From farm to fame: what drives serial founder Nick Bell?


Nick Bell, a master of reinvention and one of Australia’s well known entrepreneurs, explains why he will never have his own office again.
Nick Bell | Image source: Supplied

As a teenager, Nick Bell was desperate to escape life on the family farm in Victoria. He wanted to move to the bright lights of London the second he finished his last high school exam. The problem was that he needed to save for an airfare and initial living expenses, but his part-time job prospects were limited in the remote area. The nearest McDonalds was a 20-kilometre bicycle ride away.

Bell thought laterally about how to make money and hit upon an idea that was reminiscent of billionaire Warren Buffett, who began his own exalted career by selling sticks of chewing gum as a kid.

“My mum made amazing school lunches,” says Bell. “She put in the best of everything. I realised that what I had was in demand, so I started selling it.”

Bell ate nothing whatsoever between breakfast and dinner and became extremely skinny. His mum was in the dark as to why, so she kept putting more food in his lunchbox in the hope of fattening him up. But the teenager stuck to his sales plan: his hunger to exit the farm was stronger than his physical hunger.

“I was doing intermittent fasting before it became fashionable,” he laughs.

Bell hustled like mad at school; he rented out his golf clubs and x-rated VHS movies to his teenage school friends. By the time he finished his studies – which bored him no end – he was ready to jump on a plane with more than $20,000 in savings.

Bell had a ball working at bars in London, then returned to Melbourne to get a degree in marketing at Victoria University. He found university dull, so he quit after six weeks and returned to hospitality. He spent the next three years waiting tables and making lousy money.

The office

Bell bluffed his way into a data entry job at a recruitment firm by claiming he was a touch typist. He worked longer hours to compensate for being slower than his colleagues. When a more senior role became available, he put his hand up, and he later moved across to sales. Within three years, he was the organisation’s general manager. Bell was 24 years old at the time.

“I was enjoying the grind and the hustle. I loved working in an office. I was like a duck to water with it,” he says.

Although Bell didn’t enjoy his upbringing on the farm, he credits it with instilling a strong work ethic in him.

“There was always something to do. My parents never let me sleep in on weekends – I had to get up early and feed the animals. Even now, if I’m not doing anything, I feel like I’m moving backwards. It’s probably why I can never relax.”

When Bell realised that all his hard work at the recruitment company was making someone else wealthy, he started his own business. He had suffered acne as a teen, so in 2005 he developed a skincare supplement and began selling it. However, the company didn’t take off and after four years he was forced to admit defeat.

“I didn’t make a cent. In fact, I lost all the money I had accumulated from my previous role,” he says.

300 cold-calls a day

Bell was broke and almost 30. He was living in a share house and accumulating massive credit card debt just to cover his food and rent. He confided in his father that he was in deep financial strife.

“Dad told me that I needed to start earning. We sat down together and came up with a plan of attack about what I needed to do.”

Bell could have returned to the safety of a salaried role, but he decided to back himself once more. In 2008 he started a digital marketing agency called WME Group, despite knowing next to nothing about the industry he had entered.

“I barely knew digital marketing at that stage,” he says. “I had a website built in Vietnam for about a hundred dollars and six weeks’ worth of a degree.”

“I don’t buy things. I’m not posting pictures of fast cars on Instagram. I just enjoy the process of building a business.”

– Nick Bell, serial entrepreneur

What he did possess was tenacity. Bell made up to 300 cold-calls per day, beginning with New Zealand and then the east coast of Australia, and then finishing up with Adelaide and Perth. He contacted businesses that appeared on the second page of a Google search and promised to get them onto the first page. He had a strike rate of about five out of 300 (another 10 were maybes). This did not bother him – he was used to cold calling at the recruitment agency.

Services proved to be a better bet than products. Within three days, Bell received a cheque for $10,000, and from there the growth was stratospheric. By the end of his first year in business, he had netted around $2 million.

“Services have a low barrier to entry in terms of the investment, but you have to get the fundamentals right,” he says. “If you don’t deliver on what you promise, you’re going to churn and burn and the business will go under.”

Never again

Bell knows this to be true: he came dangerously close to losing his company in 2011. He had seen other agency bosses with their own office and figured that he should do the same, so he moved his desk away from his team. But his finger was no longer on the pulse and he became oblivious to declining service standards.

He was also hiring people that he had interviewed for as little as five minutes. Clients were lost and revenue plummeted to the point that Bell was forced to pay staff salaries using his credit cards. When he realised the extent of the mess, he jumped back on the phones to service clients and moved his desk back to the middle of the office floor.

“It was a massive wakeup call that I needed. I’m glad it happened,” he says.

Bell became very particular about recruitment and has made it a firm rule to require a presentation and technical test from every candidate. He sets exceptionally high standards for service delivery and pays above market rate salaries to attract and retain top talent. He describes his team members as “rockstars”.

“If a customer isn’t over the moon, I need to find out why,” he explains. “I’m very particular with delivering and the reason for that is because if you don’t deliver, you’re not going to grow. It’s absolutely key to winning in business. If clients are happy, they’re going to stay onboard and become your biggest fan.”

“My wife is an absolute terminator in business. I go with gut instinct and I’m very empathetic, whereas she is analytical and strategic.”

– Nick Bell, serial entrepreneur

WME Group grew to become one of Australia’s largest digital agencies and appeared for three years running on Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50, which recognises Australia’s 50-fastest-growing technology companies. In 2017, Bell sold WME Group for $39 million, just nine years after he started it from his bedroom with a couple of hundred dollars to his name.

He also got married in 2017. He had met his wife Fei Chen three years previously in Hong Kong, where Bell had set up a company. She was an investment banker and Harvard Business School graduate who had grown up in Holland.

“She thought I was a farm boy from Australia because I gave her a crappy business card,” says Bell, laughing.

They began a long-distance relationship and Bell then persuaded Chen to move across the world to Melbourne, as he couldn’t abandon his companies for Europe. Chen and Bell run their digital agency empire together, which comprises 13 agencies under the parent company, Superist, which was founded last year. Chen is the operations manager for the Asia-based businesses, including being group COO of First Page in Hong Kong.

“My wife is an absolute terminator in business. I go with gut instinct and I’m very empathetic, whereas she is analytical and strategic,” says Bell.

Chen mostly works from their home in Brighton, Melbourne, whereas Bell remains in close physical proximity to his teams (pandemic-permitting). The couple have three daughters, aged six, four and one.

“I’m not going to lie: my wife is basically the boss,” says Bell. “If I piss her off at work it leads into home and things can get a little bit icy. I need to make sure that she’s happy.”

The Bell ecosystem

Superist has a global headcount of 1600 and an enviable client list that includes Mercedes Benz, Uber, Colgate, L’Oreal, McDonald’s and McLaren, as well as Netflix co-founder, Marc Randolph. The global network of digital agencies comprises the likes of First Page, Appscore and Removify in Australia, which are branded differently across the Middle East, Asia Pacific, South and North America and Asia.

“I’ve built an ecosystem,” says Bell. “All these agencies I have started are very similar and complement each other. I believe an agency should specialise and not generalise in too many things. It’s better to be known as the go-to guys in something rather than saying, ‘Oh these guys do everything.’ My agencies know their area inside out and are not diluted by providing 10 different services.”

In August, Bell completed a minority investment in branding agency Willow & Blake, bringing his involvement to a stable of 13 agencies. Bell wanted to expand his services to branding and the agency founder Jess Hatzis (who also co-founded beauty product business Frank Body) impressed him.

“When making a decision to invest, the most important thing is that I connect with the founder,” he says. “Are they looking to exit quickly or are they willing to stay on for a year or two? If they want to exit straightaway, it could be a red flag – or maybe not, but I need to understand why. I also look at the growth of the business and whether they’ve been touching expenses and cutting quality to maximise profits before the sale.”

Now that Bell has the secret sauce recipe, he aims to set up between six and 10 agencies every year henceforth (it set up six in 2022 and is shooting for 10 in 2023). Bell stays across his many agencies via the general managers, who report weekly.

A prime-time judge

This year, Bell appeared beside Lord Sugar and Janine Allis of Boost Juice on Celebrity Apprentice.

“Working with Lord Sugar and Janine was brilliant. We were together for three months, for five to six days a week and for up to 10 hours a day. We were either going to love each other or hate each other. Luckily, we got on really well.”

Bell is open to the idea of doing more television, but he will not actively seek out opportunities. He loves nothing more than running his companies. He derives satisfaction from seeing his businesses grow – it is not the accumulation of wealth that drives him.

“I don’t buy things. I’m not posting pictures of fast cars on Instagram. I just enjoy the process of building a business.”

“My wife often tells me to get a hobby,” he adds. “I tell her that I don’t need one; this is my hobby. I used to be into football, cricket and golf but I’m not these days. I just really enjoy building businesses.”

Greener pastures

Bell himself has come full circle on farming. He loves spending time on his own farm, while his parents have downsized and live in Melbourne. He also has a philanthropic goal linked to farming, whose origins can be traced to his childhood. He is currently buying hundreds of acres of Victorian farmland so that he can open an animal sanctuary within the next couple of years.

When Bell was a kid, the family had a pet cow called Bonox who was quietly shipped off to the abattoir by his pragmatic parents (there might have been a clue in her name). Bell was told she had “gone to heaven” and was traumatised when he learned of her fate years later, when he was about 18.

“I know my parents regret that decision now because we’ve talked about it. I want to give people the choice: if you don’t want to pay for keeping livestock that are not producing an income, give them to me and I’ll look after them for you at no cost,” he says. “I am basically trying to right a wrong.”