How many times have you had a drunken business idea with your mates that you never actually followed through with? For Lee Wilcox, his big idea didn’t only survive the hangover, it’s fast becoming a reality.
In July 2014, Lee and his best mate Adam started what would soon turn out to be one of the largest niche communities on social media. It was to be known as ‘On The Tools‘ – a community dedicated to connecting people within the construction industry.
Three years down the line, On The Tools has earned itself tremendous brand equity with 1.5m followers on Facebook, 18k followers on Twitter and 119k followers on Instagram. That’s without mentioning their highly successful line of branded merchandise on their website.
With such exponential growth, it was only a matter of time before they started being noticed by big players. Since launching, they’ve been approached by a number well-established brands who sought to secure a strategic partnership to enrich their own branded content.
But as Lee reveals in this exclusive interview, his journey to get the company where it is today didn’t come without a struggle. The inevitable highs and lows provided a real test of character and would prove decisive in how things transpired at On The Tools.
Now one of the largest and most successful communities on social media, Lee’s insatiable appetite for growth shows no sign of slowing down. Plans are already in motion for a number of exciting things to come.
I spoke to Lee about the captivating story behind On The Tools, its phenomenal growth and what the future holds for the company.
When was On The Tools born and how did the idea come fruition?
The idea for On the Tools was born on a drunken Friday summer’s night in July 2014. Myself and my best mate, Adam, were having a bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum whilst Adam complained about being unable to find a Plasterer for a job he was running. At this point Adam had been a Tradesman for 12 years and I questioned how he didn’t know anyone who could do it or that there wasn’t an App that allowed the subcontractor and contractor to communicate. This was the ‘light bulb’ moment. We sat and got drunk and spoke all night about how we could change recruitment across the industry.
The next morning in my hungover state Adam called me and said, ‘Are we doing then or what?’. So, we set about writing the spec for the App and used the available balance on my credit card to start the process of getting it built. A week later we started a Facebook page to build a community to market to once the App was ready. This was Adam’s idea after stating ‘I’ve got loads of videos of blokes on site doing funny shit, we can post them on the page’. We dreamt of having 50,000 followers after 12 months. After 3 months, we had 250,000 and on 11th November 2014 On the Tools was officially incorporated as a limited company.
Tell us more about how the page grew, was your initial growth organic? or did you use any paid ads? How long did it take for the page to become verified?
How did On The Tools transition from a “page” into a fully operational business? Was the page initially created specifically to be monetised? What were the challenges involved in converting to a business?
It was March 2015 that the business started to actually make money after an idea to start selling OTT merch (tees, hoodies and mugs). Before this I’d spent 7 – 8 months finishing my day job and staying up until the early hours of the morning going through the messages and content we had been sent and scheduling for the next day. We started the shop by asking the community for the best slogan ideas for 6 trades. We checked the comments and the ones with the most likes got chosen. Two days later I’d set a Shopify store up and people started to buy! We did £1k in sales in the first week so I quit my job of 9 nine years and officially started full time at OTT. Most people thought I was crazy but we knew it had to be done in order for the business to grow. We did £11k in sales that month.
The page was never meant to provide a source of income, it was always meant for the launch of the App, but Social was growing so much and we saw an opportunity. It takes dedication and a crazed obsession to turn an idea into a business. I think the biggest challenge we faced was the time the business needed due to the explosion on Social, pitted against the fact we had no revenue. Brands weren’t working in the same way they do now on Social, we’d tried speaking to brands about creating content but it fell on deaf ears. The industry wasn’t ready for it….yet!
What is your role within the company? Tell us a little about what happens on an average day in the office?
I’m the CEO at On the Tools. My role has been varied over the past few years but as the business has grown we’ve been able to build a strong team to allow my role to be more focused. Culture within the company is everything to me as I’ve been part of terrible ones before. I want everyone at OTT to feel truly fulfilled, comfortable, safe and to ultimately never have that Monday morning feeling ever again. Business development and people are my main focus within the business.
There is no average day at OTT. This sounds so cliché, but there really isn’t. We’ve become a Social Media Marketing Agency that is creating content every day, all with different objectives, themes, production size and locations. All of this makes for huge variation each day.
When did you first hire an employee? And how many do you have now?
Our first employee was back in Sept 2015, up until Jan 2017 we were at 7 people. We are now about to add the 21st member of the team!
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
We currently hold the record for the most successful piece of Branded content on any UK based Facebook page this year with 32 million views for a piece of content we created with Direct Line for Business. This beats the likes of Unilad and Lad Bible, pages that have 20x the following we have. In fact, this actually sits at 10th spot for the highest viewed piece of branded content on Facebook, globally. I think this is our biggest achievement so far as it really shows we know what we’re doing, we offer huge value to brands that want to work with us and we can punch with, even above, the ‘big guys’ in the industry.
Could you tell us more about how your partnership with JEWSONS began?
Quite a random one really. Adam and I were invited to Cheltenham races by Jewson’s PR agency. We didn’t know why we were there and if I’m completely honest, we felt like imposters. I distinctly remember trying to pay for drinks at a free bar, we’d just never been in the situation before. We were sat with some of the team from Jewson and some press too, so made some great contacts. Two months later we’d created a piece of viral content for them and we now have a long-term partnership in which we work together to create content that will showcase the campaigns and initiatives they have throughout 2017 & 2018. They’re a really great brand to work with and were one of the first to create content with us so I’ll always have a strong affinity personally with Jewson.
What’s next for On The Tools? Anything exciting planned?
We will shortly be branding into a fully-fledged social media marketing agency, OTT Social. This is something we’re really excited about. We want to create amazing, social media first content for any brand in any industry. Whether this is created to reach the On the Tools audience, the ‘So much Sass’ (our 16 – 25 female based page, currently at 163k) or for a campaign to go out through their own channels, then we want to create it.
One thing we’ve seen throughout this journey is that most traditional agencies still don’t understand that there are different rules for social media content. Understanding this sets us apart and we’re excited about this!
After a very long wait we will also be launching the On the Tools App in a beta phase to the West Midlands area. This is something that we’re really looking forward to and we’ll be using our partners within the industry to roll this out next year.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to construction firms on social media?
Believe it or not, there are still some brands not using social media, to those brands I would say they absolutely need to start! Social Media is the biggest shift in marketing the world has ever seen, and it’s only just getting started. The Construction Industry has always been a traditional one and this carries across into how brands bring products and campaigns to market, but the brands that make the switch first will really be ahead if they do it in the right way. The key thing to remember is that people don’t want to hear about how amazing you are or that ‘Tom’ the new sales guy just had pizza for lunch. They need to be offered value from watching content you provide them – i.e. information or humour etc. It has to spark some form of emotion otherwise that 3 – 5 second window of opportunity is gone.
Finally, what have been the highlights (and lowlights) of the On The Tools story?
The lowlight was definitely back between Sept 2015 – March 2016. Neither Adam or myself could afford cars so we used to walk to work each morning at 7am. No matter what the weather chucked at us we were in it. We grafted our nuts off over the Christmas period as online sales were going well and we were doing 14 hour – 16 hour days.
Then January hit and we lost a few content deals, the online shop sales really slowed down. The app came back from development and it didn’t work – we were getting to the point where we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves. I remember vividly the conversation Adam and I had about how we would get ourselves out of the hole we appeared to be in. There were a few rough months ahead but we battled through it and mustered enough money to convince Andy Taylor, our Commercial Director to jump on board.
Andy and I worked together previously, I’d asked him very early on to get involved in the business and it was always the plan to try and get him on board. Andy is the best salesperson I’ve ever met and he has had a real positive impact on the business since joining.
I think the highlight has to be growing a business with your best mates. Being able to wake up each morning and not realise I’m going to work. We’ve managed to create a great culture at OTT, which is something I’m very proud of. We want to be the go to Agency to create branded content for Social Media and we can’t wait to get there!