On the up · 11 June 2018

From shed startup to red carpet parties: Clownfish Events founder relives his road to success

Clownfish Events founder Matt Turner
Clownfish Events founder Matt Turner

Inspired by Robbie Williams famous Knebworth concerts to launch an events startup, school-leaver Matt Turner raised enough money for a van and some driving lessons and soon counted Google, Bafta and Sky among his clients.

Turner gave Business Advice a brief history of Clownfish Events, describing how it felt to choose the path of entrepreneurship and revealing how his company went from shed-based startup to serious event producer overnight.

Who are you and what is your business?

Matt Turner, MD of Clownfish Events. I started the company nine years ago (originally as a party-hire company specialising in outdoor events, technical sound and lighting) after leaving school at 18.

Clownfish is now a full-service events production specialist. Although the party hire business was financially lucrative and we had been doubling revenues year-on-year since launch, I felt we were just a glorified delivery company. The real opportunity was organising events from concept to clear-up – and that is exactly what we do today.

Our client list includes some of the UK’s best-known brands, like Virgin, Google, British Airways, Microsoft, Bafta, John Lewis, Amazon, Lloyds, Channel 4 and Sky.

Clownfish Events
Turner’s client list includes brands such as Virgin, Google and British Airways

We’ve done everything from office summer parties and shop re-launches to weddings, winter wonderland experiences, employee branding events, birthdays and bar mitzvahs, Buddhist festivals and most recently, the UK launch of Bosh! in Borough Market.

Where did the concept come from?

I’ve always been interested in the events and entertainment business and started my first company aged 13 with a school friend. We saved £15 a week from paper rounds to get enough for a set of decks and speakers and launched M&J Productions, DJ-ing at youth clubs and local community events.

It was pretty awful, but we were only young and it was much better than having a regular Saturday job. The business saw us both through to the end of sixth form and then I decided to start a dedicated party-hire company instead of going to uni. That was the start of Clownfish.

What was key in terms of getting started?

One of the big things for me, given that I was very young when I started Clownfish, was having the vision to pursue entrepreneurship as a career choice. I wasn’t particularly academic and when I left school after A-Levels I wasn’t sure what to do next. My friends were off studying medicine or law and enjoying university social life. It was difficult to be the “odd one out” – starting a business and working when all my friends were pursuing a very different life path.

What makes the business unique?

It’s very hard to be unique as an events producer but I think that, given our size compared to larger operators, we are more naturally versatile. Our team can produce unusual events and deliver a large range of concepts in-house without having to rely on associates.

Our twelve employees and their commitment to the business set us apart. We don’t use freelancers for the events that we produce; everyone works for Clownfish directly. We believe in giving people a chance and hiring based on gut instinct rather than just a dazzling CV.

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Our origins in party equipment hire mean we can keep costs down. We have in-house access to the widest range of party paraphernalia imaginable – anything from a pop-up ice-skating rink to a rodeo reindeer. We don’t need to hire in items and add margins on top, which can raise event costs significantly.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when launching?

Finance was a big issue. I couldn’t get a bank loan and my family were unable to help. It was hard going and there was no crowdfunding available at the time. I just needed some basic equipment to get started and eventually secured funding from external investors.

I raised £20,000 and used the money to buy a van, driving lessons, more audio equipment, a rodeo bull and listings on Yell. I naively gave away 55% of my company equity in return and have only just managed to recoup it. Although it was a difficult lesson to learn, I wouldn’t be where I am today without that funding.

What’s your biggest achievement to date?

Events companies come and go, but we’ve proved our longevity as a brand. The company celebrated its 9th year birthday in April 2018 and we’ve seen our revenues double year-on-year as we’ve continued to grow organically. Hundreds of thousands of people across the UK and Europe have had an amazing time at one of our events.

My biggest challenge became my biggest growth opportunity when I was forced to move locations because of a landlord issue. I ended up getting a mortgage to buy warehouse space and we went from being a startup in a shed to a serious event producer overnight.

Our big break into corporate events came with House of Fraser and the chance to create six store re-opening parties across the UK. We have hosted brand activation events for British Airways, Saffrey Champness, the Bosh! vegan book launch, Wimbledon Bookfest and Winter Wonderland, Shinnyo-en Lantern Festival and numerous large private parties and weddings.

What marketing strategies have you used? 

The events sector is very crowded and there are a large number of companies offering event management services. Our strategy focuses on delivering customer excellence and exceeding expectations, because it is client recommendation that will ultimately ensure that our pipeline is full.

We also invest heavily in our brand, creating a distinctive and fun identity to reflect what customers can expect when they engage us.

Clownfish Events
“Finance was a big issue. I couldn’t get a bank loan and my family were unable to help.”

In five years’ time, I’ll be…

Clownfish Events will be London and Surrey’s most loved event company – the go-to brand for unforgettable events.

We’ll continue to conceive and deliver simultaneous, exciting, creative projects whilst retaining those trademark Clownfish values of quality and fun. 

Who are your business heroes and why?

Richard Branson for turning himself into a brand; Richard Reed of Innocent Smoothies for his innovation and drive to burst into a crowded market with such impact; Peter Jones for his business knowledge and decision-making. 

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Always value your employees and the contribution they make to your success. Having bought out the last equity shareholders in Clownfish, my next step is to offer shares to employees instead. I think it’s crucial to reward loyalty and give people a genuine chance to share in the company’s success.

When you are recruiting, look through the CV and find something intriguing about the person you are looking to hire. Giving someone who isn’t the obvious candidate a chance to prove him or herself professionally is incredibly inspiring. One of the best recruitment decisions I ever made was to hire someone that had just been fired from their previous job. Some employers might have been deterred – but I wasn’t and I have never looked back.

Set the bar high and give yourself a challenge, as that needs commitment and helps to build the momentum you need to really go for it.

My inspiration for high production values came from the sheer size and spectacle of Robbie Williams’ three-night event at Knebworth in 2003. When he entered the stage upside down, flying from the roof, I suddenly understood the massive impact that an experience like that has on an audience. That moment was pivotal in my approach to creating events.

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Praseeda Nair is the editorial director of Business Advice, and its sister publication for growing businesses, Real Business. She's an impassioned advocate for women in leadership, and likes to profile business owners, advisors and experts in the field of entrepreneurship and management.

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