Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Dave Thornton and I am the Founder of Thornton & Lowe. I started the company 10 years ago, at the age of 23.
We now have a team of over 20 delivering ‘bid’ related products and services. Ultimately, we support businesses large and small to Bid Better. We help our clients win tenders through the more formal procurement/purchasing process, by:
- Writing and improving client proposals
- Training their teams to write more persuasively, understand the buyer and manage the often complex process more efficiently
- Providing an outsourced bid writing and management service
- Supplying temporary and permanent Bid Professionals, through Bid Resource, our specialist recruitment division; and
- Giving access to our bespoke software products, Tender Pipeline and Tender Library.
We have developed and broadened our services and products but focused specifically on what we know - ‘bidding’. In this niche market in the UK, this has enabled us to grow a reputation quicker, to expand and to more easily see our points of difference or our unique selling points.
This marketplace, like I expect a lot of management consultancy generally, was dominated by the individual, ‘older’ (than me), semi-retired, 30+ years experienced consultants. They often offered amazing insight and added value, but usually wanted to be a little more hands-off, less directly involved and more advisory. Whilst most of the potential clients I was speaking with needed handholding, for the work just to happen and wanted someone, more than anything who would get stuck-in. I was happy doing this as it meant spending more time with clients, learning more about their business, competition, and sector.
In comparison to many of my competitors at the time who had already made their money, I really did need to make it work and needed to scale things. I had bills to pay, this was not a part-time pursuit. I had to be more flexible, more customer-focused and just say ‘yes’ and make it happen, as I could not afford to lose a paying customer. I had to perform. This level of customer service is what sets us apart, and is still what we strive for each day.
We have now worked across over 150 different sectors ranging from legal services, infrastructure, and transport, through to recruitment, healthcare and facilities management. In doing so, we have helped our clients win billions of contracts. Whilst, our clients range from start-ups through to multinationals, our core client will bid at least 5 times per annum, turnover $2m - $25m, have more than 1 regional office and have ambitions for growth. They will not be happy with their current win rate or approach to ‘work winning’. You can see what some of our clients say via the reviews platform.
- Sales over $130,000 per month
- Complete over 400 tenders each year with a win rate over 75%
- Train over 500 delegates
- One of the largest UK databases of Bid Professionals
- Highest customer satisfaction in the industry
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Thornton & Lowe is my first and only business. What I still get asked regularly is, ‘who’s Lowe?’ Well… as I always wanted the company to be more than just me I knew I needed a name, which could ‘hint’ at being larger and more established. Lowe is my wife’s, Cassie’s, maiden name. It sounded right to me, and I was then known as Dave Thornton ‘trading as’ Thornton & Lowe, which then developed into a limited company a couple of years later.
So how at 23 did I decide to set up a bid writing and management consultancy? After completing my undergraduate degree I managed to secure a Graduate Trainee position at a large Social Housing Provider. This was a great opportunity for me to work across their divisions, from supported housing (working with vulnerable groups), through to traditional housing management and dealing with contractors and suppliers, to report writing for the Board of Directors. A great opportunity to develop a broad skillset.
Near the end of the 1st year of this training scheme, I applied for a job internally in the Group’s Head Office working in the Performance department, helping the group achieve efficiencies, value for money and developing their new procurement strategy. While in this role I completed a part-time Master’s Degree in housing management but focusing specifically on how Housing Providers spend their income and how to make savings while improving customer satisfaction.
In my role, I was receiving continual training and mentoring from a specialist Procurement & Supply Chain Consultant. We went through everything in theory and in practice from EU Procurement rules and their implications, through lean management, value stream mapping and completing detailed spend analysis. We formed, which I headed, the Value for Money department; the go-to place for anyone in the Group who wanted to achieve savings and ensure procurement compliance. I would help run tenders, set up the procurement documents, project manage the tenders and lead on evaluating the bids.
I had started to think and feel like a Consultant. In a very short period of time, I had picked up a lot of qualifications, skills, and experience. One of my plans was to improve how we worked with the supply chain and invest more time with them, to understand their challenges and ensure we had the right partners. One issue we found when smaller, local businesses put forward proposals or tenders for our contracts, was that the ‘quality’ element we were evaluating was simply not strong enough. This was not due to the product itself or the service but simply because they did not know how to respond to our quite formal procurement documentation. Larger competitors had Bid Teams compiling tender responses for them and as a result, largely scored higher and won the contract.
Every small business owner needs to be a salesman. This isn’t just to create and convert leads but selling to new recruits, to your suppliers, creditors, and partners.
Without really thinking about it in any detail I had approached the HR department to get permission to work with some of our suppliers to improve their bid skills and to better take advantage of public sector procurement opportunities. 16 months later I was going full time on my own. This period gave me the chance to test ideas, understand the sector and where I could add the most value. I applied for a business loan but in the middle of a recession, I was quickly turned down. So before I gave my notice I applied for a personal loan to cover mortgage payments for 6 months and then felt free to finally go for it on my own.
Most family and friends felt like I was giving up a promising career but for me, and not being a risk-taker really, I knew the more I earned in my career the more I would have to give up. So do it while you are young!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
As a largely service-based business, our ‘product’ is continually developing. Before working full time in the business I had 16 months building up clients and understanding what they wanted. But looking at what we offer now it is incomparable, as we have developed, learned and continually tried to offer a better service to our customers. I strongly believe the key is being flexible and taking the time to understand what the client needs. If that does not fit your current ‘offer’, what’s the impact of changing it? There will always be a learning curve but by understanding the likely impact, good and bad, by tailoring your offer, in a controlled manner, it allows you to create a point of difference.
One of the most successful software products, Tender Pipeline, which is a free portal to search for business/ tender opportunities across the UK, involved a more detailed development process. As with many new products, it started with an idea to solve a couple of existing business challenges. Our clients wanted us to monitor tender portals for them but to do this in a way that offered value for money was difficult. We also had complications of the new Data Protection and GDPR rules coming into place. We believed if we developed a free product this could be our answer, while allowing us to reach more potential clients, widening our reach.
With these core requirements, I started to plan out exactly how I would see the software working and why. I should add I am not a programmer, so it was more of a wish list which I could then provide to a few programmers and see what solutions they could then come up with. From this initial stage, we identified the partner we wanted to engage in. I then had their ideas, suggestions, and practicalities, and we would both challenge each other throughout, but the project managed and become responsible for delivery. Once we had an early working version I shared with our team and let them have a play for a few weeks and feedback. We repeated this several times, and then tested with a couple of good clients, tailoring as we went.
We then launched! 18 months on we are still improving the software each month and have a long list of new developments and potential opportunities. The next step, as with other elements of the business, is to recruit a Manager who can solely focus on it making the system the best it can be and commercial success.
We started off as Tender News….
But ended up agreeing with Tender Pipeline…
Describe the process of launching the business.
I launched the business in 2009. Due to my job, I had a good understanding of the market. My ‘research’ was mainly speaking to suppliers who would be potential clients and understanding what they required, followed by a lot of googling of what was already available… That was enough for me to start testing things and seeing if I could create an additional income. So no grand strategy I’m afraid, though my research did highlight where I felt I was best placed in the market. The aim was to create an agency, rather than become a freelancer; I knew that.
One of my mates from University was working at the BBC in their Digital Team at the time, so he designed me a quick website for free (thanks again Kev!) and I actually felt like a proper business. This was just a website to send people to, to make me seem more ‘official’.
Winning new customers is never easy! My first proper client was one of my suppliers who I had supported a lot while in employment. That is the benefit of working in an industry that you already know. They introduced me to several business networking groups, which led to a couple more clients. Though this route takes a lot of time I built up a good business network and over the year I knew I would pick up some new clients through this route. But I needed a way to catapult our growth, so I started contacting those who were working with the types of businesses I wanted to work with. This involved me googling related companies, emailing them directly via their contact page and then trying to book in a call with one of their Directors.
Start early! The younger you are, the less risk. You will unlikely to have a huge salary to sacrifice.
I spent most evenings doing this without much success, however, I got lucky and my email and call landed just at the right time with one of these companies. In the first 12 months they passed me $275k! I let them ‘white label’ my service and I did everything from their sales meetings anywhere across the UK, managing all the clients, did most of the Bid Writing, and started to build up a network of trusted freelancers to support me.
At one of my networking meetings, I met a consultant selling SEO and PPC services. With the profit from my referral partnership arrangement, I invested it largely into PPC. At the time in our industry, there wasn’t too much competition and clicks were cheap. This quickly became the next systematic and scalable route for getting more leads and more customers.
My job was making savings so I certainly wasn’t going to splashing the cash! As a consultant, trying to set up an agency, what did I need?
- To pay my bills. As I worked full time while setting up the business, this meant I could save up a little, pick up a couple of clients and I applied for a £12,000 personal loan, which I could dip into as and when required. And it really was required! For the first 5 years of business, I certainly would have been better off employed but I did believe in what we were creating
- Website. My first version was free thanks to my mate but even now this can be done very cheaply (if you don’t need to rely on it bringing in new business)
- Insurance - few hundred dollars
- Laptop and fancy bag (as I was a high flying Consultant now…)
- An accountant – $1,300
- Business stationery. We still only buy the occasional business cards at $50 a box. I don’t think you need more than this when setting up.
- Business Networking Groups and memberships - $1500 per annum but I knew this would quickly pay for itself
- Mobile – I just used my personal number
- Email – Gmail, which was free for us at the time
- Marketing – I relied on doing ‘direct sales’ via my mobile to create business partnerships who could pass me leads. They had much bigger budgets and knew what they were doing when it came to marketing.
This is why I say to people – just do it!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
No matter what sales and marketing route brings you leads and ultimately customers, you still need to spend ‘time in the game’, or this is certainly the case for professional services businesses. For us, it has taken this dedicated time to be known, trusted and “respected in the market”. All those leads which fail to convert, or who you advise and realize you can’t charge or point them in the right direction just to help. It all slowly builds into a network of people who like you and who want you to do well. This means even when google changes an algorithm (which we have suffered from several times over the years), you suffer but you still have a steady number of inquiries just from being known. I believe you don’t get this until at least 3 years in and then it snowballs and as long as you can service your clients well, it continues to build.
Our most consistent success with regards to business growth has been through organic and paid search via our website; creating inbound inquiries. Keeping these customers is then critical and often overlooked. It is hard getting a business to trust and invest in you, so once you have them that is not the time to stop investing. Our aim is to work with successful businesses that want to grow. As they grow, we grow. If you can then get these clients recommending you to their network (through incentives or simply to support), again it snowballs.
We have tried pretty much every form of marketing over the years and still dip into most of them. This coming year, 2020, is actually the year we are developing a single strategy. We are probably a bit late with this one, but I’ve always thought as long as we are getting leads, converting them and making a profit, I didn’t need to worry too much.
One campaign which we ran for years was a Free Tender Assessment. We would review and provide feedback on a failed bid, proposal or tender submission. The aim was that we could show our value by improving elements of the bid, along with our sales presentation to discuss our approach.
As the business scaled it became quite a costly exercise as many of the businesses looking for this level of support were smaller than we would have ideally been looking for. But we certainly have clients still now that I did a Free Tender Assessment for back in 2012, so I am hopeful we can reassess how we can bring this back in the future.
Customer retention is largely based on one critical factor in our industry. Winning our client's contracts. We need to be producing a return on investment as soon as possible, we need to be showing how we have increased win rates and eased pressure from our client's senior teams. Work winning and then building relationships is how we have built up our regular and loyal base of clients.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Each year we have grown our net profit. Our last financial year felt like a real step up seeing us “exceed $1.3m turnover”, which for quite a niche consultancy business is something we are really proud of. This financial year we have again seen further growth and we are on track to make $650k net profit.
As we have developed a structure and system to manage our increased workload it is only really now that I can start playing the role of a true Director; providing direction, control, and strategy. I am now more excited than ever about the potential of the business and what we can help our clients achieve. We are making a real effort and investment to better align and understand the potential we have, monitor the impact of what we do and then telling others about the impact we are having.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
While I had a vision of what I thought I could achieve, I didn’t really have a specific strategy or plan of attack, though I did work with several consultants to try and create something... I was simply pragmatic and tailored my service to meet the needs of my clients. This has worked overall but I strongly believe we could have grown quicker with a little less stress had I formally set out a few more goals, objectives and ‘rules’ to work to.
It is very easy to get sidetracked by the next new and interesting opportunity, when in business, and I have really invested a lot of time and money into at least 6 of these over the years with little progress. If you get to the point where you have a proven model, a way of getting leads, converting them, providing a good service and making a profit, why then get sidetracked? Pretty much all small business owners I speak to regularly do this. To focus on what you know, spending ‘time in the game’ will really pay dividends. Or doing this at least until the business entirely works without you, across all functions.
Every small business owner needs to be a salesman. This isn’t just to create and convert leads but selling to new recruits, to your suppliers, creditors, and partners. The biggest strength a business owner has is “passion”. If you love your business and what you are trying to achieve, selling it, should become easy.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We use Gmail for emails, Dropbox for our documents, Sage for accounting, ActiveCampaign as our CRM and marketing automation tool, Bullhorn as a recruitment specific CRM and CV Library to advertise our roles.
We use very few additional tools ourselves, however, I’m sure our partners use a few more. We focus on what we do well, but then largely outsource our Marketing, Digital, HR, and Accountancy. For example, Tao Digital Marketing, manage our website, digital PR and inbound marketing performance.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I have built up a really good network of peers who I like to discuss business with, including my business partner who joined the company after the initial few years. This is my best resource as they are often going through, or have been through the same issues and can provide their experience. This may be in the pub or while out running but has proven to be a great way of firing me up again.
E-Myth Revisited, most of the Dragon Dens autobiographies, Richard Branson – Screw it let’s do it, are all great books and give you a bit of boost and allow time to re-focus.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
- Do it! So many people speak to me with great ideas and never seem to do anything about it. Just start doing it. You don’t have to give up your job the same day – just sacrifice a little time and a little cash (if required). But give it a go
- Start early! The younger you are, the less risk. You will unlikely to have a huge salary to sacrifice. You just need a good idea and a plan of how you can try and test getting your product/service into the market
- Do not undervalue yourself. Charge a fair rate for your service and this does not mean what your old salary equated to. As you now have to pay and spend time on sales, marketing, accountancy, staff, and tax, as well as trying to make a profit to allow you to reinvest for the next year. Understand the prices in your sector and where you want to fit.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We always seem to be recruiting, with our key role being Bid Writer. You can view all our jobs via - Thornton & Lowe jobs.
As I started my career as a Graduate/ Management Trainee, each year we still take on at least 2 to work within our consultancy and bid writing department, with the aim of them developing into professional Bid Writers. We hope to also have these opportunities in our Recruitment, Training and Software teams as they grow.
Where can we go to learn more?
Thornton & Lowe has provided an update on their business!
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with Thornton & Lowe to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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