As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Whitehouse. Nick is one of the founding partners of Fireplay, an award-winning design and production company that’s created awe-inspiring tours for Justin Timberlake, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Thomas Rhett, Feld Entertainment, PY1, Billie Eilish, and more. Fireplay’s hands-on innovative approach continues to expand the firm’s portfolio with new exciting projects and their collaborative spirit has built a stellar reputation in the entertainment industry.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Well that’s a long story and involved more than a few “being in the right place at the right time” moments but I’ll try the short version. I became fascinated by music and stage production early on in life. I quickly learned that while I wasn’t a bad musician, I was far better at being the behind the scenes guy. I spent the majority of my time in college in the theatre even though I didn’t take it as a subject. Upon leaving I took a chance and moved to London. I spend a year working on anything I could get. Lights, sound, installations, it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly didn’t pay much, but I loved it, so I persevered. One day working in a half derelict venue a man named Bryan Leitch walked in to install a new lighting rig, he asked if I wanted to help… I said yes. Two weeks later he called to offer me the job of House LD at London’s Kentish Town Forum. It was a major venue; I had no idea what the job needed or how to do it all, but I said YES. The next day I’m being handed a harness, a gel plot and a slack of colored gel, still not really knowing what to do, I asked a few questions and got to work… I worked there for two years, almost every day, I was incredibly hard work, but it was amazing. I got to see some of the biggest acts in the world at the time and to learn from the best LD’s always learning the things that did work and the things that didn’t. Bryan became my mentor; we would do all kinds of shows and festivals together. Eventually he came to me and said ok right it’s time for your first tour… I left on a 4-week tour of Europe with a band called Star Sailor. It was amazing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, the Forum had been fun, but it wasn’t always my show… now it was… I ended up touring for six months with StarSailor, they even got big enough for me to do my first solo arena tour, but then my first taste of music business politics left me watching a friend of the bands take my place… I went back to the Forum just in time to do a one off special with a new hot band Bryan had been working with called Coldplay. Timing couldn’t have been better, I headed out on tour with them as they started to break America. I spent the next 8 years touring the world as operator then designer, from theatres to arenas to stadiums… the rest is history… each tour led me to the next, 16 total years of touring almost never going home for the biggest stars in the world… always learning, always growing!
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
At Fireplay when we first started were trying something new, industry changing and no one else was doing what we were doing the way we were doing it, the biggest challenge was to explain and prove what we were offering was actually better. There was a great deal of if it’s not broken then don’t fix it or we have been doing it this way for years why change now. I think once we managed to hone our message and learn how to present our methods and advantages is when the company really took off. So the lesson is, perhaps your selling the best thing in the world, but unless the people who are buying it understand what it is, how it works and how it benefits them there not going to stop doing things the way they always have, people are creatures of habit!
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
There are a few, Firstly I think we are incredibly creative, we love what we do, and we love the opportunities we get to create these incredible experiences for people to enjoy. We love to find and create new technology or new ways to do things which leave people including our peers trying to figure out how we did it. But most of all we care, and we turn up. We care about the client and delivering something that totally in line with their brand, we care about the audience experience and how to bring them more, we care about the crew, fellow creatives and designers and we always want to be there to ensure everything runs smoothly and is executed perfectly.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
Ha good questions.
#5 — How much paperwork and legal knowledge you need… I spend at least a day a week talking to our lawyers and finance advisors to make sure we have clear, fair and detailed contracts so everyone is on the same page from day one.
#4 — As the CEO you’ll get to spend less time doing the parts you enjoy and more time finding solution to problems or fighting fires. We did a show recently where I was scheduled to have some time each day to actually program the show myself along with Brian Vaughan our Head of Lighting. For the week I should have been programming by the time I had got through everything else that was going on each day I only made it to program between 1am and 5am each night. Luckily Brian did an incredible job and each night I could just a few of my touches.
#3 — Learn to delegate quickly, To fix the problem in #4, have team around you who you trust and are willing to delegate to, then when the next time you have the opportunity to schedule programming you have a system and enough people to delegate to the work which stopped you doing that the first time. I am lucky enough to have incredible partners but still it took time to let go of all the details and trust them to run with things.
#2 — Know your industry’s every move and keep up. As a freelancer or employee it’s not as important, but knowing the trends, who’s breaking this year, who to gamble on, which album are coming out, who’s going on tour, what new tech is out there, which set designer is new and hot, which content company is doing different things.. enables us to navigate this business properly and make the right moves.
#1 — Hiring the right people and then fostering and pushing them to allow them to grow and create a motivated and enjoyable environment to work in. I didn’t realize how huge this is but building the right team and pushing them to grow out of their comfort zone and rewarding them as they do excellent work or find new skills has defiantly been a learning experience for me. Should be top of the CEO 101 list as it makes such a difference to daily life at the office and the creativity and work product. I am really proud of each and every Fireplay Partner and Employee, we have a superb team.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One thing I used to say as a freelance designer was that taking too much work each year hurts creatively as you tend to fall back on known things that work. I used to pride myself on not doing the same thing twice and always innovating. Its trickier as an employee for a fast-growing company so the best advice is to make sure you have a healthy work / life balance and don’t be afraid to take some down time after a busy time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There have been a few, Two stick out as the most important Bryan Leitch who I talked about above for being my mentor, I would not be here without his help, teaching and support. He did the same for countless people many of which are the most successful at what they do in the business. The second would be Justin Timberlake. Justin saw my Coldplay show in Japans, Budokan in July 2006. Directly after the show we met and he wanted to hire me to design his show, He saw musicality in my lighting that he had never seen before. I have worked with JT ever since and lead the design of every live performance since that time. A lot of pressure comes with that as he is the hardest working person I know and is a perfectionist at everything he attempts. But so am I and it’s been a natural fit. The leap of faith to hire me and the trust he has in me to deliver have been huge in my success.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Professionally I want Fireplay to change the industry and be seen as the benchmark to which others have to keep up to, we have pushed and changed things a little and already shifted the thinking to where others are offering similar services, but we have some really big ideas to go way further in the near future and I am excited to start putting those in place! Personally, I’m still trying to get to the perfect work/ family balance and as the team grows being able to delegate more should allow me to get to that perfect balance.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I think what we plan to build Fireplay into will be the perfect legacy, a truly unique, incredibly creative design studio who are still down to earth approachable fun people to be around. Being able to mentor some of the younger designers and give back the similar to the way I was taught is also something that I hope can contribute to the legacy.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
That’s a tough one, I have been lucky enough to have travelled the world extensively, I’ve met some amazing people, seen incredible sights and eaten all kinds of food. Different cultures, different countries, people rich and poor it’s an unbelievably educational and life changing experience. I think that my movement would have to be something that encouraged everyone to get out there and see more of the world, trying new things, meeting new people and experiencing these cultures teaches and enhances lives in every way!
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