PR Startup Alpaca: Startups Need To Nail The “What” First

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Peter Elms, co-founder of the London-based PR agency Alpaca, talks about the 'itch' to start a business and startups' advantage over bigger players.

How would you describe Alpaca in a few words?

We’re an award-winning creative PR agency for challenger brands, in a range of sectors from tech to food and beverage.

What inspired you to create the agency? How did it all start?

The truth is that I just wanted to do the work I wanted to do, on my own terms and it’s hard doing that if you’re working for somebody else. I got lucky in that I was working on a project with my now co-founder Nick, who gave me the confidence and space to make the jump and create an agency. There was no moment of inspiration, there was no real mission, just an itch, and a feeling that I felt like I needed to do my own thing. We had a hunch about a gap in the market, worked extremely hard to onboard our first clients, and everything else has followed from that.

You focus on startups but have also worked with larger clients such as Heathrow Airport. From your perspective, what are the biggest differences between the two and what can startups learn from bigger players?

Speed is the difference. Speed and a determination to work harder are really a startups only weapons against big players. The big boys have everything else. A startup can make a decision without having to involve 500 internal stakeholders, consult lawyers and gain budgetary exemptions for budgets that were set 12 months in advance. Startups have to take advantage of that.

One questions often asked by early-stage startups is how to communicate their vision to users. What are some tips you can share?

Make it really clear what you actually do, and worry less about why you do it. I know this goes against the marketing grain but stick with me. Let’s say you’re a bike courier company that can deliver packages cheaper than anybody else in your city. Say that. I think startups get far too caught up in having a mission in the early days. “We think that every parcel should be delivered by bike, to create sustainable cities”. Cool – but your consumer isn’t stupid enough to realize that it’s a remarkable coincidence that your high minded mission will also make you a truck of money. Now that’s not saying you shouldn’t work out your ‘why’ and build the brand around it (you totally should), but you really need to nail your ‘what’ first.

Communication is a hard-fought industry. What makes Alpaca stand out of the crowd? What is the key differentiator?

Our work and the people that work here. In client services, and particularly in PR, it’s really hard to say “we do things differently” and be telling the truth. We’ve delivered a lot for people on low budgets and have won awards in our first year for doing just that. You can come up with some way of packaging a way of working and give it a complicated name, but ultimately we’re good at hacking culture to get people attention for their business.

What is the biggest challenge that the company has faced and what were the learning points?

Our biggest client (one of our few in the early days) got into serious financial difficulties and stopped paying us. We’d lost our safety net overnight. I now know the answer to the question “what would you do if you lost your biggest client?” – the truth is that you survive and you go and work hard to bring in more work.

What’s next for Alpaca?

I’m really interested in building out our creative offering in video and experiential, through partnerships and hiring the right people.

As a London-based startup, what do you wish for in improving the European startup ecosystem?

Beyond reversing Brexit, I think the UK Government’s PR machine could be doing a lot more to promote the UK startup ecosystem on a global scale. The Treasury also needs to be very careful about how they tax freelancers as they are the lifeblood of a fair few of the startups we work with. I’m always taken aback by the number of EU applicants we have for roles at Alpaca, to have access to such a huge talent pool is amazing, so it’s vital that London continues to feel ‘open’ so that we can continue to attract great people.

What’s one piece of advice you can give to fellow founders for their startup?

Do what you feel is the right thing to do. Which sounds so easy but is really hard to do in practice, as you will get a lot of very good advice. But trust your instinct, it’s why you started a business. If you don’t it will keep you awake at night. If you’re wrong (and you will be more than once) you don’t want to be thinking “I knew that was the wrong decision when I made it”. Trusting your instincts will also help you to make decisions more quickly, which is a big advantage.



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