As far as origin stories go, 93Digital’s is about as prosaic as they come. “I basically had an argument with my mum where she said ‘if you want to hang out with your friends, you’ll need to help out financially’,” says founder Alex Price.
It’s a typical teenage argument. One that many of us have had before with our parents. Where Price went slightly off piste is that he didn’t opt to go work for someone else. “I’ve always had in interest in technology and the web. I thought to myself that I could make some money building websites.”
His first site was for his dad. “It was terrible work,” he says. His second was for himself, advertising his services. “Again, it was terrible - but somehow, someone found me.” Using a cracked version of Adobe Dreamweaver, web development became Price’s first job at age 16.
Price remembers these details well because his teenage years aren't actually that far behind him. Now aged 24, Price is managing director of his own agency with ten full-time employees (and two more joining soon). He had dropped out of university to start 93Digital almost out of necessity. As his freelance work developed, he simply couldn’t balance the demands of varsity with his working life.
You feel a degree of guilt. Can I justify this, is this fair? Am I good enough?
“I was going through this cycle of winning loads of work and having to deliver the work so I stopped winning new work. And when I was winning new work, I stopped delivering good work,” he explains. Ultimately, it was a university tutor that encouraged him to make the leap.
In hindsight, Price has developed a somewhat heterodox view of university. “There are a vast number of industries that you don’t need a degree for,” he says. “If you look at education as the commodity - which it is - then it’s basic supply and demand.
“If every person going for that job has a 2:1 BA degree in English, then it doesn’t carry any weight. You can demonstrate much greater value with a portfolio.”
When he dropped out of university, Price had the clients and the demand. A university degree wasn’t a practical necessity. After winning a big project - too big to do by himself - Price hired a developer and a designer.
Suddenly, aged just 21, he was at the helm of a nascent agency and what followed was bit of a crash course. “I was googling ‘how to draft a job offer letter’. HR and culture weren't something I had put much thought into.
“But it’s amazing how much you can learn when you do something you care about and you have a vision for. When that brown envelope arrives from HMRC and you have to fill out some tax form, believe me, you learn how to do it quickly.”
The move from freelance to business wasn’t just about technicalities. There was the issue of mindset, too. Price admits that he still struggles with imposter syndrome. “You feel a degree of guilt. Can I justify this, is this fair? Am I good enough?
“Surely it can’t be? When I was doing the same kind of project myself two years ago for £2,000 but now I’m charging someone £20,000. But then they’re paying for much higher quality output. They want that and they’re willing to invest in it.
As far as I’m concerned, the growth has been fast enough. No money would drive it any faster, so it wouldn’t provide a good return on investment.
“That fear of feeling you’re charging too much almost restricted growth to an extent.” Getting over these doubts has been an absolutely crucial step and the proof is in the pudding: between the 2016 financial year and the 2017 financial year, 93Digital grew 160% in terms of turnover.
Price is still the sole owner and he has no plans to procure investment. “As far as I’m concerned, the growth has been fast enough. No money would drive it any faster, so it wouldn’t provide a good return on investment.
“The only time I’ve looked at potentially diluting the business is having a partner joining the business. But that’s not something I’m open to right now. Maybe one day, I’ll look at acquiring a smaller business. I’ve worked so hard to get here, it’ll be a shame to give away bits of it.”
Remarkably, Price is the youngest person at the company despite being MD. His entire team is older than him. It’s the observation that’s made most frequently about his business, he admits. But he’s learned to accept it.
“My team know what their role is, they know what my role is. It goes away very quickly. I don’t spend much time thinking about it,” he says. “If someone has a long track record when they start a business, there’s respect just through age - but it’s just a number.”
Besides, he explains, being an employee isn’t an option for him. It’s something he has never been - and one that he’s not keen to experience. It’s an attitude he credits to his father, himself an entrepreneur. “I watched my dad go through the turbulence of entrepreneurship. It was ingrained in me. It’s normal.
“I can’t ever see myself working for someone else. I already have thirty or forty bosses with my clients, I don’t need anymore.”
About Francois Badenhorst
Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.