1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
My name is Eugene Cheng and I turn 26 this year. Fresh out of high school at just 19-years-old, my business partner Kai Xin and I began HighSpark, a presentation strategy and training company. Based in Singapore, we have since helped Fortune 500 clientele like Oracle and MasterCard and businesses from around the world tell more powerful stories to raise funds, captivate audiences and inspire change.
A large part of what drove us to start the business were the sleep-inducing lectures we attended back in school. Bright-eyed and hopeful we noticed the gap and realised there were better ways to get presentations done.
Before diving into the business, I started uploading my work on SlideShare.net (during its heyday, pre-LinkedIn acquisition and subsequent closure) just to see if I could get our type of work validated by the market at large.
To my surprise, the work we had uploaded regularly were featured on the front page leading to hundreds of email enquiries for our unique service of writing and designing presentations. All-in-all, the traction we got from the platform was impressive with over 2Million views on one of our channels. While there were other firms already offering such a service in the United States, there were few to none in South East Asia. We saw this opportunity and decided to start a business focusing on presentation strategy.
Annually, we did around $600,000 in revenue but have been growing year-on-year. Naturally, this might not fully reflect our overheads and staff costs.
Our model is very much like a conventional agency. We evaluate each consulting project on a case-to-case basis, not charging specifically for time or a set number of slides, but the overall value that it might deliver to our clients. For example, startups gearing for a fundraising round would stand to gain more from a Series A round raising a few million dollars versus a seed round startup aiming for a $500,000 raise.
Aside from our strategy arm, we regularly run training for organisations to teach them our craft and improve their communication abilities and soft skills. Training programs we provide cover presentation content, visual design, public speaking, and other miscellaneous areas in the communication space.
Naturally like most service agencies, we encounter seasonal demand and cash flow fluctuations. Since the nature of our work largely caters to specific engagements and projects clients want to prepare for, we double down on retaining clients that have worked with us for re-engagement at a later time.
We do face the ‘feast-and-famine’ cycle every now and then but a few retainer projects and training retainers have helped us move past those each time.
We currently have seven people in our team to service our presentation strategy and training arms, with a team of four in our sister company Motionsauce, which provides video production and animation services.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
We landed our first few customers purely via word-of-mouth and cold outreach. In the early days of LinkedIn, I went around randomly connecting with individuals who might find our services useful. One day, I received an unknown call from an acquaintance of one of my LinkedIn connections who needed our help. The call turned out to be an executive from a large Japanese agency that had us help with their CEO’s presentation.
Using a platform like SlideShare that offered good exposure for our type of work also helped to accelerate growth in our business. However, when the platform started getting shelved by LinkedIn, we had to find another way to find qualified customers easily and digitally, running a lean operation. However B2B leads were a challenge to find because they weren’t readily and easily targeted through advertising avenues like Facebook.
We tried a variety of methods including attending physical meetups and joining associations like BNI where referrals were encouraged. Though we did get some traction there, it proved to be time consuming and customers were often unqualified or disinterested.
Fast forward to a couple of years, Kai Xin and I had a serious meeting about how we would continue to make the business sustainable. We asked ourselves what worked for us in the beginning and at that moment.
Looking through the enquiries on our contact form, many of them indicated that potential clients discovered HighSpark either through SlideShare, articles online, and on Google Search.
It was safe to say that most of our clients found out about us via inbound means from content marketing efforts – meaning they were largely more qualified and interested in our services by the time we received the enquiry so contracts were much easier to close. Generally the structure of how organisations purchase professional services was that an executive would take cue from a supervisor to conduct a Google search, send out some emails, and make some calls to shortlist vendors.
That’s when we decided to double down in these marketing avenues in the hopes that we would see more results from our efforts. I started guest-posting heavily for websites like Lifehack, CreativeMarket, E27, Techinasia, and also post on our own blog.
Having invested in ViperChill’s SEO course, I began optimising our website for search. I strategised how to increase our discoverability and increase traffic for training and presentation design- related keywords.
A few months in, we began seeing the results that we were looking for: A rush of qualified enquiries from clients that wanted what we had and could afford our services.
As our traffic increased, we were seeing many potential clients falling through the cracks and leaving our website never to return. Shortly after this discovery, we put together a seven-day email sequence to collect emails of visitors interested in storytelling.
This resulted in a number of training gigs directly from our email list.
In summary, we found that understanding customers’ purchasing behaviour made it easier to find the channels to convert them in. Generally, search engine optimisation and email marketing are powerful ways to regularly generate leads for the long-run. The only drawback is that companies need to be consistent in creating content and maintaining relationships with potential leads.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
Early on in our journey, when we called ourselves SlideComet, we had trouble getting clients to take us seriously. The fact that many prospects were at least two to three times our age at the time left a bad taste in the mouths of some senior executives. Perhaps it was akin to having them ask someone younger than their child for advice on an important business matter.
Getting around this was a combination of dressing older to look the part and building our confidence along the way.
Originally we focused almost exclusively on visual design as a service. This became a problem later on as we found it difficult to raise our prices and command a higher premium for our services. Clients made comparisons to marketplaces like Upwork and it became harder for us to justify the value of our service.
Our perspective changed when a well-dressed external consultant popped in on a client meeting describing the work he’d be doing for them. He basically described whatever we were already doing for the client, labelled it as ‘strategy’, and charged double our rates.
That’s when we realised that clients were willing to pay more for a strategic outcome along with a lower perceived risk. That’s when we changed the name of our business from SlideComet to HighSpark along with the way we spoke about our company.
The old name limited the range of services we could offer and it read more like a school project than a reputable agency. We paid $1,000 to a logo designer and invested in revamping our website. More importantly, we distanced ourselves from the word ‘design’ and began using other words like ‘strategy’ and ‘storytelling’ to describe the work that we did.
The result? Clients perceived us differently and some assumed we hailed from a team of 40 people on first impression. This helped us triple our prices in a couple of years and solidified our move into training as well.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
I’d have to say that we’ve been really lucky throughout our journey so far. We managed to carve a niche early on within our geographical location for a service which only a few people have an expertise in.
We’ve also been blessed to meet a variety of mentors at different stages of our business so far. That said, to get lucky, we had also done a lot of preparation.
- Look for mentors who’ve done what you want to achieve
I’d randomly email or send personal messages to people via Facebook of whom I’d like to get in touch with or learn more about. Granted I don’t get a positive reply from all, the ones that did give me their time really changed my perspectives and led me in the right direction.
Early on through the internet, I got in touch with Emiland De Cubber,a french designer who received fame for re-designing the NSA presentation along with Ana Foureaux Frazao, a US-based keynote designer at Apple, and Tomas Bay who runs a storytelling firm in Hong Kong.
Many years later, I got to get back in touch with a few of them coming full circle.
These early generous mentors shaped the way I thought about business, design, and how to conduct myself generally. They validated my early work and gave me the motivation to set out on this endeavor.
With the world becoming so much smaller because people halfway across the world are just two clicks away, there’s no excuse to not to get connected.
- Put yourself out there
Truth is, remaining stuck in a little bubble doesn’t allow room for growth.. I took on multiple speaking gigs like ones at Pecha Kucha Singapore and I attended various community meetups in our design thinking space to expand our horizons.
This doesn’t just result to more business in the mid-term, but by meeting more people, we realised the business community had opportunities for word-of-mouth recommendations and networking.
While, talking about the work that we did initially felt uncomfortable and promotional, we found that the friends and acquaintances that matter will always support you and stick around to see you succeed, as long as you’re not too obnoxious.
Additionally, sing our Facebook and Linkedin profiles remind clients and friends that we exist leading to new connections and new work on many occasions.
Books I recommend:
- For Negotiations: Influence by Robert Cialdini – a timeless piece about psychological tricks to get ahead when working with people
- For Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout – a couple of senior authors offer an interesting perspective on marketing and positioning. Always relevant.
- For Management: E-Myth by Michael E Gerber – the godfather of management theory for business owners. Reading this book changed my perspective on management in a small team.
Our first hire was a designer who has till date worked with us for three years. Many of our later hires were pretty junior but turned out to be superstars after a period of about 3-5 months into the job. As we started out lean with little capital, even one wrong choice in hiring could derail the whole culture of our team. As such, we’re really careful and take our time with hiring decisions.
My ethos is, if you want to make a hiring decision quickly, you should be ready to let the person go if they can’t meet your expectations. To be able to compartmentalise and set a distinction between personal decisions and professional ones is key to not going crazy with the pressure too.
GrowthEverywhere – I was fortunate enough to be featured on one of the episodes with Eric Siu. Very smart guy with tons of really great interviews.
MarketingSchool – one of the best free podcasts on marketing available
Storybrand with Donald Miller – superb interviewees and great insights always
5. What is your advice for those that are starting productized services?
I don’t exactly run a productised service, but I can imagine a few of the biggest challenges are getting your numbers right and forgetting about the importance of marketing.
Predictability = Sustainability
As a productised service, it may benefit you to bill on a subscription basis regularly. From here you’ll have predictable income to inform your business decisions such as hiring and expenses moving forward.
This however, will be impacted by churn or customers that you might lose along the way. You’ll have to identify your key clients that drive a bulk of your revenue and seek to engage them along with looking for people just like them.
In our line of business, we’ve found that the clients who are a nightmare to work with are also the ones who aren’t as willing to spend on a premium service. In the same vein, you’ll need to do the math to see if you’ll want to work with many clients at a lower price, or fewer clients at a higher premium.
Don’t forget marketing
Robin who runs Manypixels (and also runs this interview series) is successful because he doesn’t just flip a few switches to watch the business run on autopilot. He manages support enquiries, consistently heads out to develop new relationships and partnerships, and engages with various communities.
In our case, keeping a team of 7 means we need to consistently identify cash flow concerns and plan ahead to fill our pipeline with fresh work. Marketing is not something businesses can optimise only when there is a dry spell in the pipeline. Marketing needs to be a regular activity that you plan for and execute with conviction. Otherwise, a business will find itself in a chicken-and-egg situation where you’ll have trouble making decisions due to financial restrictions.
6. What are your plans for the future?
We’re looking to continue to maintain our website traffic and rankings in light of new Google algorithm updates. We’re also developing new tools and email funnels to grow our business with our existing visitors and leads. And finally we’re working on a book to further solidify our foothold in our market as an authority. In the short run, we’re looking to launch an online course to digitalise our popular offline programs.
We anticipate that ‘shiny-object syndrome’ could be a show stopper. If we can’t adequately balance revenue-driving company activities with our time working on these new projects, it’s likely motivation will fizzle out before we even begin.