Rachel Irvine is the founder of Irvine Partners, an integrated marketing agency with offices in London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, and Accra. She is also a board member of Entrepreneurs Organisation London, where she serves as the External Engagement Chair. EO is a global network of 14,000+ entrepreneurs, all of whom operate businesses earning a minimum of US$1 million in annual revenue.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I moved to Russia in the mid nineties as a 30 year old wanting adventure and to seek a new path outside of my 10 year career in journalism. I spent a year working for an international professional services firm but quickly realised there was a massive gap in the market for a corporate communications firm, so I set one up. It was immediately successful and I had enthusiastic plans to grow it beyond Russia’s borders. Fast forward to 2009 when the global financial crisis started to bite in Moscow. Many old ways were revived and my business was violently targeted by thugs to pay protection money. Fearing for my safety, I was forced to leave and lost my business overnight.
I moved to South Africa, where my parents live, to lick my wounds. My working class father in his infinite wisdom wouldn’t allow it. He told me the mafia thugs didn’t rob me of my feet, hands or brain so I needed to ‘get up and do it again.’
Irvine Partners opened its doors in Cape Town on 1 November 2010 in a tiny 25 square metre office.
We have grown to be a 50-person strong international agency which has a client list that includes the likes of Spotify, Google, Airbnb, Salesforce, and major hotel groups such as Radisson and Marriott International. We have wholly owned offices in London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra – with plans to open in Francophone Africa before the end of the year.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
Social media was nascent in 2010, but I understood the digital shift and transformation that was coming in how we would all consume and share information. Understanding that narrative would need to multiply and evolve in its presentation, I saw an opportunity to engage corporate firms and disruptor economy clients to solve the pain point of seeding key messages appropriately, timeously and across multiple platforms, in a cost effective and quality controlled way.
How did you achieve awareness?
I moved to South Africa after long stints in London and after a traumatic exit from Moscow and tried my hand at working for one or two established PR agencies but nothing felt like a fit for the kind of agency I wanted. I knew in my gut the PR and corporate communications game was due for an overhaul so I made the decision to move the agency I wanted out of my head and into reality, which led to Irvine Partners opening its doors more than a decade ago .
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
Irvine Partners has always been fully bootstrapped. I started the business with £14 000 which was all the money I had left after losing my business in Russia. Early success in understanding how digital transformation would impact competition for attention meant we landed clients a startup had no right to land, which in turn led to substantial word of mouth and, latterly, exponential growth.
What are the key successes?
Given the recent past, I’d have to say retaining our entire international workforce on full salaries throughout the course of the pandemic without a single retrenchment. The manner in which our global team supported one another, without hesitation and with complete sincerity, is testament to our culture and values. I burst with pride when I reflect on this.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
People. We are a service business and our growth reflects in ever increasing numbers of bums on seats, as it were. Over the years we’ve had bad fits, right rotters and absolute unicorns – as is the case with most businesses. We’ve learned how toxic bad fits can be and that the cost is not only financial. We have evolved our recruitment process dramatically and steadfastly ensure that only the right culture and value fits are let in through the front door. This has meant senior management relinquishing the right to veto a candidate. The final step in our recruitment process is a panel interview with team members based in multiple offices, and if it’s a no from the team, then management accepts the decision. Our attrition rate has dropped substantially.
What are your plans now/for the future?
The UK is our primary focus for growth right now. We are already very well established in Africa, and I believe our emerging markets knowledge is hugely valuable to firms in the UK and indeed Europe, who want a wider global lens for their communication strategies.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
The worst thing that can possibly happen is that you fail. And if you do fail but that failure doesn’t claim your feet, your hands or your brain—then in the words of my dear old dad: ‘get up and do it again’.
Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Never be the smartest person in the room: If you are the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find a new room. Always seek out people who can help you grow.
- Back yourself but make sure you know what you don’t know: I realised that my strengths lie in building relationships and generating new business, rather than in operations, so I make sure the business has people who are good at that.
- Treasure your networks: As much as there are times when it’s tempting to burn bridges, it’s seldom a good idea to do so. You need to treasure your networks, not just with clients and potential clients, but former employees, and even competitors. All of them may, at some point, prove crucial to the success of your business.
- Build a strong team as early as possible: While there might be an initial period where you have to do everything yourself, there will come a time when you have to make hires. It might be tempting to start with more affordable juniors, but remember that one experienced, senior team member can often complete tasks much quicker and more competently. When you’re building, you need as many things as possible to go right.
- Take advantage of automation: Automation can help reduce the time you spend on a lot of tasks that would otherwise rob you of time that you could spend building your business. Processes like payroll, invoicing, and even marketing can be automated to a degree. Take advantage of it.
Who are the 3 people who inspire you the most and why?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: One of the strongest voices of our generation in favour of gender equality, the rights of workers, and the separation of church and state.
Rosa Parks: She shaped the landscape of civil rights forever when she refused to stand on a segregated passenger bus.
And lastly it has to be Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine, who is the Rosa Parks and Ruth Bader Ginsburg of our time in standing up for what is right and just.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” — Wayne Gretzky
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity.” — Amelia Earhart
What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?
Website: https://irvinepartners.co.uk / and https://www.eolondon.org/about-eo-london