Founder stories: James Kirkham of ICONIC77 started out young

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Starting out as an entrepreneur is hard enough, let alone trying to do it when you’re young, inexperienced and have no real idea about the world.

Yet James Kirkham, well-known media speaker and founder of new agency ICONIC77, didn’t even think twice about it.

So we ‘queue jumped’ our way to the front of the line to as what drove him to success at such a young age and how he keeps his going afdter goals…

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What made you start an agency at 23 years old

If I can think back that far… I started holler with a friend: we were without a grand plan, and without a clue.

We both had full time jobs as digital creatives, when we got an opportunity to build a web presence for a friends band who had just been signed to a major label. It was a side hustle which started a lot.

He introduced us to his label manager and after a meeting one lunchtime, we agreed to make an e-card. This was the year 2000, so we’re talking about a flash promotional asset for a band that played out a little piece of music.

We had to make it as creative as possible in the hope that recipients would send it to a friend.

This was before social media. The label loved it, and immediately gave us our next project for a new artist and his first single – Craig David’s Fill Me In.

From there, we quit our jobs and set holler up for real. We quickly worked making digital promotions for everyone from Destiny’s Child to Busted, from James to Razorlight.

We won countless Digital Music Awards and even collected one gong on stage with Girls Aloud. Music made Holler, and in turn kick started my career.

What were the toughest challenges you faced?

Starting a digital agency in 2001 as a 23 year old who has no background in the industry, no real network of mentorship or safety net, and parents who were a hairdresser and an antiques dealer.

Needless to say, there were a lot of challenges. For years it was cashflow. We’d work relentlessly six or sometimes seven days a week, trekking across town to our little studio in Dalston and working for hours on end, completing whatever project we’d been given.

Even then it took a long time for it to grow up, become real. The music business was incredible but relatively low-level for us commercially, so we evolved into other areas, eventually working (and making our name) with Channel 4, E4, 4 Music, Film 4, then onto brands like Red Bull, Innocent Drinks and Mercedes Benz.

Was it always about advertising? Or more about digital? Or social? Or all three?

It wasn’t advertising. We barely knew what it was. We were artists, graduates from art college with graphic design multimedia degrees who experimented with screens, and this new digital space allowed us a freedom which suited our art.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay
Young designers: Kirkham had graphic design straining but no advertising knowledge.

Combining samples from music, using beats from trip hop CDs we’d borrow from the library, then scanning in countless assets to manipulate and twist on screen – it became multimedia art really, using early versions of Director and Flash.

And this led to ‘web design’ which went on to become the entire new media, digital and latterly social landscape that we now know. But it began as something artistic. Raw. I miss that.

 Why did you go into football, music, etc?

I had become disillusioned for a while after selling the business to a huge global agency.

I took a role there, which was great, but the seniority meant I was increasingly distant from doing the work and being involved at the granular creative level that gives you real influence day-to-day.

When I left, I wanted to find my way back to that spark. Setting up COPA90 gave me the opportunity to really play again, working around a great passion of mine – football – which I was hugely grateful for.

Four years of working in football made me realise how much I enjoyed the experience of mastering a space at a point in time, and so I set myself a similar goal, to see if I could achieve the same in music. Which is where Defected Records came in.

How would you describe the entrepreneurial life?

Being an entrepreneur is a strangely paradoxical experience. It can be exhilarating but slow. It can be emotionally exhausting and lonely. It is the rollercoaster incarnate: highs in the sky and properly tricky lows.

You learn to try to take these extremes, roll with the punches, find the happy medium, and not to overly celebrate successes. Ultimately, the opportunity is one of financial security. It is of investing in and harnessing incredibly talented people.

It is putting human capital against big world problems and making wonderful solutions which might just change the world.

Image by Mirco from Pixabay
Twister: Entrepreneurial life can be a rollercoaster, says Kirkham.

Is enough done to get young people into starting their own businesses?

Absolutely not. And we’re in an interesting time. I started before the dotcom bubble madness took off, and a long way before the big tech noughties, which made a lot of young people assume they could ‘do a Zuckerberg’ and find huge overnight success.

At least now a lot has been documented from that time – amazingly well created TV series about We Work or Facebook or Blackberry – where entrepreneurship is better understood and defined than ever before.

But the simple fact is, young people need endorsement. They need it literally, and they need it in terms of financial assistance, help, advice and opportunity.

Our society should reward endeavour and encourage young people to coalesce around smart technology and ideas that will benefit the world, solve issues, and move us forward.

Right now, it feels like, if you’re not a rich kid, finding a benefactor it is tough. I had to have insane amounts of self-belief, chutzpah, and somehow convince a couple of older wiser chaps to stick a £20,000 loan in our bank to help us leave our jobs and start out on our own in the knowledge that we wouldn’t be destitute within the week.

Life for young entrepreneurs should not be so hand-to-mouth; we should have a smart, structured, encouraging system which offers opportunities for those with great ideas and a great work ethic.

Is this something you’d recommend to younger people starting out?

I would. I’d tell them to go for it. If they’re talented, then the fall-back plan is to get a good job and fall into a great career.

But they’ll never regret trying. The roll of the dice when you’re young is everything, it gets damned hard with kids, mortgages etc to roll with the same conviction as an audacious 20-something.

What else could be done to encourage others to take the startup route into the sector?

Better tax breaks for small and medium sized businesses, and drastic reduction in corporation taxes.

The idea that you make a profit of 100k and immediately give back £25,000 of this to the government – for what? – is absolutely insanely hard to swallow.

You’re penalised for doing well.

Who inspires you most?

People from across the spectrum of culture. I’m inspired by anybody who keeps showing up, making and doing something new, and going again.

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Goals: Kirkham isnpired by likes of David Beckham who disrupt and change the game.

Beckham could have sat on his sofa counting money for the rest of his life, but his involvement with Inter Miami is a lesson to all in how to level up, changing the game all over again.

Or look at artists like JME, who’s trying to use his understanding of a scene and culture to spell it out for his audiences in such simple, clean, (yellow!) boxes for the greater good.

When it comes to business, Professor Scott Galloway’s new book ‘The Algebra is Wealth’ is a great articulation of how inspiring he is, his grip on finance and ability to articulate what it is to achieve wealth, incubate wealth, and understand wealth. That’s inspiring.

What keeps you awake at night?

I tend to replay moments, conversations, discussions. I might have ideas bubbling, which sounds nice but isn’t when you need to sleep.

I always want to be better. My work ego means it’s impossible for me to ignore the competitive drive to do great things that move the conversation forward in some way.

What reading matter is on your bedside table?

The Algebra of Wealth by Scott Galloway

Animal House by James Brown

Faster Than a Cannonball: 1995 and All That by Dylan Jones

Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography by Laurie Woolever

Whatever Happened to the C86 Kids? By Nige Tassell

The Mountain Is You: Transforming Self-Sabotage Into Self-Mastery by Brianna Wiest