A surprising number of entrepreneurs have made their fortunes after dropping out of university. These include Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Twenty-nine-year-old Joe Blackman is still a long way from their level, but he has no regrets about leaving his course at Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama early to take a key position at the 2006 Asian games in Qatar.
The job, which involved managing the medals presentation at the aquatics events, only came about when a friend of an acquaintance had to withdraw.
Even before his time in Qatar, Blackman had accumulated substantial experience in events management. He had grown up helping his mother with an annual storytelling festival held in the Welsh town of St Donat.
At university he became the Vice President in charge of events at the Student Union, and took the union’s bar back in-house. He also organised a wildly successful student ball, with tickets sold all over Wales.
After returning from Qatar, he realised that there was a gap in the market for more creative events. A brief four-week stint in an event management agency convinced him that he wanted to work for himself. He therefore decided to take the dramatic step of founding his own company, Collection 26.
He raised £17,000 from his family and friends, which was enough to buy leases on an office in Cardiff. He also taught himself web design, marketing and accounting.
Events management is extremely competitive, with a high failure rate even at the best of times. Worse, promotion and corporate parties were the first thing hit by the recession that followed the financial crisis. But instead of becoming one of the crisis’ many casualties, Blackman thrived.
One of the turning points came in 2007 when he secured a contract to manage the production of an African music festival. He was also able to draw upon the connections he had made during his time in Qatar to win contracts.
Blackman thinks that his success is the result of tough decisions. After several near misses, he realised that, because “people hire people”, he needed to turn the small scale of his company into an advantage, by emphasising his creativity and personal touch.
At the start of the recession, he shifted away from the declining corporate market towards private parties, which paid better. He also introduced a novel pricing structure, based on a rate card system. To keep costs down, he made sure he outsourced as little work as possible, and used his own equipment where possible.
The riskiest decision he took was his relocation from Cardiff to London in 2010. While he had a strong relationship with Cardiff, including becoming Cardiff’s youngest magistrate, he realised that commuting to London was eating up too much of his time.
The move cost him several staff, but brought him closer to potential clients. He now employs 14 people in his Notting Hill office, and his firm made a profit of £1m last year on a turnover of £3m.
From his own experience, and that of mentoring other entrepreneurs, he believes that “if you put in the hours in the evenings and weekends, you will develop a sense of satisfaction”.