- Players: Craig Bright and Brian Little
- Company: Seed Experiences
- Turnover 2014: R70 million
- Visit: www.weareseed.co.za and www.rockingthedaisies.com
Some businesses and industries have an in-built ‘cool’ factor that mundane but often more important sectors do not.
Try as we might, it’s tough to make commercial transport, construction or farming sound sexy, but where would we be without these valuable industries?
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When choosing to launch a business, entrepreneurs are often drawn to the industries that modern society simply cannot do without — after all, there will always be a market.
Unfortunately, there is usually a multitude of competitors doing exactly what you’re doing, and it becomes difficult to differentiate your offering.
The Road Less Travelled
Craig Bright and Brian Little didn’t go this route. They chose an industry virtually unknown in South Africa.
One with notoriously low profit margins, a propensity to not break even, and with no local players to learn from — good or bad. But man, the cool factor was off the charts.
They wanted to host music festivals, the likes of which form part of the backbone of European and American culture, but were not common in South Africa a decade ago.
They knew it would fulfil multiple passions, from business ownership to creating events with international acts they wished they could attend in South Africa – but most of all, they wanted to find a way for their dreams to make money in an incredibly tough industry.
Ten years later, Rocking the Daisies is a mainstream event that thousands of people attend every year. Festivals like Sowing the Seeds and Vodacom In the City are well-known, mainstream brands. Bright and Little are responsible for bringing international acts like The Lumineers, The Kooks, UB40 and Bastille to South Africa, with many more surprises up their sleeves.
Their turnover has tripled year-on-year for the past three years, and they’ve figured out a way to make the business sustainable and profitable.
They’ve also continued to learn tough lessons, and are consolidating the business to maximise revenue streams and ensure they’re never solely reliant on ticket sales. Their festivals bring in a captive audience, and financial sustainability comes from other, integrated verticals.
Here’s how they took a cool but not-so-lucrative idea, and are creating a new model that’s breaking rules and shaping an industry.
From 700 to 22 500 Fans
When Brian Little and Craig Bright first decided to host a music festival, they knew they’d have a few challenges. They had no money, no venue and no acts, and while a few isolated events existed, there was no music festival culture in South Africa.
They decided to do it anyway. Step one was choosing a date. Spring in the Western Cape seemed like a good time, and they could align it with the Namaqualand flowers. Now they needed a venue.
“We started calling our old boarding school mates to see who had a farm we could use. One guy said yes. It would take us four years to pay him the rental fee we agreed on, but at least we had a venue,” says Bright.
Next, they needed cash. Bright sold his house and Little sold his car. They both borrowed cash from their parents. “We were so inexperienced we ended up spending money on all the wrong things,” says Little. “We put a full 2kms of fencing up,” recalls Bright.
“We were very, very ambitious about how many people would attend, and we didn’t want anyone sneaking in. That fence cost us R20 000 and a lot of time and hard work because we put it up ourselves. And then 700 people arrived,” he laughs.
Through contacts they secured new local acts the Parlotones and Goldfish, printed fliers and hoped for the best. All in all, the event cost R1,1 million to put on. They had R350 000 in cash.
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After selling everything else they could, and Little moving out of his house and onto a mate’s couch so that he could rent it out, they were still R400 000 short.
Turning Things Around
“We owed on the venue, the bands and the equipment,” says Little. “We worked with some very understanding people who basically waited a long time to be paid.”
Based on those numbers, the future of Rocking the Daisies seemed uncertain at best, but Bright and Little didn’t let it deter them.
“We knew we’d lose cash; we’d made the decision to view it as an investment and lose it well,” says Bright. “We had such great feedback and support, and that motivated us to keep going, despite our losses.”
The following year they had 4 500 people and partnered with Cloof Wine Estate for the first time. To this day, Rocking the Daisies continues to be held in this beautiful setting.
By year three, 10 000 people attended the event. Today the title sponsorship has grown from R40 000 in year one to over R3,5 million.
“We’ve learnt so much about perseverance, following your passions and organic growth. We’ve been patient, and we’ve grown this incredible brand as a result,” says Little.
Creating a Showcase
A showcase can be anything, from the ideal client to a situation where your product works seamlessly. You need to be able to show potential clients what you can do, and ideally have a space where you can keep testing and refining your offering.
When Little and Bright first went into business, they knew their ultimate goal was music events, but the reality was that bills needed to be paid.
Bright had been organising sporting events in Durban, and so initially they focused on hosting school rugby tournaments and beach volleyball events, supported by a strong relationship with Vodacom. Within a year they took the plunge and opened an office in Cape Town. The KZN events continued, but they wanted to build new relationships.
The reality was daunting. Despite a track record in Durban, no one was hiring them, and they experienced very little growth. “It became the only thing we thought about or talked about,” says Bright.
“It became a discussion over braais and beers with our mates — what could we do to showcase ourselves? How could we get noticed?” And then one night an idea began taking shape. “It was a weird situation,” says Little.
“We were building the business on client and sporting events to develop the capital and experience we needed to launch music events, but we realised that to win clients, we needed a branded music event that showcased what we could do.”
That night, the first pieces of Rocking the Daisies began to take shape, and although it was a financial disaster, it delivered strategically — Bright and Little had their showcase. They had also planted the seed for what was to become South Africa’s largest annual multiple-day music festival.
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Celebrating its tenth year in 2015, title sponsorship at Rocking the Daisies is now over R3,5 million, 22 500 people attend each year and the event has won multiple local and international greening awards.
Plot the Lessons
It might sound strange to plot a curriculum within your own business, but the more focused your approach to identifying and then filling in gaps, the greater your foundations and ultimate sustainability and market domination will be.
Great businesses rarely happen by accident, and part of a winning strategy is continuous growth.
Bright and Little knew this, and were willing to learn. They took hard knocks, including one memorable occasion in their first year of business, when they hosted a big screen IMAX event, showcasing the Springboks vs Australia. “It was my first event,” recalls Little.
“We were screening the game in Durban and Cape Town, and Craig was at one venue, which meant I was flying solo for the first time. Nick Mallett and Dave Campese agreed to unpack the game at half-and full-time, and eTV were covering the whole thing, which was a major coup.”
It was a disaster. The power at Little’s event went out, and no one, including the commentators, saw a single minute of the first half. “I was in a complete panic,” says Little.
“Not only did our guests and eTV see nothing, but Nick and Dave were actually writing sports columns for major news outlets based on the game and they saw nothing. It was one of the worst experiences of my professional life.”
However, it taught Little that not everything goes as planned, and sometimes you have to pick yourself up and move on. As a team, Bright and Little also learnt how important fail-safes and contingencies are.
“You’ll never be able to plan for every eventuality, but we’re a lot better now at predicting worst-case scenarios,” laughs Bright.
The School of Life
These are the on-the-fly lessons that all businesses learn and Bright and Little have taken their schooling very seriously.
“We had two key areas that we needed to work on,” says Little, “growing our business acumen — which for me was non-existent — and learning the ins and outs of music events. Our strategy was to build the business on corporate events to create a stable income, but we couldn’t lose sight of the ultimate goal.”
And so they started formulating a very specific product. Bright’s background was sports psychology.
He had contacts in the sporting world, and they’d built up a solid client relationship with Vodacom. Vodacom’s Durban July stand and Vodacom Beach Africa became the year’s staple events. Everything else was focused on the music scene.
“We crafted brand experiences around music,” explains Bright.
“That was our niche. It was our way of learning about musicians, booking acts, dealing with managers and agents and understanding how people respond to music in a branded, experiential marketing framework, while still paying the bills.”
Even more important, the business was steadily building relationships with a number of consumer brands, particularly alcohol brands like Smirnoff and Mainstay, and other consumer brands like Wrigley 5Gum, Converse and Durex.
“We crafted exclusive, branded music events,” says Little. Each event taught the partners something new, taking them closer to their ultimate goal.
“We weren’t tapping into traditional marketing spend, which meant we could work well with each brand’s agencies instead of competing with them,” says Bright.
“We created live experiences at each event and worked with advertising agency DDB who created buzz around pre-campaign tickets and the digital experience. They got the interest, held it and got people sharing it.”
Bright and Little believe they have succeeded with both their branded client events and their own festivals because they’ve always put the consumer first in their planning. The lesson is a simple one: Start with your customer and build from there.
As Little’s background is in advertising, he approached each event from a brand messaging perspective while also considering the complete eventing experience.
“We always approached each event with a single core question: If I was at this event, what would I want from the brand?”
“Or ultimate goal is to create an experience that’s inextricably linked to the brand, but that only works if the consumer is getting real value from the brand engagement. Once that happens, they do your marketing for you, because they want to share the experience,” says Bright.
Bright and Little used the dual platforms of client events and Rocking the Daisies to perfect their theories. “The festival was our testing ground,” Little explains.
“We were very careful about sponsor selection, because we were creating a specific brand with Daisies, and then we took those lessons and applied them to our client events.”
“Daisies was our showcase,” adds Bright. “It wasn’t a money spinner at that stage, but it was a great place to test ideas, show what we could do, get brands involved and prove the value of our ideas.”
Most great and sustainable businesses are built on solid foundations, and that takes time and patience. In 2009, Bright and Little were lucky enough to be invited to one of Europe’s largest outdoor music festivals, Paleo, held over six days each year in Switzerland.
With the 2010 FIFA World Cup fast approaching, the organisers wanted an African theme for their World Stage the following year, and so they reached out to the company doing the most in the South African festival space.
“The timing worked out really well,” says Bright. “We were guests of the organisers, which meant we got to see how a huge festival operated behind the scenes.”
Even more beneficial to the two budding festival entrepreneurs was hearing about Paleo’s history. “We faced similar challenges, trying to grow a festival culture from the ground up,” says Little. “What really struck home was when they told us that the first time they made a profit was in their sixth year.
“This giant of a festival, one of the largest in Europe, took six years to make a profit. We realised that there was hope for us, and that struggling was normal. If anything, we were in a better position, because we had our corporate clients paying the bills while we grew Daisies.”
With assurances from the Paleo team that they were on the right track, Bright and Little returned to South Africa and decided to let the growth of Rocking the Daisies plateau.
“Your instinct is to keep pushing to grow, grow, grow, and get as many people to your event as possible — after all, more people equals more money. The reality was that if we wanted to grow a festival brand that’s loved and trusted, we needed to take things slow and not over-extend ourselves,” says Little.
“We had to plateau,” agrees Bright. “The year before we’d grown to 10 000 people, a massive jump from the previous year’s 4 500. We weren’t equipped or experienced enough to handle those numbers. We let it grow organically instead of pushing it, giving ourselves time to learn before getting too big, too fast.”
The partners also recognised the need to start bringing more experienced people on board. “We identified our gaps and filled them,” explains Little.
“We were still green, and we needed to learn from people more experienced at production. This would also allow us to focus on the areas where we added value.”
But Bright and Little were effectively leading the charge when it came to the local festival space — there were no experienced people they could hire. “We needed to look beyond South Africa for the skills we needed,” says Bright.
“We found someone who specialised in festival production in the UK and Europe and could come to South Africa on a contract basis during our summer months when his season was over.”
Bright and Little were now free to concentrate on other areas of business growth, but they needed to start employing a team that could learn and bring those scarce skills in-house.
“These are all expenses, often before you can actually afford them, but they were necessary if we wanted to become leaders in this space. We were always looking long term,” they say.
Partnerships come in many forms. Bright and Little work well together because their areas of expertise align but aren’t the same. As the business started growing, they recognised the need to bring in a partner whose financial experience exceeded their own.
“When Craig’s brother, Marc Bright joined us, he started by sorting out our books, which were a disaster,” says Little.
As the business grew, so did Marc Bright’s role. “We now had someone who was thinking strategically about the numbers, which made a big impact on our decisions, and how we viewed our income versus expenses,” adds Bright.
Like the founders, Marc Bright is acutely aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and has recently appointed an FD to take his place.
“In many ways, we’ve been victims of our own success, learning where our gaps lie as we’ve grown,” says Little.
“It’s important to be aware of these areas if you want the business to scale, and so we’ve focused on finding them and implementing solutions. As our turnover has grown, cash flow has become even more important, which has made strong systems and processes vital. This has required a new skill set.
“An established business needs different decisions, and a more careful focus on the bottom line. Every decision we make focuses on bottom-line growth.”
There are other external decisions and partnerships that are vital to growth. “Our main draw card from the beginning has been international acts, and that takes a lot of relationship building, with agents, managers and even companies doing what we’re doing on different continents,” explains Bright.
“Paleo opened a lot of doors for us, connecting us to international agents and managers. We’ve fostered those relationships, because they’re so crucial to our business, not just to get acts to South Africa, but for when we have an emergency as well — if someone drops us at the last minute for whatever reason, we need ticket insurance, but we generally try to find a replacement act that the audience will also love — and that takes assistance from agents. We can’t do what we do in isolation.”
South Africa is off the beaten track as far as concert tour schedules are concerned. “We’ve been working with companies in Dubai and Australia to be able to offer a full tour leg to international acts,” says Little.
“First, we added additional shows locally, so when someone comes out they play at least two or three different venues. Together with our partners, we offer a comprehensive tour leg, which makes the trip to the southern hemisphere more worthwhile.”
Create a Brand
“When we started out, we would do anything for cash, even weddings,” says Bright. As the brand activations side of the business grew and full year campaigns were signed, the partners were able to specialise in the music space, carving a niche for themselves, but the ultimate goal remained the same.
“We were waiting to hit a turning point when the festivals started making enough for us to drop events completely and focus on where we wanted to be,” says Little.
“We didn’t rush it, and when the time came it was a big decision. We were walking away from money, secure long-term contracts and a solid track record for an industry that was still in its infancy in South Africa.”
Passion won out and the entrepreneurs took the plunge. “By 2010, we had the knowledge, the connections, and the brand sponsors to do activations at the festivals we created, but that were branded as our own. We focused exclusively on festivals.”
Part of this fresh start was a strong focus on the brand. “In this space, the brand is all important,” explains Little. “We focused on building Seed Experiences, our brand, as well as the festival brands.”
International acts didn’t perform under the artist’s brand, but a Seed Experiences brand.
“We built our IP, brand awareness and sponsorship relationships,” says Bright. It’s an important step towards creating a strong brand, and Bright and Little knew they needed to concentrate on creating a predictable consumer experience, particularly around what music they brought to South Africa, and the unique look and feel of the annual festivals they hosted.
It’s an established business principal: To deliver an amazing customer experience, the brand experience must be personal and meaningful, deliver consistency, be responsive to audience needs and reliable.
To achieve this, the team needed branded vehicles, each with their own distinct personality. Rocking the Daisies was already established.
Now two new festivals were added, Sowing the Seeds, which was Cape Town and Joburg based, and In the City, a unique platform for Joburg that runs concurrently with Rocking the Daisies.
“We’ve always done activations, but only at our events, under our brands,” says Little. “It’s a necessary revenue stream that’s integral to our strategy, but ultimately our first priority is to build our brands. Everything else is built on those.”
Leverage Your Brand
There are three key elements to the Seed Experiences business model. First, create a vehicle that you can use to upsell other products with much bigger margins.
Second, find amazing, passionate partners who want your product to succeed as much as you do. Third, create experiences that no one wants to miss. If you offer value, you’ll have clients.
“We knew from early on that we don’t own our festivals alone. Many passionate people make these brands possible — the artists, the suppliers, the sponsors and organisations like Greenpop, who assist the greening of Rocking the Daisies. It’s a collaborative effort. Without them, this business wouldn’t exist,” says Little.
“In a way, we’ve reached a point where we can have the best of both worlds,” says Bright.
“We’ve led the way in building a festival culture in South Africa, and we host music events. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do. But we’ve also found a way to take an industry with historically tight margins, and make money.”
“We’re building a big machine here; it needs the right foundations,” says Little.
“What are we good at? Where are our skills? What aligns? And what’s good versus sexy? It’s easy to get seduced by the sexy, but is it right for the business? Does it align with our strategy? A key learning for us has been when to say no. It’s often tempting to take on a project to prevent another promoter from doing it or to please a sponsor, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for the business.”
Keeping a Balance
A big part of that strategy is consolidation on the one hand, and then spin-off businesses on the other. It’s a fine balance, particularly as the founders don’t want to dilute their focus and offering, but enhance it.
“We’ve brought all marketing, digital and social media and PR in-house, and will be creating a new entity to service clients through digital campaigns and activations geared towards music lifestyle and youth culture — which are our niche and wheelhouse. We’re sticking to what we know,” says Little.
Another new business within the group is The Bandwagon. “For years we’ve booked international acts, created travel itineraries and experiences for them, and yet travel agents have benefited from the bookings. We’ve hired an industry expert with all the connections and package rates, and we’re now bringing this in-house,” says Bright, whose primary focus is this new enterprise.
“This also means we can sell festival packages to international travellers. Oversees, whole holidays are built around festivals. We bought The Vic Falls Carnival, and launched this new offering with 100 package deals for fans, where everything is planned and covered, including transport, accommodation, the festival and activities before and after the festival.
“Once again we’re doing what we do best — selling an experience. We sold out almost immediately, and now we’re rolling it out on a larger scale.”