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international confex 2023

29 Jan 2021

Launching, sticking, succeeding

Launching, sticking, succeeding

In her latest feature, guest editor Ruth Carter speaks to four successful industry entrepreneurs who share their advice on how to launch a new venture. Carter speaks to Peter Jones, chief executive at Nineteen Group, James Reader, chairman at Smarter Shows, Austen Hawkins, chief executive at F2f Events, and Amanda Barnes, chief executivee at, Faversham House

With so many people out of work at the moment, some will be considering launching their own business. Given the entrepreneurial nature of our community, it isn’t surprising that our industry is littered with the self-made who have seen an opportunity and gone for it. And we are a nation of serial launchers with roughly one business launched every minute in the UK.

But the statistics for being one of those handful who make it to the top are hardly encouraging with only 10% of new start-ups actually succeeding. So, what is the secret sauce, the do-or-die ‘must haves’ and the mentality needed to make the difference between success and failure for your brilliant idea.

I personally have launched two successful businesses and have always worked on ‘Carter’s Law’ of Guts, Maths and Market. Guts: does the idea feel right? Are you deeply passionate about it and do you genuinely believe in it? Maths: can you make money out of it? Not just in Year 1 but in Years 2 to 5 as well. Market: does the community actually want what you are offering and do you have the route to market to effectively get it out there.

This rule has always stood me in good stead whether thinking about a show, a service or a whole business. But I have always been safely backed by a sizeable corporate parent who would be there to bankroll me if I hit a bumpy patch. How does that differ when you are your own ‘parent’?

I spoke with four highly successful launchers, leaders and entrepreneurs who shared their insight into why they thought they had succeeded and what was the ‘secret sauce’ that had made the difference.

All the entrepreneurs talked about the mindset needed when launching your own business and the importance of agility. Peter Jones, chief executive of Nineteen Group, likens launching a business to being in a pub fight.

“You have no idea what is going to come at you. You have to jump in, roll with the punches, head butt, grab a bar stool, try a kick and maybe even a cheeky bite. You just have to try it all as you have no idea what is coming. So be agile and be prepared for anything.”

As well as agility, resilience was right up the top of the list and James Reader, chairman of Smart Shows (now a division of Tarsus), talks about how rejection can be used as a positive tool to drive you forward.

“You need thick skin. You need to be prepared to eat beans on toast for every meal, work 15 hours each day every day and expect to be told ‘no’ more times than you ever heard in your life. But rejection is one step closer to success. Be humble with the rejection, don’t take it personally and find out the mechanics behind the reasoning.”

One of the big challenges faced by launchers is knowing how to balance deep market research against gut feel. We like the concept of the latter as it plays to our entrepreneurial spirit and we revel in spouting the Henry Ford quote of ‘if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses’.

I recall my early days at EMAP when I was the phone jockey doing research on new show ideas. David Metcalf, one of the icons in our business, wanted to launch an alternative to the Spring Fair and I carried out the market research. Everyone I spoke to said that we should not launch, they said that space was already covered and that they didn’t want to see us being even more dominant. David took my research document, thumbed it contemptuously, threw it in the bin and launched anyway. I believe the Autumn Fair still remains one of the largest UK launches ever. Guts 1 – 0 Research.

Austen Hawkins, chief executive of F2F Events, has seen many shows where the research said it was a bad idea and yet the launch has been successful. He believes that, if you pick a little at the corner of the gung-ho spirit, you will find that this has been underpinned by some solid business practices.

“Don’t be fooled if someone says that they operate on gut feel alone and that this is enough. Entrepreneurialism, speed to market and flexibility of approach do all come down to gut feel and belief. But where you see success is when these have been married with good business practices and market rigour.

You have to write a business plan that would be good enough to put in front of a board of directors. Don’t cut corners. Spend time on your business plan but not all your time. The majority of your thoughts and time should be with your customers and your market. The single most important thing you have to do is to deliver the audience. Nothing else matters.”

Jones agrees with this principal and believes that whilst research is important, you can overthink it sometimes.

“Yes, you need the research, but you only need to know ‘enough’. Clever, academic people, who think too much about launching a business, getting carried away by building personas, spending masses of time analysing the concept on a piece of paper, they will never do it. Anyone clever enough to look at the statistics and work out the success-failure ratios would never start in the first place. Don’t overanalyse it. Just jump in.”

The single biggest thread than ran through all of the entrepreneurs was the single-minded belief that they would succeed. Amanda Barnes, chief executive at Faversham House, feels that passion and belief are fundamental but so is an understanding of your own appetite for risk.

“Don’t be afraid; be brave and be bold but assess your own appetite for risk. My own appetite is quite high, but I take calculated risks and am not reckless. I continually weigh up what the downside of taking those risks would be and then make sure I have done everything to mitigate them.”

The talk of risk and reward almost invariably led on to money. I spoke with a business leader the other day who, when talking about 2020, said that they thought they had made a profit but were waiting for the accountant to tell them. Sharing this story with our entrepreneurs resulted in some unprintable comments. The politest response came from Barnes.

“If you are not all over the money, you will always fail. You have to understand the cash. You have to live it, breathe it and know what it means in terms of profit. It doesn’t matter what your business is, but you have to know that it isn’t going to go bust.

You don’t need an accountant to tell you whether you have made any money or not. You need an accountant to tell you whether you are registering for Vat at the right time or whether you need to change your shareholder agreement structure for example. You have to own the money. Cash is king in a start up.”

Hawkins also talks about the financial mindset you need when launching a business.

“When you launch a business, you personally become head of marketing, head of sales, head of everything. But the single most important job is to be head of finance. You have to be an absolute genius at cash flow forecasting. Most people go out of business because they spend money when they shouldn’t spend money. Cash flow is everything.

“When you first start, you do not spend a penny on anything. Don’t pay a PA, don’t pay a cleaner but put on those Marigolds and do it yourself. I have even pretended to be the accounts department when chasing debt and ‘put myself through to myself’ on the call but that was the only way it was going to get done.

“When you build your show or your product, it doesn’t have to look as big and as sparkly as it did when you were in Corporate Land. The coffee lounges are not so beautiful; the seminar theatres are open rope and post areas with a few chairs. Because you cannot afford anything different. But what you do is bring in high quality visitors. If you achieve this then you will be forgiven for everything else.”

So, what are the pivotal ingredients that make the difference between a product succeeding or failing? Reader talks about the importance of that first big signing.

“We are a confidence-based industry. Getting buy-in, and therefore that massively important credibility stamp, from one of the big bellwether’s is fundamental.

“You need that endorsement in order to make your event appealing to the wider supply chain. Without the backing of the key companies who are shaping the future of that particular community, your show will not get off the ground.”

Lunching and running a business can be a lonely experience. But working with a partner can also have its pit falls and I know many people who had gone into partnership with a friend but would now not cross the road to spit on each other if they were on fire. Barnes feels this is something that must be addressed openly up front.

“You must start by being absolutely clear on what could go wrong. Even if you are perfectly good friends who have worked together for years, you sit down and work out the ‘what ifs’. Some of them will be hard to talk about but it is imperative that you do it at this stage whilst the friendship and trust is still there.”

Despite your great idea, the planning, the market interaction and the good business processes, thing can still go wrong. Jones is very pragmatic about how to handle this as well as how to deal with, what he calls ‘Imodium Moments’.

“There is no such thing as a perfect launch. Don’t be afraid to fail. Every successful entrepreneur in our industry has had failures. Launching isn’t an exact science and you need to listen, learn and tweak.

But most importantly, if it goes really badly, don’t hide in the organisers’ office. Go out onto the floor, be honest, show you tried, show you listened and talk about how you can do it better. That goes a long way.”

Hawkins talks about the need to manage your behaviour around failure so that it doesn’t paralyse you.

“When you fail, it hurts, particularly for entrepreneurs with egos. But it can generate a fear factor and when you get in a scared phase, with your house and car on the line, you sometimes have to put those things to one side or else it will numb your decision-making abilities.”

How do you know when to throw in the towel? The answer from all of our entrepreneurs was a resounding ‘never’. But easier said than done and often, with no one to guide you, you need tools to help you through the ultimate crisis in confidence and cash flow. Barnes has a simple solution.

“I truly hate losing. But I do occasionally allow myself the luxury of deciding that I can quit…but just not yet.”

While all four entrepreneurs are very different in temperament and style, all of them burned with passion about what they do and didn’t regret a single moment of the highs and lows of their careers. I will let Reader take the last word as he summed it up most eloquently.

“The reality is that a lot of people will not survive. It is incredibly tough and at times, deeply demoralising. But the reward is phenomenal. You simply have to have a love for the launch.”

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