Start-Up Stories: Entrepreneurs tell their tales
When visual effects company Framestore launched in 1986, William Sargent and his fellow founders could only afford two 10 sq ft rooms as office space, wedged between sex shops in London’s Soho. But they had big ambitions.
“We were very clear from the beginning that we were a global company, and we knew that one day we wanted to work for Hollywood,” Sir William says.
Going global is our theme for a fourth series of Financial Times Start-Up Stories, a podcast in which I talk to successful founders. They share the breaks, turning points and near misses that enabled them to build multinational companies. Episode one is published on Monday (find it at ft.com/podcasts).
International expansion is possible for even the smallest of companies thanks to online networks, but success involves overcoming age-old problems such as finding good business partners, hiring talented staff and securing funds.
Many entrepreneurship podcasts often tell a corporate tale focused on sales figures and the validity of a business model. What Start-Up Stories aims to do is bring the experience of running a business to life.
This series kicks off with Sir William, who reveals how his team turned Framestore into a major Hollywood player — winning Oscars for special effects on films including Gravity — with a turnover of £64m last year.
Silicon Valley founder Cal Henderson explains later in the series how a failed idea for an online game morphed into Slack, the messaging service used by more than 5m people worldwide.
Irish design graduate Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh talks about the complexities of converting a former button factory in east London to make the putty-like fix-it material Sugru, and how she created a brand now sold in more than 5,000 outlets from Singapore to South Africa, with minimal marketing spend.
The value of sharing stories is now recognised by those who teach the techniques of starting a business, for example to explain to investors why a founder acted in a certain way. Stanford Graduate School of Business, which topped this year’s FT ranking of entrepreneurial MBAs, teaches storytelling on its strategic communication and reputation management courses. Advice includes use of self-deprecating humour and knowing your audience.
Sir William claims the global growth of Framestore, named after the then-pioneering digital technology the founders used on their early video productions, was as much to do with justifying the considerable cost of their kit as the ambitions of its founders.
“If you want to do the best creative work you have to have scale and if you don’t want to be exposed financially, you have to have two or three [projects] on the go,” he says.
Other episodes deal with securing a first major deal and how to deal with sexism from potential investors.
Will Dean, co-founder of the endurance contest franchise Tough Mudder, explains in his episode the process of growing his idea for an alternative fitness challenge from an MBA project at Harvard Business School into a global brand. “I got it into my head there was this kind of secret sauce of commerce,” Mr Dean recalls. “I thought, ‘Well here I am [at HBS], I’m going to have two years of learning to be an entrepreneur’.”
Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder, whose participants are forced to scramble under live electricity wires in order to prove themselves, almost fell at the first hurdle in its entrepreneurial journey when Billy Wilson, a former soldier in the British army, sued Mr Dean, claiming that he had stolen proprietary information from his much older Tough Guy assault course business in the UK.
Tough Mudder and Tough Guy eventually settled out of court, with Mr Dean’s company paying a reported $750,000. “It was quite tiring and quite stressful at the time,” Mr Dean admits. “It was such a catalyst to drive ourselves and to grow, because we had no choice. In fact, it created an imperative for us.”
With hindsight, the experience was the making of the business and made him more determined to be an international success, according to Mr Dean. Last year, Tough Mudder generated over $100m in revenue.
“It sounds funny to say it now, and somewhat counterintuitive, but I’m not sure that we would have pushed ourselves to become the global brand that we did, at the speed that we did, had there not been that imperative,” he says.
The podcast often unearths painful experiences, but I am convinced that the ability to honestly recount an entrepreneurial life is critical to becoming a better leader, as well as being what makes even those who have no intention of launching a company themselves interested in entrepreneurs.
You can listen to the new series and previous episodes at ft.com/startupstories, available through the FT app, iTunes, Stitcher and other platforms.