About Neil McHugh

About Neil McHugh

I rarely write in such detail so I hope it provides some background and insight into how I can support and develop your digital business


Journey into Digital

Below is my journey into digital, it's the kind of stuff I might bore you with over a coffee or beer. Highlights include a £5 investment returning £15k, turning that into £1m in 5 years, a New Business and an Exit.

  • Short story

    • Invested £2k in Domain names, sold for £45k.
    • Founded Passing Trade Ltd, generating £1m in paid for performance digital revenue.
    • Co-founded TRG Online Ltd, a mobile phone comparison engine. A successful venture that led to acquisition.
    • Led the company through the negotiation, due diligence and merger acquisition process.
    • Managed the transition of company and technology into the acquiring business.
    • Now utilising experience and digital knowledge to provide cost-effective and flexible solutions for SME's, Startups and Charities that need digital expertise with proven experience.
    • Top 100 global business influencer for SME's in 2017 by Sage
    • I also curate"Best of Digital" magazine on Flipboard (12k subscribers)
  • Long story

    Reading-born in the late 70s, growing up interests included Football, Athletics, Art and Computers. Proud owner of a ZX Spectrum, Commodore Amiga, spent my youth either playing football, ball boy at Reading FC or being a Football Manager. Back then it was also a great time to be a Liverpool fan, not so much in recent years. (this year will be our year!)


    I was a middle of the road student; Art was my top subject followed by Sports & Information Technology. Nearing the end of my secondary school education I wanted to be an Architect, but realising it would be 3 or 4 years of study without earning any real money that ambition was parked. College was an option but as circumstances dictated that wasn't possible. I left with 8 GCSE's but still didn't have any firm career plans.


    I had a couple of part-time jobs, Supermarket, Bakery, not forgetting a Christmas stint at Toy's R Us. I was earning my own money and decided to leave home just after my 16th birthday. I moved to central Reading and worked as an office junior at an Electronic's company, opportunities to progress were limited, so I moved on a year later.


    At 17 an opportunity to study and earn came along, (earn meant just £60 per week) an NVQ placement with an American owned Aerospace company, the qualification was Retail and Warehousing. Having qualified within a year, and salary substantially increased I stayed in this position for around four years before a promotion to the warm side of the office working within the commercial team.

    I increased my product knowledge from the shop floor and was buying, selling and importing high-grade metals. Facilitating worldwide supply contracts for customers including British Airways, Boeing, Bombardier, and GKN. I was also the go-to man for anything IT related. Although I wasn't particularly interested in the industry, I knew the business and the numbers, the stability also allowed me to get onto the property ladder. I was established in the company, the salary was above average, but it wasn't my passion and decided to leave if I could find the right opportunity.

    borrowed a copy of Frontpage web design software

    The internet had landed and was more prominent in the media. I followed the Internet's growth, borrowed a copy of FrontPage web design software, read articles during lunch, read books outside of work, learned Photoshop basic's. Soon after I had my first website live, urging the Aerospace company to adopt the Internet, I built one for them too. I studied web design trends, dabbled with Affiliate Marketing, PPC (Pay Per Click), SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and other online strategies. It was probably the first time I knew what I wanted to do.

    During this period, I discovered an article about Domain Names and how valuable they could be. I started to speculate with my credit card, registering my first domain in 2000; I registered all kinds of domains, niches, brandable, etc. A year or so later I was still at the Aerospace company, £900+ invested and countless hours spent on forums, chatrooms trying to sell them or get some kind soul to validate my value expectations.

    one domain proved to be a great investment, bought for £10, sold for £15,000.00

    The bulk of the registrations were worthless, a handful I still have now, but one domain proved to be a great investment, bought for £10, sold for £15,000.00, I can't disclose the name due to NDA. It was a sale that allowed me to leave my position and provided a year's income to start my internet business.

    I learned an enormous amount about the Aerospace industry in my ten years at the company. Running a business, attention to detail, profit/loss and life in general. My colleagues were great to work with, and I am still in contact with them today. The company was acquired in 2003, after setting up their new computer systems & software I left in 2004.


    1st April, "Fools Day" was the first day for my new business Passing Trade. It took me a while to decide on a name but was happy it reflected the affiliate model of acquiring customers for online retailers.

    I had a good friend in the industry who said he could send me some regular work, digital projects to manage, newsletters, some design work for projects he had planned. I combined that with building landing pages, micro-sites partnered with various retailers on a paid on a performance basis. Most of the sales were from PPC, the risk all mine with my credit card plugged into Adwords. Auditing retailer opportunities, micro-managing costs, monitoring conversions and statistics became second nature, almost addictive.

    I also added a banner design service, at that time banners were a traditional ad format provided by retailers to affiliates to use in promotions. There wasn't anyone providing a quick cost effective solution to design banners. It had an online form brief, and I designed standard banner packages from £200. Through relationships with the networks, I had a reasonable amount of monthly customers to compliment my other online activity. I created the banners myself and later outsourced the designs to the USA and managed the customers.

    Overall the first year was predictably tough, earning around £12k less that year than my previous salary. However, I had made good progress, networking, forming relationships with the affiliate networks and had a better understanding of the landscape. As a bonus, I enjoyed it, and it had become a passion.


    This year was positive, building on the groundwork from 2004; my Adwords bill increased month on month, fortunately so did the sales and commissions.

    At this stage, I was working with a broad range of retailers, Magazine Subscriptions, Football Kits, Activity Days, Mobile Phones and Financial products. Organic traffic grew on a couple of micro-sites, the banner design service continued to be popular and outsourcing continued to work well.

    Turnover tripled, the only drawback was sleep or lack of, 1 or 2 am to bed was common

    I also maintained an interest in the domain aftermarket, new registrations along with using services that could monitor and register expiring domain names. Business was good, I made good contacts and delivered sales. Turnover tripled, the only drawback was sleep or lack of, 1 or 2 am to bed was common.


    The business continued positively, moved to Limited status, VAT registered, agreed account terms with Google and stopped doing my accounts in Excel.

    I continued to work with the same retailers and added a couple of new campaigns, others came and went according to their conversion and profitability. The banner design ticked over but managing the outsourcing of it became consuming. The business just being me I had to focus on the biggest opportunities versus the time allocated to them, I had a couple of niches that were converting pretty well and invested time and money into those.

    I also set up a virtual call centre to intercept any potential leakage offline, I registered a dedicated telephone number, supplied the call centre with a script and added the telephone number to some of my micro-sites, calls then turned into leads. My generic PPC activity had also driven a reasonable volume which led to a couple of opportunities of managing retailers brand keyword terms.

    Costs and conversions were strictly monitored, if something didn't seem right or work out the activity was paused or discussed at length with the affiliate network and retailer. My PPC activity that year was over £100k, turnover was double of 2005 and I was also fortunate enough that year to win a sale driven incentive, a week in Barbados with 20 other affiliates, another great opportunity for networking and a bit of a jolly.


    This year pretty much continued as 2006, although the banner design business dropped by 60%, it just wasn't my primary focus with so much to do maintaining the campaigns that delivered the bulk of revenue.

    I was still working with my main clients, they were happy, conversions remained and commissions negotiated accordingly. The long hours continued and turnover increased a further 40%, that said my spend had also increased by the same margin.

    turnover increased a further 40%

    The Barbados incentive was running again which I qualified for, a month later another incentive, a weekend in Las Vegas, more networking and good times.

    By chance via the Barbados incentive I met geordie coder James Zielinski, we got on really well and had similar interests. We shared business ideas and lots of Rum sat on a table overlooking the beach and agreed to a joint venture when we got home. A couple of weeks later I flew up to Newcastle and we formed a new Ltd company with plans for a mobile phone comparison platform. We both knew the first year would be hard and we both had bills to pay so maintained our current commitments until we had done more of the groundwork but still went live at the end of that year.


    A very busy year, the banner design service was parked, I just didn't have the resources to manage it, looking back I should have probably sold it or employed someone to manage it.

    That said I was busy micro-managing campaigns and keeping up with new Google announcements on algorithms or PPC guidelines. Competitors were driving up PPC costs, annual spend increased a further 20%, turnover was up just 5%. The annual Barbados trip was on again as was the Vegas incentive, which included flying a Jet Fighter over Vegas, very fortunate, great times. Good progress on the new business, leveraging contacts and building relationships.


    Passing Trade was 5 years old, the competition was becoming fierce, more competitors, more rules and guidelines.

    There were still opportunities, new clients wanted to work with me but being focused on the new business I couldn't commit and just maintained the campaigns we had been running the previous year. Turnover was down 28%, spend was also down 30%. The following year 2010 activity really dropped, a mix of competition, Google guidelines, brand campaigns split across partners, combine this with my focus on the new business, turnover was down 80%.

    starting with very little it had turned over £1m had zero debt

    It was time to leave that business behind and look forward, starting with very little it had turned over £1m had zero debt. All revenue was "paid on performance", providing great value for the retailers. As that business faded, the new business had momentum. The Vegas trip was on again, this time a road trip including San Francisco and LA.

    2010 - 2013

    Taking everything I had learned and leveraged in previous years, combined with James's technical expertise it was full steam ahead on the comparison site.

    We compared over a million mobile phone deals with over 6000 consumer reviews. We were often quoted in the national press, featured on the Gadget Show and highly commended at Industry Awards. The business was acquired by DTL/broadbandchoices.co.uk late 2013, you can read more about that announcement here.

    The late nights continued, as I also became a Dad...


    Joined the DTL team as Commercial Consultant, managed the transition of company affairs into DTL, supported the integration and launch of the mobile comparison platform into the UK and Spanish markets.


    Spending time with my family and now a Digital Marketing Consultant helping businesses succeed in Digital. Active on social media and curating the latest developments in Digital at Flipboard.

    If you got this far, thank you for taking the time to read my journey to date. If you have any questions or consultancy requirements why not book in for a free consultation?

  • Skills/Platforms

    • Entrepreneurship
    • Business Development
    • Product Development
    • SEO
    • SEM
    • Content Marketing
    • Social Media Marketing
    • Affiliate Marketing
    • Web Design
    • Graphic Design
    • Resource Management
    • Finance Management
    • Company Administration
    • Merger and Acquisitions
    • Domain names

    • Microsoft Office
    • WordPress
    • Adobe Photoshop
    • Google Analytics (cert 2015)
    • Google Adwords (cert 2015)
    • Google Search Console
    • Google My Business
    • Facebook Pages/Ads
    • Twitter
    • Instagram
    • LinkedIn