The Joy of Sets!

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Diversification in Set Companies during 2020.

Well that sounds like a catchy title to draw people in! As a former set company owner myself, I know how difficult it is to keep a scenery business ticking along in quieter times. Well this year has been extraordinary for these companies.

Set companies are always heavy on labour, from the design and sales side, to the team manufacturing and installing the product. In these times you have to look at what assets you have, what you can drop and what you can exploit.

When I used to walk around my workshop it would get me thinking as to how we could use these assets for other purposes.( I also found old mugs of tea long forgotten with their own little world of culture in them!!)

So what is the process to reset your workshop for action? i always found that if you talk to the team and see what their thoughts are on the current situation, you could glean what is possible. Not all ideas are sane and some simply annoying, like “if we had a 5 axis CNC we could model cars for the automotive industry”. If i had had the £150 K needed to do that we would probably not be chatting about how we are going to get by FINANCIALLY!!

Once you have your idea, you have to essentially start a new business within an existing business structure. Anyone who has started a business from scratch will tell you that in the time it takes to R and D, buy suitable equipment, research the market, get social media ready and a have strategy to market it physically elsewhere, the whole idea could become financially redundant.Covid in 2020 has changed alot of these processes and the speed to reinvent ourselves procluded lengthy research with the need to keep businesses and jobs going.

I am new to social media but the few set companies i follow had a range of innovative ideas; i saw set companies making coffins, garden furniture, deck chairs for open air cinemas, man shed items and the ubiquitous acrylic safety screen seemed to be a favourite. It was a rush to arms to be inventive and survive.

The more niche the company the more difficult it appears to have been.

I spoke to Alec Graham at Splinter Scenery who mainly supplies theatres around the country with touring sets and opera houses with bepoke scenery. With the need to diversify Alec looked at many options to keep his team together and keep the business viable. After looking at stylish van conversions, boat repairs and sales, they settled on garden offices.

As discussed above, although his team are highly skilled in design and build they are starting a new business in a new industry. They are starting a new niche business in Garden offices and joining an industry that people are already doing well in because they know their industry well.However, it’s very difficult with no help or time to start a new business and although they haven’t shelved the idea it has taken a back seat to a more succesful venture of outdoor shelters for pubs.

They have successfully built shelters that cover tables in pub gardens and create a space for 6 people that you can isolate in, with hand sanitisers and Tv’s included. A great example of ” look to what you already have” thinking. (pictured pre internal fit out). The work came from existing clients who also had to look for alternative sources of income.

So my question to Alec was, “will you continue the shelters once your main business returns?” The answer, Yes. For me its a no brainer, you have had to come up with something else, its working, so long may it continue. From a longer term business perspective it will need looking at , who manages it , install it etc, but he has time to plan those details now as he is up and running, as he waits for the Theatrical and TV work to return.

Speaking to Alec made me realise, its people who have had to start from nothing in the live events industry and make difficult decisions through recessions etc re business survival, are the ideal people to come out of this fighting.

He has work in the pipeline for next year so i wish him all the best for it returning sooner rather than later.

It is definetly business reverse engineering to have the idea and run with it before exploring the market, but if you don’t have to invest too heavily it is worth doing if you know you have a market, the existing skill base and facilities. Once you have started you can develop the idea as normal and build that aspect of your business to compliment your existing business and team. This current crisis may make all set companies have other strings to their otherwise talented bow’s as an insurance for the future.

It would be great to have any thoughts on the subject for discussion.

Thanks to Alec at Splinter Scenery

Next time im looking at the sustainability of the set industry. Its a huge subject so ill be discussing over a few issues. if there is anyone with an opinion on this subject let me know.

(As a cheeky aside and while I have you, we have a side business of our own as we haven’t been on site for a year! – for fun T shirts and hoodies)

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