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This founder turned down VC funding & shares what GaryVee is REALLY like off camera | EP04: Graham Hussey, Dream Factory

Updated: Mar 11

Graham Hussey founded Dream Factory in 2021. Dream Factory help founders create high-quality studio based content, to increase engagement, grow brand presence and in turn, scale their startup. In this episode, he recounts his entrepreneurial journey including a failed business which made £3 profit, the early days of Startup Van, and how he built Dream Factory to a flourishing 350-member business with various locations and multiple revenue streams.

Watch the full episode here, subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or keep reading for the full interview.

SM: Graham, it's such a pleasure to have you and your Dublin accent on the Strategy and Tragedy podcast. It's wonderful to interview you in your own studio, in your own company. This must feel very meta for you, being on the other side of the table, the one interviewing others.

GH: I haven't done a lot of this, which is probably at the everybody end of this, but I have actually featured a lot on other people's things.

SM: You need the practice; it's really a charity.

GH: Yeah, it's appreciated.

SM: So, the first question, the million-dollar question, I think everyone wants to know from you: What was it like to meet Gary Vee?

GH: It was a bit of a whirlwind. I didn't know who he was 72 hours before we filmed with him, which I think people see Gary Vee as relevant today, but he was really relevant then; he was a superstar. I think everyone thought we knew him a long time and we were grafting to get him in. The reality is, 72 hours before, I didn't know who he was. A friend of mine said he was coming to Dublin, and I was like, "I don't care who it is." They said no, you really should check out his videos. So, I basically binge-watched his videos non-stop, YouTube playlist, and we dropped a DM to his videographers, and they said yes. You know, we had to try a bit, but it wasn't that hard. Meeting him was a strange thing because obviously, he had done Dublin Talks, and they paid him—I don't know if they said it before—but they paid like 150,000 euros to speak. I mean, we got him free for longer, so they hate me. But when he got in, he was just very energetic, and the way Gary Vee is, it was exactly as I expected. But when the cameras turned off, he's just like, you know, a busy dude, he's on his emails going through them. Then a couple of days later, that episode was released, and I needed to see if I could find a clip of this, but they absolutely released it, looked great, we got loads of followers and loads of emails, like, "You should come to Atlanta, you should come to Chicago, New York," which is really cool, U.S. exposure. Then he released another video after it and referred to something about being in a creepy van or something like that. So, you kind of dated a few videos in, but it was cool meeting him, but not all that great either, right? I think he was just kind of in his own, quiet on his phone.

SM: I guess what you saw on camera is what you experienced during the time was real.

GH: Yeah, right. So, I got the full Gary Vee experience because the cameras were rolling at all times. The deal was we'd interview him, but we would also give him a ride to the airport. We recorded clips of it online and were maybe sneakily recording, but those clips online were just him on his phone. He must have responded to 300 emails in like 40 minutes, right on his phone beside me. It was crazy.

SM: Amazing. So, it was kind of very much he's on when he's on, and he's off when he's on. I sort of saw that picture with him.

GH: Because there's no way, you know, without hard drugs, that someone is that energetic all the time. Yeah, and I see now it's a very different, like night and day different, but you have to be. Energy conservation as soon as the camera goes off, I think is that. Yeah, but it was huge. At the time, that's huge for us. It was right at the peak of his popularity and boosted our popularity. That's the name of the game, right?

"And you have this fantastic story about how you hustled to get Gary Vee onto your "creepy murder vibes" startup van, your words not mine!"

SM: So, as context for anyone who didn't already know, Graham, founder previously of the Startup Van, which was huge, especially in the startup ecosystem. I'd definitely heard of it before I ever met you. And you have this fantastic story about how you hustled to get Gary Vee onto your "creepy murder vibes" startup van, your words not mine, and you achieved it. And hadn't even heard of him 72 hours beforehand, which I was shocked at first because I am an ex-recovering Gary Vee die-hard fan. I've since graduated and come to my senses. And to be fair, because this was like seven years ago, he was probably just coming into my consciousness back then as well. So, I don't think you were the only one. I think, as you say, it was peak of his fame. And I laughed so much when I was watching it, especially at the beginning because it's kind of like OG Gary Vee from almost a decade ago, with that energy with everything. It was always that sort of era, almost a caricature of himself. So, it does explain that on-off that you experienced. Yeah. And so what he talked about in that video, and I do encourage listeners to go and watch the clip, it's hilarious, he talked about leveraging getting him on as a guest to then secure other high-profile name guests. Did you manage to succeed in doing that? Did you get any other amazing guests after Gary Vee, or was Gary Vee the peak?

GH: Gary Vee wasn't my favourite, right? I think probably following-wise, he's definitely got the most. You have Tom Blomfield, who co-founded Monzo, Mike Acton Smith from Calm, these big founders on because obviously, we leveraged it. But, to be honest, the most important thing, I think people who create content for startups, for businesses, always miss the point. Yes, you can get big guests on, but paying the bills is more important because if you don't pay the bills, there's nowhere for the guest to sit, right? So, we didn't so much leverage Gary Vee for guests; we leveraged Gary Vee for cash. We would basically all day and all night cold outreach conferences all around the world. Hey, we've interviewed the likes of Gary Vaynerchuk. Here's the clip because obviously, it got loads of views. Here's the clip. We want to interview at a conference. Here's how much it is.

SM: So, is that how you were monetising back then, getting the conferences to pay for you as a media?

GH: Yeah, a fresh media. So, conferences, but more often than not, conferences are really tight on budget. So, they'd say, "Hey, we can't afford it, but maybe some of our sponsors will be interested." And then we go to sponsors and basically... As you know, and I think you're one of the only people who've, especially in this side of the pond, actually managed to monetise content and do really well in that B2B space. I think everyone else just tries to do it for a bit and then realises how hard it is, realises they're not making money off it, and then falls off. Whereas we were like, we need to make money at this.

SM: I read about some of your big brand contracts as well. You were flying out to Chicago with your startup van. That is so cool!

The Startup Van Graham Hussey

GH: Yeah, that was the first one we did.

SM: Was that a brand deal?

GH: That was with Sage, yeah. The accountancy software company.

SM: So, they sponsored you to go around and do these interviews. Wow.

GH: Yeah, so basically there was no one, and I still don't think there's anyone better than me to do it, but to land in the city and in a really short space of time embed into an ecosystem like a startup ecosystem. I think I've just done it in so many cities, done it in Europe, done it in Asia, in America where you land and it comes to a place of authenticity. I care about startups so much - entrepreneurs are my heroes, as cheesy as that sounds. But I think it's, you know, it's a really special thing to take a leap and do something for yourself. So, landing in the city and being known in the startup ecosystem is something I mean I'm bad at loads of things, but that's one thing I'm good at. And that's why brands would say, "Hey, we need... we're having a conference in Chicago, and barely any people know who we are as a brand. Can you go out for three weeks before the conference and change that?" And you think of corporates spending $10's millions if not hundreds of millions on marketing to be known, and then they send in me with a van and a team three weeks before to do the same thing. So, it's really, really effective.

SM: Do you remember the sort of value that they were paying? You know, given that they were paying so much for these conferences, what was the sort of size of these contracts?

GH: It was like six-figure contracts.

SM: So good for you, cheap for them?

GH: Good for us, cheap for them. It's perfect. It's the exact same principle here, right? So, the Dream Factory, which I'm sure we will get into, is a sustainable profitable business also great for the members. So, we've just landed. I think that's like my thing, right?

SM: Good old-fashioned business, which we'll get into. It's recent ups and downs have definitely rebalanced the playing field. But yeah, more on that later. So just on the pricing side of things because I think that this is something that would be really valuable for a lot of founders listening to this as well. You know, pricing is a big struggle, especially at the beginning, trying to figure out how to price your services, how much value to add to a contract. You had that same struggle when one of these big brands came to you. Again, first time you're ever doing anything like this, I heard a friend sort of said, "No, go higher," and encouraged you to put a higher price. Tell us a bit more about that story, how you arrived at your pricing strategies.

GH: Yeah, when a multi-billion dollar brand reaches out, I think for an early-stage founder, it's more about getting some cash than actually pausing for a sec and figuring it out because you have rent to deal with, you have staff to pay. And then when we first got the request to put in a bid to do something with the Startup Van, we just went, "What's our yearly salary currently?" and, you know, put that in to propose it. "Wow, imagine getting paid our yearly salary to do something for three weeks. How cool would that be?" And then we sent it to somebody that we knew who was from the agency world, who would do contracts and bids with big companies. And they basically said, "You're delivering unbelievable value to this business at ten times that, and their marketing budget is x amount of million in the tens of millions, and you're charging them, you know, 40K. Hmm, what are you doing?" And kind of helped us reframe because it's really hard to do once you're used to a certain amount of money. It's just zeros being added for these big corporates, right? Maybe different now, but back then, they were a little more loose with their checks. It's just interesting to have a different point of view. It's something I say to founders all the time, just ask questions if you're unsure because I may not be here today. I wouldn't be dead, I'm sure, but I wouldn't be here today because I would have been doing a third of 40K to do this thing. In reality, things went wrong in that first year, and it cost us money to fix it. And we had to rebook this and rebook that, so we would have lost money on it. And then we would have been sending out our CVs to get full-time jobs versus doing it and having cash left over to give us time to do the next thing.

"Wow, imagine getting paid our yearly salary to do something for three weeks. How cool would that be?"

SM: I think this is something that happens more frequently than we might expect. It's a story I've heard from Scott Galloway. He has a very simple story about when he learned about getting his first opportunity to win a big contract. He went through the same thought process because, as you say, you're so used to one way of thinking about money and being employed. He went about it pretty much the same way. It was a friend that was like, "Hang on a minute," that helped him to reframe. So, he was like, "Oh my god, okay, let's go for it." And, "Oh, this feels wrong or scary." He just has this great story about when he got the check in the post because this is obviously how long ago it was, and he just felt like he needed to be sent to jail, that he had done something wrong!

GH: I know people of colour, female founders are being asked to speak at conferences, and just, you know, the typical story of the Gary Vee's getting paid 150,000 pounds and then, you know, a female founder gets paid nothing to do it, and that always pops up. Now it pops up for me to get asked to do stuff, and you have to kind of weigh up. You have to pause for a second because, yeah, you can ask for five grand, and they may say no, they may say yes, but also what is it worth to you as well to do that.

SM: That's a great example of the public speaking situation because I think it's when you take anything that isn't tangible where it's like, well, you know, I haven't got my eggs and flour and the kitchen I need to rent to kind of maybe produce a physical product when it's like it's a speech that I'm delivering or it's something that's maybe less tangible. It's a little bit more kind of looking for the nebulous.

GH: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

SM: But anyway, so you mentioned before about your heroes being entrepreneurs, which I love. Yeah, so rewinding the clock a little bit then, so I want to figure out how this boy from Dublin ends up being interviewed about his successes in his own studio in the best city in the world, sorry, Dublin. So obviously, you've had multiple ventures, you're a serial entrepreneur, and you've obviously got an entrepreneurial streak to you. So, did you grow up with that influence around you? Are your parents entrepreneurs, or who did you look up to? Let's kind of take the clock back a little bit.

GH: Yeah, I don't think entrepreneurship runs in people's blood, right? And I know people have that in their Twitter bios, Instagram bios. It's not a thing. You don't get passed down these special genes, this special entrepreneurial gene. It's just not a thing, sorry. It just isn't, right?

SM: I think risk appetite is, though. I don't know, but then we're getting into nature vs nurture, aren't we?

GH: Yeah, it's true. I didn't have any entrepreneurs, in the true sense, didn't have any around me. My dad was self-employed for a chunk growing up. He kind of, as one investors says, "Eat what you kill." You would go, find work, do the work, get paid, put food on the table. So, for a chunk, he worked for himself, which is cool. But I don't think there was this kind of, "Hey, I'm surrounded by these business builders." It wasn't actually a thing. But I think just being hyper curious is something. There's something in just being curious. There's also something in freedom, of being in control of the money you make and what you do every day. There's a strong feeling for me that I want to do. I think that plays a part.

SM: You'd definitely rather have that than the stability of a mundane corporate job at IBM where you have to put a tie around your neck.

GH: Yeah, I'd hate that. I'd hate that big time. And I think just, you know, I tried a lot of things, right? I don't know how many businesses I tried to start (a lot), but trying and there's no better feeling to this day than just something that was in my brain not that long ago turning into someone spending their own money because they like it. It boils down to that. It doesn't matter if I was selling headphones that I bought in bulk when I was like 18 or a Dream Factory membership, whatever it might be, but still how it feels so good. It's really addictive.

"I don't know how many businesses I tried to start (a lot), but trying and there's no better feeling to this day than just something that was in my brain not that long ago turning into someone spending their own money because they like it"

SM: That sense of pride is exciting but not always glamorous. I read about your three-pound profit business—I didn't know about the headphones; that's a cool one. But tell us about this £3 profit business.

GH: Yeah, not my proudest moment. I love cars, obsessed with cars and all things automotive, and came across an opportunity to buy an eco-friendly, and this is probably like 12 or 13 years ago, an eco-friendly car wash solution.

SM: It sounds very ahead of its time.

GH: Yeah, yeah, it was right! You could basically go in multi-story car parks where you have no drainage, and sometimes you can't have a big car wash in them. But this was like, you spray it on the car, you wipe it off, and the car is clean. I thought that's genius. I printed, you know, a thousand leaflets or whatever it was, maybe more, and put them in letterboxes. My parents helped me, and I put them in letterboxes around the place. Then, I forgot the product was Californian, forgot that I actually didn't live in California, and cars have like three inches of crud on them, not just dust, and it didn't work. So, we ended up getting a call to do one of the big 4x4s, and then my dad actually got there to do it because I was working in IBM. Wow. And he was like, 'This spray will not work on this.' He actually drove it to a car wash, then cleaned it and brought it back, and the profit was £3. That was it. I was like, well, let's shut this then!

SM: Do you know, I think there's a market opportunity for this one. I think it was too ahead of its time, yeah, you know, eco-friendly, sustainable.

GH: Yeah, no one gave a shit back then.

SM: Yeah, relaunch it now in 2023, and let's see if we can make more than a three-pound profit off it.

GH: Yeah, if Dream Factory doesn't work out, I'll fall back on that!

SM: So, part of that, yeah, since then, it seems from the outside like you've got a lot better at nailing product-market fit, which really, you know, there are so many different terminologies for it; it's essentially that core value proposition. And we mentioned it briefly before about good old-fashioned basic business, and there's been a reckoning in the start-up landscape. The VC funding has dried up. We've got these fantastic case studies of the WeWorks of the world that have actually sold their story more to the VCs than it is to the actual customers. They've forgotten about actually adding value into the market. So, I read about it with Dream Factory before coming onto it as well. You talk to a bunch of people first, right? Is that something that, you know, you put that market research ahead of launching? Talk through a bit of that process.

Graham Hussey

GH: Yeah, for sure. I think during lockdown, with nothing else to do, and I always have to be surrounded by people all the time, so lockdown's tough, right? You don't get out; you don't meet new people; you don't hang out with people for the first time—that just wasn't a thing for such a long time. So, you end up speaking to people about content because I sat between founders and content creation. So, naturally, I could speak to people easily about that, and I spoke to hundreds—hundreds of founders—asking why aren't you doing a YouTube series? How come your TikTok content is non existent? Why are your Instagram photos shot in your kitchen? You know, why? Why all the time? I spoke to hundreds of founders.

SM: So just to be nitpicky there for a sec, sorry to just jump in, but when you say spoke to founders, did you literally pick up the buzzer? You actually phoned them because you had these relationships with them from the days of the startup?

GH: Yeah, I interviewed thousands, I interviewed worldwide, but mostly it was UK founders. So, I figured if I'm going to do something, it's going to be here, and I want to be in person because I was pacing up and down my flat like a caged animal, like I need to get out and do something. So, I knew it was going to be here, so mostly London-centric founders, and it was basically them saying, "I don't have the money, I don't have the time, or I don't have the expertise." It's one of those three things said hundreds of different ways, and it was so important to do it right. I think I knew this business couldn't—you know, I'm not loaded. Certified was great, but then when you don't do anything for two years, cash you may have dwindled, and I didn't have loads of money to put into this. So, if you're taking other people's money, you know—I think Startup Van was self-funded, right? So, you could take a bit more. Well, me personally, I was like, "Well, let's give this a shot. Interview some founders, see if we can get some corporate sponsorship, and then kind of roll with the punches and keep going." With this, taking other people's money, you have to be sure, right? Had to be sure there was something in it, and it wasn't a load of money it took to launch this, but there was no way I could do it with a clear conscience unless I actually knew people want this.

SM: It's another level of conviction, isn't it, when you're taking other people's money? They're betting on you. So, let's break that down then. So, you got seed investment to launch Dream Factory, and this was right at the beginning. So, this was based on an idea, right? So, who did you sell to? How did you go about working out how much you needed? Again, talk through that process on the pre-seed investment.

Dream Factory

GH: So initially, well, I have a big mouth, right? So, I just told everyone about it. I know some people get their ideas and keep them, but I just called everyone, "Hey, this Dream Factory thing." So, calling everyone about it, and ended up speaking to a VC—one of the largest VCs in Europe—and they said, "This sounds super timely. Once COVID goes, we want to be a part of it. We could actually fund it, and let's do a joint venture. So, we'll fund it, you run it, and we go 50/50." And I thought this was such a shortcut to winning. It was like, one of the biggest VCs, you know? I would struggle to even think of being at a dinner table with this person a couple of years ago. Now they want to go in and do a joint venture. And then I called one of my friends. It was the first call I called him, and I said, "I've just had the best news ever." And I was calling to explain the idea, but I kind of went in casual. I was like, "Oh, actually, I wanted to talk to you about investment, but I don't need it because it's done." And he was like, "Well, you sent me the calendar invite a day ago. So, what's changed?" And I told him that this VC wants to do this joint venture. And he's like, "This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard." He was like, "They're going to own half of your business, and you don't even know what it is yet." I was like, "Yeah, but neither do they. And they're willing to fund it." So, he just says to shoot this idea over. I'll put in a cheque, raise a round of funding, and just get it done because you'll regret that if you take that cash.

SM: Amazing.

GH: He was so right. He was the first cheque in, and he introduced me to someone else, and I opened up my network, and I got the funding, and it was enough to put the keys in the door and twist it. That was it. So, I knew the runway once the doors are open.

SM: I love that. And just thinking back to that saying, if you want money, ask for someone's advice. If you want their advice, ask for money, which accidentally kind of happened to you here at the start, and that is fantastic. That's so exciting. Are you okay sharing how much you got at the start, the seed funding?

GH: Yeah, it was £136k.

SM: And that was based on the lease of this place or...?

GH: It was the lease. It was getting some gear, hiring some staff. Yeah, it was just enough. It was no runway, right?

SM: And so, the lesson here is around kind of networking, talking to people.

GH: Yeah, I think—I think, you know, I had, I was in a unique position that my actual job before was meeting founders, was meeting investors, building those relationships. That was in there. I was a natural part of it. There's no way it would have raised that money ever in a million years, like fresh out of the game. Oh, not in a million years. If I didn't have that network, no chance!

SM: I think there's something in there, and, you know, not for the listeners here as well, it's not as black and white as, oh, you know, being super extroverted and networking. You know, there's obviously work for Graham. I think actually it's going a level deeper there and thinking about what are your strengths because we're not all Graham Hussey or Stephanie Melodia. We've all got our own unique qualities and strengths. Play to those and really maximise the opportunities which ever come your way and kind of be ready to grab them with two hands when they are. So, we're getting into Dream Factory now, so you've got the money and turning the key in the door. You mentioned about getting staff. What was the position of the first member of staff that you hired because that first one that you're hiring is crucial? That's a big decision.

GH: Yeah, so when I got the space in Shoreditch, it was not in good shape, to say the least. Obviously, we had to do a build and kit out the space, and the admin was insane. We had to order a million different things every single day, and orders were missing. I am the least organised person ever, so I hired an intern to come in and help me. She was the first hire here, Karina. She started, and she doesn't mince her words. She said, "This is pretty cool, but I don't want to do this forever." I said, "Well, I didn't think you would." She mentioned her dream was to be a lighting technician for movies and TV. I thought that was kind of cool because she could help with the studio stuff. We hired her, and she helped me a lot in the business. At that time, I was drowning, getting two or three hours of sleep at night, really struggling with it. She came in at 18 or 19 years of age and absolutely nailed it. Twelve months later, she came to tell me she was going to apply for a job, and she asked if I could give her a reference, even if I had to lie a bit, which I did. Now, she's working on Hell's Kitchen with Gordon Ramsay as a lighting assistant. It's quite cool how she came in day one thinking, "This is what I want to do," and now she's doing it.

Dream Factory Shoreditch

"At that time, I was drowning, getting two or three hours of sleep at night, really struggling with it."

SM: Fantastic! I think that links back to the self-awareness piece of hiring somebody that plugs that gap. You self-confess not being the most organised person in the world, so plugging that gap is crucial. Did you know that you had enough of a runway? Again, you talk about the responsibility of taking external funding—someone else's money. For me, I feel an even greater responsibility when I start hiring people because they depend on you for their rent, mortgage, savings, and pension. What was your level of confidence, safety, and decision-making frameworks to say, "Yeah, things are in a solid enough state to pay someone else's pension"?

GH: Yeah, for sure. We had a bit of runway at that stage, not an awful lot, but we had 25 members of Dream Factory before we had cameras.

SM: Wow.

GH: If anyone wants a lesson in building a brand, building a startup, that's it. If you have so much conviction in something that startups, who are cash poor, believe in your mission enough to pay you for 12 months of subscription before you have cameras, you know you have something super solid and really strong. One of the first 25 members works at Dream Factory now, co-founder of a business, helping scale Dream Factory. I didn't have much runway, but we had cash coming in before we had cameras. It was a good indication that things are going to go okay.

SM: I love that, especially being aware of your early-stage funding from the VC side of the fence and those metrics you need to look at in the early stages before generating revenue. Some of those things you need to look at to say, "Is this a good bet?" Those signs are so exciting. You also talk about the culture that you've developed here at Dream Factory. I've had comments from other members from the outside, to be completely honest. I was doing my due diligence a little bit before signing up. I asked, "What do you think of it? Should I?" Outside people were saying, "It's fantastic. Everyone there is super helpful." These were genuine comments. It makes you happy. It's so lovely, so validating as a founder. I've since experienced that as well, so I can feel that culture since joining as a member. What do you attribute that to? It's not as if you're doing something fantastic here, but it's not a charity or you don't have the super "saving the world" mission that you don't need to build. What's got everyone so tight-knit here?

GH: I think everyone has something different. If you ask every staff member at Dream Factory, every team member, they'll have something different to say about it. For me, it's about the genuine authenticity. The team knows exactly what's going on at all times, and if they don't, they can ask. We genuinely believe that in five years, if you pick up your phone or open your laptop and see a piece of business content that's not shot at Dream Factory, that will be strange. I think the team being a part of that is really important. When the time comes, and Dream Factory goes public or we exit, the team that was here now, helped build the first one in London, will never have to work again. I think that's an amazing thing. They can start their own business, do passion projects, or still work at Dream Factory. I think that's another part of it, but it's sheer pride. No one sees this because it's internal, but if someone posts this podcast or a piece of content they shot on LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, or TikTok, it's just pride from the team. Wow, look at this, how amazing. Everyone jumps into comment, and they absolutely love it. It's a really special thing. I don't think I've seen it before where people join Dream Factory, and then they have to move on. It's the realities. I don't only give the impression that these mad employee pixies come in, start Dream Factory, and everything is perfect. But I think the team is so tight-knit and strong that if someone joins and they don't have that in them, that sheer pride in what they do, they don't last. They don't last because, as a founder, I'll back myself against any other founder in the world to do business like this. I think each team member would back themselves to do what they do versus anyone else in the world. That sheer pride plays a huge part.

SM: Yeah, I love that. It must feel great for you being sat here. You're now the founder of a super successful business with 30 staff and growing, multiple locations. How many members are you up to now?

GH: 350, yeah.

SM: Yeah, compared to not that long ago in the grand scheme of things, you were sat in the creepy murder vibes van. What's the main difference that you feel between here and there then and now?

GH: I think, honestly, the biggest difference is people have my back now. Having a team, a mission, and a vision, and being all on that path together makes me feel proud. That's the biggest difference. I think it's a lesson, and I say it to founder friends of mine. Back then, if we had 11 months of runway in the bank, it was like, "Okay, we can relax a bit." It's 11 months of runway versus me saying, "Let's hire two people. The runway will go down to x amount, but then we have two people to help us scale and grow, people who have our back." It was over indexing on, "Okay, we're okay. We'll survive for 11 months," versus, "Let's hire people and go for it and make something of this." The biggest difference is having that. I walk into a Monday morning meeting, and there are all those people there who are just good to go that week.

SM: Amazing. That's a really good feeling, that sense of traction, scaling. Is that what you mean?

GH: Yeah, for sure. That's gonna bring challenges. You know, we'll launch New York by the end of the year. To bring that there, I've got a plan which I think, I hope, will work. I need to be able to have the energy that's here there because anybody listening to this can get a camera or two and some lights and put it in a room. Anyone can do that. Dream Factory is a very different thing, and the last thing I want is to launch a Dream Factory in the city, and it's just lights and cameras and mics in a room. That's not a Dream Factory, and that's the next challenge that we're going to face. But the whole team's ready for it, and they don't back down from anything ever.

SM: Yeah, it's the essence of a brand that you describe, and obviously, it's more in my world, but you know, a brand is more than just a logo. It is that feeling, that sense. You say anyone can come in and put these materials in place, but actually, there's something that's intangible, but it doesn't mean that it's any less important, right? The one thing that Startup Van and Dream Factory do have in common is the personal brand element. So, you've built businesses that have enabled founders to tell their stories. Was that something that again you did consciously, or was that very much just looking at how can I add value in the market? Where's the gap?

GH: I'd want to hear the stories, so I'm curious. And then, I'd hear the stories directly, and it would be absolutely incredible. And then, I would see a piece of content that they post or a blog, and it's not even 1% of the passion that I heard face to face. I'm like, that's, if you could just bottle your actual ambition and passion and let people drink out of it, it's a different story than, you know, a poorly written blog post because founders aren't writers most of the time. So, it was just wanting to hear the stories and feeling like they deserve people to feel that passion, like I feel if I talk directly to them. That's basically where it came from, and then you roll with it. Then opportunity comes up, you grab it with both hands, you maximise it, you do your best, and you keep going. And that's, I always say, it kind of feels like I'm wading through snow, you know, four feet of snow. It's one foot in front of the other all the time. And then, you end up here in this podcast.

"I always say, it kind of feels like I'm wading through snow, you know, four feet of snow. It's one foot in front of the other all the time. And then, you end up here in this podcast."

SM: I love that. Well, final question. Obviously, I'm so grateful for your time and sharing your open and honest stories. It's so interesting. This wouldn't be called the Strategy and Tragedy podcast without sharing a tragedy. I do believe that some of the best lessons come from our biggest mistakes. So, can you share one of the biggest tragedies that's happened to you and the big lesson that you took away from that?

GH: So, just before the beginning of lockdown with Startup Van, we signed a big multinational company, Volkswagen. So, one of the biggest companies in the world. We were going to travel to 40 cities in 12 months, a crazy amount of money, total freedom to do what we wanted. And we signed that, and kind of just went, "Well, that's great," you know? In reality, looking back, we probably should have got other brands and other projects and added some on versus just kind of going, "Well, we signed this big thing. That's great." When lockdown hit, it was kind of a punch in the face, like, "Wow, you know, you're watching Boris Johnson on TV saying we're all going to die," and that was a strange thing. And then you get that second punch in the face, which is Volkswagen saying that's not happening. That was because, obviously, we told everyone. This is the thing I think with founders. You tell everyone everything because it's a coping mechanism, right? You deal with so much crap all the time and so much stress. When something good happens, maybe it's just me, but you immediately have the coping mechanism of saying, "This thing's great, this thing's great." And then, you tell so many people, and then that's a punch in the face of it's actually not happening.

SM: It's almost like naive optimism. It's not positivity. You know, the coping mechanism is you've got to believe it's gonna work out. You've got to believe that the best-case scenario is going to be the outcome of this. So, yeah, that's completely understandable.

GH: That's one of the biggest differences I see between successful founders and founders who weren't so successful—is that blind optimism has to be there. Any founder I know that's great just believes, "This will work," and won't stop until it works. In contrast, there are others who, on paper, maybe even in real life, are way smarter than I am. They open up a spreadsheet and go, "It will work because of this," right? I know so many people who spreadsheet themselves totally out of an idea, versus following their gut, speaking to people, doing research, and executing on it. It's a big difference. So, that was really hard to deal with—dealing with lockdown, which the whole world was dealing with, but then dealing with a personal feeling like a failure. It felt like, "Even though it's COVID, no one can help it. It was like, 'No, I failed at something. I failed at this.'"

SM: So did that lead to the demise of Startup Van?

GH: Yeah, big time. Yeah, because then I was like, "Oh, let's do stuff online, but that's not quite the same." And obviously, everyone started piling them online to the Zoom interviews, launching podcasts, and doing... And then there was, you know, we spent so much time and money making sure we're elevated more, better, and different, so then the playing fields just levelled. It felt a bit strange. That was like a business tragedy. That's it.

SM: But then, like a phoenix from the ashes, Dream Factory!

GH: I look back at that. It was then really difficult to deal with. Friends of mine who weren't founders—this is bad to say, but they were loving it. They were just, "We get to work from home, and I'm getting paid and having a good time." Sometimes, obviously, there were hard times. But then it was me saying, "Oh, well, this x amount of money contract has just been pulled. I don't have a job really." It's a big crash. It's gone from, on paper, and in reality, traveling the world, interviewing founders, getting paid for it, to a small apartment in Shoreditch, no job, contract pulled.

"It's a big crash. It's gone from, on paper, and in reality, traveling the world, interviewing founders, getting paid for it, to a small apartment in Shoreditch, no job, contract pulled."

SM: But it was a global pandemic that drove that to happen.

GH: You know what's crazy? That just sums up your mind. Global pandemic—no control over it, and you still lay awake. I used to lay awake, and I'd go, "I've messed that up." So, any founder listening to this thinking that they failed at something, and more often than not, something that, you know, in a year's time, you just realise you learned something from it that you didn't realise at the time. I learned that with Dream Factory—multiple revenue streams at all times. Yeah, no eggs in one basket, which I think was an issue back then—multiple revenue streams. We do new memberships. We are lucky enough to be in business long enough to have renewals. We do video editing revenue. We have events, ad revenue—you know, it's that lesson learned. I'll never forget it. I'll be sitting down in meetings, and it's like, "Revenue streams, yeah. Revenue streams, safety nets, runway." It's a big lesson. That's a tragedy, you know, if you want to put it that way, but the lesson learned is invaluable.

SM: Well, I'm very glad to hear otherwise. Of course, we would not be sitting here today, so I'm very pleased about that particular tragedy. Graham, it's been a real pleasure hearing your story, and I'm very grateful for your openness. Congratulations again, and I'm looking forward to world domination.

GH: Thanks for having me!

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Strategy & Tragedy: CEO Stories with Steph Melodia is the fresh business podcast that showcases authentic founder stories - including the ups & downs!

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