Business Interview: Gary Boon, founder of Newcastle-based Shout Digital

He's grown an internationally-facing digital agency but don't call Gary an entrepeneur

www.ianmacphotos.co.uk Gary Boon
Gary Boon

Gary Boon is something of a rarity in business. He’s a man without a plan, and it doesn’t bother him at all.

In fact this strategy, or relative lack of, has kept Gary’s business, Shout Digital, growing for five years.

The Newcastle-based digital agency – which counts Great North Run organisers Nova International and OK! Magazine among its clientele – has grown to employ 30 people since its 2009 launch.

“I’ve got no idea how I got here, in truth,” Gary said, sitting in front of a clutch of trophies in the Shout boardroom.

“I would love to say I had some masterplan but the reality is I just had one aim, and that was to deliver quality products. That’s just what I’m like.

“I don’t obsess over the numbers and grandiose dreams of where we want to be.

“Organic growth comes out of simply delivering great product.”

On paper, Shout’s lack of business development function and absence of a hard and fast strategy might seem alien to would-be backers and investors, but in his downplayed style, Gary has managed to attracted key North East business luminaries to the Shout table.

Former Sage chief executive Paul Walker and Adderstone Property Group’s Ian Baggett are among his investors and advisors.

In fact Paul Walker said Shout are “exceptional at what they do”.

Such an influential investor-base is made all the more interesting by Gary’s seeming dislike of “networking” events and talking the talk.

Gary Boon
Gary Boon
 

He claims to be much happier when mulling over a problem for a client or chatting with one of his US customers late at night.

“There’s always someone doing better than you,” he said.

“Where Shout is placed the stack of really good North East companies is not for me to say, it’s for my clients to say.

“I’d like to think we’re up there with some of the best but talking about it doesn’t interest me all that much,” he said.

Even in his previous role as technical director of neighbouring Newcastle agency TH_NK, Gary admits that he was rarely in client meetings.

He added: “I’m naturally a quiet person and feel more comfortable when I’m getting on with things, rather than talking about them. I like to be behind the scenes.”

Gary’s modest manner belies his obvious drive.

Shout must be up there among the best to have amassed its impressive client list. Hard work and long hours have built the firm.

It’s an around the clock operation for Gary, whose elder son works at the firm as a test analyst, along with his wife, who is finance manager.

He admits to never switching off from work, but fortunately his family are forgiving of the time and space needed to negotiate running an outfit like Shout.

Gary explained: “When you run a company there is just no work-life balance, you can just forget about it.

“You do what it takes. Sometimes you make great decisions, sometimes you make poor decisions and you have to recover from them.”

He’s made enough good decisions to reach turnover of more than £1.1m in five years. The work has been varied and innovative.

In 2013 the team developed the 4Mobile system for North East-based construction software firm 4Projects. The product provided cloud-based collaboration services for architects, designers and building professionals – allowing clients to log on and find project information on their mobile devices which would be shared and altered.

Elsewhere the firm created a digital personal trainer for people preparing for the Great North Run.

Beyond the event itself, the app was designed to motivate people into moving off the sofa and getting involved in sport.

A subsequent “celeb spotter” app for readers of OK! magazine linked news reports of celebrity sightings with geo-tagging technology.

The product gave wannabee paparazzi with the means to locate nearby celebrity haunts in the hope of catching a glimpse of their favourite stars.

Shout Digital’s first ever account was for Trinity Chambers in Newcastle, although now more than 90% of Shout’s revenue comes from outside the North East.

Gary says he would love to do more work on his doorstep.

He said: “Being in the North East is core to who I am, and core to what we do.

“My ambition has always been to create jobs in the region and that comes with it challenges.

“We come from an area of relatively low population, meaning there’s a skills shortage.

“I disagree with outsourcing overseas as an answer to that though. You have to cultivate the skills if they aren’t there.”

In an industry coloured by a high proportion of freelancers, Gary is keen to keep the agency model alive in Shout Digital. He admits that bringing in outside operators could be profitable for him, but the consistency element makes him uneasy.

He explained: “All of our work is done under one roof. If we bring people in we want them to be part of the team.

“There is nothing wrong with freelancers or contractors, but I need people in my business who understand my clients and what we’ve done for them over the years.

“For instance, Ryder Architecture were one of our very first clients.

“They took a huge risk in handing us a big project. I’m pleased to say we still work with them today, but that’s because I have people in Shout who were there on day one, and know the back story.”

Shout’s key territory is the web and mobile app space.

The technical make-up of these products is something few of Shout’s clients are likely to be well versed in.

So how does the firm convince prospective customers of its expertise in a marketplace full of other “digital” agencies?

Gary explained: “It’s about talking to clients or pitching without using all the language which can characterise this industry.

“Sales people can use the jargon to convince people it’s complex, but you find the people who truly understand this stuff are the people who can explain it in layman’s terms.”

Clients may have become technically savvier in recent years, but the difficulty in selecting an agency to work with has not become any easier, as Gary suggested: “You’ve got all these agencies to choose from, and they’re all saying similar things – how do you know who’s the authority?

“Sometimes decisions are made on factors like cost, other times they’re based on personalities.

“If you’re going to work with someone for the next few years, you’ve got to at least get on with them.”

A similar theme is apparent in Shout’s hiring activity.

The breadth and range of skills in the company is great – and there is a difficulty for Gary in knowing who can deliver the goods for him, particularly in technical areas outside of his own knowledge.

“It isn’t as simple as saying “you know the answers to all these technical questions”,” he said.

“You have to look beyond that. In my mind it comes down to two things: aptitude and personality. If someone has both of these things they can go a long way. That doesn’t mean they know anything, but as long as they’ve got the ambition to learn and the attitude we can help them to accrue skills.

“Bringing in someone more senior is different because you need them to hit the ground running and specific technical skills are part of that capability.”

There’s one word which is banned in the Shout office – “entrepreneur”.

Despite his obvious credentials, it’s a word which Gary prefers not to associate himself with.

He explained: “I’m someone who works very hard at what I do, but that doesn’t make me an entrepreneur.

“I’ve started one business which has only been going for five years. If I had a portfolio of 20 business and had suffered a few failures along the way then maybe I could call myself an entrepreneur.

“I do what I know and what I love.

“I have to earn money to pay my mortgage and I was never going to be a musician, so this business is just me earning a living.

“There are many people in the North East who have created highly successful business – businesses that stand apart from the competition. You can call those people entrepreneurs.

“If I wanted to sum up my business the cliched way I’d say I started five years ago with a plan – brought in all the right people, exceeded the plan and made no mistakes along the way. “In reality you have luck, but you create your own luck.

“We’ve made good and bad decisions which have probably evened themselves out over time.

“Could we be in a better position?

Possibly. I could have made different decisions – there are many different ways to build a business.”

“The name Shout is totally opposite to my nature – that’s probably why I gave the company that name.

“There may be other digital agencies in the region that shout louder than we do, and win more work for it, but our work has always spoken for itself. That’s why we have long standing clients.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? BMW X5

What’s your favourite restaurant? Does Just Eat count?

Who or what makes you laugh? My son Ethan can always make me laugh.

What’s your favourite book? The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

What was the last album you bought? If we count streaming on Spotify, then True by Avicii

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? An Astronaut – going into space must be amazing.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Xbox On

What’s your greatest fear? Not being able to support my family.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received? Surround yourself with good people and preferably people better than you are.

And the worst? Not to worry about new business.

What’s your poison? I’m teetotal, but probably drink far too much Diet Coke

What newspapers do you read, other than the Journal? I don’t really read newspapers these days, but follow technology, business blogs and websites. For current affairs it’s Sky News.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? I had a paper round when I was younger – I don’t recall how much I got but it allowed me to buy a Pick ‘n’ Mix each week!

How do you keep fit? I built a home gym at some point – I think it’s still somewhere in the garage.

What’s your most irritating habit? I never switch off from work. I’m sure my wife hates it – but is far too understanding.

What’s your biggest extravagance? I’m a bit of a film buff and a few years ago had a home cinema system installed – apart from the ceiling collapsing when the projector was put it, I think it was worth it!

Which historical of fictional character do you most identify with or admire? I admire people who don’t give up and are tenacious; so if I had to pick one person it would be Steve Jobs.

Which four people famous people would you most like to dine with? Leonardo da Vinci, Freddie Mercury, Steve Jobs and Sir Bobby Robson

How would you like to be remembered? Just someone who worked hard, looked after his family and tried his best.

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