Having raised £6 million via equity, lease and crowdfunding and featuring online entrepreneur videos, Essex entrepreneur James Sinclair talks about the importance of managing staff and building a business to sell-even if you don’t want to.
Tell us about your background and Partyman itself
I am James Sinclair, a 32-year-old entrepreneur from Essex, passionate about being the best I can be. I always had a knack for making people laugh so it seemed natural to start my first business as a children’s entertainer when I was 15. I founded Partyman when I was just 21 with a vision to build the best family entertainment business in the UK offering a great day out and excellent customer service. I believe a positive attitude is vital for achieving your goals, so I bring a strong personality and infectious enthusiasm to everything I do.
Partyman is now a fast growing £10 million turnover business empire with over 350 staff and venues across the UK. Over the last 12 years, I’ve built my business up into a portfolio that now includes eight indoor play centres, five day nurseries, three laser kombat arenas, Fort Fun-a family fun adventure park in Eastbourne, Marsh Farm-a children’s farm in Essex and Teddy Tastic-a make-a-bear company.
Did you get investment to get the company up and running? If not, how did you grow the company?
I started my business with no investment-I simply worked hard and I set myself goals. I was determined to succeed and find solutions to any challenges I faced. At 15, I set myself a goal of earning £40,000 a year and owning a house by the time I was 20. By the time I’d been going for 18 months, and I was 17, I was fully booked every weekend for a year ahead and was turning over £500-£1000 a week. That was the start of the Partyman brand.
I grew the business knowing that my challenge was to generate cash flow all year round. The success of the play centres at weekends and holidays supported the investment into a chain of day nurseries to generate term time weekday income. The income generated by indoor play helped me to invest in outdoor businesses so that I created year round all weather income streams3
What style of marketing did Partyman do to get itself noticed?
I was very influenced by Sir Richard Branson who was prepared to be a little bit different and outrageous to get noticed. As an entertainer that was a natural fit and I decided that it was what I needed to do too-I needed to stand out from the competition and I soon became well known in my local area for being a character and for offering something different. That helped me to build the Partyman brand and people booked me because they knew the name.
I use social media, successfully, particularly YouTube, to raise my profile for The Entrepreneur’s Network, which is another business I set up as a support and mentoring network for growing business owners. I vlog every day to my subscribers, documenting the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial life. This has proved to be a very successful way of directly reaching people to grow my network. I have additionally written two business advice books – The Millionaire Clown and The Experience Business -and I regularly speak at business events.
How has the company grown over the years?
Partyman started small with only two staff but it has grown quickly in only 12 years into a company employing over 350 staff. However, you don’t grow a business fast without problems and my stumbling block was finance. Initially I decided to take out loans to buy venues and improve them. The 2008 financial crisis made this impossible, so I had to be more innovative in getting finance for the business in order to grow. We had some tough times financially and I nearly lost the business at certain points, but I kept it alive.
Initially I started off with two indoor play centres but soon realised that they stood empty when it was sunny and this affected profits, so I looked for outdoor venues to enhance my offering thus guaranteeing consistent income whatever the weather. The next problem to overcome was how to generate a good income all year round, not just at weekends and in school holidays. I added children’s nursery venues to Partyman to guarantee income during term time. Gradually I built a portfolio of businesses that complemented each other and generated a constant stream of income all year round.
I plan to continue to grow Partyman and am constantly looking for the next opportunity to drive the business forward. My vision is to be the largest and the best family entertainment brand in the UK and I see no reason why that can’t be achieved.
How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company?
Very important! It is my vision that drives the business forward and as we have grown I have built a strong management team around me who can deal with the day to day running of the business, while I work on selling the brand and building a network to help the business grow.
Selling is the last element that any entrepreneur should let go of, so I lead and challenge my team from the front on income generation. I have many team members that have stayed with me on my journey and, where the Partyman culture and ethos I have created is a natural fit, I am rewarded by their commitment and loyalty.
What advice would you give to scale-up companies looking to build their company to exit?
As an entrepreneur, you must have a clear vision of your destination. My vision is to be the largest and the best family entertainment brand in the UK and that is what I constantly work towards. Although you need to have an end point in mind, try breaking it into chunks to make it seem more achievable. As I reach each goal, I cross it off my list and move onto the next one. As you grow, make sure that your business is sustainable and that you employ great managers who will keep the business on the right track.
If you are building your business up in order to exit, then it’s essential that you start with the end in mind. If you watch my videos, you’ll know that we always say that you must build a business to sell even if you don’t want to. The process this puts you through is extremely disciplined and allows you to build something worthy of sale. If you go through this process, you then never have to worry about how to exit and your phone will never stop ringing with people wanting to buy it. My advice is to sell when you don’t want to, rather than when you have to. Sell at your highest high.