For the fourth instalment of our Repeat Business blog series, we bring you someone who has a history with PNE ‘way back when’ as a business consultant with our team. Since then, Michael Owen has spent his career founding and building a vibrant portfolio of businesses and working with some of the North’s biggest brands, from Sage to Tyne Bank Brewery to Gateshead College. In addition to his entrepreneurial ventures, he has made a huge impact on North East culture through his support for projects across the region, which include lecturing at Newcastle University Business School and his ‘Pioneers’ photography project championing North East leaders.
If I don’t try to be the best in the world at whatever I am doing, someone else will. So it may as well be me (or you) as them.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and the businesses you have started?
I started my first business shortly after graduating. I was 19. A tiny design-and-make business called Design Status. We ran for two years and did well in the LIVEWIRE Awards. We turned over £36k. So we were far from rich! After that, I managed McDonald’s Restaurants for a couple of years. Then I helped businesses to start and grow, working for enterprise agencies (including PNE). Local Authority Economic Development and a couple of Universities. In 2000, I started my first bigger business, the creative agency onebestway. Then I developed four more over the following 15 years. We had a group turnover of a couple of million. These days I run a clothing brand called Always Wear Red (www.alwayswearred.com), a brand strategy business called mychael (www.mychael.co.uk) and a publishing platform called 50odd (www.50odd.co.uk).
Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
I am intrigued by potential. How far I or anyone can go. If I don’t try to be the best in the world at whatever I am doing, someone else will. So it may as well be me (or you) as them.
What inspired your first entrepreneurial venture and what lessons did you learn from it?
I couldn’t get a job. And also, I had a natural flair for marketing and business communications. I could ‘see’ need. I could adapt my skills to a marketplace ‘want’. And I like to change and improve things. Anything. Everything. I still do.
My first business tried to change both the Promotional Gift market and the Awards market. It was my opinion that Promotion Gifts were produced at too poor quality and at too high volume, and they were badly targeted via poor data. So I encouraged clients to buy less promotional items, much better quality ones, and target better. It just seemed like common sense to me.
And with Awards, well, they all looked the same in photographs. So I flipped my furniture making skills to make ergonomically considered and uniquely designed awards that looked great in photographs. Again, it just seemed like the right thing to do. And we did OK.
Lessons? That turnover and profit are two different things. Yes – I really was that naive. Another lesson was also that fearlessness and naivety are hugely valuable. When you don’t worry how good or bad you are, you just get on with it.
What has been your biggest success?
Probably representing the UK in a World Web Festival in France. We were up against over 100 International teams and finished third in the world. It was 2004 I think. So we’d only been going 4 years. Again, I didn’t consider we might do badly. I was disappointed we didn’t win, actually.
Always Wear Red is an excellent brand. I closed 4 of my agencies in 2014, when they were turning over a million pounds plus. Because I wasn’t happy. I’d had enough. So I started something completely new. A B2C brand Always Wear Red in one of the most competitive categories in the world – fashion. We’re doing OK. I learn all the time. And – again – I am looking not just to lead the category but to change the category. I want to, and am, changing the way people buy clothing. In my own little niche, of course.
What has been your biggest failure?
Probably not seeing that there were options to just closing my businesses in 2014. I didn’t explore getting an MD in. To do what I should have been doing. Someone that loved what we were. Because I’d fallen out of love with it. Sometimes, what got you ‘here’, won’t get you ‘there’. Someone else would have been much better than me at growing the businesses further I think. But I didn’t see that this was worth exploring at the time. That was a mistake. My failure.
What is the biggest lesson you would share with aspiring business owners?
Set your ambition higher. Push further than you or anyone you know thinks you are capable of. So parallel to that is to – yes – listen to people. But always go with your gut. Ignore most of what people say. Your thinking will be cleaner, and your path to success straighter if you go with your gut. And most important of all – have an opinion!
How has the current pandemic affected your businesses and how are you planning for the future?
If you are a business with a purpose. If you are driven by the change you want to make. If you are driven by your authentic values – you won’t change your brand messaging and your fundamental brand strategy at all. no matter what. You will just – temporarily – change the marketing strategies, tactics and messaging that deliver on your unchanging brand position.
That’s why brands outlast businesses. Not just because brands make more profit than businesses so they are stronger (brands always do make more profit than non brands) – but because when something matters to you and to a loyal customer base, you have the best chance of enduring pandemics and even the deepest recessions. So my businesses remain unchanged with regards to why I do what I do and how I plan. I remain driven by the change I want to make in the three categories within which I work. The world may have shifted – but my brand purpose and position – has not.