Meet the founder of WONDER London
So Ben, you're the founder of WONDER London, but before we get into the nitty gritty of entrepreneurship, tell me a little about yourself.
I’m 37 years old and a proud (West) Yorkshireman, currently I live in Bromley. I have an amazing wife and two demanding but unbelievably gorgeous young sons. I’m a big football fan, supporting Liverpool, much to my frustration at times.
People are always interested in why people do what they do, so tell me how you got into events and what has been your path into running your own events business.
My first taste of organising events came when I was 17 years old, I organised the end of school leavers party and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I went to Leeds Metropolitan University to study Sports Science, however it didn’t take long before I got a job promoting student nights. This escalated pretty quickly into a full time job, which I had to balance with keeping up with my studies. It was during University I realised I was drawn to events and wanted to be an events organiser of some description. Over the 3 years of being at University I went from helping a man organise one student night in Leeds a week, to organising 20 nationwide events per week, and travelling all over the country.
From the age of 15 I had been going to Ibiza on holiday, initially with parents and then with friends and I was keen to do an Ibiza season once finishing University. My first Ibiza season in 2002 lasted 20 weeks where i was a posterer for Godskitchen. During this summer I met a range of people who had similar passions of dance music and organising events. The following summer in 2003 I went back to Ibiza but this time as the promotions manager for a small boutique club. This only lasted 10 weeks as I was asked to set up the weekly student night at Ministry of Sound back in London.
It was at Ministry of Sound where my career took off. After 18 months of setting up and running London’s largest student night, which is still going strong to this day 15 years later, I became Deputy Manager of the Ministry of Sound Club. With my love for dance music, this really was a dream job for a 23 year old. After 2 years of being Deputy Manager I was ready to try something new. I got in touch with an owner of a corporate events agency who I had met previously in Leeds. After a great 6 months working on some cool corporate events, I was asked back to Ministry of Sound as there Corporate Events Manager, organising any club events between Sunday and Thursday. This was perfect for me as I felt welcome in a familiar environment, that fused the corporate events I was wishing to be involved in, whilst also learning how agencies organised events.
It was during the summer of 2007 that my path crossed with Google (who are our biggest client today at WONDER London). I needed to fill December with Christmas Parties so I took to email and contacted: email@example.com. I never expected a reply, however one month later I had a call from an events manager at Google - who is still there and now head of events - asking for a proposal. Happily I sent over the proposal, won the job and gave them a party they couldn’t forget. Getting to work with Google was amazing, so I know it was important to keep in touch with them for the future.
After leaving Ministry of Sound in 2008 I started at an up and coming event production company. The first thing on my list was to contact Google, letting them know I was able to organise any of their events. Over the 4 years I was there we became their 2nd biggest event provider and they became our biggest client.
After 4 years, I decided I needed another change and when a 6 month spell of being a freelancer came to an end, I set up WONDER London.
Inspiration is always a great indication of why people launch businesses. Who or what inspired you to get started?
I’ve always said knowledge and information is power and have been interested in the way businesses are run. Wherever I have worked I’ve looked at what the company does well and what they could improve. This wasn’t necessarily in view of starting my own business but looking back this definitely helped me when setting up my company.
I’d love to say I was inspired by something specific but it wasn’t down to a single person or occasion. I believe in creating your own luck through hard work, determination, passion and being single minded in the task at hand.
Starting WONDER London wasn’t planned, it was a combination of circumstances which seemed to come together and give me the opportunity to start the company.
The path to creating WONDER started when I felt I no longer wanted to stay in full time employment. This was a combination of a dip in the love for my job at the time, expecting my first child, talking to friends and peers about starting as a freelancer and an opportunity to work on a London Olympic project with some great people.
Once I had left full time employment I was happy to be a freelancer and see where it took me, but 4 months into my freelance career I was given an opportunity to produce an event for Google in November 2012 . To produce the event for Google I needed to set up my own company. That one event then turned into three before Christmas, all whilst I was still freelancing. At the start of 2013 I was invited for a meeting at Google regarding a year long event series and fortunately I was chosen to produce it. That year I produced over 50 events for Google and the rest is history.
How do you set yourself apart from other businesses in your industry?
We didn’t consciously decide to set ourselves apart, it just happened through what myself and the team believed was the right way to produce events and run a company. Since then we have produced a lot of work to make sure we do standout from other businesses. Currently we have nearly finished some work on our Brand Values and Positioning.
I’m a big believer in making the working environment as good as it can be. If your staff are happy and feel good about coming to work, the clients will always benefit.
Everyone at WONDER has a shared goal and that is to make sure everything we do is for the benefit of the client and their audiences. If we can do this, and also make our client contact look good to their bosses, then even better. On top of this, if our team can add their own stamp to an event, then everyone's a winner.
“We Create A Sense of WONDER” is one of our main mission statements and during every event we need to make sure we create that WONDER somewhere. It doesn’t always have to be a wow moment or something visible on the event, it could be in the way we organised it or how we solved a problem. If we can create events for our clients and give the audience that sense of WONDER and make sure every moment matters, then we have done a lot of our job.
What do you do to create a good agency culture?
The people create the culture, not the company. It’s about working together to form something good.
Being an independently owned business we don’t need to answer to anyone on the financial side of things and therefore I’ve been happy to spend some of our profits on treating the staff. I think it’s important to make them realise how much I (and WONDER) appreciate them, their hard work and constant bettering of themselves.
I started off as a party promoter and many of the staff got into events through their love for music and festivals, so whenever we get the chance we like to all come together and have a good time. This involves regular staff socials such as the Summer party, Christmas Party, Friday Drinks, Awards Ceremonies to name but a few. We also love to get creative so our Instagram page is a great place to check out some of our creations for Christmas, Halloween, Easter etc. I’m a passionate skier and for the last 3 years we have done a company ski trip. This January, 27 full time staff went to Tignes for 3 days in a large chalet.
I’d love nothing more than WONDER to win the ‘best place to work’ award. In winning this I would feel like I have succeeded in creating a company with a positive and good culture.
It sounds like the staff are at the heart of how well WONDER performs, have you won any awards in your 5 years?
Yes, we’ve been pretty successful and our most recent win was C&IT Magazine 2017 UK Agency of the Year award. This is a really special award for us as it recognises us a company and not just a single event success metric. To win this award in less than 5 years of trading shows just how much we want to succeed for our clients, and in turn our staff.
We’ve also won several other event specific awards at the Conference Awards and UK Drum Event Awards.
What’s the single most important decision that you made, that contributed to your business?
Always aim and want to learn more. Don’t be concerned if you don’t know the answer, talk to someone that does. It goes back to the knowledge is power mantra. Be it employing people who can add value or difference, talking to peers or taking external advice from a mentor or business consultant. I have learned so much from doing this and I encourage my team to do the same. If you do this on a business function level, then your clients will benefit as they expect you to be the experts and guide them, it’s why they choose us.
How did you fund the launch of your business and what creative strategies did you use to execute a minimal cash flow?
I didn’t have any money to start the business. As previously mentioned, I worked as a freelancer until I won a project which allowed me to do my own events full time.
I had excellent relationships with suppliers over the years and they were happy to wait for their money until I was paid on the understanding once we had money in the bank we would go on their normal terms. I also know without a successful company I’m personally not going to benefit, so keeping as much money in the company is key to all start up /SME growth.
How did you conquer those moments of doubt that so often affect entrepreneurs or stop many with great ideas – what pushes you through?
Prior to quitting my full time job (whilst expecting my first child), I wasn’t a risk taker and still don’t class myself as a risk taker. Everything I do is based on information I have in front of me and it’s at that moment the gut instinct takes over.
I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had moments of ‘what happens if’ or ‘should we do that or not’, but it’s in these moments I trust the people around me and take advice if we don’t have the answers ourselves. Once you have dissected the issue, you can make as decision on whether to go for it or not.
Who is your target audience?
We are looking to work with clients and their customers who are ahead of the curve. Brands who are expected to be at the forefront of their industry and either expected to or want to stand out from the crowd.
What would be your number one tip for young entrepreneurs who are ready to launch their own business?
Take advice from as many people you think could add a valid opinion and then make your decision. Secondly, once the decision has been made, put everything into it and only employ people who want to do the same and believe in what you are trying to achieve.
What first in the mornings, phone, book, laptop or me time?
I have two boys (5 and 2 years old), so the first thing is being up before them and getting a shower and cup of tea. However, I do check my phone for new emails and read the football news as soon as I can, often before getting in the shower.
What plans do you have for WONDER London over the coming 12 months?
2018 is the first year of a new 3 year plan and it’s going to be a busy one. We have already won two huge pitches which almost doubles the size of the team. Our main aim is to instigate our plans, consolidate our existing clients and show some new clients what we can do for them.
Helping brands to take their brand values off the page and into the real world is a big part of what we do. We’ve been doing some insight led work on this which I’m looking forward to launching early this year.
What’s the most important question entrepreneurs should be asking themselves?
What do we need to do to keep our employees and clients loyal.
Recharging every so often, especially as a parent and entrepreneur is important. How do you recharge when you’re feeling burnt out?
Spending quality time with family and friends. Also, enjoying skiing and golf is when I truly switch off from everything work related.
What habits do you think helped you to become successful?
Always wanting to learn and better myself. I’m very competitive which can be seen as a bad trait. However, it’s about getting the balance and often being competitive isn’t against someone else, it’s the challenges you set yourself and wanting to be the best at whatever you do.
What are your thoughts on networking to build your business?
Creating contacts and networking is essential. Take the example of bringing my contact at Google with me on my journey through working in different aspects of events.
What are your thoughts on failure as an entrepreneur?
I’m lucky enough to not have dealt with failure, but the thought remains there and is definitely what drives me on even more. You read a lot about successful people saying they only learned when they failed, and a lot of the best business people in the world have failed at least once in their lifetime. However, I think it’s how you deal with failure and its prospect, not actually the failing.