Steve Monnington of Mayfield Merger Strategies continues this series showcasing young talent and fast growth with a look at investment event organiser 121 Group.
Most entrepreneurs find themselves in events by chance and Toby Duckworth, one of the four founders of 121 Group, is no exception. Duckworth started working in events straight from school, selling ladders at consumer exhibitions. Stints with Simon Burton at the Exhibiting Show and with Incisive Media were followed by the failed launch of his own music industry event.
Aged 22, and needing work quickly, Duckworth went to the office next door and landed a job with Aspermont Media, working on Mines and Money – a mining investment event where he met Pablo Martin, Aspermont’s sales director. While at Aspermont, Duckworth also worked closely with content director Leo Stemp and marketing director Charlie Hastings, who worked for Hong Kong-based Beacon Events on the launch of the Mongolia Investment Summit, a JV event between Aspermont and Beacon. A move to Hong Kong followed three years later after the two companies formally merged and the four people who would become 121 Group started working together.
They debated whether to set up on their own and the deciding factor was that they didn’t believe in the exhibition model for their sector.
“The mining companies that exhibited only wanted to meet investors and they were being diluted by service providers. We saw the exhibitors leaving the exhibition floor to go to meetings at the offices of the investors rather than trying to find them within the exhibition,” Duckworth recalls. “We saw a massive opportunity in being different by offering one-to-one meetings rather than having an exhibition.”
121 Group was born in March 2014.
The premise of the business was to create one-to-one meetings events where investors meet investment.
“We looked for sectors that typically starve themselves of capital – mining, technology, oil and gas and property – where companies need continual funding to exist, guaranteeing repeat business,” Duckworth explains. Hastings had worked at IIR and Stemp at EMAP, so they had multi-sector experience, but they started with mining because they saw the immediate opportunity.
The two-page business plan they produced was based on the launch of three mining events in the first year – London, Hong Kong and Cape Town – followed by an Oil and Gas event. “We were surprised by the success of the mining events so the other sectors went on the back burner” recalls Duckworth.
Within six months of setting up, the team received an acquisition approach from a major organiser but they felt that it was more of a recruitment exercise than a belief in their vision of the future of the business.
“We felt that it was far too early and the three-year plan that we had to produce as part of the valuation process reinforced our faith in what we were planning, so in a way it helped us make the decision to remain independent and not to sell for a fraction of the value that we see four years on.”
The importance of the team
At 25, Duckworth was around 10 years younger than the other three, but it was clear that the four of them had complimentary skill sets and were in the right places – Hong Kong and London – to make this work. Duckworth had learnt from his previous attempt at running his own business that to be successful you can’t do it on your own. How does the team dynamic work?
“Pablo and I provide the commercial view and it’s key that Pablo probably has the best connections in mining in any events company,” Duckworth explains. “Charlie handles the marketing whilst Leo as the conference producer adds gravitas and thinks things out in a different way. Charlie and Leo tend to reign in the more maverick ideas that Pablo and I have.”
Challenges to growth
Recruitment of good people is the common challenge for all event organisers and 121 is no different.
“The biggest challenge has been getting the right calibre of people and getting them quickly enough. Recruitment has lagged event growth and the first sales person didn’t join until year three. With hindsight we should have turbocharged the recruitment process. We cancelled our London tech event after the first edition and used the venue slot for another mining event which brought in four times as much revenue. We didn’t have enough people to do both,” Duckworth recalls. “Having product specialists earlier would have quickened our pace in the other sectors – we’re only recruiting for these people now.”
Does the company recruit event specialists?
“We don’t tend to recruit people with big exhibition experience because they have to unlearn a lot of what they’ve done before” Duckworth explains. “We don’t want 60,000 people at our events – we want 376, but it has to be the right 376 and we don’t sell square metres. Most of the people who join come from outside the sector – it’s easier for them to understand what we do as they’re learning it for the first time. Our two top salespeople used to sell jewellery and rugby kits.”
I asked Duckworth if their team approach had changed as the company has grown.
“We don’t have a hierarchical structure with an MD,” he explains. “The four of us still agree the big decisions by committee. However, we’ve grown to a team of 42 in London, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada and so I’ve taken on a more corporate role to ensure that the culture of the business develops in the right way and the needs of our growing team are taken care of.”
And has their attitude to risk changed?
“Early on our decisions were a reaction to what was happening at the time. Our cleverest move, which was driven by our waiting lists and which turbo-charged our growth, was to double up on events and hold them in London, New York and Hong Kong twice a year. Now we have to think through decisions more carefully and how they will affect both the staff and our existing products,” Duckworth explains. “There is more strategic thinking, but we stop short of the incessant re-budgeting that is a product of the larger organisers.”
What lies ahead, surely it’s going to be hard to sustain the rate of growth?
“Not at all” argues Duckworth. “We’ve had enormous growth over the last two years and we can maintain good growth with our existing events. Currently 90 per cent of our business is in the mining sector but we’re speeding up the development of the other sectors which are much larger – primarily property – and through cloning, turning them into a series of events covering North America Europe and Asia.”