Hi James, please tell us about the serial entrepreneur behind StreetPR.
I would describe myself as a bit of an alternative entrepreneur; basically, I’m an adrenaline junkie with a strong passion for motorbikes. So much so, that a few years back I took a year out to ride from London to Malaysia, blogging about the trip on the road. And still I try to visit as many of the big race meetings as I can around the world, including the IOMTT, MotoGP and WSB.
Now, from a business perspective, I began my career in the events industry in 2000 when, as a 16-year old student, I got my first job handing out flyers promoting club nights in London’s pubs, clubs and bars. Based on that experience, I was then asked to set up a student division for club night organisers Beluga Blues and was then poached to become Managing Director of pioneering student events service ‘Nightclub Information’.
It was in 2005 that I struck out on my own to set up student events company Wicked Student Nights (WSN), which is still going strong and currently has contracts with nine Universities and Colleges around London. It was off the back of that, that StreetPR was born.
Fast forward to today, I’m 34; I’ve started and exited two companies, bought two more and then founded another three. I’m now CEO of a group of companies under the Harrix Group umbrella, which includes the UK’s biggest organiser of student events, WSN and Itchy Feet; a staffing/face-to-face marketing agency, StreetPR; a design agency, 1788; a social media agency, BlueSocial; and an event software company, i-promoter.
I’m also a member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation UK, the biggest organisation for entrepreneurs in the world, serving on the Board as Learning Day Chair.
You are now the owner of amazing businesses including StreetPR and Blue Social. Where did the drive come from to not only run a business, but to keep innovating and creating?
I adore starting businesses and learning about new ideas but, for me, what really keeps me going is finding people who are extremely talented, like for example, the Creative Director at Blue Social – Gareth John Sutcliffe - who I originally hired as an in-house social media guy for StreetPR. BlueSocial was born as a result of his talent, combined with my business knowledge and know-how, and was my fastest-growing company last year.
So, there’s two things that really tick and get my engine running. One of them is going into an industry and creating a business, creating an idea and creating a product or service that people want and is better than what’s already out there. The second thing is finding people who are extremely talented and being the motivation, and the platform for them to build their own companies and go on to succeed.
How did StreetPR go from concept to launch?
StreetPR, in itself, is another example of me receiving bad service in my events company from staffing businesses I had previously worked with. I sat around with my business partner and said, “Do you know what, I’m just going to find and build my own teams”.
It was initially created to supply the student events industry with temporary workers, including bar staff, waiters, front-of-house staff and promotional people but soon expanded into providing staffing solutions for events organisers, retailers, brands, marketing agencies, stadiums, shopping centres, public sector bodies (including the NHS and Transport for London) and, most recently, online services providers such as home delivery companies.
Even today, my events company spends six figures a year on staff from my staffing business – and the most important thing to know about that is that I have different partners and directors in each company, so it can’t be a case of we can do these things for free. StreetPR needs to make a profit as a staffing business and the events company needs to receive an outstanding service, better than they would receive from one of my competitors.
In fact, when we bought another events business recently, we were put in the position that one of the caveats in the contract was that we went out there and got three competitive quotes from other businesses and they weren’t forced to use StreetPR. Obviously I would hope that StreetPR would come out on top - but partners and directors want to feel they are getting a great service from that business, so they are always the customer as well as the business owner in that business, which I think gives us a really unique perspective on the company.
How do you juggle running so many businesses at the same time?
Awesome people. Easy. You’ve got to surround yourself with awesome people. The higher you go up the ladder, the more people want your time. You’ve got to make sure you’re spending your time doing the bits that you’re best at and you’ve got to find people who are better than you at doing certain things you do, hire them and look after them.
There are a lot of funding schemes available to startups at the moment. Do you think it’s better to bootstrap or take the plunge and apply for a loan?
I always think you’re never going to be successful until you run out of money if you start your own business. I think there’s a very different mentality from somebody who works for a company – everybody says they work hard these days and I’ve got no doubt that everybody does work hard, but some people work hard for 9, 10, 11 hours a day whereas business owners – most of us – work hard for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
And we never miss a phone call, we’re there for clients, we’ve got staff issues, we’ve got money issues, you know there’s a whole lot that happens all the time. So I would say go as far as you can with your own money, but as I’ve got experienced as a fast growth business myself, you’re definitely going to have to have really intelligent financial support – from be it banks, startup funds, VC’s, intelligent invoicing companies – whatever it is. You need to have a knowledge of the market. There is no right or wrong way; it just depends on the business that you’re in.
What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs wanting to start their own business?
The first thing I’d say is, don’t listen to anybody who says you’re too young and you’ve got time. They are lying to you. You don’t have time. Time is something that nobody has, it’s against us all the time. You’re never too young to start your journey on becoming an expert in your field. And an expert in your field these days is CEOs (which can be 19 or can be 69). And it’s about the amount of time.
The sooner you get into running your own business, the sooner you’ll make mistakes, the sooner you’ll find support networks, the sooner you’ll understand the financial institutions, employment laws, the HR, the legal. And the faster you do that and become an expert in those things, in hiring and firing and developing businesses, the younger and more successful you should go on – hopefully – to be. Doing that when you’re in your 40s or 50s and you’ve got a mortgage and children etc., in my opinion seems a lot more challenging that doing it like I did in my mid-20s and being able to enjoy being a CEO and be a crazy traveller and all those sorts of things as well.
You have created something that makes life so much easier for a lot of people, which is the ideal business model for all businesses. What has been the response from your target audience?
Awesome. We’re very lucky; as a group this year we’ve seen fantastic growth. I’ve seen businesses more than double in size within the group. And I’ve seen a lot of businesses using cross businesses. For example, I’ve got a business that uses StreetPR to do its experiential marketing or events staffing, and I see them using BlueSocial to manage and market their social media marketing and contact.
Then they ring us up and are holding an event or Christmas party and ask us if we can manage that through JJF Events, so I’m very lucky in that we are providing a great service with a fantastic team and business owners and CEOs, CFOs, marketing directors realise mine and my business partners’ ethos, they come back and have confidence in using our other services as well. Also, I think that’s what I have to continue to do, provide a great service, be really honest with everybody about the challenges we face, execute everything to the best level we can and hopefully that inspires them to have the confidence to use other services within our group.
What has been the most exciting and the most challenging experience so far?
The most challenging experience still has to be setting up the customer service team at Wembley Stadium, where we had 90,000 customers at our first ever event there in February 2014. Then we had another event two days later, and it was an enormous challenge for myself and my now Operations Director Dorian Payne, but one that we absolutely excelled in and went on to win awards and work with them for two solid years, so we were very pleased with that.
My most exciting experience probably has to be standing on Pall Mall last year with the roads closed off and £20 million worth of sports cars in front of me, 150,000 people lining the streets and me sending the sports cars down the street onwards into the Modball Rally across five countries across Europe. That was probably the most my adrenaline has been pumping for a while!
What is your number one tip for hiring the right people?
It’s like crossing a road: You’ve got to stop, look and listen. You never find them when you want them. You always have to be on the look out for talented people. You’ve just got to stop your day-to-day, you’ve got to lift your head up and look around and you’ve got to listen to the people around you – be it in industry, be it in business.
I had a conversation with a CEO in Singapore who was telling me that he hired an Uber driver that he took an Uber with because he thought he was awesome. So, you just never know where you’re going to find your next hire. In my opinion, I’m always hiring. I’m never ever not hiring. If someone’s super talented and super smart and they want to go on to do amazing things, and they want a support network around them to help them achieve their goals then we are the people to come to. My whole ambition is to help really talented people achieve their goals by giving them the support they need, the motivation and be able to help them focus on the big picture as well as doing their day-to-day.
How do you stay motivated?
Coffee. Mostly. No seriously, I think self-motivation is probably one of the most challenging things for any entrepreneur. I actually think down time is really really important. I’m just coming up to a phase myself at the moment where I sort of take a little step back and force myself to take time out, have a holiday.
After that I come back and my CFO Fergus Harrington always has to prepare himself for some radical change or idea or new hire or something that I’m going to do after that point. This seems to be a common theory, but I think taking time out and taking time off and pushing your personal boundaries, plus meeting other entrepreneurs and other successful business owners and having mentors (I’m even mentoring myself now) really helps me stay motivated, and it’s really easy to forget where you’ve come from and where you’re planning to go when you’re in the business, doing the business every single day.
So, that’s how I stay motivated and I love seeing my guys succeed. I love seeing them hit both business targets and personal targets, whether that’s a financial goal they had or whether it’s someone they wanted to work with client-wise, winning those deals and achieving those targets is just a superb buzz and keeps everybody going.
How would you define being an entrepreneur?
It’s about risk taking. And doing it more than once!
If you set up one business in one field and stay in that industry and go on to be successful, I think that’s absolutely fantastic, I take my hat off to you. You probably have a bigger business than I do, you’re an expert in your field. That is amazing!
But, I think being able to do that across industries is what defines the entrepreneur. The really successful entrepreneurs that I’ve met who, at least I aspire to, have multiple businesses across multiple industries across multiple platforms, from business-to-customer to business-to-business, from online to shop front. It seems to be that an entrepreneur is somebody who can get into an industry and can focus on how to take the product or service and deliver it at a price, and a quality better than other people in the industry.
And I think it often takes somebody not in an industry to revolutionise an industry. I point towards the guys in Uber, Deliveroo, and how tech-savvy entrepreneurs are revolutionising shop front-based businesses. The people in those industries may never have realised that you could suddenly create a taxi app, you know that tens and tens of thousands of people are going to use every single day. I think that’s what truly makes an entrepreneur – is looking at an industry with fresh eyes and saying, we can be competitive in this industry with no prior experience. I do say that has a caveat, because you’ll always need somebody who has experience in that industry as part of your team.
What plans do you have for StreetPR over the next 12 months?
StreetPR has gone from strength to strength over the last four years and I’m very proud of it as a business. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of the business that myself, my CFO and my senior team have currently created, because as far as the H2 staff are concerned, and the team we have within that company, we now have our strongest team. This is both from an experience and a drive perspective.
Our aim really is just to improve the quality of our service, improve the quality of our client base and really work with new technologies and ways of measuring results to help our customers grow their businesses and deliver their events to a higher standard.