With over a decade in business, Fat Heads are feeling pretty grown up, celebrating 11 years in business this week. And looking back it is pretty amazing to think what it was like just starting out and what we know now having developed Fat Heads Creative Studio into the business it is today.
Here our founders Rick and Sean talk about the Fat Heads journey and reflect on what they have learned from being brand new start-ups – plus the advice they would have given their younger selves when they were starting out
How did Fat Heads start?
Sean: We met when we started working together at Greater Manchester Police in the Corporate Communications team … working on their intranet and website, in the shadow of Old Trafford. We both speak very highly of GMP, gave us a really good founding in professionalism and how to work when we were younger – a really positive experience.
Rick: Well, hang on…the actual truth is Sean used to kick a football in my face so I thought ‘I’ve had enough of this, let’s set up a business together’. No, joking aside, we eventually moved on together from GMP to another organisation, both in marketing roles, which helped develop our broader skills in marketing, design, brand management etc. We had actually been pushing the idea around of setting up our own company but because we had no experience in setting up on our own we were worried about the risks. It took for us to be made redundant to make us go for it.
Sean: The business couldn’t continue to maintain the overhead cost for two roles and we were sat down and told one of us was going to be made redundant but they hadn’t decided who – it just seemed like the perfect time to go for it. So we came back in the next day and pitched an alternative ‘rather than making one of us redundant we’ll take you on as our first retainer-based client’– taking a difficult and negative decision out of their hands and making it work for both of us.
Rick: It was the kick we needed, the ‘nothing left to lose’ moment, and we’re still grateful that they ended up being our first ever client.
Sean: From there starting out we worked primarily with small businesses and start-ups. But we also got a few white label jobs from agencies, which kept us ticking over.
Rick: Our first year was literally working out of each other’s spare rooms, we got work mainly through friends and family initially and worked hard getting out meeting people.
Sean: Yeah we networked as much as possible and just generally got out there and met people wherever and whenever we could. And people often remembered us because of the daft name!
"We networked as much as possible, just generally got out there... people often remembered us because of the daft name"
What’s the story behind the name?
Rick: Well we were going to be called Lubadoosh, literally a word we made up one day in the office, or Blood Tooth Design, but we thought that was a bit grim sounding!
Sean: In the end we whittled it down to Big Heads, just because we were confident in what we could do. Big Heads domain wasn’t available and Fat Heads was suggested which actually felt a better fit, more self deprecating and had some humour in it. Where as Big Heads would’ve sounded a bit…
Rick: Big headed?!
Can you remember a particular turning point when you felt your business had ‘grown up’?
Sean: At the start our business plan was to simply to do good work, have fun while we were doing it and survive!
Rick: Erm, point out to me when that changed…?
Rick: Seriously though, I’d say the first milestone was moving into Innospace incubator scheme. Originally we were in the shared hot-desking space. Then a year later we moved into the office space. Being in Innospace we were meeting people, getting to know other businesses and getting work from being in there.
Sean: It really helps to get your own space and MMU and Innospace have been an important part of our growth. Moving us on from working from each other’s spare rooms to where we are today working with clients from Norway, Ireland, Australia, Singapore etc.
Rick: Yeah actually, getting our first international client is probably another milestone. It’s all these little milestones that stand out as points when you’re growing as a business
What have been your personal highlights?
Sean: For me Hartlepool CFE was great, personally it was good to do a project with a Hartlepool organisation that does really amazing work in the region. It was also good because we solved a problem that they’d had for numerous iterations of their site. They’d lost hope that the problem could ever be solved and understandably had become a bit mistrustful of web companies. So getting that working and making it look beautiful at the same time was great. We fully revamped the online brand, basically made it look really sharp whilst functioning the best it’s ever done, with major site speed improvements.
Rick: Also working with the FansBet group. This gave us the opportunity to combine our personal love of football and sports illustration with what our client needed – putting it into real creative use for a client and seeing tangible results for them. Plus getting to meet some of our football heroes on projects is a definite highlight that we wouldn’t have imagined when we were just starting out.
Sean: Probably a good time to point out that one of us is a Liverpool fan and one of us is a Man United fan! I guess the beauty of this work has been the diversity of the different projects, viral campaigns, social media and email campaigns and working closely with the legal team on the image rights – player images, what can and can’t be used, betting platforms etc.
Rick: One more I’d mention is The Hub Events because we’ve worked with them pretty much since they began and we began. It’s a kind of organic project that’s evolved over time, for example we’re currently on the third version of their website and alongside that we’ve developed all sorts of other promotional material for them to help support their marketing campaigns. It’s an example of where we built a great relationship with a client. We’d like to think that we’ve both been successful as a result of working together.
Sean: Yeah, we’ve both evolved alongside each other.
"opportunity to combine our personal love of football illustration with what our client needed and seeing tangible results for them."
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out?
Sean: Go for it and don’t just take what’s on the table – don’t be afraid to put an idea or an alternative forward. We’re led to believe we just fit in with what’s being offered.
Rick: Especially when you’re younger, you don’t always feel that you can make suggestions but there’s never a better time to do that. Try stuff and take some risks. And don’t be embarrassed to shout about yourself.
Sean: Going back if we could tell ourselves something at the start, it would be don’t just stand in the corner, be confident and tell people what you do. Get out there. If you have an idea, have a bash. You don’t want to look back and think I wish I’d tried that. Chances are you’ll succeed!
Rick: Yeah, you’ve got to keep telling people about what you do.
Sean: We would definitely tell our younger ‘start-up’ selves to get on social media earlier and get using that effectively.
"We would definitely have told our younger 'start-up' selves to get using social media earlier."
What advice would give to someone starting out?
Rick: Don’t undersell yourself; be confident in the abilities you have as a company and make sure that’s reflected in your costs. I was going to also say trust your first instinct but I’m not so sure actually.
Sean: I’d say trusting your gut has worked more often than not. The client has to be a right fit for you as well as you being the right fit for the client and if you get an instinct about a client you’re probably right.
Rick: Hmm, but also don’t judge a book by its cover…
Sean: Oh here we go, David Brent!
Rick: Ok we are getting into clichés now – maybe this is something Fat Heads disagree on!
Sean: On a serious note, a big one for me is respect everybody. You know, as some people say from the cleaner to the MD, you should have the same respect for everybody at every level everywhere in an organisation. And enjoy what you do, try and have a laugh – don’t take things too seriously.
Rick: Ok Brent!
"Don’t undersell yourself; be confident in the abilities you have as a company"Q: How does it work being friends as well as running a business?
Rick: When things are tough and you can leave work and go and have a pint together - you find at that point you’re a bit more honest about stuff and that you both probably have the same fears or insecurities about the business and you’re able to talk about it a bit more easily. Whereas if you weren’t mates you’d more likely go home and dwell on things on your own and feel isolated. On the flip side, because we’re good mates, we can be very honest with each other. And, especially in the creative industry where opinions on work can be very subjective, that can lead to some brilliant arguments. Though 11 years on there isn’t one that we haven’t resolved!
Sean: Yeah it’s got its benefits and it’s got its disadvantages. The bizarre thing is that in the duration of working together we have both taken on a subconscious understanding of how the other works. We both know how each other are going to re-act, I’ll know what Rick’s opinion will be on something and he’ll know how I’ll feel about a project.
Rick: Plus being mates you find your values are already aligned, you have similar likes and dislikes and you take a similar direction on things.
Sean: True. Although I do like to just wind Rick up every now and again…it’s the normal stuff though, for example he doesn’t like getting asked what he’s had for his tea so I just get an enormous sense of satisfaction asking him everyday.
Rick: You only live once, I don’t want to spend it talking about what I had for my tea.
Q: What do you think the next 11 years holds?
Sean: Well there’s 5G and everything that will follow beyond that. Which means we’re constantly going to see transformations in the way data is delivered to us. That will lift the restrictions of file sizes and enable designs to be more advanced and less restrictive. I also reckon more and more website experiences will be delivered primarily via Apps. Apps aren’t going anywhere and are just part and parcel of life now, whether it’s booking a train ticket, online shopping or checking out what your mate had for tea last night.
Rick: I think as an industry we have to be mindful that now the kind of things we learned as we were going along in business are being taught in schools. My kids are doing coding and they’re only eight. Not only do we have to stay on top of the game but also engage with and learn from the generations that are coming through. Instead of us thinking it’s us teaching them.
Sean: Yeah education is changing isn’t it? And the skills infrastructure in organisations is changing. As we as business owners get older we are going to be less close to the developing and cutting edge technology so we need to be constantly working with and seeking out upcoming talent. And I think our industry is best placed to do that.
"We’re constantly going to see transformations in the way data is delivered to us..."
If you want to know more you can chat to these chaps yourself, whether it is to grill them on their most embarrassing moment, find out their favourite tea…or even discuss a project! Get in touch with Sean & Rick and the Fat Heads team on email@example.com
Plus check out the creative and digital projects Fat Heads have delivered on the their journey over the past 11 years here and take a look at some of the highlights on the Fat Heads birthday show reel here.