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Meet the BCI member: Piers Tincknell, Atomic Smash

31st January 2022

Piers Tincknell, co-founder of WordPress and WooCommerce specialists Atomic Smash, is one of Bristol Creative Industries’ longest standing members. He joined in 2010 when his business was him and his co-founder David Darke. The company is now a team of 17. 

Dan Martin spoke to Piers about his business journey and how BCI has played a key role in his success.

How did you get started?

“My business partner David and I graduated from university with a digital arts degree. We had an assignment to come up with a hypothetical business that we might be able to run. Our idea was a podcasting network. We found that we worked really well together and when we graduated, we decided to set up our own actual business. We gave it three months. If we didn’t get any work or ran out of money, we’d get a proper job!

“We moved to Bristol but had no clients. We rented some desk space in Spike Island and immediately picked up work from other business people there. We were the only people in the space doing any form of web service so it was a rich source of collaboration. We did logo design, built websites, video editing, sound editing and 3D modelling. We did anything digital that people wanted us to do. We really got stuck in!

“A few years in we met someone who suggested we build our websites on WordPress as it was up and coming. We tried a few content management systems and decided WordPress was the one to use after a business adviser said that we needed to settle on a niche to be successful. It was also then that we hired our first employee.

How did you find your first employee and what is your advice to other small business owners for taking on their first member of staff?

“We posted a job ad on the Bristol Creative Industries job board. We received some applications and made a choice from those we interviewed. That person is still with us today.

“When you’re running a small business, it’s easy to hire the wrong person. Either you’re not going to pay enough money so you get somebody who’s too hard to manage and you need to upskill them so you can’t spend time on the high value work or you end up with somebody who’s not the right cultural fit.

“My advice around is to not panic hire. Don’t wait until you desperately need somebody to start the process of finding the right person. The longer the interview process and the more time you get to spend with somebody, the more likely you’re going to gel and find the right person. It will feel like a gamble because it’s a new fixed overhead, but if you need to think if the business is going in the right direction and you are going to have enough money in, say, six months time, let’s start the process as soon as possible.

“Doing it through Bristol Creative Industries is good too because you can keep recruitment costs down and I think it’s a more natural way of hiring. I totally see the room for recruiters when you’re a scale-up, but when you’re in your early stages and you’re all about building a good relationship with somebody, then doing it yourself can be so much better.”

You mentioned the right cultural fit being important for new employees. Did you set your business culture from the start?

“We never overtly set out our culture, but the culture we’ve ended up with is definitely a reflection of me and David as we are closely aligned. Our values are the same and that has been amplified into the business.

“Part of our company culture is learning and self development. We weren’t afraid to take on lots of different tasks at the beginning as we just wanted to learn and get stuck in. That has stuck with us and it’s something we encourage everyone in the business to do. Working in technology, you can’t sit still. You need to keep learning. That’s something we got from our university course. There was some software we studied in our first year that was obsolete by the final year!

“As your business grows, it’s really hard to hold onto your culture. I think at the beginning you just attract people who are similar to you. As you are working so closely together, often in the same room, you have to be really aligned to move forwards. When there’s 20 of you, it’s easy for everyone’s values to not quite align but you muddle through. Once you get to a certain size, the business owner needs to be much more overt about communicating their values internally and that messaging needs to be consistent.”

Why did you decide to join Bristol Creative Industries?

“We got lots of advice from other people at the start of our business journey. The top three tips were get some business insurance, find a mentor and join Bristol Creative Industries to meet new people.

“I’ve met loads of people through Bristol Creative Industries. In the early days, it was a way to get talking to a new contact if we were both members of BCI. It’s a great icebreaker. I’ve also been to lots of networking events over the years and attended programmes and other training.

“At the start when we didn’t have much money, membership was more of a commitment but we still saw the value in it. We enjoyed being able to connect with other business owners and realised Bristol Creative Industries was the best way to do that. As we’ve got bigger and we’ve become more self propelling, we want to give back. The money you give to BCI is about building Bristol as a community and promoting Bristol. We like that BCI is investing in the creative industries. It is so important for us so we want to do as much as we can to help promote it.”

Piers Tincknell, Atomic Smash

What key challenges have you had to deal with?

“I think it’s more competitive than ever in the digital agency space. That’s a really big challenge.

“Talent is another one. It’s great that Bristol is growing in popularity and there are lots of big technology companies coming here, but they are hoovering up lots of good developers and designers. As a small business, we can’t compete on salary so we try and compete on other things that are important to people.

“It’s nice having such a great spread of clients because people often come to work for us to be able to get access to those clients. [Atomic Smash’s clients including Spike Island, Bristol Ideas and Bristol Pride]. That wasn’t an intentional, strategic thinking thing, it was just just a natural thing that happened.

“We also communicate the flexibility that we offer and let people know that if they come and work for us, their destiny is in their own hands. We encourage self-starters and if they’ve got ideas, they can run with them. If people are motivated and they want to take on a side project or they want to get a bit more involved in a particular area, they can.

“We also understand that employees are humans with complex lives. We’re flexible around things like taking 30 minutes in the middle of the afternoon to do the school run. My business partner and I have just got down to four days a week. I’ve got a son now so I’m balancing working and parenting. That is open to everyone. Our working week is a shorter than many other businesses as we contract people for 35 hours a week. If they want to condense it into four days, they are more than welcome to do so.”

What are your thoughts on Bristol as a place to run a creative business?

“The best thing is the collaboration. That has enabled us to grow. We’ve done projects where we’ve worked directly with another agency. They’ve done some design work, and then we’ve done the implementation or vice versa. That has been of been one of the keys to our success.

“Bristol does collaboration really well, which is shown by the amount of people I’ve met through Bristol Creative Industries.

“The Bristol business culture is laid back. That’s great but it does mean that businesses are not always as good as those in other cities at self-promotion. If you look at it from the outside, it can seem like Bristol is not as hungry as cities like Manchester and London.”

What are top tips for business success?

“If we had set the business up in 2010 in our bedrooms and not in a workspace, there’s no way we would have met the people who gave us work at the start. Try and set up your new business in a hub or a workspace where there’s other people on the same journey and you’ve got mentors and advisers on hand.

“Find the best people if you’re going to take on staff. If they cost you a bit more, then it’s definitely worth it, and once they’re on board, look after them.

“Finally, I say enjoy the journey! It’s pretty up and down and it doesn’t end, so you’ve got to enjoy it as you go.”

Fancy joining Piers Tincknell as a Bristol Creative Industries member? Benefit from industry expertise, training, leads, curated news, kudos and more. Sign up here.

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About Bristol Creative Industries

Bristol Creative Industries is the membership network that supports the region's creative sector to learn, grow and connect, driven by the common belief that we can achieve more collectively than alone. 

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