PODCAST EP 49
On episode 92 of the Cemoh Marketing Podcast, Simon chats with Stagekings Managing Director, Jeremy Fleming, about how and why they pivoted their business from building stages and structures for events, festivals and concerts, to creating furniture for those working from home.
Stagekings create and build some of the largest custom stages and event structures in the country.
You can contact Jeremy Fleming here https://www.linkedin.com/in/jeremydfleming/
Simon Dell: So, welcome to the Cemoh Marketing Podcast, Jeremy Fleming. How are you?
Jeremy Fleming: Very well. Thanks, Simon. Thanks so much for having me.
Simon Dell: You’re here for a very specific reason, something that you’ve been doing in the last four months. Before we get into that, give us an overview of who you are and who Stagekings are.
Jeremy Fleming: Jeremy Fleming’s my name, Managing Director of Stagekings. Stagekings, we started five years ago, only a month or so ago, and we started Stagekings with the aim of building stages and structures for events, and festivals, and concerts. The main goal was to bring more decorated structures like you see throughout Europe and America to Australia and try to freshen up that market.
Simon Dell: You’ve been doing that now for five years, six years?
Jeremy Fleming: With Stagekings, just over five years. I’ve been in the scaffolds industry for over 20 years, and into the staging game for three or so years before we started Stagekings.
Simon Dell: We’re going to talk about IsoKing today because that’s a significant change in what you guys have been doing for the past 3 or 4 months. Before we get into that – and for those of you who don’t know what IsoKing is – hang fast and we’ll get onto that. I want to ask you a couple of bits about the event business. The first thing I wanted to ask was: When you read your biography, you guys appear to have done some pretty cool shit. And I know I’ve got friends in the event business, and I know the event business is hard, but you got to have been having some fun with some of this stuff.
Jeremy Fleming: Hell yeah. We really enjoy what we do. Everything’s always so different. One week, we could be building a 30-metre tall lion for a music festival. The next week, we could be building a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It’s so varied what we do, and it’s always different, and exciting, and we just love it.
Simon Dell: I also noticed you did some of the structural work for Channel Nine’s Ninja Warrior. I’m going to have to ask you whether you had a chance to go on the course?
Jeremy Fleming: No, I didn’t. I would’ve loved to, but I’m a little out of shape at the moment.
Simon Dell: Events is one of those things, when I talk about marketing strategies with people and marketing plan for people, to me, events is such an important part of anybody’s marketing plan irrespective of where you are and what your industry is. You tell me, in your opinion, why you think events are so important for some of the businesses that you work with.
Jeremy Fleming: The first thing that makes events so important in my opinion is just bringing people together. Humans need that interaction. They need that having fun as a group, and the event market is an amazing market. There’s a lot of great people. You’re talking 500,000+ workers in that industry. This COVID thing has hit the industry very hard. We were one of the first to be affected, and we’ll be one of the last to come out. And so, it’s really important that people start trying to look at events that can be done currently and do the best that we can to get them back on track.
Simon Dell: I think people get scared a lot because when they talk about events, it feels like there’s a lot of work to make a good event, and there’s potentially a lot of investment to make a good event. And I guess some people fear the return on investment or not understanding the return on investment. How would you tackle those kind of things?
Jeremy Fleming: I think it’s just so important, for the kind of events that we do, we do a lot of very big events and they are a huge investment, but events, they don’t need to be that big or that expensive. I think there’s different scales for different things. It’s just important to get the brand, and the name out there, and to bring people together around that.
Simon Dell: If you were a small business and you were out there advising a small business to say, look, events should be a key part of your marketing plan. What would you be saying to them? I mean, what could they do? Obviously, they’re not going to start big Ninja obstacle courses and all those kind of things. Are there some little things you’ve seen or little events you’ve seen that stuck out in your head over those years?
Jeremy Fleming: Currently, it’s an interesting one, there’s been a lot of change in events and how they’ve moved online. I still think there’s ways of running events now that are going to get the response that’s needed. I’m not pretending to be an event organizer, we just really build what people want, but they are important and there’s ways to do that.
Simon Dell: Let me step through to the whole IsoKing conception. I read the story on that website, for anybody who wants to read that, that’s there. What went through your head in that Friday the 13th of March?
Jeremy Fleming: The first thing was, “Fuck, what are we going to do? We have zero income now.” Literally, I think I said in that letter, within 48 hours or so, we lost 100% of our income. Immediately, we had to think of how we’re going to cut costs, how we could survive. At the time, we really thought that it might be a few months, so we did some numbers and worked out, “We could probably survive five or six months without income if we cut right back. But look, there’s still no end in sight for the big events.”
So, we were really concerned. We had a lot of staff working and we had to work out what we were going to do with them. That was the hardest part, to be honest, how we were going to let those guys know that we had no work.
Simon Dell: You’re in business with your wife, which in itself must be an entirely challenging experience. I can’t imagine ever doing that with my wife. One of us would kill each other within the first 10 minutes.
Jeremy Fleming: It’s worked very well. We complement each other along the way.
Simon Dell: Who is the calmest out of the pair of you? Was one of you running about like a headless chicken panicking, and the other one was slapping them to try to keep them calm? Was that how it was?
Jeremy Fleming: We took it on as my wife Tabitha and I, and also Jess, our head of production, the three of us handled it as a team and really – there was no major panic. I did at one stage think that we would very likely lose the house and need to move to Harvey Bay with my parents, but we immediately started to think of ways around it. No negative thoughts lingered too long. We really were thinking of what we could do.
We started designing. That was Friday the 13th. By Monday, we’d started to design temporary waiting facilities for hospitals and pop-up COVID testing rooms for shopping centre car parks and things like that that we had the trust and the scaffold to do. We started to chat to healthcare workers to work out exactly what was needed in those. We got full sets of drawings of all that that were ready to go. We literally had one week to make something work, and that wasn’t going to work fast enough.
Simon Dell: Tell me how IsoKing came about. The story on the website mentions it was the mix brainwave, but did he just turn up and go, “We need to be making furniture for people at home.” How did that work?
Jeremy Fleming: As part of working through what we could do, we’ve got a lot of friends in Europe in this kind of situation. We were talking to a friend of ours who’d be working for us over here for some time. He has a company in Ireland, and we were just chatting, and he said, “Look, I’m looking at making some furniture. Why don’t you guys think about something like that?” And so, I messaged Mick on Sunday morning after Friday. We had planned that we had to let everyone go. Sunday, Mick and I were having some texts, and we said, “Look, let’s get into some office furniture. There’s no desks available. I think it’s a good option.” And Mick jumped on it and you probably read there, he designed furniture for a hobby. He’s built all the furniture in his own house in a little workshop.
He came in on Monday morning ready to roll. We had two designs for a desk and a stand-up desk, two 3D-printed prototypes, and we spent that Monday with no one else around because Friday was the end of it all. That Monday, Mick and I were running around, knocking on doors, trying to get a couple of sheets of birch ply which we got, cut a couple of desks Monday afternoon, and then you probably read as well, my wife Tabatha watched some YouTube tutorials, set up an e-commerce site overnight, and yeah. Tuesday morning, we took some photos and we were live by 3:00 p.m. on Tuesday. So in 48 hours, we were on sale.
Simon Dell: That’s an amazing turnaround. You’ve done no market testing, you don’t know whether anyone’s going to buy this stuff. You’re kind of going, “Look, it sounds like a good idea because some bloke in Ireland recommended it.” It’s a bit of a wing and a prayer. You’ve got the website. What do you do next? How do you suddenly go… I mean, you’re competing with the big boys here. All of a sudden, you created a business in 48 hours that’s competing with the likes of Officeworks and Super A-Mart and all those kind of people that make furniture and have been making furniture for years and years. How do you suddenly get this out to people?
Jeremy Fleming: The only way we knew how was social media. The only other thing we really thought was to be completely honest with people. And so, I wrote an open letter that we put on social media. Luckily, that letter struck a chord with people and people felt attached to it and wanted to help. And so, within a couple of days, that post spread around a million people and had been shared two and a half thousand times or so. That was our first experience of something going viral. Because of that – to be honest, Mick and I made this desk and thought, “Okay, we’ll keep a couple of guys working on the CNC.” He and I would sand the desks and deliver them on our way home each day. We thought we might do 100 desks in a couple of months.
Turns out we did 100 desks in a couple of days. It’s because of that letter, and it was an open letter saying, “We’ve had to let go of our people. This is the situation. We’re going to give this a go.” And people connected with that.
Simon Dell: Specifics here. Where did you post that letter?
Jeremy Fleming: That went onto Facebook. We had a very small presence on Facebook, maybe a couple thousand followers, and even smaller on Instagram. We put it up on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. And on Facebook alone, that’s where it reached over a million people. We’re still getting people sharing that now to this day four months later, that initial letter, it’s still kicking around.
Simon Dell: I’m looking at that on Instagram at the moment. 24th of March, does that sound about right?
Jeremy Fleming: 100%, that’s right, yeah. Tuesday, 24th of March, yeah.
Simon Dell: Wow, it’s a single photo at the moment, obviously. It’s got 373 likes. I mean, obviously, Facebook has been the catalyst for you.
Jeremy Fleming: Instagram still, we haven’t really gone too far on Instagram. But on Facebook, the reach is enormous.
Simon Dell: It’s amazing how different things work in different social media channels.
Jeremy Fleming: Yeah. Our followers now, we’ve gained 10,000 followers in a couple of months. Everything we’re doing, we’re posting on there. And very quickly, there’s a lot of quick uptake. I think a lot of that’s to do with how we’re engaging a lot with our followers on Facebook in particular. And we’re putting it out to people now. I don’t like to say we’re a furniture manufacturer now. I feel we’re more of a solutions company. We ask people what it is they need and they’re telling us what their issues are in isolation, and we’re trying to come up with a solution for them.
Simon Dell: When you read that letter, the interesting thing is, it’s not like this kind of epic “we’re in peace” call to arms. It’s an honest statement of where you are as a business and the support that you need. It’s not begging. It’s not offering any kind of excuses or anything like that, it’s just saying, “This is what it is and this is what we’ve done.” Why do you think it resonates so much with so many people?
Jeremy Fleming: I think because we weren’t trying to sell something. It wasn’t a hard sell. I think we – and I don’t know if you’ve seen our logo. Basically, all I did was put a line through the bottom of our logo through the stages and structures part and said, “Work from home office furniture solutions.” So, we’ve been very honest and really, I think, the fact that as well, at the get go, when we first had the idea for a desk, we also said, “Anything we make on this, we need to be giving as much back as we can.” And we’re donating a portion to support everyone working for us again now. I mentioned we had a bunch of crew we had to let go. We’ve brought back all of that crew and more than doubled our crew now.
That said, we’re 50 people down in the workshop. That is all made up of out of work event people. And so, we’re trying to spread that net and support the industry as much as possible. And I think that is because why people are connecting with it and supporting the cause.
Simon Dell: I think all those things that you’re doing now kind of justify why the continued interest in your brand and your product exists, because of all those extra things that you’re doing. That moment in time on the 24th of March, when that kind of thing started getting traction, it’s near enough impossible to replicate that. It’s like there’s an element of honest in your message. There’s an element of being in the right place at the right time. It’s largely – we can’t portion credit anywhere, but there’s an element of luck in all of that.
Jeremy Fleming: Totally. I use the word luck a lot. The planets seemed to align for us. The fact that we were talking to this friend in Ireland, the fact that Mick designs and builds furniture in his spare time. We had the machinery here. For us, it wasn’t a massive change of thinking. We look at it as another project. Every project we do is so different, we really need to look at every project differently and work out how to build that, and we do the same with this. We’ve got the CNC router and the set builders. The ply is easy enough for us to get, and we looked at it as a project and ran with that. We are very lucky that we got the support we have.
Simon Dell: I guess anywhere along the line, some little thing could have brought you down. You talk about the wood that you need. Obviously, you’ve probably gone through a shit load of wood that you would never have gone through in a normal business.
Jeremy Fleming: We’re going through at least 10 packs every week of plywood, which is amazing. We did, after one week, have to switch suppliers because one supplier ran out. We’ve also done a lot of things wrong. We’ve changed our systems now four times in the last four months: the dispatch and the freight system that we’re using has changed a few times, because we’re learning along the way. The other key to this success is that we moved so fast. Had we have been one week or two weeks later, I don’t think we would have had the same success.
Simon Dell: It’s interesting you say that because I was going to say exactly the same thing. When I talk to small businesses, one of the challenges they always have is, “How do I compete with the bigger businesses, with the big boys?” They have all these resources and things like that. And I just go, “Can you imagine Officeworks doing what you did? It would’ve taken them 18 months to even get it beyond a committee or a planning stage.” Whereas you guys in the space of, from the 13th to the 24th of March, have just changed your entire business proposition based on circumstances, hard work, and that speed of movement has saved you guys.
Jeremy Fleming: Absolutely, yeah, that’s right. It all came down to that speed. And like you say, the bigger, more established companies, to move that quickly is far more difficult. For us, we get a suggestion that might come through overnight on Facebook. It gets a few hundred people supporting that suggestion. The same thing happened only a few weeks ago with shoe racks, for example. People said “we need a shoe rack.” Before smoko the next day, Mick draws a shoe rack, we cut a prototype, we take this prototype on sale that same day. We sold 400 in a day. I can’t see that anyone that can do it that quickly.
Simon Dell: Talk about the future of the business. Presumably, when the event industry comes back, you guys are going to want to go back and do what you were doing before. How are you going to structure this sort of moving forward? What’s the plan in the long-term?
Jeremy Fleming: The IsoKing furniture, we’re going to continue. We’re certainly going to do that. Like I mentioned, big events I really cannot see that we’ll do something of any scale at least for this next summer. I think it’s probably later next year. So, we are at least a season or so off being able to do those big events again. We’re pushing this, IsoKing furniture, as far as we can. We’re still keeping that dialogue with our followers and seeing what it is they need. We’ve got a list of stuff people are after, and we’ll continue to work on that until events come back. The most likely scenario is we’ll run both businesses parallel.
Simon Dell: Thank you very much for today. If anybody wants to get a hold of you guys, where’s the best place for them to connect with you?
Jeremy Fleming: Facebook is a really good way, also just the website Stagekings.com.au. We’re Stagekings Australia on Facebook and stagekings_au on Instagram. We are very active on Facebook. We’ve got three people that respond to everything on there, and yeah, we love to hear people’s ideas so keep them coming. The other key thing is Support Act that I touched on briefly. If anyone is interested in helping support those guys, Support Act is an organization that is looking after the event industry, the arts, the people that fall through the cracks of the government safety nets. Support Act are really helping those guys, so any support that people can give them is greatly appreciated.
Simon Dell: The last thing I’d like is – I do a lot of mentoring with the Queensland government up here. I’ve done the last 18 months 105 sessions the other day. I still hear the pain that a lot of people are going through and where their business is at. They don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and all those kind of things. What I kind of like, some sort of motivational suggestion from you about how people should be approaching these kind of things, challenges like this.
Jeremy Fleming: I think the big thing is to continue to think outside the box. Try and think of as much as possible. I’ve seen amazing stories. I’ve done a lot of talks with people now. There’s some great stories of people pivoting. The word is used a huge amount these days, but bread and breakfasts with spare rooms are hiring out offices to people, setting up their rooms as offices to get the big companies out of their big offices. Just some amazing stuff like that. And I think really keep thinking outside the box, try and remain agile. If you have an idea, have a go at it. Don’t overanalyse it. If it’s not going to cost you a huge amount to have a go at it, have a go.
Simon Dell: Awesome. Mate, thank you very much for that. I will let you get back to bossing Mick about to make more furniture. I really appreciate your time on the show today.
Jeremy Fleming: Thanks so much, Simon. Great to chat.