'I was flying to London weekly to meet clients - it wasn't your typical final year in college'

During her final year in UL, Eimear McManus’s work placement ended up being much more.

By Eimear McManus Founder, Digital Works

WHEN I WAS in college in University of Limerick, I got to go on a six-month work placement. I decided London was the place for me, and it turned out to be a move that has changed my life.

I wanted to do PR when I came to London actually, but the PR agency I joined converted into doing digital marketing and social media for brands. I ended up staying at that agency for two years and took time out of college.

I was head of new business for that company, which meant I was always making connections for myself in the UK. But I went back to UL in 2017 to finish my degree in economics and sociology.

While I was finishing my degree, I started doing consulting for brands – kind of like a college job. I picked up a bit of business, but the clients kept coming and I started to outsource work to other freelancers.

I actually found myself flying to London once a week to meet clients – not your typical final year in college. Truth be told, it ended up being a full-time job. And for the last 18 months, there hasn’t been a day where I haven’t worked all day long.

The year in UL got quite busy to say the least. I would be on my way to UL for college and I’d be taking calls in the car on loudspeaker.

It was right before my final exams that I decided I can make a company out of this, so I’ve set up Digital Works – a digital marketing agency now based in West London.

Our bread and butter is social media marketing, but we also do other forms of online advertising for a businesses and branding for clients.

unnamed (2) Eimear McManus (left) and Nick Spencer
Source: Digital Works

Overcoming the fear

I told everyone who would listen that I was launching the business in July last year and moved back to London last October.

I was so scared at the idea of setting up a business, and it was actually family and great friends that pushed me to do it. Initially I was scared to move back to London. It’s such a big place and I didn’t feel ready for it. But my parents put me on the flight.

The business didn’t just grow out of nowhere from there, it was a lot of grafting. My first nine months here wouldn’t appeal to most people in their 20s just out of college. My social life took a back seat as I focused on the business.

Fear of failing – that’s the scariest thing. When you share with family and friends your big plans, the fear of failure grips you. It can almost paralyse you.

When I moved over, I was in this office by myself and all over the place. When something you’ve done is so public and everyone on your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn know, you feel trapped at the beginning.

But the week before I left, I met up with one of my cousins who gave me the best pep talk. It was simple, but struck a nerve.

They said to me, “If it doesn’t work out for you, at least you were brave enough to give it a go. And if it fails, at least you’ll have the most amazing story to tell that you moved from Limerick to London to try set up your own company.”

That’s what I keep reminding myself.

Learning bucketloads

I’ve learned more in the past 16 months about business – and myself – than I had in my entire life.

I’ve listened to hundreds of podcasts about setting up a business and how to be in that frame of mind to drive a business forward. So now I’m not scared of failing anymore.

I feel the graft and networking at the start is paying off – my business has grown largely on referrals. The motto I’ve learned is, ‘If you have a client, keep it for life.’ That’s the way I’ve done it. The first client I ever had, we still have them today.

I’m also lucky business picked up, but it picked up because I’m always selling. If we did a good job on a campaign or a project, I make sure everyone knows about it.

Some people might cringe at the thought of selling yourself or whatever. I would sell Digital Works until the cows came home. It goes all over social media and helps drum up that word-of-mouth effect.

Source: Alex Zaj

People ask me about barriers I’ve faced, but no big ones come to mind. I’m in my 20s, and I’ll admit my age was an issue for some people at first. That’s a while back, not anymore.

I was a 24-year-old when I launched the company. If people heard I was a 24- or 25-year-old director of a company, they would be a little bit apprehensive.

You would get the sense from some people – although not all – that they’d be thinking, “How could a 20-something-year-old know what she’s talking about?” But when I meet people, it has never been an issue.

I think because I look quite young, the odd time I get asked about my age. They might say, “That’s interesting”, but I take the time to explain that as someone in their 20s, I have more of an advantage that other age groups do when it comes to understanding millennials.

My clients, and other people, are starting to learn that now. It’s why you see young people being trusted to do this job now. We grew up with this digital world and we know how to sell to millennials.

But that’s not our only selling point. We just love what we do – and we’re good at it too.

The good and bad days

A few important days stand out to me in the business. There’s the simple one when I googled my own business for the first time and saw it there. But the day we got our first enquiry through the website is a day I’ll cherish for a long time.

It wasn’t through anyone we know or any piece of marketing. They just googled ‘digital agency in London’ and came across our website, liked us and got in touch. I can’t even explain the joy I felt when we got that.

The look and feel of my business got that client all by itself – not any advert. It’s like when someone walking along a street goes into a shop they’ve never seen before.

They looked us up and down and decided they would like to work with us. And that’s exactly what we did.

After all the blood, sweat and tears I’ve put into the company name, the branding and the networking, someone decided it’s up to scratch. I can’t explain how satisfying it is.

But there are bad days. Something that I’ve struggled with quite a lot with and didn’t learn enough about was imposter syndrome.

Now I ring my sister, who is my confidant. I would tell her about clients we sign with and talk through anxiety I feel to deliver a project.

I might second guess myself that we can’t do the job, when really it would be well within our capabilities. Sometimes I need to be reminded.

I always thought it was a case of doing well and you’re happy or you do a bad job and you’re sad. That’s not life. No amount of business podcasts could have prepared me for that.

unnamed (1) Digital Works employee Christina King
Source: Digital Works

Next up

I thought I’d end up working in a company like KPMG in New York or London. I knew it would be business-y, but not this.

I remember at the start of my final year in UL sitting down to make a CV. I’d never made a CV before and thought I’d apply to a big agency and try to get a job.

But everything changed when I started freelancing. I thought, “Why would I do this for someone else when I can do it for myself?”

To be honest, I should have moved back to London sooner than I did. I should have been on a plane the second I finished my exams. But I believe everything has happened for a reason.

I want more business, but I’m happy with what we’ve built so far. Our clients are mainly in UK and Ireland, but recently we’ve started to pick up even more clients in Ireland.

We’re based out of a Huckletree co-working space in London, but we’ll hopefully have a base at their office in Dublin in the new year.

We need someone on deck in Dublin for these Irish clients. So that’s the plan for the next 12 to 18 months, and I’d like to extend the team. It’s hard to believe Digital Works is one year old tomorrow.

I’ll admit, we’re certainly not a success story but hopefully we’re on the right path.

Eimear McManus is the founder of Digital Works. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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