I was introduced to Michael-George via my friend Zu, who featured on Masters of Many recently. I think Michael-George exactly depicts both types of Masters of Many candidates for me – someone who has taken their key skill set and applied it to a multitude of industries and job types, and someone who quite literally has their fingers in many pies – his account of his endeavours and many businesses to date was pretty exhausting, but absolutely fascinating. They include founding Plumen, an innovative company that reinvented the concept of low energy light-bulbs and having brought the Truman Brewery company back to life. The big learning from talking to him? Tenacity is everything. We caught up with him to hear how it all started…
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to date…
I always knew I wasn’t made to work for a big organisation. I’ve never done well in structures; they don’t bring the best out in me. I wanted to work in culture in some way and I see sport as part of that. After University, I somehow managed to blag a job for the NBA in Paris organising exhibition games for American teams in Paris and Barcelona. I was assistant / intern / translator for the guy organising everything – and I worked across it all – looking after VIP tickets, producing an award, which was my first interaction with design and manufacturing (which I had no idea would be such a big thing later on). Whilst there, I had an idea for an art company that was about more accessible art (it turned out to be a very bad idea). It made me start looking into coming back to London, as starting up a business in Paris really wasn’t very easy. I was 23 at this point, and I applied to all of these art galleries to get some experience, but they all turned me down.
I came across these two guys in art who had no money, so they started a ‘gallery without space’, called Hames Levack. They had this tiny office in Old Street and focused on hosting exhibitions in unusual public spaces. We did one event in particular in Soho Square – which has the busiest footfall of any park in London – setting up a gallery there with artists who were over 80. There were all people who had wanted to be artists but the second world war had got in the way. A lot of them were doing really contemporary work. One of them had even enrolled on a four year foundation course at the age of 70!
What I learned at the business was really important – including lots about how not to run a company. We went through numerous interns in a year for example and it taught me about managing people, interviewing them, picking the right kind of people out, all really important skills.
The most important thing it taught me was the power of an idea. If you have an idea in your head and you present it in the right way, people believe in it and then it kind of exists, even if you haven’t made it yet. The other thing I learned is the power of just asking for something. These were two guys who were my age, had come down from Leeds, and whilst they’re really talented people, they were complete blaggers in a way as well. They would call up brands like Fentiman’s and say “we’re doing this exhibition and we need a load of lemonade” and two days later they sent so much lemonade that it took a year to drink all of it!
Whilst I was there I decided my art idea wasn’t the best. During that time I met my current business partner for Plumen, Nick. He was creative director at the digital agency Poke, which he started about 12 years ago. He’d had this idea for these old telephone hand-sets that plug into your mobile phone when you answer it. The whole idea behind it was that mobile phones at the time were getting smaller and smaller with loads of functionality, but were annoying to use because they were so tiny. And design wise, they were just grey or black, whereas if you went to somewhere like Japan you found an amazing array of phones. In 2004 Nick made a small website with some prototypes and the idea flew. One million people went to the website and the New York Times ran a 2 page article on it. People loved the idea.
My relationship with the art space business was coming to an end, and he asked me if I’d be interested in working out how to manufacture the product and running that part of the company. We got on really well, so I started out by going out to China (I’d never been there before, I knew nothing about design and even less about manufacturing) to meet manufacturers. We made all the classic mistakes as a new business. Our first phone came out and it looked like a dildo! It was terrible. I learnt a lot about manufacturing in China right at the base level, from a moral, social and ethical standpoint as well. Culturally it’s a very different market in terms of what is acceptable in terms of family structures, friendship structures and working structures. There was no way to judge what was a good factory or a bad one. You had to work it out for yourself. You quickly get a feel for which companies you’re happy to work with.
The business was quite successful for the first few years, and made a decent profit. Ultimately though, we were focusing on bringing out more and more products, rather than putting the profits back into the business, into staff and a structure that we could build from. We had all these grand ideas, and before we really let any ideas mature and take hold, we were always on to the next thing. Over the course of 2006/7 we started struggling because lots of people copied us. We were working very closely with Skype to develop this amazing Skype phone that we’d had an idea for and they were going to have a boutique section of their site, but then they got bought by eBay. Everything started coming at us from all angles and by 2008 we were on the road to being bust, albeit I didn’t realise then, as you don’t know the first time it happens to you.
It was around 2007 that we had the idea for Plumen. We’d been trying to trademark names for the phones – we had the name Hulger – which was the name for a design studio, as well as the phones. The studio was based on an approach to new technology, the belief that there’s so much coming through all of the time and much of it is amazing, but it often passes straight by and doesn’t get adopted. We believed that a big reason for this was that the technology wasn’t properly presented and made desirable to what is increasingly a multi-tasking, busy consumer.
Plumen was very much based on this belief. We looked at low energy light bulbs, which people knew had the benefit of saving them huge amounts on their energy bills, but no-one was adopting them. The lights can be nice and turn on immediately, but light-bulb manufacturers were trying to make them as cheaply as possible, which was the wrong approach in our mind. We make more sculptural light bulbs, which people are willing to pay more money for (our bulbs are about £20), meaning that we can use better components. People then enjoy the technology more and are more likely to adopt it.
We knew nothing about lighting or fluorescents – I’d read the Wikipedia page about 5 times to try and understand it! We made a prototype and a website to put the idea out there and see what happens. We used a neon that a guy in mile end made for us, with a fairy liquid bottle to go on top, painted it white, photographed it so that it looked like a bulb, photo-shopped it into different back-grounds and made a website to launch it. We never claimed we had a product, just posed the question why no-body was doing this. Again, it was really well picked up. The Museum of Modern Art in New York wanted it for an exhibition that they were doing, ‘Elastic Minds’, and then they asked for it for their private collection. Whilst Hulger was slowly disappearing, I spent much of 2008 trying to find manufacturers for the light bulb, but this was the golden age of fluorescent bulbs and factories were running at full tilt and weren’t really interested in doing anything different.
I managed to find this Danish company, who at first said no, then we door-stepped them, flying all the way to their office – and they finally agreed to do it. Hulger went bust at this time and ironically I’d just won runner up as the Young Design Entrepreneur of the year – which I felt bad about it given the circumstances. As part of the award, the British Design Council sent me on a 3-week tour of India. I saw all of these incredible makers, manufacturers and crafts people. It was fascinating and it gave me that energy to go into a start-up again.
It would have been quite easy to say, “that’s it” at that point – the end of wanting to run your own business – what made you want to carry on?
At this point I was 28 and I knew I wasn’t ideal to go back and work for a company. I really believed in Plumen, so I decided to give it a go. There was quite a bit to sort out with the phone company, we had to pay everyone off. In the meantime I was doing jobs all over the place to make money. I helped the guy who’s now Chairman of Plumen to start a toy soldier company in Nottingham, so I learnt all about that.
At the same time I had this friend from University, James, who had started his own beer import business, importing beer from Lao and all over Asia. We’d both had offices near The Truman Brewery / Brick Lane area. Every night we were going for drinks in one of these Old Truman Brewers pubs and we kept wondering what happened to this amazing brand Truman’s that you see everywhere. James and I decided that we should re-start Truman’s. It was 2007 and so both of us were still working, but by 2008 each of our businesses had gone bust. At the same time, the manufacturer for Plumen had advised me to look at some other opportunities while they investigated it, as there were no guarantees they’d be able to manufacture the bulbs.
We worked out that Scottish & Newcastle, who were being bought by Heineken at the time, owned Truman’s. We didn’t have any contacts there, but I called Scottish & Newcastle up and got put through to someone who told us that we needed to speak to their external solicitors. I called this lady who said, “I don’t know anything about this, I’ll get back to you”. I knew she wouldn’t, so I called her once a week, every week for 6 months. Eventually after 6 months she put me on to the internal lawyer at Scottish & Newcastle. I called her twice a week, every week, and after a few months she got a meeting together with an MD, a Director of Information etc.
We reached an agreement with them and eventually bought the name. I did a lot of research in the metropolitan archives and found all of these beautiful old photos and the recipes of the beers they’d brewed every day from 1814 to the 1920’s. We then had to design a beer from them. We didn’t have any money, so we couldn’t build a brewery immediately, so we found these people out in Essex to brew it for us. In the end Truman’s was ready to go at almost exactly the same time as Plumen. I spent 4 days of my week on Plumen to get it up and running and then a day a week on Truman’s, which James was full-time on. We did branding, created the story behind it, got the beer up and running, went between pubs trying to sell it and delivering it to people, essentially working 6 or 7 days a week.
Eventually in 2012 we were able to raise a bit of money to start our own brewery and at that point I took a step back and started running Plumen full-time. James and his team built this amazing brewery, which is in Hackney Wick now. Truman’s is 350 years old next year, so it’s a lovely story.
Plumen launched, and was getting picked up quite well. In 2011 we won Design Product of the year, crazily beating products like the iPad and Dyson. The award opened up a lot of doors, getting us into retailers like John Lewis and Habitat. All of the mistakes we had made from Hulger we got right here. We immediately started hiring staff. I got proper manufacturers set up with middlemen between the factory and ourselves to help us organise everything. They were really supportive and helped us get off the ground without any real investment.
It was extremely hard work for the first couple of years, but in the second year we made a good profit, so we decided that we were going to keep boot-strapping it and plough all of the money back into the business. It’s gone well. For a while there were only 4 of us and now we’re 14 and about to raise investment and really go for it. We sell in over 75 countries, we’ve just produced our first LED’s and we’re being stocked in lighting independents. It’s really about encouraging everyone to adopt low energy lighting and see it much more positively and appreciate that it’s an amazing technology – they’re light bulbs that should last for a long time, so you want them to look nice!
What motivates you to keep doing something new? You could have stayed with one business and felt that was taking up enough of your time?
There is a real danger that you end up doing way too much and don’t end up doing any of it very well. I’ve definitely been guilty of that on occasions. However, I’m not naturally a doctor, or something vocational and my skills are adaptable, ‘jack of all trade’ skills. This has its downsides, but the upside is that there are lots of areas that you feel you can contribute to, and that you feel like you are constantly learning. It’s about being honest with yourself about what you want to do with your life, what interests you and what the limits of your abilities are.
If we go back to when you first started the mobile phone business, how long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
From when I started to when we launched was 5 months, which was phenomenally quick turnaround, but in terms of the rest of the company working, it takes longer. That’s a mistake I’ve made twice (which I hate doing!). At Plumen I didn’t hire enough engineers, I thought I could do it myself, which was extremely wrong. Day to day you think everything takes a long time, which is really frustrating but I think there are always points where you stop and look back and realise you’ve done a hell of a lot in the last few months.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
All of the time! There are moments where you look over the edge of the building and you see the abyss below you. You get more used to getting through those moments though, and the business grows stronger. For Truman’s in particular before we got the brewery up and running there were loads of times we thought we weren’t going to make it. But you keep struggling along and if you’re committed to it, usually there’s a good chance you’ll pull through.
When you’ve had a business that has gone bust – is there an element in which that’s empowering, knowing that you can get past it?
It is empowering to an extent – it’s like breaking up with your first love. The first time it happens it feels like the world has basically ended and you’re never going to get over it, it leaves a massive hole in your heart, but what happens afterwards is that you’ve been through it. You don’t want to go through it again, but you’re not scared of it – and you tend to see the signs when it’s coming. When it’s rocky you know you need to address something. In many ways it’s like relationships – you get better at them the more you do them.
What do you find difficult about your job / managing multiple jobs?
I’ve got much better at not trying to do everything and at delegating, which gets easier as you have more staff. There are always signs where you know that you’re wearing down or that you’re going through a difficult period, so then you need to look after yourself – your mind, your body – regular exercise, eating well, not drinking too much, sleeping well, seeing friends on a regular basis – going out dancing always helps!
What or who do you find intimidating?
I’m intimidated by the idea that I’d look back on my life and feel I haven’t done as much as I would like to, or that it has all been meaningless in some way. I’ve never applied for investment before, and I’m in the process of doing that, and I’d always been intimidated by the idea, but actually it’s not that bad. Rejection is intimidating at the beginning – as an entrepreneur you have to learn to deal with rejection on a day-to-day basis and you have to learn to deal with it and move on.
What makes you feel good?
When we brought back Truman’s and we could see people drinking it in local pubs, that was amazing. Likewise with Plumen, when you walk past someone’s house and you can see they’ve got the bulbs, it makes you feel that it’s working. When you see the fruits of your labour being enjoyed in the way that you want them to, that’s really good.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Legacy is maybe the wrong word – it’s more about leaving the world in a better place than when you entered in. I’m doing something that I believe in, but I also try and make it fun, I’m a boss who likes to get people involved, make it fun and ensure it’s enjoyable. It’s a mixture of the two.
Can you imagine ever wanting to stick with something for the rest of your life? It seems like your niche is starting things from scratch?
Yes to some degree, although it’s also the main thing that I’ve done. If I did ever step away from Plumen, I don’t think I’d start another company. There are other things I want to do and try that aren’t necessarily out and out entrepreneurial – learning languages, living and working with different cultures of people. Until I get to that point, there’s no point in deciding.
How do you start your day?
I don’t like to wake up with an alarm clock. I prefer to wake up as and when my body needs to – if my body needs to sleep then that’s important. I tend to work 9.30-6.30, but sometimes I come in at 10 / 10.30 because I’ve worked later, sometimes I come in at 7 – whatever my cycle is. I try not to stay in routines.
The way I organise myself is constantly shifting. I used to be a big note taker and list maker, and now I don’t take any notes or make any lists. I keep a draft email with a to do list for everyone who reports in to me and manage it that way. I sit down with everyone who works for me once a week or once a fortnight and I think that’s really important. Life has turned much more into a series of meetings.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
I’ve got a friend who works for a company called Sleepio and he’s working at the forefront of digital health, which I think is going to be huge in the future. I think what they’re doing at his company, because it’s going to benefit people’s help so much, is absolutely fantastic.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an explorer – I’ve often thought about buying a submarine and being the first person to explore certain depths – I still think about it regularly!
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
It sounds cheesy, but follow your heart and do something you enjoy. Make sure it’s positive, have a good moral compass in how you approach it – and also, most things aren’t worth crying over! But you can tell people these things, but they have to work it out for themselves…
Check out more about Michael's innovations in lighting at http://www.plumen.com