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Leon Calverley, Door4

21 years in digital technology: ‘It’s all about people’

  • Business Savvy
  • Growth
  • Leadership

From a back-bedroom hobby to a digital marketing agency that works with global businesses – Door4 has come of age. 

Behind the tools of our trade (the code, the apps, the data) Door4 is a story of the people (colleagues, clients, advisers) who’ve made the agency what it is. 

Our founder and Director, Leon Calverley, has a few thoughts to share – on surviving and thriving as an SME, how to hire great people, best business advice, and what he’d do differently if he had a Delorean and a flux capacitor.

Why did you start Door4?

“I was straight out of university and working as a service manager for Time Computers but in my free time I was exploring this new technology for my own amusement.

“In 2000, the dotcom bubble was bursting, and Google was new. The commercial appetite for websites and digital marketing was relatively low but I was curious and fascinated by their potential.

“A graphic designer friend had signed up a new client who wanted a website. We formed a partnership and I delivered my first digital project.

“This first project gave us a leg up and, in fact, we never had to go looking for more work. We were never flat out but we always had plenty to do.

“Every business feels the ebb and flow of work. There have been tricky periods but it’s never felt really difficult – work comes and goes.

Every business feels the ebb and flow of work. There have been tricky periods but it’s never felt really difficult – work comes and goes.

“While these projects were small scale, they allowed me to continue exploring the technology and innovating my own ideas. 

“By 2002, I knew I wanted to take the business of digital seriously. I bought out my share of the partnership and set up shop in Nelson. 

“I had a plan. I love technology but I also love working with people. So I got Door4 out there from the beginning. I networked like mad, joined everything, got involved. 

“Notably, the people I met then who were very involved in networking the early digital scene are still around now. People like the Kothia brothers at eBusiness UK and Craig Taylor. 

“It says a lot about what it takes to survive and thrive – collaboration and community. People.”

Finding my people

“By 2005, I’d built a small team. We were still delivering websites for local SMEs. Darren, who’s now our UX Designer, joined in 2007. 

“Door4 moved to larger premises to accommodate a growing team and we had stepped up a bit, delivering projects to SMEs across the region.

“We just went from strength to strength. What really helped my confidence was when we started winning local business awards and bigger competitive pitches. 

“I started realising what we could become  – what I wanted us to become.

“I spent the next few years building a strong team, still founded in web design but beginning to include performance marketing too. 

“At the same time, I moved my focus to learning on how to build the business, rather than work within it.”

Best advice I’ve been given

“We’ve hired five new team members so far this year. When I’m building the team out, I’m always reminded of some good advice I received. And I’ve found it to be true.

“The advice was to hire good people who will be straight with me. Who would be brutally frank, if necessary. I think the exact advice was ‘people who will punch you in the stomach’! 

“It’s not quite come to that but I’m pleased when my team pushes back. Leaders don’t need colleagues who say yes, we need colleagues who will challenge us. 

“This is the process of growth for us – and our clients. We build strong relationships with them. We get to know what they care about, what’s important to their customers too. We challenge them to constantly raise the bar.”

And my #1 piece of advice for business leaders?

“I immersed myself in business development and it helped me, and our senior management team, take stock and refocus our proposition.

“What I’ve learned is that I don’t know everything. This goes for all business leaders. We like to think we know but seeking outside help is the best advice I can give. 

“I enlisted the help of Edge Hill and Goldman Sachs whilst engaging with business mentors, such as Andrew Thomas – all excellent people with something to add. 

“They showed me how to look at Door4 with fresh eyes. They helped me understand what we’re good at and exactly what to do with this gift.

Accepting and embracing our strengths means we can focus on creatively using them to their best advantage and make an impact.

“We were keen to form strong, long-term partnerships with clients and this process revealed to me how we needed to capitalise on our true skills to achieve this.

“Now, everything we do is aimed at optimising clients’ revenue. It might include web development or PPC or SEO, or all of these things, or CRO or content

“How we do it isn’t an issue – we have the skills. Accepting and embracing our strengths means we can focus on creatively using them to their best advantage and make an impact.

“I really believe this is where our sector should be heading – specialism, focus. At the moment, though digital is maturing, there are still a lot of vanilla full-service propositions out there. I don’t believe this will cut it in the long term.”

What I’m most proud of

“I’m so proud of the people we’ve had in our team over the last two decades. There’s a core group of people who’ve been here for years and grown with the business.

“Then there are people who stay for a while and move on – and they’ve gone on to prestigious companies, which shows the calibre of talent we cultivate here.  

“I do my best to keep in touch – trying not to take it personally when a great colleague moves to the next challenge!

I’m proud for our clients too. As a partner invested in their success, we constantly challenge them to be their best. That sometimes means stepping out of their comfort zone, which isn’t easy.

“We’re still going after all this time. We’ve created quality local jobs. We’ve won awards. We’ve worked with some brilliant clients and we’ve got great results for them. I’m proud of all this too.

“And I can see now, in 2021, how capable we are. This is really satisfying. We’ve evolved within a sector that’s, more broadly, still trying to find its feet and its true value. 

“I believe we’ve found our feet. We can stand up in a prestigious, competitive pitch situation and know how capable we are of delivering valuable services. And we’re as good as our word.

“I’m proud for our clients too. As a partner invested in their success, we constantly challenge them to be their best. That sometimes means stepping out of their comfort zone, which isn’t easy. 

“They absolutely deserve a mention because we couldn’t do great things if they weren’t on board.”

The toughest times

“I’m quite philosophical about the challenges over the last 21 years – keeping work coming in, getting the right work coming in from the right clients, keeping people in jobs and helping them be their best.

“It’s been challenging but so much fun, give or take the occasional blip. The hardest times have been the most emotional. When good people move on from Door4, following their own path. 

“It’s sad to see them go, even though we wish them well. People like James Berzins, who was a director from 2007 to 2017, our critical learning period.  

“But it’s important not to take anything personally.  It’s important to keep in touch – and I can fortunately count many former Door4 colleagues as good friends.

Lee Tomblin had been with us as a web developer since 2014. He’d previously been a developer at Shutterstock. Clever and good at his job, very dedicated. 

“The worst time for us was when we lost a colleague to COVID-19 in 2020. 

“Lee Tomblin had been with us as a web developer since 2014. He’d previously been a developer at Shutterstock. Clever and good at his job, very dedicated. 

“And a wicked sense of humour, with a talent for Photoshop and memes that kept us in stitches. The entire team had a soft spot for Lee.

“It’s been hard on everyone and especially those he was closest to. He’s still very present in the work we do – and the jokes and stories we tell – and that brings mixed emotions.”

If I could go back and do Door4 differently?

“I want us to be ‘The Most Sought-After Digital Agency For Revenue Growth’. This is our mission. It’s what we’re really, really good at and I’d like us to be recognised for it. I think we’re on track, I’m happy about that.

“If I had a Delorean fitted with a flux capacitor, I’d go back to 2002 and force young Leon to take more and better advice sooner and make it central to the way I run the business. 

“If I’d taken advice earlier, I might have taken my MailTube platform to market. That’s my only real regret, that I didn’t invest more resources into it.

“At the time, it was a genuine pioneer of email marketing.  And I used the ‘Tube’ title before YouTube nabbed it!”

What would I be doing if…?

“I love working with people and I love working with digital technology, so if I wasn’t at the helm of Door4, I’d probably be working for a tech company in Manchester or London. I’d be working at the margins of creativity and technology, no matter what.

“New ideas and innovations excite me. I could see myself staying up until 3am again, like the early days of Door4, building and tweaking and working out how I could make things happen.

“I still find time to get my hands dirty – I’m heavily involved in our own marketing workstream and this allows me to adopt and explore new technology. 

“In my opinion, even as a business leader – and especially as a digital business leader – there should always be time for this.”

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Photo by Door4

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