Episode 4

From the Master of Letters podcast.

In this episode, we meet Neil Foley.

Neil is the founder and CEO at the Business Growth Club. Which is a group of small business owners looking to grow, by sharing knowledge and ideas.

Through this platform, Neil provides common sense business advice for small business owners primarily in his local area - typically delivered through daily accountability and monthly group meetings.

The Business Growth Club operates on a subscription basis with no contract or minimum term, and a money back guarantee if it doesn't work!


Benjamin Dell: Welcome to the Master of Letters podcast, where CEOs, marketers, and consultants share the tactics and activities that are driving traffic to their sites and helping them engage with their audience. If you want to learn what's working for others right now, so that you can grow your own business then you've come to the right place. I'm your host, Benjamin Dell and here's today's episode.

Good morning. We have here Neil Foley. Neil is the founder and CEO of the Business Growth Club, which is a group of small business owners looking to grow by sharing knowledge and ideas. Through this platform Neil provides common sense business advice to small business owners, primarily in his local area, typically delivered through daily accountability and monthly group meetings. The Business Growth Club operates on a subscription basis with no contracts or minimum term and a money back guarantee if it doesn't work. Neil, pleasure to have you on.

Neil Foley: Yeah. Well, thanks very much for inviting me Ben, I'm looking forward to this.

Benjamin Dell: I'm looking forward to hearing more. So we were talking beforehand that a lot of your content is much more geared around addressing the needs of your existing members versus those that are perhaps coming fresh. So maybe it's a deep dive that we'll go into in a minute, but I'm curious to see how you attract new people with that strategy. But before we go into that just tell us a bit about your business. How do you make money? What's your core sort of operation? I know I alluded to it in the intro there, but perhaps there's a bit more.

Neil Foley: Okay. The core proposition is we're aiming to support micro and small business owners, primarily in Norfolk and Suffolk. There is a lack of support for business owners who have probably been in business two or three years. There's a lot around for startups and things like that, but there's very little for it for established businesses. So we have a subscription service where people subscribe on a monthly basis, via credit card, using Stripe, where for that they get access to our online system. And our online system has a mixture of video, audio, and online workbooks, trying to cover all the subjects you can possibly think of the small business owner needs to tackle.

I guess partly on the basis of, we need to move away from price. If you’re going to compete on price, you're going to lose. So therefore we need to think of all the things we can do to articulate why somebody should engage with us. The model works well without having any contract. I don't like contracts. You know, it's very easy to have a contract and think, well, I should have a 12 months contract to protect my position, but actually if you try and think of everything from the mind of the consumer, the end of the day, a contract means I'm scared. Because if I'm any good, then you're going to stay with me.

Benjamin Dell: I totally agree and that's what I love about SaaS. It's very easy for customers to dip in, by not having a contract, you're putting the right message across, but crucially for the business, it keeps you honest because if people are dropping off and you're seeing that churn, well, it's something you want to address. Why would you want to hide that by only finding that out once really. That's a very good point.

Neil Foley: I've not thought of that, but actually it's a very good point because it's very real and very brutal because if people don't engage, if they don't find what they want from it, they’re gone and that can be hurtful, but it's what you want to know.

Benjamin Dell: You need to know it, you shouldn't hide. Through our main business Missinglettr, we use Stripe as well, and we always have had the receipts that are automated sent automatically from Stripe. And every now and again, someone will say, you know, why do you show that because you're just reminding them, you know, $12, $15, $40 to go under the radar. And for the same reason, I don't, I want them to be aware of what they're spending and tell us by unsubscribing, if they don't want it.

Neil Foley: Yeah, I'm entirely with you on that one though. And it's a philosophy that we have with everything in terms of we're not primarily doing this to make a lot of money. Primarily I want to give back and I want to make a difference in the sector I know very well. I've worked in it for 20-30 years. And I love the sector and it makes a difference locally because people buy locally, they spend locally, they take on apprentices, they move premises, it's just a win-win.

Benjamin Dell: You spoke there about ‘giving back’ that suggests that you're in an advantageous position where you're able to do that. Tell me the highlights of your past. You've been in this industry for 20 years – then you exited, did you?

Neil Foley: I had a business. I exited that four years ago, which gave me a degree of some freedom, but I do some coaching and consulting work on the side. And that primarily is where most of my income comes from. The Business Growth Club concept was about saying, why don't we just all work together and collaboratively work together and help and support each other.

And I wonder what we could achieve without saying actually the exit route is to sell it at some point, or I want to earn X amount of money from it. So as long as it washes its face to a large extent, I can reinvest most of the time. The technology is quite dear - just the websites and everything else because it's online and you end up with X number of plugins, which all contradict each other and conflict. So it's a constant IT spend. But we've got a growing community and it's going really well.

Benjamin Dell: Sound good. Before we get onto the numbers, you also mentioned the word ‘established business’ - that’s your core market. You're not looking for those that are just starting out. What's your definition in your business of an established one? What do they need? Is it based on revenue or years in business?

Neil Foley: I don't tend to look at revenue, it tends to be longevity, I think. A great contact that I had earlier this week for instance, was somebody who's now just ending their second year in business. First year, it was easy because the low-hanging fruits and they got the enthusiasm and I think they cracked it. Second year was much harder. And suddenly looking into the abyss for third year and thinking blimey. And they're just sort of people that you can help because nearly always they've got a great proposition, but they haven't articulated it very well. They tend to feel they're in a price war. They're struggling for time, struggling for resources. And actually you can do a lot with those sorts of people very easily. It doesn't take much to really turn them around. And I think also it gives them a lot of confidence and if you give them a bit of TLC and an arm around the shoulder and say, look, you can do this because sometimes in business it's about resilience, isn't it? It's about actually learning, not being precious. You know, the customer's always right regardless whether they're an idiot or not. If they're not spending the money, then there's a message there as you said earlier on. So it tends to be businesses two, three years in - sometimes a lot longer, but the startups I don't tend to do.

Benjamin Dell: It's good that you're clear on that because for the listeners to take away from this, really, is how important it is to understand your customer, because particularly in your space where it is all about empowering your end user with information that you can feed them, it's pointless giving them information that they either are too far gone for or not ready for it. So getting the right information in front of the right people is key, so the importance of actually knowing who your customer is, is so important, whether it's the content marketing or just pure basics of how you run your business. That's good to know that you're very clear on that. Okay. Let's jump into some numbers there. What sort of traffic are we getting to the business hub sites so far?

Neil Foley: We get fair degree of traffic in terms of numbers. It fluctuates depending on what I'm doing. We have a little flurry the month we have the meeting, because what you very quickly realize in my business is that it's a mixture of online and offline is what you need. And rather bizarrely sometimes to promote the online, you need the offline, which seems a bit counterintuitive, but you do. So we have a number of monthly meetings where we just get together and pontificate about business. And we get a lot more traffic as that comes, as that wave approaches and then the wave disappears slightly. We get daily traffic. We're probably signing up as many as we need to, to make it work, the numbers aren't huge because the target audience is a local focus.

Benjamin Dell: It's going to have different numbers from if I'm interviewing someone with the global reach of course. But what are we talking about?

Neil Foley: We've got probably a hundred members of the Growth Club as it stands at the moment. That stays reasonably static, there is new people coming on board and a few people drop off. A big issue that people always talk about is lack of time to actually focus on anything and do things, which is why we introduced a daily accountability. Because a lot of people you talk to would actually want to be held accountable for their actions. They almost want somebody to have the big stick and maybe they're looking through rose colored spectacles, but they want the day when somebody said to them, this is what you're going to do today. Whereas left to their own devices they'll do all the wrong things necessarily or be reactive rather than proactive and deal with emails and everything else.

Benjamin Dell: So with you mentioning that the majority of your content is focused around the members versus trying to attract new ones I'm just thinking now, as I'm hearing you talk, is that actually, because you've got a hundred members, it's a local initiative. It's not really a profit making endeavor, that's not the primary focus. Do you actually care about recruiting new members or are you at the point at which you've got a hundred you don't need any more, so you're not actively trying to recruit?

Neil Foley: We had one of our monthly meetings this week, for instance, and there were probably five or six people I'd never met before, turn up, which is really good.So it's just nice to see different people and new people. So we still want new numbers, but I'm not that bothered, in terms of I haven't got a matrix that says I've got to hit this particular level. Because if I do a good job, then people recommend and refer, which is predominantly what happens. And I think the days of people following sort of a linear line through a sales funnel, I think it's probably coming to an end and I don't particularly like that approach.

I tend to say, well, let's just smash it with value. And people then recommend, and they refer people and they bring people along to the meetings. And then we start talking and then we see where we go from there. Because everybody's needs are slightly different. It's one of the problems when you've got an online system is that it assumes everybody's going to follow a linear path and they don't because if you've got a particular issue, you may be very different from other people. So we just smash it in value is the way that I do it. And I do that by using a lot of online material. We do quite a few blogs, and we do a few vlogs.

Benjamin Dell: Those blogs and vlogs are for the outside world - so non-members?

Neil Foley: A bit of both really in the sense of, we have a closed Facebook community and we have a closed online community. So sometimes the blogs will be different for them than they will be for the outside world.

Benjamin Dell: But that's why if there's a dual purpose to them, are you writing them always with in the back of your mind, considering that fresh faced person that's landing on your site for the first time as a result of that blog post. Are you always considering them?

Neil Foley: Yes. They need to be able to understand the topic because otherwise it's all too easy to say ‘well, remember what we talked about last week’ and of course for somebody new, they’re just immediately gone and thinking that's tough. Yeah. So, no, we're always conscious of that. And very conscious of not talking in terminology and language that people don't understand.

My strapline is ‘common sense business advice’, and actually most stuff is common sense. You can pontificate and make it, you know, use some fancy words and the rest of it, but what's the point. We want somebody to listen. I think actually that's a good idea and take action and do something for themselves.

Benjamin Dell: Speaking of which, for those that do land on your blog for the first time so non-members, is there anything that you are looking for them to do? In terms of a call to action, whether it's signing up to your newsletter or signing up to a trial if you offer them or just signing up as a member. Is there anything that you are focusing your attention on when they land on your site for the first time.

Neil Foley: If they fell on the site then very much so, what I want them to do is it is to engage either with an email, a phone call and just to come to one of the events, because the events are published quite strongly there. And most of the people who come to the events have been on the site so it's a soft way of introducing them. They haven’t got to do anything, they haven't got to register to come to the meetings. I don't charge for the meetings because we get given the premises for free by one of the local authorities.

So the reality is that my focus is to get into them in a meeting, because if they get to a meeting, they'll meet 25 to 30 people who were existing members. We will then talk about the benefits of the system for them and we always deliver outstanding value in the two hours that the meeting is held. They're not networking meetings, but we discuss particular topics.

Benjamin Dell: Yeah. But you are getting them in front of your advocates. So you do have a funnel, but it's a human focused one.

Neil Foley: Absolutely. It’s a human one, a soft one, rather than being a smart ass and saying, well, I've got this over here and this amazing headline, which is going to make somebody think, you know, I need to know secrets of this.

Benjamin Dell: And I'm kind of guessing the answer to this is no, but just to wrap up the website, traffic and conversions side of things; those that are landing on your site and you've got that soft sale to come and join you at one of the meetings or provide email addresses, that sort of thing, are you tracking that at all? Do you have any sense as to okay 5% of people will follow through on some sorts of action or is that not really part of your focus?

Neil Foley: No I probably should, but I don’t. I have a sense for it and a feel for it. And I look at the Google analytics and the rest of it, but I don't drill down too much. I've tried pay-per-click and other things that you can do. And it's a difficult environment for me. There are one or two big national players who have unlimited budgets, you know, who are very good at certainly the sales funnel approach. So my approach was to say, actually, I'm not going to do that.

Benjamin Dell: Okay. I like that. I mean, that's no bad thing. Ultimately you can get lost in these stats and everything else at the end of the day. Yeah. You clearly understand your business and you can visually see the flow of traffic, if you will, through to your meetings and that's a tangible thing. And ultimately you can see it taking over and working in, and that's what it's really about.

Okay.Let's just talk about content a bit now. What's your go-to you mentioned blogs? Are they in equal measure to you? Do you prefer one over the other?

Neil Foley: Probably a few more blogs than vlogs. A few case studies – I think case studies are probably underused by most people. I've been doing podcasts a fair bit. I like the podcast approach and it surprises me how many people listen to audio and listened to audio books in particular. People do listen to a lot of podcasts and they have their favorite people that they listen to all the time, but a significant number of people listen to audio. The thing that really surprised me when I first started the Growth Club was how few people read, I was astonished.

Benjamin Dell: We’re too busy for that!

Neil Foley: So old hat isn’t it! I’ve always been an avid reader, but people, certainly people of a certain generation just don't, particularly men. So it did surprise me how many people are using audio. And that's where I went to podcast roots and the podcasts are being really successful and I do podcasts predominantly with members. So it was predominantly saying to a member, you've got an interesting story. I don't do a podcast in terms of just pontificating on something, it's more an interview as you're doing with me. And it serves all sorts of purposes because people have really interesting stories. You can learn from it. People listen to them, people take action on them. And often it's promoted and prompted people to say, actually, they should be doing their own podcasts.

Benjamin Dell: It shows it is such an accessible medium. And it really is, such a popular one now, today as well. And for your market, particularly, I love that. You're just, you know, you're not pontificating, you're not sort of giving opinion pieces, which can be a bit long and long-winded.

Neil Foley: Yes exactly. I started off needing a quiet room and we did everything, you know, the curtains were drawn to absorb the sound and actually I've got rid of all that now, so we to do them in coffee shops, bars or outside.

Benjamin Dell: Interesting. How does the audio work on that? Do you have to get any special equipment for that?

Neil Foley: No, it's just a little Tascam - a hundred quid or whatever it is from, from the local shop. And it's the most, I mean, technology is ridiculous isn’t it – it’s the most outstanding piece of kit in terms of quality, I don't have music on it. I always argue with people that like music in the background. I hate music in the background.

Benjamin Dell: But it filters out the ambient sounds of the background?

Neil Foley: You can hear the ambient sounds of the cafe. And you can hear the coffee machine in the background. Someone once came along and said, ‘I can't open this bottle of water, could you open it?.’ And what it does is it's feels like you're listening to two people talking, you're just eavesdropping on the next table as to this fascinating conversation with something that you have no idea you were interested in the lo and behold, you suddenly are. So no editing. Either you just have to say it's explicit if you sort of lose your way and swear a bit for iTunes. But otherwise it makes it easy. It means I can upload it within minutes of getting back to the office.

Benjamin Dell: I love what you're talking about though. It's multifaceted - not only branching out into that extra medium, going from the blog posts through to podcasts and identifying that as a viable route. But you seem to be iterating on that as well. So you started off at home or in the office, you know, in that sort of set up and then you sort of migrated outside. And you're treating it as a business exercise in itself. You're pivoting on that and finding what works. And it just goes to show that all these content mediums that we have, they are there to be explored and to be experimented on because it's so precise and specific to your audience. And finding the format that works well for them is part of the game here. I love that. I might have to evolve mine out to cafes as well. I do like a coffee.

Neil Foley: It's fascinating - I mean, I've listened to the Harvard Business Review podcasts, and as you'd expect, they're supremely polished. They have to be because that’s Harvard. And it's almost like I don't have to do that. I can just be Neil, just talking to Ben saying, well, tell me about your business, Ben, how'd you just start, what's your backstory, what's your biggest success or your biggest failure and what have you learnt in life and no matter how old you are, you know 40 minutes disappears and we got a lot of traction with the podcast, so I'm really enjoying that.

Benjamin Dell: How frequently are we publishing here? If you give me numbers actually for blog, vlog and podcast, what frequency are we looking at here?

Neil Foley: So probably there's a number of small news items and blogs that will probably go out every day or every other day onto LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. The proper blogs that I write properly are probably only once a month, maybe twice a month. The vlogs are the same probably once or twice a month. The podcast, you have little flurries, using good old Missinglettr, I mean, it actually re-circulate it. And so I've got traction over the whole 365 days. So I've done two in the last week. I'd had a gap for probably a month.

Benjamin Dell: And do you publish them as soon as you've recorded them? I think you mentioned before that you did. So you don't care that it comes out on a Tuesday morning at nine o'clock it's as they're done that they're distributed.

Neil Foley: Yes, because often the members love them because the members use them because that's the idea. And I also get a transcript of the podcast done as well. So you can use that in social media, you can cut and paste. You can use it as a blog, which I actually do as well so people have a transcript. Transcripts are very easy to get done, very cheap to get done as well online and very accurate. So the member that you're interviewing loves it, and they take it and run with it as well. And they share it with all their contacts and their friends and the rest of it.

Benjamin Dell: We were talking before about the success that you've had with podcasts, which I think, is an interesting one, because it shows, I think it shows the power of that medium. And I wonder when, when you explain it in a second, whether that person would have interpreted and taken on board to the same extent if it was a static bit of blog?

Neil Foley: I don’t think they probably would because in essence, one of the examples I was talking to you earlier about Ben is the podcast about R&D tax credits, which has been around for a very long time. And actually there's a lot of material around. There's a lot of quite big companies promoting them or pushing them. They'll do the applications for you with HMRC and take a cut. So it's not as if it's new territory. And this guy, who's a member, listened to the podcast on the way home in his car, on his commute as a lot of people do with audio. So he's listening to the podcast and obviously it struck a chord with him and he knows me well, so he's listening to it. And lo and behold, he goes into the office the following morning and say what are we doing about these R&D tax credits? And it's a big company; actually it's a global company. Lo and behold people said ‘what are R&D tax rates?’ and they ended up getting a seven figure sum back from HMRC. So they qualified. I know they're a great thing that people should access and you haven't got to have a lab coat on.

Benjamin Dell: Yeah if you're a UK based company, and I'm sure there are similar initiatives around the world, but it's a great way to claim back for research and development that you've put into it.

Neil Foley: And if you’re taking a risk, then get some good financial support. So that was probably my shining example. We haven't had many people get into seven figures.

Benjamin Dell: But it's a perfect example because it shows how much potential for having a podcast genuinely resonates and creates a connection with your end-user. Fantastic. Okay. Let's wrap up with a quick fire round at the end. So short answers, if you can.

We haven't spoken about social actually, funnily enough, but if we were in an age where you have to pick just one social network for your business, the one that helps you the most, that you see the most impact from which one would you choose?

Neil Foley: LinkedIn.

Benjamin Dell: LinkedIn. Good. Okay. I thought it might be actually given your networking side of things. Is there a CEO or Marketer that you're following or admire right now?

Neil Foley: Well, the one I think I love and everybody loves is Seth Godin, I mean, he's just so powerful and he's very smart, he's a very smart guy, but they’re so powerful those little statements. I follow him every day. He's written a blog for seven years. Every day, never missed a day. Extraordinary.

Benjamin Dell: Yeah. Incredible stuff there.

Neil Foley: Yeah I love him, I think he’s fantastic.

Benjamin Dell: And what's your favorite online tool to help you with your business in whatever capacity?

Neil Foley: Missinglettr would be very close to the top because it's so easy. I mean, I post stuff and you pick it up and remind me and say, right, this has been published now, what are you going to do with it?

Benjamin Dell: I should say, it's not me personally, that's not scalable.

Neil Foley: But the software works really well. Because I'm a small business, there's me essentially. There is lots of people who work in collaboration with me, but there's me. So anything that makes life easy, it means I'll get it done because if it is, if it gets hard, then it just won't happen. So I think I like that near the top, to be honest,

Benjamin Dell: Give us a non Missinglettr one so it doesn't feel like a complete promotion. I'll give you the money afterwards for that one.

Neil Foley: Well my most useful tool I guess is probably my little Tascam for the podcast. Cause it’s a little tascam and run by batteries. It's four inches by two inches or whatever so it's a tiny little thing.

Benjamin Dell: It's a little microphone, essentially. It's T A S C A M. Is that right?

Neil Foley: Yeah, that's it. They're a well-known brand. The quality can be really super high definition quality if you want it, but actually you don't need it. You just actually plug it in on the table and start talking. I think that has been a revelation for me, really, because I'm not a techie at all in the slightest, but actually I can use it.

Benjamin Dell: Good. We're going to check that out. I'm guessing on Amazon and other reputable resellers. Finally for someone who's already in business, but for whatever reason, they’re only just starting content marketing now, whatever that format might be, whether it's podcasting, blogging or vlogging - what's the one piece of advice that you would give to them today?

Neil Foley: Forget getting it polished, just get it out there, and actually being real and natural and yourself is far more important. And if you um and err and have a few pauses and you get your words wrong, nobody cares. What they want is the authenticity that you actually get dealing with a human being. You don't need to be super smooth. If you have a passion just talk about it passionately and be yourself. That would be my advice.

Benjamin Dell: I love that. And actually that plays in very well with your recommendation there with Seth Godin, because clearly if he's doing one every day for the last seven years, not all of them are going to be polished and that's fine. He's made peace with that. And it actually doesn't matter. I love that. Well, that was Neil Foley you were listening to, thank you so much for attending. He is publishing small blog posts, almost daily with a larger one perhaps once, maybe twice a month. He's doing podcasts less frequently, but with more natural sort of outputs, and his website, interestingly is more of a driver to create those offline connections. He has 100 members to date and he runs the Business Growth Club. Neil - thank you so much for being a guest and we'll look forward to catching up with you soon.

Neil Foley: Thank you, Ben.

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