Back in April 2020, we ran a case study on British Army veteran Chris Flannagan, founder of TLP Ltd – Drone Security Specialists, and explored his journey from his time with the Police, to forming his business, and the support he had along the way; including a Help for Heroes Business Experience course at Tedworth House, a bespoke scheme run by X-Forces Enterprise.
8 months on, and 13 months since Chris started his company, we caught up with him ahead of #SmallBizSatUk to see how he’s developed his business to cope with two lockdowns, varying restrictions, virtual networking and training courses, and any advice he had for other SME business owners during a somewhat turbulent 2020.
“It’s been mad. There’s no other way to describe it. When I did the business courses with XFE at Tedworth house, both courses covered so much, and it really put logic into a large amount of uncertainty. If Dax or Martin [XFE Course Facilitators] had said, ‘We want you to do a scenario where you plan your business, you’ve got no one to trade to for 3 months, and only 50% of people to trade to for a further three months’, I don’t think anyone would have taken that training exercise seriously – we never would have thought it would happen.
“It’s kind of just learning on the fly as we go. As we look back at April, it hit us hard, everything dried up, the leads and contacts we were trying to develop just stopped overnight. And moving towards July, I’ll be honest, there was a massive question over whether the business would continue, without a shadow of a doubt. Because with the way the business plan and financial forecasts were modelled, for a year I could sustain the business costs myself but moving forwards from 12 months we really needed to start bringing money in to make this possible. Or if not, at least a strategy to move forward: can we sustain ourselves a little bit longer if we change our approach? And that’s what we’ve done.
“One great step forward that we’ve achieved, which is something I discussed with you last time, is to invest in drones with Thermal Imaging to expand our security offering. Thanks to the Start-Up Loan scheme (which I did with XFE as my delivery partner), we now have this capability and have used it with great results.”
“One of the changes we made was taking a firmer approach to developing contacts. Whereas before the plan was quite loose – reaching out to companies, not hearing back and thinking, ‘oh okay you win some you lose some’. Actually now we’re keeping a spreadsheet going of who are we talking to, when did we last speak, setting up reminders, touching base with them on a regular basis to see if they need anything from us, any developments, and to ask ‘where are we?’
“That’s changed the business approach quite significantly because what we found is, going into and out of lockdown, into and out of restrictions, people understandably lost track with where they were within their own business, so that approach has been a massive change for us in managing those contacts.”
“I’ve reached out to the XFE Hub Business Captains, and we’re now being supported by Malcolm Warr OBE. With his contacts in the security sector, he’s helped us shape our modelling, he’s helped me look at what our message is when we’re networking, polishing our elevator sales pitch. We’ve had a couple of networking events since meeting him where that interest and spark in people has been different. Listening to a Business Captain that’s been there and done it, and knows what the sector is asking for, means I come away from those events with more contacts to follow-up on, whereas before I’d go to the event, I’d hear a great business idea but then move straight onto the next sales pitch. Now I’ve polished that, I’ve come away from the networking meeting with more admin to do following up with people which is great! Those contacts are now developing into leads.”
“We’ve got regular email support with him. We’ve had a Zoom chat already, with follow-up email support as well. He is very experienced and very well connected, so he’s helped us write letters to MPs about what our business is. I’m useless at writing letters, and I’m 100% certain that if I’d written a letter to an MP there’s no way that within two days they’d have written back to me and said ‘yep, we like what you’re offering – can we get a meeting in?’ I couldn’t have achieved that, not a chance. Listening to Malcolm’s suggestions has been invaluable.”
“Definitely, I don’t think I fully understood when Dax [XFE Mentoring Manager] said ‘when you go into business, you’ll be the master of everything’ – it’s true. I’ve done some Twitter virtual courses to maximise our presence on Twitter. I’ve done some GoDaddy courses as well, who do our website. When we last spoke, I could manage social media in knowing when’s the best time to post out with the best return. Now having done virtual workshops with Twitter and GoDaddy, I can drive the traffic from that interest to the website, and I can then monitor on the website what those analytics are, how long people are staying on the site, what pages are working.”
“In terms of business proposition – yes, we are a drone security company, and we were delivering security services through drone deployments, and the sales pitch is all about reducing risk by saving money and time. The Security Industry Authority had been running a pilot for different courses and licenses, but their guidance has always been a little bit vague around using drones in a security setting. That guidance is now clearer: you do need a license if you’re delivering security products. So, I did one of their virtual courses, and we’re now licensed as security operators, which is an additional arm to what we offer. Yes, we can provide security services in support of security operations, but now we can also run the security operations directly, which gives us an extra arm in what our capabilities are.”
“After speaking to our Business Captain, his advice was to have a specific section on the website that deals directly with COVID. Having it tucked into the Drone Security Support package wasn’t highlighting it enough so that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’ve now got our own Covid Drone Overwatch service, and already have a lead around this service from a recent networking event”.
“I think the one thing that would have made my life easier and our business a lot easier is networking. When I started, I wasn’t too sure about networking, because I was thinking we were only in our first year, I’m new, I’m not sure whether I should be networking, am I being an imposter at these events? And actually, you should just do it! Just get out there and network with people, because we only know what we know. Having started going to the networking events 6 months into the business, I realised that there’s so many people in a similar position who’ve just started their business or just have a business idea, who are thinking “I don’t know if I should be here” – absolutely they should be there – so I’d say network, absolutely hammer the networking side most definitely.”
“Build your connections on LinkedIn. I was quite frugal with who I connected with and who I didn’t, and that didn’t work, I kept it too small. Obviously don’t flood your LinkedIn page with everyone, but just have that wider mindset of ‘okay I don’t need their services right now, but I might do in 3 or 4 months’ time, and even if I don’t need their services, I can see my offering being useful to them’, so connect with them as you don’t know where your business is going to be in a few months’ time.”
2021 is going to be a seminal year, we’re either going to succeed or we’re not, there’s no two ways about it. The positive aspect is – it’s going to be our year, we’re going to take some of the 8% market share that drones have in the security sector, and we’re going to own it. But I’ve got to look after my wellbeing and look after Sam’s [employee] wellbeing as well. We’ve got to be mindful; what we’ve been through in the last 12 months – no one predicted it, no one saw it coming. And we’ve no idea what 2021 will look like, so, the optimistic side is we own some of that 8% and by this time next year we’re not just a company that is known within the security sector, we’re also a company that is relied upon. That’s what we want, that’s where we’re going. But also being mindful that you know what, let’s go at it, give it 100% aggression and direction, but if it doesn’t work out we can sit back and say next September we didn’t miss any opportunity, we didn’t let any opportunity go, we took it, we worked on it, developed it and did everything we could – you’ve just got to be kind to yourself.
Chris is a member of the Military in Business® Knowledge Exchange Hub. He has connected with a Business Captain, helping him to perfect his sales pitch, and make connections across sectors and within government.
The Hub is a unique secure space for the armed forces community, where members can come together for peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and a handrail of support through the XFE network, Business Captains and subject matter experts in both business and enterprise.
With Business Captains, informative articles and free training and events listings – it’s the ultimate platform for the Military in Business community; sign up today here.
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