“Set up (with no funding) from a back bedroom. Osney Media has grown from that to a £3M+ company”
Osney Media is a UK based conference and events company that has been inspiring and enriching the lives of senior business executives for almost 20 years. Based in London the company was started in 1996 and run by founder Nick Tyrrell and Ben Fletcher. Set up (with no funding) from a back bedroom. It has grown from that to a £3M+ company doing conference in 3 continents.
With key flagship events running for over 10 years, the company has achieved huge success and is expanding into Europe and the US markets, part of their growth plan over the next few years.
Besides producing cutting-edge content, they provide accredited training and strategic think tanks for professionals across a number of industry sectors including;
Finance, Asset Management, Buy-side Technology and Operations, Client Reporting, Derivative Operations, Performance Measurement, Risk Management, Human Resources, Talent Management, Employee Engagement, Leadership, Mobile, Media, Gaming.
So how did Nick and Ben do it and what is the formula for building a successful and sustainable business and what entrepreneurial skills are needed? I talked to Ben Fletcher who answered some important questions that outline how the business was built and successfully grow, but what’s more what it takes to be able to do it.
Ben Fletcher – Osney Media
Ben is an entrepreneur, investor and mentor. His first business, Osney Media, will be 20 years old next year, and for the last 5 years he has been investing in, advising, and mentoring startups. More recently he has been running Fast Growth Forum www.fastgrowthforum.com – the execution-focused event for fast growth companies.
RS: How did you get started with Osney Media, and who are the key partners in the business?
BF: There are two main shareholders in Osney Media, myself and Nick Tyrrell. Nick was planning to launch a publishing business, but it became clear that the funding required to do it was too much, he ask me to join him to build an events business.
RS: Is this your first business and what experience and strengths do you bring? If not, what were the others, and what happened to them.
BF: It is my first business, and I started in 1996 when I was just 25. Since 2007 I have invested in a number of businesses, one has been a huge success, two have been going for 5 years or more and others failed to make it. That’s the usual way with investments!
RS: How did you finance your business and what was the process like? If you raised capital from outside investment what was the most crucial part of this process.
BF: The incredibly fortunate thing about conference businesses is that they have a negative working capital requirement – when you start selling tickets you get cash upfront. So for most of our existence we have been able to fund growth through advance sales. But at the very beginning we used savings and sometimes even credit cards to keep the business going.
RS: How many employees do you have? Full- or part-time? How important is training and developing talent within the business?
BF: Osney Media employs 35 people full time. With the ups and downs of the last 20 years we have been as big as 80, but presently our focus on few, higher quality events has enabled us to generate nearly the same revenue with far fewer staff. I’m a big believer in hiring people that are taking a big step up (or even two steps up) into their role. Successful people tend to be ambitious and have drive, so I’d always question someone taking a sideways or backwards step. As a result of this we need to be investing in training heavily.
RS: What is an average workday like for you? What are some of the highlights or issues you face.
BF: I’m sure everyone says that there is no such thing as an average day… Fortunately for the last 5-6 years we have someone running the business for us, which enables us to work on other projects. My current project is an event for fast growth companies – so I spend a lot of time speaking to successful founders.
RS: What was the big breakthrough you had when you knew this was going to be very successful?
BF: I don’t think there was one factor. Initially we were successful because the quality of our product was very good, and it was good because we listened to our clients (or potential clients). Unfortunately at the beginning, we got a lot of things wrong with the general running of the business – especially we were too slow to introduce proper management structures and processes. But the early years were the most exciting – we doubled in size each year for 4 years and it was a real buzz.
RS: What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business? Any pivotal points where you added new channels to your services, perhaps a pivotal event you produced?
BF: I think product quality is the key. At one point we were heading down the sausage factory route of churning out events on every hot topic and trying to create profit from efficiency and reduced cost. Returning to a bigger investment in the product was a pivotal moment for us. Cost cutting can be a race to the bottom – saving money on product delivery affect the quality, which affects your revenue and means you need to cut more costs to make a profit.
RS: What plans do you have for expansion? And how much of your business is done outside of the UK?
BF It’s currently a very exciting time for us. The recession affected two of our key business areas which are both now bouncing back. We’re expanding rapidly into the US at present, and looking at Asia next year. We also run events in Europe. Next year will probably be the first year where non-UK revenues overtake UK revenues.
RS: What outsiders have been most important to your business success? (e.g., bankers, accountants, investors, customers, suppliers, partners, mentors, etc.)
BF: Hiring a non-exec with an outside view point was probably the single most important external input. Obviously customers are essential or you don’t have a business, but someone with fresh eyes that questioned why we were doing things was really useful.
RS: The events and conferences industry is competitive, what has been your most effective marketing tactic or technique and how have you been able to break through and define your business from others in your industry?
BF: I recently came across a great quote that I think sums things up nicely for me: “there are no silver bullets, just lots and lots of lead ones”. I don’t think there’s one great idea that will revolutionise your business – it’s about doing lots of things well.
RS: What’s the worst business advice you’ve ever received or which event did you run that just didn’t work? What have you learn from these issues to improve going forward?
BF: I’m not sure I would say that people ever give you really bad advice, or certainly it’s hard to distinguish if something didn’t work because of the idea or the implementation. I think people tend to think in black and white that there is a right and wrong thing to do. A bad idea well executed can work, and a good idea badly implemented can not work. Also all advice is subject to interpretation, so it’s entirely your responsibility if you take it.
RS: What three key pieces of advice would you offer to entrepreneurs starting out today?
BF: 1) Make sure you enjoy what you do. a) because life’s too short to waste on something you don’t, but b) you can’t be truly motivated to succeed if you don’t.
2) Read Mindset by Carol Dweck. It’s the best book about how to improve yourself and others I’ve ever read
3) Persistence will triumph. Make sure you have it, and hire for it.
RS: Do you have an “exit” strategy for getting out of the company, if so would you IPO, M&A, or other ideas?
BF: The more important thing is to build a company you wouldn’t want to sell. Make sure you have sustainable revenues, a decent profit level and a clear differentiator that sets you aside from the competition. If someone offers you a genuinely life changing amount of money you’d be silly not to take it, but don’t make an exit be the main objective of the business.
We have no plans to sell, but in our business there are always people that will buy successful and profitable businesses.
RS: what’s on the horizon for the next 6 months and what key events do you have coming up?
BF: Being in events you’re always planning 18 months ahead, and everything we’re planning for the next 6 months is already public on our site. I’m particularly excited about what we are doing in Mobile Games at the moment, it’s a very rapidly growing industry and we’re planning a series of global events.
For information about Osney Media and their events you can visit their website at www.osneymedia.com to learn about the owners you can take a look at their Linkedin profiles here: Nick Tyrrell and Ben Fletcher.