Former astrophysicist Dr John Woods has swapped searching the skies for analysing company data with his digital marketing company Sharp Ahead.
The Reading Local Work.Life member tells us a bit more about his four-year-old business.
How would you describe Sharp Ahead?
We offer digital marketing with an emphasis on lead generation, helping companies reach their specialist audience.
We’re not a design-led agency, or technology-led. We’ll do whatever our clients need to do in the digital world, solving business problems for companies, almost always B2B and complex products and services. They tend to be expensive products where there aren’t that many people that might buy it, but the individual transactions are valuable.
We have five full-time staff, including co-director Jennifer Esty, former head of digital marketing at Microsoft UK.
How did you go from astrophysics to where you are now?
It was quite a journey! Jobs in astrophysics are difficult to get and you have to go wherever they are in the world, which wasn’t what I wanted to do. So I thought I better grow up and do something more applied. I worked as a software developer in the early 90s, and ended up doing analytical software that was used in the pharmaceutical data discovery process. This was Big Data before people used the term! I then drifted into technical product marketing before launching my own start-up in web analytics. We grew to 40 people and were particularly successful in retail and the car insurance industry. Also, SAP licensed our software, which was a personal high point.
Does Sharp Ahead serve a particular industry?
We work across all sorts of industries and one of the things we’re trying to do is be more vertically-focused. One of the vertical markets we’re growing in is specialist workspaces. An early client for us was Oxford Innovation, who run a network of innovation centres across the UK. The first big project we did for them was a launch in Fareham. There, the local authority wanted to keep the technology jobs there so they built a very nice new building, handed it over to Oxford Innovation, and the next task was to get tenants. They tended to work with more traditional commercial property agents so they were willing to give us a go via digital marketing.
How did it go?
We filled it up – and a lot faster than anybody had expected us to. We all did a great job – us, the council and Oxford Innovation. It worked so well the council committed to double the size of the building. That second building is only there because we did a good job. It’s a wonderful, tangible success story. It was great to be part of helping innovative companies create jobs.
Now we work across their 25 innovation centres and also for a number of science parks to achieve the same things.
Which other projects are you most proud of?
Another example is Clean Linen Services in Maidenhead – one of the UK’s biggest industrial laundries that supply clients such as hotel chains.
We did digital marketing to help them acquire new clients. It was a classic example of a niche product that’s quite expensive, with contracts that can be millions of pounds. People don’t change linen supplier very often but they do change supplier and it is influenced by digital marketing. ROI from that work doesn’t come from hundreds of conversions every day, it comes from one or two big conversions every so often.
We’re also proud of the work we did with Yorkshire Purchasing Organisation, a procurement body for schools in Yorkshire, providing everything from pens to catering. One of things we did was make it easier for people to get their hands on their hard copy sales catalogue using digital channels. It turns out to be a very good customer acquisition strategy because like laundry, schools won’t switch supplier very often but if they do and get a good experience, they will carry on purchasing from that supplier.
What are your biggest challenges?
Our focus at the moment is growing as an agency, adding new clients but also providing new services to existing clients.
Another challenge is being able to recruit the right staff with the range of commercial life experience needed. It’s not easy!
What do you most enjoy about what you do?
I am a problem-solver. Quite a lot of the projects involve reframing something – the client has been thinking about something in one way and we come at it another way. It’s about devising an innovative solution to a problem.
How does using Work.Life help you do that?
Firstly, location. I live in the centre of Reading and our clients are scattered across the country so as I’m not going to be next door to all of our clients, it might as well be handy for work. Also, flexibility. The choice of membership is great for us; Flex is a cost-effective way for staff to use an office space when needed, while Local for me means it’s a great base to work from, I can separate home and work, and the facilities offer a level of professionalism as it’s a great space to bring clients. Plus, there’s a nice community of people here.
Are your astrophysics skills still useful in your job?
There are parallels and transferable skills. The data skills are useful.
One of the things about astrophysics is you can’t really do experiments – the stars are what they are. You can look at millions of different stars, plot a graph and say ‘I’ve learnt about the stars’. But you can’t take one star and start poking at it and make the colour change. And with a lot of web analytics problems it’s the same thing – you can do experiments, you can change your website but it’s fairly time-consuming to do that. It’s much easier to look at what’s happened to date and learn something from that.
Having a general feel for data sometimes helps, having that ‘data instinct’.
How can people get in touch with you?
NOTE: Picture is Fareham Innovation Centre.