When we last spoke to entrepreneur Christian Thomson 12 years ago, he was running a successful surf travel business in Newquay and had just been named Young Business Person of the Year at the Cornwall Business Awards.
Since then, much has changed. In 2012 he moved out to Canada with his young family and started a digital marketing agency, Marwick Marketing. But now he’s back.
From Newquay to Vancouver and back again. So, what’s the story?
In 2012 my wife was suddenly diagnose with stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma. At the time, we had three children, all under the age of five. She’s originally from Vancouver,
so we decided that we would fly to Vancouver to go for her treatment and to be close to her family. We left Errant Surf behind. We were initially going to go there for a few months,
but then a few months turned into a year, a year became three years and before you knew it, we had been there nine years.
It was all quite last minute to get her to Canada between chemo treatments. Errant Surf began to fall apart as much of it hinged on me. We had a surf school and lifeguarding training centre in Newquay, a guesthouse, a bar and a surf school in Spain. We were running surf tours to the Maldives and Morocco; it operated as a travel agency and an online shop. I lost focus on the business as I concentrated on my wife and our children.
In Canada, I couldn’t do anything surf related, so I had to reinvent myself. I went down the path as a marketing consultant, taking the skills I had learnt from growing Errant Surf in the early days and applying them to local businesses in Vancouver. These skills were digital marketing, social media, Google Ads, YouTube advertising, search engine optimisation and conversion rate optimisation. Back in 2012 a lot of these marketing channels were very new to local companies, in fact, at that time, it was more about convincing business owners that they needed to have their websites ready for the mobile revolution!
Then by word of mouth, Marwick Marketing grew from referrals and our own digital marketing. Within a year I employed my first four team members and the agency
continued to grow.
In these early years, I made a concentrated effort to make myself redundant. Having seen
what happens when you are everything to a business like I was at Errant Surf, I wanted to
make sure that I was replaceable quickly.
That was one of the biggest business life lessons I have learned. And that ethos has helped because Marwick Marketing in Canada now employs 23 people and is a Premier Google Partner agency, which is one of the highest accreditations a digital marketing agency can have. Two years ago, we were ranked as the 11th fastest growing company in western Canada out of half a million SMEs.
Over the coming years, my wife Theresa beat cancer, our kids grew up into teenagers. We decided that it was time to leave the mountains in Canada and head back to the beach, and we ended up moving to Costa Rica for just over a year. One of the benefits of creating a business whereby you’re redundant! We sold everything in Canada and moved to Costa Rica forever! But then Covid hit, and it all got a bit weird. The government closed the beaches and the schools closed. There was a lot of uncertainty. Had it just been myself and Theresa, we would have stuck it out, but with the three kids, it just wasn’t the wise thing to do.
We hadn’t thought of coming back to Cornwall, but in a bit of a wake-up moment, we considered that maybe now was a good time to go full circle and come home to Newquay.
In 2020, I was lucky enough to meet my now business partner, Angie Dosanjh. She was the marketing manager for the Business Development Bank of Canada. She wanted to
leave the corporate world, so she bought into Marwick Marketing and continues to lead the
Angie has been a great asset to Marwick Marketing, and I’m grateful that we have such a great working relationship, even if we’re 5,000 miles apart!
Has Cornwall changed much since you’ve been away?
We’ve been back two years, and the time has flown by. Working alongside organisations
like the Cornwall Chamber of Commerce and the Cornwall Trade & Investment Company it’s been excellent. So great to see so much new support for local businesses.
From a Newquay perspective, it has changed, and for the better, since we left in 2012.
Newquay has lost a lot of the stag and hen parties. And that was, to be honest, one of the reasons we almost didn’t want to move back with young children! But we’ve come back and seen it’s nothing like that anymore, it’s all trendy co-working spaces, lovely cafes, a cool entrepreneurial scene and, of course, a vibrant surf community.
Newquay is our home and the community is the best; it was something we missed while
And how does it differ from running a digital marketing agency in Cornwall, as
opposed to Canada?
We are based in Squamish, which is located between Vancouver and Whistler.
Whistler is well known for its skiing, and Vancouver is a big tech city. But Squamish has a population of 20,000, so very similar to Newquay.
However, we have access to seven cities within an hour’s drive of Squamish. Obviously,
with Cornwall’s geography, we don’t have that volume of businesses. We look to support
local businesses as much as possible, but equally, we strive to work with companies outside of Cornwall and across the UK. We even have a client in the Orkney Islands, Orcades Marine.
In Cornwall, our goal is to continue to build our in-house team in Newquay. Newquay
has a lot of similarities to Squamish. The same sized population and people choose to live here for the lifestyle. By being based in Squamish and Newquay, we’re able to attract talented digital marketing experts who want that work-life balance.
You can work in an agency environment that you’d expect in London or Vancouver but spend your free time surfing in Newquay or snowboarding in Squamish. In turn, this
creates a loyal, healthy and focused team.
And has digital marketing itself changed over the years?
Very much so; reflecting on the last ten years, it feels like another world. When Marwick
Marketing was born, the only real social media platform was Facebook; 85% of websites
were not mobile-responsive, SEO was not understood, and Google My Business didn’t
launch till two years later, in 2014. It’s safe to say digital marketing changes at a breakneck pace every year.
Thankfully we have a big team of talented people between Newquay and Canada who are
constantly keeping up to date with digital marketing. Our team are constantly learning,
testing and strategising so that our clients can come to us in the knowledge that they are getting the very best digital marketing solutions to help them grow their business.
What are the most common requests you get from customers?
Our most significant request is to increase revenues and market share, that’s what we
do. The mechanics of doing that are the tools we have in digital marketing, be it conversion
rate optimisation or social media ads or web design or content marketing. To grow your
business, you need to be helpful, visible and trusted by your potential customers.
Do many companies come to you that don’t have a significant digital presence?
It’s a mixture, for sure. Some companies will just be starting out, while some will have been around for many years and simply want a fresh set of eyes on their growth plans and
marketing strategy. You can have established companies in Cornwall that have been
successful for many years and have little to no digital presence. This is fine, but when they
want to recruit top talent or generate more business, they will want to consider putting their best foot forward.
What were the challenges of opening a Newquay office with Covid in the background?
It presented a couple of opportunities. In Canada, when Covid first hit, there was a dip in business for about four weeks when everyone panicked and paused their marketing campaigns, a knee jerk reaction to an unusual situation. Following that, we saw our most
extensive growth period in Canada. So we were able to grow there, which then coincided with the launch in Newquay. So, I think it was good timing.
Is there much involvement with the Canada office on a day-to-day business?
Marwick Marketing runs under one umbrella, and in terms of education, like internal training, it’s all the same stuff. But in Canada, we’re a team of 23, and in the UK, there
are three of us at the moment with two new people coming this autumn. We definitely
have our own little bubbles, but we share many resources back and forth, which is good. I like to think of Marwick Marketing as the local Cornish marketing agency with global expertise and experience.
What are the plans for growing the business in Cornwall?
We know that there’s a sweet spot for digital marketing agencies, and in Canada, we are at
that sweet spot.
We’re not a large agency where clients get lost in an extensive list, we know every single one of our clients, and we get to really understand their business. Equally, we’re not a small agency, we don’t contract any of our work, everything we do is done by our team. This is important for the quality of work and security.
As an entrepreneur, do you have any thoughts of rekindling any surf type businesses?
When we moved back last year, I said I wouldn’t do anything within the surf industry.
But then fast forward to more recently, I’ve been doing a lot more surf contests again,
and recently I won the 2022 Masters British Longboard Union title. So I thought, you know
what, I have this fantastic marketing agency and all this experience of Errant Surf, I should
I’ve just launched an online surf shop called 10 Over Surf, driven by some high-quality content marketing under the banner of Longboarder Magazine, which will be digital first – lots of film, videos, podcasts and a once a year kind of coffee table magazine.
At Marwick Marketing, we’ve spent the last ten years growing ecommerce shops in Canada from start up’s to multimillion dollar companies – so why not have my own ecommerce brand?
Has your passion for surfing never diminished, even when you were in the mountains in Canada?
Due to the circumstances of moving to Canada, I blocked everything to do with surfing out of my life.
I didn’t choose to move to the mountains, and surfing has been a massive part of my life since I was nine. It felt bizarre; it wasn’t very nice leaving something like that so abruptly,
something ingrained in your DNA.
Landing in Canada, networking and growing Marwick Marketing was a real experience. I knew no one, and no one knew me. I had a blank slate as to how I wanted to be perceived. It was just peculiar. I was wearing a suit a lot of the time, walking around Vancouver, meeting people in their offices, just completely different from what my life had been like
just a few months prior, running Errant Surf in a pair of shorts in Newquay and being a
sponsored surfer for Fat Face clothing.
How has the experience of being taken out of your comfort zone changed you as a businessman and an entrepreneur?
It’s made me more resilient. Going through what we went through as a very young family.
Theresa and I were still in our 20s, and Dylan, Summer and Joel (Summer and Joel are
twins) were all under the age of five.
I remember trying to juggle everything and remain strong. Looking after Theresa, who couldn’t move out of bed, looking after the three children out and taking calls for Errant
Surf. I’d hide in the toilet and cry. I feel that if I can overcome that, in a new country and come out the other end successfully, we’d probably be okay in the future.
I’ve also learnt that there are opportunities everywhere, every day, every hour. It’s just how open we are to recognising them. I think one of the most interesting things about being a business owner is the ability to create something from nothing. Our imagination and belief in ourselves is the only limit in business growth.
Are those your strongest attributes as a business person?
That and just not being afraid to work hard. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an
overnight success. You have got to be prepared to work hard. If you’re not physically
in front of the computer and working, it’s in your mind, thinking all the time. And I’m
happy to do that.
In more recent years, I’ve been a big fan of hard ‘sprints’ followed by ‘miniretirements’.
Big pushes for new business or projects followed by time away from the business. Like we did moving to Costa Rica for a year and Vancouver Island for a year. We’re in a sprint mode now, we are growing Marwick Marketing in the UK and just launched 10 Over Surf Shop –
but I know in three years, we’ll be taking another year out.
I think looking at life like this keeps your enthusiasm high, your energy levels boosted
and motivates you to be your best. I can’t imagine just working hard now at 40 to retire
at 70 – I’d lose interest quickly.
You seem to have the life and work balance sussed!
Family first. Then health, physical and mental.
For me, this is being able to surf every day. Then business. I think of my businesses as additional children. I’m here to support them, grow them and nurture them until they
become “adult businesses” my businesses aren’t me. So the work / life balance isn’t a
thing; it’s just life. Not a tugging of one over the other.
Is that a good business tip that all small business owners should embrace, that the business should be able to operate without them?
I don’t think that’s even a tip; I think that’s a qualification for whether you have a business
or you have simply created a job for yourself. It was a hard lesson I learnt with Errant Surf. The business didn’t operate without me. So, although I thought I had a business with Errant Surf, and even though we employed many people and had operations overseas, what I had was a very stressful job that I had created for myself.
Whereas with Marwick Marketing, I own a business that is independent of me. Errant Surf
was me. I would just wish I’d learnt that earlier.