Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I made it: Joe Blackman, founder of Collection 26

A YOUNG Joe Blackman spent summer weekends serving fruit juice at a storytelling festival on the Welsh coast.

“I was roped into it,” said Blackman, whose mother was an event manager for the festival. Each year, she convinced him to come along as a helper. Today, he too makes his living as an events manager.

At the age of 19, Blackman helped at top music festivals such as Party in the Park in Cardiff and the Brecon Jazz Festival. In 2007, still in his early twenties, he decided to strike out alone — and target bigger wallets.

His company, Collection 26, now organises corporate and private events, including weddings, for clients such as the Abu Dhabi royal family and American music stars including 50 Cent and the Killers. Blackman has 14 staff, based in Notting Hill, west London.

He typically charges 20% of each event’s budget, which is usually from £250,000 to £1m-plus. Last year the company had sales of just over £3m and profits of £1m. In December, it expects to report sales of £4m for this year.

“I like to keep it small and make lots of money,” said Blackman, 29, who owns 100% of the business. “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.”

His key to success? What he calls “strategic networking” at the festivals where he lent a hand. “I made friends with the bands’ management and helped to produce after-parties for visiting artists. Eventually your name gets around.”

Blackman grew up in Llantwit Major in the Vale of Glamorgan, overlooking the Bristol Channel. He and his younger brother and sister were brought up by their mother, an events manager at the St Donats Arts Centre. She helped to organise Beyond the Border, the annual storytelling festival at St Donats Castle, where her son was roped in to help.

By the time he left Llantwit Major comprehensive school after A-levels, he had progressed to an event manager, helping to entertain the festival’s 10,000 visitors.

After starting a degree in stage management at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, he freelanced for other festivals. He got a taste of entrepreneurship after becoming vice-president of the students’ union in his second year. “I used students’ union funds to buy back and run the bar franchise, which had been outsourced. It was a good move.”

Blackman did not return for his third year. A friend of a friend had dropped out of an events role at the 2006 Asian Games in Qatar, and he filled the spot. “For six months I stayed on a cruise ship because they had run out of accommodation.” On his return to Britain he decided never to work for anyone else again. “I don’t think I was a very good employee. I had too many of my own ideas.”

He taught himself about web design and advertising before applying to the Welsh Assembly for funding to set up a business. He was turned down, but he did secure funding to do an MBA, despite not having completed an undergraduate degree. “I had to have special dispensation from the University of South Wales based on my experience, having run various businesses from a young age.”

While setting up Collection 26 a year later, he also found the time to become the youngest magistrate on the Cardiff bench.

Blackman moved his office from Cardiff to Notting Hill in 2010 to be closer to venues and his clientele. Initially, though, it cost him some staff. “It was a fairly spontaneous decision. In my fairy-tale way I thought everybody would come with me but they didn’t, which was hard.”

He is planning to open an office in New York. “It’ll be difficult to start over there but it will happen. It’s a priority.”

Collection 26 has grown by reputation since Blackman won his first client, the Africa Oyé festival in Liverpool, in 2007. “Anyone can book things for an event; the key is how you orchestrate those elements into a journey. It can be a very creative process with the small details making a massive difference.”

Planning weddings for billionaires and footballers — including for the Arsenal player Theo Walcott in Italy last June — is particularly challenging. “If you screw up, you have the best solicitors in the world crawling all over you.”

When preparing a £250,000 private event in Newcastle, he had to handle the breakdown of a generator powering a kitchen and lighting for a 70ft marquee. His cool response: “We told the client it was an emergency lighting test while the technicians rewired the whole event.”

Blackman, who is single and lives in Richmond, southwest London, has this advice for entrepreneurs: “You don’t always need investment to start a business — be innovative with your ideas, work hard and show passion, drive and determination in anything you do.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Joe Blackman of Collection 26

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