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Sunday sit-down with… Ellie Rees, Collab Media

Ellie was just 19 when she set up her social media consultancy. Now she's celebrating the business's 6th birthday with 58 clients. We chat collaboration, trolling and social media tips.

Written by High Life North
Published 24.06.2022

You started your business at 19 – what’s the story there?

That’s right! I started my business in my final year of university. I was in Preston studying brand management and it was all about how to create brands and work with businesses, and the final year project was about immersing yourself in another business.

I had always wanted to start my own business, I loved watching shows like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, so instead, I decided to start my own company and immerse myself in that.

It was in 2016 during the very early years of social media and I had built up a large following. I always had people coming to me through Instagram wanting to know how I’d done it. I was giving the information away for free and I thought surely there’s a business here.

I was actually getting trolled quite a lot and was onto my fourth Instagram account – it was becoming quite detrimental to my mental health and I was looking at my future thinking ‘do I want to make a career out of this’. But I loved social and I thought there was a real gap to use my skill set to work with businesses instead and help them to grow their profiles. I got my first client in Middlesbrough, then the next couple and it just started to grow naturally. I used my skillset from my degree to develop logos and build up a real brand aesthetic for them and saw great results.

I loved being able to help businesses and use social media to help them grow. So Collab Media started off the back of a negative which turned into a huge positive. I was able to re-evaluate what I wanted and build my confidence to learn how to manage my personal influencing too.

And now Collab Media has just turned 6! How have you grown since then?

It’s a big milestone for us! There are five of us at Collab Media now and we work with businesses from all sectors – and not just in Teesside either.

The main premise of the business when I set it up was that I thought Teesside got a lot of slack. I went away for university and really missed it. At first my USP was to just work with local businesses but we started to get enquiries from London. There’s a huge North / South divide in things like price points for marketing and social media management so we now have a lot of clients in the south who pay much less but I like to think get a much better delivery.

We also work with clients internationally including France and Turkey. The core of my business is still Teesside though and helping local businesses to shout about what they’re doing. We like to go out and immerse ourselves in our client’s businesses where we can. We’ve got an in-house photographer who goes down regularly to get banks of imagery.

We’ve got 58 businesses that we work with currently. Initially it was just social media management but that’s not always cost-effective for very small businesses and one-man bands. So we started to offer social media training too. We don’t want to turn away businesses so we made the training the lowest price point we possibly can to help to empower them and give them the skill sets they need to succeed. It’s only £150 for a two-hour tailored session with me and it’s so rewarding to watch their socials and see them putting those skill sets into practice and watching their business grow.

Then we also do social media branding. We create brand guidelines, logos in different formats, and specific fonts to create a brand aesthetic that gets businesses recognised.

Social media is constantly changing – how do you keep up with it?

One of the key things with us is that we just focus on social media. I have no plans to diversify into other marketing because social media on its own is a full-time job and I want the whole team to be focused on delivering that as best we can. I set aside every Friday as my research day, just to make sure we’re fully in the loop with all of the changes happening.

TikTok, reels and Instagram stories weren’t even a thing when I first set up the business. In those days, it was just a chronological feed on Instagram and Facebook. The advertising side wasn’t even as diverse as it is now. Social has massively evolved – in a good way – but we’re constantly battling against the changes to algorithms and new updates.

We diversified the team so Jess for example, is our expert in reels. We’ve all got our own focus which keeps it easier to keep ahead of changes and how they can best be used for businesses.

I recommend that clients who’ve had social media training refresh it every six months. I’ve seen instances where people gain new skills, start seeing results and then something changes on social and their performance drops off. They become self-critical and give up, but it’s not their fault. But it’s just because things can change in just a matter of weeks. We send out regular updates to our database every few weeks but in reality, we could be sending them out every day. My advice to people is to be a regular user yourself so you can see the changes on the platform and act on them.

Social media agencies have blown up since you started your business, but you still keep your prices really accessible. What’s the thinking behind that?

Personally, my accountant will kill me for saying this, money isn’t my main focus and my relationship with my clients is the most important thing. I’ve got some clients on the same price plan as when they started in 2016. Because I really respect their business and they’ve supported me since day one. They’re the bread and butter of my business and I don’t like isolating a customer base because of price. We can add more on, but the core of what we offer is accessible for most businesses and we can always find a way to provide an offering for pretty much any client.

We’re driven by results and our love for social media. I don’t feel like I’m at work. We’re lucky in that we don’t have to do a lot of marketing for our own business because we get a lot of referrals from word of mouth. That also helps because we don’t have to put a big budget behind our own promotion, therefore we can keep our costs accessible to customers.

To me, that’s our USP. We maintain our integrity and it works for us.

Given that you were 19 when you started and haven’t worked in another business, how have you created this vibrant office culture and an engaged team?

Winging it and going with the flow! I’ve learnt lessons along the way and I’m lucky to have a great support network around me. Getting the right people in place has really helped me to take the business to the next level.

It was all just a learning curve and I was lucky that I didn’t have much to lose, I was living at home with my mum and dad at the time. A lot of people say how inspiring it is to set up a business at 19. But actually, I think it’s inspiring when business owners do it when they’ve got a mortgage and kids. I had no risk.

There isn’t a guide that tells you how to do it. I trust my gut and followed what felt right. I love what I’m doing and want to make it work, so I make it work. The team is the best part of my business and I want to make sure I keep them happy and well-supported at all times and have fun while we’re doing it!

What are your plans for the future?

I’d love to create a hub for the digital community. Having our freelancers being able to work in the same building, running courses and having businesses in the local area popping in for advice, content creation and networking would be fantastic.

Also, business awards are something I’m hoping to set up. I’d like to do it female-focussed and celebrate people who are breaking the mould. I want the categories to be different from the standard corporate awards and do something a little bit different – just because there might not be a category for them in certain awards, but there are still lots of things to celebrate.

Then I’d like to keep developing the team and expanding the office. Constantly working on the culture and creating a great place for people in Teesside to work.

Tell me about your networking group, Women in Collaboration.

It started more from a selfish point of view to be honest. I went on a business course and there was a group of women there – all of different ages with different backgrounds and businesses. I felt really inspired. I was 20 at the time and it felt amazing. I’d never been around women with shared interests in that way before. When the course ended I asked the women if we could stay in touch. We made a Facebook group and met for coffee once a month but I started to get a bit bored of that and wanted to go for a drink, or brunch to make it more fun and social. I always found myself using the time to put the world to rights and could get advice on anything happening in my business that I was finding difficult.

After a bit of time, I suggested inviting more women along – there’s power in numbers! So I decided to take it to the next level and created Women in Collaboration. We started a Facebook group and invited all women in business from the local area and it went from there. That was in 2018 and we’d had about 15 events prior to the pandemic.

We bring along guest speakers who often particularly resonate with the challenges women in particular face in business, and ensure we keep it really social and accessible for women who might want to come along on their own. It’s just about finding role models. We have business owners, charities, women who don’t have jobs and students all coming along and making new connections. Our only aim is to create a community and provide that support network for women in the area.

Let’s talk about online trolling. How has it affected you and do you think it’s getting worse?

It’s got much worse. I had a couple of really bad experiences over lockdown where I got hundreds of thousands of negative comments.

I used to find it really difficult. My first experience was when I was 19 and was getting negative comments about my eyebrows. I didn’t leave the house for 3 weeks and I was feeling paranoid that it was people that I knew. I was having panic attacks – it was an awful time. Now I’ve become more resilient and brush it off as part of the job.

My advice is to rise above it – there’s no engaging with online trolls. They want you to bite, so don’t. If you’re feeling affected by it, talk to friends and family, don’t bottle it up. They’ll give you the perspective you need and help you put it in a box.

I’ve also had issues with stalkers. I once had someone who sent me a photo of the end of my street for three months. So I became really aware of online safety, not posting photos of a restaurant while I was there, for example. I think educating young people about online safety is really important so I try to do talks in schools where I can – if I have a child I wouldn’t actually want them to be on social media!

On the more positive side, what are your favourite things about social media?

The sense of community. I’m a very social person and especially during the pandemic I was still able to maintain that.

No two days are ever the same. I don’t feel like I’m at work – it’s opened up so many opportunities for me. Also because of the range of businesses we work with, we’re able to learn so much, our work is so diverse.

To watch a business grow and know that social media is a key part of that is incredibly rewarding.

My tips for a small business wanting to focus on social would be:

  1. Stick to your niche and maintain a strong brand identity
  2. Don’t be too sales-led on social, show people the person behind the brand
  3. Be educational and share your knowledge
  4. Try to be as creative and unique as possible
  5. Consistency is key – you can’t just do one post a week and expect results
  6. Focus on one main platform that works best for you and your business

And finally, what are your favourite things to do in Teesside?

Tees Barrage is lovely to go for walks – there’s a great pub and it’s fantastic if you like watersports.

I love a little restaurant called Umi. It’s a Japanese restaurant over in Middlesbrough which has really grown from a small corner shop eatery to a full interior-designed restaurant which I think gives Leeds restaurants a run for their money.

Acklam Hall is beautiful. It has a lovely restaurant and a function space that I use for business.

Yarm high street is fab and is full of independent businesses. There’s a shop there called Pop-Up Shop and every week it showcases different independent businesses which is great to discover new brands.

My favourite event is the Orange Pip Market. It’s in Middlesbrough at the end of every month. They close the street and create a festival – like the Jubilee but every month! They have live music and entertainment. I go with my mum and dad and have never missed one. To me, it’s the epitome of Teesside – it’s a brilliant vibe and I’ve made loads of new friends from going there.

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