Entrepreneur Q&A: Haralambos Stavrou of Beyond Certainty
By Michael Northcott Wednesday, 14 November 2012
Haralambos and his business partner concocted their plan for an events business over a few too many drinks at four in the morning. Now they've got billion-pound companies coming to them for help.
How did it all get started?
The idea was conceived about 11 years go. We set the company up after a very late night of drinking and chatting. I used to work for Marriott hotels, so I had some experience in events, and me and my business partner said, there’s no reason we can’t start something ourselves.
So we converted a garage into an office, took no salary in the first year, and worked with our existing contacts. It grew by word of mouth for a long time, but we tried very hard to make sure we had enough business on the books for the following year.
So what is the setup now?
We have 15 people working for us now in an office near Old Street station. We’re a bespoke event management company, and we’ve tried to remain as small and exclusive as we can.
We don’t advertise, but focus on the needs of our clients. We try to be extremely specific to avoid doing the standard ‘packages’ thing that events companies often do.
What’s the best thing about the job?
Well, I’m doing something I genuinely love. Back in the day, I was a graduate trainee at Marriott, and their events division was the one area that I found interesting and diverse.
Running this business, every single day is completely different: every day I’ve got something interesting in my diary.
What’s your day-to-day role in the company?
I try to meet every single client where possible. I try to be involved a little in the organisation and add some creative input, but I am the face of the company for a lot our clients.
We charge a bit more than other event companies, so I want the client to ‘meet the boss’, to help give them some confidence in the work we do, and to feel that we’re taking their needs seriously.
What’s your personal workload like?
I’ve always been a hard working, and I had been working very hard for Marriott, before I started this. I thought if I could put my energy and passion into my own thing then it could work.
So I do an awful lot of work. There occasions where I work 18 or 19 hours per day, attending events that finish late or simply putting in time on new projects.
Has there been any overseas expansion?
At the moment about 30% of our revenues are generated outside the UK, but it fluctuates according to what’s happening with the global markets.
What is the benefit of having a small team instead of being a big company?
The small company feel is excellent. There are so many people who we do business with where I’ve never met the owner of the company, but with us you get to meet a representative and chat about the project. It revolves around that level of personal service.
I push all my guys to meet clients instead of conducting all business via email. It pays off every day – your clients feel comfortable if they know who you are. Have a coffee; make sure everyone’s happy.
What’s the best thing about the job?
What you put in is what you get out. If you’re prepared to put the hours in then you get a lot out. You need to be willing to get up in the morning and deal with a thousand problems, and be fighting fires very often.
But ultimately my role is fun. I’m a very visual person, so I love the idea that you start a project with a lead-time of six seven or months with a blank sheet of paper, but then months later you get to see thousands of people attending a big event.
If all has gone well, you get the text or email from the MD of a multi-billion pound company saying ‘we couldn’t have done it without you.’ Because it’s my own company, it’s personal, and it’s very gratifying.
How do you split responsibilities with your business partner?
Well, we’re joint directors, but the good thing is, he is the brains behind the outfit. He manages the office and team while I’m out on the road managing the client relationships.
Our plan is that we won’t grow the office or the team to get more business. What we’ll do is if we get long-leading projects, then we will employ specific people to manage that project.
It maintains the team structure, where currently we try to get everyone able to do each other’s job in the office. We’ll grow one by one, but there needs to be a realistic business demand for us to hire more people.
What’s the hardest thing about the job?
Dealing with surprises. Dealing with solicitors for contracts. Dealing with accountants for the month end. Anything that is a learning curve for us is a hard part about the job. Every couple of weeks we’ve got something that we have to look at. Eleven years on, we’re still learning especially in where laws have changed concerning tax and accounting, fore example.
Where will the company be in five years?
We want to grow holistically and organically as opposed to rapidly. We’re 15 people now, in the next five years we don’t want to get any bigger than 22 people.
What is your staff turnover like?
We haven’t had any staff turnover for a very long time. Everyone understands what we’re trying to achieve, and we try to help them grow within our company. Whether it’s new projects, taking on different clients etc., we hope that our people get what they need out of working for us.
We send some people to the States for example, try and keep their job varied. They know they’ll never be the director of the company, so we have to give them other opportunities to make it worth it. It seems to work: all of our staff have been with us for at least five years.
What advice would you give to any aspiring entrepreneurs?
In most businesses people promise a lot and struggle to deliver on their promises, but my total belief is to make sure if you say you’ll do something, then you actually follow through and do it.
Our business is resting on someone who’s at the other end of a phone on £10 per hour and they can lose you a multi-million pound bill with a simple decision, so we try to make our customer service good enough that people have no reason to get sniffy.
So my ultimate advice? Promise big but deliver bigger.
Check out Beyond Certainty's website, click here.