Socially enterprising since 1983

Interview with David Felton

Interview with David Felton, co-founder of Sample Magic, Dynamic Music, and founder/director of Inspired by Lakeland.

When did you decide to start your own business?
I always knew I wanted to be self-employed. When I was 18, I saw these wooden ties whilst travelling in Nepal and thought they could be massive in the UK. My first life lesson was that, just because you think something is great, doesn’t mean anyone else will. I still have several boxes in my parents’ loft. But you learn so much from that kind of miss-step. On that occasion, I learnt about import and export duties and routes to market. I had to work out the best way to contact retailers and other practical issues.

What was your first official business?
In my mid-20s, I co-founded Sample Magic, selling music samples to producers. I was a music producer at the time and using the type of products that Sample Magic would go on to create. I bought a lot of music samples and I thought that there was nowhere near as much high- quality stuff out as there should be. At the time I was mixing socially with someone who eventually became my business partner. He was a fantastic sample creator. I said: ‘I think we can do this better’. My skills were based on design and packaging, so I knew how to make beautiful CDs. I was also pretty good at project management. Crucially, I had a couple of thousand pounds to invest. So, my business partner did the majority of the sound design and I did most of the packaging and promotion. It worked almost instantly, and we soon got a name as the best in the market. I kept my previous job and reduced how many days I was working there as the burgeoning new business expanded. Within two years I could give up my day job.

How long did you run Sample Magic for?
11 years. By the end of the 11 years, we had 8 employees and a network around the world of about 100 people freelancing for us. It was a good business turning over close to £1m.

What where were the key things you did that made it successful?
Great products. Without a shadow of a doubt, that was the main thing.
We were better than our competitors. We recruited professional musicians. Our sounds were world-class, the best in our field. We were consistently excellent.
As a DJ my business partner knew what was shaping the zeitgeist – the sounds rocking the clubs - so we were always cresting this wave of the type of music people were making. We also had a great design aesthetic. Our products looked awesome. In dance music production, people are highly immersed in the latest design trends, so our branding had to be right. Customers thought: ‘You can trust these guys: they are at the forefront of what they do’.
My business partner noticed almost immediately that the world was moving towards downloads rather than CDs and we came first to market with downloadable content and also a downloadable platform for other sample producers. We were always ahead of the curve, whether it was the music itself or the technology that allowed people to make sounds. When we expanded to books, courses and events people already knew and trusted us because we were surfing the zeitgeist.

What would you have done differently?
The reason I finally left was because of tensions between myself and the other director. Partnerships – particularly 50/50 partnerships – are notoriously difficult to maintain. If one disagrees there is no easy mechanism to shift direction. There is no one with a deciding vote. I would have loved to get a manager in before things got difficult. They might have been able to take the business forward so we could stand back as non-execs and allowed them to grow it more dispassionately.

Is there anything else you found difficult?

Managing staff is difficult, and creative business-starters don’t always naturally have a management skillset. Devolving management would have been sensible. We bluffed our way through setting up and that can only take you so far until you need professional help.

What areas did you lack knowledge when you started your business?
Everything, I spent a lot of time on the HMRC website and learning how to better run social media, PPC advertising, SEO etc. You are doing it all yourself and having to learn it quickly. It is useful to learn about these things because if later if you recruit, say, an accountant, you need an awareness of what they are doing. I don’t think you can be an expert at everything. There will always be blind spots dictated by your interests and personality.

What are you currently working on?
After selling Sample Magic I moved to Cumbria and set up a business selling gifts, primarily books, to the tourist market. I wanted it to be a more local business, less stressful. I didn’t particularly want staff. I wanted enough money coming in to support my life up here.

How is this business different from the others?
I have always been in the content business. It was music and now it’s booked. The fundamentals haven’t changed. Creating great stuff that people like, presenting it in a beautiful way and selling it. The main difference is that I have full control over the business now, and it is much more relaxed. If I make a mistake it’s fine – I can just learn from it and move on rather than arguing about the repercussions with others.

Has there been a change in lifestyle for you?
I worked pretty much every waking hour when I was setting up Sample Magic. I never minded because it was something I loved. I don’t have the same level of energy now to do what I was doing 10 years ago. Nor do I incline to work so hard. My new business generally demands a lot less of me, and there is less pressure – particularly around managing others. I don’t want to massively grow this business. The endless drive for growth is problematic. At some point, you have to ask yourself why you are doing it. To continually drive the bottom line, you invariably need more staff. Then there is more complexity and less control. You get this cycle that becomes increasingly more complicated to manage. There is a growth trap which I only started recognising towards the end of my time at Sample Magic. It is problematic because it doesn’t always lead to happiness. That crisis point for me in business also became a personal crisis.

It prompted me to ask what I wanted from life as I moved forward. As an entrepreneur, you can’t separate your job from yourself. It will dominate your life if you want to be successful. You often work from home so there is no barrier between work and leisure. I was lucky to get the opportunity to ask fundamental ‘what next?’ questions and create a new business that suited the life I wanted to lead going forward.

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