From Side Project To 7-Figures: How Two Friends Grew Their Agency To $7.8M/Year

Published: November 1st, 2022
Aaron Dicks
Founder, Impression
from Nottingham, UK
started November 2012
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Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Aaron, co-founder of Impression. Impression was founded in late 2012 by myself and a university friend, Tom. We were 21 and 26 at the time. We were both working in-house for a fast-growth renewable energy business and started Impression as a side project, working evenings and weekends in our bedrooms.

In our day jobs, we searched for an agency partner that could truly integrate into our marketing team, understand our challenges and meet our ambitious growth targets. When we couldn’t find one, we decided to create it. We started out by delivering services that would help a typical SME deliver against its strategy, executing paid media, SEO, and digital PR campaigns.

Six months after co-founding Impression, I left my full-time job and moved to consultancy, giving me the flexibility to focus more time on Impression without creating too many financial pressures. A year later, Tom and I were able to both be at Impression full-time, and we made our very first hire.

Fast forward to today, we’ve recently reached a milestone of employing 100 staff, have two offices in Nottingham and London and we’re on track to hit our next revenue target of £10m. We have evolved our service offering, now filling the shoes of a strategic agency partner to our clients, not only executing the strategy but researching and devising it too.


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I have a background in computer programming and web development, which I taught myself out of interest as a teenager. During my studies at University, by pure chance, I stumbled into a part-time job at a search marketing agency, and this is where I began to understand how the technical development work I was doing could be applied in a performant way for marketing teams, through the skillset called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). It was here that I was also exposed to a bit of pay per click (PPC) marketing, too.

After university, Tom and I found ourselves working together in Nottingham in the renewable energy business after a little time freelancing for one another. At this business, we got a lot of exposure to a variety of digital agency business models and approaches, and we learned quickly what we liked from our partners, and what we didn’t.

We also wanted to work with an agency local to Nottingham, but where we were at the time, we couldn’t find one. This, plus a little lingering entrepreneurial spirit, was the initial thinking which led to the Impression.

When Tom and I launched Impression, we didn’t have the luxury of savings or a bank loan, instead started slowly and profit-funded the business from day one. We started working with connections of connections, some charities, and some family friends, but with an investment into our SEO, we were quickly able to capture some local commercial demand which was the embryo of our local client base. Thankfully, things have gone from strength to strength since.

Take us through the process of designing your offering

Although we’ve grown to offer a full suite of digital acquisition services, one of our first services was website design and development for local SMEs. Whilst we remain proud of the websites we built at the time, we soon found our strength in digital marketing and advertising, and that was backed up by our early client results and their service testimonials. Many of our services still utilize the technical grounding the agency was built on; for example, we offer advanced web analytics, technical SEO, data analysis, and various programming languages used by teams around the business.

Our current service set is built through a combination of our skills, hiring decisions and of course our client demand. Our current two longest-serving services are search engine optimization and pay per click advertising. Some of our earliest clients have had similar growth trajectories to ourselves, and still work with us today.

Something we offered at the time as a smaller agency was direct access to specialists without an account management layer. As our average client size has grown, this is something we’ve since introduced as we’ve grown and evolved as a business, but at the time as a small agency servicing local clients, this was something our clients always appreciated.

In our founding years, our local competition was few and far between, but this has since grown to include international media agency groups. Initially, when we were competing for local business, our competitors were typically out of the area, so we had a home advantage, but this didn’t last long, as we began to pitch for work from businesses further afield.

Do twice as much research as you think you need to and speak to real (unknown to you) customers


Describe the process of launching the business.

Picking the name was a real challenge. We wanted to choose a name that meant something to us and was short and snappy whilst also being relevant to digital marketing. The choice we made also somewhat rested on what domain names and socials were available.

When landing on ‘Impression’, we probably had a short list of over thirty other names we were seriously considering. Most of the domain names we wanted were unavailable, but we found an initial variant we were happy with - and that was enough for us to get started. Before ‘Whois’ information was hidden for privacy reasons, we were able to track down the owner of with whom we brokered a deal to buy the domain in two installments via a LinkedIn message.

We created our website ourselves. I built it and our designer (who still works with us all these years later) designed it. Since we specialized in digital marketing, we were in the fortunate position to be able to do our advertising.

The biggest lesson I learned from the launch was not to underestimate the power of building your brand through awareness activity in the early days. In addition to this, at the time of launch, we were focused on SMEs and didn’t put ourselves out there enough for bigger clients as soon as we should have - this has since been rectified and is now a core part of our marketing strategy.

Our initial launch plan was a ‘soft launch’. We were able to gain our initial customer base through our network, which took the initial pressure off of putting ourselves out there to grow the business’ initial income. Once we had established a firm financial basis for the business, we made plans to take it full time, to begin advertising, and to grow into physical premises and take on a team. Getting to that point from our start date took us around 18 months.


Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Our business model is based on customer retention and monthly recurring revenue. As we’ve grown, this approach has ensured security for our team. I believe that good retention comes from proactivity, so we regularly run reviews and strategic planning meetings in collaboration with our clients. This type of activity allows us to explore new opportunities and identify areas for growth, helping us to retain and scale accounts.

In 2019, we hired our first client success manager and have since grown this to a team of 10. Our client success team is responsible for client retention and renewals. They work closely with our clients ensuring our account teams are delivering work that achieves against the client’s wider business goals.

As a small business just starting out, we didn’t have the tools budget we do now, but we were able to use some research tools like SEMRush to establish the local and national search demand for the services we were wanting to advertise. We were also able to highlight the keyword opportunities which helped us structure our first website. In terms of attracting new clients, SEO drove many of our new business inquiries in the early days.

Awards, third-party review platforms, and referrals (employee, client, and partner) are channels that have generated a healthy quantity and quality of leads over the years as we’ve grown. Winning our first European Search Awards in 2017 for PPC Agency of the Year was a pivotal moment, we saw an increase in inquiries following this win.

Now, we have a much more advanced marketing strategy and have made investments in our measurement capabilities, allowing us to assess the output of our marketing efforts accurately. We have used a CRM for a long time, and a few years ago paired this with a marketing automation platform. This, alongside our Analytics efforts, has allowed us to monitor performance per channel right through from unidentified website visitors, to identification and then converted into a sales opportunity.

We measure MQLs and sales qualified leads, opportunity values per service, and more. Frequently, we’ll complete a post-campaign analysis as if we were our customer, to understand campaign effectiveness and to establish hypotheses for future campaign tests.






How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, we are running a profitable agency and we’re fortunate to say that this has been the case since the beginning. We have grown sustainably, always within our means.

Our business structure is split into three organizational units: performance, commercial, and operations. For each, ultimate accountability is designed to sit with one person per unit.

Our performance department maintains the relevance of our service offering, our commercial department is responsible for the growth and our operations department ensures the agency runs efficiently. Within each of these areas, there are multiple different departments with different responsibilities which will continue to evolve as we grow as an agency.

We are continually looking to grow and innovate our service offering so that we can serve our clients better. Within the last 12 months, we launched a Strategy and Solutions department which has grown to 7 people in that short space of time. Last month, we onboarded a senior hire to help us launch and scale our very own Programmatic offering. We have a few other exciting service launches and expansions up our sleeves… watch this space!

In the short term, we are on track to meet our financial targets. In the longer term, we are working towards becoming the trusted consultancy supplier to market-leading brands across the world, expanding our global presence is also exciting future prospects for us.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I’ve constantly been learning over the last 10 years and I still am today! Through starting the business, I’ve learned to be as self-aware as possible and to always remain open to education and training. Networking is also incredibly powerful.

Early on, we made good decisions to form partnerships with other agencies that offered complementary skill sets. This helped us to build our reputation and expand our network.

Over the last few years, we’ve learned that client relationships are key. Navigating COVID was a unique challenge and by being flexible with our clients and their contracts, many offered us loyalty in return. By offering the option to pause, we think we retained more of our clients in the long term.

Certain sectors did well during the pandemic and we were fortunate enough to work with clients within those sectors, such as home improvement and beauty. These clients grew throughout COVID and because of this, so did we.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

For as long as Impression has been around, we’ve used Teamwork which is a project management platform that allows our teams to track the hours they’ve spent on a piece of work. Client’s can also access the platform if they choose to. Since time is the essence of what we sell, being able to accurately measure and report against this is essential.

We have had a CRM implemented since day one, too, which has helped us keep track of leads, opportunities, and all of the communication we’ve had with different points of contact within an organization. To complement our CRM, we use a marketing automation tool that allows us to build personalized customer journeys that engage the right audiences at the right time.

We are proud to have built our ERP system to help us manage internal contracts and resources. This was built and is managed by our in-house systems team.

Our performance department utilizes a whole range of third-party tools to help us make smarter decisions, deliver better insights and measure the returns on our client's investments. Our tech and tool stack includes SimilarWeb, Statista, VWO, Supermetrics, Ahrefs, DeepCrawl, Screaming Frog, and more.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I wish I could include my whole Blinklist in this article, but here are some of my favorite books that I’ve read, skimmed, or are highly recommended to me, that have influenced the choices I’ve made and helped me push and progress in my career as a company founder and a people manager and leader

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters
  • Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • Emotional intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bredberry and Jean Greaves
  • Start with Why by Simon Sinek
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear
  • … among many more!

I also read a lot of blogs and community posts from around the web. I’d really recommend finding virtual networking groups of online communities which you can contribute to, connect through, and gain passive insights, too.

There was also a course that I found particularly beneficial to my career, it was a leadership course delivered by Goldman Sachs called 10,000 Small Businesses which I’d recommend for any scale-up company director/founder.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with several start-up businesses and also established businesses launching new products. From this experience, I’ve seen first-hand the challenges posed by a poor product marketing fit. I’ve also worked with clients who have had an overly optimistic view of customer acquisition costs or marketing budget allocations, so this is somewhere to stress test your modeling.

For those just starting out, I’d advise you to hone in on your planning and research. Do twice as much research as you think you need to and speak to real (unknown to you) customers to sense-check your calculations. Build risk into your models and account for the unknown.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of networking, to support you at an individual and business level.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Yes! We are looking to recruit for various roles across the different units within our business. If you’re looking to explore your next opportunity in digital, head to our careers page to learn more about our vacancies and ways of working.

Where can we go to learn more?

Aaron Dicks, Founder of Impression
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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