David Nicol

Fourteen Advantages of Founding and Running A Digital Agency on a (Relatively) Remote Island

June 1, 2016

Today marks the 14th anniversary of the official founding of NB Communication. Managing Director David Nicol looks back on some of the advantages NB has gained from it's Shetland location.

We've come a long way since 2002. We've worked with some amazing clients in Shetland and Orkney, and now have an office in Edinburgh and a growing client base throughout the UK.

At times, it seemed like our choice to be in Shetland might restrict our ability to grow. However, it is now clear that our location has given us many significant advantages we wouldn't have had if based in a city.

1. Supportive clients

When we founded NB Communication in 2002 we didn't have much experience in this field. But that wasn't a problem. Back then, the Internet was not as ubiquitous as it is today, and fewer people were offering web-related services. So, we founded the company after noticing a gap in the market, with a plan to figure out how to do good work as we went along.

Being in Shetland was definitely a positive factor for us here. First, there was actually a gap in the market in Shetland for us to spot. Similar gaps had already been filled in cities, and elsewhere, but not in Shetland. But, crucially, our clients were willing to give us the time we needed to learn on the job. As long as they could get the end results they were looking for, without it costing too much, they were happy to give us a try. So we got to learn by working on real projects.

Note: this perhaps makes it sound like we had no idea what we were doing when we founded NB Communication. This was not the case, as we'd immersed ourself in learning as much as we could about this exciting new field. We were just as qualified as the majority of similar agencies elsewhere. However, we believe that being in Shetland provided us a little more leeway to learn out as we went along.

2. Time to find our feet

Choosing to found our agency 'at home' in Shetland gave us more time to figure out how to be successful.

For one thing, our office rent was incredibly low, at least compared with typical rental costs in the cities. Keeping costs low meant we had more time to figure out how to make the business profitable enough for it to be viable.

Similarly, choosing to be in Shetland allowed NB's founders to live with their parents during the agency's early stages. This reduced the pressure to extract much income from the business until it was better established.

3. An added incentive to do well

We are grateful to have an eager local client base keen for us to do well. But the flip-side of this is that if we ever do a bad job, we are likely to meet that client in a social situation in Shetland sometime soon. Living in a small place provides a real incentive to to a good job every time, to remain consistently at the top of our game, and to think of the long-term outcome of any client relationship.

Similarly, we've found that serving clients in our 'home' market makes it essential to be good at what we do. If we can help a local business to succeed, this can have a real impact not just for them but on the local economy. This adds pressure to be good at what we do, and that's a valuable thing.

On this note, many of our highest profile projects have been to promote Shetland, as a destination, to the world. The desire to do this well and to help Shetland punch well above its weight has driven our team for many years.

4. An educated workforce

When NB first started, there was no real digital sector in Shetland, other than a handful of freelance web developers. We founded the business in response to noticing this gap in the market. However, the lack of an existing industry meant that there was no pool of experienced local talent we could hire as we expanded.

For us, the solution was to hire and train new graduates, from across a range of academic disciplines. This has been a successful approach for us, and we now have a team of highly skilled digital marketing experts whose varied backgrounds allow us to see the big picture and to serve our clients better.

5. A global outlook

Beyond hiring and training local graduates, we've expanded our team by working with creative people from around the world. Every day, NB's in-house team will be working alongside skilled designers, developers and coders from around the UK and far beyond.

Our location gave us us the incentive to become great at working with remote suppliers we'll never meet in person. We wouldn't have developed these skills, to the same extent, if we'd had the option to hire local freelancers.

6. Economies of scale

We are still a small agency, by national standards, but we are relatively big within the Shetland market. So, you could perhaps think of us as a "big fish in a relatively small pond".

Being 'big', at least in a local context, afforded us many advantages. For one, potential clients from Shetland generally recognise our name and know some of our work before they even speak to us.

Newer agencies in competitive marketplaces are likely to find it more difficult getting attention from potential clients.

7. An incentive to innovate

Many of our clients suffer from the relatively high costs of shipping items to and from the islands, and also find essential business travel to be expensive.

For our own business, we've solved or avoided many of these problems by being quick to embrace technology. We've become particularly good at using online project management and communication tools. This helps us deliver a better service to our clients without having to travel or incur other unnecessary costs. Indeed, we complete many projects without us ever meeting our client face-to-face.

8. The incentive to become good at learning

It is time-consuming and costly for our Shetland-based staff to attend industry conferences and training events.

We figured out very quickly that we could have bought a LOT of books for the £3,000 we once spent attending a usability conference in London

So, we've become good at developing our skills through our own online research, reading and experimentation. Our team continues to prove their ability to learn and innovate on every project we undertake.

9. Working for a diverse range of clients across all industries and sectors

Most business textbooks emphasise the need to focus on servicing just one industry or on offering a very specific service. There is logic to this, of course. But, we soon realised that no single industry or sector offered enough potential clients, in Shetland, for us to be able to truly specialise.

So, over the years we've worked for clients of all sizes, from almost every industy and sector. In doing so, we've gained an enormous amount. A lesson we might learn on a project for a one-person start-up in the textile sector might be highly valuable when working on a site for a multi-million pound oil company.

We have learned about - and from - hundreds of clients, from a diverse range of backgrounds. This has helped us to understand how businesses work, and gives us excellent foundation for every project we work on.

As we continue to grow, and now that we have a presence in Edinburgh, we can think more clearly about focussing on specific niches, but if we do so we'll still benefit from the lessons we've learned working with every other client over the years.

10. Recognition

We've recently expanded beyond Shetland, and have now worked for many clients in Orkney, Edinburgh and elsewhere in the UK. It has been gratifying to learn that many of our potential customers outside Shetland are already aware of us. We suspect that simply by coming from Shetland we are automatically a bit more memorable than most city based agencies.

11. The element of surprise

Some people seem to be surprised to learn that there is a specialist digital marketing agency in Shetland. But they are usually interested to learn more. Our Shetland roots have proved to be a good ice-breaker when speaking to potential new clients from elsewhere.

Indeed, many cite our Shetland-ness as a positive reason for many clients wishing to use our services.

12. A ready made network

Although we've referred to Shetland as 'remote' in this article many times already, it is an incredibly well connected place in terms of travel links. So, it's actually very easy for us to meet with clients in Orkney, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness whenever required, even at very short notice.

Beyond this, Shetlanders who move away are generally very good at staying in touch with friends and family in their home islands. Several of our first opportunities beyond Shetland came via Shetlanders living and working elsewhere. So, in many ways, we have a ready made network of enthusiastic advocates helping us out as we seek to expand further afield. We are very appreciative of this.

13. A fantastic quality of life

When we founded NB we really didn't have a particularly clear vision of how things might turn out.

Despite this lack of a master plan at the outset, things have worked out quite well. We've been able to serve hundreds of happy clients, grow our agency and employ and train many skilled people over that time.

In doing all this we've been able to enjoy the fantastic quality of life that Shetland offers. This is both a benefit of our choice to be here, but also a contributing factor to being able to do good work. None of our staff has a stressful commute, and those who do have to travel any meaningful distance are likely to have an enjoyable and scenic journey, especially in the summer.

14. An outsider's perspective

We are now working with many more clients from outside Shetland. In doing so we've realised that we have a very different perspective to many city-based agencies.

We've spoken to several businesses who've spent tens of thousands of pounds with big name digital agencies, only to receive poor customer service, unexpected bills for trivial 'extras' which should definitely have been included in the original budget, and, ultimately, mediocre end results.

Looking in from 'outside', this doesn't seem the right way to do things. But perhaps this is just another gap in the market for NB to fill?

Fourteen years ago we spotted that there was a need for digital services in Shetland, and we founded an agency to provide what was missing. Now, a decade and a half on, we see just as clear an opportunity for small agencies such as ours to provide a better service - and to generate better results - than many UK businesses are currently receiving. We may, of course, be wrong about this. But NB's evolution in Shetland has given us a great foundation that we can build upon. We are equipped to do very good work for clients throughout the UK and look forward to enjoying the challenges that lie ahead.

Thank you to all our clients, suppliers, partners and everyone else who has helped us so far. We really appreciate it.

If you'd like to talk to NB about your digital marketing requirements, please do contact us. We'd love to hear from you.

June 1, 2016

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