This week marks the tenth anniversary since the creation of UP THERE, EVERYWHERE – The Global Cloud Based Agency. We interviewed Julian Stubbs, UP CEO and one of the two founders of the agency.
Julian, a ten year anniversary and ten million euros in sales. That's a nice coincidence.
Julian: Yes, well it's closer to eleven million euros in sales but ten and ten make a better headline!
Then will it take another ten years to get to €20 million euros in sales?
I hope not. Actually we've had a couple of real growth spurts during the ten years, and in the last three years we have doubled our size. We believe with our business model we are capable of doubling in size again more easily. Our strategy is a really simple one: Everything Everywhere. Basically offering an ever wider range of services, wherever our clients want them. This will really fuel our growth. Added to this we made our first acquisition back in 2019, when we bought the UK digital agency DPC, now DPC+UP. We have a number of other similar initiatives we're looking at.
Can you take us back to the original inspiration behind creating UP back in 2011?
Julian: My business partner, Eric Dowell, and I have both worked in the brand and marketing business all of our careers. In the summer of 2007 we decided to sell our small 50 man agency based in Stockholm, to a larger international agency group. They had over 600 employees, and were an international marketing agency, with offices in 18 cities around the world.
What we quickly noticed was that although their offices spanned the globe, they were in effect operating as silos, individual profit centres, which were actually only focused on their own individual monthly results. This is similar for most of these so called multi-national agencies. We believed this approach wasn’t to the benefit of their clients, and it wasn’t even to the benefit of the overall business or the employees.
Eric and I grew to believe that traditional agencies were becoming outdated. Dinosaurs. This wasn’t to criticise the work they produced, but it was about how they did it. The business model was increasingly expensive and inflexible. We also noticed that the agency we had joined, as with many agencies at that time, was not set up to use the latest cloud based tools as best they could for running their business in an efficient way.
So it was about creating a more productive way to work. What more?
Julian: Well, a realisation came at about the same time that I personally felt I wanted a change in how I worked. I’d been a typical agency workaholic, putting in 50, 60 even 70 hours a week. On top of that I noticed I spent an increasing amount of my time in unproductive travel. I’d spend two hours a day simply getting from home to an office, like the other fifty people in our particular location. That didn’t seem very productive. I calculated that in a typical working year I’d spend the equivalent of two weeks driving a car on my daily commute. I’d sooner spend the two weeks on a beach! There was also a trend we noticed, that more and more people, people like me, wanted to improve their work life balance. At that stage I had a young son, and I was keen to spend a bit of time with him every day and simply kick a football around when he finished school. There had to be a better way to work and get a more balanced life.
UP's 10 year anniversary graphic
What happened next?
Julian: So in late 2010 Eric and I decided to start a new type of agency. It would be built around the simple idea of allowing people to work in the most productive way possible, when they wanted and where they wanted - provided they delivered to the projects' objectives, and worked within our cloud based ecosystem. Our new little company started with just the two of us, myself based in Stockholm and Eric, by now based in New York - so we were global from day one.
So in January 2011 we launched UP THERE, EVERYWHERE - the Global Cloud Based Agency. We started to build our agency in the cloud, by using the few cloud based tools around at that time to communicate, transfer files and run projects securely. We called this new way of working e-ployment, giving people like us the ability to live and work in the cloud from anywhere - digitally.
You’ve talked before about the importance of work / life balance, what influence did that have?
Julian: That was fundamental! We watched the growing trends of people searching for a new way to balance their work and life. More and more people were becoming self employed but still wanting to have some of the advantages of traditional employment - such as colleagues, shared resources and the ability to work on larger projects together in a team. A distributed team, working globally.
What about your thoughts on employment and freelancers?
Julian: Well, most radically of all when we launched our new business we decided it would have NO EMPLOYEES, NO OFFICES, JUST PEOPLE. We established our new business with a name to fit its cloud based operation - UP THERE, EVERYWHERE, and we registered it as a Swedish legal entity. Sweden had always been progressive when it comes to working practises and we both felt this was the right place for our new, small company.
Neither Eric nor I was an employee of this new entity, and we’re still not, but it acts as an umbrella organisation we work within. We equally did not believe freelancers was the way we wanted to go. A freelancer is just a freelancer - an occasional hired gun. Equally an agency has no real affiliation to freelancers either - and uses them when the need arises. Both employment and freelancing, we believe, are the wrong way to build a future proof business.
Anyway, our new business quickly grew and we needed some more help, so it became natural to let other people join our new little club - as first friends and then as members. The only rule we established was that to join UP, an existing member had to recommend you. Seemed to make sense.
Tell me about your view on offices?
I must admit, I personally can't stand having to work from an office! It was almost one of the strongest motivators for me personally in establishing UP. I love being able to work from my own quiet space and then connect with others as I want to. Other people though get their energy from being around lots of people.
However, as we grew, we realised we needed a place to meet clients and each other so we established the first UP Creative Space or Hub - a shared co-working facility. We hung a sign on the wall in the early days for all members to see ‘Don’t waste time coming to an office, but use this UP CREATIVE HUB, when you want to.’
Our little idea grew. The number of members grew from the two of us in 2011 to over 200 people globally today with UP Creative Hubs in Stockholm, Uppsala, Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Guildford, New York and Shanghai. All new members go through interviews and sign agreements with the organisation and today we have members in over 14 countries and we cover most languages and cultures. As mentioned, sales in 2020 have reached over €10 million euros with clients in Sweden, the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, USA, China and more. A truly global business. Today we’re investing more and more resources in our members and member engagement such as courses for our writers and account people as well as promoting this new way of working and living. A more balanced and more productive way.
We believe we have created a third way between traditional employment and being a freelance consultant - e-ployment. We believe it’s a better way for the right type of people to work and live.
So why has nobody else done this?
Julian: Some have tried, but nearly all have failed to get the scale we have. I think our success is down to our timing, the fact we were international from day one and an unrelenting focus on our own people and constantly thinking about how we can improve their lives. Our clients want to work with great people - that's what our model delivers.
What about remote working?
Julian: I’m a big fan, and it was one of the founding principles of UP. Work where you work best. At first people questioned our beliefs that remote working was productive, but now with COVID, everyone realises the huge potential benefits.
Let’s get practical, how does it all work? For clients?
Julian: Typically we have an account manager who is the interface to the client and this person leads the project and the team on the project. All members of the team use common tools and processes, and a typical team will, have members in distributed locations, so maybe an account manager based in London, an art director in Stockholm, a copy writer in Melbourne, a production person in Freiburg Germany. Everyone gets paid according to the work they have performed on the project. Added to this you also get the advantage of being able to move projects between time zones - so being able to move a project from Europe at the end of the day over to the US and then back again next morning. This gives us huge productivity advantages.
What have been the learnings over the past ten years?
Julian: We were always sure this way of working would not be for everyone - and it isn’t. We think it suits people who are comfortable working in a distributed team, internationally, and can take responsibility for themselves and colleagues seriously.
Some people have said that it makes them feel free. There’s some truth in that, but the reality is it gives you incredible flexibility. It also allows you to lead a more balanced life, if you want.
One other important learning was you need great technology to make this work well. Many of our tools are available to everyone, but some we have had to create ourselves to manage our particular situation and business. The most important is our finance and admin system. We couldn’t find software that would fit our way of working, so we created our own software platform in house called SUPER System. It manages our estimates, invoices and all project, client and member details. It took us two years and a huge investment to create, but it’s been central to our business platform. We are now looking at the future and how we will adapt SUPER System for further growth.
Any advice you’d give others who are looking to work in a similar way?
Julian: We've had a number of important learnings over the years. We work remotely and meet colleagues and clients when we visit an UP Creative Hub. But we have noticed people work better when they really know each other, so we organise as many physical Meet UP’s as possible - just to let people meet and really get to know each other. In 2019 we held the first Global Member Meet UP in Palma, Mallorca, where over sixty of us met, many for the first time, despite having worked together for a number of years. To reinforce the theme of living a balanced life we even brought along our own personal trainers from Sweden to lead us in our daily workouts on the beach. It was a very special few days. So, getting people together physically is still vital.
What are your thoughts about the fact that distance work is a predicted trend for the future?
Julian: The trend of people wanting to work remotely and as an individual but part of a larger organisation, like UP, is set to continue we think. More and more people want to find better balance in their lives. In the US it is estimated around 35% of the entire workforce is now self employed - or as they call it in the 1099 economy, which is the IRS tax code for independent workers. That’s a lot of people, and a lot of jobs.
We also think the model has a really important role in helping solve the environmental crises the world faces. More people working remotely means less cars on the roads. It means smaller more efficient offices as people only visit for meetings, when they need to. All that means people being more productive and a more environmentally sound approach for the future. All good news.
Another huge advantage this way of working gives us is a choice in where we want to live. I could do my particular job from anywhere in the world - that’s a huge amount of freedom and choice. I choose to live in Stockholm because I love it.
Do you see the UP model having wider applications in other service industries and businesses?
Julian: Our model is not for everyone or every industry. Shops still need people working in them, hospitals still need Doctors and nurses, factories still need people working in them. But for the service sector, our model is a revolutionary one. Accountants, lawyers, architects, engineering companies all basically sell and manage people's time and interface with clients locally and globally. The UP business model is perfectly aligned to revolutionise these sectors as we are revolutionising the branding, marketing and digital business. That's hugely exciting.
We believe in the future of working in this way. We’ve even written a book about it called e-ployment: Living & Working in the Cloud (available on Amazon). There's also a short film talking about it here.
Thank you Julian, congratulations on reaching the big TEN!
If people want to see Julian interviewed on film talking about some of the topics he touches on in this interview then please follow this link. There are also some other useful links on the UP model at the bottom of this page.
UP THERE EVERYWHERE: SOME FACTS
Founded: January 2011 with two people
Founders: Julian Stubbs and Eric Dowell
Today: +200 members globally
Sales revenue: + €10.8 M in 2020
Creative Hubs in: Stockholm, Uppsala, Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Guildford, New York and Shanghai.
Living and working in the cloud. How e-ployment will revolutionise work. Click here.
Balanced Living: Why we created UP. Click here.
Julian Stubbs interviewed on the Jason Swenk podcast talking about the growth of UP. Click here.