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Case studies | Jul 10

How Louise Towler went from a gifted coding book to owning her own web agency

Case studies | Jul 10

Having confidence in the decisions you make as a business owner is crucial. It is this confidence that led to Louise Towler applying for and winning the Women in Innovation Award.

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The first time Louise Towler tried coding was Christmas Day 2000. ‘My husband bought me a book about HTML for Christmas, and he ended up having to cook Christmas dinner himself while I sat at the family computer!’ 

This chance encounter with coding started Louise on a path which led to her founding a web agency called Indigo Tree in 2011 and winning the 2022 Innovate UK Woman-in-Innovation prize, but more of that later. 

Louise’s first client was her childrens’ school. ‘We returned from the US where my husband had been seconded by the Foreign Office. I was finding it hard to find a job that fitted around two children under the age of 10, one of whom had health issues at the time. I walked into the school and asked if they needed help with their website.’ 

After delivering and supporting several websites herself, Louise then started Indigo Tree in 2011. The agency now employs 15 people and has delivered literally hundreds of WordPress sites for customers as diverse as construction companies, lawyers, not-for-profit organisations, and schools. 

The business focuses on delivering well-designed, functional WordPress-based websites. Clients are predominantly smaller, micro businesses that Louise has won through regular networking and word of mouth. They are run by people who value their time and realise they can’t do it themselves. A handful of larger clients come from marketing agencies that don’t want to waste client money sending good traffic to bad websites and recognise the quality of what Indigo Tree is delivering. 

While a regular on the networking circuit, Louise says so far growth has largely been organic – and accidental. Then a few years ago, as Indigo Tree was steadily growing, Louise began to look at the business differently. ‘When it came to the team, I wasn’t able to give them the attention they deserved and I can find people management challenging at times, so I put in place a layer of senior management. This changed my life. I went from having 10 people reporting to me to having 3 people reporting to me. It was transformational.’ 

Help to Grow: Management Course  

It was shortly after this that Louise came across the Help to Grow: Management Course. ‘I saw a Financial Times article about the course and kept thinking about it. I realised that I didn’t know what I didn’t know and decided I should sign up,’ explains Louise. 

‘My initial response was that there was no way I could commit 12 weeks of my life, but then I looked at the cost and realised this was a fraction of the price of a business coach and decided to just do it.’ 

For Louise, the timing of the course was perfect. ‘It was July 2021. We had a bit of a dip in enquiries, Covid and lockdown meant that everyone was tired. I thought I need to get out and take the opportunity to meet other local business owners.’ 

Starting the course in September 2021 also coincided with a colleague of Louise’s sharing a link to the application process for Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation Awards. ‘If I hadn’t started the course, there is no way I would have had the confidence to apply for the award. It just worked. The Help to Grow: Management Course modules on Strategy, Marketing and Innovation helped shape my entry. Everything fitted together.’ 

A new mindset 

Critically the course also gave Louise the mindset that she didn’t have to be working in the business all day, every day. Working on the future of the business is equally important. 

As a direct result of the Help to Grow: Management Course, Louise applied for the Women in Innovation Awards and was one of the winners announced on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2022. Help to Grow: Management gave her the confidence and tools that she needed to do this. Winning the award resulted in her business receiving a cash injection of £50,000. She has invested this financial award back into the business to support the development of a new platform to empower WordPress content editors with real-time feedback on accessibility and performance issues before they occur. Louise then applied for a five-week Service Design Course with the Royal College of Art that will allow her to build on existing skills and refine the service wrap around their new product. Buoyed by this success, she applied for a place on a Sustainability Accelerator course and got this too. 

‘Help to Grow: Management has made me realise that there is a whole ecosystem of support out there that small businesses can take advantage of; support designed to help SMEs looking to grow and employ more people. It’s there, it’s just not always that easy to find!’

Louise Towler
Founder and Managing Director, Indigo Tree

Confidence to grow 

‘As a business, we are now way more ambitious than we were. For example, I have had the confidence to put our prices up to reflect the service we offer our clients. While I have a maths degree and enjoy the budgeting process, I am now more confident about the numbers that I need to look at before expanding the team. Previously I would have waited until we won the work, and everybody was stretched. My original plan for this year was to grow to 15 people. It’s only May and we’re at 15 already.’ 

The course has also provided practical tools to help Louise manage and scale the business. 

‘Every week there was one or two things that I could take away that I’ve either put in our plan, or I’ve implemented. For example, I’ve used one of the models from Module 7 on Organisational Design to build out the structure of the team and help me think about scaling out the business. Including freelance or outsourced resources in the structure forces me to think about when I will need to replace those functions with full time employees.’ 

‘You don’t need any qualifications to be a business owner. Sometimes I don’t even know what questions to ask but the course has given me 12 levers I can use when I’m thinking about the business. When we’re going through change, I can think about where people are on the change curve. It’s really helpful to have these tools at my disposal.’ 

Certainty in doing the right thing 

Louise clearly takes a very structured approach to the way she runs her business. ‘I manage my KPIs through a six-dial sheet. I monitor key performance indicators such as turnover per head and spend vs investment every month.’ She had many of these processes in place prior to joining the course but the opportunity to spend 10 hours with a mentor, and to listen to the experience of her peers, reinforced in her mind that she had the right business processes in place. 

‘For me, the course is not all about learning new things. Sometimes it’s about knowing you are doing the right stuff already. For example, we are continuously innovating. It’s just part of how we operate. Speaking to other business owners, I realised that not every business is as focused on innovation as we are. It’s one of our values. While some of these good practices are accidental, it’s good to have our core values reinforced by peers that are successfully running their own small businesses.’ 

Louise signed up for the course with Brunel Business School. ‘They were brilliant, really good. Everything was organised up front, with all the commitments scheduled in my diary in advance.’ 

In particular, Louise was impressed by the mentor. ‘I was worried about how the matching would work out. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as the fluffy, female founder of a marketing agency. They did an excellent job. My mentor had some directly relevant experience from being a non-exec for an agency. He was also good at holding me to account while setting me achievable tasks and accommodated our calls at convenient times of the day.’ 

What’s next? 

Sustainability goals are very important to Louise. ‘I really believe we need to tread lighter in the world. There are a number of options available to us such as becoming a BCorp. I’m looking into these and working out what is right for our business, and our values.’ 

Everything that small businesses have had to survive in the last few years has also given Louise reason to think about sustainability for her own employees. ‘Alongside financial security, it’s really important to me that we make sure we are culturally safe. Indigo Tree’s ability to weather the storm is as dependent on its employees as its customers.’ 

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Don’t forget, multiple participants can now join the course

Two leaders or senior managers from a business with 10 to 249 employees can now attend the 12 modules of learning and get the benefits of one-to-one mentorship.