Stagekings was the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Jeremy and Tabitha Fleming. Tabitha had worked in sales within the music industry for major players, including Sony, Universal Music, and EMI. Jeremy had worked on the business development side of supplying stages and events after initially training as a carpenter and scaffolder.
Over those years, Jeremy had been thinking about a business of his own. He had toyed with thoughts of a kebab van. Jeremy started to run a fitness boot camp as a side hustle that was so successful that Jeremy went full time when he and Tabitha had their first child. But by the time their second was born, he decided it was time to get out of the fitness business.
Tabitha and Jeremy founded Stagekings in 2015. They wanted to bring the custom-designed stages used in large-scale European markets to the Australian events industry. The concept of events being experiences over and above whomever the performer was (and needing special stages) came from the Netherlands originally. DJs earned such high fees, and organizers had to add experiences to justify the resulting ticket prices. Tomorrowland in Belgium became the gold standard.
A designer friend came up with the Stagekings logo. They offered custom stages, truss and scaffold hire, pop-up retail, TV sets, and more. Three months in, they won a six-figure contract for a build for NRL near Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The company took off fast, with Mick Jessop joining as production manager a year later. Mick was used to complex builds, having worked as production manager for the Sydney Festival. By 2018, they had their own warehouse in Kurnell, Sydney, for both storage and carpentry for the stages and assembled a team of some of the best in the industry.
Their impressive portfolio of event stages includes Shakespeare’s ‘Pop-Up Globe’ outdoor touring theatre, a life-size replica of Edinburgh Castle for the Military Tattoo, and much of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony set.
At the start of March 2020, Stagekings were in the middle of building a set for Formula 1 in Melbourne, putting out a giant steel spherical cricket ball structure for the T-20 World Cup, halfway through a trust structure for Ninja Warrior live film set, and flat out busy with customers across the board on various events and stages.
Friday 13th March 2020 brought an announcement from the Australian Prime Minister of the shut-down of the entire events and entertainment industry due to COVID-19. Every job booked for 2020 was canceled within 48 hours.
Jeremy called a team meeting, and they brainstormed ideas for survival, trying to foresee what people might need in this new, unknown world, which for the foreseeable future certainly wasn’t going to be stages. They considered pop-up testing facilities and temporary waiting rooms. A friend in Ireland planned to start making furniture. They had both space and machinery, so they explored this idea further.
With people already working from home, desks from companies such as Officeworks and Ikea were selling out fast, and oversees supplies were all blocked, so this idea became a front runner.
Mick came up with two designs overnight, so by Monday, they were building prototypes. They completed a photoshoot, and the eCommerce site was written, up and running by Tuesday afternoon. They made the designs flat-pack, with easy, no tool home assembly. The name came from a combination of Stagekings and isolation desks.
On that Tuesday, Jeremy posted an open letter on social media, telling their story and explaining what they intended to do to save jobs. It went viral, liked, or shared by a million people within days. They used Facebook buy, swap, and sell sites. Orders grew. They worked hard on getting both Facebook and Google reviews. There was no money to spare for glossy brand development or marketing. It was the leanest of start-ups.
Cash flow was challenging. They had just finished several Stagekings events as COVID hit, and no one could afford to pay them for those. They had the immediate outlay of the birch ply and labor continually, but they remained self-funded.
They hoped to achieve sales of a hundred desks a month and keep themselves and some of their crew in work. Within three days of starting, they were taking two hundred orders a day. Not only did they need to bring back their whole original crew, but they needed to hire more. The media were hugely supportive, which also helped their organic growth.
Scaling tremendously fast puts strains on many aspects for every business. Much of Australia’s timber is imported, and the very sustainable birch they chose to use comes from Russia and is a very sustainable timber. Jeremy and Tabitha knew many local timber suppliers already, but they had never expected the timber quantities they would need. They were soon buying ten packs a week, and at one point, for two weeks in July, Australia ran out as a result.
Jeremy used out-of-work event crews to add to their fast-growing team. He says the events industry was “super-supportive” from the start, and seventy of their new people came from within the sector. As a result of this, training wasn’t an issue as the skill sets were similar for warehousing and deliveries and machinists trained for cutting the stages turned to cutting for desks with ease.
Initially, they were doing many of the deliveries themselves, and their customers were delighted to see roadies appear with a desk. But this and their other option of a Pack and Send company proved expensive options, so they migrated to using a carrier selection company that optimizes each delivery cost.
The original e-commerce site had never been built for scaling. Jeremy and Tabitha nursed it through till they could replace it with a Shopify store which was a challenge to create but worth it. Everything they did initially, they learned to do better, cheaper, quicker. Jeremy describes how at the start, he and Tabitha would be putting individual stickers on each piece of furniture till ten at night till they became more automized.
They have expanded their market to include both the online retail and the wholesale side. The company is now also making equipment for schools and educational children’s games.
Since COVID began, they have provided work for an astonishing 140 people and made over thirty-five thousand items. Both are incredible achievements.
The Pro’s and Cons of Diversifying
I had read that Jeremy tends to say yes to anything, so I wanted to ask him how this approach, contrary to many business people’s advice of focus on what you do best, came as a reaction to finding themselves where they were when COVID hit. Jeremy laughed and said that this was undoubtedly true to some extent, but equally, he tends to “always be over-positive and say yes to things in general,” and Tabitha is the one to ground him and keep him in check.
When COVID hit, they tried many different things with their diversifying tactics. They came up with varying furniture designs, for example, that once tested never saw the light of day. But it was a deliberate policy to be open to different things.
Their pivoting success story has brought them several awards, including the 2020 Pause Fest Winners, 2020 Resilience Award from Smart Company, and 2020 Top 10 Business Australia.
The Future for Stagekings and Isoking
At the point I spoke to them, Jeremy said they were at a crossroads. While the music industry had not come fully back, the film and TV industry in Australia, encouraged by the low COVID events and massive tax concessions from the Australian government, is booming.
There is a strong focus in Australia from the pandemic to buy Australian made and to shop local which can only help them succeed further.
With Isoking, diversification continues. They are looking to supply different industries, including schools, pubs, commercial, retail, and offices. They are bringing out more furniture so they will offer a complete range for all home needs.
While Jeremy and Tabitha are moving back to their roots, they leave a strong management team, including Mick, to run Isokings and keep their feet in the door. They cannot achieve the next-day delivery they did when at the start, but they still offer an impressive five-day turnaround.
Jeremy notes that all Australian companies have changed their approach, and there is more home working there to stay with most people, only spending a couple of days a week in the office, and they are no different.
People often ask him if they will retain the name Isoking when the need for isolation is a distant memory, but Jeremy points out it also stands for ISO – which of course, is a quality standard. While the brands are separate to some extent, they will also retain a link.
Give Back Kings
Jeremy and Tabitha are understandably proud of their give-back record. The first evening they decided to pivot, Jeremy said that helping people in the industry was an essential aim at the heart of what they were aiming to achieve.
They decided to donate a portion of all sales to “Support Act,” the Australian event and entertainment charity. They achieved a donation of $90,000 Australian in their first year to help people in the industry who have been unable to find work. A percentage of their new educational range will be donated to Rizeup, supporting families and children affected by domestic violence.
Jeremy and Tabitha’s achievements are considerable in terms of pivoting and entrepreneurship. But it is perhaps what they achieved for their industry and the people they work in it that will be their biggest legacy.
Another amazing entrepreneur you might like to read of is Hannah Spilva of LVLY – Telstra’s business woman of the year 2020