Sarah's Story - Corporate Gloom to Comedy Boom
Sarah Henley began her career at Citibank before starting a live comedy night ‘ComComedy’ and the associated YouTube channel, later co-founding tech startup NextUp Comedy. She shares her experience of making the switch and doing work that matters to her.
1. What were you doing in your role at Citibank, and what prompted you to escape and found NextUp?
I worked under the General Counsel at a law firm called WilmerHale, and he invited me to join him when he got the job at Citi. My role involved reviewing structured financial products. However, I had previously done a post-grad in musical theatre (and toyed with performing and writing), so the lack of creative-working in a corporate environment really got me down.
This led me to start ComComedy which gave me something creative to do alongside my 9-5. It slowly gained success and a loyal fanbase, and we were featured in lots of national press. We started to see that the idea might work, and for me, be a viable route out of a job that I didn’t find fulfilling.
I’m also interested in coaching and training, so I obtained Trainer level in NLP whilst still working at the bank. At that point, having done a lot of ‘self-development’ it was time to admit to myself that the City was not for me, and I made the leap!
2. What does your day-to-day look like now, compared with life in the City?
I know everyone who works in a startup says this, but genuinely, every day is completely different!
My legal background is handy as I oversee all the artist agreements and distribution deals. The management and comms training is exceptionally useful as we have a great team. I am a true believer that no experience is wasted, even if it wasn’t for you at the time.
Some days we’re shooting live comedy, and August is spent up at The Edinburgh Festival scouting for new acts to film for the platform. The tone of the office is really relaxed, which I love. No dress code, flexible hours, people bring their dogs in and one day a week I look after my son, Rudi. It’s a much less formal way of working, which suits me well.
3. What have been the biggest challenges so far?
There are daily challenges, but one of the biggest ones was getting people to buy into an idea when it doesn’t exist yet! Before we launched, we had to secure a fair amount of content for the platform.
Because of our relationships with comics prior to NextUp we had built up a fair amount of goodwill, but you really need to build trust in people investing in your business (financially and otherwise). They need to trust you will follow through and bring the product to market.
Fundraising whilst running a business is challenging; regardless of how great your numbers are, or how much momentum your business has, you may need to secure funds to take things further. This takes time and it’s a balancing act to put as much energy into that development and fundraising, alongside keeping the business ticking over and managing a growing team.
4. What advice would you give other people wanting to start up their own company?
Advice is tough as all startups have such different needs and come with their own specific challenges, but I’d offer a few ideas from my own experience:
· Work with people you enjoy spending time with. A business is like a newborn baby — you spend a LOT of time with it, and you’ll go through real highs and lows together.
· Be in it for the long game and only work on a company you really believe in. You have to pour a lot of yourself into a new venture and it will only feel worthwhile if you truly love it and it chimes with your values . We really want to do something good for the comedy industry and that’s what gets me up in the morning (as well as my 2-year-old who wakes up at 5am).
· Do it, then learn from it. Keep that feedback loop alive. Every time you do something think about what worked and what could have been better — don’t marry yourself to ideas, let them fly and if they fail, try again and fail better.
· Be nice, be decent. This, above all. There are enough people on the wrong side of this line — your business should never be at the expense of employees (or anyone else’s) mental health. If you care for the people who work with you, they will care for the company. Don’t be a d*ck.
5. What’s up next for NextUp?
We’re fundraising on CrowdCube and at the time of writing we’re over 80% of the way towards our target and are aiming to over-fund.
We’re branching out into original comedy formats, filming our first pilot in October which we’re really excited about, and we’ve got at least 12 new shows in our Autumn season line up. This is the first time we’ve split the year up into ‘seasons’ and we will have a trailer for Autumn’s new content going live soon.
We’ve hit some magic numbers as far as investors are concerned (and us of course) — £15 Cost Per Customer (or lower) and £45 Life Time Value — this means we can turn up the marketing and start onboarding more customers.
We’ve also got some key business partnerships including an exciting platform distribution we’re not allowed to talk about yet, and a partnership with a top London comedy venue which is yet to be announced.
6. A final message to anyone considering stepping off the conveyor belt?
Do it! You will never regret it. The conveyor belt is always there if you need to get back on, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know!
I feel like I’ve seen through the matrix — no one has to live like that!
To learn more about NextUp and to be part of their CrowdCube campaign go to: nextupcomedy.com/join-in. Or to join Sarah in taking control of your career and building your own business, join our Startup Accelerator Programme this September.
Information correct as at 5/9/19.