I was introduced to Antony via Stanley Wilson, founder of Factorylux, a previous interviewee on Masters of Many. Antony runs the biggest location agency for film in the UK, and is therefore responsible for lots of the amazing film and TV sets you see every day. The business has grown in an organic way, and Antony is a great representative of someone who has lots of fingers in different pies, and continues to be so as he and his family make plans to move to New Zealand and run the business remotely from there. We caught up with him to find out more about his journey to date...
Tell us about what you're doing now, and how you got here...
About ten years ago I was working as a runner in the film industry, and I was offered a job to help set up a new company in the industry, Unitbase. For about £2.50 an hour and a percentage, I had to talk to every car park owner in London. At the time there were about 500 places in London that you could park a film unit, paying £500-£1,000 a day for the use of the space. The idea of Unitbase was that we'd take 20% of the fee of these spaces. Before we launched I drove round relentlessly meeting guys who were travellers, corporate companies, anyone with these spaces, and get them to sign up to the deal.
We launched the service out of the blue. I did a presentation in front of the Guild of Film locations. I was 23 or 24 and it was a really hostile crowd. What was clear to them was that they'd have to be paying more for the same product. Location managers like doing deals with car park owners and we were formalising this part. They'd prefer to go direct as adding an agent or middleman slows down the process.
We made money as a business, but the location managers were never on our side, no matter how hard I worked for them. I was running the operation. The other two 90% shareholders were nameless and were working in production. I was getting increasingly pissed off and depressed, taking calls at 5am when guys couldn't get into a car park, rarely getting thanked; and if something went wrong, people were gleeful about being able to put a rocket up my arse.
I had a great idea about how I could reverse the whole role - it was always a servant and master relationship between location managers and agencies, with location managers never getting rewarded fairly for tip offs for new locations. I thought about how to bring location managers into the company, but realised it wouldn't work at Unit Base. I was also keen to get a greater percentage of the company, and they weren't forthcoming.
I left on 6.6.6. I resigned to the MD, and he put me on gardening leave, and I wasn't able to do anything competitive for a year. I took a month out, watched the world cup, consolidated my thoughts and since then I've worked my nuts off!
Essentially, I created a location agency that location managers were inextricably attached to. Location managers have so many golden secrets up their sleeves in terms of locations they've shot at. I wanted them to introduce these locations and I'd give them a 25% cut of whatever I made from that point, essentially over-rewarding them for initial introductions.
I met 90 location managers over 3 months in different pubs across London. Most were on board because they knew I'd worked really hard for them at Unitbase. They told their mates and it grew really fast from there. I got everyone signed up before anyone else could do the same idea and we've retained that USP after 10 years. It's been the cornerstone that enables us to grow the company. Any time something new and exciting becomes available in London it gets introduced to us first as a location, and because of that we're the most relevant source for new locations.
When I started I had more of an altruistic view of what I wanted to achieve. I had spent that year of gardening leave working as a location scout, so I knew what a hard job it was. There were 2 prongs to the business for me: the financial side, and wanting it to be a platform for the location scouts to communicate, problem solve and resource share. These guys tend to be lone wolves, who are happy to be on their own day, so it was about getting them to work together more.
When we started I had a really thorough business plan, and accomplished a 5-year plan in 2 years. Then I decided to make decisions a bit too sporadically, like setting up the events and the photographic agency. Some of those elements weren't successful and things ground to a halt - it was a horrible time. I got offered a business mentor as part of a bank loan, and it was a defining moment of my career. I thought it was a wishy-washy bullshit idea to begin with, but a free business seminar opened my eyes to what I needed. The seminar featured a horrible woman who berated people, but what was good about it was that there were 10 steps she went through, and I hadn't been doing any of them! I'd been running a company based on enthusiasm, energy and a good idea, which is insanity.
For the past six years I've had a business mentor, Gareth. He sees everyone in the office at least once a month and has formalised everything. I used to be scared of being that kind of boss who would set targets - but people thrive working towards them.
The way we work now is pretty exciting. We have targets - Gold, Gold Plus, Amazeballs and Vegas. All the parts of the business aim for a group target. Gold means we go on a lavish night out, Gold plus is night out and half day off, Amazeballs is a Friday off and a trip into Europe and that's evolved in a crazy way, and we've never hit Vegas as yet. It would be a trip on a Thursday night, coming back on the redeye, with a 1000 budget per person.
As the company has evolved, people far more than tolerate spending the day with each other - there's a close knit team that enjoy spending time with each other. We go to Naples in 3 weeks. The collective culture is our value system of 12 values that the company and everyone in it work towards. We set them up about 4 years ago, everyone had an equal say (including me) and we went through an exercise of ways to deliver happiness. A lot of friendships have grown outside the office and it's a strong place culturally. From a performance and productivity level, I was always dubious about a group of people who are socially entwined, but they're a top professional bunch, they want the company to succeed and them to succeed with them.
What next for the business?
At the moment, I'm in quite a transitional period. In the summer of 2018 I'm moving to New Zealand. A few years ago I formalised a 5-year plan that included the year after me having moved. It was about building out The Collective (the location agency), Focus (a photographic location agency) and Canvas Events (a venue finding agency). 3 separate platforms across film, photos and events. They had a cumulative value target of £5m, and it hugely galvanised the team, giving people an ideology to get behind.
The Collective became successful. Focus died, so we merged it back into The Collective. Canvas spun on its head and converted from an agency to a directory and is now growing at a very fast rate. So now we have 2 companies operating different business models, working with the same clients, but they have 2 separate visions and business plans, but still sharing the same office. We share things like group bonuses, and some of the values.
As the companies have become more financially successful, I've started to look at how I best use my time and work in different ways. I went to Buenos Aires in Jan to revise what I wanted to do with the company. It was up in the air as to whether I'd keep the company or look at different options. I've decided I'm going to keep the company and grow it and run it from NZ. The focus now is getting the team comfortable with running the group without me there, and getting me comfortable with not being there as well!
So now its about putting tech front and centre, leaving a company with systems and software that make the processes that people do in their roles as efficient and painless as possible. The ultimate objective is for the platform to be as slick and enjoyable as something like Air BnB.
I've also just set up a property company with my wife and we are looking at how we make the most of the rest of our time in London. The business is called Collective Panda's - Collective property and new development propositions.
How do you see things working when you're in New Zealand?
4 hours a day is what's in my head to keep things going here. When I got introduced to coaching - I really wanted to be a coach. For whatever reason over the last couple of years I'm not 100% behind that now. I was never going to be a coach that would be paid by the hour. I'd want skin in the game and to be part of the business. There's also a part of me that wants to spend time on a boat and fish for snapper! I'd like New Zealand to represent being switched off a little bit.
When you first started your own business, what made you take the leap to do things differently?
It was tough because the guys I was working with at Unitbase were good friends, and I knew that leaving was always going to have bigger ramifications than just leaving a job. I just didn't feel that I was valued. The trigger point was really having the idea and the confidence that I could set up this business model.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
Never. I knew it was going to work so well that I was paranoid that people were going to tell other agencies. Now I realise that my competition were too busy to be in a position to develop a counter position, but I felt like if I didn't run as fast as I could to get location managers signed up, someone else could do it.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple businesses?
Since November I've worked 2 days a week from home. I can't have clear headspace in the office and I've had to detach myself a bit. That's kept me sane.
My weekly sessions with Gareth are the one point each week where I reflect, evaluate and plan for the following week.
I have a PA who is great, and she now has an assistant. I also see a life coach. All of this can have a massive cost to my family unless there is someone who is there to keep me thinking about being a great husband and dad. I find a lot of gratification from work. I love it and I'm addicted to it, but ultimately I'm trying to create something to make our family stable and solid.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
The reason I see the life coach is that I had a problem with public speaking and that used to give me the fear. Then I had to be a best man and had hypnotherapy to be able to do it, and now I kind of look forward to it. Seeing Gareth every week has taught me that if I identify anything as a fear, weakness or flaw, the best thing to do is just to go and fix it.
Also, I don't drink anymore and haven't really drunk for 7 months. After 20 years of hammering it, it started to have an impact on me. I had itchy skin and my liver stopped taking well to booze and I decided overall to give up. I read a book 'How to stop drinking easily' by Jason Vale - it's a brilliant book.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
60/40 to enjoying the moment, but there's definitely a lot of the legacy part about it. Once you invest and commit to something for a decade of your life you never want it to fail, purely because of what it represents about all of that time.
But similarly I only bounce out of bed in the morning because I'm still totally in love with what we do. I still get a kick out of Tom Cruise coming and checking out of our building, or sharing a lift with Tom Hardy - the list is endless of people who've been in this building and then if you extend that to everything that we've worked on and the way that our work is immortalised - it's fun, but also legacy in that sense.
How do you define success now?
I guess success is seeing out and fulfilling the potential of the company that you conceptualised initially. That's from a company perspective - the other way to define it is the company running perfectly and autonomously without me needing to be involved, although that's probably going to be a sad day for me as well.
How do you start your day?
2 days a week I exercise really early in the morning. If I'm working at home, I fire through lots of development work to get our tech fixed. Monday, Tuesday's and Friday's I get the bus in - it's a good place to work, planning my day ahead and getting annoying emails out of the way.
When I'm in the office what I'm usually preparing for or attending sessions with my heads of department to assist them in running their departments, or taking out team members to lunch to thank them, advise and coach them.
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools / tips?
I tried to get the team to start using Slack without knowing what it was, and now they're trying to get me on board with it. We use Tinypulse, which is a good employee welfare tool that enables heads of department to gauge how happy the team are and given them an anonymous platform for criticisms and concerns and that's been really useful.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
It's really important, but it's difficult. I don't want to tell them not to listen to their teachers but I think they have to do something they're passionate about, and look beyond what people are telling them. Sometimes as a young kid you don't realise that you can go out and research something if you think you like it - just do something that you like and you know you're going to love every day. I'm doing this, but it was more luck!
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
I would say it is 'Eat That Frog'. It is something I always say to myself when questioning what I need to do next. It is also a mantra that I have spread across the team over the past 5 years. Mark Twain once wrote that if you wake up and the first thing you do is Eat A Frog, then you will have achieved the most difficult thing you encounter that day. And, once you have eaten your frog … you guessed it, eat another one!
To find out more about Antony's business check out their site at http://location-collective.co.uk/ or follow them on Twitter https://twitter.com/locatcollective