The importance of getting back up and dusting yourself off
Paul Walsh is the current founder and CEO of Infinity, a call intelligence platform with 100 staff in four offices. He is also a co-founder of the digital agency Jellyfish, with over 550 staff across the world and revenues of £70 million. Paul tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame his story.
Paul Walsh’s interest in computers began with a ZX Spectrum, one of the early personal computers, some time before technology became a fashionable career path. He started coding it from the little book that came with it, making his own games.
However, building a career in technology wasn’t straightforward. In stark contrast to the oversubscribed computer science courses today, his course at Nottingham University was closed down when he was the only one left on it. He left, before starting an online vinyl records shop with a friend.
The company only lasted a few years, but Paul had the bug for technology and entrepreneurship and, aged 25, started his own IT and web design company.
He was early into the paid search business, which gave him a notable advantage: “As it turned out, a lot of people were still discovering the use of paid search. Despite being the youngest person in the room, I had been working in Internet based businesses for four years at that point and that was a lot more than most people.”
In 2002, he had the opportunity to land his first big client. Having done some work with Which?, he had an idea on how to grow the group’s search marketing efforts. It was a far bigger client than anyone else he was working with at the time, but he held his nerve: “When I put together a pitch for how we could run their search marketing I presented it confidently, they were receptive and we ended up working together for the best part of a decade and fundamentally changed their business and ours.”
By 2004, the company was fully focused on the booming search marketing industry and, by all metrics, was progressing nicely, but he recognised he needed outside help to grow much further. In 2005, he brought in Rob Pierre. The pair rebranded and relaunched the company as a digital marketing agency. This was Jellyfish, which - thirteen years later - employs over 600 people across three continents.
His entrepreneurial career hasn’t all been hits. An ill-fated foray into opening a barber shop in 2006 taught him to conduct extensive research into a market before launching future ventures. Jellyfish too has had its tough times: “Things had been going well, but in 2010 we hit the hardest hurdle we ever had at the agency. In quick succession, we lost three major clients, which hit us hard and immediately wiped out 60% of our revenue almost overnight.”
“No obvious solution presented itself, and having bootstrapped the company from day one, there was no investor or backer to give us a safety net. It was a sink or swim moment, as the problem wouldn’t go away on its own.
“Hard decisions had to be made. What this period taught me was the importance of getting back up, dusting yourself off, surrounding yourself with good people, and cracking on with what you needed to do. Approaching things head on meant that we could regroup and build a strategy to get the business moving in a positive direction again.”
He stepped down from Jellyfish in 2011. “As a founder, it’s hard to let go of any control of your company. But if you truly want it to flourish you can’t take it personally if you need to hand over a big role to somebody else. Recognise when the right person is ready to step up and let them get on with it.”
But he wasn’t done with entrepreneurship. He set up Infinity, a call intelligence platform that helps businesses identify which campaigns have led to phone calls. The company uses a SaaS (Software As A Service) model - where clients pay a license fee for the call tracking product - and means clients can commit more money to those campaigns that work most effectively. It has now expanded its offering with the recent launch of its Conversation Analytics suite, giving companies a clear idea at scale about what happens on their calls.
The company is now well-established, and has received significant venture capital backing, including from Smedvig Capital. Initially reluctant to bring in outside backing, Paul approached the process cautiously: “I researched different types of investors, and I met plenty of them. I gave our pitch so many times that I can still recite it today. I took something I wasn’t in favour of, but grabbed it with both hands when we stepped back and realised it was the right thing to do. In the end, it enabled massive opportunities and was a lot of fun.”
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