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First written in June 2016
I have always had the desire to own my own business. I view it as a medieval metaphor of going to the market via horse and cart and setting up a stall. If my offerings aren’t good enough, then I won’t make any money. The 9-5 has never made sense to me as a long-term career choice, however I do understand how important it can be at several stages of one’s life.
I first set up my ‘medieval market stall’ in 2008 and thoroughly enjoyed the entire process. I was about 85% through my Entrepreneurship degree at RMIT University and I was eager to create something. Some friends of mine from high school had just purchased a nightclub and I had my chance to run the Friday night event for a month in between established promotion teams, and I couldn’t have been happier to have a go! So at 21 and with little actual business experience, I jumped in headfirst.
Fast-forward to now and looking back on what I have been able to achieve is something that I am very proud of. For those who are unaware, White Pony is an entertainment company in the Melbourne nightclub niche. We have held nearly 700 events with up to 5 weekly events at any one time. Our best weekend was 5,000 people across all of our events. We have booked a vast range of entertainment such as Will Sparks, Stafford Brothers, Peking Duk, Timmy Trumpet, Joel Fletcher, Tigerlily, Ruby Rose, 8 of the Geordie Shore Cast, Bondi Rescue, Home & Away and more.
Here are the 10 business lessons that I learned as Managing Director of White Pony Entertainment from 2008 to 2016*.
1. It’s not easy
When I took the week off uni to organise my first event, I was pumped. I worked hard all week and when doors opened, no one came. We managed to do 20 or 30 people. For some reason, I just had the belief that if I built it, they would come (thanks Kevin Costner). That first kick in the guts is what most businesses must go through. It never ceases to amaze the times when people who have never ran a business will give you their ‘I reckon’ this would work better speech, but that is always going to exist in every industry.
2. Hard work + The right strategy = Success
We worked hard, very hard. However, that didn’t reflect as to whether or not an event worked. The reflection of success was in the strategy – was it right for the market in that area at that time with that offering and those marketing methods? The hard work utilised by trial and error, past methods, future predictions, mentor advice and current industry trends led to success.
When I see how hard some of the guest DJs that I have booked work, I understand why they succeed. I could list many here, but I will focus on just a few.
The Stafford Brothers work ethic is just extraordinary. They work hard and they play hard. It’s obvious that they’re strategy is successful too. Somehow they have time to constantly tour, schedule their own bookings and appointments, run a handful of other businesses on the side and always leave 1 hour per day for physical exercise.
Will Sparks & Joel Fletcher are work horses with great self belief. They have understood the best strategies for them to succeed to accompany their hard work. Many talented DJs came before them and have come since, however very few reach their level of their success.
One of the times that we booked Peking Duk, Adam (one of the members) was talking to me about ‘The way you are’ (the track that put them on the map) and how they worked for weeks and weeks on it and couldn’t get the song finished. Frustrated that it still didn’t sound right, they were about to throw it out. Then Adam said that very early one morning he dropped the guitar riff over it and he knew that it was complete. The combination of both their hard work and their strategy has seen them since have 2 top 5 songs in the Triple J Hottest 100 in the same year (Australia Day top 100 songs from Triple J radio station as voted by the listeners) and go on to tour the world.
I look at some of my events that didn’t work and I think ‘Why not?’ I worked hard, I used the same method as my previous events that were super successful, and yet I didn’t get the desired outcome? My strategy was incorrect. What worked last time does not necessarily mean that it will work this time. When I have understood the issues and looked past the ‘noise’ at the top, I have seen what the market needs and sometimes I have shifted strategy and found great success. Other times shifting the strategy would require something completely different that would take a difficult decision to chase the risk or not.
3. Running my own business is for me
I learned very early on the sense that it made to get good at running events. At the beginning I was working in a café part time and one January I had to work 6 days in a row. It was too much, I had no energy and very little time to do anything else, and I was exhausted by the time I went out with my friends that Saturday night. I looked at the paycheck the next week and the amount written before me was less than my most successful event at the time. I thought ‘why on earth would I do this when an event takes far less hours and is really fun.’ I knew that I could never get a fulltime 9-5 unless I had no other choice.
4. I couldn’t have done it on my own
Who you work with will make or break your company. I couldn’t have done everything that White Pony achieved without my talented and loyal team and the various business partners that I have had along my journey. I worked with some amazing people and some not so amazing people at different times of the journey, and that was all a part of the learning curve.
Early on it was about finding my feet and learning to work with other people. I worked with some great people who I learned plenty from. What really took us to the next level was when I had the opportunity to work with Mick Le Grand. He’s a bit older and has been in the game much longer. Mick has owned a number of clubs and at one stage ran about 20 weekly nights and is hands down the best nightclub promoter in the country. We blended our methods together to create some incredible events. To be able to learn from and work in partnership with Mick is just amazing.
The team at White Pony, including my incredible personal assistant Brooke Rotheram, popular host & DJ Craig Moore, the ‘Elite Eight’ as they’re known (including Veli, Eamu, Cinar & Hurley amongst others mentioned) and the extended crew, together we were able to create special events that we were very proud of and loved being a part of. At our peak, we had around 200 people that ‘worked’ for White Pony in some capacity (DJ, office staff, event staff, promoters etc), and I’m grateful for each and every one of them.
Also, the companies that we have worked with such as Trumpkard Films for all the incredible videos, Xlr8ed (Ryan & Layton) for equipment hire & DJing and G Image (Chris G, Nath & the crew) for our graphic design, artwork and branding have all been amazing.
I also certainly couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and friends, or my amazing girlfriend Keera. White Pony Entertainment is very much a team effort.
5. Focus on Systems
Further to hard work and strategy, the systems to implement the strategies are imperative. After several new events and to avoid missing tasks, we created a list of 34 tasks that needed to be completed before launching an event. This was everything from naming the event to ensuring that there’d be enough pens & clipboards on the night. Our diligent systems have allowed us to create a database of over 50,000.
Utilising Google Docs, diaries and calendars, mistakes were rarely made. At one stage I was booking DJs for 7 events – around 25 DJs per week. To run efficiently, this required a system that took into account the DJ’s agent, the graphic designer, bookkeeper and personal assistant, which cut down errors and saved time.
6. Be first!
This may seem obvious, but it can make all the difference. I have seen some of the best results when being first or one of the first with an idea. I was in a great position of being one of the first to bring Melbourne’s underground DJs to the suburbs. Heath Renata & Stevie Mink were the biggest DJs in Melbourne in 2011 (Heath went #6 in Australia in the 2010 Inthemix awards) I had them play to a sold out Berwick Inn Australia Day Eve (the event sold out 3 days prior and I could’ve sold 3 times the amounts of tickets – it was absolutely nuts). This was the first time that Mick had heard of White Pony as he also had an event in the same suburb that night. We joined forces not too long after.
Another trend that we jumped at the opportunity was being first to book the reality TV Geordie Shore stars. We put 1600 & 1800 through Green Apple & Cherry Red in the same weekend with James & Charlotte and it was like watching Beatles footage in the 60’s. People were screaming and crying and I thought the building was going to fall down.
Being first with a trend or idea can lead to some amazing results. If you can’t be first, then do it better than anyone else. Peter Thiel goes into great detail on being first to market in his book Zero to One.
7. Learn to deal with negative attention
This was unexpected however in hindsight of course it was going to happen. Operating in an industry that focuses on 18-20 year olds, there was always one trying to cause trouble. Most of the patrons and other people in the industry were excellent. It was just a few from time to time – whether patrons, DJs, or promoters, and now that we had a social media application giving anyone a ‘voice’, we had to deal with it.
It always turned out fine, as our strict instructions to our crew was to focus on White Pony, because at the end of the day, I didn’t care about what anyone else was doing, I just focused on what we could control. I thought that this must be a nightlife thing as there are so many egos in this space, but I’m lead to believe that in most industries they deal with these sorts of issues. Recent examples of other businesses and industries with issues are Gelati stores going at it and major companies mocking competitor performance via television advertisements.
8. Constantly evolve
As the quote goes ‘He who uses yesterday’s business practices today, won’t be in business tomorrow.’ At several stages during the life of this business, I thought that we could go forever with the same events and the same practices. Boy how I was wrong. The landscape changes so quickly and we need to be at the forefront to see great results (an article that I have written on the topic of the evolving nightlife scene will be released in the coming weeks).
Even taking into consideration how Facebook evolves is important to cogitate. From being able to invite profiles and groups to Facebook events with the click of a button and having huge organic reach, to not being able to invite groups to events, to the invite all method changing to become far more difficult, to not allowing ‘all’ friends to be invited to events, to organic reach dropping to around 3%. It’s crucial for almost every business to be constantly learning & evolving and striving to be first at delivering via a new method.
9. Learn how to do everything yourself
I love delegating and it’s an important part of any business. I do believe that the one in charge should know how to do everything, or at least have an idea. I probably took Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week a little too literally at times, and should’ve learnt more about the tedious tasks. I have since forced myself to learn and am grateful for that. One thing that I think is vital, is knowing how to do one’s own books.
We had a situation a few years back where the bookkeeper at the time made some errors over the course of a couple of months and some serious dollars disappeared. It was all by accident too so I couldn’t do anything but get on with business. I have since taken the responsibility into my own hands and learnt how to use Xero and I strongly recommend it for anyone starting their own business. You’ll get the hang of it quickly, and it’s great to keep on top of what you owe, what is owed to you and the time that invoices are due to be paid or received. Ultimately I have an accountant that then lodges my BAS statements etc, so they can check for any errors before lodging.
10. Be prepared to go all or nothing
A number of times along the way, I have gone all or nothing on events and thankfully it has paid off and I’ve gotten through all the peaks and troughs since 2008. If you’re not willing to go all in, then I wouldn’t recommend running a business.
If I had my time again I would like to think that I would mitigate more of the risk rather than the all or nothing strategy. However, I know that this will be difficult for me. So I have identified that since I go all in, I need to ensure that I am mitigating my risk as much as possible so ‘all or nothing’ becomes ‘all or something’. So the lesson here is back yourself but prepare yourself.
Putting on these events has been more than just trying to make money. This is most evident when a weekly event comes to an end. There are tears, hugs, weeks of ‘why did it have to finish’. Not from everyone of course, however, there is always a percentage. Understanding just how many people use the occasion as an escape from whatever it is that they don’t want to have to worry about is a humbling feeling. That is what makes ending a weekly event so difficult – whether our choice or an external factor.
As the old saying goes, “They shoot sick horses”. Having such an optimistic approach and solid self-belief, it was hard accepting that certain events wouldn’t work. One area that I have worked on is being as realistic and as honest as I can to whether or not an event can survive without haemorrhaging money. ‘Cutting your losses’ and moving on is part of the game. We get an event wrong that only lasts a short period, f#ck it, let’s go again, new event, new name, new location.
The hardest part was coming to terms with the fact that the weekly nightclub industry has diminished greatly. That is looking to be the sickest horse of all.
I am grateful for all of my experience at White Pony Entertainment and still love directing the company today. The sacrifices have definitely been worth it.
We are looking to evolve with the trends, bring in a new team to work alongside our existing team and launch head first into the boutique festival market. If you see a potential opportunity here, please contact me, I’m more than happy to hear it out.
One thing is for sure, it is never boring when holding the reigns of such an interesting company is such a volatile industry.
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