‘Neville raised our profile but Mara gave us our culture’
The founder of a multi-million pound digital agency he co-owns with ex-footballer Gary Neville has said he’d give it all up in a heartbeat in exchange for saving a colleague who died of cancer in 2015.
Jake Welsh is the managing director of Manchester-based e3creative, which has grown from a back bedroom in 2010 to become a £3.2m turnover company that now employs 50 people.
Welsh praised the involvement of Neville in the growth of the business but said the culture was set by a much-loved colleague called Mike Mara (pictured below, right) , who died of cancer three years ago and gave his name to the agency’s Mara Foundation, which aims to nurture talent and encourage people to “dream big” like he did.
E3creative has just taken on its first intern as part of the foundation and the 30-year-old entrepreneur spoke of his devastation at his colleague’s tragic death.
“Mike’s death knocked me and everyone for six,” he said. “I cried for weeks and although e3creative has been really successful I’d give it all up for Mike. People live by his culture and talk about him every day. The Mara Foundation is something the entire agency talk about to people. They thrive off it.”
However he admits it could have all been different after Mara’s first unsuccessful job interview.
“We turned him down because we didn’t believe his portfolio was strong enough,” recalled Welsh. “He was a graphic designer. A year later we ran the same interview process and lo and behold, Mike was there.
“I laughed and asked if he was coming back for a second try, and he said ‘I absolutely am’. At the time I told him again that his skills weren’t where we needed them to be and he said: “Put me on whatever salary you want and I’ll make myself there’.
“We took Mike on and within a year he absolutely flew. He committed himself and worked every minute of every day. He researched and invested his life in it.”
Tragedy struck in the run-up to Easter 2014 when he felt unwell and within a few days he’d been diagnosed with level 4 bowel cancer.
He died in October 2015 and his colleagues channelled their grief into creating a foundation in his memory to uncover the next hidden gem.
“We’re about focusing on talent,” explained Welsh. “We took on our first intern last week, through the foundation. It’s a paid internship. We spend between £30,000 – £40,000 a year through the Mara Foundation, which is out of our pocket. We don’t take donations, it’s about us giving back.
“I compare Mike’s outlook and it put things into perspective. Every day was worth living with Mike.”
Man Utd fan Welsh also spoke about Neville’s influence in the business after he bought 50 per cent of e3creative in 2015.
Friends advised him to reject his offer but any doubts disappeared after Welsh brought his mentor in to meet Neville.
“I’m a control freak and my friends knew how much I’d invested my own life to get where I am,” he said. “I’ve lost friends, missed out on the fun things in life. Instead, I had weekend shifts, all-night shifts.
“The mentor had always told me ‘no, you don’t need the money’ but I wanted him to see why this was different and why my gut was saying this was right.
“We went to Gary’s apartment, we sat down for an hour and left to get a coffee. The mentor said: ‘This is the time. This is right. The boardroom is lonely and you’re getting bigger.
“When Gary joined our turnover was at 750k, this year we’ll sit around £3.2m although he’ll be the first to say the success is down to the team.”
Welsh admitted his partnership with the footballing great hasn’t been without its comedy moments.
“At the start it was surreal to see someone you’ve watched on the telly for a number of years, sat in front of you doing business with you,” he recalled.
“It was quite a strange scenario. My dad was ringing me up for his autograph! When he’d walk in the agency, half the team would drop their pencils.
“Very quickly that stops, and you start to think ‘this is my business partner, this is someone that I need to treat like that’.
“Gary is the co-owner of Salford City FC and I remember walking out the ground after the match with Gary and Paul Scholes and these tourists asked if they could take a photo of me on my own. I’m 6ft 4ins tall and they must have thought I was the club’s new signing!”
Welsh said Neville is very much a businessman first and a former footballer second.
“The phrase that he uses is ‘attack the day’,” he explained. “There are no truer words to describe Gary. He’s up at 5am every day. An email will be in your inbox by 5.15am. He’s on it. I work hard and he makes me feel lazy!
“The nice thing about Gary being on board is that he never changed our direction. He backed that direction.
“One of the funny things is Mike Mara was a massive Man United fan and just before he died he met Gary.
“Gary was on an important call and Mike said ‘have you got somewhere to be Gary?'”
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