Monday interview: Tim Barlow, founder of Attacat

Tim Barlow, founder of digital marketing agency Attacat, which works with niche businesses believes  websites must be not just user-friendly but a delight to use. Picture: Jon Savage
Tim Barlow, founder of digital marketing agency Attacat, which works with niche businesses believes websites must be not just user-friendly but a delight to use. Picture: Jon Savage
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Man who made the most of an extra day in the calendar by starting a brand new company

Going slow has never really been an option for Tim Barlow, founder of Edinburgh digital marketing agency Attacat, but earlier this year he took it to a whole new level by setting up a fully functioning new business in a single day.

Helped by his team of 11 staff and business partner Charles Henderson, Barlow used the “extra day” created in February by the leap year to set up The Woodpicker, an online marketplace for the wood pellets used to fuel biomass boilers. It is targeted at individuals like Barlow and Henderson who have biomass heating in their homes, and there are roughly 10,000 such residences across the UK.

“The problem is that it is 2016, and you still have to ring around all the different suppliers to get prices,” he says. “You can’t get any prices online, and that is just nuts.”

Inspired by plans by Glasgow digital agency fatBuzz – which used 29 February to raise funds for a local charity – Barlow decided to do something quickly to fill this gap. The project kicked off with a staff briefing at 9am and had its first customer inquiry by 4.30 that afternoon, which is the kind of tight timeframe in which Barlow seems to thrive.

His “just do it” attitude stems in part from having missed the boat about five years ago when he was thinking of setting up a Groupon-type offering where small firms could band together to promote themselves. He never acted on that before others launched similar schemes, leaving him determined to “never let another opportunity pass me by”.

He believes The Woodpicker has the potential to reach sales of £1 million or more, particularly when considering the opportunities in Europe, where biomass is in wider residential use.

Break-even is expected within the next four months as the site builds up its database of about 60 suppliers and more than 100 customers. Attacat’s employees were given no details of the project before coming into work on the final Monday in February, but within two hours had decided on a name for the venture. A logo and phone number followed by 1pm, with e-mail in operation by 3 o’clock that afternoon.

“We were really quite evil to them,” Barlow says of himself and Henderson, an experienced carbon assessor and founder of the Climate Futures consultancy. The two met as neighbours, and live a couple of miles apart in a rural stretch of Midlothian. “We didn’t tell them anything about it the week before. I didn’t want them going off doing any preparation work beforehand, because that would have been deemed cheating.”

It was a learning experience for all involved, particularly the digital natives who had to use more “old-fashioned” lines of communication such as the telephone to collect the data needed on wood pellet prices. Barlow describes it as a good training exercise for staff at Attacat, which itself is aiming to more than treble turnover during the next three years.

Owned by Barlow and his wife, Attacat began life as a bit of a sideline, but under its self-taught search engine leader it has grown to a projected annul turnover of £750,000 in the current year to June.

He grew up in the Borders without any clear career ambitions in mind, and after graduating with a degree in geology from Bristol University, Barlow joined National Power’s graduate training scheme based in Oxfordshire. While there he “accidentally” became involved in a website project that introduced him to the power of search engines. He moved back home with his parents in Scotland after leaving the training scheme and set up Pastures New, a student letting portal covering properties in Edinburgh.

Striking deals with various letting agents proved a tough task, but on the website side he was rapidly learning all the skills needed to drive traffic through the portal. “To cut a long story short, people started waving cheques at me to do that kind of work for them,” Barlow says. “There is only so long you can ignore that.”

The Attacat brand emerged in 2003, with the business taking up residence in the capital. The firm works with what Barlow describes as “passion-driven” niche businesses such as adventure holiday firm Wilderness Scotland and online equipment specialist RugbyStore, and also provides training for more traditional clients in the government and financial sectors.

Although still best-known for search engine optimisation, Attacat has evolved into a full-service digital marketing agency. In this growth market, Barlow believes there is scope to grow to annual sales of £3m within three years if the company maintains its focus on the digital customer experience.

“It is not just about whether a site is easy to use – it needs to be a delight to use,” he says. “Does it look beautiful as well? These are the things you have to get right.”

30 SECOND CV

Born: Edinburgh, 1973

Raised: On a farm near Earlston in the Borders

Education: Radley College; Bristol University

First job: Driving tractors and grain driers

Can’t live without: A cup of tea, and Mrs Barlow – not necessarily in that order

Kindle or book: Book

Favourite city: I am not really a city person, so I would say the Alps, or the north coast of Scotland

Preferred transport: Anything other than the car, but skis are my favourite

What car do you drive: A Golf

What makes you angry: People who use you as a pawn in their cashflow game

What inspires you: Views and fresh air

Best thing about your job: The team, and the massive variety in what we do