I was introduced to Ruth via Anthony Iredale from Location Collective, the biggest film location agency in the UK. Ruth runs White October Events, a multi-tasking organisation that covers everything in the events they run, from the initial concept, programming and the logistics; and is soon to be a Mum, adding another string to her already busy bow. One of the interesting things about interviewing entrepreneurs is that starting their own company gives them the opportunity to create the kind of company they would have liked to have worked at. Ruth is creating something she can be proud of as a business owner, and her position as a Mum to be brings new issues to the fore in doing so.
I caught up with her to find out about how the company had come to life and continues to grow.
Tell us about your journey to date...
I run White October Events, specialising in conferences and events for the tech industry, primarily web developers. We're a different kind of company in that we don't do logistics for hire. We develop an event brand because we've seen a need for it in the industry. We come up with the concept, the name and curate the programme of brands taking part. We then do all of the logistics - organise the conference, the speakers, the catering, and sell the tickets. There aren't many companies that own the event brands themselves.
We'll be three years old in August. It was myself and one other woman who started it and there are now 4 of us, which is tiny, but feels amazing. The conferences are in the UK, but we're about to take one of the brands to the US, which we're really looking forward to.
It started because my good friend, neighbour and husband of one of my friends, runs a digital agency in Oxford. We were talking about the tech community (which isn't my background) and how they have this open and collaborative approach to learning. Some of his developers had started a local conference as there wasn't one available. They'd loved doing it, had a good response, but were losing money because they were devoting time that would have gone to paying client work. We sat in a pub and discussed setting up a new company to take on the two conferences they had, professionalise them, and start some new ones as well.
It all happened really quickly after that. We registered the company, and signed up for VAT. I don't have an entrepreneurial background whatsoever, and I've never had that ambition, and nobody in my family does. I've worked in the public and private sector, but always for other people.
The conversation came at a good time for me. I was thinking 'how do you keep your job interesting when you work on someone else's events?'. It's very operational, which I love, but I couldn't picture the next 40 or 50 years doing that. Things had been going round in my head for a while as to what the next step was. Do you have to generalise to the point it becomes uninteresting? Do you become a Director of Marketing and Events or work for an events company organising other peoples events, which I find a bit boring. I'd had experiences in other organisation where I thought I might be able to do it better, and make the people there happy.
At the time I was on 3 months notice, so we started it in the late summer. I live in Brixton and we found a nice co-working space there, so I rented 2 desks. Dave and I run 2 sister agencies. His is White October, and mine is White October events, so we have a lot to do with each other, even though his agency is based in Oxford. It's a nice way to start your own business, as there is another company of people we interact with.
I didn't know what I was doing, but we've just got on with it, and it worked out amazingly. We put on the first conference with a lot of support from White October, who quickly helped us get our heads around the industry. They gave us introductions to the right people, guided us in curating the right topics and helped us find sponsors. All of the conferences that we've run have been profitable, which has enabled us to then invest in the next conference. We'll be looking at growing as a company again next year.
What ultimately made you take the leap to do things differently?
I think it was just the stars aligning. This idea about my future had been going round my head, I was bored and I was quite fired up about the thought of the tech industry and the creativity and collaboration it has. It's an amazing industry and not one I knew much about. There is a real sense of community, openness and sharing. A lot of people I came into contact with and have kept me fired up are driven to make the industry more accessible, and that's one of the real driving forces behind the work we do.
Traditionally the industry has a bit of a white male demographic, but there are a lot of people who don't fit that mould and are interested in making it different, and I love working with people who are driven by that as well.
Like a lot of people, unhappiness in my previous place of work was also a push. I just wanted to do something different. I think the thing that finally made me do it was thinking 'what is the worst that can happen?', and that was that you can go and get another job. I'm naturally pretty risk averse so I need to tell myself those things.
What was your background before White October Events?
I did an English literature degree, went travelling, moved to London, and fell into in house marketing and PR. It was OK, and I quite liked the copywriting but I didn't like everything. Then I organised a conference and loved it, the buzz of it, and the feeling like you were hosting people and giving them a good time.
Very quickly I looked at specialist events jobs, and got a maternity cover at an interesting organisation called the CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment). They were a departmental government body and did lots of work around spaces for schools and hospitals. I did lots of cool events for them about sustainable building and the future of cities.
That came to an end and I went through a few different sectors working in house on events, and always loved the same aspects of conferences. The more autonomy I had over the event, the more I enjoyed it, particularly inviting inspiring people. For my last role, I was an event manager wondering what to do next.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in your new venture?
It was incremental, but the nice thing about conferences is that it's like a project. You get to the end of a conference, it's finite, and you know if it went well or badly. You can learn a lot from the things that don't go so well, so each time you do a conference, you feel a bit more like you know what you're doing. It was probably after 6 months that I started to get my head around this new industry and knew what was happening with my accounts etc.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
There was a 2-week period where the finances looked shaky and I needed to turn it around. There are a lot of nerve-racking periods in the run up to events. You can't control ticket sales and that's our income. I no longer think it's going to make us bankrupt, but there are a lot of nail biting bits. You do need a bit of money in the bank to ride out the odd storm, but I've been really lucky so far.
My business partner says that running a small business is like sailing a very small boat. A cruise liner can crest big waves and doesn't notice them, but with a small business, the highs feel high, and the lows feel low, but it's only because you're small. I try and think about that when I'm anxious. Once we have more conferences it will make us more diverse and we can take more risks, which makes it more exciting when you can afford to fail a bit.
What do you find difficult about managing the multiple roles that your business entails?
For the first two years, my colleague Vicky and I were doing everything, from marketing and copy editing, to social, the strategy about where we're heading, sponsorship sales, curating conferences and operational stuff. It's much more manageable and enjoyable now that we have two more colleagues handling the sponsorship and the event logistics.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
Just work harder! It probably isn't the best thing to do! I try and think about the things that make me really happy in the role and have felt like real achievements. I ring Dave and ask if he's been through it, and he always has. Sometimes when you work for yourself you can feel very alone, so it's good to speak to others. That's something I need to work on more, growing a network of people I can speak to.
What or who do you find intimidating?
The industry is super friendly and very democratic - you feel like you can speak to everybody. I've found the finance part of the business intimidating. I've never had to do it before, as I've always worked with companies with a finance department. Ultimately, it's really empowering once you have got your head round it. I'm a bit of a scaredy cat - everything new is intimidating, but exciting too, and then it's another thing you have under your belt.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
The times when I've felt brilliant is when someone who works for me has said they love the job. That's partly why I did this - to create a workplace where people are happy and inspired to be at work. Where they can have families, have lives, work flexibly and be behind the values of the company.
When we were about a year in I'd written down our core mission and the things we hold dear, but I wasn't sure how much I'd disseminated this into the culture. Then we had a team meeting and I got people to say what their values would be and they matched. That thrilled me - valuing people, relationships before profit, promoting new voices in the industry, inclusivity and diversity are core to what we do and I put a lot of time and energy into trying to be better each time.
I also loved it when we sold out our first conference. People were emailing us and begging us for tickets and that felt great - we knew that we programmed something that people were going to find brilliant.
You're expecting a baby - how do you see that working with running the business?
I suppose a bit selfishly and unselfishly it had been in my mind set when I set the company up that it had to be a flexible kind of workplace. It's a bit harder when it's your business, but I really trust my team. I'm going to have 9 months off and treat it like a traditional maternity leave and bring in a replacement. It's someone I know well and she knows the team well and she's going to be amazing, so I'm excited about that.
We'll figure out how it works after that, but I work near to where I live, which helps. We have one woman who works for us who has a young boy. She works different hours each day according to his school schedule, works from home a lot, and works with clients in the US to work with their timelines. I still have to remind myself that it's fine that it's 10.30 and there is no one in the office yet, as they'll work till 8. It just makes it a much nicer environment because people have that freedom. It's crazy the number of women I know who have to call in sick when they're not because they have to look after their kids, or leave early to pick up nursery. It's crazy that they can't be more honest.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
When people have told me that I'm a good boss or manager, I love it, as I really care about that. The last conference we ran felt very 'us'. We had put a load of thought into making it accessible and people were very active on social media. There were lots of comments about how inclusive it felt.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
I'm a natural born planner, but I'm trying to live more in the moment. The idea of a personal legacy has never had much meaning to me. I think it's more about a medium vs. long term effect for the company, the next 5 or 10 years. I think we can have a small, but meaningful effect on the tech community. We want to give people an opportunity to speak who don't fit the usual mould of speakers at tech conferences, and scholarship programmes so that people can come if they can't afford it, and set them up with buddies who can meet them and guide them a bit.
How do you define success now?
Work life balance - mostly human hours (just before conferences everyone works very hard); people getting paid what they're worth and being happy. The company is really important to me, and the work we do is important, but in the grand scheme of things I think that work shouldn't be the most important thing. The company should enable you to have a nice life, live it and be content, and create that for other people.
Where would you like the company to get to?
It's a bit about internationalisation. We have a lot of people who fly in for our conferences, so it would be nice to take the conferences to other places, do them differently, make them more diverse. It makes life more interesting for the team and de-risks the business.
I want the team to grow, to have our own office, and cement a company culture that's strong enough, that as we get bigger it still feels like the kind of company that we all want to work in.
I've started a funded growth programme by the Goldman Sachs Foundation. It's a small number of small business owners, with tutors, experts, finance and other resources. It'll be exciting to have the mental space and resources to really concentrate on planning and targets.
How do you start your day?
I work 10 minutes walk from my office, which is amazing. I thought I'd go running and swimming every day, but I don't! I have a relaxed morning - have eggs, read a paper, put a wash on - and even if I'm starting at 8.30 I've already had a nice morning - not faced people's armpits on the tube!
Then I have a pretty standard day. We still sit at desks and computers and I spend most of my day in meetings and Google hangouts and talking to my team. We're not like a Californian start-up that does most of its meetings on a climbing wall. A lot of my friends live locally, so I can meet them for lunch, and now it's sunny we can do work meetings outside.
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools / tips?
Vicky who I work with is the absolute master of personal organisation - she swears by 'Asana' - and in the past has used 'Nirvana' - they are ways of organising your tasks by chunks of time.
I'm really old fashioned and make lists. I'm an organiser and a multi-tasker. List broken down by today, tomorrow, this week, this month, forever.
I'm also now trying to study for this programme, so that's an additional 8 hours for my week, so organisation has become more important.
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
I'm just much happier having more agency in my own life. When things go well I know I can take some credit for it. When they go badly, I know that I can fix it. If I need a morning drinking tea for an extra half an hour, I can. If I need to work until 9pm, I can because I can just stroll home. It's just having that control. I really like the people I work with as well, and when you're picking your own team you have more control over that.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I try to talk to as many people as possible. I'm not a classic entrepreneur always having crazy ideas. I'm much more driven by having conversations with people. Usually it sparks an idea that might turn into a bit of a collaboration, we rarely do something completely on our own. Normally we will form a programming committee of people that we know to shape it.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was very little, I wanted to be a baker, then a journalist. I don't think Iunderstood how early you have to get up to be baker!
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
I think it is - 'what is the worse thing that can happen?'. When you're a bit of a worrier, that's a very useful question to ask yourself - it's rarely very bad.