The Sharpest Tool in the Box

When you think of two industries that go hand-in-hand, construction and creative probably wouldn’t spring to mind. But social media and tech devotee, Lee Wilcox, has married the two with outstanding success.

Boasting over 1.7 million follows on social media, his company, On the Tools, has become the world’s largest online construction community and has intentions to become the household name in the trade.

Lee secured both the ‘Creative Industries’ and top gongs for the Midlands at the Awards ceremony in November.

We had a chat with Lee to find out what claiming the awards means to him, and to discover more about his pathway to entrepreneurial success.

First ‘Creative Industries’, then the overall award. How did that feel?

Shocked I guess! It was a shock to win the ‘Creative Industries’ award; it was only when the presenter announced that the overall winner had gone from six to 21 staff this year that we realised it was us. It was just brilliant. We had a big table together and there was a lot of noise going on – it was fantastic. 

A huge part of the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards is the entrepreneur’s story, as you well know. How important is that?

I think it’s massively important. Even when you consider the biggest brands in the world, at some point during their journey, the significance of their story would have been greater than what the balance sheet reveals. So, I think it’s amazing that there’s an awards that pulls that journey out to showcase the hard work that goes into entrepreneurialism in the UK.

Obviously start-ups can be profitable and I feel we’ve achieved that, but I think that it’s important to remember that even if a business isn’t hugely profitable when it starts out and its balance sheet doesn’t look great, the business still can and will be a success. I think that’s what’s great about the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.  

Where did your love of technology come from?

The Mega Drive game called Altered Beast! When I was little, I used to go down to London to see my family and one year my uncle brought the brand-new Sega Mega Drive to our house. We spent about eight hours playing two games – Altered Beast and Sonic the Hedgehog. I remember just being fascinated by it, and that got me into gaming and technology and it grew from there really.

So that’s what inspired you. What about who inspired you? 

My grandad would be one – he worked as a gardener all his life and his work ethic was magnificent and he was a huge inspiration; my parents were the same. If you’re an entrepreneur, you have to have that mindset and everything else goes out of the window. You either get things done, or you don’t.

From an approach to work and life – and he’ll be very surprised when he reads this – but Andy Taylor, our Commercial Director. I’d include him because he’s a bit older than me, so I’m allowed to class him as a role model! But his approach to life and work situations is always very positive and I take a lot from that. I always look to Andy for a bright outlook on things.

In terms of famous people within my industry, I’d say Gary Vaynerchuk and Steven Bartlett. I also think Simon Sinek is great. He’s built around culture and someone who I would definitely look up to.

Every entrepreneur learns a great deal along their journey. What have your learnt?

One is to do the big stuff first. When you’re running a business you can easily get swamped in smaller tasks; you’re never sure what to do first, and you can end up putting off quite important duties. So deal with all that uncomfortable stuff first.

Secondly, always be nice to people. It’s so easy to get frustrated, wanting things done faster or more in line with your vision. Just remember that we’re all in it together and everyone’s doing their best to get by.

Thirdly, and it sounds such a simple thing, but listen. When I started out in business I would always be the person who’d come into a meeting wanting to get my point of view across. But giving your opinion first can sway the room quite quickly and that’s not necessarily productive.

Listening first and speaking last is so important, I think. Let people speak, and don’t try to sway anyone’s opinions. 

How would you describe your leadership style? 

Fair, I would hope, but obviously this could be a biased opinion! The culture was terrible in my previous work – high staff turnover, unapproachable management and a large gap between management and the team. When I started my business I really wanted to push company culture, making sure that all team members felt safe, fulfilled as employees and listened to. I’ve tried to build my leadership around that culture so that the team has all they need in place; the door’s always open if they need to talk. 

What has been your biggest achievement to date in business?

The NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards is something I’ll always remember – having all my friends, family and team there, along with my business partners, Andy and Adam.

I think there was a poignant part when we had a really bad couple of months from a revenue perspective and things really weren’t going to plan. At that point, myself, Andy and Adam really turned the business around from the backend of 2016, and managed to get three really good contracts on board. We planned it well and really thought about the brands that we wanted and managed to get all three across the line. We did exactly what we set out to do, it was a massive achievement and the reason behind the position we’re in today.

What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

I think it revolves around listening, as I mentioned earlier. When you’ve started your own business, you’re so close to it. As soon as someone goes against the grain of your thought processes with that, it’s very easy to push against new ways of looking at things.

It’s important to take a step back and try to be a little bit more objective; take others’ views on board as it will set you in good stead. It’s just so easy to get tunnel vision.

The other thing is to just go for it. You can’t be half hearted in business. Also, be ready to give up your life because there’s no shortcut to success.

What are your hopes for On the Tools in the future?

The aim is to become the biggest creative agency in the UK. We’ve got a three-year plan in place to take over the construction industry from that perspective and really become a household name.

We want to be at the stage where, if you haven’t heard of On the Tools, then you’re not in the trade. Our brand will be expanding over the next two years; we’ve got a recruitment app being launched this year and hopefully we’ll be able to work with every brand through the creative agency side of things.


Applications for the 2018 NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards open in March. You can register your interest here.