Express Yourself

How to launch your own creative production company, by two women who did it

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Gemma Cairney
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Business partners Gemma Cairney and Beth Clayton on the story behind their production company – and their advice for starting your own.  

I founded Boom Shakalaka Productions four years ago, when I was presenting the early breakfast show on Radio 1. I was getting up at 3am, Monday to Friday and it was making me feel a bit insane, to be frank. I felt that I needed to start something that gave me the opportunity to pitch ideas, with more control over the outcome. I was also increasingly drawn to collaborating with the people around me and pitching the stories of others.

Beth has been one of my best friends for over 10 years and is one of the cleverest people I know. There’s never been a time in our friendship when we haven’t discussed our careers in depth, and I’ve always felt like she’s someone who challenges me in the best way. Boom Shakalaka Productions started with her helping out on the business side of things as she’s so much better at actually making things logistically happen than I am, and we soon officialised her role as co-director of the company. We’ve since exec produced theatre, campaigns, podcast, videos and radio documentaries together.

I’ve learnt it’s important to be bold in business. I think that means a mixture of things, like being able to ask for the help and expertise of others when necessary. One person can’t nail everything.

But I believe that boldness is also about trusting your gut and working on projects – and with people – that you genuinely feel confident about and believe in. That way, you’ll enjoy bringing ideas to life with integrity, no matter how ambitious or small they are. I love working with Beth, as we communicate well and are likeminded in how we view the world.

I spoke to Beth to see what she thought about working with me at Boom Shakalaka. Here’s what she had to say…

So, tell Stylist’s readers: how did you and I first meet?

We met in a bar on Brick Lane through a now-ex boyfriend of mine.

And how did we become friends?

Initially over a quite bizarre conversation about designing a dress made of belts! More generally, because we spend a lot of time laughing and have always managed to do so even in the most challenging of circumstances.

When was it that we decided to set up business together?

You set up Boom around four years ago, and I joined in on a few early projects while we talked about how to make it work as a business. It was a gradual process, but we’ve been firm partners on the business for two years.

What inspired our business plan?

A desire to make things we weren’t seeing elsewhere, by connecting brilliant people whose work we love. We also wanted to be able to work across multiple formats – in audio (our first love), video, theatre, film and live events – without being defined by any one thing.

Most importantly, we’re trying to build something that reflects our personal ethics. This means we interrogate every project, asking: what story is being told, and who should be the person telling it? If we can disrupt the usual way of things even in small ways, we do. 

How would you describe our average working day?

It may be clichéd but there really isn’t one. We are usually only in the office together once a week, but we speak constantly via WhatsApp, Skype, email and phone, and try to do as many external meetings as we can together. Days are a mixture of pitching, exec producing, budgeting and contracting – plus, we both have other projects outside of the business.

Who handles what in terms of the business, such as looking after the money or managing Boom Shaka Laka’s social media accounts?

A lot of the day-to-day running of productions is done by me, but we both input creatively on individual projects and tend to tag-team as exec producers. We share some of the bigger business stuff like finance and pitching for new work, and I generally pick up the paperwork. Our social media is a deeply shambolic collaboration.

How do we separate our friendship from our business relationship?

Separate WhatsApp chats!

What are your five tips for anyone hoping to follow in your footsteps – and why?

  1. Do more than one thing, if you can make the time. Increasingly I’m grateful that I’ve kept my interests quite wide and had experience across a few different areas of work.
  2. Don’t be afraid to make dramatic changes. Doing work that makes you unhappy may be necessary financially, but don’t let it be a long-term situation. We’ve both made a few rash leaps into the unknown and it’s worked out OK.
  3. Don’t be afraid to dislike things or say that things are crap, even if everyone else seems to be loving what you’re hating.
  4. Work with people you like, if you possibly can.
  5. Collaborate!

For one day only on Thursday 20 September, Gemma Cairney has taken over stylist.co.uk and transformed it into her very own Express Yourself platform – a digital initiative which aims to inspire us, challenge us and encourage us to explore our creative sides.

For similarly inspiring content, check out Stylist’s September Shake Up initiative here.

Main image: Boom Shakalaka Productions