Tucked away in the back streets of Edinburgh’s New Town is the quaint little office of PR agency Hot Tin Roof and their most recent launch, PingGo, an affordable online PR application. Startups and the technology industry have always been top priorities for the company so, twenty years after the company was launched, I went to interview Sarah Lee, the company’s founder, to talk more about public relations, her journey and their most recent product.
I’m a little early. It’s just as well because I walk straight past Hot Tin Roof’s wooden office door, the National Union of Women Teachers’ office and a whole load of garages before realising I’ve gone too far and turn back. Upon entering, I’m lead into a dark, wood-panelled conference room and offered a tea or coffee before I unpack my notepad. Across the white table and through the door, I can see Sarah and her team hard at work behind a glass wall. It’s an unusual mix — a modern feel to their workplace, contrasted by a very old-fashioned conference room where the ceiling creaks as the architectural firm above pace their own office — but it works. Sarah enters and flicks on the lights before pulling out a chair from under the table. We’ve met before, albeit briefly, when she presented her latest project, PingGo, at an event run by the University of Edinburgh’s Entrepreneurship Club so I’m intrigued to find out how things have progressed and know more about where she finds her inspiration.
“You’ve been in PR for twenty years or so now. Tell me a little bit about your journey,” I begin. “I fell into PR, I think,” Sarah says, her left arm leant against the table. “I was working for the water board where I was doing in-house communications. I sat next to the press office so sort of ended up answering telephones to journalists and gradually got more and more involved.” After a while, Sarah left the water board and found work with a number of agencies although, after eighteen months, she decided to go it alone. “I realised that I wasn’t really learning anything and that I wanted to do it for myself. So yeah, I set out on my own and set Hot Tin Roof up.”
Fourteen years later, Hot Tin Roof is known for its involvement in the digital and tech startup scene but it still maintains the ethos of a small, startup business. “I didn’t have a particular ambition to create a big agency,” she tells me. “I liked working with small businesses, I liked working with the founders of those businesses. The first client I had was a very small company that grew into a very big company and I could see the impact we were having and the results we were getting.”
As is the case with all businesses, however, Hot Tin Roof has not been problem-free. The recent economic recession resulted in a 50% decrease in clients on two occasions, just twelve months apart. “It kind of came in waves because of the way the markets were going,” she says, her eyes focused on an invisible point on the wall. Nevertheless, the recession also taught the business about the importance of its digital focus; “that focused our attentions, it made us really work hard on the digital and technology sector because that was where the budget stayed. They retained budget, they retained growth during that period and so we moved away from the consumer work that we were doing and really focused on digital and technology,” Sarah tells me.
The recession and the resultant focus on digital could also be one of the factors behind Sarah’s recent innovation and Hot Tin Roof’s latest product offering, PingGo. “I think that’s what has allowed me to, kind of, invent PingGo and see the opportunity there because there’s nothing like it on the market at the moment.” She pauses and takes a big breath before uttering, “yet.”
I ask Sarah to tell me a little more about PingGo. “Someone said to me ‘is there anything you can automate about your business,’ because I can’t scale. Hot Tin Roof is a difficult business to scale because it’s reliant on the people I’ve got at the time — it’s a consultancy, we sell time,” she says. Although her immediate response was to answer ‘no’, her desire to create something that had a global reach like that of her clients left her wondering. “Newswriting is formulaic. You just need to know the formula,” Sarah tells me. “And PingGo is a formula for creating news.” In broader terms, PingGo is an online application which asks users questions about events within their business — common examples being the formation of a company, appointment of directors, growth reports, awards, new products, new offices, the list is endless — before producing press releases which conform with news writing standards. “The journalist want’s to know the ‘who, what, where, when, why’ in the first paragraph. They want to get the story straight away. When you’re at university or at school, you’re taught to write essays in a long meandering format — first your introduction, then a whole load of background stuff, and then, you know, at the end, there’s the big reveal, the conclusion. Journalists don’t want that. They want the conclusion up front,” she says.
“So who is the target market for your product?” I ask. As the product is still under development, Sarah views startups and small businesses — most of whom wouldn’t engage with PR agencies — as her target market. “There are many companies who like to do things themselves and keep control over it,” Sarah says. “So it could be a creative business, a web design agency, a textile designer, an upholsterer… you know, anyone who needs to create content, write news and plan that news out so that they never run out of things to say.” Ultimately, however, Sarah hopes to attract a wide variety of companies to her platform including other PR agencies who, she says, could use the application to train their junior employees or white label it for future clients who don’t yet have the budget for their tailored services. “Hot Tin Roof is a much more sophisticated approach to PR. We do campaigns in a much more nuanced way. PingGo is the ‘do-it-yourself’ version and it’s only as good as the user,” she says, leaning back into her chair.
We move on. There are two subjects I’m particularly interested in hearing about having done my research about Sarah and PingGo. Finance is the first; Sarah recently presented PingGo at the Engage Invest Exploit showcase, where she was looking for an investment of between £100,000 and £200,000. “How did it go and how will you be using the money?” I ask. The deal, she tells me, is in the making but they’re not there yet. “We’ll use it to build PingGo fast and market it. A lot of money will go into driving traffic and creating volume. As I say, we have first-mover advantage at the moment but, if we do not build enough volume of users, it would be easily overtaken,” she tells me. Sarah has big dreams for her product, and as one would expect of someone who works in PR, she isn’t afraid to share them. “I want PingGo to last, I want PingGo to be the default place that people go if they’re looking to do communication. I want media to be coming to us for the latest news story. I want PingGo to be as big as HootSuite, you know a big, big, well-known, good, respected brand worldwide,” she exclaims. But the investment she hopes to receive will also fund product development as Sarah recognises that the product in its current form is still very much a ‘minimum viable product.’
This leads me on to my second area of interest, the technology. Sarah has no coding experience which, one would have thought, makes life quite challenging when it comes to running a tech startup, however, it is something increasingly common. “It’s been tough,” Sarah says. She explains that, “one of the hardest things to do is for someone with no coding experience to be able to build something using external suppliers.” Sarah stresses the importance of getting the project documented appropriately and having the developers ask the questions they’d expect one to answer in the proposal to double-check that one is on the same page. “You need to ask them what they need from you,” she notes. “Also be able to say what you definitely don’t want because what you don’t want is just as important as what you do want.”
I’m about to ask another question when Sarah stops me and offers a further piece of advice. “Always budget to spend three times as much. The first quote is just,” she laughs, “it’s just the ‘let’s get started’ quote. Ask them ‘realistically, how much is it going to cost?’ because there’s nothing worse than having a half-finished product and not being able to afford to finish it.” It’s a mistake that Sarah made herself but, when I ask her if she’d do things differently if she could start again, she says ‘no’. “I wouldn’t change what I’ve gone through because I’ve learnt a lot from things that have not gone how I thought they would,” she says.
I reach my trademark question; “would you call yourself an entrepreneur?” I ask. There’s a long pause. “I’m not sure,” Sarah says before pausing again. She explains that, having been in business for fourteen years, she knows that she can build a business, create revenues and see opportunities but she appears to question whether that is actually the definition of an ‘entrepreneur’. “I think entrepreneurs are, by their very nature, risk takers and I’m quite cautious about the risks I’m prepared to take,” she explains before concluding, “I think I’m quite a cautious entrepreneur.” We discuss what it means to be an entrepreneur, with both of us discussing how the world appears to see Mark Zuckerberg as the textbook definition of entrepreneurship today. Sarah argues, however, that she creates jobs, employs accountants and bookkeepers, pays rent for an office, etc. “That’s entrepreneurial, that’s creating wealth, that’s creating business,” she exclaims.
“So finally then, what advice would you give to another entrepreneur, cautious or not?” I ask. This question is, apparently, a lot easier to answer. “Just believe in your gut instinct. I think, actually, that’s right for cautious and risk-takers,” she says. “It’s just that the cautious need to be cautious and there gut will tell them when to go and their gut will tell them when to stay. For the risk takers, they just need to go, go, go, go, go and they’ll make loads of mistakes on the way. Cautious ones will probably go slower.” She pauses. I ask whether this would, in her view, lead to fewer mistakes being made, to which she backtracks slightly. “Maybe that’s a bad thing because they do go slower and, sometimes, might run out of steam. So cautious is not always good and you do need that willingness to crash and burn,” she says. So, next time you’re considering launching a business, just get on with it or your dream might not come true.