Interview with James Ashford, founder of web design agency "Rocket Powered" - Heart Internet Blog - Focusing on all aspects of the web

Selling web hosting to clients is one of the most profitable services a web designer or agency can offer. Because of this, a lot of our reseller web hosting clients are web designers and/ or web design agencies. One such customer is Rocket Powered Web Design, who  offer web design, graphic design, marketing services  and business planning services to small businesses. We had a chat with James Ashford, the founder of the business, about his approach to developing the business, how he promotes their services and how they go about winning new clients.

Could you provide a bit of information about yourself and Rocket Powered?

My passion is with design and art. I have a Master’s Degree in product design and have worked across a wide range of design disciplines from furniture design to graphic design. I’m also an artist in my spare time and have taught art and design in universities and in prisons.

I’ve also been a close-up magician for fifteen years which might seem a bit odd, but it’s is the toughest sales job in the world – selling something which people’s don’t believe in, to people who initially don’t like you (thanks to Paul Daniels).

In 2007, with this background of Design & Sales, I worked exclusively with to help them grow their business and secure contracts with the very top estate agencies and property portals in the UK and across the world. By the end of the year they had their product across over half a million properties. I then started to work with a number of other companies and in 2009 I set up Rocket Powered which is all about helping businesses to increase sales and improve profits.

We started with two clients who had had terrible experiences with other web design, marketing and SEO companies. We worked closely with them to make sure that our business perfectly met their needs and that we provided the right services to give them the results they wanted. We work with small to medium sized businesses who are clear about the results they want to achieve. We sort out their branding, their literature, their websites and their marketing strategy and get everything working as one complete and highly effective system, which we then manage.

We become an entire marketing department for our clients, which saves them a lot of time because they only have to deal with us for everything relating to design, marketing, the web and print.

You chose to create the agency during some pretty tough economic conditions, especially for marketing budgets. What advice would you give to someone starting out now?

Times are tough at the moment for many businesses and a lot of them are battening down the hatches to save costs and weather the storm. I think this is a real mistake.

There are a small number of remarkable businesses who recognise that there has never been a better time to get ahead of the competition, and are prepared to invest in their marketing.

For someone starting out, my advice would be to work to your true strengths. We work with a number of freelance graphic designers who are exceptional at design, but by their own admission are not great at sales. It would be a mistake for those people to try and set up and advertising agency because they’d struggle to get the work in. By working with us, they can concentrate on what they’re good at and make a success of their business.

You don’t have to do everything. Figure out what you’re amazing at and just do that 100% of the time.

Getting started is always the hardest part, how did you go about winning your first client?

A mistake is to go out there marketing your business to strangers. To develop any sort of relationship with these people will cost you too much money and time.

Start with people you know, family, friends, people you went to college with, your bank manager, your accountant, people in your gym, parents at your kids school. I bet you can find 100 people and I bet they know 100 people too. You’ll have instant access to 10,000 people who know you, or know of you.

Unless you have a very niche business, there must be someone out of those 10,000 who will buy your product or service from you, and if there isn’t, you’ve probably got the wrong product or service.

Don’t waste time on money finding strangers to tell you this when you can find out now for free.

And once you’ve sold your first product or service, you can ask them to recommend you to someone else and you’re away. Again, if they won’t recommend your services, you need to go back to the drawing board and start again.

What is the most rewarding thing about running your own agency? And on the flip side, what is the toughest?

We only work with people we like and its great to help them to grow their business and become more successful. Their success in turn brings about our success because they then talk about us and spread the word about what we do. It’s a win-win and makes everyday enjoyable.

On the flip side, I guess the toughest part is finding out that you’re working with someone you don’t like. It’s rare and we now have strict criteria for new clients, to help filter them out at stage one – It’s our Customer Filter and every business should have one. By getting rid of the bad customers you make space for great customers to enter.

It seems frightening, but you should aim to cull your worst 20% of customers each year from the bottom, and bring in 20% of new ones at the top.

Your blog ‘Rocket Fuel’ is a prominent part of your site, what is your strategy here?

37 Signals in the U.S. have proved that by sharing as much useful information as possible is the best way to build an audience for your product or service. You have to be willing to share everything though, and I mean everything; all of your tips and all of your secrets otherwise you won’t have enough valuable information to attract the audience in the first place.

Having a great blog is one of the most effective methods for building an audience for free, and this is much better than trying to attract strangers who don’t know or like you.

You recently wrote a blog post titled “Advertising doesn’t work” where you claim word of mouth marketing is the only effective form of marketing remaining. That’s pretty bold from an agency that offers advertising services!

We associate traditional ‘Advertising’ with promoting average products and services to strangers. We don’t believe that works anymore. If I come home and find leaflets on my doorstep, I throw them away. If someone calls me up and starts with “Hi, are you having a nice day today…” I put the phone down. The problem with ‘Advertising’ is that there’s just too much of it. And because most of it is so poor, I might as well assume its all like this instead of wading through it. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I should have put “Advertising doesn’t work for me”.

We believe that the only way to build genuine business is by providing your clients with an incredible product or service, and then get your customers to talk about you. This is word of mouth marketing.

What we do is build the channels of communication to allow this to happen more rapidly and more successfully through their website, social media strategy and effective literature.

I also think that it’s important to make strong statements in your blog, which you believe in, rather than sit on the fence. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re right or not, but it always provokes a greater response – more comments, tweets and forwards. ‘Advertising might not work’ isn’t quite so provocative.

You are very explicit about who you buy services from (e.g. us for reseller hosting, Mailchimp for email services, Basecamp for project management). A lot of companies do all they can to hide this, why did you choose to be so open?

I think it’s important to be honest about the products and services you provide if you want to build lasting relationships with your clients. We think it’s more impressive to show the heavyweight companies we work with instead of pretending we’d developed these systems and technologies ourselves. I have much more chance of landing the web hosting by telling the client that we work with Heart Internet because they are UK based, have a great 24/7 support system and can provide unlimited hosting at a great price, than by pretending it’s our own system and our own servers.

I guess the other reason we’re honest and open is that we have the confidence that our clients are not going to go off and try to get a better deal themselves. Our client’s work with us because we source the very best suppliers & systems, and we handle everything in one place. They pay a bit more for it, but time savings they make allows them to focus on their business, which pays dividends (literally).

How active are you on the social networks and how do you use them promote and position yourself? How do you see this developing in 2011?

We are developing our entire Social Media network across YouTube, Newsletters, Twitter & Facebook, but 90% of our activity is focussed on our blog.

Our blog updates all of our Social Media network and allows our fans and followers to keep track of what we’re saying. It’s important that your strategy is manageable and sustainable and this works for us and our clients.

This year we’re going to be pushing YouTube, ensuring that we’re adding one new video on there each week, whether it’s a testimonial, presentation or tutorial. And doing this also updates our social media network as well, and then we’ll create a blog article about it, which will also update our social media network. Crazy.

Do you have any websites or online resources would you recommend for designers or digital marketers to check out?

Pattern Tap is a great website for getting inspiration for a range of web components

Seth Godin has a great view on marketing, which we think is bang on the money

Getting Real by 37 Signals is well worth a read and it’s Free online

And finally Rocket Fuel from Rocket Powered.


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  • Gabi


    Great article.

    Good to hear about people who are utlising your product, specially their honesty as to how they started off.

    A very good read, Rocket Powered – thanks for using yourself’s and putting your thoughts across in this article.



  • 18/01/2011


    Thanks for the feedback, Rocket Powered are a great case study on offering a range of products as part of an integrated service.



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