Tom Vaughton's talk - Control or Growth? | VarnFest '23

Tom Vaughton at VarnFest 23

"A manager's problem - control or growth?"

Tom Vaughton's Talk at VarnFest 23

Tom founded and has grown a successful SEO agency in the UK, from a one-man operation back in 2010 to a 22-strong team. He has also created VarnFest, the woodland business festival for directors, by directors.

At VarnFest 23, Tom shared his personal journey of development as a leader, describing some of the successes and challenges he faced running a business and finding surprising solutions to stimulate growth after improving his own self-awareness…




A Manager’s Problem – Control or Growth?


Tom Vaughton kicked of VarnFest 2023 with his talk which focused on his story of creating an SEO agency and the choice he needed to make about whether he was pursuing control or growth. Tom explained to the audience that over time, business owners, sooner or later, must make the choice, whether to remain working ‘in’ the business or to adapt to working ‘on’ the business. That choice can impact how and even if, their company grows. Tom shared that he believes there can be a trade-off as a leader, between tight daily control and taking risks to grow.

Tom, like many entrepreneurs, began as a solopreneur with the main aim of carving out a viable living. 


“Varn started in 2010, when I moved to Wiltshire with my young family, and I started this one-man band agency. It was a shining new company with no clear plan, except to pay the mortgage. My hope was to demystify SEO for companies.”


Bee and trail


Typical of those striking out in business for the first time, Tom explained he had very little in the way of a long-term strategy in place. Whilst today, his company is a leading SEO agency with 22 staff, and two offices in the historic town of Bradford on Avon, the journey to this point was not straightforward. In 2016 the company seemed to hit a proverbial brick wall for growth. The fact the business was plateauing frustrated Tom immensely.


“After a few initial challenges, it was going well enough and we were profitable but from about 2016 to 2020, we were busy but not pushing forward, remaining with about twelve staff and no significant growth. I started to notice that other agencies in our industry were growing quicker and seemed to be doing better than we were. I couldn’t work out why.



It forced me to take time out which wasn’t easy, as there is always something to do, with clients or new pitches. I was frustrated and confused so I paused to figure it out. I started to ask questions to those who were ahead of me in terms of growth, to find out what those business owners were doing differently.”



Tom Vaughton on stage at VarnFest 23

"A strategy of less of me"

After several meetings, business lunches and peer-to-peer honesty sessions, it was apparent that every company’s journey was different which made the conundrum even more mysterious, there didn’t seem to be a universal solution to explain it. Then one day, after reading business literature and with some honest soul-searching, Tom realised what the problem was.


“It was a bit awkward. I realised the problem was me! I liked being involved in all the decisions, and I would think someone can’t do it as well as I can. You don’t want to give someone control and you don’t have time to explain how to do it.”


Bee and trail


Tom went on to share that he believes there is a juncture in the growth of a business when the boss has to make a decision to trust hires more in the running of the company, to do things differently and to reimagine the role as the company’s leader. If there is only one leader, they cannot manage every aspect of the work themselves and expect sustained growth. For Tom, it was not easy to give over control of parts of his business but he realised it was a necessity to make progress. 

As famous American industrialist Henry Ford once said: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’

Achieving an acceleration in growth took a ‘sea change’ in management style for Varn. This pivotal moment in the evolution of the SME was acknowledged by Tom, after some hard self-inspection.


“I realised I had to invest in more senior people to grow the company again. It pays to hire people who have been there and have already done it. This provides a stronger infrastructure.”



New managers for new beginnings

Tom shared that getting senior people, like an operations manager, for example, can provide robust company infrastructure, make good hires, match competencies to roles, and take the burden of the daily running of the business away from the business owner. It might be a different way to how the business owner would manage it, but it can be equally as good or better.

In addition, for Tom, what emerged in the process of this change of approach, was a better understanding of himself.


“It’s important to stop and look back at the decisions you made to see how wise they were in hindsight. Running the business has led to a better understanding of who I am and the impacts, both good and bad, that I have on the business.”


Tom shared with the VarnFest audience the  concept of two types of business leaders, and one can become the other at different times in the process of building a company. The first is very hands-on with the business ‘Control focus’ and the second is focused solely on ‘Growth’. ‘Control focus’ does everything (the tasks, the pitches, the daily grind), whereas ‘Growth focus’ will work on the overview and the strategy (investing, financing, plotting, ideas).


“Do you love the control, so what I would call being the “Royalty” in your business, or do you prefer to be an “Investor”? By investor, I mean, are you more focused on going after growth in its different forms?”‘


Tom explained that he believes that if you want to enjoy what you do and get fulfilment from it, it is worth thinking about where you as a leader sits…Royalty or Investor? Therefore, it is important to consider what you might want to do differently and then how that impacts your business or team. Tom reflected that he thinks that most business founders, CEOs or senior managers start out by wanting both wealth and control, even if they didn’t think about it.



Tom shared his view that wise leaders and founders are self-aware, and they know which one – Royalty or Investor, is their natural wiring. They then attempt to offset any of their own weaknesses with independent advice and bring in experts as and when/if the market or their company needs it. 


“Do stop and think about your past decisions regarding co-directors, hires, company structure, and investors. They will usually tell you which you truly favour. Once you know, based on personal experience, I think you will find it easier to tackle or set plans that will be fulfilling for you and good for your company, organisation and team. “

Bee and trail


Forward with fun and fulfilment

Another revelation for Tom was that it was important for people to enjoy their work and roles, which meant they had to be competent at them, responsible for them and qualified to do the job well. 


“People tend to enjoy what they do well. It’s important to work out where your weaknesses are and get people who do that better and enjoy it, to fill that gap. You spend so much of your life doing your job, it’s a good idea to enjoy it.”


Bee and trail


For a team to be cohesive and move a business forward, it needs each person to understand and own their role, to know how they fit in the company and know where they and the company, are heading. This takes honesty and the sharing of thoughts and ideas. Tom explained that he thinks a large part of being content and happy in life is about being fulfilled, and this is hard if you haven’t worked out why you do what you do and what ‘success’ looks like for you.

Tom explained to the VarnFest audience that spending time understanding himself and the team better means that the team at Varn now have clear roles, a defined company structure, responsibilities and required competencies for each role level and how to progress. 


“We have even gotten to a point where we asked the team which brands they would like to pitch, which companies appealed to them and they would like to work with. I can honestly say, with the changes we have made, the last twelve months, which have been the best for growth, have been the most fun for us all too.”



“I would say becoming aware of my wiring/tendencies and my subconscious pursuit of Royalty and that resulting bottlenecking, we have consciously evolved, and over the last couple of years, not overnight and not always in a straight line, we have now implemented a business growth strategy that involves all the team at Varn.”


5 Takeaways from VarnFest Talks


1. Understand your impact

Be aware of your own impacts and decisions. Are you the one holding the business back from growing?


2. Recruit experts

Invest and bring proven expertise into your business for faster growth.


3. Improve company structure

Create lines of management and workflow that balance accountability and competencies.


4. Embrace transformational changes

If your company is plateauing something has to change to kickstart growth.


5. Get your team invested

Share goals, challenges and ideas. Help the team do what they love and love what they do. 

Do you want to find out more about VarnFest events?

If you are looking to be inspired and connect with other business leaders at our woodland business festival in 2024, or have a thought provoking idea for a talk at our next VarnFest event, get in touch with us.

Images of VarnFest Event 2023. The woodland business festival leadership event at Varn's outdoor woodland office on June 29th featuring John Snare of Thought Clothing, Garry Pratt and Becky Ricards-Small of New Wave Law

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