Rob Mathieson, managing director of AYO Digital

Rob Mathieson, managing director of AYO Digital, speaks to Robert Gibson of his vision for further expansion

Rob Mathieson, managing director of AYO Digital
Rob Mathieson, managing director of AYO Digital

It's hard not to feel a little jealous of Rob Mathieson.

At only 32, he’s founded, and is now managing director of, one of the most innovative digital agencies in the region, defying the recession with a Midas touch that’s as business savvy as it is creative.

Indeed, the man named the Entrepreneurs’ Forum Entrepreneur of the Year 2013 has overseen huge growth at the Gateshead-based AYO Digital, which is on track to report turnover of £1m this year.

The 30-strong company, in fact, could be on the verge of its greatest expansion yet, following a £400,000 investment from FW Capital, which will go in part towards developing two hugely innovative products, one a content accessibility tool, the other a system for businesses to communicate directly with IT graduates.

“We’re also going to expand significantly, with at least another 30 jobs in the next two years,” Mathieson said.

“It’s European money, so there must be job creation as well - but we have legitimate projects to support that.”

Indeed, the company, which plans to open a London office, has carved out a strong niche for itself during its five-year lifetime.

It’s not, as Mathieson emphasises, just another web development firm, but essentially a manufacturer of businesses systems, a high risk field of work that, when done correctly, allows companies of all sizes to maximise efficiency, effectiveness and organisation.

At the moment, for example, AYO is working with a firm called Envirowatch, which produces sensors for the likes of train stations, where air quality, noise pollution and similar factors need to be monitored.

With AYO’s software, every detail, in real time, is just a click away.

Similarly, AYO will likely set a new benchmark in it website design for the Heaton-based Tailored Lets,

“We’ve created a property rental system that’s totally responsive, even on the mobile version,” Mathieson said.

“Nobody else has achieved that yet, so it’s a special product.”

Creating something special, in fact, has been key to AYO’s philosophy from the start.

On setting up in 2008, the company’s three young directors - Mathieson, Tony Olanipekun and Kevin Reece - wanted a brand that was completely different to what everyone else was doing at the time, and reflected this in the creation of the company’s own internal software system, AYOWare, now in its second incarnation.

A full management system, it contains everything from clients’ details to updates on active projects, all seamlessly integrated and enriched with features so enjoyable to play with, Rob runs it at home with his movie collection.

“It’s pretty powerful, and nobody else is running anything like this,” he said.

“When we’re working with a customer’s system, it’s high risk and there’s only so much we can do, but AYOware is like my toy; I can do what I want with it.

“So we’ve got features like voice controlled technology.”

Originally from Ponteland, Rob, who now lives in Newcastle, has always been something of a technology obsessive.

Unlike some in his profession, though, he never learned to programme as a youngster, so taking on an Artificial Intelligence degree at Staffordshire University must have been an exciting step into the unknown.

“It was really about logic and helping computers make decisions for themselves – but in reality it was actually incredibly boring,” he said.

“But here was an internet technology degree course there - one of the first in the country - and I transferred after my first year.

“It was just a different world - an incredibly exciting time.

“This was the early 2000s and people were seeing the opportunities this technology could create.”

On completing his degree, Mathieson’s first jobs included a role with an ecommerce site for nine months, then web development with Fusebox Design in Newcastle,

It was then that he joined the fast-growing agency, Think, and had his eyes opened to the possibilities within his line of work.

“When I joined they had about 30 staff,” he said.

“By the time I left, they had about 80.”

It was brave new world of web-based software that particularly inspired Mathieson and the others to set up AYO Digital.

To begin with, it wasn’t exactly plain sailing – the company started out in Mathieson’s living room and was soon struck with a case of “do or die” after a customer pulled out at last minute, sparking a frantic hunt for new business. But things picked up with many would consider dazzling speed for a start-up.

“A room became available at the International Business Centre at Gateshead,” Rob said.

“Within three or four months, we’d gone from a single room there to a double room and within six months from that to taking on three rooms on the top floor.

“We started with three founders and within 18 months had grown to eight members of staff.”

The company then moved to its current premises at the Northern Design Centre, Gateshead, at the start of 2012, and has continued to enjoy consistent growth.

“When we started, lots of agencies had been hit by the credit crunch,” Mathieson explained.

“With fixed day rates, they were trying to charge huge sums of money.

“But we were able to be a bit more flexible.

“There are different challenges today than when started five years ago but always make sure we’re agile enough to handle that.

“A lot is to do with distribution of risk - making sure certain customers or a certain type of work don’t make up a large proportion of our income.”

Creating a strong working environment has also proved essential in terms in drawing and maintaining a loyal workforce at AYO, which, so far at least, employees don’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

“If you look at our business, our brand and how we position ourselves, you’ll same the same ethos running through the company,” Mathieson said. “We’re open and transparent - we even have glass offices – and everyone knows what’s going on. We don’t hide anything.

“With that approach, we get such a significant buy-in. Very few people have left us in the last five years.”

The atmosphere, he added, could be like the Stock Exchange floor on occasions, as often things needed to be urgently.

“But it’s a friendly place. We don’t get into politics and try to make it a level playing field. I think everybody here is valued no matter what role they undertake, and that culture has developed from what we set out to do at the beginning – what we wanted to deliver and how we wanted the brand to be perceived.”

The biggest challenge for AYO now is simply getting the word out there about what it does, as, despite its growing reputation in the business community Mathieson admits its not as well-known as it could be.

Ultimately, he’d like to cement such a reputation locally that the agency is the first choice for the North East larger corporate clients.

“The economy is going to recover, but we are going into a new economy,” Mathieson said. “People expect to get 200% of what they pay for, and for the foreseeable future we are going to have to work extremely hard for our customers. That’s not a bad thing, but at the same time, I don’t believe we’ll be seeing the good times back again any time soon.”

For Mathieson, this undoubtedly means a lot more work – far from ideal given that he and his wife Elaine have an “amazing” nine-month-old son who Mathieson’s keen to spend as much time as possible with.

It could also mean taking some big, difficult decisions, but Mathieson’s confident his chairman, as instructed, will press him with the usual vigour to think, make up his mind and commit to whatever track his chooses.

Certainly, Mathieson could never be accused of selling the talents of his team short.

“My vision for the company is to build the British Aerospace of the digital industry - the largest manufacturer of digital systems in the country,” he said. “It’s a very big challenge when you don’t do advertising or marketing work for your customers, as lots of larger agencies do.

“But we need people to understand that by coming here, they’re getting a premium product.”

The Questionnaire

Q. What car do you drive?

A. Volkswagon Scirocco

Q. What’s your favourite restaurant?

A. I try not to eat at the same place more than a couple of times, but there is a great Lebanese restaurant in Byker called Al Baik.

Q. Who or what makes you laugh?

A. Michael Mcintyre, Rhod Gilbert or Barry from our office.

Q. What’s your favourite book?

A. I don’t really have one, but I did just read Solo by William Boyd.

Q. What was the last album you bought?

A. Magna Carter by Jay-z –it wasn’t as good as his previous work!

Q. What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?

A. A pilot, although I can't imagine doing anything outside of technology.

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

A. “Yes Rob” - then at least someone would say it.

Q. What’s your greatest fear?

A. Not spending enough time with my family and not being there for my little boy Tom.

Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

A. Charge 50% up front and have a 14 day invoice period - courtesy of Sarah Armstrong, our business link advisor.

Q. And the worst?

A. “Just get all your business from LinkedIn and other social media”.

Q. What’s your poison?

A. I don’t really drink, but vodka and lemonade goes down pretty easy.

Q. What newspapers do you read?

A. The Journal (obviously), but I tend to read more of the technology blogs, such as Engadget, Techcrunch and Inc.

Q. How do you keep fit?

A. I go to the gym three times a week before work, with a minimum 4k run. It’s a long day, but it helps keep my energy levels up.

Q. What’s your most irritating habit?

A. That’s a question for my wife! Probably being easily distracted.

Q. How much was your first pay packet?

A. £15 when I was a paperboy.

Q. What’s your biggest extravagance?

A. I’m not really extravagant, but probably my car.

Q. What historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?

A. My fictional character would be Tony Stark! We have an equivalent of Jarvis, AYOWare. Customers are blown away when they hear it.

Q. How would you like to be remembered?

A. As someone who genuinely used technology to innovate.

Q. Which four people would you most like to dine with?

A. Jay-z, Michael Mcintyre, Elon Musk and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (just to mix it up).

Typical day

6.20am Out of bed, check my emails and into the shower.

7.15am Straight into the gym for an hour, usually involves a 4k run, followed by weights and core muscle work out. Back in the shower again!

8.30am Arrive at the office and into management team meeting. This involves pulling together account managers, project managers and technical staff. We review every project, its current status and delivery schedule.

9.30am Work through emails to action and create my daily to-do list. I like to use an app called Wunderlist to help me with this.

10am When I possible I try to spend an hour with our chairman, discussing the challenges that arise from business growth. I encourage him to question everything I do and constantly push my perception of what we do.

11am Product manager meetings. We have a number of internal products, which has been a partial reason for our funding. We now have teams dedicated to delivering these, so its important to clearly understand how these are progressing.

12.00pm Usually a quick dash to Gateshead Tesco’s, before heading back to the office for meetings with the business development team.

2.00pm I try to book customer meetings in for early afternoon. We are lucky to have some fantastic clients, so I try to spend as much time as possible working with them.

5.00pm I hold various types of strategy meetings, including user experience, brand, process and business development. This allows me to work with particular individuals and drill down into the core of our business. Internally we use Dropbox to store all our documents.

6.30pm Leave the office and head home to my wife Elaine and our beautiful son Thomas. I usually get an hour with him before it’s bedtime, so I try to make the most of it.

8pm Complete any outstanding work before sitting down on the sofa and watching some TV. Usually a good US show like Suits, Walking Dead or Boardwalk Empire.

11pm Bedtime, but sometimes I
can’t sleep and my brain goes into overtime. I like using Evernote to capture my thoughts, so I have it on my iPhone to write down anything I think about.

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