By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur.
Callum Laing and I have known each other since the mid-’90s in Singapore. He has been a successful entrepreneur for many years now and during the recent episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast, he talked about how he built MBH Corporation. The UK-listed company is a “global agglomerate of well-established, profitable small businesses.”
The Glass Ceiling Problem
MBH is a solution to a problem that Callum had as a small business owner; that is, even if you’re a successful small business, you tend to face a glass ceiling. You can’t win big contracts and you remain a small business. It’s difficult for you to attract good senior staff. And you don’t have the resources of a big company.
What happens is that successful small businesses get sold to bigger players in the industry. The problem with it is that invariably, you have to go along as part of that deal. Typically, these deals are a three- or five-year earn-out. However, entrepreneurs don’t make very good employees. They’re not good at being told what to do, especially when it comes to their own business.
When you’ve been in the industry long enough, you’ve probably seen scores of entrepreneurs being acquired and spat out by the likes of WPP, Publicis, and Omnicom among others. They quit in disgust or get fired six months later — from their own company. After spending the last 10 to 20 years creating value for others, that does not seem like a good solution.
The idea behind MBH is that they find good, well-run, and profitable small businesses. These businesses get to swap their private equity for public equity, but the founder keeps full control over their business.
Their brand, their hiring and firing process, and their culture remain. They don’t need to run anything past anyone. They could carry on with their business as they always have. But the advantage is that they’re now part of an amazing collaborative environment involving other entrepreneurs who now have a vested interest in their success. They will also have stocks so they can go out, give stock incentives to staff, and even do their own acquisitions.
Callum considers himself lucky to get to hang out with cool, successful business owners around the world — and try to share their stories with investors.
Building MBH’s Brand
MBH deals with three audiences: the potential companies to buy into, the investors, and the businesses that they’ve already bought into. To address this, Callum has been working harder on personal branding.
Previously, he (like a lot of people have) had the reticence of not wanting to put himself out front. However, he realised a number of years ago how much time you can save if you’re well-known. For example, if you’ve written a book or an article, or you’ve been on a podcast, or if you have a meeting with someone who’s already heard or read about you, then half of the sales is already considered done. They already know what you’re capable of and your values.
This way, you can get straight down to talking about logistics, which is a much more interesting conversation than what you’re having back when you’re a younger entrepreneur. Back in the day, Callum would spend the first half hour of his coffee meetings trying to convince people that he’s worthy of their time.
The worst person to sell yourself to is yourself. But once he embraced the idea, he began investing in things such as putting together a book. His first book is called Progressive Partnerships, which came out five years ago.
He’s also done numerous other attempts. And he realised that one of the best ways to build his brand is to support other people and help them build their own brand. With that, he built a platform to showcase entrepreneurs who are doing cool things but are not currently featured by the media.
One of the things he discovered about the media is that they all say they want to break new stories and find hidden talent. When in reality, what they do is to wait until somebody else has done it and simply copy what that somebody has done.
If Callum could give somebody their first published interview and put it in his platform called enterprisezone.cc, then it would be easier for them to go and get other media interviews. It gets progressively easier and it kind of snowballs into something bigger. Today, they’ve already published more than 2,000 interviews with great entrepreneurs across the globe.
Systemising His Service
Callum has built a good model in terms of who does the work to get noticed. He recognised that the value he could give to entrepreneurs is platform and distribution.
The workflow that he has first came about when he had reached out to a platform and offered to interview entrepreneurs and business owners in his network. The biggest challenge for that particular platform was that it didn’t have enough content. So he proposed to publish an interview once a month. They came back and asked if it could be done once a week. When he jokingly said to do it once a day, the platform said that it would be great.
Callum, however, realised that he didn’t have the time to do that. He was running companies and doing other things (he also had a day job). But if he were to do that, he had to get smart about how he’d systemise it.
Originally, he had a lot of virtual assistants. He would have an automated email set up. People would go into a Google document, fill in their answers to a questionnaire, upload their photos and his VAs would do everything. He wouldn’t actually be involved until the interview was published and he’d get to read it.
Those people would also recommend other entrepreneurs who they thought deserve having the same content. Now that there’s this so-called no-code movement, there’s a lot of automation systems available. And it is through it that they’re able to publish these interviews every day.
Last summer, during a sort of lockdown boredom, he launched a micro podcast featuring entrepreneurs answering one question: Tell me about a time that you overcame a challenge in your entrepreneurial journey and what you learned from it.
For this, what he does is to direct them to a webpage, and let them fill in their details and upload their photos. On the page, they can press a button to record up to four minutes of their content (They can re-record if they didn’t like the first take) and hit submit. The file goes to his audio editor before it gets published and broadcast through a network.
At the moment, he’s using JotForm (it’s similar to Google Forms but has a lot more options). As he pointed out, there are many cool platforms now that you can use. However, the danger is that you can get lost in the technology and spend days exploring it. This is why he tends to find something basic that works and build it from there.
In his case, JotForm allows him to automate email sequences and fire them off to people. The downside, however, is that when you go back to it a year later and something goes wrong, it could be hard to remember the sequencing that you’ve done (In my case, my VA records with Loom the different processes that we have).
On Investor Relations
Apart from profiling entrepreneurs, Callum has a lot of investor relations (IR) work to do. And he doesn’t pretend that he’s anywhere nearly as effective with investors as he is with entrepreneurs. IR, for him, entails a very different mindset.
For instance, he first thought that the easy way to build a network of investors is just to replicate what he’s done with entrepreneurs. He’d create a platform for profiling investors and ask an investor to recommend someone else (What he does with entrepreneurs is to ask them to recommend three entrepreneurs who deserve more limelight). But as IR needs a different mindset, he’s had to change his approach.
One of the advantages that MBH has is that he doesn’t run any of the companies. He doesn’t have to worry about clients and staff in those individual companies. He’s got the time to focus on IR and on the media. He can put together a lot of content and that has given them a huge advantage.
As dealing with investors is a full-time job and CEOs already have full-time jobs, his heart goes out to the CEOs of small companies that go public.
Most people don’t have experience in the public market. They tend to get fleeced by advisors who will tell them that they have to engage these very expensive IR people. And a lot of them are just nonsensical and are doing a really poor job.
One of the most high-profile IR companies in the world sent them a proposal and a part of it was to build their social media. They’d publish three articles that MBH has written on LinkedIn for €3,000 a month.
In reality, someone somewhere might have already paid that amount for that service. Most people are not aware of it; those who haven’t used the platform before can get very easily fleeced by a lot of professionals out there.
On MBH’s Investee Companies
MBH’s investee companies maintain their independence. These companies are not startups; they are well-established companies with an average age of about 23 years.
Callum has always been puzzled by the fact that an acquiring company would buy a company because it has a great entrepreneurial spirit and brand. Then, they rebrand it and throw away that entrepreneurial spirit.
At MBH, when a company comes in, it is completely autonomous. While they’re independent, if they want to collaborate with other companies in the group, they’re more than welcome to do so.
If they’re pitching and they want to emphasise the fact that they’re part of a hundred-million-dollar global public listed company (PLC), they’re also more than free to do so. However, if they also want to play the card that they’re, for instance, a boutique construction company and the founder will be available to speak with, they can do that as well.
At the market level, they can go out and talk to their market about how they’ve got record profits and they’re growing and they’re a great company to invest in. If they’re under a brand, it would make it difficult for them to pitch out to clients and try to squeeze suppliers. But because their investee companies are completely independent, they can do just that.
Additionally, they’re also kind of protected if another company in the group has a problem or has a PR scandal. Because they’re still different from that company, they won’t be tarnished by that.
Communications Between Companies in MBH
There’s a lot of opportunities for companies to be helpful to one another. But for Callum, it’s more about sharing the best practices. If you put a bunch of smart and successful entrepreneurs in a room together, they’d get to share their respective best practices, learn stuff, and apply things accordingly.
At MBH, they use Slack as a platform to communicate. They also do monthly Zoom calls; it became weekly when COVID hit hard in the UK last year as things were changing so rapidly. And with the global financial crisis happening not too long ago, people were sharing what they’ve done, what they wish they did sooner, how they communicated with their staff, what worked and what did not.
Now, they also have companies seconding their staff to go and work in other companies and learn. Given today’s situation, it’s very difficult to do career development in a small business.
To find out more about Callum, MBH, and his micro podcast, reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn. If you mention my name Jim James, you can also get a free copy of his book called Agglomerate, which is about PLCs and small businesses joining together.
This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.