Tarek Nseir: How I started up a firm between lectures

Tarek Nseir started his web design business while still at university. He got his big break when he landed the Northern Rock account. Then disaster struck.

Tarek Nseir spotted his first business opportunity when he was 16. "I was the 'techie' guy at school and people came to me when they had a computer problem." After a few months he shifted from fixing computers to building them. "Back then even standard PCs were pretty expensive. I just bought the parts, put them together and sold them for a profit." However, by the time Nseir was ready to go to university, "Dell basically started doing the same thing as me on a massive scale. There was practically no margin left." Worse, studying a business and computing degree "wasn't what I thought it would be". He found the classes dull compared to running his own business.

Pretty soon, though, Nseir worked out how to "make money on the side". He set up a website design company with a fellow student and started offering the service to local businesses. "Business grew quickly as there were lots of small and medium enterprises in the northeast wishing to get online and not much competition." By the third year of his course, TH_NK had moved into rented offices and was employing four people. "I was coming back from lectures and going straight to the office, where the guys would fill me in on what had been happening."

By the time Nseir finished his degree, he realised TH_NK was "ready to step up to the next level". So he started to target larger, established firms. "We had moved on from simply building websites, we were now offering to manage a firm's complete digital business." The breakthrough came in 2004 when Nseir persuaded the then "up and coming" regional bank, Northern Rock, to award his firm a digital contract. "We were handling their online marketing, their website everything."

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The contract "transformed" TH_NK, boosting the company's yearly sales to £3m and swelling the ranks to 50 employees. "Northern Rock accounted for more than half of our business, and they were growing quickly." Then, in September 2007, "disaster struck". Northern Rock became the first British financial institution in 150 years to suffer a bank run as the precarious nature of its business model was exposed. "In the space of two weeks we lost nearly half of our sales."

In just a few months, TH_NK was reduced to holding "£300,000 in the bank with a monthly wage bill of £200,000". Realising he had to cut costs, Nseir laid off four members of staff "which made me realise being an entrepreneur has its negative sides". With the financial situation now "looking bleak", he set off to London "to look for new contracts". That turned out to be a smart move: pretty quickly he signed new deals with Hays Recruitment and ITV. "The market for digital services (ranging from customer research to exploiting social networking and online storage) in London is absolutely massive we had always planned to move down, but the Northern Rock crisis forced our hand."

Those deals saw Nseir open a London office, which now "creates more than two-thirds of our business". TH_NK's sales reached £5.5m last year and he expects to hit £10m in 2011. Nseir admits that he will "look to sell the business one day, but not in the near future".

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.