Kate Strawson and Jez Ashberry: Shining a light on Lincolnshire

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Just over a decade ago Lincolnshire was in the dark when it came to public relations — until two budding entrepreneurs realised that not only there was a gap in the market, but the county was losing talented graduates to other areas of the country.

Kate Strawson and Jez Ashberry had known each other for years before finally coming together to make their dream of owning their own business come true with the launch of Lincolnshire’s very first specialist marketing and PR company, Shooting Star, 10 years ago.

Since then, they’ve gained more than 25 clients, providing them with national exposure and even getting one client’s handmade, high-end, sustainable hen house featured on Peter Andre’s My Life.

In the beginning, it was all about teaching businesses in Lincolnshire what good PR can achieve.

After graduating from the University of Lincoln with a journalism degree, Kate managed to secure a job as a news reader for Lincs FM until Jez told her of a job opportunity to work with him at the university press office.

Searching for help from outside the university, the duo realised that there was a gap in the Lincolnshire public relations market. At the time, the closest PR company was in Cambridge.

Not only this, but all of the students going to the University of Lincoln to study Marketing and PR were being forced to find a job outside the county as there were no positions in Lincolnshire.

Jez said: “It was only 10 years ago, but Lincoln was totally different in those days. There were no PR agencies.

“I think there was one guy who was a PR consultant and he was the only person in Lincoln that you could go to for advice. There were no marketing agencies and no social media existed then.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A leap of faith

It was only a year after Kate joined the University of Lincoln’s press office when the two of them took a chance and went out on their own in 2006.

“I had to give my notice in before Kate for some reason because I had been there longer, and I said, ‘you’d better give your notice in too!’ But it all worked out,” Jez laughed.

He had taken a leap of faith, not only trusting that Kate would also hand her notice in and not drop out at the last minute, but also because he was going out on his own with a wife and two children to support, as well as a mortgage to pay.

“We started with two beans. We got an overdraft from the bank to cover the wages for the first few months when we weren’t sure if we had any clients or not. We didn’t really need much capital investment.”

Shooting Star became the first PR and marketing company to launch in Lincolnshire and the University of Lincoln became their very first clients.

Now they have more than 25 clients across the UK between seven staff and a turnover of £280,000.

Word of mouth was crucial for the business, traveling to networking events across the county to reach out and show what good PR can really do to help a business thrive.

“For a lot Lincolnshire businesses, PR was something that was quite new to them,” said Kate. “So as well as trying to sell our services, it was a case of educating companies as to how PR and marketing could help them, how it would benefit them, why it was worth employing us and what we could do for them.

“A lot of companies didn’t have any PR budgets so it was the first foray for them. Whereas now we get a lot of clients that already have a PR budget and recognise the importance of PR and marketing.”

Having introduced the county to the benefits of PR and marketing, it’s now their mission to help people understand that everyone has a story – even if they don’t know it yet.

Jez said: “PR is all about reputation and profile and a lot of companies just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

“They get on with their day job and they’re really good at what they do. They just forget to tell people how good they are. They sometimes don’t think that what they do is of interest to others.

“To a lot of our clients we say ‘you must have some interesting stories,’ and they say no. But when you actually start digging, they start telling you things that are really interesting to people, but it just never occurred to them to tell anyone.”

However it was only a short time before they hit their first, unavoidable bump in the road.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Changing tides

Businesses started to pull back on the purse strings as the 2008 recession hit, feeling that PR was a luxury they just couldn’t afford.

Despite the decrease in business spending, Shooting Star continued to grow – just at a much slower rate, causing turnover to plateau until 2010.

Kate said: “We were used to year on year growth, the turnover was really healthy, the business was growing and we were taking on more staff.

“So when the recession hit, that started to slow down. It became slightly more challenging in terms of continuing to find new clients and keep the pipeline of new business flowing.”

Jez added: “When you’re employing staff, you feel the responsibility to make sure you’ve got the work coming in to pay the wages. So it was a real challenge for about a year.”

Thankfully the company had a wide variety of clients, all impacted differently by the recession.

Kate explained: “We hadn’t put all of our eggs in one basket. It would have been tempting to work for one really big client but that would have taken all of our resources and would have made us a hostage to fortune.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

A birthday expansion

2016 saw Shooting Star celebrate its 10th year in business, with the opening of a second office in Bristol to tackle new markets.

“The core sectors that are down there are similar to the sectors that we already have clients in up here,” said Kate. “So things like technology, professional services, those sort of industries, that we’ve already got a track record in. It was quite a good fit really.”

After 10 years of successful growth, the pair have dealt with some interesting situations. Their client base has grown to include companies like accountants Duncan & Toplis, Greater Lincolnshire LEP and Bishop Grosseteste University as well as being behind the promotion of Lincoln’s Frequency Festival.

“We had one client who set up her own business,” explained Kate. “She was designing and manufacturing really high end hen houses. She had cottoned on to the fact that people were really into growing their own vegetables and keeping their own chickens because it was more environmentally friendly.

“We managed to get one onto Peter Andre’s My Life!” Kate laughed. “His fiancé bought one of the Henny Penny Hen houses because he was really into keeping chickens.

“We got into a lot of national broadsheets with gift guides and we also set up an exclusive partnership with Farrow and Ball.

“We did a lot of product placement work with her, so we got into Homes and Gardens and Country Living because it appealed to their target market. Everybody really loved the product.”

Although they are both very serious when it comes to their business, both the directors have a bit of a wild side, which has seen Jez hitchhiking back to the UK from France over three days.

Jez said surprisingly: “I once sold doughnuts on a nudist beach in France for the summer because I had run out of cash and my dad couldn’t afford to pay for the flight home.

“There were some scary moments. When I finally got to port, I had been picked up by this guy in a really swish sports car and I thought ‘fantastic!’

“You had to be in a car to get on the boat because they wouldn’t take foot passengers.

“But just as we got to the port, the guy who was driving the car I was in said, ‘I think you better get out the car and go on your own,’ and then he winked at me,” Jez laughed.

“He must have had something illegal on board, so I had to get out and find another way.”

Teenage escapades a distant memory, the business duo now look to the future to continue the company’s growth as part of a three-year plan.

They are looking at taking on new staff at their Bristol branch as well as providing a place for graduates from the University of Lincoln to work.

Kate said: “Every year we try to take on a rising star, a new graduate who just qualified from university. Zoe was our latest one and she is now working with us full time.

“We are always trying to develop new talent and that’s the approach we want to take in Bristol as well, to try and give people opportunities down there and get into the career.”