Tony Rafferty: How I made a million from nightclub flyers

Armed with his own software and a keen eye for a business model, Tony Rafferty grew his printing firm into a profitable chain of shops.

Tony Rafferty, 44, was a keen computer programmer as a boy. He signed up for an electronics degree at Sheffield University, but found it "as dull as ditchwater". Bored, he began designing flyers to promote student nights in local clubs. Before long, he was spending more time promoting than studying, so in 1990 he was "thrown out".

Undeterred, Rafferty focused on promoting. "It was a hectic lifestyle. Sometimes you'd get thousands of people to a club and be invited to an afterparty at the end of the night." Nonetheless, by 1992, he was tiring of promoting club nights: "I was getting a bit older." Besides, he now knew how he would make his fortune.

"I could see a big opportunity in printing flyers for night clubs." He borrowed £5,000 from his father and set up Flyerexpress. "Night-club flyers are a pretty dynamic industry. If one club decides to make a new night on a Thursday, its rivals need to respond pretty quickly."

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His quick production times and reliability meant that he began attracting large national chains. "If you could impress one club with your work, they'd soon let other venues know." Luminar and Granada soon became customers and by 1995 Flyerexpress was turning over £600,000 a year and had 11 staff.

But then a problem hit Rafferty. "I wanted to build a big business, but the way we were doing things just wasn't scalable." The firm's quality and reliability began to drop as it struggled to cope with the extra custom. "Hiring more staff... just added to the chaos." Rafferty decided the firm needed a complete overhaul.

He hired programmers to build him administrative software that could handle jobs from the original flyer request through to design and printing. "Not many small companies had their own proprietary software but it was a massive help." By 1996, he was ready to take on more business. "I wanted to sell to small businesses, like florists and plumbers."

Mail order campaigns did the trick. As sales grew, Rafferty continued to invest in upgrading his software. "Doubling the functionality of the system normally meant squaring the costs." Nonetheless, by 1998, Rafferty was ready to open a print shop in Edinburgh, to sell directly to customers. "The shop was 350 miles away from our base, but... we had lower costs than our rivals and it was all because of our logistics and software." A year later, a shop in Sheffield followed.

By 2000, he was ready to go to the public markets for cash. He changed the firm's name to and listed it on Ofex, a market for small companies. The money raised funded another 24 shops across the country. With business booming, he created a franchise model in 2002. For an upfront fee and yearly subscription, franchisees got to use the brand name and had access to his administrative system. By 2008, more than 280 had signed up.

Recently, the printing industry has been hit by customers switching to the internet. But while larger rivals have gone bust, Rafferty is optimistic. Last year sales reached £22m and he launched an online service,, where freelance graphic designers can sell their work online to businesses globally. His aim is to create "the largest crowd-sourced library of graphic designs".

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.