Interview with Kirsten, co-owner of What If
A story about fun, intense and rewarding business, which makes you excited about life
Tell us about yourself
I was born in Belgium with a mum from New Zealand and a dad from England. I then went to the UK to study Theatre Studies- focusing on staging. I then got a scholarship to go to UCSC to study physical theatre - lucky me: California.
Upon graduation, I was thrown into the deep end working in opera- it was amazing. It combined everything I wanted: theatre/ music/ singing/ lush costumes/ amazing sets… But somehow I felt a constraint- a constraint to the stage. I didn't want to just be a metteur en scene. I wanted to be a metteur en espace- to place in space not just on a stage. And that is when I got into fashion. I started staging fashion shows… I started working with Villa Eugenie which took me all over Europe for the different Fashion Weeks and I loved it. So I had a launch booked for each season. And to fill the time in between I toured with the Night Of the Proms as a production assistant and worked on various music festivals in the production team too. So much fun!!
But then my personal life took a turn and I decided I needed a change- so I moved to Asia… I was given the dream opportunity to work on House Of Dancing Water with Franco Dragone (an ex Cirque du Soleil director). It was an amazing year! And by then I was seduced by the magic of Asia…I moved to Hong Kong to work with an event agency here. This took me on very exciting adventures into China with luxury brands…And I opened my own agency 3 years ago.
Tell us more about your business and your industry
Events is a very exciting and fast paced industry. We have a very short amount of time to communicate a message to a specific target audience. It’s exciting. We build sets, have technology to make it look cool, have dancers/actors involved to bring life to the event, coordinate food and beverage….
If you had to explain to a five year old what you do, how would you do it?
I make dreams come true - tell me a story and I will build it for you so everyone can read it.
What are the challenges of working in your industry?
There are a lot of us on the market- What If was born from wanting to break out of the corporate mould - to be different, to think outside of the box! Unfortunately managing budget challenges is top of our list- so it becomes a very competitive world too.
How was the idea born and and what were your first steps?
3 years ago, one of my colleagues, who was also a close friend, and I decided that this corporate machine was too much! What if we had less bureaucracy in our company, what if we could be more creative, more free. What if budget and profit wasn't the driver for our projects? What if what if what if. And that is how What If Ltd was born!
We opened the company first - simple and straight forward, using an agent to help. We then started the admin side of transferring our work permits. A little trickier and a lot of paper work. But with the help of an agency we got this done within 5 weeks.
My partner and I then found 2 desks at The Hive (a sharing office) and started an easy 4 day a week routine. We got our website up, business cards printed and slowly started letting people know we were up and running and what What If could do! We loved it! We got our first contract in 2 weeks - a UK based client wanting come over for a road show in China!!!
We needed staff- and quickly. So we recruited a young local junior producer and started calling up through our connections to look for freelance production/ technical directors… and started! It was super exuberating! This was why we opened our own What IF- we were excited about life again!
What was your biggest motivation and inspiration when you decided to start your business?
JM- the co-founder and my business partner and I were on the same wave length. We wanted the same things, we finish each other sentences… we have the same style. So I knew that together we could do this. Going solo- having done that before as a freelancer- is tough. Going as a duet- there is always one to catch the other and I love that about us!
What was the most challenging part of starting your business?
Getting the business in- and 2- as we deliver before the actual Dday of the event, managing the cash flow is also challenging.
Tell us about your first client.
London Luxury Quarter- we were introduced to them (a GREAT entity) via an old contact of mine in the UK. It was challenging to convince them that a small HK based agency could handle a full blown road show in China. But being British myself there was a trust… We worked round the clock for them- and we won them over with our passion and dedication more than anything. We did also have the flexibility of finding the right designer for their needs. This was a regular event design/ creative they wanted. They were looking nearly for a combined interior designer/visual merchandising person. And were able to outsource this to that very specific profile!!
How many events have you done so far?
We are averaging at 2 per month right now. They range from small VIP dinner parties for 40 people to live concert of 4500 people.
Which one is your favourite?
I have a couple- The First LLQ just because it was our first one! Krug Jacky Terrason (a champagne and music pairing) and DFS store opening in Venice, Italy.
Which one challenged you the most?
The Hennessy Artistry concert for 4500 people. JM had had his eye on this project for years- and we always lost it with our old agency because we never listened to what the client wanted. What If listened- and won it. But it was a monster of a project!
Which marketing tools did you find to be the most successful? Which methods worked the best for you to acquire new clients?
We created a simple dream list of clients on Excel- (have I told you how much I love Excel?). And then we went on LinkedIn, went through our personal contacts and we hunted down the right person to contact.
We also created credentials of projects we felt we had worked on that represented us - and not our previous agencies. These were temporary files until we had enough What If content. We also ensured our website was up and running.
What did you find to be the most difficult part of running your own business? Which challenges did you come across?
Today we have grown to a team of 10 people in HK and we have also opened in Shanghai with a team of 5 people. The daily challenge is to ensure we have enough business to keep the dream team turning. But it’s finding the right balance. Too little work means the team runs dry- too much work means we over run and jeopardise our delivery quality which is our reputation. So we take it one step at a time. We have taken on a 3rd partner to elevate some of the creative pressure. And we check in on project status and financial status on a regular basis.
Key to smooth running: open internal communications and planning ahead.
What is that you love the most about what you are doing?
I am passionate about What If does. I don’t see this as my source of income but as a hobby. I love my team- I love that I travel a lot with the job too. And I love that I never know what each day will bring me.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of having your own business?
+: You are your own boss- you take the company where you want it to go!
-: You are responsible for the ups and the downs.
As a woman, you most probably have something to say about work - family balance. Please share your thoughts with us.
I am a bit of a workaholic. But with What If I find it easier to find a balance as I don't feel that someone is going to lecture me on something, or count me arriving at 10:30am as tardiness… or look at me strangely because I leave the office at 6:30pm. JM and I have a number 1 rule in our company: If the job is done then you leave… If that is at 5pm then good for you.
Also at the end of my corporate agency phase I challenged myself to do my yoga teacher training to prove to myself I could do something else than just work… And with that tool I started teaching as well as keeping up my own practice which is one way of keeping a good balance in life too.
What is the biggest lesson you learn running your own business?
Don't give up - know what you want and have a plan on how to get there. And plans can change but make sure you are in control of the changes ;-)
What would you recommend someone who is debating whether to start their own business tomorrow?
Find someone to do it with you. It;s an exciting world out there. But it is tough and have a “buddy” to go through that jungle is so much easier. And so much more fun.
What is your motto?
There are never problems always solutions
What is your business philosophy?
Less is more
What do you say to yourself when you feel like “ I cant do it anymore “?
Break it down- what can't you do? Make a list. Take it one step at a time and don’t be afraid to ask for help/advice or mentoring. You are not alone!
Thank you so much for sharing your energy and wisdom!
I am sure, many ladies after reading your interview will find ways to get excited about life again!
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