Events Entrepreneur: It's not all Parties and Champagne
Timebased events company founder, Richard Dodgson, talks to the Telegraph's Anna Issac about quitting acting to become an entrepreneur, building a contacts book and mucking in with 3am deliveries.
What’s your business background?
After leaving school, I spent some time acting with the National Youth Theatre in London, after which I studied German and theatre studies at Manchester University. As part of the course I spent a year abroad in Berlin, acting professionally. I became interested in an approach to performance that German theatre companies were using. Directors would put on shows in non-traditional spaces, such as railway stations and warehouses.
When I eventually came back to the UK, I worked a range of jobs, trying to raise money for stage shows that emulated the new style. I even put one on at a water park.
I soon realised how challenging it was to put on really creative shows. Most of the work I was being offered as a director didn’t appeal, nor did struggling to bid for lottery funding. I decided to set up my own events company and move to London.
How did you start Timebased events?
I set up Timebased in 1996, in my spare room. All I had was a landline and the telephone book. I looked up the big brands and kept an eye out for high-profile people doing interesting stuff. The strategy was to get on the phone and explain what I could offer them.
[One of my earliest events] was working on some dance and mime performances for Selfridges, to show off some new products. Shortly after that I met with the events director at GQ, who had just been asked to create the first GQ Men of the Year Awards.
I produced the first one in [West End Night Club] Café de Paris, with a tiny budget; there were two projectors running a video of David Beckham, and not much else. We’ve run the awards every year since then and now the event gets a huge amount of interest and press.
What advice can you give on working with high-profile clients?
You’ve got to stay ahead of their expectations. You’ve got to predict their needs and give them what they want, before they even realise that they want it.
They’re bound to come in with left-field ideas or talent for an event. You’ve got to be prepared for a client to say “Madonna’s coming”, the day before an event. Then you realise that you’ve got to get extra security. There’s always something you don’t expect, so you must be on top of everything that’s in your control.
How did you go about building up the sort of contacts you need in the events industry?
You need a huge range of contacts – from people who can build a fence and set up some toilets, to the talent. There wasn’t much of an events industry when I got started, so I had to be a magpie and shoehorn people in – carpet layers and set designers, for example. We had to help them understand the temporary nature of it [one-night events].
I found someone who was doing really creative things with fabrics in nightclubs. I asked him to get involved – to transform our event spaces. He’s still working with me now – 20 years later.
How did you turn your creative ideas for events into a reality?
I learnt to ask for payment upfront, so that we could manage cash flow and use that to purchase what we needed for events. I’ve learnt to negotiate and manage relationships. It all comes down to relationships, whether that’s with my staff or suppliers.
With suppliers, you have to build up trust and understanding with them, so that you can go to them and say: “I’ve got a problem; I need X to happen, but I only have so much money.” If they trust you, they will help you find a way of making it work.
What’s been your worst day at work?
The worst one was when I personally had to do a live voiceover at a wine awards ceremony. I had to call out the names of each wine,. Getting the names and pronunciation right was essential. The wines were French, German, Chinese and so on. Fortunately, I speak quite a few languages.
The video editor made a huge cock-up and I only found out on the day, so the only solution was to play the images, silently, and do the words in-sync myself. It was an “oh my god” moment, but we pulled it off. Most people at the event had no idea that we fudged it. But the client knew.
How have you grown the business?
We’ve never really advertised our services, but I hired a new business manager 15 years ago, which has been a very important move. That person’s remit is to get us through the door.
Getting that first initial meeting is always the hardest bit. It always used to be the most time-consuming part of my job.
What do people get wrong about the events industry?
There’s a misconception that it’s all parties and champagne. Every event we put on has a real business objective. It’s a strategic move by the client for their brand. Marketing-wise, they’re key. It used to be the case that if a business was struggling, the first thing they would get rid of would be the event – sort of synonymous with the Christmas party. Now it’s different; they see it as a sound way to generate leads and grow business.
We do a lot of work with online companies, such as ASOS and Amazon. We build them a modern shop window [illustrating what their brands are about in real-life, offline settings]. Events are now a great way to generate content for social channels – vital for advertising.
Is the events industry one that keeps you grounded?
Everyone, including me, has to be ready to dive in – from putting wristbands on a queue of excited girls at a fashion event, to getting a bottle of alcohol-free lager for Elton John. It does keep you humble.
I never set out to make lots of money or have a business this big. I did it because I enjoyed the creativity if offered, and I liked the people with whom I worked. I go to work every day wanting to be here. It’s a message I pass on to colleagues.
My staff work damn hard and they work long hours, which goes with the territory. You will find yourself meeting a delivery truck at 3am, because that’s the only time they can get there. Doing that calmly is something you have to have the right traits for.
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