Interview with entrepreneur Reece Larkin, CEO of Blackcorn
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Reece Larkin quit university to set up his first digital business. Now he’s working with everyone from Sky to the Premier League
Reece Larkin is 23 and the list of his business achievements is already pretty impressive.
At 10, he told his friend's mum he was going to own a car dealership.
By the age of 16, he was selling network server space to Minecraft gamers.
At 18, once he'd realised working in the wine section at Waitrose wasn't for him, he'd founded a software reseller company which helped businesses buy bulk licences for operating systems like Microsoft Office.
A year later, while studying computer science at the University of Greenwich, he started offering digital marketing and SEO optimisation through the freelance service website Fiverr.
Then there was a brief foray into Bitcoin trading and the launch of his vehicle-wrapping company, Tokyo Customs, still based close to Gloucestershire Airport in Staverton.
And now he runs Blackcorn - a global marketing agency based in Cheltenham which he set up last year with business partner Julian Wall.
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When we talk, Reece has just moved offices, having outgrown Blackcorn's premises in The Quadrangle in a matter of months.
At the company's new HQ in St George's Place, home to his eight-strong team, Reece speaks at a million miles an hour.
He's one of the new generation of entrepreneurs for whom opportunity is still everywhere, but in the digital space, growth potential is stratospheric.
And you get the feeling that by the end of our half-hour conversation, he's itching to put into place a million and one new ideas for a jaw-dropping global client base which includes Yamaha, BT, Starbucks, Sky, Air New Zealand, Mitsubishi and even the Premier League.
How does he do it, I ask, at the age of 23, when most of his peers are still contemplating the gravity of their university debt and falling out of nightclubs?
Turns out my question is rather prescient.
Reece left Cleeve School for Gloucestershire College where he studied for a BTEC in computer science.
"I loved it," he says. "Until I started learning to drive, and then I realised I needed money. At the time, Minecraft was massive and so I set up a whole network of servers and was selling server space to gamers. That was the first business I grew."
He enrolled at the University of Greenwich to study computer science, but in the meantime had discovered Fiverr, an online platform where freelance designers, developers, writers, musicians, voiceover artists and marketers sell their skills.
Popular with start-ups, it guarantees clients quality work - and guarantees the seller payment on time, every time.
Sellers price their 'Gigs' - services - at anywhere from $5 to $995 and they keep 80% of the fee.
"I was selling SEO services through there, digital marketing, and then, very quickly, had become one of the top-rated sellers," says Reece.
"I hated university. Absolutely hated it.
"There was a lot of technical stuff like programming which I just wasn't interested in.
"And at the time, I was seeing numbers coming in from Fiverr and I thought, 'I'm getting into debt through university and through Fiverr I'm actually making a profit'.
"So after a year of doing Fiverr I dropped out of university to pursue it full-time."
What did his parents - mum, a solicitor; dad, an engineer at Ultra Electronics - say?, I ask.
"Well. My mum and dad….I actually had to lie to them for a while, and say I was still going to university," he laughs.
"I had to lie to them for about a year."
WHAT? I say.
"Well they were starting to ask me questions like, 'Reece, when are you graduating?' And I was still living in London, so they had no clue really that I was just working on my Fiverr stuff.
"My parents are hard-working individuals. They know the 9-5 grind and obviously, because my dad went to university, he's kind of indoctrinated into thinking university is the only way to get a good job.
"But they knew I was putting in 12-hour days, putting all my time into Fiverr and growing that, and they eventually accepted that this was the money I was making.
"And then I started paying more rent to them, so…."
Reece spent two years back at home with his parents and sister before buying the car of his childhood dreams - a red Audi R8, which is still his pride and joy and is all over his Instagram page - and moving into his own flat in Cheltenham.
His ambition, he tells me modestly, is to buy his own house soon.
This coming from the man who turned over his first $1m in just three years of Fiverr and cashed in on the Bitcoin bubble. Something says it won't be long.
One newspaper article suggests in his first two years of Fiverr, he had sold to 14,000 clients across 78% of the globe. Now he employs five people to work with him.
So how did he do it?
"It took me about six months to realise that instead of getting clients to pay $200 per order, I could get brands to pay me $10,000 to $20,000 per order, so I went down that route," he says.
"That was for social media marketing, so still in the digital space, but pushing creative video ideas and making them go viral.
"A lot of brands will pay big money to make the launch of their new product go viral."
He - and Blackcorn - engineers this through a network of influencers, social media accounts, podcasts and email lists.
One example is Yamaha, where he says Blackcorn helped grow its New Zealand profile dramatically, from 1,000 social media followers to over 120,000 in the space of six or seven months.
In another high-profile marketing stunt, this time for Tokyo Customs, he parked a Lamborghini outside Selfridge's in London, and got an up-and-coming graffiti artist to spray paint it.
He's not your archetypal businessman, as his 33,400 Instagram followers will testify on a grid tracking in glorious, filtered technicolour his foreign travels, car obsession (think Mustangs, Corvettes, Jeeps, Lamborghinis), McDonald's habit and trainers.
Lots of trainers.
It's his youth that gives him the edge, he says.
"That's the best thing about online," he says. "People can fake it til they make it, but people want services that really work.
"Online marketing with social media, everything in that space young people know about most.
"The marketers are still using old techniques which don't get the results.
"To convince new clients, we'd offer something like a free campaign on social media and show them the results we can bring. And then after that, they'll then be addicted to our services.
"I want to expand the business. My next project is to get countries on board, to increase tourism in undiscovered places like Kosovo and Albania.
"Places that often have bad reputations but are actually really beautiful and we'll do that through our connections.
"Luckily, through one of my business partners, we have connections to mayors of various cities and people in Government, so we'll work out a strategy for them."
Reece is a self-confessed workaholic, passionate about creative marketing campaigns - most of which he can't talk about yet.
"I love to work. It's the first thing I think about when I wake up. In the shower, I'm always thinking about how to develop and grow my businesses.
"I've always worked 365 days a year. I have a huge passion for it."
When he does have downtime, he loves to travel with his girlfriend Ria.
"Travel is my big passion," he says, as his Insta grid attests. "I was in Romania two weeks ago, exploring Bucharest. When you go to a different place, you always have new ideas.
"It makes you think in a different mindset. It's really good for business and it humbles you."
Hawaii is his favourite destination, discovered last year on a spontaneous trip with Ria when they booked one-way tickets to Thailand, and ended up in Hawaii and LA on the way back.
He attributes his entrepreneurship to his parents and their solid work ethic.
"I remember, when I was about 10 driving to Laser Tag with my friends," Reece says. "And the mums ask, 'what do you want to be when you're older?'.
"I said then I wanted to own a car dealership. So I guess I always had an inkling I'd be an entrepreneur. It just broke out a bit later.
"I get stressed quite easily, to be honest.
"But there's only one way to resolve that, and that's work - a lot of research. I don't think I'm a risk-taker, but I probably am. I like to put safe bets on."
Find out more at reececlarkin.com.