Having a vision, knowing what you want and where you want to go is key to starting something new. Chris Webster says that's where a lot of people get stuck. After leaving his comfy corporate job with its perks, Chris struck out on his own, pursing a dormant passion and is making it work.
Dennis: When you and I first met you were an executive with a major software company, vendor to the industry and everything. Next thing I know you’re not doing that anymore and you’re off doing something new and different.
Chris: Yeah. Well, it wasn’t a shock to me but there was a whole set of circumstances that were playing out at the time. You know how in corporate life it’s very important to have a good coach in the organization. I think when people change and people move on, it’s so important that you read the map.
I could see that the organization was changing, the climate had changed significantly. There was a different mood. There was a different energy behind the business - at a higher level than I was. It was important for me to read the map.
When my coach moved on, I kind of knew things would have to change. That was a kind of moment when things started to crystallize in my head about what do I do now?
Dennis: Whether you stay at the organization or move on?
Chris: Yeah. It was definitely a light bulb moment that came on when she moved on. She’d been a great boss. She’d been a great sponsor. It was a light bulb moment for me in terms of, okay, what next? She’s not around. I can stand on my own two feet, not a problem. But do I want to carry on doing this? Do I want to carry on in the corporate world? That’s when all the bits of the jigsaw started to sort of fall into place as about a change of direction.
Dennis: Really? So from that one - that shift - with her moving and you saw… like you said, you had your eye on the map, how things were shifting a bit. You went from a corporate position and now you’re doing audiovisual work.
Chris: Yes. Well, there’s a history. There’s a history that goes back in time when I was at college, I was studying radio, TV, and electronics. I did a little bit of work with Royal Television Society. I was interested in technology, I was interested in sound, I was interested in electronics. I’d done some work as a DJ as a kid and always had my hand in music and sound; played in a band and that sort of thing. So there was an element of it.
One of the things was that I… probably when I got my family and my kids, I put my guitar down. I think the guitar neck warped over time because it was stored incorrectly. The guitar got junked. It never got replaced. I never had the time to do it with the kids and the career. Just stuff gives, you know?
Chris: In 2011 when I knew that the end was in sight in terms of my role with that corporate, I really sat down and said, “Okay, what do I want to do?” The first thing I did was pick up a guitar and I started playing the guitar again. Everything just started to come back from that.
There was an inherent sort of core that was musically oriented but I didn’t want to perform. I went back to my sort of hospital radio, radio-TV kind of world. The fact that I’d spent seven or eight years in the hi-fi - top end of the hi-fi market - in the retail side for about seven or eight years, there was a strong drive to sort of get back into that field.
So that was kind of the history behind what I do now is related to what I was kind of doing then but in slightly different way.
Dennis: So sort of a “Back to the Future” type scenario I mean, right?
Chris: Yeah. Absolutely!
The other fact was when I left Convergys there was a, “What job do I want to do? What work do I want to do?” One of the things that was prevailing and driving strongly at the time was I don’t actually care about who the company is, but what I care about is the brand. What I care about is belief in the brand and strong value proposition for that brand in the marketplace.
Chris: That was a really driving factor. I didn’t actually care what the company was or what the industry was because I’m very adaptable in my skills, as I’ve proved in my career. Because I went from doing radio TV, to hi-fi, to BMW motorcars, and then into the software game and then the rest you know about.
Wasn’t academically qualified, wasn’t a great scholar, wasn’t a university graduate but managed to carve out a very successful and strong career in the telecoms market and the cable TV market with Convergys. I’ve got huge amount of gratitude for those opportunities and the people that have supported me in that career because without that, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take the step back that I did.
I got to a point where, as you know, when you exit corporate world, the financial returns, when you exit, can be quite beneficial and that gives you a bit of space and time to just evaluate what to do next.
So instead of getting back on the treadmill, going to work for Microsoft or going to work for Orange or one of the other big leading telco brands in the industry, it was, nope I’m interested in my music, I’m interested in my technology, and I went to meet with the Managing Director of Roland UK.
We talked about music. We talked about some of the musical products that they sell and the way that they present them and demonstrate them. But he said, “Your skills are in the professional world and we have a professional division. That would be good for you.”
So I took a job with Roland for four years as the Business Development for their Professional A/V solutions. In parallel with that, set up my own company - about a year before I joined Roland - and was doing live events, putting on some events, doing the sound, doing sound engineering role, but also adding some of the production values around lighting, and around atmosphere, and around packaging of the events.
That kind of went from doing the events to just doing the technical side. Just supporting other people who were organizing events by having a real appreciation for the music, what they were trying to achieve, what sort of sound I wanted to hear from when I went out and listened to gigs. Even small gigs. What did I expect? So I wanted to raise the game a bit in terms of what people were experiencing.
With Roland’s help, we started to use very high-end technology - digital desks, high quality PA systems - and actually started to raise the level of customer experience or punter experience at a gig and it worked. We got lots of credit for that.
Working for Roland gave me exposure to all of the major professional A/V rental houses across the UK. I was able to see firsthand how to do it or how not to do it. That was part of a key strategy to try and develop my skills but, at the same time, run the company, grow it, build it, get it to a critical mass where I could step away from Roland and run my own business.
When you talk to me about what was your dream? What was the thing that kept me focused on a particular end goal, it was very much about running my own business, being my own boss.
Dennis: Be your own boss, I get it.
Chris: Doing something I really enjoyed doing and had a passion for. But it was also… well, without sounding bigheaded, good at it. I have a good pair of ears.
Chris: So having good ears, reasonable technical aptitude, I could do the job and do it well.
Dennis: That’s too cool. I don’t think it’s bigheaded at all. I think it’s just being honest. You have a passion for something. Like you said, you had a good set of ears, which is key to the experience. And you had a background in it. That’s what you did way back early in your life. You came back around to it when you finally had the opportunity to cash out of your last position, it gave you a base which to launch off into a new direction. The opportunity with Roland sounds pretty amazing actually.
Chris: It was a great experience. I think the very positive sides of all of that experience were on the other side of the scales was the kind of life changing epiphany that made this all happen. The catalyst for the actual change was a strange one because I kept increasingly feeling like my existence in the corporate world up unto the point I exited was the house of cards. My destiny was in their control, not mine.
Chris: Everything around me: the nice car, the nice house, the nice holidays, all the things, was the house of cards because that… I think somebody once said to me you can measure a person’s wealth by how long they can survive without a salary.
Dennis: Well put! [laughs]
Chris: Most people’s wealth extends to about three months at the maximum. With strong income comes strong expense. It was a house of cards in the sense that in the corporate environment, I was getting older. The pressures were getting higher. The dynamics were ever-changing. There was younger blood coming in to the organizations, there was different levels of energy, there were politics, of course. We had to divide across the pond - the UK approach, the US approach. There were lots of things that were conspiring to make me think, “Hold on a minute; something’s got to give here.”
It just so happen that the exit and the cash out of corporate world coincided with some fairly fundamental life-changing things for me personally as well around my domestic arrangements.
So I kind of threw everything up in the air but I had a very clear vision of where I wanted to go and I wanted to build something from scratch that met my passion, that played to my strengths. That I could use my experience both in terms of the cash out but also the management experience, the business experience, the P&L experience, the fundamental mixture of sales, operations, and basic management accounting things that I’d learned in that time to say, “Actually, you’re pretty well-equipped to run your own business here. If you can get the right people around you and you can get the right proposition to the client, this has got to be the time to do it.”
So the dream was running your own business. The catalyst was the house of cards; the catalyst for change was the house of cards. The motivation to do it was to build something more sustainable and downscale all of the things that were non-essential in life really.
Dennis: Such as?
Chris: The flash car, the big holidays, the big house. You don’t need a big house. You don’t need a flash car. Nice to have them and I don’t begrudge anybody who does have them. But they were non-essential in my new world. There was the old world and the new world. There were some strong catalysts for those changes and actually I…
During the time I was with Roland, I’d never earned so little for so long. It was a pittance but it was a job I enjoyed doing and it was part of the strategy for evolving and do what I do now.
Dennis: It’s brilliant!
Chris: I don’t know if it’s brilliant. I was driven. And I think I was also driven by the input and reward. So the recognition and reward and the input… it didn’t feel as transactional. You turn up for work and you travel around the globe and you do all these things and you get paid. Actually, you’re then just a number on a spreadsheet. There was a lot more “soul value” I should call it. There was a soul value in what I was doing what I was doing. Soul value was helping to drive me forward in all of that.
Like everything in life, the people around you, the opportunities that they give you, I’m thankful for it in every respect. Then I transitioned the company from being a part-time thing in the background to mainstream.
31st of March this year left Roland, went full-time. A month later, moved into premises with 1250 sq. ft. of warehouse premises and we’ve then just continued to grow and evolve. The last seven, eight, nine months has been beyond my expectations in terms of what we’ve achieved from a business point of view. The question will be in 12 months time whether I feel that I’ve got something that’s sustainable and that will be a massive test.
Dennis: Yeah, evolving. You’ll figure that out as you go.
Dennis: It sounds like that things have gone really smooth to me, though. What have been some of the obstacles? What have you bumped up against? You’ve had to have had something along the way.
Chris: Well, yeah, absolutely. I think that the surprise element for me was what I did… Well, actually, before I get to that. Let’s step back a bit. How did I decide to do this? Well, I think I acted it out in my head. I think it was a process of saying, okay, I’ve got this job, this career, and I’ve got this partner in life, and I’ve got this property, and I’ve got these kids… and I acted out a scenario in my head that said what’s likely to happen if I pick this up and move it or change it, or throw it away, or step away from it?
I think I looked at all the different elements of what I thought was the house of cards because it wasn’t just career or money, it was so many facets of life. I think I acted it out in my head and I could see a way to get from A to B. I knew roughly where I wanted to get to so I had the vision and I think, fundamentally, if you don’t have the vision for what it might look like, it’s very, very hard to move forward. I think that’s why a lot of people get stuck.
Dennis: Great point.
Chris: I wasn’t stuck. I could see it, I could feel it, I could see it out there, and I just needed to move a few things around to make it happen. Sure enough, chuck it up in the air, some of the things played out as expected, some of them didn’t. [laughs]
That initial barrier was do it. Just do it. If you’ve got the vision, do it, and then things will happen, things will conspire. It’s a bit like if I want to do something in life, very early on I realized that if I wanted to do it, I could do it if I applied myself. It might mean learning something. It might mean meeting someone. It might mean, “But if I want to do it, I’ll do it.” If I have the vision for what I want to do, I will make it happen. That is probably the fundamental thing from…
When I left school, I wasn’t academically qualified so I had to make it happen. Everything I did, I did for a reason and it happened. I knew I wanted to be in business-to-business, not in retail. So I moved in to business-to-business. I knew that I didn’t want to be handling mechanical things. I wanted to be handling electronic things so I made that happen.
It was all about application and I think it’s the great spirit of human kind that if you really want something, and you can see it and you’ve got a vision, the most likely thing is you will achieve it. It’s unlikely you won’t if you’ve got the vision.
Dennis: I love that thought, though, that you said about you had the vision and things began to conspire to help you once you begin down that path because that’s where a lot of people seem to get stuck sometimes of, “I don’t have the qualifications.” Well, like you said, make a phone call. Learn something. Get yourself that level to make it happen.
Chris: I think that’s right. Have the experience of having kids and also meeting some of their friends and being in a privileged position to be asked advice on various matters of life over my time.
I think the one thing that they constantly feel that they can’t achieve something because of some other reason. The message has always been from me, “If you want it, go for it. Do it.” If you feel for it, pursue your dream because when you have a vision and you have an idea of where you want to end up, or be it by some circuitous route, you will probably get there. Because one thing leads to another and you’ll be talking to somebody about something and they’ll suddenly latch on to the fact that you’ve got this idea and they’ll put you in touch with somebody because they might know something about it.
It just happens that way. Things gravitate. It’s a powerful, powerful force that you can’t really describe but it happens. The number of people who say, “Oh, I’ll think of something, and then it happens.”
The surprise for me was that so many people wanted to do what I did. People of my age and my… the mid-life crisis thing I suppose you could call it. The surprise was so many people wanted to do it but were stuck and couldn’t move beyond their box.
Dennis: Why do you think they’re stuck?
Chris: I think largely because they feel inhibited. They don’t believe in the power of gravitational forces that will help you progress. I think a lot of people fear change.
Dennis: That’s very true.
Chris: You and I have seen that in corporate life so much when transformation starts to occur; just the rate at which people get on the page. There’s those that are defiant, those that are default, and those that are innovators and grabbers of opportunity. You see all those different traits but the speed at which they move along that process of change is massively different for individuals.
So I think the… it’s the self-inhibition. It’s the feeling that they can’t do it. It’s the comfort factor of being safe. It’s the house of cards that they’ve built around them. That if they chuck them up in the air, they’ll lose their “this”, they’ll lose their “that”. So they’ll be some way underprivileged in whatever form it might be. But actually they’re still going to be going through life with a pretty hard-edged soul and not really having felt the reward that they get for doing what their passion is really, I suppose. Does that make any sense?
Dennis: It makes perfect sense. I completely agree because there are tradeoffs that happen when you make that kind of decision. Like you said, it was the fancy car, it was the big house. Could you have sustained that? Conceivably you could have but you chose not to for different reasons, right? But you’re not unhappy for that. You said a fancy car was nice but it wasn’t essential to your life. I think a change like that, when you make that decision, like I said, there are tradeoffs. There’s some give and take in there but it’s not a win-loss situation. I view it as a recalibration. It’s a reprioritization.
Chris: I think it’s a great way of putting it - recalibration. I think it’s about just being comfortable in your skin and knowing that… If I look at the Roland experience, I hadn’t earned so little but then I felt so rich.
Chris: It was a weird thing. I was pursuing a dream. I was pursuing a passion. It was taking me on the next step of a road that I knew was moving me towards the vision. Whether we’ll get there, I don’t know. I’m not complacent about it or smug about it. It’s there and we’re working towards it. Things are slotting in nicely. I’m still a long way from getting there but every day is an opportunity.
But it’s this richness of feeling… And, again, it’s not, in anyway, sort of a smugness. It’s just a balance. You feel like you’re in control. You have a destiny. You’re in control of it. You can move a few levers. You’re not so heavily geared that you can’t move levers. In the old world, I was so heavily geared I couldn’t wriggle at all.
Chris: And when you have less, you have more.
Dennis: Crazy, you know? It sounds so counterintuitive but there’s so much to that. It’s inspiring to hear your story.
Chris: Well, I’m not sure it’s inspiring...
I think people… I say the real surprise was why so many people wanted to do it. So many people I talk to were like, “Oh wow, I would just love to do this.” The only thing I could say to it was, “Well, just JFDI.”
Chris: Also, that’s a bit crude. Just Fucking Do It.
Dennis: [laughs] Got it!
Chris: You might want to edit it a bit!
Dennis: Yeah, we’ll see. [laughs]
Chris: Yeah. We’re all kind of trapped in some respects and we’re all kind of safe in comfort around the things that we know and are familiar with. We’re all the same in that regard.
So that’s it. I founded AML Group in 2011. It’s supporting me. I’m supporting lots of clients. We’ve had some great business and things are growing. Next year is the real acid test for whether we can build on this year. It’ll be exciting.
Dennis: What surprised you the most in this journey after you left Convergys and struck on your own? Any big surprises along the way?
Chris: I think one surprise was how much my passion and belief was driving things through. I kind of knew that, as I said, the vision and the dream and some of the goals and some of the things that… milestones that I needed to hit. I think it was how much the passion that I had rubbed off on other people as well. It was how what I was doing was projecting outwards. I like to think I’m modestly self-aware. I didn’t really analyze how much it was affecting other people, too, and how much people wanted to sort of see you succeed. They wanted to help you and they were willing to give their time or their experience or their… That was quite a surprise; a good surprise.
Dennis: Nice surprise, yeah.
Chris: Really, also, the other surprise was how much I didn’t miss the old world. I didn’t miss the possessions or the lifestyle. I loved being in one place for more than three days at a time. That was amazing. That was quite refreshing.
Dennis: You used to travel all the time, right? You were on the road all the time.
Chris: That was part of it, yes. I became anchored and actually took an interest in a community. So I moved to an area where there was a community, where there was a creative air about the place. This little town I live in called Frome is close to Bath in the Southwest. It’s close to Glastonbury. It’s got an eclectic mix of artists, producers. There’s a lot of creative people in the town.
It’s a town that ten years ago you probably wouldn’t have spat on but it’s evolved. It’s got its vintage shops and its eclectic mix of hippie stuff and it’s got a great music venue. There’s just lots going on. I felt part of that community all of a sudden, which is, again, something I had to forgo in the previous world. That was quite a refreshing surprise. I didn’t really know what it was like.
Yeah, there’s a few pleasant surprises. I don’t think any ugly surprises really.
Dennis: That’s good!
Chris: Thanks, Dennis. I’m happy to share that with anyone. If people want to talk about their experiences and want some help to move to the next level then trying to define that vision is probably the most important part. Just trying to get someone to tell you about what they really want to do. That’s the only way that things are going to change.
Dennis: Yeah, there you go. Cool!
How can people get a hold of you?
Chris: That’s a good question. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m on Facebook. I’m on Twitter. And on Instagram.
Dennis: You’re everywhere. [laughs]
Chris: Everywhere, yeah. So the company is AML Group UK. Chris Webster at LinkedIn and Acoustic Moon Limited on Twitter as well. We’ve got Acoustic Moon Limited and AML Group on Facebook. As well as Chris Webster.
Dennis: There you go.
Chris: It’s everywhere. Yeah.
AML stands for Acoustic Moon Limited. But when we created Acoustic Moon Limited, we realized that that probably had a little bit too much of a hippie flavor for the corporate world so we had to do the three letter acronym.
Chris: Yeah, the TLA’s. So AML Group was born and we trade as AML Group but the company is Acoustic Moon Limited but it’s one and the same. Acoustic Moon is more of our production arm where we’re going out and doing the events, and doing the sound, and doing the lighting, and doing all the production work. AML Group is more the sort of corporate flavor of a few different things that we do.
Dennis: Chris, this is great. Thanks so much.
Chris: Thanks Dennis.
Dennis: I’m Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do.
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