when you're not working?
I'm a serial experience junkie. Every year for my birthday my friends buy me some new experience I've never done before: flying lessons, horse riding, racing sailboats, snowboarding. A few years ago I got hooked on flying gliders – my wife of 20 years bought me that one. Now I own a 15m cross country racing glider and I spend a lot of weekends flying it.
What three pieces of advice would you give fellow entrepreneurs?
Learn how to be an accountant. It’s a critical skill. The least interesting but it’s critical. Don’t give up. Failure is part of getting it right, if you don’t fail you’re not trying hard enough. Hire people who are better at it than you are and let them get on with it.
Oh, and I have a fourth: do stuff. We all go on holiday and come up with that awesome app that will make us a million. No one actually does it. I'm quite good at actually doing it - or getting someone else to do it. But my boredom threshold lasts about five years, so every five years I have to renegotiate my enthusiasm for whatever I’m doing...