Ed Hollands of DrivenMedia tells us about how a traffic jam gave him the idea to start his own business, his experience of appearing on Dragons’ Den, and why he doesn’t consider himself to be disabled.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t consider yourself to be disabled. Could you tell us a little bit about that, and about getting your diagnosis?
I am dyslexic. When I was young, my mum always knew that I was struggling with words, but my primary school refused to get me tested. Late in secondary school, the school realised that if they gave me a multiple choice test, I’d get 95 or 100%, but if it was a written word test then the highest I’d score was about 50% – not because I didn’t know what I was doing, but because I couldn’t quite put it down on paper. The teachers knew I was putting the effort in, but for some reason it wasn’t translating to results.
I was diagnosed in year 11, just in time for my exams! It was quite good in a way, because I got extra time and I was already rushing to get everything down because I knew I was struggling. The school’s dyslexia support person was really good at identifying areas of weakness and how to overcome: so rather than thinking “What do I do now?”, instead we approached it as “OK now I’m aware of it, how do we get around it?”.
If you’d asked me about this 15 years ago, I probably would have said that it was very difficult, but I don’t really see myself as disabled because with technology today, I can cope without spelling a lot of things. The way I run my business is if it’s spelt wrong, no one needs to see that bit except for me. For emails I have Grammarly and spell check. Internally on our HubSpot and CRMs, most people can guess at what I’m trying to say because I’m never too far away from what the word should be. There are very few places for me use my spelling in a public space and I’m quite open about it.
I think that most dyslexics have always faced problems, but they think of innovative ways to get around them. For example, in English if I couldn’t spell a word, I just wouldn’t use it. It’s the same in business: if I come across a problem, I’ll figure out the solution pretty quickly because I’m so used to figuring things out.
Tell us a little about your business. What’s your story so far?
My business is DrivenMedia, a media agency who put adverts on the side of commercial trucks.
I don’t know where the initial idea came to me to run my own business but even at primary school I knew that was what I wanted to do and it never really left me, I just never had the right idea.
When I left university, I thought the only way I was going to get ideas is through experience, so I got myself the most boring job you could think of, which was counting the money that people put into the machines in car parks and making sure no one had been crafty with a euro. Two weeks later, while dropping off my now wife where she worked, I was walking down the A38 and there were three blank lorries stuck at the lights with probably 200 cars behind them. I thought if I had a business, that would be a great place to advertise, and then I realised that that could be my business, and that’s where I started.
We started in September 2015, so we’ve been going for about six and a half years now. The first year we were just finding our feet and getting going: I think we sold about £12,000, which was amazing. Then every year until covid appeared we doubled what we sold.
Covid forced us to stop and work out what our next move was going to be, because we were just going around in circles and never really getting anywhere, whereas now I know exactly where we’re going and hopefully how we’re going get this
I started on my own, took on staff, lost staff, took on staff again, lost staff, but we’ve currently got a few sales reps and we’ve got plans this year to really scale our team but bring them in house. We’re still recovering from covid as we had about £150,000 of lost contracts and we’ve done amazingly but imagine where we’d be if we had those as well!
I appeared on Dragons’ Den when I was 21. My plan was just to get through that initial two minute pitch, because that’s all I can control. It didn’t start very well and then I forgot my numbers. It worked out though because Jenny Campbell took a 20% stake in the business. That was back in 2017, and we’ve recently bought Jenny out, so now the business is owned entirely by me.
What do you see as your main challenge or challenges facing the business for its continued growth?
For us it’s the awareness of the medium. Marketing people don’t even realise it’s something you can do. I think if people were aware, they’d be coming to us in droves, but people looking for advertising space often don’t think about the truck that’s right in front of them every day. We’re getting there slowly, but it’s taking a lot longer than I originally hoped.
We’ve got a fleet of our own lorries that say “Advertise here with DrivenMedia” and you’d be surprised how often they get spotted. They constantly generate a quarter of our leads every month, which really shows you how powerful it is. We often get told by people driving on the roads think “Oh that’s a great idea, I want one”. It’s an easier sell when people tell us they’ve seen our trailer, because then they know it works!
What can we do as a society to encourage more disabled entrepreneurs to start businesses and what do you think is holding them back?
Society probably needs to be more open to disabled people full stop. For example when children can’t fit into the education system but the school HAS to try to make them achieve grades without support it removes confidence.
I find solutions because that’s what I have done all my life which I think is probably the same with every disability. Starting a business is taking a huge risk whether you have something innovative that every household needs or you start something more conventional it’s not easy. Having support from your family is essential and also from other areas. For example to get me ready for Dragons Den I had a coach who was brilliant at helping my mindset to be right for that nerve wracking event.
Having support mechanisms in place with someone to turn to helps anybody achieve more.
What’s your greatest achievement or proudest moment?
I think that the last one is probably easiest to answer; going on Dragons’ Den and then completing the buyout last year. We were working towards the buyout for so long that it was something of an anticlimax, but it felt great to achieve independent ownership when a lot of people didn’t think I could do it.
There’s only one award that I go for, and that’s the Great British Entrepreneur Awards. It’s not even about winning, it’s about the community, because they’re all like me: small businesses that are just so driven to do what they do best. We all just encourage each other and if we can help network, help each other grow, then we do it.
If there’s one thing you could change about people’s perception of dyslexia, what would it be and why?
Let me show you what I can do, rather than assuming I can’t or won’t. A lot of entrepreneurs, younger ones especially, are not given a chance to really show what they can do, when in fact a lot of them are so driven to succeed. People often go above and beyond constantly just to prove everyone wrong.
I think that applies to most people, if you give them a chance, you’ll be surprised. You don’t know the good from the bad unless you say okay, I’m interested show me what you can do.
What tools do you use to make coping with dyslexia a bit easier?
I use Grammarly quite religiously because it’s a spelling tool and I’m on the free version so you don’t even have to pay for it. It catches a lot of mistakes, especially the simple ones like there/they’re/their or to/two/too. All those little words that you can’t remember which way round they go. I use Google or Siri for spelling, if you’re close enough it’ll get you the rest of the way and if not you can just ask how to spell something.
Who or what inspires you, either in your private life or in your working life?
I’ve always looked up to Richard Branson, because he did whatever he wanted and just kept going. He’s got a few successes and failures under his belt and I think that’s all you can really ask for. If you have more wins than losses I think you’ve done rather well.
Thinking of the people around me, like my wife, my marketing director, and my accountant, makes me realise it’s really important to surround yourself with people you aspire to be, because naturally you’ll get closer to achieving it just by rubbing off the goodness they’ve got.
Do you have a recommendation of a book, audiobook, podcast, documentary or whatever that’s helped you along your journey?
One of the best business books I’ve read is From Acorns by Caspian woods: I love it because it walks you through all the stages of how to build a business. It’s not at all academic, it’s more like having a chat with the book and you can stop and start. It walks you through what each stage looks like, how to validate it and then, as you’re growing, when it’s time to do the next thing.
My advice is just pick things up, read them, and you’ll be surprised what sticks.