How Cystic fibrosis led me to my dream business

Ben Wolfenden founded digital marketing agency Visibilis – which has worked with brands including the University of Edinburgh and clothing retailer Joy – in 2011.

Ben has cystic fibrosis and in 2014, he won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs in the UK. Since then, he has been able to double the staff to 15, win a handful of national clients and moved to a much larger office in Leeds.

What were you doing before launching Visibilis?

“Struggling to find a viable employed position where I could work and also fit my rigorous medical routine around that role – I spend three – five hours every day on my chest physio, taking up to 40 pills and potions, not to mention my nebulizers and lethargy. During my time at university I worked for a digital agency in their data department: the best thing about digital was the amount of self-learning you could do because digital geeks are great bloggers and we love to spread our knowledge. As time went by my treatments were taking up more time during the day but crucially it wasn’t a case of I couldn’t work – it was more of a case that I could only work certain hours during a workday, which was hard for people to understand. I was freelancing for agencies two or three days a week, but even then, I would feel guilty if I wasn’t up to form or was ill. So, I decided if I had my own clients I could work when I needed to work – and I started building my own business.”

What do your friends and relatives think about you starting your own business?

“It was remarkable just how little friends and family understood about what I provided in the early days – ‘he does websites’ was the regular description, which made me hold my head in my hands! Even recently, most of my friends and family didn’t think I even worked until I said I needed a bigger office. The usual jokes of working from home in your PJs was a regular…”

What’s your ethos as an entrepreneur – how do you beat competitors?

“Always look ahead – not to the side. Get up an hour earlier and work when everyone else is having a Sunday morning lie in. Believing in your team is key; make sure you go above and beyond expectations for a client and then you don’t need to worry. You need gumption – a key moment in my business was phoning up a firm who’d placed a newspaper advertisement for a part-time digital executive. I convinced them to become a client instead and joyfully won them as my second client. Now they are the UK’s leading retailer in their field, growing from a small business to a multi-million turnover enterprise and my longest standing client.”

What tips can you offer to disabled people thinking about starting a business or growing an existing one?

“Find a niche that works for you and that you enjoy – whether its creative or data, or both. Many disabled people have the ability to run their own business but sometimes it’s the idea that they can’t because they’ve had limited exposure to work in the first place to work out their niche. Most disabled people have learnt all sorts of transferable skills from having their illness, so make it a positive, use those skills and put them to good use whether it’s being great on the phone, or calling people to organise appointments. There is so much opportunity in today’s digital world that it’s just a case of believing in yourself.”

What are your hopes for the future of Visibilis?

“To pass £1 million turnover this financial year – the illusive £1m can be a tricky figure for many SMEs. It’s a financial stake in the ground, with many businesses asking themselves the question: ‘are we driving on towards being a bigger commercial business? Or will we hit a plateau?’. I want to see the business grow steadily and maintain a great company ethos – encourage employee development and growth – we perform quarterly performance reviews, so our team have real visible goals and can grow with us.”

What single business or entrepreneur inspires you?

“I find any business born from nothing inspirational – those nights are long and dark in the early days and it takes a certain type of character to push on through. By happenstance, a year ago I bumped into one of my best friends from school – life had got in the way and we’d drifted – who strangely enough was in a similar position to me, having set up an impressive ‘big data’ analysis agency – growing at a very similar rate.”

What are your top tips for others thinking of starting a business?

“If you’re a service industry go above and beyond for your clients, because word of mouth is the best marketing of them all. Worry far more about helping your current clients to grow rather than looking for new ones. Educate your client base on the various revenue channels and how you can service them and you’ll naturally grow – it may take longer, but you’ll be a much better business because of it.”

Lucy Tobin is a senior writer at the Evening Standard, author and blogger.

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