Grahame Ferguson, C.E.O. of HDS Entertainment, an event producer and promoter operating both in the US and the UK. HDS Entertainment has welcomed over a million people to its events worldwide. Their most recent success story is now one of the U.S.’s top touring attractions, The Big Bounce America, a family day out centered around the world’s largest bounce house.
What is your “backstory”?
I’ve been involved in entertainment and event production in various capacities since graduating from college in the UK back in the ’90s. This started out with me DJing at parties when I was a student, picking up great nightclub residencies upon graduation and at the same time beginning to cut my teeth in the promoting game. I started staging my own weekly club nights and one-off events and also carving out my first niche by bringing a lot of US-based DJs over to Scotland for their debut shows (My Dad acted as an unpaid chauffeur to Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Jazzy Jeff among others back in those days). Parallel to this, I invested in my first (and only) brick and mortar businesses in the early 2000s, opening up two bar/diners in Glasgow over a 5 year period.
In 2007 I decided to focus exclusively on events. Starting with just one event concept over a decade ago, my business partner and our team now have a strong portfolio of some great experiences that we’ve been fortunate enough to produce around the world.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Agreeing to build a massive bounce house after having a couple of drinks at Firefly Music Festival a few years ago is something that immediately springs to mind. We were there producing one of our other events, we saw kids bounce house, we snuck onto it and that’s where the whole idea for one of our most successful events started. Within six months we had the blueprint for the experience mapped out and the massive inflatable designed, engineered and in production.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I honestly don’t think there are many companies out there who directly compare to us. We’ve managed to make a commercial success out of some ideas that others in our industry may have dismissed as being too niche or too much of a fad. That I think is our real strength. We can see opportunities that others miss, and we can take those opportunities to a level that nobody else can. We do this without a conventional management structure and without any conventional work practices. For example, the majority of our business is carried out in the US while most of our core team is based in the UK (reviewing the travel budget at the end of the financial year is always a laugh). But while much of how we do things fly in the face of accepted business wisdom, it works for us.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
A large part of our focus over the past 12 months has been on The Big Bounce America. The success of that project has taken us by surprise somewhat and has led to us concentrating a lot of our time on making sure that the event realizes its potential. We launched with a short, 15 date tour in late summer 2017 to see if we could make the concept work and to test consumer demand. That very quickly led to us deciding to go ‘all in’ for the 2018 event season, expanding to 64 city stops with. So that’s been where our collective heads have been recent. But there’s a folder on my desktop with a gazillion other ideas at various stages of development all waiting for the right time, and a few spare hours, to take them to the next stage.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Let them make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. Try and avoid micromanagement. If you find yourself micromanaging, you’ve put the wrong person in the wrong position and ultimately that’s on you, not them. Be flexible with working hours, locations and days. And sometimes, in the interest of getting a performance out of someone, it pays to bite your tongue!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Most definitely our US booking agents Ari and Jeff at DEGY Entertainment. In 2010 we’d established ourselves in the UK as a successful event producer in the b2b space selling events and experiences to nightclubs, colleges and music festivals. When we tried to partner with someone in the US who could help us replicate that success nobody was interested. We had a proven track record, great experience, loads of enthusiasm and yet nobody would take our calls. Ari and Jeff were literally the only show in town. Since taking that chance on us they’ve been instrumental in the company’s success in the US and it’s safe to say that without them we wouldn’t be where we are right now. The lack of interest we experienced ultimately worked in our favor by forcing us into this marriage with two of the most committed and inspiring partners out there.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Everything we do is about bringing some fun into the world. That said, there are a bunch more people doing much more actual ‘good’ in the world than we are. I mean, there are some people curing cancer, others working in emergency rooms; I wouldn’t want to compare what we do to what they do.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
- That the fear of failure doesn’t ever leave you but actually grows stronger the more successful you become. It’s a great motivator.
- That the biggest frustration is often not the number of working hours you have to commit to but the lack of working hours you’ll have left at the end of each week to achieve everything you want.
- That making the right hires at the right time would be as challenging as it is.
- That America still likes to pay everyone by check! I had not laid eyes on a check in the UK since about 1992 and now everybody wants to pay us using one?
- What the acronym ‘CEO’ stood for. Somebody on the team who was filling out a form on my behalf asked me a few months ago and I had to Google it. Feels slightly embarrassing to admit to that.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
I’m sure there’s a ton of people who would be really interesting. I love exchanging ideas and learning from people with experience. For me, business is something you should just ‘do’ rather than something you should spend a lot of time learning about. So I don’t keep up as much with the who’s who in business, rather pick up a few interesting tidbits each step along the way.
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