How did MVF become the UK’s fastest-growing tech company?

CEO and co-founder Titus Sharpe on the firm’s galactic growth

Think of Britain’s fastest-growing tech companies and the Mind Candies and Zooplas on the scene come to mind. The techier among you might mention Wonga, Shazam or even Moo.

But none of them is the UK’s fastest-growing tech company.

If you go purely by turnover, that honour goes to MVF Global, according to this year’s Sunday Times Tech Track 100. It is a digital marketing agency that has seen sales grow a whopping 289% on average every year over the last three years (as calculated by compound annual growth rate). The company is expecting sales of £13.9m this year, up from £257,000 in 2010.

And no, they’re not Shoreditch-based, but have an office in Kentish Town that is home to 150 employees. The company has 1,500 clients, including British Gas, Mars and Nestle, in over 50 countries. It has not raised any funding from venture capitalists.

MVF Global was founded in 2009 by five friends - Titus Sharpe, Tom Morgan, Jules Hopkinson, David Walton and Simon Venturi - after they sold their lead generation business, Approved Index, to Reed Elsevier in 2008.

The firm’s galactic growth is at least in part down to the impressive background of its founders.

Take CEO Titus Sharpe, for example. Sharpe, who is a 29% shareholder, is a Fulbright Scholar, and holds a first class degree in Artificial Intelligence from Nottingham University. Approved Index isn’t his only successful exit - he founded web development agency Moodia in 2001 and sold it to Zone Content in 2009.

MVF Global’s next challenge is to maintain the top spot on the list of the UK’s fastest growing companies. How will they do it? We speak to CEO Titus Sharpe.

Q. So where did it all start?

In 2008, we sold Approved Index after scaling it to become the UK’s largest B2B lead generation firm. However, we had restricted covenants from Reed Elsevier, so we couldn’t replicate Approved Index’s business model. So we were on the lookout for a new business idea. I knew a lot of good guys from college and my Moodia days, so we met up and came up with the idea of setting up a business in the customer acquisition space.

We actually started off by picking up a few clients in Germany, and they asked us if we could do France and the UK. So as clients’ demand grew, we started building the business out.

We set up an office in the basement of my old house in Borough. It got dark sometimes, but we managed. We later moved to Kentish Town.

Q. How does MVF work?

We are basically a sophisticated online digital publisher with clever technology platforms that we apply to marketing. We are a combination of advertising technology and publishing. For example, we work with British Gas, which installs solar panels in a lot UK homes. We provide all the advertising across digital channels for them, like SEO, PPC, media-buying, email list buying, affiliates and general display advertising.

We also drive traffic to our own sites (www.theecoexperts.co.uk and www.expertmarket.co.uk) and engage customers who are interested in installing solar panels in their homes. We then make a hot prospect for British Gas and deliver it directly into their call centre and get feedback from them about which leads can be converted and which ones can’t.

Q. How did you fund your business?

We had just sold Approved Index, which gave us some capital to invest in this new venture, so it’s self-funded. We put in some money as a loan.

Obviously you don’t pay yourself very much in the beginning, but we started building up the business fairly quickly as we knew the market pretty well. The business is growing purely off strong cashflow.

We haven’t ever got any venture capital or private equity backing - we toyed with the idea but at the moment we’re very much focused on growing our revenues and profits.

Q. How did you manage to get big name clients?

It’s an ongoing process. From the boardroom level down I am always out meeting CEOs across Britain and Europe, and we have an active sales team as well. It’s all about targeting the right people.

We can’t work with every company in the UK so it’s probably about 200 companies that we target and work with, because we know we can have a huge impact on their business.

We have three active sales teams focusing on the UK, Germany and France each – but all are based in London. It’s basically doing telephony sales but we do go out for face-to-face sales with bigger clients.

Winning the Sunday Times Tech Track also meant that we [now have] so many CEOs of blue-chip companies contacting us to work with us.

Q. Your sales have grown 278% year-on-year, but what have the biggest challenges been?

I think the cultural shift as you grow the business have been the most challenging [thing] for me. When you are a start-up with 50 staff members, you know everyone and you can have a one-to-one chat with everyone.

When you look at how network theory works, a company with 50 employees is a very tight company where Amy in accounts knows what Theo in marketing is up to. But with 150 people that doesn’t tend to happen.

You’ve got to put a lot of structure around all your communications and meetings. This is the biggest business I’ve ever done, so making departments talk to each other better has been the biggest challenge.

Q. You are a tech company, so why didn’t you set up base in Shoreditch?

We were based in Charlotte Street and were sitting two people to a desk, so it was getting pretty cosy. So we started looking around. I had set up my previous businesses in the Brick Lane and Truman Brewery area and that was brilliant from a flexibility perspective, as you had one-day notice periods to move out. We considered that option for MVF but because there was so much demand in East London, the rates had gone up.

We then found a brilliant deal here in Kentish Town and took it up. We were a lean start-up so for purely economic reasons we got that office space.

North London has a burgeoning tech scene. You’ve got Google moving into King’s Cross, start-up foundry Forward Labs in Camden and Mumsnet and StudentBeans in Highgate Studios.

I am trying to formally set up a hub group in North London and would love to engage the local schools a lot so that they learn about digital businesses.

Q. What are your future plans?

The amazing thing is, now we’ve had so many blue-chip companies walk through our doors, we have got a lot opportunities right in front of us.

Longer term, we’re marketing in 50 countries worldwide, we’ve got traffic in these markets and want to start developing these markets.

I think Singapore is a very exciting market for us because we have quite a big client base in Asia and we can build strong global headquarters there.

The other one is New York because America is our fastest-growing territory now. If you’re a tech firm, being in the Silicon Valley is important, but we work in a lot of big blue-chips which are on the east coast.

The other market for us is Brazil. I know there is a lot of regulation on doing business, but it’s a great prospect.

Thanks for your time Titus.

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