Andy was introduced to me via Scott Morrison, who I previously interviewed for Masters of Many. When I explained to Scott that the definition of a ‘master’ meant someone who either had many fingers in many pies as part of a portfolio career, or had swung from industry to industry with a core set of skills, he was quick to suggest that Andy naturally sat in this space, and he was right.
A serial entrepreneur, Andy is motivated by seeing real change in the communications industry and is putting everything he has with his business partner to achieve this via a network they have set up that connects Brands with Independents to drive creativity. We caught up with him to find out more about his journey to date.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your career history to date?
I studied advertising and marketing at Bournemouth, and following that I started a small ‘cool-hunting’ agency. I call it an agency, but really it was a few lads who wanted to go travelling and we spoke to a few brands and agreed to do insights for them for a bit.
I worked at TBWA (the advertising agency) for a bit which made me realise I didn’t want to be an account man, as I wanted to do something more commercial. This led to me joining the Kingfisher graduate scheme because it was really fluid. They practically funded you to go against what everyone else was doing to learn. I went into Woolworths for 6 years, which was amazing. They gave projects that you’re not normally given at that age. I was running a budget of £10m by the time I was 24. They were ahead of Apple with online music and because I was the youngest there, they let me work on it. I got to work with people in entertainment, big brands and agencies. I was like a kid in a sweet shop and I learnt a lot about the commercial side.
Then a guy who had been mentoring me for years said that he was part of a start-up of 3 people. The business has gone through several iterations and is now called Intent HQ. The business worked with complex design based on heuristics and human behaviour in technology. I worked in strategy and got to work in Silicon Valley, with big brands like Pepsi, and with organisations like Stanford University on behavioural design. I learnt a lot. However, when I came back from the US, I had become jaded by the business model where money was being invested but there was no end in sight commercially for the businesses.
I spent a period of time thinking about what I wanted to do. I sat down with my current business partner, and we discussed the fact that we were trying to design a rocket ship for brands, when what they really needed was a push bike. They’re not ready to let tech do everything, and they still need that creativity. We decided to build an interest network. This was before Google Plus, but a similar concept in that it was small groups of individuals linked by a particular interest. We wanted it to be up to 150 people so you all know each other, hard to get into and you see value in it. All great in theory but not so great in practice! Long story short, we learnt a lot over a few years of developing that business – about raising money, about the London tech scene, about co-working spaces, all of these amazing things. Nick and I sat down and said that the project wasn’t working, so we had to find a new focus.
We created an app – the Shazam for things, called Squirrel – and we got a lot of attention for it and found that we could have potentially raised money for it, but again it didn’t feel real somehow. It wasn’t what we wanted to focus our time on for the next 3 or 4 years. There was a creative group within the company that was really working well, and jointly we worked with Canon to create a magazine called ‘Gather.ly’, which was about the best emerging talent in the UK – the top illustrators, designers and photographers.
My business partner and I fell in love with how they were working and how this new generation was looking at the world. It’s not about a career where it’s about step to step to step. It’s about looking at the balance in life creatively as well as commercially. However, there’s no infrastructure to do this, even though there’s a will from brands like Canon to enable them. The challenge was the gap between what brands wanted to do and what brands were able to do.
We then had brands coming to us who said that they liked what we were doing with Gather.ly and wanted to access the community in different ways. We did some great projects, with people like Debenhams and more with people like Canon. We grew the team, the community was brilliant and we learnt a lot about how you create a culture and a sustainable business.
We made a decision to make a change last year after working with an agency on a massive campaign, doing all of the work, and then they didn’t buy what we were selling. We realised at this point we knew a lot. We knew that technology should be the enabler, not to raise investment until we’re ready, that formats are the future, and that we believe in networks of individuals. We wanted to create a business to use technology to enable these independents to align brands with creative culture.
So that’s where we are. We’ve started ‘Something Studios’ as the brand around this idea. We’ve had a really interesting year in that we’ve done some big projects with Samsung, and we’ve done some big projects with Canon. We got rid of our office, and our staff – we’re now two people working with some of the biggest brands and agencies – and we’re doing that because we’re motivated by this independent culture and making sure that everyone gets the most out of it. It’s going to take time, but that’s where it’s going.
How is the network organised?
We have a database and we’re really motivated by understanding what people are interested in. I call it their superman side – for example, this is what you do to pay the bills, but at night, something else really turns you on. We care about that and we get people coming to us with projects as a result. We know their skill-sets, we don’t get people to pitch, we just go to them and say this is a live project, this is what we’re doing, are you interested.
The infrastructure around independents just isn’t there at the moment. Brands may want to work with them as these guys are better, cheaper, but they physically can’t deliver the scale of the solutions required – so we help with that, manage the quality control, the exchange and the delivery. Supporting creativity is going to have more influence than tech in my point of view.
How do you fit alongside someone like Vice – where they have a network of followers, they work with big brands to delivery content – is your output ultimately similar but you’re not a media owner?
It’s a good question – and it’s a good comparison to make – Vice have built up a brilliant business but what they’ve done is develop themselves as a media owner, the CNN of the future almost. But there are some inherent down-sides too – you pay a premium, you are aligning with projects that are already happening in the mainstream – you’re aligning with something that isn’t evolving or progressing. I’m not saying we’re not going to be commercial, but we believe that to be relevant you have to be vulnerable, inclusive, and give something to get something back.
You’ve obviously been through lots of different stages of entrepreneurialism. What first made you come out of the corporate structure?
Within Woolworths I got to the point where they said they wanted me to work in the direction of eventually leading the business (luckily in hindsight I didn’t do that!), but in order to do that they wanted me to spend time in commercial, time in different departments. My point was that I didn’t believe that I needed to or wanted to.
I’ve always wanted a challenge and to be of value to the person I’m working for. For me, it’s about working for certain people rather than brands. When it got to the point where my challenge wasn’t aligned with what the people I was working for or with were trying to do I realised it was time to do something for myself.
The real catalyst actually was that my partner at the time was very ill for 3 years. I didn’t really tell anyone in the business apart from the senior staff and they behaved very badly. So part of this was also wanting to create my own culture and way of working. The most important thing for me is having a business partner. I play to the more commercial side and my partner plays to the more creative side. You need that tension and that support. It’s a very lonely existence without that.
The toughest thing was moving out of earning a lot of money to earning nothing for 2 years – that was interesting! I worked out what was important and what I needed to live off and get by financially. You manage to still have a nice lifestyle and the focus is on seeing that something will come of this in the future and that’s the important thing.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
My partner and I have always been brutally honest with ourselves (maybe too honest). We don’t want to be a vanity business that raises a lot of money and fails slowly – we’re not interested in that. We’ve got to the point where we validate everything before we invest a lot of time and energy.
Resilience is important. The day-to-day reality of life comes into the equation – it’s not easy to earn a tiny amount for 2 years and constantly go from project to project.
The relationship I have with my business partner is really solid and we’ve always talked about where we want our lives to go and how we want to approach things. We’ve never sat down and thought ‘this isn’t going to work’. It’s been more about how we make this work for our lives, and how we evolve it. Nick a few months ago was doing freelance on the side to keep the business going so I could keep selling the business, but only a few months ago I was in LA talking with some of the biggest brands in the world – and sometimes you think ‘is this real, am I being a fool’ – but then you have another good meeting and you’re positive again. It’s about thinking about it over a longer period.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple parts of the business?
Everything is about focus – don’t run out of money and keep your focus – they’re the two golden rules. The problem is that you either focus on money but then you’re not focused on the bigger things. You have to think short, medium and long term. When you’re getting too distracted that’s a problem.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
We get drunk! It normally happens that we’ve done our work, sit down and talk through it all and that’s normally in a pub. We also try and expose ourselves to lots of other things that are going on and that helps you see that in the grand scheme of things we’re doing ok! When we do get knocked down we sit down and think what’s next, and get up and go again. I mentor a few people and I find their problems easy to solve, and then you sit back and realise you’re trying to solve the same problems for yourself. Exposure to other people is key – and if you’re doing the right thing you have to trust it will happen.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I don’t really find anything intimidating – not in an arrogant way – more that I don’t go into a situation with my own agenda. I used to be really socially awkward and hated things like organised conferences, and salesman and name badges – I used to go and hide in the toilets! Now I’m a bit more active – I’m interested in listening and seeing what people are doing.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Getting someone to sign or commit to something that represents an evolution – there’s no better feeling. You can be in a room with the best of the best at what they do and if they’re putting their faith in you and your ideas, that’s the best feeling.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
That I’ve got a nice beard! Seriously, if someone tells me that I’ve inspired them to do something. We’re helping a business at the moment – and I got a note from the guy we’ve been working with the other day saying ‘I’ve been up at nights, at weekends trying to crack this, and I feel so behind this now – and you’ve made that happen’. For me that’s the biggest compliment.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
That’s an interesting question as it’s also about your personality type. I think my legacy ultimately. I want to have paved the way for others and have changed something, and for people to think that we are fun and interesting guys to be around. If I was focused on the moment I’d be in a company working hard, but life wouldn’t be as challenging.
How do you define success now?
We want to progress brands and culture, for the industry to collaborate more and the financial model to change. Success is getting a solution that bridges that gap. There’s nothing more that I want to do. The lifestyle looking out on what we do is nice, you spend your time working places like this [the interview took place in soho house] and travelling a lot – but in reality it’s really hard and quite lonely! It’s all about the future and that’s the driver. I have no doubt that we’ll get there.
How do you start your day?
Every day is completely different. I try and break the week up. Most days I’ll be at soho house for a coffee from 7 and I’ll arrange to meet people until about 11. Then I’ll do the other work that I need to do. If I have time between meetings I’ll go and visit people and I’ll make sure I start at one end of London and end the other, and walk in-between.
You never stop working, it’s not like when I go home its ‘laptop off’ (although I get told by my girlfriend to). I try to arrange people coming to meet me, to structure meetings around more social things like having a drink.
How do you organise yourself? Any essential tools that you use?
Trello is a tool that developers used, where you can identify your backlog and the information you need to progress a project. We use a Trello board for every project. We’ve used Slack since it first came out. It honestly changed the culture of how we work, the team started to communicate what was going on at the weekend. It created a new etiquette.
We also use Xero – the financial tool that manages everything invoicing wise, for transferring funds – it’s so good.
Where do you most like working?
I sit in the same seat in Soho house! If I come here and someone else is sitting here [it’s by the balcony area and the window] all the staff laugh. I’m not good at a desk. I’m lucky in that I go to the States a lot, so I spend time in places like the Soho house in Miami. I like working places that have lots of people in to interact with, but I don’t like the rigidity of an office.
How do you come up with new ideas?
We’re constantly looking at stuff, reading stuff and talking to people so it constantly evolves. When Nick and I have to solve a problem, we’ve normally got a massive backlog of ideas we’ve already had to look at. We almost fight with each other to answer questions and constantly dig and something comes out of it, almost like a creative team.
You have to look at how you quickly validate ideas, and sometimes that involves people externally. Ideas are great, but putting them into action is the most important thing, and to do that you have to bring other people on board as soon as possible.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
In my background everyone became a plumber or a sparky, so when I was younger I never really found what I wanted to do. Since then I’ve wanted to ultimately create something that changes people’s lives creatively.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
Everyone should learn to be honest about what drives them. If it’s money, then great – go and work in a bank, set your life up with that aim – but also realise that you’ll probably work really long hours, and you may not love what you’re doing. Whereas for others who want to be photographers for examples, how do you make that work? If you’re honest about what you want, and stop benchmarking yourself against other people you are true to yourself. That’s what I’d tell them.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
It’s actually ‘don’t be a dick’! There’s a photographer called Jordan Green, someone who I think when we look back will have created some of the most iconic images representing our time. He spoke at a talk I’d organised and we asked him that question, and that was his answer. He’s a northern, down to earth guy, and It was the most tweeted thing about the conference! Relationships are the most important thing by far.
To find out more about Andy's business, go to the Something Studios site here.
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