Lead Interview: Alex Pattenden

Managing Director, Unity Online.
Our lead interview in the TENACITY issue of Suffolk Director business magazine is Alex Pattenden.
Published in UK Director Magazines Summer 2024

Success through self-improvement

“Back when I started my business, I wanted to have all the material things that signified success, a nice car and a big house…now, it’s about creating something I am proud of.”

Interview: Sue Wilcock | Martine Silkstone
Pictures: Warren Page, Pagepix

Alex Pattenden talks to Suffolk Director

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This quote, from Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, is on the wall of Alex Pattenden’s office and it perfectly illustrates his attitude to business and, indeed, life in general.

“It gives me goosebumps every time I read it,” he says. “To me it means: overcome your problems. Don’t try to go round them or walk back from them – go through them, because the problem is the way forward.”

Talent and focus

Alex Pattenden displays all the personality traits of a successful entrepreneur. Self-belief, an ability to spot opportunities, a need for achievement, and of course, drive and tenacity. However, his journey to MD was not a direct one. Along the way he tried a variety of jobs – shop worker, delivery assistant, warehouse operative, roof thatcher, civil engineer – before discovering his natural ability for sales and a passion for self-development.

Fast forward a few short years and these things have allowed him to create the successful digital marketing agency, Unity Online. It started with a simple strategy: You can’t fail if you sell enough.

“There’s no special secret to this,” he explains. “Ultimately, it’s all about sales. As a business, the main goal is to generate revenue, so I have always structured things from a numbers perspective.

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“Starting Unity, I saw a huge opportunity, as the only companies with a field sales operation were the big national firms and I knew I could really capitalise on that.

“I think that’s one of our key advantages and differentiators. Most marketing agencies are run by marketing professionals. That’s not a bad thing, but they get bogged down in the work and stop growing the business. I don’t have this problem as I’m not a developer. I try to stay out of the day-to-day and focus on the overall direction.”

Now, ten years on, Unity Online has a team of 42 employees and a wide range of clients from local start-ups to regional and national SMEs. In 2022, it won ‘Growth Business of the Year’ at the Suffolk Business Awards – a testament to the hard work of the team.

So, is it all still about the bottom line?

“Sometimes I worry that others in our sector might not fully appreciate our unique approach. Although our sales strategy is strong, both our service and processes are exceptionally robust. It has taken years of hard work to develop the business to deliver the results we now see.

“My main driver used to be making money but now it’s about building something that’s bigger than me, that has a meaningful impact on people’s lives. I walk through the office and see all the team members and think they’re here because of that one moment – the decision I made to start Unity.”

The journey begins

Born in 1989, Alex is Suffolk born and bred. He lived in the same family house in Needham Market until he moved out aged 25, and says his childhood was happy and supportive, despite him being an “absolute nightmare”.

His mother was home with him during the week and worked as a hairdresser at the weekend. His father was sales manager for a variety of big national companies, travelling the country and driving nice cars – in retrospect, a powerful role model.

As a child, Alex says his parents constantly had to deal with his “bad behaviour”. Walking at eight months old, he was found unscrewing an electricity socket from the wall aged 18 months, and often took apart toys, radios, and hairdryers to see what was inside.

He explains: “I was very young, getting hands-on, doing things that most children wouldn’t be doing. But mum and dad just said: ‘If you want to take that apart, you can. You want to put that together, you can. You want to understand, you can experiment.’ They always told me I could achieve anything if I set my mind to it.”

A key discovery

Starting school, Alex attended Bosmere Primary School but says, looking back, he wasn’t exactly a model student. During his time there, he was diagnosed with mild Asperger’s Syndrome – a type of autism – which he thinks is part of the reason for his focus and obsessive tendencies.

“I get really tunnel visioned with things. Over the years I’ve developed my interpersonal skills but before, I would have ‘no filter’ which is one of the signs of Asperger’s. Because of this I found I could be very persuasive and talk my way out of things, constructing a logical argument. It was quite annoying I think, but I never saw it as a negative.”

At Stowmarket High School he “didn’t see the benefit in being there” and, though an A-grade student when he applied himself, he left with just one GCSE in physics. Despite teachers saying otherwise, he was confident that he didn’t need them to succeed.

“If someone said I couldn’t do it, I’d just want to do it more. It’s not always great, but it’s part of my character, and that character ultimately drove me to succeed.”

Trauma and tenacity

He also describes himself as “raw” and says the only time he struggles to control his emotions is around his own health. He was 15 when he started getting panic attacks, but finding a self-help book and working through it allowed him to overcome the problem.  

“It’s all a kind of health anxiety and I still get it now, but I have finally learned that if I apply the same level of tenacity I have in business to getting better, then things will work their way out.”

This passion for books, research and self-education is a thread that runs through Alex’s whole story, but more on that later.

His path

As a teenager, he went briefly ‘off the rails’ – hanging around with the wrong crowd and stealing fish from people’s ponds (unlike the fish, he was never caught). Then, after leaving school, he had an assortment of short-lived jobs before, aged 17, he landed a job as a trainee civil engineer.

Falling back on his talent for persuasion, he was accepted onto the required college course despite having no formal qualifications. After a year of training and working on site, he found himself office based, in an environment he describes as “unhealthy for an excessive person”. After the financial crash in 2008 he was made redundant and says, “it was the best thing that could have happened to me”.

What followed was 18 months of intensive gaming on Call of Duty 4 and he played all over Europe in competitions. Meanwhile, job searching was proving difficult as his CV showed no qualifications and little experience. With no employment on the horizon, in 2010 he started his own carpet cleaning business.

“I was driving around in my old Fiesta with the cleaner in the back, going door to door,” he remembers. “It was going well and once I realised that pubs were a good source of work it really took off.”

It was during this time that Alex met his wife, Zoe, but his career prospects didn’t impress her family and there was a lot of friction to overcome.

He says: “It was quite a hostile environment, but it just made me dig in more. I was like a dog with a bone. I knew she was the one for me and I was right – we got married last July.”

His tenacity paid off once again.

Later that year it also helped him land the role of designer at a kitchen showroom in Stowmarket. While there, he experienced his first taste of sales success.

“One day, the boss was out the back, and a customer came in and I decided to see if I could help them – I did the designs and they bought a kitchen. I thought, hey, I’m pretty good at this.”

After that, he decided to focus on a career in sales and moved to a double-glazing company, where he completed their three-day training course on how to sell.

He recalls: “It was a 14-step sales process. I remember doing my first call, following the steps, and at the end I gave him the price and he says: ‘Yeah, let’s go ahead then.’ I thought, f**k me, this works! It was such a buzz.”

The turning point

Having found his talent, he moved from there to telecoms and then on to car sales. It was while working at a local car showroom that Alex discovered his passion for self-development books; something he describes as “a huge turning point”.

He explains: “I went on Amazon and bought all these sales books. I was like, wow, people actually write about how to sell stuff. This is where it really started for me and the book that changed everything was ‘Goals’ by Brian Tracy.

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“I still have it on my shelf at work. In it, he says: ‘If you want to be successful, imitate successful people. Find out what they did and do the same thing.’ It’s really that simple.”

Following the instructions, Alex made a list of his goals and within six months, he had achieved them all, including a new job working as a field sales executive for a Midlands-based digital marketing agency. Following the tips and tricks he learned from these books he was on the road to success. He also credits the bosses from all his roles who drove him to be better.

“I thrive on a tough approach, and they were very hard on me. When someone tells you straight, you go one of two ways: you get angry, or you accept it then do it properly. I generally accepted it and thought, ‘You’re right. I shouldn’t have done it that way and I won’t do it again.’ Because that’s how you get the best result.”

This approach complemented the work Alex was doing while out on the road – listening to audiobooks on selling, self-development, and finally Stoicism.

“Stoicism has a massive impact on me. It offers a tried and tested method of handling the ups and downs of life.”

“You know, not everyone’s perfect. I’m far from perfect, but I always try and live by the philosophy of the Stoics. It’s about integrity, courage, and doing the right thing and not complaining – all these fundamentals of good living and being good, even when no one’s looking.

“It also gives you a level of resilience and of being unaffected. If I could give one piece of advice to business owners, it would be to remove emotion from everything you do. Don’t let things get into your head. You can be empathetic but still make decisions using logic. It means that I don’t lose sleep because of business, ever. “

Building success

At the age of 22, having gained valuable experience and with a wealth of tools for both sales and life in general, Alex left to start his first company: Unity Media. Working with a business partner and £2,000 in the bank, he “just winged it”. Things started well but after 18 months it became clear that the partnership wasn’t working, and they went their separate ways.

“I learned it was important to be solely responsible for my own success. Going it alone is what set me free.”

In 2015, Unity Online in Needham Market was born.

“From the beginning, my main focus was establishing the right business structure – building its success through a purely logical approach that would ensure it was always profitable. The service may be digital marketing, but the core strategy was formed around sales – massive acquisition – and growing a client base to the point where losing one didn’t affect the company’s overall stability.”

He continues: “Our business development team make thousands of phone calls, signing new customers every week. That’s how we generate more business and that’s how we grow. The resilience we create through having lots of clients saw us through Covid and put us in a strong position.”

This year, the company celebrates its 10th birthday.

So, what are the challenges?

“When it comes to work-life balance, I haven’t had any for ten years because I’ve been growing the business. Zoe has had to put up with a lot! But that’s what it takes. As Brian Tracy says, in business and sales, in any career, you’ve got to think that you’re a plane on a runway and need to go full throttle to get to altitude. Once you get there, you can let off the gas a little and cruise. I can let off the gas now because I’ve got a great team around me that gets things done.

“But it takes time to find, train and develop people, doesn’t it? That’s the main challenge. I’ve had to learn how to nurture staff, how to meet their needs and allow them to achieve their goals within the company.”

“I’ve had to move from a single, logical viewpoint, to a more people-focused one.”

Today, Unity Online has an established team that includes Alex’s brother, Ashley, who joined as an apprentice and is now head of finance. Alex says he prides himself on leading from the front and that he couldn’t be more grateful to have the right staff supporting him.

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The Unity Online leadership team, from left to right around Alex: Ashley Pattenden, Robert Moore, Rachael Robertson, Lydia Whitney, Kate Jaggers, Natasha Weston, Nik Bayliss, Matthew Mynors, Max Planck and Georgina Day.

“I feel like they’re my mates,” he says. “I’ll do anything for them and hope they’ll do anything for me. We’ve got such trust and rapport and I’m so grateful for all of them.”

It is thanks to these ‘mates’ that Alex can now call himself ‘lord’ of a one-meter squared patch of land in Scotland. His staff bought him the cheeky present for his 30th birthday and the certificate of proof can be found on his office wall.

Changes and growth

So, Lord Pattenden, would you do it all again?

“Without hesitation. I still have that drive, even if my obsession with wanting to improve constantly sometimes means I don’t enjoy life as much as others do. My motivation would be different though. Back when I started, I wanted a nice car and nice things because I’d been told for so long that I was going to be nothing. Now, it’s about creating something I am proud of.

“Yes, I still enjoy the perks of owning a business, but in the end, I live in my hometown, I have the same family, and when I go down the pub I’m still called Patty – my childhood nickname. I am the same person I’ve always been.

“Though, it’s not bad going for a little no-mark from Needham Market. I used to walk around in my tracksuit, smoking and achieving nothing – now I’m on the cover of a magazine,” he grins.

www.unity.online

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