The musician and activist talks about business and starting a company
Tracking down Bob Geldof for an interview is, as you might expect, not a particularly easy task. Over the past four weeks I'd tracked him and his management team across a fair proportion of South America with a healthy disregard for time difference and dodgy mobile phone signals.
Eventually my calls came to fruition, and I left it that he would ring me when he could. I had visions of the call coming in the middle of a client meeting at work ("Sorry, I'll have to take this; bloody Geldof's on the phone again"), maybe at the pub on Friday night ("Honestly, I'll get the next round; just let me get rid of Bob first") or even during Sunday lunch with my mother ("Sorry Bob, no phone calls allowed at the dinner table").
The call actually came while I was enjoying lunch on my own, without a notebook or pen, and just after my order arrived at the table. I'll be forever grateful to the waitress who handed over her order pad and pen without hesitation, allowing the interview to take place.
Despite the significant success of his business interests - which have ranged from production company Planet 24 via PR and brand companies, through to online booking website Deckchair.com - Bob is still best known for his work on global poverty and his music. In speaking to him, I instantly get the impression that this is exactly the way he likes it. His business brain has grown out of his desire to realise his personal goals - and in the first instance that was his music.
"Music is a completely different kind of sensation to business," he says. "It's far more sublime and substantial. Business just happens to be something I am able to do and is fairly empirical really. It is the creative side of both that I enjoy and get most out of. Ideas float around like pollen. A record that becomes a hit - and I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill 'poppy' records - a real hit with real meaning, articulates something about society that society has not yet managed to grasp or understand. Business is the same - it's about understanding a new technology or idea and asking 'What is this for? What does it do?'
"Successful business ideas answer these questions succinctly."
Geldof first entered the music scene in the early 1970s as a journalist on Canadian rock magazine Georgia Straight. He moved to write for Melody Maker and New Musical Express before returning to Dublin with a vision of seting up his own rock-and-roll magazine.
�I tried to start an Exchange and Mart style magazine called Buy & Sell.�
"There was little competition for a magazine like that in Ireland at the time, and people were crying out for something decent," says Geldof. "The problem was I just didn't have the money." With true entrepreneurial spirit, Geldof began looking for ways to raise the capital needed for such an ambitious project. On the surface, it was a rather less attractive and dynamic product.
"I tried to start an Exchange and Mart style magazine offering free classified ads and stuff, called Buy and Sell," Geldof explains. "I put every penny of my savings - which was about $2,000 - into it, and figured the profits I got from it would help me set up the rock-and roll magazine."
In the meantime, however, the Boomtown Rats came along and Geldof's attentions were diverted. Or, as he puts it: "I discovered women wanted to shag me. That didn't really happen with Buy and Sell."
"I left it for the band, but when I came back to Ireland, this tiny idea had grown into a really successful business. It didn't matter that I'd not made as much as a penny from it, it just felt great that the idea had been fulfilled."
Geldof continues to insist that the satisfaction he gets from his business interests does not come from the profits they produce. He enjoys the creative and development side of the business world - taking a germ of an idea, looking at what that idea needs to be successful, and developing a product or service based on that.
"I don't like it when it's just about money," he says. "I'm there for the ideas; that is what really interests me. I ask questions about its use, what it can do. What's that meant to do - that is what interests me and keeps me going."
"My business life is fairly organic really. I don't go into offices or anything like that; I talk constantly to people, ask questions, seeking their opinion. I've been really lucky in that all the people I have teamed up with in my life have been brilliant - their ideas have been brilliant. My role is really the manager, the facilitator, making things happen, pushing things along."
"Whenever I was in a band, yes, I played music, but I also had to be a good manager to make things work. I loved taking on that role, I loved that kind of duality. Things like Live Aid and Live 8 could not have happened without that - the finance, legal and marketing side of things go hand in glove."
Business appears to be a means to a practical, rather than a financial, end for Geldof. His business sense, for example, made sure he kept financial control of every aspect of the Band Aid single's production, manufacture and distribution, which meant charities it supported received more than 96p from each of the �1.35 retail record sales.
The idea for The Big Breakfast, one of Planet 24's first hits, came after his kids had nothing to watch on TV before school. Deckchair.com, Geldof's holiday booking website, came from his frustration at booking his own family holiday.
�Geldof sold the site at the height of the dot.com crash for some �9m.�
Geldof says: "The Deckchair.com idea came about when I was trying to get tickets to take my kids to Disneyland in Florida. The prices were completely outrageous, and I just couldn't understand how a normal family could afford them."
"This was right at the beginning of the whole dot.com thing. I understood the basics of how the internet worked, so I couldn't understand why you couldn't just go somewhere online, find the cheapest flight to a particular destination on a particular day and book it there and then. It made no sense to me, so I set about doing something about it." Geldof eventually sold the site at the height of the dot.com crash in 2001 for some �9m.
"Using technology either works or it doesn't. It's one of those things: technology always arrives at the most appropriate time in response to need, whether you look at the telephone, TV or Stephenson's Rocket. If a technology doesn't succeed, its time either hasn't come or it's just a load of crap."
The majority of Geldof's business time is now dedicated to Ten Alps, his production and PR company which grew out of Planet 24, embracing the deregulation of the broadcast industry.
Its core business sees it producing factual documentaries for TV channels across the world. But Geldof continues to look at newer, smaller projects that manage to grab his attention. At the top of this list is Groupcall, a technology designed to combat truancy in schools using mobile phone technology.
"Again," he says, "this is a product using technology that is so good, you'd have to be a complete idiot not to do it. It's simply superb. Of course, the real challenge in business is persuading everybody else that the idea is as good as you say it is."
Bob Geldof is speaking at the National Enterprise Innovation Conference running alongside B2B London on 27 June 2006. Register at www.b2blondon.co.uk/conference now. bCentral readers can take advantage of a special 2-for-1 offer - just enter promotional code NEIC241 when prompted. Entry to B2B London is free.
Article reproduced courtesy of Fresh Business Thinking.