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?

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.