An Interview with The Big Fish

Happy birthday to us! Matt talks about what makes Clownfish the company it is today.

Happy birthday to us! Clownfish Events is 9 today. Our big-hearted business has grown from a one-man-band to a bespoke event management company that designs, builds and manages events for some of the biggest and best-known brands in the world.

The Clownfish story is one of imagination, aspiration, moments of madness and honest hard graft. To mark our birthday milestone, Izzy Pickles managed to get our MD, Matt, to sit down for a while and tell her what makes Clownfish Events the company it is today. Grab a cuppa, get comfy and enjoy…

A sunny Thursday afternoon in late March. I suggest to Matt that we meet at my house: uncommon ground, away from the distractions of the office. I’m hoping that by physically removing him from Clownfish he will be able to stop thinking about his to-do list for a while.

He arrives on time (which is promising) with his phone already on flight safe mode (unheard of, he says, unless he is at the theatre or on a plane). His PA has told me that he is eating healthily, so I have made him a salad. I presume that this is just a characteristic of his health-conscious millennial generation, but I presume wrong. “I’m running the London Marathon next year. It’s so out of character for me, my friends think I won’t manage it. I never do anything active.”

He settles on the sofa in my office. My cat won’t leave him alone – it’s almost embarrassing – but I’m not surprised. As I have witnessed countless times in multiple locations, Matt fills the room with an infectious enthusiasm for life and draws people (and animals, it would seem) to him. He is fascinated by the smallest details and genuinely interested in whomever he meets.

It’s a surprise to learn, then, that the Matt in front of me – this relaxed, confident presence – is a far cry from the quiet, awkward child he once was. “I hated school,” he confesses. “My parents sent me to a small private school because they were worried about how under-confident I was. It cost them a fortune but I was desperate to get out. Everyone else there was academic and sporty and I just felt lost. I counted the days until I left.”

He worries that his upbringing will give clients and investors the wrong impression. “I’m sure people assume that I’m a privileged public school boy using Daddy’s money to set up a fun little business, but that’s not the case at all.” He funded his first event equipment with a paper round, taking home £15.50 in a brown envelope each week and saving it up to buy speakers and a sound desk. At 13 he and a friend made a name for themselves on the local school, youth and church events scene; at 16 they formed their first limited company, M&J Stage Productions. Clownfish Events was born in April 2009, on an old laptop at a desk in his childhood bedroom, when Matt was 18.

He remembers feeling euphoric when A-Levels were finally over and he could leave school to become his own boss. But the reality was grim. As friends headed off to university and gap years, he sat at home alone, struggling to get a business off the ground. “I had no friends, no team, no clients and no experience. I couldn’t drive. The phone wasn’t ringing. I didn’t know who I was or what I was offering and I still felt lost.” So what pulled him through? “Gut instinct and an innate drive to succeed. I wanted life to be better so I knew I had to keep going. I had made the decision not to go to university but to become an entrepreneur instead, so I had something to prove. I still feel like that today.”

Inspiration came from his Dad, Ben, then the managing director of a successful printing business. Matt remembers visiting him at work and realising that it was everything he wanted for himself – the suit, the briefcase, the respect of his employees. I have never seen Matt wear a suit or carry a briefcase, but he tells me that managing a team is the best bit about running a company. “It’s a huge privilege to watch people thrive in their job. I have been able to give people a break – people who, on paper, might not seem the best choice but who have matured and grown in confidence enough to make a real contribution. That’s a great feeling.” Has having a team around him made running his business a bit easier? “Everything has its challenges. Work is hard and that’s the way it should be. It doesn’t get easier, but I have learned that that’s normal and I can deal with it. I thought that when I employed a team they would do loads for me, and of course they do, but it just changes the angle of pressure. I’m interested in them and in what’s going on in their lives, so there’s always something to think about.”

Matt’s biggest period of upheaval (“a terrible 12 months”) came in 2014, when Clownfish was forced to leave its rented warehouse space. The landlord had decided to sell up, leaving 40 local businesses to find new premises in the same area at the same time. But that wasn’t all: one of his two employees left and his biggest client changed employers. Ben, approaching burn out, had to close down his business and downsize from the family home. It was the closest Matt came to giving up and closing Clownfish Events down. But against all the odds – gut instinct prevailing – he secured a mortgage and bought the Chessington warehouse where the company is now based. “It was a pivotal moment,” says Matt. “The new building gave us potential. We went from a start-up in a glorified shed to a serious competitor with room to grow. We began employing more people and everything started slotting into place. The commitment of the mortgage set the bar high but we rose to the challenge. That building still represents all the hard graft, blood, sweat and tears that went into getting it.”

The years following their move to Chessington were easier. With space to store more equipment their event hire offering, team and client list grew and Clownfish enjoyed a period of comfortable stability. But Matt is not one to rest on his laurels. A major contract with House of Fraser in 2016 inspired a new business model – a move away from pure event equipment hire towards bespoke, concept-to-clear-up event management. Matt knows that there will be a time lag before he sees a financial return on recent marketing campaigns and his expensive new website, but he admits to feeling a bit like he did in those tricky early days. “Our well-established event hire model was simple to operate and enjoyable. This new phase is challenging but it’s important for our growth and I wholeheartedly believe that it is the right move for us. We’re a young team with plenty of energy for change, but we’re going to have to be patient and stick with it.”

For someone so young (he was 28 a few weeks ago), he has already achieved a great deal. It’s a point that is hammered home when we talk about his influences and inspiration. He has a soft spot for people that have gone against the grain and done something that no-one expected, like Chris Moyles – the unlikely, overweight, geeky chap whose tenacity and relentless badgering of the BBC eventually resulted in him hosting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show for eight years. Ultimately though, Matt’s passion for entertaining people is all down to Robbie Williams. “I remember watching Robbie helicoptering into Knebworth and then hanging upside down over the stage in front of 130,000 people. I was completely blown away. The magnitude of it all – the set, the production values, his command over the audience – just… wow. I bought the DVD and watched it over and over and over again.” We laugh, because I was in that crowd with my now-husband. Matt was just 13.

Are there any more life goals to tick off? “I still have loads of ideas. It would be really interesting to run a fixed site – a venue or an urban events space. And I’d like to try something other than services, maybe bringing a new product to market. For now though, I’d like Clownfish Events to do more in terms of designing large-scale events and become synonymous with high profile events in London. But we have to do that with integrity, with heart and with a conscience. I want our clients to feel happy spending their money with us – that we are more than just a supplier.”

And Matt is more than just a successful entrepreneur. When I ask him what he might have done instead, had he given up on Clownfish in those dark days of 2009, he tells me that he would either be behind the sound desk at the Lion King, running a circus, or working as a counsellor. Given his interest in the personal stories of the people in his team, I wonder if he ever feels like counselling is part of his job anyway? “Clownfish has saved a lot of people, me included. We’re a team of misfits, really; I’m not sure where any of us would be otherwise. I’m sure plenty would advise me to keep my distance as a manager, but I strongly believe that people need a connection to those around them in order to perform their best. They need empathy and openness and that is what they get at Clownfish.”

Working with Matt, in the year or so that I have known him, has always been fast paced. He flits from idea to idea and he talks quickly. He will often pace up and down the room. I’m amazed that he has remained seated for almost two hours now – perhaps it is that calming feline influence on the sofa next to him. He tells me that he finds it difficult to switch off. “I struggle to sit still, my mind is constantly working,” he says. “That’s why I bought the beach house. I need to get away from London to stop thinking about work.”

His newly renovated house on the South Coast is a haven at weekends. During the week he has been sharing with a friend in London but will soon move to a new flat. He is single, and conscious that most of his friends are pairing up, getting married and will soon start families. He will be Best Man at friends’ weddings three times this year. “I have sacrificed everything for the business – every part of my life.” Does he think it’s enough? He’s recently started going to church – and has found greater meaning – it’s clear that money is never going to be the be-all and end-all for him. “Money is only rewarding when you can share it with people you love. Being able to take my parents out for dinner is special.”

I sense philanthropy, which brings us back to the marathon again. He recently met with The Eikon Charity, an organisation that mentors vulnerable youngsters and helps them become happy, thriving and resilient young adults. He feels as though it’s a good fit for Clownfish, a similar ethos. He has become a mentor himself and is considering donating a percentage of profits, as well as helping them out with fundraising events. It is Eikon that sowed the seed of the marathon idea and he’ll be running on their behalf, with his best friend, in 2019. “I push myself mentally all the time, but I have never pushed myself physically. I always saw it as a waste of time and would rather focus on being entrepreneurial. This is going to be interesting.” I don’t doubt it; but neither do I doubt that he’ll do it. He’s got something to prove.