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Making More Meaningful Connections in 2020 with The Room

Small business owner Alex Payne is the Founder of The Room, an influencer marketing agency that manages to attract investment against all odds in 2020.

7 min read

Alex Payne is the Founder of The Room, a value exchange platform that connects brands with influencers. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the business has taken on new clients, grown its tech capabilities and attracted investment against all odds in 2020.    

The Room has been nominated as one of the Most Adaptive Small Businesses of 2020 by QuickBooks UK.

Thanks for talking to us today, Alex! Can you give us a brief introduction to what your company does?

In a nutshell, The Room is a connections platform that allows brands to find influential people who want to talk about their products or services. Unlike other influencer networks, it works on the basis of value exchange rather than paying influencers for their exposure, so it tends to generate genuine advocacy and mutually beneficial partnerships.

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Tell us a bit about your journey into entrepreneurship.

To be honest it was more of a stumble than a journey. My background is in sports journalism - for 15 years I was a rugby TV presenter, which meant that I tended to work at the weekends. I wanted to find something constructive to do with my weekdays other than practising my golf swing, so I started working on a few projects, including a surf magazine and a digital publication magazine. 

Around four years ago a box of Star Wars merchandise was sent to me and I was asked to promote it to my social followers. I’m not really a Star Wars fan so I wasn’t sure what to talk about - which resulted in a tweet that had very low engagement. My passion for the brand didn’t come across and clearly my following wasn’t right for the promotion.

I started thinking, why isn’t there a site where Star Wars can go to find an individual who loves their brand speaking to a community who would engage with what they have to say? The Room grew from there. 

“The idea was to build a platform that doesn’t rely on throwing money at an influencer, but rather an exchange based on actually valuing the product or service and wanting to use it.”

After six months of researching, my business partner Tanya and I built and self-funded the launch. Originally we offered it for free to test the waters, and then raised some funds last year that allowed us to scale up.

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2020 has been quite the year. How have you adapted your product offering to this year’s changing circumstances?

The exciting thing about The Room’s proposition is that the kind of connections we facilitate will be more relevant than ever. Consumers now seem to want real stories and meaningful connections rather than narcissism and self-promotion. 

Before COVID we classed ourselves as sector agnostic, but in reality we had a lot of brands and influencers in the travel and entertainment space. This shifted during the pandemic to suit the stay-at-home economy - for example, we created content with NowTV and cooking tutorials with HelloFresh.

“We took an empathetic approach to handling our clients.” 

Of course some of our clients had to pause their subscriptions, and we tried to be flexible for them in whatever ways we could. We also launched a ‘pay what you can afford’ offer for startups to help them weather the storm, which was very successful.

We are keen to use our platform to connect charities and not-for-profits with brands and influencers. Charities can list for free and then choose to pay a management fee if they need more services from The Room.

From a process point of view, the first thing we did was batten down the hatches. We were keen that everyone should be in it together and didn’t want to let anybody go, so we shifted to a four-day working week and switched to remote working (and didn’t renew the office lease when it ran out in July). In February we were doubling our monthly sales and had ambitious targets for the year, so we revised our forecast and weren’t afraid to set new targets.

We also kept an eye on development. As a SaaS company we wanted to continue to grow the platform from a tech perspective by adding more data and tracking and rolling out advanced reporting capabilities that we didn’t have pre-COVID. These have been very well received by clients.

Another feature that we want to continue to develop is a brand-to-brand subscription service, which will facilitate collaborations between brands rather than just with individuals.

“I am unbelievably proud of how we have come through COVID - all while going through an investment round during the worst financial crisis in 300 years. We are in a better place coming out of it.”

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What are your top tips for managing your business finances in 2020?

The Room has an incredible CFO, Darren, who has been the navigator through 2020, allowing me and Tanya to be more external-facing. I think it’s so important that you have someone in charge of your finances who is great at what they do. Whoever that person is they’ve got to live and breathe those bank accounts and have their eyes on the horizon when it comes to cash flow. If that person isn’t you, recognise that and get someone in who can do it well.

“I always say that Darren focuses on ‘now’, Tanya focuses on ‘today’ and I focus on ‘tomorrow’ - it’s so important to find a team with different and complementary strengths.”

Who are the people, products and practices that have helped you cope with the uncertainty this year?

We have an investor called Rex who has more business experience than anyone else I know. He has been a brilliant soundboard for our ideas and strategies - he’s calm and clever. We speak to him every week or two over Zoom, and his input is hugely useful and supportive. I think it’s really beneficial to have some outside eyes check in every so often, as it’s very easy to get stuck down a rabbit hole when you are so involved yourself.

Our team in general has been massively understanding about the whole situation. Many of them are young, enthusiastic and ambitious at the beginning of their career, so having to curb those ambitions in the short term to help in the long term has been a big ask. We are so grateful and fully intend to reward them for their commitment.

“I think that the team will reflect on 2020 and realise that they have learnt more about working life than if it had been a smooth upward trajectory.”

What inspiring or encouraging words would you send to your fellow entrepreneurs?

When The Room went into 2020 we were a hugely ambitious business with big plans and growth projections, but our only aim after COVID-19 hit was to come out the other side. With that as a benchmark, everything we achieved beyond that was a win. This gave us a real sense of positivity in the company.

“Even in trying times, don’t forget to celebrate the small wins that are actually quite significant for a new and growing business.”

I have always believed that life is about the journey, not the destination. If I had to give advice to other small business owners I would remind them to enjoy it… building your business and watching it grow is the fun bit! Keep moving forwards and prepare to take off when the lights go green again. 

“As an entrepreneur you sign up for the entire rollercoaster ride, the ups and the downs - you need the conviction to ride it out.”

At QuickBooks we’re committed to helping SMBs ride out the rollercoaster of business. For more inspiring stories from small business owners like Alex, discover the Quickbooks blog.

This interview has been edited for clarity.