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Starling for business stories: Gavin Bell

29th January 2019

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Growing up in Shetland, Gavin Bell would have described himself as shy. Today, he speaks to audiences of more than 300 people about being an entrepreneur and his videos on how to grow a business through digital marketing and advertising have attracted 2.5 million views across Facebook and YouTube.

Turning points

For Gavin, 24, the turning point in his career as a public speaker and digital marketer came when he was awarded a place at the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy, set up in 2005 by successful entrepreneur and star of the Dragons’ Den TV show, Peter Jones CBE. The year-long course was based in Manchester, a city he had never been to. “It was a massive change. In Shetland, I was used to traffic being sheep on the road. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone - very different to Manchester where I knew no one,” he says. “But it was something I always knew I had to do. Shetland is so remote and that makes it even more difficult to get started in business.”

To be accepted onto the course, candidates had to pitch the business idea that they would develop throughout their time at the academy. At 18, Gavin was one of the youngest of the 30 successful candidates. He came up with the idea for a 'wellbeing company’, which would send a team of personal trainers out into offices to run classes and teach people a range of exercises they could do at their desks.

On day one of the academy, everyone had to present their business idea to the class. “The academy really threw me in the deep end. I went from being super shy to really enjoying speaking and presenting. The more you do, the easier it gets,” he says.

He qualified with a diploma in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship in 2013 and moved back to Scotland to set up his company in Edinburgh. “I had a couple of clients but it never really took off. But through that business, I saw first hand how many personal trainers struggled with marketing. I started helping them with it and that’s how I got into the digital marketing space,” he says.

Gavin smiles in a black and white headshot.

Gavin moved on from his wellbeing company to start a Facebook ads agency in 2015. His overarching aim is to help businesses with their online advertising so that they can engage more people in their service or sell more of their product. “We ran a Facebook advertising campaign for Aberdeen Football Club,” he says. “They had done no online advertising whatsoever, just billboards and traditional ads in the back of the paper. They gave me a budget of £1000 and we sold 800 season tickets. That year was the most season tickets they’d ever sold.”

How to advertise through Facebook

So what’s the secret? “Know who your audience are, identify the problem you’re solving and then double down on creating content that continues to help solve the problem,” he says.

If you’re a guitar teacher, for example, you could create a free tutorial video and target people who have searched for similar content. Once they’ve seen that video, you could then retarget them to tell them about more tutorials or lessons. This way, the potential customer already knows who you are and how you can help. “The main mistake people make is that they create ‘salesy’ content that isn’t relevant to that person at that time,” he says.

The three main steps he teaches people to follow are:

  1. Create great content that entertains and informs a potential customer
  2. Focus on building an audience, not going straight for the sale
  3. Utilise Facebook retargeting for customers who already know who you are

Gavin creates content both on behalf of his clients and for his own followers seeking online advertising and marketing tips. “When I started creating video content three years ago, I was terrible. But the important thing is to get your face in front of a camera and keep practising. I set myself a challenge of doing 100 vlogs in 100 days and I got so much better at communicating. A few of the videos went viral.”

Overcoming the loneliness of being a sole trader

Running a one-person business isn’t easy. For his first year running his Facebook ads agency, Gavin worked 9am-5pm on the business and spent weekdays evenings and weekends working at a call centre. “I needed something to pay the rent and put food on the table,” he says. “The work was quite flexible so I gradually cut my hours down at the call centre as the income increased from running the business.”

As of May 2016, he was able to support himself solely from his business and in August 2018, he brought in his first part-time employee. “My goal for the business used to be to build a huge team. But that completely changed after I met a friend who runs his own business. He taught me about how to generate income without a massive team. My new aim is to keep growing while keeping the business lean.” Gavin employs freelancers to help with admin work and manage client accounts. He also commissions work from a graphic designer and videographer, who works on creating and editing weekly video content.

His biggest challenge has been building a name for himself in the industry. It’s been a long time coming. But three years on, he’s got to a point where clients come to him and he can choose who he works with.

“I love what I do. I’ve got complete and total freedom. As long as I have WiFi and a laptop, I can run my business where I want, when I want - I don’t need an office or lots of face to face meetings with clients,” he says. “It was lonely when I first started but I’ve built up a network of people I can meet or call. I’ve also built up a client base of people I genuinely enjoy working with. It makes running a business really fun,” he says.

The other part of his job he loves is the opportunity to travel abroad for speaking events on how to advertise online. “Last year, I went to Prague, Milan and America - I get to meet great people and see new places,” he says.

More than just a place to store money

One feature of the Starling business account that is particularly helpful for Gavin is that there are no fees when he uses his card abroad. All Starling customers can use their card overseas without any fees for making transactions or withdrawing cash.

The other features he likes are the breakdown of monthly spend, real-time notifications when money comes in and leaves his account, and the ability to integrate with his online accounting software Xero. He also uses the Goals feature to automatically set money aside for tax. “Why would you ever bank with anyone else when you’ve got all these amazing features with Starling? I introduced my brother, Fraser, to Starling and a week later he switched everything over. He keeps sending me emails with updates on Starling - he’s obsessed.”

Before Starling, his bank account was nothing more than a place to store money. Now, it’s something that makes life easier and helps him save time and money. “If you’re running a business you don’t have time to eat, let alone go to a bank branch. When I switched to Starling, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”

To find out more about Gavin, have a look at his company website mrgavinbell.com.

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