The Saatchi & Saatchi of Sheffield

Entrepreneurs Nick Giles and Michael Hayman combined PR with the campaigning style pioneered by Saatchi & Saatchi.


Michael Hayman and Nick Giles, Seven Hills

Most of us think of entrepreneur-types as being risk-hungry 20-somethings with no family commitments. However, the data suggest that, even in the technology sector, the founder of a successful start-up is far more likely to be nudging 40 than 30. During the late 1990s, Nick Giles and Michael Hayman (now 43 and 45 respectively) were working for the technology firm Abacus. They quickly became friends and discussed the possibility of setting up their own PR firm based around the campaigning style pioneered by Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1980s, which they felt had been diluted.

At the time their plans came to nothing they went on to work for blue-chip PR and marketing firms, including WPP and Hill+Knowlton, instead. However, they met frequently over the next decade and both remained convinced that "there was a real gap in the market". In 2009, they realised that "if we don't do it by the time we're 40, we'll never do it". So they formally founded Seven Hills (named after the seven hills of Sheffield) in November that year opening their doors on 4 January 2010, the day after Michael Hayman's 40th birthday.

One benefit of starting out in middle age is that they could draw on their savings, rather than having to raise external capital. It helped that the PR industry is hardly capital intensive, relying on "good ideas and a basic amount of kit". To "send a real message to the market" they organised an entrepreneurs' festival in Sheffield, booking an entire train to carry the 1,000 participants up to Hayman's hometown. The conference and the Sheffield connection landed themPeter Jones (of Dragons' Den fame) asa client. Other early clients included Virgin Media, which commissioned a report from the company.

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Seven Hills now has a turnover of £4.5m and employs 35 staff. Despite rapid growth, the pair emphasise that they take on new business "with the sustainability of the firm in mind". Turning people away might seem counterintuitive, but clients "appreciate that we're selective". Their focus is on start-up and early-stage firms and "high-growth sectors that excite us". As well as tech, they're involved in the food and drink business, helping firms such as Ella's Kitchen (the organic baby-food company).

They're taking on international work with a partner agency in Austin, Texas, and they do business in San Francisco, New York and South Africa. But they plan to keep their core focus on the UK London isn't simply a "brilliant base", it's also a "superpower brand" and as part of their campaigning ethos, they're involved with the non-profit StartUp Britain, which they co-founded in March 2011.

The pair have lots of advice for budding entrepreneurs in their book Mission: How the Best in Business BreakThrough (reviewed last week).One key tip is always to seek the viewsof outsiders. They set up an advisory board, made up of other businessleaders, right from the start. And a supportive spouse helps. "Mortgages and marriages" are traditionally seen as impediments to entrepreneurship, but they credit their partners with helping them balance their responsibilities to their families and their company.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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