7 lessons from the story of CAA

CAA’s founding team in the mid 1970s

A few months ago, James Andrew Miller released his new book telling the tale of Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of Hollywood’s most renowned and powerful companies.

Coming in at 707 pages, it’s a pretty hefty read. There are definitely a few flaws and some sections feel like a slog, but the snappy talking heads style works well and plenty of juicy anecdotes can be found.

If you don’t want to work your way through the whole thing, here are seven key lessons from the company’s 40 year history.

1. Think Long

One of the best passages in the book describes how CAA founder Ron Meyer began working with Sylvester Stallone. It’s a great example of the benefits of forgoing the short term gain for the longer term opportunity.

At the time, Stallone was on the cusp of becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world but didn’t have an agent, only management.

The management company were very wary of their client being wooed by a talent agency and strongly advised him to keep Meyer at bay as they felt he’d just be looking for cash, even when he hadn’t earned it.

Whilst not (yet) his agent, Meyer had been informally advising Stallone on script matters around ‘Rambo: First Blood’, and upon a deal being closed for Stallone to star in the film for $5m, the star decided to test his would-be representative.

Knowing that the then-fledgling CAA was in need of cash, Stallone called Meyer to offer him 10% of his fee as a commission. Without Meyer being aware, Stallone had one of his management team listen in on the call so they could both gauge the reaction.

Meyer declined, feeling he hadn’t done enough to earn the $500k, and that he wished Stallone the best of luck and hoped they’d work together down the road.

With his manager red-faced, Stallone knew he had his man and signed with Meyer and CAA, knowing the long game would always be front of mind.

2. Get in the centre of the action

There are many examples of this throughout the book, and a few cases that veer into nepotism territory, but either way the chances of success increase hugely if you’re in the middle of the industry you want to be in.

In the late 80s a young writer moved to LA to study at UCLA and write movie scripts. Via a friend who knew someone at CAA, the writer got a meeting with a CAA agent and one of these scripts (which had been left in a bin for the previous 6 weeks) piqued the agent’s interest.

Within a few days it had sold to Warner Brothers for $250,000 and became one of the biggest hits of the decade — Lethal Weapon. The writer, Shane Black, went on to write some of the biggest action and adventure movies of the last 20 years.

Without being in the middle of an industry, that kind of rapid breakthrough is far more difficult.

Marc Andreessen also talks about this in his Guide to Career Planning

Once you have picked an industry, get right to the center of it as fast as you possibly can.
Your target is the core of change and opportunity — figure out where the action is and head there, and do not delay your progress for extraneous opportunities, no matter how lucrative they might be.

3. Know the numbers; data can make deals

Kevin Huvane and his quartet of fellow ‘Young Turks’ rapidly rose to take over the running of the agency in 1995. However, whilst they were very capable agents, they realised running the business was a completely different proposition and that the numbers were key.

Huvane admitted to having never looked at a spreadsheet before. The realisation of how much the company was spending on fruit was the wakeup call that he needed to get a proper handle on the numbers if he was going to be able to lead the agency.

A deal where data modelling helped persuade the doubters and make its principals rich was for the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito film ‘Twins’.

Sandy Climan (aka ‘The Briefcase’) and his team modelled out how the deal could take shape, persuaded the studio to run with it, and also convinced the stars to give up their usual advance fees in exchange for a big chunk of the back end. The result was the biggest pay day Arnie & Danny had ever had.

As a footnote, several sources quotes on the book allude that one of the reasons CAA founder Michael Ovitz’s AMG venture crashed after he departed the agency may have been because he didn’t have a strong enough handle on the numbers, particularly in the TV business.

4. Client service should go beyond the direct field of expertise

Throughout the book, Michael Ovitz gets a pretty rough ride from a range of people (seemingly justifiably on more than one occasion), but one of the things he excelled at was knowing when and how to go above and beyond the expected level of service.

Ovitz understood that client service goes past core expertise; an example of his all-seeing eye being very much in the interest of his clients was that he made a point of knowing all the best physicians, schools, architects and other service providers across LA.

Calculating it may have been, but connecting his clients with these people was all part of the service. By getting them what they needed when they needed it, the perception of him being at the very centre of their universe only increased. Very quickly he became the man who could make things happen.

5. Put together packages

CAA arguably built their entire business around packages. The concept certainly isn’t new, but they were the company to make it their calling card and turn it into a huge operation.


In the case of the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, all the casting was done within the CAA office rather than at a casting agency office or studio. CAA agents outside the deal were able to easily get wind of a casting opportunity for their clients, while agents outside the building had a hard time getting anyone in. Michael Ovitz pushed for Sydney Pollack, another client, to direct despite the animosity between the two men, and then shoehorned Bill Murray into the cast at the last minute.

The agency were able to position themselves as a purveyor of through-the-line talent, able to put together directors, producers, lead roles and small supports all under one roof.

The package CAA put together for Jurassic Park in 1992 included a piece of the action on any by-products created off the back of the movie. The movie itself did very well, but Jurassic Park was a real winner because of the sheer breadth of the franchise spin-off package. CAA got paid every step of the way.

6. Know when you’re a principal and when you’re not

Michael Ovitz was the trailblazer who shocked Hollywood in the 80s and 90s by expanding into investment banking and advertising. Quoted from a recent article on arch rivals WME’s entry into other sectors, Ovitz says;

“I had a slogan I used: ‘No conflict, no interest.’ We were constantly getting the back of our hand slapped with a ruler and told, ‘Hey, you can’t be a principal. You can’t produce commercials.’ But we did. We got around it. I don’t believe that today’s environment is hostile to that. Creating jobs is all anyone cares about.”

Conversely, CAA’s long-time head of music Tom Ross recalls an incident when he was in rehab for weight loss and met a famous rock star. Ross knew his job wasn’t to be the principal, it was to be their representative and by default be at least one step back in the shadows.

Tom Ross: “I was there a month, and one day I ran into Steven Tyler, who was there for drug rehab and sexual addiction. They arranged for us to spend an afternoon together and Steven said to me ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this. I just can’t imagine going to a gig and not getting laid or not getting a few blow jobs.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Try being an agent for a few years. You get used to it.’”

Agent Paula Wagner realised that the role of the agent was to be the representative of the principal, not the principal themselves. She left CAA to become a principal — in this case Tom Cruise’s movie production partner.

Trying to become the principal when not it’s the part you were originally supposed to play can be dangerous territory — although in recent times the boundaries have become far more fluid.

It’s going to be interested to see the progress of WME’s moves into new spaces.

7. The power of 3

A group known as the Young Turks made moves to take over the running of CAA in the mid 90s. There were 5 in the group, but 3 of them stood out as the leaders and are still at the top of the company to this day.

There’s a lot to be said for the power of a tribe, and also for the power of a trinity. In the Young Turks’ case the trio at the centre started a tribe that was able to change the culture of the business and quickly build a power base.

They did it through the combination of Byran Lourd’s charm, Richard Lovett’s ego and relentless nature, plus Kevin Huvane simply being a great agent. A trio with this blend of skills is not an uncommon sight at successful companies, particularly those in the creative industries.

And with the Young Turks having been together for over 20 years, CAA co-founder Bill Haber’s words also ring true;

“In any business on earth — I always say to people — nobody will leave you for the money, and nobody will leave you over titles. People will only leave if they have no loyalty to you.”

How one club night became the turning point for my business

In February 2009 I left a promising career in advertising to build a music company.

My vision, albeit partially formed, was to offer a new way of serving exciting independent artists by simultaneously growing their prowess and profile across touring, promotion and publishing.

We’d do business in unconventional ways, use technology wherever we could, and be guided by our moral compass in an industry that has a reputation for its cut-throat nature. A sense of opportunity collided with youthful exuberance, naivety and a dash of idealism.

And so I swapped sleek studio space in the front end of Clerkenwell for a cold cluttered cupboard in the back end of Shoreditch. Reality hit pretty quickly.

  • The office was dank and uninspiring.
  • The toilets had the aura of a B-list horror movie set.
  • Our kettle was the very cheapest that Argos had in stock and needed a piece of cutlery levered under the switch in order to function.
  • The entertainment budget for a prospective client stretched to a couple of pints of average quality lager and possibly a Turkish takeaway.
  • We had no senior staff with their black book of contacts and tricks of the trade.
  • None of our team had operated in their role before and were all learning on the fly.
  • Hardly any of the main festival promoters would return our calls or emails.
  • Investors wouldn’t touch us (“you mean none of your clients have signed contracts?”).
  • The heating didn’t work, except in summer.

I was running the place, frantically trying to lay down enough track ahead of us to stop the train crashing into the side of the mountain.

Along the way we lost pitches, clients, staff, focus and VAT returns.

To quote Ben Horowitz, I was deep in the struggle.

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

But despite the pain the company was alive, and despite all the setbacks were we still just about winning more than we were losing.

One Friday night in early 2011, something changed.

On face value it wasn’t much, just another date in the diary for some of the acts we represented. For me, however, it represented something far more.

One of the venues we’d worked most closely with since the very beginning of our burgeoning business had booked 17 of our artists to play across the venue on the same night.

We represented almost the entire lineup.

We’d never had anything like it happen before.

This venue had built a long-standing reputation for quality — whether it was the booming sound system, striking graphic design or talent programming that seamlessly blended big names with newcomers. It was great to have any client booked there, let alone 17 of them.

But that night it wasn’t about which of our agents had booked the acts. It wasn’t about the revenue it generated for our clients or us either (as much as we needed it at that point).

It was about the team who ran this venue recognising there was something about us and the talent we’d aimed to represent, nurture and develop, often from the very ground floor of their careers.

In my mind, this seemingly trivial milestone validated everything we’d been doing up to that point and helped pushed me on to keep going when we were deep in the struggle.

A few years later and I’d managed to make a successful exit, with our alumni moving on to hold key roles at some of the industry’s leading companies. I now think often of that tough period — what I did wrong, how I would deal with it now, and what helped me get through it at the time.


This Friday night, fabric opens its doors again after what must be the biggest struggle in its 18 year history.

Just like many others I’m very pleased to see its return.

Without it a whole cohort of creators, entrepreneurs, collectives and organisations may not have kept persevering through the struggle, or even have got started at all.

Could you take a bite out of your own business?

Becoming the cannibal

Sketch 3. Image: Cult of Mac

Earlier this week an article by Marc Hemeon of Design Inc. popped up on my feed.

It’s a quick guide to putting together a logo in 5 minutes, without hiring a designer.

Design Inc. is a marketplace for hiring high quality designers.

Does this sound a little counter-intuitive?

The comments below the line range from gratitude and excitement to bemusement to admonishment.

As you may guess, the latter mainly comes from people in the design community.

https://journal.designinc.com/how-to-make-a-logo-for-free-in-about-5-minutes-a4f409176a8e#.u10qcce4h

This very handy piece of content marketing is great for entrepreneurs wanting to get add some design credibility to an early-stage idea, but when it comes to creating and developing a true brand identity it takes much more than 5 minutes and a blog post. Hemeon makes this clear in the first two paragraphs but it appears it didn’t land with some of the outraged.

I don’t believe that guides like this are damaging to the design industry, but the article did get me thinking about the concept of cannibalising parts of your own business.

I take the view that this does two things;
– Empowers others to do something they couldn’t before, and better understand the expertise of the professional practitioner
– Pushes the professional practitioners to develop their offering and expertise

Cannibalisation is connected to disruptive innovation, described by Clay Christensen as follows:

As companies tend to innovate faster than their customers’ needs evolve, most organizations eventually end up producing products or services that are actually too sophisticated, too expensive, and too complicated for many customers in their market.

Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market, companies will achieve the greatest profitability.

However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations” at the bottom of the market. An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.

Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include: lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics. Because these lower tiers of the market offer lower gross margins, they are unattractive to other firms moving upward in the market, creating space at the bottom of the market for new disruptive competitors to emerge.

An example of this is Sketch disrupting Photoshop in the design software market. Marc Hemeon’s article adds a taste of cannibalisation — he’s inviting disruption to come and eat a bit of his own business.


Cannibalising your own business often means you should find ways you can be better.

Design as a practice is very unlikely to be eaten whole by technology and open source methodologies. However, quick-step guides like Hemeon’s indicate that designers should continue to take the harder route to avoid commoditisation.

They should be considered a true partner and advisor as well as a maker, being in the position to deliver holistic and creative solutions to their clients’ business challenges.

Sometimes we have to cannibalise parts of our own business to become better and be more valuable to our clients and customers.

Could you cannibalise a part of your own business to become better in the long term?

Depression in the music industry: Here’s one thing no one is talking about

Image: Ted Ed

In the last couple of years many of us have started to become more aware of our mental wellbeing. Meditation apps have millions of users; travel providers offer relaxation holiday retreats; schools, workplaces and even prisons are introducing programs to help develop mindfulness.

Awareness has led to talking about mental health more openly, particularly in the workplace. An increasingly open dialogue should be welcomed in the music industry as much as anywhere.

Over the past year a number of new initiatives and media pieces have helped increase awareness of mental health issues for musicians.

Most recently, in late July The Guardian newspaper interviewed several big-name dance acts about the challenges of their touring lifestyle.

A mainstream media platform giving space to this is certainly a positive thing, but strangely and somewhat sadly the majority of the 300+ comments below the line ignored the main issue being highlighted and instead focused on arguing the merits of electronic musicians as real artists.

There are two omissions from the article that would make for a more balanced and compelling argument, and by extension lessen audience focus on whether decks or drums are more legit.

The first is to feature viewpoints from a more diverse range of artists, and the second is to broaden the conversation to those working across all areas of the industry.


As with music, media is becoming a headliners’ market and the big names are what get media platforms the clicks they crave, but The Guardian not featuring the opinions of those in other areas of the scene feels like a sorely missed opportunity.

Steve Aoki. Photograph: Ross Gilmore

The touring schedules of the likes of Above & Beyond and Steve Aoki are no doubt heavy and intense, but the majority of artists travel in a less salubrious manner. For every DJ with a tour manager, private jet and a reservation at a Michelin star restaurant, there are hundreds more flying solo on Easyjet or Ryanair every weekend and making do with a hotel room club sandwich.

Viewing things through the eyes of these artists may improve getting the message across because their situation is far more relatable. Most of us have probably felt some pang of desperation while fighting fatigue waiting for a delayed flight home from a barren airport.


More broadly, it’s to be applauded that as well as artist support there are now mental wellbeing initiatives for fans with the likes of Calm Zones being rolled out.

However, no one seems to be talking about depression amongst those working in the industry away from the artist side. It’s a growing issue and one that should have a public platform; not just for the dance music scene but the music industry as a whole.

The issues surrounding those working as executives and service providers in the music industry differ from those affecting artists, but I would argue they are no less dangerous.

The risk of depression can loom largest for the service providers operating at the front line, representing the creative and mercurial; their roles can include strategist, hustler, debt collector, confidant, investor, therapist and a whole lot more. Sometimes they are part of a larger organisation, but often these are individuals or collectives trying to operate and grow a company as well as deliver for their clients.

All this in an industry that is highly competitive, mainly unregulated, rarely measured on meritocracy, often insular, and struggling to find solutions against wave after wave of disruption.

The perceived wisdom for moments of uncertainty and anxiety seems to be to either front up aggressively or hunker down and ignore.

Neither of these positions are effective in the long-term, and many in the industry suffer from status anxiety, if not something more serious.

‘Status Anxiety’ by Alain de Botton.

There are such a range of evolving skills, strengths and sensitivities needed by the modern music industry executive that even the very best are going to stumble from time to time, let alone the rest of us.


I wrote about the need for music industry mentors in this piece.

Alongside mentors, I suggest three more actions to help combat depression in the music business:

  • Professional coaching: How do you deal with a client who has depression? An artist having a manager is one thing; having a manager who is trained to deal with these issues is quite another. Knowing how a publishing contract works isn’t going to help when your client is threatening to self-harm in a hotel room on the other side of the world. There’s a great opportunity for quality executive coaches to help those in the music business.
  • Round tables and music mindfulness: A few conference panels have talked about depression, but they don’t feel like the best forum for such personal matters. Smaller, private groups where mindfulness and open discussion are encouraged would be a good step.
  • Artist awareness: A lot of the pressure for those working in the business comes from their clients. They may not mean it or even be aware of it, but why not find ways to increase artist awareness of the pressures their teams have to deal with on a day to day basis, in a way that builds genuine collaboration and empathy?

Depression is a real issue.

It’s positive that the importance of mental health for artists is being recognised.

It’s also crucially important not to forget all the tour managers, agents, managers, promoters, PRs and others who are taking care of business away from the spotlight.


thanks to Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for reading drafts of this article.

Observations from the airport

4 simple innovation ideas for Europe’s emerging airports

Luton Airport train station (image via Wikipedia)

A good entry point for exploring startup ideas is to look at what people are complaining about. Social networks are often a good place to begin.

Whilst it’s worth bearing in mind that social media can amplify opinions to such a degree that distortion kicks in, platforms such as Twitter are particularly fertile grounds for discovering gripes.

At the time of writing it’s the busiest time of the year for European travel, and despite post-Brexit currency woes the UK’s airports are still full with sun-seeking families, exuberant stag & hen parties, stoic business travelers and black t-shirted DJs.

The summer season opens up a new world of possibility and opportunity, with open air venues across the continent limbering up in June before a few months of intense activity until they wind down in late September.

Destinations that were until very recently almost completely unknown have become summer hotspots, their airports funnelling thousands of expectant revellers from across Europe and beyond. For UK citizens, many of these emerging destinations are served by budget airlines operating from airports in cities’ outer orbits.

Browsing Facebook last week, a number of status updates from various DJs appeared in my feed. What grabbed my attention above the usual photo mix of festival crowds, gratuitous selfies and late-night phone footage was the ire directed at one particular UK airport; Luton.

This wasn’t surprising — I traveled to Lisbon from Luton recently and the experience was less than pleasant. There were the slow and laborious transfers from train station to terminal; a lack of signposting for everything from taxis and buses to car rental and check-in; and the brutalist, unwelcoming main terminal building with very little character and few places to sit.

In fairness, building works were underway when I visited. Here’s hoping improvements will be made, but there are nonetheless many areas for improvement, and thus opportunity.

Here are a few simple airport innovation ideas for incumbent operators, audacious startups or even frustrated DJs.

Pre-pay restaurants

After a couple hours of travel to the airport following an early start, sustenance is a priority. It’s also a serious revenue stream for airports and its concession restaurants.

The service at the restaurant we visited was passable — it was Saturday morning and brunch business was booming, so naturally the staff were going to be a little stretched. The main frustration came from a short-notice gate call combined with delays on being brought the bill, paying, and departing. The upshot was a rushed meal, leftover food, a rush to the gate, and a poor experience.

Why not select and pay for your pre-flight meal on the way to the airport? A simple app with payment gateway, the day’s menu, and option to eat-in or takeaway would remove a lot of friction for customers and staff alike.

Independent, healthy food options

Green juice and vegan food is no longer the preserve of hippies and hipsters. People are more discerning than ever about what they eat, where it comes from, and how it affects their health.

Most airports still offer a restaurant range that veers from junk food to gastropub, with the healthier options tending to be provided by international chains who are often part-owned by said junk food purveyors.


Grain Store have recently opened at Gatwick — this felt like a breath of fresh air but it’s not enough. Could airports tap into the pop-up trend run so successfully by the likes of Street Feast — enabling independent traders to sell good quality, healthy food?

End to end rental car bookings

BMW’s DriveNow initiative is a good innovation in this field in larger cities, and there are of course the likes of Uber, Lyft and Hailo operating in the private driver market. However, for a lot of more remote summer destinations a self-drive hire car is a must. The big players do a reasonable job but the process still seems to be unnecessarily manual, frustrating and slow.

An end to end mobile solution to book a hire car at the airport would remove a lot of headaches, especially for a tired young family arriving off a delayed evening flight to be greeted by a huge queue for car pickup at the understaffed Hertz, Europecar or Avis stand.

Silvercar are doing this well in the US with their fleet of Audi A4’s— a European equivalent could make a big impact.

Recyclables

Let’s be honest, air travel isn’t the most environmentally-friendly way of getting around. It’s therefore bordering on the ridiculous that many airports and their partners are still providing cups that are not recyclable, nor anywhere near enough recycling bins. It may not offset the damage done from the runways, but there’s no excuse for allowing this much unnecessary waste.

Airports should be embracing green initiatives more than anyone — there are plenty of cost-effective solutions to serve drinks to customers in a sustainable way. FrugalPac is one.

Air travel is one of the true phenomenons of the modern age. It feels strange that many airports may be getting left behind in the service stakes, with the destination becoming increasingly more enjoyable than the journey.


Do you know about startups already covering these areas? Or airports doing a great job of customer service? Let me know in the comments below.

Overwhelmed by startups? There’s a spreadsheet for that

Clippy in the house with Jeff and Bill. He probably didn’t help Excel’s net promoter score. Image via The Atlantic.

In 2011, The prominent Silicon Valley investor and inventor of the Netscape internet browser Marc Andreessen said that ‘software is eating the world’.

Over the past five years, this quote has appeared with increased frequency across the technology media landscape and beyond. From nervous CEOs at startup-threatened incumbent businesses, to the founders of disruptive SaaS ventures and intrigued industry observers, the exponential growth in software to solve all sorts of consumer and business problems does not look likely to slow any time in the near future.

Andreessen’s assertion is one I would certainly agree with.

On a personal level, the number of software solutions I have on my mini super-computer (aka my iPhone) is in the dozens. Within our business, we regularly receive requests for product management expertise to help develop and release bespoke specialist software for our client’s businesses, and are just about to kick-off a substantial project in this realm.

Additionally, we have been approached by clients and prospects both within our sectors of interest and also from further afield for advice, introductions and installations relating to the seemingly endless ocean of software options that are now available for businesses.

In fact, what was initially a tertiary service offering has become central to many of our engagements. Clients are looking for guidance on procurement, installation, user on-boarding, and also the longer term sustainability of technology solutions across almost every aspect of their operations.

Where previously there may have been a single or low double digit number of enterprise software packages available to solve a particular problem (or many problems at once), there are now tens or even hundreds or options on the market — from the narrowest niche to the fullest of stacks.


This presents a number of challenges for a consultancy advising clients on software procurement. We have to be on top of everything to compatibility, pricing and feature sets, through to the provider’s track record, chances of sustainability and product roadmap.

Additionally, the breadth of business areas that software can help automate means our role has broadened from the obvious areas of accounting, productivity and sales pipelines through to insurance, employee happiness, office supplies and hiring of partners, to name just a few.

This is a particular challenge for consultancies working primarily with SMEs, as we do. When working with a larger corporation, the remit for assistance and advice on software procurement is likely to be narrowed to a department or business function by either the client, the consultancy or both, thus focusing the requirement into a more discrete area. However, for the consultancy advising smaller independent clients, a wider lens is needed.

Curation platforms like Product Hunt are very useful tools in our armoury, but understandably they have often have limitations on the depth of information they provide about each service.


One tool we revisit again and again reminds us of, somewhat ironically, a guidance point from Paul Graham and others around coming up with ideas for startups.

One of the first things to find out when looking to launch a new startup is what prospective customers’ existing solutions are.

More than one founder in history has come a cropper because they didn’t realise their customers’ existing solution was good enough, and that the new offering was not better enough to make users switch.

Examples of existing solutions range from a SaaS tool with a few miles on the clock, to a pen and paper, a bricks and mortar shop, and, of course, a spreadsheet.

Visicalc, released in 1979

The computer spreadsheet has been around since 1979, and for many decades before that in non-digital forms. The package that launched the spreadsheet into the homes of millions was Microsoft’s Excel, first released in 1985.

(NB: Interestingly, despite the rise of various alternatives in recent years, alongside machinations that Microsoft is somewhat old hat, ‘Excel’ is still ubiqituous both as a software package and as an interchangeable term with ‘spreadsheet’. The question is whether it will go the way of the Walkman, and to a lesser extent Hoover.)

Fast-forward 30+ years and the spreadsheet is still a first port of call for us when ascertaining how to best solve our clients’ challenges. We’re as passionate as anyone about novel and nimble new software startups but often find that a spreadsheet can at least help model and point us towards the right solution, if not be the solution itself.

Although several of our more creatively-led clients can have a fairly strong aversion to spreadsheets, we work hard on developing and customising options that can be genuinely impactful to their business without unnecessarily dulling their creativity or increasing the time they spend on data-led tasks.

Our weapon of choice is Google Sheets, and the range of increasingly powerful add-ons that are being released on a daily basis (and yes, these add-ons are almost mini startups in their own right). These add-ons combined with the powerful built-in functionality of spreadsheet packages, portability, ease of sharing, and the ongoing overlap with technology resources such as StackOverflow make the spreadsheet a key part of the modern consultant’s toolkit.

Zapier’s Add-Ons directory is full of useful new functionality for Google Sheets

Often we will first test a hypothesis or a feature within a spreadsheet — this can be thought of as a very rough MVP to ensure we’re building something the clients wants.

The final solution may well end up being a software solution from a 3rd party vendor, but the spreadsheet has often proved invaluable and we have several of robust grid-driven solutions currently running live to make our clients more productive, efficient, and profitable. Some of these are deliberately built for the short-term, some are mid-term and some have been effectively solving problems for much longer — it all depends on the client’s needs.

So the next time you hear that ‘there’s a startup for that’, there’s may just be a spreadsheet solution too.

If you want to discuss a challenge you have around software procurement, operations, commercial strategy, growth or talent development, head over to www.hbureau.com

The rise of the remixer


Why remixing is going to become more and more important in the future of content and creativity.

Remixing has been around for a while now, but it’s still somewhat under-appreciated both as an art form and commercial tool.

Music remixing started with the musique concrete era in 1930s France merging sounds from different sources to create new pieces of music.

The dancehall culture of Jamaica in the early 1970s was where the likes of King Tubby created stripped-down instrumental versions of reggae songs, later layering effects and vocal hooks over the top of the raw elements of the tracks.

Disco and hip hop DJs in late 70s New York took the concept of the remix to a broader audience, before the electronic pop bands of the 80s created the “extended mix” for nightclub dancefloors.

Early house music producers then began lifting out the vocals from pop and r&b songs and layering them back over their own instrumental tracks. Before long, entire pieces of music were being created purely from samples and snippets of other works.

Fast forward to the modern era and the remix has become an accepted, although at times controversial, part of popular culture — not just in music but a variety of mediums. Art, media, design and even technologies have all been remixed, re-edited and re-contextualised. If you look around, you’ll see remixes in all sorts of places.

The remix is also a proven way for creatives to launch and propel their careers, spring-boarding from a platform provided by more recognised content and creators. Profile and exposure through remixing is now a key tool in the armoury of the modern talent manager, record label exec and development studio.


In today’s rapidly evolving content business, the remix appears to be more powerful and prevalent than ever.

Kevin Kelly’s piece in the July 2016 edition of Wired magazine illustrates this through the lens of Hollywood in particular.

Cheap and universal creation tools are making it easier to create content of all kinds. The conventions around barriers to entry are fast falling away, i.e. it’s easier to watch a movie than to produce one, or to read a book than write one.

The total number of hours of content outputted from Hollywood is about 1200 each year. Over 24,000 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every hour.

Of course, the quality of all this deep-lying content online is variable, but a common theme is remixing. Lyric videos for your favourite music artist; comedic dubbing of a classic movie scene; or subtle takes on advertising that are twisted and turned by politics, medium, and cultures.

Mike Diva’s Donald Trump video is an interesting example of the latter. This was sent to me via What’s App by a friend, and with two motions of my index finger I was watching a unique piece of art, entertainment and subversive political commentary that would never have come from a traditional content creation studio. And it was without doubt a remix.

Kelly references the economist Paul Romer who says that real sustainable economic growth doesn’t stem from new resources, but from existing ones that are rearranged to make them more valuable.

The opposite may be the case if these existing resources are not re-arranged in improved, evolved or transformative ways. There are clear legal and ethical issues here — what constitutes a version of something that adds additional value, what is just a copy, and who claims ownership (and revenues) on what? There’s no hard and fast answer, but there’s little doubt that valuable creations of today will evolve into something different tomorrow.

A service that is already proving pretty valuable is Musical.ly. For those who don’t know, Musica.ly is a social network with a powerful tool to make music-infused videos to share on the platform, save or share between friends. Users are effectively creating their own remixes on the fly. And it’s big; the app has gone from around 500 downloads a day in April 2015 to 80m registered users today.

We’ll see the remixer continue to rise in importance in the coming years; hackers, writers, visual artists, musicians and others are going to be behind some of the most compelling and valuable creations we’ll engage with. And to be a renowned ‘remixee’, one of the creators whose works have been remixed the most, will be of greater prestige than ever

Three of the main challenges I see for those in the business of content (and entertainment particularly) are:

  • Sourcing new remixer talent from divergent fields
  • Finding the right ways to distribute remixed creations to audiences
  • Ensuring these new creations deliver real value

And as for this article? It’s a remix too…

Note-taking, creativity and 80s action movies

I have a fondness for mid-late 1980s action movies.

Nothing particularly unusual there for a person of my vintage, except I seem to have a strange ability to recall relatively trivial and obscure details.

The character names of the first 3 marines who get killed in Aliens; the career path of the actor who plays crazy computer hacker Theo in the first Die Hard; the location of the parking lot where Doc and Marty test the DeLorean in Back to the Future…and much, much more.

Yep, I’m the life and soul of the party.

One of my favourite characters from the period features in the (rightfully) much-maligned Crocodile Dundee 2.

He is, of course, Leroy Brown.

Leroy Brown and Mick Dundee.

Leroy is trying to live up to his name of being a bad guy on the streets of late 1980s New York, despite being a humble stationery salesman who happens to have a better than average Rolodex.

He’s Mick Dundee’s connector, facilitator and enabler — hooking him up with the right gang leaders to know, creating distractions to get him out of sticky situations and generally being a man about town, all whilst rocking a leather flat cap, wraparound sunglasses and a purchase order for office supplies.

Leroy is the kind of guy I want to be around; not just for his fashion sense and links into questionable groups of NYC punks, but for his passion for stationery.

Stationery is one of the best paths to improved memory and creativity. Here’s why.


The joy of stationery

Technology now enables us to compile and sort ideas and information on the fly in all sorts of ways (Evernote, Apple Notes, Instagram, Trello are just four — there are literally hundreds of applications out there to help with this).

I use a bunch of software apps to help make lists and scribble down thoughts, but recently I’ve been returning to pen and paper.

My handwriting is still terrible, but going back to basics has helped improve my creativity, memory and ability to connect ideas and concepts.

It also prevents tapping away on a phone or laptop during a meeting, which most people find rude, even if you are taking notes about what’s being discussed.

My method is to take notes on paper, then either write them up into Apple Notes, before re-distributing them where they may be best utilised (a to-do list, new client database, a subject to research via a web browser, etc.), or put them up on the wall.

This may seem like duplicating work but my memory for the notes I make has improved significantly and links between things seem to appear more easily and in new ways.

I try to re-read my notes as much as I can, dipping back into notes from 3, 6, 12, even 24 months previously to see in which directions new associations, thoughts and implications may take me.

Two of my recent and exciting projects have stemmed from a couple of scratchy notes and drawings I made over a year ago, that only now have I been able to turn into fully formed ideas.


Note-taking for idea discovery

Steven Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ is a great read for understanding patterns of innovation and the ways in which we can develop better ideas and creativity.

In the chapter ‘The Slow Hunch’, Johnson explores the stories behind some of Charles Darwin’s greatest discoveries, and the benefits of note-taking to help with the process.

None of Darwin’s major discoveries came about as sudden epiphanies or breakthroughs. They were nearly all a number of smaller hunches that collided, conjoined, crept up in stealth mode, or faded into view slowly.

To keep these slow hunches alive, Darwin regularly re-read and referred back to his many pages of notes and drawings over long periods of time. This process saw new ideas and implications emerge, with Darwin’s famous finches only becoming a fully realised concept nearly 2 years after the pieces of the puzzle started to come together in his notes from the Galapagos.

Without making notes, re-reading them and making associations between seemingly disparate concepts and ideas, Darwin’s discovery of one of natural science’s most important concepts may have never come to be.

Darwin’s finches or Galapagos finches. Darwin, 1845.

Stationery Selection

Ideas, concepts and hunches take many forms. It helps to have a mix of tools to write them down and develop them in different ways.

I recommend having 3 different sizes of notebook and a few different colours and types of pen.

If you want to take this a step further, you want to go down the route of legendary adman Paul Arden. A couple of his techniques include using watercolours or very soft pencils on occasions when the creativity process is more difficult than usual. That way you can’t focus on details, only on broad strokes and sketches.

Here’s my current stationery setup:

  • A4 lined ring binder style, with a few colours of Sharpie. This is for sitting in the park, hotel lobby or a coffee shop and I’m thinking about bigger ideas, letting the mind wander, or planning out longer periods of time.
  • A5 lined, with a biro and a fine line. Most business meetings where I may take 5–10 lines of notes that can be quickly written up and actioned
  • A6 graph paper, with a biro and a pencil. Great for sketching, diagrams, charts, and quick notes when on the move. Graph paper is especially useful when, like me, you can’t get close to drawing straight lines.

My current stationery selection (yes, I lifted a pencil from Ikea)

It’s also worth investing in a decent range of stationery if you’re involved in any kind of project or product development.

Masking tape, various colours of sticky notes, index cards and some colourful fine-liner pens will stand you in good stead to set up a really tactile and memorable agile board.

And for wireframes and even functioning product prototypes you can transform your sketches to digital using tools like the Prototyping on Paper app, before creating something more refined.

Technology continues to amaze me on a daily basis and has made so many tasks better, easier or simply redundant, but I recommend everyone gets themselves a nice line of stationery and take more notes.

It’ll also give you more clarity, help improve your memory, and maybe pull together some of those slow hunches that give the breakthrough you’ve been looking for.


Want more? A collection of productivity tools and resources can be found at my latest side project, Operator’s Handbook.

10 years later: mind the gaps in the live music sector

This summer marks my 10th anniversary living in London. A lot’s happened in the past decade, but it’s not hard for me to remember some of the highlights of my first year in the big city.

I was living in South London, and whilst I worked in Soho I found myself gravitating to East London and the Shoreditch district in particular.

One of the best spots was Hearn Street arches and the adjacent car park, where the likes of mulletover would put on some of the best European deep house and techno around.

Hearn Street car park

The building next door to these part-time party venues would later be home to my first startup’s first office. In that scrappy-looking block were old-school Cockney furriers (led by a chap we knew only as John The Mink), a dance school, designers and a whole bunch of other eclectic and unlikely tenants.

Incidentally, less than 5 years after we moved out, the entire block has been flattened to make way for 40+ storeys of chrome and glass, presumably for the City to creep further into the Shoreditch district. John The Mink is nowhere to be seen.


The place I remember most fondly from that first summer was in the Tea Building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. Back then there was no Boxpark, no overground train station, and definitely no Pret. Sitting within the Tea Building was the simply named T Bar.

Time for Tea

It had a simple concept; plenty of space, minimal lighting and decor, a well-stocked bar, Funktion One soundsystem, and some of the world’s best house, techno and disco DJs, 3 or 4 evenings a week from 7pm. For free.

Sure, it had its downsides; drinks were on the pricey side (although the fact it got slated for £5 for wine and £8 for cocktails shows how expensive London has become); there were a fair few of the less endearing Shoreditch stereotypes in there when bigger names were booked to play; and the place got pretty hot when it was full.

But when you’re getting to hear the likes of Michael Mayer, Audion, Loco Dice and James Jones play on a great soundsystem with no door charge, no advance tickets, just after work on a Thursday (or even Monday) evening…

T Bar also put a bunch of relatively unknown but excellent DJs in the driving seat for the full Friday and Saturday nights; Boris Horel & Greg Sonata’s Foreign Muck party was one of my favourites.

Unfortunately, it was all over in 2008, and despite a short-lived return to a venue nearby, T Bar is now something of the past. The venue is now a pizza restaurant.


10 Years Later…

Remembering my experiences around East London during this period, and at T Bar in particular, really brings home the current situation in the city with the lack of suitable space and the possible opportunities to reach new, underserved and broader audiences.

Space & Opportunity

Like many inner city areas and scenes, things are cyclical in their nature and places comes and go, but Shoreditch had many more music venues when I was first exploring the area than are operating there now. The physical spaces available for music & broader culture feel like they’re being hoovered up by other sectors more quickly than ever.

Alan Miller, the chairman of the Nighttime Industries Association, posted this piece on The Guardian earlier this week.

According to Miller, the number of nightclubs in the UK has plummeted from 3,144 to 1,733 in the last decade. The article and the comments that follow it both point to the stark differences in culture and approach in European cities like Amsterdam and Berlin vs London.

It’s concerning that cultural venues are being pushed out of areas like Shoreditch, and actually out of wider boroughs as well (well-respected Dalston venue Dance Tunnel is closing in August due to licensing regulations)

Dance Tunnel, situated underneath Voodoo Ray’s pizza shop

As a step to help prevent more of these closures, the Night Time Industries Association are currently running a year-long campaign called Night Life Matters, more info here.


A couple of weeks ago I stumbled across a document released by the Mayor of London’s office, entitled ‘London’s Grassroots Music Venues Rescue Plan

The document has been around for 6 months as far as I can see, and no one I’ve spoken with has heard of it before.

It feels like a good step for the Mayor’s office to be taking, but the level of wider public awareness and distribution around this and what it stands for seem to be sorely lacking.

Music venues and particularly nightclubs often get unfairly siloed as havens of crime and something almost unsightly in a 21st century city landscape.

With music becoming part of a wider bundle of content that makes up consumers’ wider leisure and entertainment activities, it feels like it’s well overdue to lose some of that stigma.

London could do this by learning from Amsterdam and Berlin’s approaches (the idea of a night mayor would be a good start), consider innovating on the conventional models, and embrace night life as both a key component and driver of how people choose to spend their valuable leisure time.

A space such as Amsterdam’s De School (from the creators of the legendary Trouw club) feels like a great blueprint for what the next generation of multi-use music, arts and work spaces will look like.


Money on the Table

Relating to the challenges that night time venues are facing, I’ve been thinking about the amount of money being left on the table by the music industry and also how better serving other markets and audiences may help solve some of stigma challenges I mention.

We all know music consumption and revenue streams have shifted immensely in the last few years, and I won’t dwell on the reasons for that, it’s been done to death. The only thing I’ll say on it is that the industry needs to shift its focus from complaining about Spotify…

Despite all these changes, there seems to be a lack of innovation and change in the live sector as to how events can be delivered.

Such are the effects of time, I am no longer 22 years old as I was in 2006. I’ve grown up (for better and for worse), and I prefer channelling my leisure time into early mornings, breakfasts with friends, reading…and watching an entire season of The Walking Dead in one sitting.


Going out to catch electronic artists play shows at 4am doesn’t really fit my lifestyle any more. To be honest, it never really did…hence my love for T Bar.

So why is the convention to put on shows (electronic music in particular) on at times when you surely can’t reach the optimal number of fans?

The concept that most attendees want to drink and do drugs (and thus more likely to want to go out all night?) holds weight to an extent, but I don’t think it’s a solid enough argument, particularly with the ongoing blurring of the lines between different genres.

Simply, within significant portions of the live music sector there is an excess demand that is underserved.

In addition to VR experiences (the subject of a future article), this could be addressed in a couple of ways;

  1. Change/extend/duplicate performance times
  2. Better serve demand through improved / more tailored experiences


3 simple examples come to mind that I’ve experienced recently.

  1. Filling time-based demand

An electronic artist played a London show on a cold winter Saturday night, stage time around 3am.

I had plans for Sunday morning and didn’t want to get home at 6/7am, so I didn’t buy a ticket and thus didn’t go. I don’t see how anyone wins in this situation.

The artist could have played either an unannounced or very tightly segmented show earlier in the night.

Or to help mend the stigma I mention above (and broaden revenue streams), why not package food and drink together more closely?

Brilliant Corners is a great little venue in Dalston where you can eat some great food, have a few drinks, and hear underrated gems of DJs like Jonny Rock (who incidentally also played at T Bar a lot) play records on a superb sound system. Yeah it’s not Fabric, but the model is sound.

https://soundcloud.com/jonnyrock/its-just-brilliant-brilliant-corners-part-2-on-15-april-2016

For further reading on this subject, Cortney Harding explores related matters here, and this recent Guardian article explores a seemingly growing trend around young people shunning the traditional clubbing experience in favour of other activities.


2. Service level and transparency

A disabled friend had tickets to a show at a large London venue last week; when checking ticket collection options and the stage time of the headliner (my friend’s disability means she can’t stand or sit in one place for more than an hour or so, and didn’t want to miss the main event), the venue didn’t answer their phone, and it took 20 minutes of searching for me to find out who the promoter was.

Upon calling them, no one in their office knew if they were even promoting the gig, and there was no information on the artist’s website other than the venue name and opening time.

I can’t see why the service here is so opaque — this one fan loved the superb artist she got to see but the rest of the experience left a lot to be desired.

Will she go back? I’m not sure.

A couple of ways of improving this area include new ways of dealing with customer service (chat-bots for simple enquiries?), and more visibility of who is promoting shows and what they stand for; promoters can also be excellent curators after all.


3. Baby boomers

Despite marketers focusing intensely on Generation Z & Millennials (don’t get me started on this…), I feel lines are being blurred between demographics and their behaviours, and herein lies opportunity.

An example of this opportunity is Field Day’s extension to 2 days. Through smart programming they now attract a broader range of customers without diluting their core values.

Parquet Courts — playing this year’s Field Day festival in London. Dad and I will be in attendance.

A case in point is that my parents will be going to the festival with my brother and I on the Sunday.

This group (in my parents’ case aged 63 and 62, living an hour or so from a major city) hold around 70% of the population’s disposable income, are becoming more adventurous in the experiences they want to have, and are willing to pay for quality. Coachella’s new event Desert Trip is a signifier of this.

For a number of practical reasons my Dad is very unlikely to see bands on a midweek evening in London, but he will happily pay for a quality festival experience with a range of both new, established and heritage artists. He’s become a fan of several artists from last year’s event and has spent money on their music since.

The balance in appealing to a range of markets like this is not easy (and certainly not suitable not for all promoters and events — not everyone wants to hang out with their parents of course), but in any case there are underserved audiences that the music industry could surely do better to serve.

The baby boomers with 25–35 year old children is an interesting segment to explore here.



I love London and part of what makes it so special is its diverse range of culture and creativity.

Music should be a key part of that.

I just hope that the spaces and places sustain, and that the industry does a better job of serving its audiences and communicating its value so an even broader range of people can enjoy great live music experiences.

None of this is easy and the answers are not simple, but just because the live sector is one of the industry’s strongest areas it doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for doing things better.

My Local – London

This article first appeared in book 1 of The Manifesto; ‘Local’ is a series of home town tips from music industry folk.


Brunch. Mess Cafe on Amhurst Road near Hackney Central. Great Saturday morning brunch for a fiver.

Coffee. The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, next door to York Hall. I have Spanish lessons here early on Tuesday mornings and the coffee is crucial for verb conjugations.

Lunch. The understated Chinese restaurant on Red Lion Street. The Singapore Laksa is the must-have.

Restaurant. Buen Ayre on Broadway Market is still the undisputed champion. The full parrilla is outrageous — blood sausage, fried cheese, peppers, sweetbreads, plus a couple of inch-thick steaks for good measure, all washed down with a few glasses of Malbec. The closest I can get in London to La Cabrera restaurant in Palermo, Buenos Aires.

Meeting. If the sun’s out, Gray’s Inn Fields, a small sanctuary sandwiched between Holborn and Theobold’s Road.

Books. I’m working my way through Michael Lewis’ catalogue at the moment, also I read a little Alain de Botton when my brain can handle it, plus midway through ‘London Fields’ by Martin Amis.

Pizza. Ciao Bella on Lamb’s Conduit Street is my pizza place of choice — the calzone is guaranteed to induce a food coma though, so go prepared.

Cocktail. Pisco Sour — my girlfriend loves them and I’ve been converted, so much so that the next long haul holiday has to got to be to Peru.

Beer. A pint of Windsor & Eton at the Gunmakers in Clerkenwell; light ale with a bit of citrus.

Local. Kuzu on Well Street in Hackney. Traditional Turkish ocakbasi, £7 for a bonanza of lamb beyti, salad, rice and bread — it’s become a ritual on Sunday evenings after a weekend away. It’s so good that my friend who is a food critic goes there by choice instead of the various posh establishments she can eat at for free.

Mobile Office. Top deck of the 38 bus.

Relax. Savasana.

Wander. Victoria Park. I still think it’s the best park in London.