Alan Coleman knows what it’s like to bootstrap and grow a business. He’s the founder and CEO of the multi-award winning digital agency Wolfgang, and his story began when Google rejected his job application.
How did the company get its name?
Like a lot of online businesses in 2008, I called out what I did; OnlineAdvertising.ie. I ranked number one on Google but, ironically, nobody could remember the company name. I knew I needed an unforgettable name.
When I initially shared the new name ‘Wolfgang’ with people, it got a marmite reaction. But love it or hate it, nobody forgot it (which is precisely what I was aiming for). Besides, Wolfgang is a feckin’ cool name.
How long have you been in business?
I started in December 2007 having failed to get a job with Google. However, while going through the interview process, I fell in love with Google AdWords, so I quit what I was doing and taught myself AdWords.
“I learned the power of the soundbite when I said ‘there’s no recession online’ when being interviewed by George Lee on radio.”
My two-year aim was to become among the best AdWords professional in Ireland. Once I was AdWords qualified, I started running a few campaigns for people (for free). I tripled my third client’s business inside a month, and things have been on the up ever since.
What supports did your company receive when it first started?
I got €1,000 towards my website from the Local Enterprise Office. I was accepted onto the Create Enterprise platform in IADT. This meant I had a hot desk, monthly training and [most importantly] a network of a dozen other people who were starting digital media businesses.
I’m a firm believer that you should shape your business based on what your instincts tell you the market wants, rather than paying attention to a semi state’s criteria. If I’d allowed the semi state’s funding criteria influence my early decisions, I wouldn’t have been able to service the people I could meet and ‘eyeball’. This would have distanced me from my precious clients at a very early stage.
As we approach employing 40 people, I now believe we are mature enough to serve international customers.
“We’ve worked with a number of brave and ambitious marketers over the years. They are the centre-point of all our big breaks and successes.”
How did the company get its big break?
Rather than one big seismic break, it’s more accurate to say we’ve enjoyed a constant stream of positive affirmations that we are doing the right things.
I learned the power of the soundbite when I said “there’s no recession online” when being interviewed by George Lee for The Business. My clip was used in the TV ad for the programme earning me tens of thousands of euro worth of TV coverage.
I got ambitious when we won Gold in the Best Agency category in the DMAs the first time we entered any awards. We were two people servicing SMEs, and we beat the biggest agencies serving the biggest spending brands. Straight after the win, I took out a loan and started hiring. Times were a lot nervier back in 2011, but I now had validation that we were competitive in the marketplace.
My board of directors is now made up of my earliest hires, who came in as trainee digital marketers at the time. Getting the right people in the early stages has given Wolfgang a crucial platform for growth.
We’ve worked with a number of brave and ambitious marketers over the years. They are the centre-point of all our big breaks and successes.
“I figured out what the raw materials are to make great digital marketers. I started hiring and training people who could demonstrate those abilities and translate them into our work.”
What are your expansion plans?
Our 2020 vision is to become recognised as Europe’s Best Performance Agency. We’ve some ambitious commercial targets attached to that. Our people, our tactics, and our tech will get us there.
What are your company’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Weaknesses are great because if you can turn them into a strength, they become a powerful competitive advantage. Back in 2011 when we decided to start hiring, we found that it was impossible to find good, experienced people. This was an industry wide issue back then and still is now. I figured if we could turn this into a strength we’d have a crucial competitive advantage in the marketplace.
I also figured out what the raw materials are to make great digital marketers. I started hiring and training people who could demonstrate those abilities and translate them into our work. This strategy has evolved to become the Wolfgang Academy in which all ‘Wolfgangers’ spend at least 12 hours a month upskilling. We also host an internal digital marketing conference every Tuesday.
As a result, we’re not dependent on a broken labour market to scale our business. 90% of the digital marketers came in as trainees, and we enjoy very high staff retention rates.
Are there any magazines, blogs, newsletters or brands on social media you read religiously?
Scott Galloway of L2 is a genius as a marketer and perhaps as a philosopher too.
What job would you love or hate to have?
I always say if you get to do a job you have an aptitude for if you are appreciated and justly rewarded for it, and you enjoy the people you work with, you are a millionaire. So as long as those conditions are met, I could do just about anything.
If you forced me to choose one? If I weren’t CEO of Wolfgang Digital anymore, I’d want to be our content marketer. I love marketing, in particular, I love thinking about and talking about the evolution of digital marketing.
“Wolfgang has identified what we see as the world’s most pressing social issue and we are launching our very own not-for-profit in the coming months.”
If you were able to go back and advise your younger self – what piece of advice would you give?
Stay in college. I toyed with the idea of leaving my Business Degree in DIT to get started in business. Lots of entrepreneurs fall out of love with their businesses around the 20-person mark and seek to exit.
As Wolfgang has scaled from one person to 37 people, the skills I learned in my degree have been valuable and have allowed me to evolve in my role as CEO as the company evolves.
If you were ‘ruler for a day’ what would you do to change the business or social climate in this country?
Great question. Corporations are among the most powerful entities on earth so the reality of leading a business is you can be a ruler for the greater good every day.
Wolfgang has identified what we see as the world’s most pressing social issue and we are launching our very own not-for-profit in the coming months. We plan to lead by example and offer other corporations the chance to get involved. More news will follow.