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?

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

Where’s the mentoring in the music industry?


Career fuel, career angst and passing the torch

this article originally appeared in edition 3 of The Manifesto, a publication for the modern music business.

One of my favourite articles from the past eighteen months is a piece in the consistently excellent Fast Company magazine by Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Chairman and CEO of advertising agency Ogilvy One. Entitled ‘Here’s what you really need to get right about work’, Fetherstonhaugh shares his views on career trajectories and says that most people only think about the immediate next step, not a pathway.

Simply put, the article suggests careers can be split in 3 chapters of roughly 15 years apiece, with a different strategy needed for each.

The chapters are;

  • Taking on Career Fuel (Transportable Skills, Meaningful Experiences, and Enduring Relationships)
  • Pouring Gasoline on your strengths (finding your sweet spot, and setting high ambitions);
  • Passing the Torch (mentoring and staying fresh).

There’s also an introductory section around ‘Career Math(s)’ which emphasises the need to think of careers as marathons rather than sprints, and the need to ‘fuel up’ right from the off.

The world of advertising isn’t always the most nurturing of places for career development but this piece really hit the spot with me, and I’ve referred back to it numerous times. The ideas in these three chapters are simple and effective and also actionable. Rather like the best advertising in fact.

However, one thing that he proposes that I’d challenge is that the passing the torch should only happen in chapter three (i.e. after fifty years of age). The vantage point may be higher then, but I believe it can and should happen much earlier. One industry that would benefit enormously from more torch passing, mentoring and knowledge sharing of all kinds and at all stages is the music business.


Same as it ever was? Or worse?

So what happens if nothing changes? In an industry shifting and writhing as much as music is, I’d suggest that some or all of these things are likely to happen if development of executive talent stalls:

  • executive talent goes elsewhere
  • executive talent doesn’t fulfil their potential
  • artistic talent doesn’t thrive to their potential
  • deals within the industry decline
  • there is a ripple effect to wider creative industries

These are pretty dire consequences, but they are imminently possible if the business talent within music doesn’t thrive and help create a supportive and connected ecosystem.

The best way I can think of to prevent these consequences is through effective mentoring and the building of a virtuous circle where the next generation are guided by those that came before them.


Mentor mumbo jumbo

One definition of a mentor is this:

‘Mentorship is a personal developmental relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger, but have a certain area of expertise.’

The first rule of mentorship is to understand why you want one, and that probably means taking a step back and properly thinking about what you really want. This thought process will help you identify who the right mentors may be.

Be respectful of a mentor’s time. Their time is often their most valuable resource and should be respected as such — it’s something all of us only have a finite amount of, after all. Ironically, if you keep to time when meeting with a mentor and know when to bring the meeting to an end, they’re more likely to give you extra time.

When I’ve sought out mentors, I’ve learned to ask clear, tightly formed questions. It took me a while to learn this but I noticed the results I got improved dramatically.

If you’re emailing them be specific about why you’re getting in touch, why you think they may be a good fit for what you’re looking to achieve, then ask no more than three well-formed questions. Only expect a call or in-person meeting as a bonus if they have the time. This gives the mentor a chance to politely pass on one or all of your methods of request with neither party feeling aggrieved or uncomfortable.

A mentor relationship can come in many different forms. It could be conversations once a week in-person or once a year via email; someone you met once ten years ago, or the person you haven’t yet.

Make the preparatory steps first, and as the saying goes ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear’.

Mentoring myths

Let me dispel a few mentoring myths:

  • they have to be from your industry / area of expertise
  • they’re considerably older than you
  • you have one mentor, not many.

Myth 1 is sometimes the opposite of where a mentor should come from. This example from a friend sums it up:

“A few years ago I decided to reach out to my old thesis supervisor at University. We hadn’t talked really since I graduated. I remembered that he always pushed my analytical thinking and made me want to be better. So I just casually started the conversation. Since that time we meet whenever we are in the same city. we email every three months. And I always ask his opinion when I need that sort of critical eye.”

Regarding myth 2, mentorship is not necessarily about age or decades of experience. It’s important to put ego and fear to one side, and to be mindful.

I’ve been recently been getting advice from someone too young to get my cultural references but their guidance in a couple of specific areas I’m working in has been extremely valuable.

And as for the third myth, whilst having a huge number of people to call on occasionally for sage advice somewhat defeats the point, I have found that getting a broad number of ideas and perspectives both clarifies things and also brings up new questions to ask.

If you’re looking for mentors, they can come from almost anywhere — it’s more about being curious and discovering people who you find interesting and do work you admire.


My experiences then and now

Running my own company several years ago I looked for mentors, but coming into the business as a relative outsider I found it extremely difficult to identify these people. I was seeking a fellow entrepreneurial soul who had climbed up the ladder a few rungs further than me but my requests for advice were generally met with indifference or a tenacious PA who spurned my advances.

Through a bit of serendipity and looking in alternative places I struck up relationships with a couple of mentors outside the music business, but having an industry expert’s view to complement those other perspectives would have benefited me enormously.

In the middle of 2015 I made the decision to leave my role as a booking agent to explore my interests in other industries. As I sensed a career crossroads approaching I embarked on something of a discovery mission to help ascertain where my path would lead. The voyage of discovery comprised mainly of seeking out people in divergent fields to ask for advice and find out more about their career paths, challenges and forecasts on what’s going to happen next in their line of work.

Looking back on the approaches I made and notes I took from the meetings I had, there are a few ham-fisted early attempts (later remedied by the framing I mention earlier), plus some wildly differing opinions, a few bits of feedback that were cast-iron in their consistency, and several new doors opened.

Most importantly, my brain had to work harder — reaching out to someone smarter, more worldly, more experienced than you means going out of your comfort zone. This was pretty scary at first but has without doubt made me more open, confident and also mindful as a result.


Where the music industry is lacking

Running a small industry networking event and talking to lots of peers earlier this year, there was a strong sense that the music industry is lacking in the following key areas around mentoring and knowledge sharing;

  • influence from complementary and divergent industries
  • transparency, clarity and insight from those in a position of influence on what it takes to become a success (‘hard work’ is the party line, surely there is something a little more to it?)
  • knowledge gaps and also assets; an overly aggressive stance, or putting up the defences to avoid the perceived threat
  • support to those who are nearing the middle or end of the ‘Career Fuel’ stage (i.e. late twenties to mid thirties)

This is emphasised by a recent ‘brain drain’ among executives that has been highlighted in prominent industry publications. It seems this drain is most prevalent among people in their late twenties to mid thirties. To me it feels like the career equivalent of teen angst — fleeting success and trying to make your mark on the world colliding head-on with new pressures and growing frustration.

Being in the middle like this is hard — some of the reasons I’ve heard for people either stepping out or getting close to it include simple burn out, frustration with monetisation, frustration with major label ways of working, artist and executive demands increasing alongside an insular viewpoint, and negativity breeding negativity in the industry.

All the more reason for mentors to provide guidance through this difficult adolescent chapter in a career.


Where can the music industry can take note from other areas, and who’s doing it well?

I’ve been interested in technology since my teens, and having kept a keen eye on it throughout my time in both advertising and the music business, it’s only relatively recently I have pushed myself headlong into the world of startups.

Yes, startups are the hip thing right now, so there’s bound to be a buzz of activity around them, but upon getting more involved I was still surprised at just how many events there are each week in London devoted to both the wider startup scene and many smaller niches. Most of these events are free, many have prominent speakers sharing a few secrets, and the majority of attendees are happy to pass on useful information and make introductions. The openness and lack of fear around hoarding ideas and information is refreshing. As the saying goes, ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’.

Meanwhile in the hospitality industry, a new venture has started called Journee. It’s a collaboration space in the heart of Manhattan, offering a professional setting for a meeting, a place to study for a sommelier’s exam, or simply somewhere to connect with new friends and colleagues.

People may argue the music industry is consolidating more tightly than hospitality and doesn’t have the scale of tech, so why would we share important information, or be able to set up a collaboration space? I’d suggest that this is even more of a reason that things need to change.


Torch passing

I’d urge you to think about torch passing whatever stage of your career you are in. If you’re at entry level you can help a school/college student understand the paths available to them; if you’re in your late 20s/early 3os there’s ample opportunity to mentor interns and junior executives; if your age is around the forty mark there are a large number of thirtysomethings who could use your advice.

Why? It empowers the mentee, makes the industry more robust, and it’s good for your soul. In particular I’d recommend that perhaps you make a recommendation between two individuals whom you feel should meet with this idea in mind.

One of the reasons I left the music industry was the lack of mentorship and knowledge sharing; it shouldn’t be the reason for other people to do the same.

Let’s pay it forward and build for a stronger, more connected community of tomorrow.


Thanks to Michelle Sullivan, editor at The Manifesto, and Jacinta O’Shea-Ramdeholl for their feedback on the drafts of this article.

What have artist managers, football coaches and startup studios got in common?



Two things that are ingrained in many countries’ cultures are football and music. To an extent they go hand in hand — both blend art, commerce, fashion and entertainment, and have huge numbers of passionate fans.

In both businesses (and they are businesses, like it or not), there’s often one person in a quarterback position who is more likely to get fired than get the limelight, and arguably has a thankless task no matter how much success the wider team accrue. That’s right — the manager.

In music, I see a manager as CEO of an artist’s business. The artist themselves is the visionary founder, and the majority of artists are best off following that visionary creative path rather than moving into a CEO role (although they should never take their eye completely off the business side…that’s a very dangerous position to be in).


A football manager may not be the CEO of the club, nor the players’ individual businesses (that’ll more likely be the agents), but just like the artist manager they have a close connection to talent, and this article in the Financial Times really resonated with me. It’s definitely pertinent for talent managers, but the advice here can be translated to almost any other area of business where star talent is a key to success.

What the artist manager and the football manager do when it comes to identifying and developing talent can also be compared to the technology industry’s recent wave of startup studios.


The Startup Studio

I came across the startup studio concept fairly early on during the journey towards setting up my new company Rozel. It’s very well summed up in this post by the guys over at Makeshift.

Note: It’s also worth checking out their product Attending — I’ve used it a few times now and it’s a very useful tool for all sorts of event planning. (I’m not on the payroll, by the way)

In the Nesta session that Makeshift were part of, they identified the following attributes that were part of a startup studio. Taking each one of these in turn, I see strong correlations with how talent managers develop their rosters:

1. focused on building multiple products / startups simultaneously

a talent manager will often have several clients on a roster, and to a growing degree more than one of these clients will be active at any one time and need servicing accordingly.

2. generally own the majority of all the things they work on from an equity perspective

the area of music rights isn’t getting much clearer (companies like Kobalt notwithstanding) but most likely that at an early stage, the talent and the manager will be the only two people due income or owning IP.

3. generally have full time staff working on design, dev and marketing

consolidation at the top end of the music industry as well as a shift towards direct-to-fan models and the rise of the attention economy has seen management companies have a need to build teams to take care of their clients’ growing design and marketing needs. Whether the majority will be in-house remains to be seen, but having a retained team of some sort is likely to continue as the lines blur further.

4. attempting to make their process additive — i.e — more value from each thing as you do it

generally, an engaged fan base for a musician are tribal. if what’s being added is of good quality and fans want is, the value derived from each fan should increase.

5. “lab” is frequently used to describe a startup studio because they conjure up a “digital workshop” more so than an agency or accelerator. They’re a place to tinker away on different ideas and build multiple things at once.

whilst talent managers may not consider what they do a ‘lab’, the nature of their setup is much more akin to this to an agency model (whether booking, marketing, etc) where projects and clients are rotated at a much more rapid rate.


Managers as Startup Studios

Taking the idea of a manager being CEO of an artist’s business one step further along, it could be said that early-stage artists can themselves be considered as startups. This is because they usually;

  • are high risk
  • have a very small chance of breakout success
  • have no product-market fit defined
  • need to make something people really want if they are to succeed
  • are able to grow rapidly

The manager’s role as the startup studio is to develop a number of these startups at one time, with the hope that one or two will become big hits (i.e. a ‘Unicorn’ in startup parlance), and maybe a few others become solid ongoing businesses, whilst the rest will unfortunately face the inevitability of not reaching the heights that the founders set out to achieve at the beginning (i.e. in effect they will fail).

Furthermore, managers, just like founders and startup studios, are now more often called upon to make their own investments of capital.

In the technology world, a lot of startup studios are being backed by an exited entrepreneur, or in the case of music it may be a talent manager with a big breakout artist on their CV. I see a future where these studios increase in popularity, but without as many big names above the door (simply because there are proportionally not enough of these available, especially in a music market where the big breakout successes are growing in scale but dropping in frequency).

The main challenge for a relativity fledgling manager/entrepreneur wanting to continue develop their ‘studio’ offering is therefore one of capital. In technology, this typically means angel investors or VCs.

But what about the music industry?

I’ll be looking at a few ideas around this, and also what a future music industry accelerator/incubator could look like, in part 2… coming very soon 😉