An entrepreneur who bootstrapped his company to award-winning profits

Chris Morling

Chris Morling now has sales of $32 million (£23 million), a net profit margin of 65%(!), and only 48 employees.

Overview

We have noticed that our most successful clients have many traits in common, traits that are worth studying, emulating and applying to your own business. The following interview tells the impressive story of one of our clients, Chris Morling. Chris grew his evening side project into one of the most popular—and profitable—financial-comparison websites, money.co.uk.

From the outset, the odds were stacked heavily against Chris. We work with many financial-service startups, and they face some tough obstacles:

  • Traffic is notoriously expensive.
  • The industry is heavily regulated and operationally complex. Even the smallest changes require meticulous diligence. Everything must be passed through a disciplined compliance process.
  • The market is dominated by established brands that have years of experience and credibility, and are armed with huge brand-awareness budgets.

Not only did Chris beat those odds, but he did so without any external investment. Few companies bootstrap to such a level of success. Even fewer are willing to discuss how they did it. In the following interview, we ask Chris about how he did it. Regardless of which industry and country you are in, the interview contains some valuable lessons.

money.co.uk’s rapid growth

In 2009, Chris hired us to grow money.co.uk’s sales. Even then, his company was already successful, generating sales of $6.6 million (£4.7 million).

Six years later, money.co.uk’s sales had soared to $32 million (£23 million), with net profits of over $21 million (£15 million). That’s a 65% net profit margin.

ProfitTrack100

money.co.uk ranked second in The Sunday Times “Profit Track 100,” a ranking of the UK’s fastest-growing private companies.

Interview with Chris Morling, Founder & Managing Director of money.co.uk

Q: How does it feel to feature in the Tech Track 100 and Profit Track 100?

Chris: We focus so much on things that need to be improved, we sometimes forget to acknowledge our achievements. Winning the award was a nice opportunity for us to step back and reflect on how far we have come.

Q: For three years running, your sales have grown by an average of 57% a year. Your profit has grown by an average of 149% a year. How did you do it?

Chris: It has been a combination of factors:

First, we focused on user experience and improving conversions. Our increased conversion rate quickly led to an increase in traffic from our paid advertising, SEO, and email marketing. As a result of the increase in sales, we were able to negotiate better commercial deals with our advertisers, which made a huge difference.

[For more on this subject, see our article about five reasons to get obsessed with conversion rate optimization.]

Second, we found ways to better monetize our website. For example, we introduced new products, offers, and services. This increased our average revenue-per-visitor, which in turn allowed us to bid more per click on paid search.

[This article on gap analysis describes how to profit from adding new products and services.]

Third, my mindset and ambitions changed. Until about four years ago, I was happy to have a small, profitable business with just 14 people. I didn’t have the belief that we could compete with the leading companies in our market, and build a well-known brand.

Then I realized, “If we can achieve this high volume with a small business, what could we do with a bigger business?” I wanted the excitement of new challenges and new targets.

We now believe we can compete with the market leaders—and that’s exactly what we’re doing. I now realize how important it is for a company’s leader to have an ambitious mindset.

[This article describes Bill Gates’ observation that “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”]

money.co.uk on devices (light)

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) and user experience (UX) were the catalysts for a huge increase in profits for money.co.uk.

Q: How did you start money.co.uk?

Chris: I started my own business in 2001, on my 31st birthday. I was working for Oracle at the time, and needed to learn HTML so I could teach web design to my colleagues.

To learn how to create websites, I built a little directory in my spare time called Financelink. As I developed it, I discovered that there was a commercial opportunity.

My wife could see how passionate I was about building websites and suggested I give up my job and start my own business.

So I resigned the next morning.

Q: money.co.uk is a great domain name. There were rumors that you paid $2.4 million for it (which was a record price for a .co.uk domain). Is that true?

Chris: I purchased the money.co.uk domain name in 2008. I’m not sure where that figure came from. I signed a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited me from disclosing the price I paid for it.

There was no SEO value in the domain, but I wanted a domain that was easy to spell, memorable and authoritative. money.co.uk met all those requirements perfectly.

Q: What was your approach to online marketing before you started working with us?

Chris: Back then, our traffic was coming predominantly from SEO and PPC, but we didn’t have a structure by which we could continually improve the conversion and the user experience. Because we were paying for traffic, we realized that improving the conversion rate would be one of the most cost-effective ways of increasing our revenues and profits. So conversion rate optimization became a massive focus for us.

After a few weeks, I wanted ideas that we hadn’t even thought of. So I wanted to use a company that had experience in financial services, but also in other industries too. I became aware of Conversion Rate Experts through that first article you wrote. During our first meeting, you recommended we take a step back to reassess what we were trying to achieve. You discussed our strategy beyond the website. Should we be focusing on email marketing? What social-media platforms should we use to communicate to our users? Back then, few companies used Facebook and Twitter to communicate with their customers.

It was eye-opening for me that we weren’t looking only at A/B-testing. We were taking a step back and analyzing the entire business.

Q: We advise companies to make bold changes to their business and strategy. Not everyone embraces the big ideas. What persuaded you to adopt our approach?

Chris: Most people have a limited understanding of conversion rate optimization. They think it’s just about changing small elements on a website.

I was surprised to discover that Conversion Rate Experts looks at a business more holistically. You challenge what’s currently being done, and look at many ways of increasing conversion, beyond the existing website.

I remember my first discussion with you. Right from the start, you were very open, and laid down the fact that we were going to be looking beyond straightforward A/B-tests, swapping buttons, and things like that. You were looking for monumental wins, and suggested big changes across our business.

Q: Can you talk in more detail about one of the big ideas?

Chris: You recommended, and helped us to build, what became the second-busiest financial community in the UK. The community has since evolved into a fantastic review platform, with tens of thousands of reviews. So I’m extremely pleased that you encouraged us to do it.

Reviews on money.co.uk

The money.co.uk community has contributed tens of thousands of product reviews.

Building a community also gave us a really strong email list. We have about half a million subscribers, whom we contact every week with financial tips and offers. This helps us to build loyalty and provides repeat business. Many affiliate websites are no more than a station through which customers pass on the way to their destinations. You persuaded us that there’d be huge strategic benefits to becoming a central hub.

money.co.uk's email newsletter

CRO isn’t just for your website; money.co.uk now has a list of half a million email subscribers, which is a huge competitive advantage and an ongoing source of revenue.

Q: A higher conversion rate allows companies to outbid their competitors on advertising. How did you take advantage of this?

Chris: The biggest impact was on our PPC activity—AdWords, Bing, etc. The increases in conversion made us able to buy more traffic, which enabled us to negotiate better commercial deals with our advertisers. It directly impacted our bottom line—and still does.

PPC spend for money.co.uk

The increase in conversion rate has allowed money.co.uk to increase greatly its spend on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising

If a company can’t afford to advertise on PPC, then the only way to solve the problem is to increase the website’s conversion rate. Once we had improved our conversion rate, we were able to enter new markets that had previously been too expensive for us.

We have also been able to expand into TV advertising. TV is very expensive, so the better we can convert those visitors on our website, the more affordable the activity becomes.

 

Once the conversion rate of the website was increased, expensive forms of advertising, like TV, became affordable.

Q: What software and tools do you use to improve your website?

Chris: We use Decibel Insight to understand the user experience. It shows us where users get stuck on our website. Its form analytics is useful too.

We’ve had a feedback box on the website for years. It’s a great way for our visitors to notify us about a poor user experience. On several occasions, it’s made us aware of bugs that we weren’t aware of.

We use UXPin, which allows us to easily create interactive wireframes. We prefer our prototypes to be interactive, not static. When we user-test them, the users can see how the site will work, so we get better feedback.

UserTesting.com helps when we make changes to the website. If one person struggles to find something or to complete a task, then it’s fair to assume that others will experience the same issues. We don’t need to conduct hundreds of user-tests; we can get valuable insights by running just a few of them.

We use Qualaroo for on-page surveys. It helps us to understand how our users think.

A/B-testing and multivariate testing is key to everything we do. We test almost every change we make to our website. And we are constantly surprised by what works—and what doesn’t. We implement A/B-testing using our own internal technology.

Q: How do you set goals for your team?

Chris: Unconventionally. I don’t set financial targets for the business. I think they can distract from what’s important—which, for us, is the customer. It’s important that the user experience isn’t sacrificed at the expense of profitability. On this matter, we are fortunate in not having to answer to shareholders or investors.

To avoid suboptimization, we don’t use financial metrics (such as sales or revenue) to reward individual team members. We’re a collaborative team, and our success is a collective effort.

Obviously, we do use KPIs within the business. We just avoid tying them to staff compensation.

Q: We advise our clients to embrace an experimental culture. Could you tell us about your mindset?

Chris: Fear of failure is not something we suffer from. A fear of failure can quash creativity. I don’t mean failure as a result of laziness or complacency; I mean failure as a result of trying something new, of pushing the boundaries.

We work in a culture of testing and experimenting to enable us to succeed. If something doesn’t work the first time, you can evolve and try again. That’s what I encourage my team to do.

Q: What would you say to someone considering investing in CRO?

Chris: For me, it has been money well spent. The world’s most successful online businesses are 100% committed to conversion rate optimization. That says it all.

Educate yourself, and get an understanding of what’s involved. There are lots of resources out there.

Take a look at what other companies are doing. Look at the tools available. Then, take a long, hard look at your website. Look at the way you work. Consider the opportunities for your business.

Finally, have a discussion with a specialist company such as Conversion Rate Experts. Ask them about their approach. Ask how they’d improve your website.

Q: What surprised you most about working with us?

Chris: I really enjoyed working with Conversion Rate Experts. It made me think out of the box—pardon the cliché. I think it’s important to regularly set aside time to challenge what we do, to look for improvements, to come up with new and exciting ideas. That’s invaluable.

It’s not just about ideas. Working with Conversion Rate Experts is like getting a personal trainer. They force you to get off your ass and do something. They make you accountable. They make things happen.

Because you’re investing money to work with them, you’re motivated to see a return on that investment. This forces you to focus on the activities that get results.

I now have a strong belief in A/B-testing, and the confidence to make bold changes to our business model. I’ve become almost regimental about dedicating time and resources to improving our conversion rates.

Lessons from money.co.uk’s story

money.co.uk’s story contains many important lessons, but we think the following ones are worth highlighting:

  • When most companies grow, they experience game-changing benefits. When money.co.uk’s sales grew, it allowed Chris to negotiate better deals with his advertisers. Explore what unfair advantages your company would have if its sales were 100 times what they are today. For most web businesses, the economies of scale are huge. And scale begets scale, so fast growth is imperative.
  • Jeff Bezos talks about how there’s a great advantage to planning for the long term, because so few people do it, so there’s little competition. When Chris bought the money.co.uk domain, it was a huge investment in the future appearance of his company. But now the company has “grown into it.” What could you invest in that would bolster your company’s strength over time?
  • When you build something of value, it often evolves into an opportunity that you couldn’t have spotted when you began. The money.co.uk community turned into a review platform and a large email list, two opportunities that weren’t apparent at the outset. Prioritize projects that are likely to put you in a stronger position.
  • When you get your core conversion funnel right, traffic becomes easy. Many of our clients discover that by increasing their conversion rates, they become able to profitably afford TV ads—at which point their growth snowballs.
  • A fear of failure can quash creativity. But in many companies, staff are right to be fearful of failure. Most companies punish mistakes. A management team needs to be vigilant about constantly rewarding experimentation, and not punishing it, however subtly. Even an flippant jokey comment can destroy team members’ willingness to do things that might fail. Chris’s team are bold because of how Chris responds when experiments fail.

Thanks to Chris and his team

The staff members at money.co.uk share many of the traits that we observe in the most successful web companies:

  • They are bold and they move quickly. Their culture is one of experimentation, not deliberation.
  • They are great at implementation. The gestation time from idea to implementation is short, and their work tends to be flawless.
  • They are humble, putting their users at the heart of everything they do.
  • They are ambitious. They have a vision of their business that extends far beyond the current reality. But those visions keep becoming real.

We aren’t surprised that they’ve achieved such phenomenal growth.

To learn more about money.co.uk, visit the website or follow it on Twitter at @moneycouk.

The money.co.uk team

We’d like to thank Chris and the rest of the team at money.co.uk for sharing this information with our readers.


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