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How to become and stay a market leader: Lessons from 21 years of Real Business

Real Business is 21 this year. As an SME in our own right, we’ve gone through the motions to get to where we are today; one of the most read business publications that tells the truth about SME life. Read on to find out about our growth story, the biggest business lessons we’ve learned along the way and our advice on how to become and stay a market leader.

The world was a very different place in 1997. Tony Blair took the helm of British politics as Prime Minister, the first Harry Potter books hit the stands, the BBC launched a full-time online service, and Amazon was still an online bookstore. It was also the year Real Business launched as a publication dedicated to entrepreneurs. Twenty-one years ago, we were a fledgling business magazine, spearheaded by entrepreneurs Mike Bokaie, Stuart Rock and Matthew Rock.

The launch issue hit the stands on 5 March 1997, showcasing the Hot 100 British businesses to watch.

It was the first time ever that UK SMEs had access to a who’s who in the entrepreneurial world. It was also the first time that UK SMEs had a source of inspiration and a chance to shine. Real Business was and is that platform for entrepreneurs.

Our first ABC audit revealed our readership figures as 40,039 between April 1997 and March 1998. That increased to 240,000 entrepreneurs and business leaders every month. But it wasn’t smooth sailing all the way…

Lessons from the launch: Know your market and dare to disrupt

As an SME ourselves, we have led the charge in championing and inspiring business growth in the UK.

As an SME ourselves, we have led the charge in championing business growth in the UK

From 1997 to the good part of 2000, our goal was to break into the market with something unique. We hit the ground running with a business magazine like no other at the time. With its edgy content, people-focused approach to entrepreneurial storytelling, and fresh design, Real Business rivalled consumer magazines.

Within a year, Real Business had a slew of content-related products in its portfolio, from editor’s lunches for networking to conferences for knowledge-sharing. All of these off-shoot products dovetailed into our mission: we were the support system for Britain’s business owners. This was notable at a time when the term ‘entrepreneur’ was the preserve of US dotcom businesses and acronyms like SME were perceived as pretentious.

These topics were hotly debated in the opinion pages of the magazine back in the late 1990s, alongside timeless business concerns like late payments, business rates, opportunities within the (then nascent) digital economy and more.

In 1998, editorial director Stuart Rock won a top publishing award, the PPA for Editor of the Year. According to the awards judging panel, “Real Business has broken the mould of general business magazines. In editorial and design, it is sparky and innovative, yet always appropriate for its readers.”

Glowing praise from the industry aside, what really won out during the launch phase was our unabashed approach to risk-taking.

The growth phase: Hard work and in-depth customer knowledge pays off

From the Y2K bug to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the collapse of Enron, the period between 2000 and 2005 is marked by a series of major events that shaped world affairs for years to come.

The period was also one of major change for Real Business. The first five years of the new millennium had helped us secure our lead in the market as new entrants began cropping up.

To keep pace with our growth and to retain our title as the UK’s leading business magazine, we had to think laterally. By this point, we knew our readership very well. It was a matter of priority for us to understand what kept them up at night; their biggest concerns, hopes, dreams, worries, niggles, and all the rest. The next step was finding ways to answer their questions to stay true to our values as a champion of entrepreneurial growth.

“The answer was creating targeted content, from league tables celebrating the best of British business to hard-hitting SME research.”

Under the tagline ‘If your business is your passion…’, Real Business made a name for itself by continuing to launch insightful, forward-thinking campaigns like ’50 to watch’, ’21 companies for the 21st century’ and the ever-popular ‘Hot 100’ list.

The magazine became increasingly well known for its successful events series throughout the period, most notably for the Growing Business Awards, which has now remained a staple on the annual calendars of ambitious UK SME leaders for the best part of 20 years.

Big-name interviews also helped put the title firmly on the map at this time, with the likes of business magnate Sir Alan Sugar, retail mogul Sir Philip Green and EasyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou all providing Real Business with some serious scoops between 2000 and 2005. In order to get these heavyweights on board, we had to ramp up our black books as journalists, and our hustling and networking to keep the brand top of mind.

The biggest lesson from this period of rapid growth is that it pays to keep your nose to the grindstone. Sheer hard work helped propel Real Business in this chapter of its growth, as well as our commitment to building a loyal following by constantly asking ourselves what our readers really want and how we can serve their needs.

Politicians, business leaders and beyond: Real Business featured in-depth interviews with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Indra Nooyi, and James Caan over the years.

Politicians, business leaders and beyond: Real Business featured in-depth interviews with the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Indra Nooyi, and James Caan over the years

Going digital: Identify market opportunities early on

Having spent its early years as a print publication, Real Business busied itself in the mid-noughties building a reputation online, launching the Real Business website at the tail-end of 2006.

The Hot 100 campaign, (which is still running to this day) provided some of the most popular pieces of content throughout this time period, really hitting its stride by 2012. In fact, the Hot 100 2012 highlighted some fantastic businesses thriving despite the recession, including Lightcatch (aka Betfred), Go Outdoors, WorldFirst, and

Riding on this high, we had launched another campaign a year earlier to identify, celebrate and support the UK’s most exciting new businesses. The Future 50 was born.

Looking back on the class of 2012 reveals a fascinating mix of businesses, with many leading the charge in disrupting their industries, such as (now JustPark), and Ingenie, which aims to improve the car insurance market for young drivers.

By the summer of 2012, Real Business had made such waves in the digital space, that it retired its print publication for good; the magazine went out with a bang, producing its 15th birthday edition. It was an end of an era – but a move that paid off, as we’d find out in a few short years.

The Hot 100: A Real Business staple

Goodbye, print: Stay relevant and know when to quit

By 2012, media consumption in the UK was split between print, broadcast and digital channels but 54 per cent of Brits preferred getting their news and views from print publications. While that was the majority, it also meant that digital media was narrowing the gap, with social media close behind.

Sure, our readers weren’t constantly glued to their devices, but we quickly realised that it was only a matter of time before the UK business community would demand information at their fingertips.

British business was witnessing a renaissance of sorts after the 2008 downturn, so it became our mission as we became an online-only publication, to celebrate as many positive business stories out there that we could. The news cycle went from monthly to daily in this period.

“This meant restructuring the way we had been working for all these years. From cutting back on our print resources to investing in the right technology platforms and tools, this was a period of making tough decisions.”

We also prepared for the inevitable. We knew that some of our readers wouldn’t take kindly to our move online. But to prepare for future growth, to stem expensive printing overheads, to make the brand available across the UK and for it to stand out, this change was non-negotiable.

That’s the biggest lesson that we learned through this process: identify possible threats and learn how to counter them. Most importantly, think about how you’ll justify this change to your customers.

We also turned to our readers for guidance, constantly checking in for feedback. For example, our colour scheme online changed to take into account the needs of the colour blind, and our list of topics grew to meet readers’ interests just as the role of the business owner evolved.

Timpsons founder James Timpson, pre-Breitbart Milo Yiannopoulous, former Sunday Times editor Rachel Bridge and anonymous square mile correspondent The City Grump were regular contributors

Timpsons founder James Timpson, pre-Breitbart Milo Yiannopoulous, former Sunday Times editor Rachel Bridge and anonymous square mile correspondent The City Grump were regular contributors

Launching Business Advice: Identify new markets and take the leap

In 2015, the Real Business team realised that a huge part of Britain’s entrepreneurial community – its 5 million micro business owners – were being underserved. Where could they go to for tailored advice, news, insight and inspiration?

At the time, almost a third of our readership sat in the micro business demographic; businesses that employ under 10 people. While CEO interviews, and business news and views are relevant for this audience, growth issues like pitching for venture capital or preparing for an IPO just didn’t resonate.

Their concerns centre on how to start, run and grow a micro business. Managing cash flow, knowing when and what to outsource, protecting their intellectual property, and other specific business concerns are front of mind for them.

We launched a dedicated micro business website, Business Advice, to answer these questions and free up their time to do what they do best.

Segmenting our audience was a risk. As the UK’s only dedicated micro business publication, Business Advice was entering new territory.

“We began marketing Business Advice by piggybacking on the network of business experts and entrepreneurs developed over two decades of Real Business.”

We tapped into the business expertise of 20 entrepreneurs, advisors, lawyers, accountants and more to build a rich bank of advice-led content. We also spent six weeks writing up a storm, building our cornerstone content, guides and campaigns, like the High Street Initiative, which rallies to support independent retailers at a time when the sector is at most risk of decline.

Again, our brand values kept us grounded as we steadily built a loyal readership.

Three years on, the website has rapidly built its monthly readership to reach 67,000 from a standing start – and the brand is continuing to grow.

Letters to the editor in the digital age: the March 2008 edition

Letters to the editor in the digital age: the March 2008 edition

What’s next?

The business world is Darwinian. What we’ve learned over the past two decades is that to stay ahead, every single brand, product and company needs to keep evolving. This is why we’re just months away from relaunching Real Business to fit the pace and tone of our readers’ lifestyle.

“Our biggest takeaway from this stroll down memory lane is that even with all of the changes that we’ve made over the years, every business decision is underpinned by our values.”

We have long championed UK entrepreneurs and will continue to do so. This has been the only constant for Real Business. It’s at the core of who we are and what we do. Once you figure out what your values are, the only way is up.

By Caspian Media‘s Real Business team – Shané Schutte, Fred Heritage, Letitia Booty, Simon Caldwell and Praseeda Nair