VENTEUR chatted with Matt Jones, Founder and CEO of the fast-growing JFI Group, about his entrepreneurial journey. JFI Group started with Cardiff-based Rebel Lion Advertising and is on an ambitious acquisition journey to become the largest independent agency group in the UK. He is also the founder and CEO of MESOA Skincare, premium skincare for the everyday man.

A multi-award-winning entrepreneur, Jones has won several national awards for both himself and his businesses. These include the prestigious Great British Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Creative industry in 2016, 2017, and 2018, plus industry awards issued by The Drum (Advertising Agency of the Year 2016) and the RAR Digital Awards.

He is passionate about breaking the stigma around men’s mental health and talks openly about his journey as an entrepreneur to find his purpose.

Founder and CEO of JFI Group Matt Jones / Photo courtesy of Matt Jones

The Journey

The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?

I've learned that I'm very resilient. Many things happen in business that, at first, we’re not even aware of or are not ready for.

I started my entrepreneurial career fourteen years ago. At this stage, I had no business acumen. I didn't understand how businesses were run and had little knowledge of the operational side of things, but I knew I had the skill of being able to sell media. Over the past fourteen years, I’ve learned that I now have that business and commercial acumen. Despite having this experience and being in my current position, I'm still always learning.

One of the things I tell other entrepreneurs and the people I mentor is that you have to accept that mistakes or defeat are part of the journey. The key is not to think of it as a failure. Instead, think of it as lessons learned. You’ve got to ask yourself questions. What did I learn from not winning that contract? What did I learn from that employee leaving? Understanding and turning the lessons into positives can help reshape your culture, process and procedures, and management infrastructure.

Not everything is always going to go to plan in business. You need to continue moving when times are hard and know when to seek help. If I were unsure of anything around the operational side of the business, I would seek the information out. It's out there; you just need to look for it and ask for help.

The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur? If yes, what was that experience like, and how did you overcome it?

Being an entrepreneur can be incredibly lonely because you're at the organization's top. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a fantastic and great management team, making those hard decisions ultimately falls on your shoulders. You have to make the final decision when you're in that pressured situation, especially when it's financial concerns or delivering on something you promised a client, employee, or supplier. As an entrepreneur, it becomes lonely because you can get inside your own head. Procrastinating is danger around whether you should or shouldn't be making those decisions. It can sometimes be suffocating, especially when you can't find the answers to the questions you're asking yourself. I overcome that by taking myself out of the situation, mapping out the problem, and identifying different routes.

I've built on this further by ensuring I always have a strategy. I plan for the worst-case scenario and work backward. For example, where could I source it if I ran out of money this month? If this client was to, for whatever reason, no longer work with us, what could I do to either fix the situation or replace the client?

So, with every proposal, every plan, every task, and every kind of big decision that I have to make, I plan for it in advance. 

Don't get me wrong, as entrepreneurs, sometimes those big decisions and the things we must deal with, which can cause us to be within ourselves and create loneliness, can come out of nowhere. This is why it's essential to have a really strong network of people around you who you can rely on for support. So go networking, go to events, attend seminars, and join other business communities. Find your tribe. If possible, get a non-executive director to advise you because people like that have been in business for a long time and can add value to your decision-making.

The Psychological Warfare  

Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur? 

I sold my previous business in 2019. I'd been gearing up for my next business, MESOA Skincare, since 2018. When I sold my business, I launched MESOA Skincare almost immediately afterward.

You would think that an entrepreneur who has been in business for many years, has had lots of experiences, lots of success, and has dealt with revenues in the six and seven-figure mark would have all the expertise needed when launching a startup. But for me, it felt like I was going backward and starting again from the beginning. Even though it was my choice, I felt like I'd lost my identity from where I was before. It was hard getting used to being at the very start and going through all those experiences again. I was sleeping less due to thoughts whirring in my head. Was it going to work? Did I make the right decision? Do I know enough about this new market? Will customers want to buy it?

I was working more to prove to myself and the people around me that this business would be a success. As a result, I was sleeping less. I didn't go to the gym as much as I would have liked. I stopped running to clear my thoughts, and I felt isolated. Then the pandemic hit in March 2020. With the loss of my identity and business slowing down because of the pandemic, I started to feel insecure and doubted myself. Imposter syndrome followed, resulting in low self-worth. This was a massive experience for me; being somebody who has won the Great British Entrepreneur of the Year for three years running, had an agency that was the number one ad agency in the UK and employed over 100 people, and sold my business for seven figures, I still doubted myself. I felt as though I was suffocating.

I overcame this by putting myself out there again. I put myself in a pressured environment by going on to Dragons’ Den. Going on Dragons’ Den wasn't just to secure investment from a dragon or to raise PR and my profile for MESOA Skincare. It was to put myself in a pressured situation where I knew that what I was working on, what I'd given my sleep up for, what I'd missed the gym for, was also worth putting myself in front of three million people. I wanted to prove that I had the business and commercial acumen to pitch at that level.

My advice is to put yourself in a situation where you test your abilities and get out of your head. Speak to more clients, pitch for more business, or go on Dragons’ Den. Back yourself like I did. 

Newer entrepreneurs often equate their personal success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality? 

In my first business, Rubix, I had the wrong investor, and ultimately, that business failed within two years. I felt like an absolute failure, personally and professionally. As a new entrepreneur, the business is you as an individual. It's what you're known for: your brand and how people perceive you in the business community, including family and friends. We start to think, I've had a failed business, so others will always associate that failure with me. We believe people are thinking these things when sometimes they're not.

Professional success is linked to our minds. We hear so much about personal brand, brand performance, values, and what we stand for. It's tough for entrepreneurs to break this thinking as it's who we are. When we lose a business, it hurts. I experienced this at Rubix when it failed, and I've also experienced the flip side, the success when I sold S3.

It's imperative to understand what success looks like to you as an individual in your personal and professional life and be able to separate the two. In my personal life, it's about taking care of my loved ones, my children, and my family around me. Ensuring they're happy and enjoy the things that are important to them, such as friends, family, and memories, not necessarily materialistic things, as that's personal success. 

For professional success, I map out my journey. I know there will be failures along the way, or some things won't go to plan, but I take these as lessons learned. My plan will include an end goal; this is the number I will achieve in seven years. Throughout the journey, the key is understanding that things can change and move along the way.

What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears?

1. Losing the Connection With My Family

As the business grows at an incredible speed, more clients, more revenue, and more demand for my time. That's when the personal and professional balance becomes more challenging. To overcome this, I aim to work Monday to Friday. Of course, there is the odd weekend working, but I try to ensure I spend my time with my family on the weekend and they get the time they need from me.

2. Losing a Business

That's every entrepreneur's biggest fear. To overcome this, I ensure overheads are low and profits are high. The team around me is as engaged as I am and understand the vision and KPIs to ensure we stay on track.

3. A Client or Campaign Who Has Paid and Not Received What They Were Expecting

To overcome this, I use open dialogue to find a solution.

How do I manage the fear? Fear is false evidence appearing real, so I remind myself that these things haven't happened yet. Instead of being consumed by worrying about protecting the things I have or being overly ambitious, it's about staying in that flow state where you can benefit from both of them. 

The Mistakes

What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid these mistakes?

1. An Investor Whose Values and Morals Didn’t Align With Mine

I didn't do enough research into them. I didn't know how they sourced their funds and didn't know enough about them personally.

I now ensure the investment process is carried out over months, not weeks or days. I get to know who the investor is. I connect with their connections. I investigate their business past and experiences and find out where the source of funds comes from. I ask for testimonials and reviews. I also ask to meet them outside of the business environment to get to know them personally and learn their values and what they stand for.

2. Not Paying Enough Attention to the Operational Side of the Business

In business, we can pay too much attention to the front end: what's shiny and looks great, what's creative, what our clients want, and how we pitch ourselves above the competition. You must pay as much time to HR, accountancy, management infrastructure, processes, and procedures. I learned lessons to overcome this, gaining knowledge on the operational side to understand the processes and procedures and getting the right people in place to deliver.

3. Overpromising and Underdelivering

For example, we do not achieve targets we said we would hit. I now ensure there are always clear lines of communication, and I never overpromise. It's far better to underpromise and overdeliver.

What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?

Businesses are built around teams, so I will position the things overlooked around the team.

1. Employees’ Well-Being and Mental Health

This is often overlooked through not having the right processes and management infrastructure. I think giving employees the space and the reassurance they need to open up about their personal life is essential. 

2. Benefits and Perks Are Other Things That Are Overlooked

Don’t just give employees a standard or what you think they want; open up discussions with the team to understand what they want as benefits and perks as part of their employment.

3. Organization Culture

One person's idea of company culture might not be the same as another person's. Again, it's all about opening the lines of communication, ensuring the team feels valued and that their values align with the company. Also, ensuring employees have the perfect blend of work-life balance by putting things in place that allow them to be great at their job and have enough time for their personal life. 

The Successes

How have you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?

Not necessarily coming from a hostile place, but when you're overworked in the sense that you're not sleeping, working too many hours, and not looking after yourself physically, you will naturally face burnout. I exercise every day as it's good for the mind and body. I have a professional and personal coach with whom I have weekly sessions to keep me on track. I ensure I take time away from the office to refocus and regroup. 

I also do a lot of self-talk. I remind myself of what I've achieved and of my successes. For example, the award wins, business, and team successes. 

The Advice

How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems like an impossible task?

You must know when to stop and set boundaries to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Working 9 to 5 is impossible for entrepreneurs because our brains are always switched on. Find something that is a distraction and plan it, whether spending time with your family, swimming, playing the guitar, boxing, or fishing, something you can do without switching your mind off from the business. If you want to switch off, you need to find enjoyment in the hobbies and tasks that create the air gap between thoughts about personal life and business.

What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey easier, and why?

1. Keep your profits high and your overheads low.

2. Do deep due diligence on any investor you allow into the business if you need investment funds.

3. Not more than one client should be more than 10% of your business revenue, and not more than one employee should have more than 10% of the responsibility within the business.

What do you think the most significant difference is between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why? 

An entrepreneur will not quit, will not give in, and will find a way to succeed no matter what. They see innovation through creativity and absolute personal self-belief that their idea or vision will work.

What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?

All entrepreneurs have intuition. Sometimes when we don't listen to our gut telling us that something might not be right, but we still do it anyway, it hardly ever turns out right. We should have always listened to our intuition. In the past, when I've listed to my gut, it's always worked out well for me. I've missed that tripwire and stepped over the land mine. I've learned the lessons to help me be successful. Yes, it's based on intuition, but never forget the lessons learned.

How has entrepreneurship catalyzed your healing or expanded your consciousness? 

I look at the world differently as an entrepreneur. I've always got my eyes open, looking for new opportunities. I see opportunities almost every day, when I'm with a client, when I'm talking about their needs and wants, when I'm in a creative medium, or when I'm speaking to a supplier. I'm naturally curious, as I know opportunities are out there.

Topic Contributors

Questions based in part on topics and comments provided by:

1. Alicia Nagel, Founder at Alicia Nagel Creative

2. Rob Volpe, Chief Executive Officer at Ignite 360

3. Kelly Mosser, Entrepreneur, Business Strategist, and Coach for High Performers

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