With everything I do, I think about what worked and what could have been better and make sure I implement the feedback next time. This leads to continual improvement.
Sarah Henley is co-founder and COO of NextUp Comedy, a subscription video platform specialising in stand-up comedy specials. For a monthly subscription, members get access to over 100 hours of stand-up comedy specials by household name comedians and the best rising stars on the circuit.
Prior to founding NextUp, Sarah ran Grazia and Guardian recommended live comedy night ‘ComComedy’ and the accompanying YouTube channel for five years, which sought out brilliant talent and filmed and showcased them to a wider audience.
Sarah also trained in law and worked at blue chip firm WilmerHale in international arbitration and telecoms as well as in structured financial products at Citibank. Additionally she is a comedy and theatre writer and director having been nominated for numerous awards. In her free time Sarah parents her 17 month old baby, Rudi, exercises where possible, goes to the theatre, and very occasionally floats in a sensory deprivation tank.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
The idea for NextUp came about because as comedy fans, we (the founders) would go up to the Edinburgh Fringe every year and see hundreds of great comedy shows. We noticed that despite garnering 5 star reviews and even winning awards, other than potentially a small tour or short run at the Soho theatre, after the fringe these incredible shows would disappear completely. There was no way for the fans to catch up if they’d missed the show, and there was no way for the comedians to preserve their work. This doesn’t happen in other art forms – music is recorded for streaming and likewise plays are published for reading and future performance. So we decided to launch NextUp – a subscription video service exclusively for stand-up comedy – creating an additional revenue stream for comedians and enabling fans worldwide to see their shows.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
We work out of a small office in Bermondsey, and as a very lean team of 4, we tend to start the day with a quick catch up – talking through what’s on our plates and how we can help each other. I then have a long to-do list which I work through in order of priority. I tend to only check emails a few times a day as they can devour a lot of time which should be spent doing more productive things. I’ve also got a high level list of goals and projects which I work through with the team once a week to check we’re all on track. I go to the gym at lunch – it’s really great for resetting the brain, and I also drink a ton of coffee to keep me going (I have a small child so this is highly necessary!). In the evenings myself and the team are often out scouting comedy all around London and we have regular filming slots to shoot more great acts for the platform.
How do you bring ideas to life?
We’re blessed in that we have a highly creative team. Everyone’s got a sense of humour and a very creative bent, so we’ll often just get together in a different space and collaborate on ‘what ifs’ – getting as creative as possible before we get bogged down in the ‘how’. We sketch things out, mock them up on the computer and build ideas up over time. We’ll often get feedback from our members before trialling ideas too as they’ve always got great opinions to throw in to the mix. Finally, after that the team can shift into planning and testing mode.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I think the trend for specialist content; specialist SVODs now have more members than the big players, Amazon and Netflix, and there are predictions for huge growth in those areas. You’ve got Shudder for horror, HeyU for reality, Acorn for British drama and now NextUp for comedy. This trend happened in the 80s in terrestrial TV, with specialist services such as MTV and the Discovery Channel outflanking the mainstream BBC and CBS. Fans seem to really want to ‘deep dive’ into their particular interest areas. In music, this has meant that brilliant artists, who before streaming services existed, may have remained undiscovered, are now finding their audience. This is the same for comedy – we’re bringing fantastic acts that wouldn’t necessarily find fame on terrestrial TV – to a worldwide audience of comedy fans. Because of this we’re also able to embrace the diversity of the comedy scene in a way that traditional broadcasters struggle with – we showcase a wide range of comedy genres from a diverse range of comedians, and the fans love it.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I think I’ve got quite a healthy habit of feedback. So with everything I do, I think about what worked and what could have been better and make sure I implement the feedback next time. This leads to continual improvement. Dan, one of my co-founders, has a great habit, or ‘attitude’ of not taking no for an answer! So I think the combination of these two means we tend to keep trying until we get it right and get the results we’re after!
What advice would you give your younger self?
In two words…“nothing’s wasted”. In my late teens and 20s I worked in multiple different arenas – comedy and theatre, legal and banking and training and coaching. I enjoyed all of them in different ways and couldn’t seem to find one that ticked all the boxes for me. Now I’m running a startup I’m grateful for every skill I learned along the way – the experience in law has meant I handle all the agreements with talent for NextUp, and the theatre experience means that I really empathise with and appreciate the work that goes into a comedian’s show, whilst the training and coaching definitely feed into my project and team management skills.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I’ve got what some people would tell me is an outlier’s view on the idea of crime and ‘punishment’. Having trained as a trainer and coach of NLP and subsequently engaged in heaps of personal development as a coach/trainer and a student, I’m a big believer that everybody is doing their best with the resources they’ve got – and that if their best is terrible, then they need help and rehabilitation (as well as being held accountable for their actions, and kept away from any harm they may cause during this process) as opposed to ‘punishment’. This sounds very simplistic I know and there isn’t space here to go into detail, and it by no means seeks to diminish the pain victims have felt at the hands of perpetrators, but it’s a debate I’ve often had with friends and family.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
This is sort of answered by my good ‘habit’ above – but review, feedback and change accordingly. Another one, which though it sounds simple, is to delegate. There are many things that other people can do quicker and more efficiently than me – far better to get them to do it and save my time for other aspects of the business. This requires trust and good communication when briefing a task to make sure you get what you were after.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
We have achieved a fantastic amount of organic growth by harnessing the existing fanbases of the comedians on our platform. By giving comics a new revenue stream and promoting them in as many ways as possible, offering them access to free rehearsal space and the comics’ fund for their community based projects, as well as investing in the preservation of their shows, we’ve amassed a huge amount of goodwill. Comics are proud to be on our platform and promote their shows to their fans both online via social media as well as at their gigs – and bearing in mind most professional comics gig at least five times a week and we have over 90 comics on the platform – that’s a lot of promotion! To help with this we provide comics with unique landing pages and personalised assets for them to use across their channels, as well as hard copy business cards with their landing page on, to hand out at their gigs.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
Having acquired some shows from a catalogue on launch of the company, despite having had all of the agreements in place to cover us, we were informed by one the comics, that they weren’t aware of their show having been sold to the platform. The catalogue holder hadn’t passed on the information and the comic was a bit shocked.
This was disappointing to us because we thought we’d taken all the necessary steps and had paid for the set. However, relationships with the comics are essential to us, so we immediately took down the content and took the hit in terms of the size of our ‘launch catalogue’. We took responsibility for not letting the comic know directly, apologised, and let them know that they were always welcome to be part of the platform in the future. We did take this up with the catalogue holder and were given a replacement set.
Happily because we placed relationships over what was technically ‘correct’, we now have that set, plus another one from this comic, and he’s one of our biggest brand ambassadors. We acquire less content these days as most of our content is shot by us, but when we do, we check with every catalogue holder that they’ve been in direct contact with the act or their agent.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
OK…please somebody do this! I’ve been a freelancer at various points in my career, and my husband is an actor so this applies to him (and his family) now. It’s exceptionally difficult to book a holiday as a freelancer. If we do, he always gets booked for a big audition on the day we fly, or a recall or a job during the holiday – it’s sod’s law. If I could buy ‘freelancers’ insurance that insured against having to change a holiday because of a big job opportunity or offer, it would mean we could book and look forward to a holiday without constant fear of his agent calling and putting a spanner in the works. We didn’t have a honeymoon for two years because of this, and then when he’s in a long contract he invariably doesn’t get any holiday so it’s ‘catch 22’. Do let me know if anyone develops this one because I’ll be your first customer!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
As someone who runs a business and has a baby – time is exceptionally tight. I realised that I was spending at least £20 daily in ASDA buying for that night’s dinner, and then time and effort I had very little of, cooking something fairly mediocre. Recently I embraced ‘Cook’ frozen meals (super healthy and delicious). I ordered £100 worth and it lasted 2 weeks and totally sorted dinners for my family eliminating the need to shop, cook and wash up pots and pans. It could be something I beat myself up about for not being able to ‘do it all’ but instead I’m looking at it as a life hack and fully embracing delegation as per my own business advice!
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
At work we use Wunderlist for keeping track of tasks – it’s simple and effective. I’ve found a lot of the project management tools are a bit too involved and actually take more time than they save.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. Her work is exceptional – check out her TED talks to get an idea if you’re not familiar with what she does. It’s all about daring leadership, the courage to be vulnerable in the workplace, having tough conversations, getting up after failure and showing up in a fully authentic way. I truly think embracing Brene’s research is the best way to get the most out of yourself and your team – it’s a huge challenge personally, but well worth it!
What is your favorite quote?
This one was introduced to me by Brene Brown (book recommendation above) and is great to remind yourself of if you’re running a startup.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Roosevelt
- There was a big trend in terrestrial TV in the 80s which meant viewers enjoyed more specialist services, with mainstream players like the BBC and CBS being outflanked by the likes of the Discovery Channel and MTV. This is now happening in subscription video on demand (SVOD) with Shudder, Heyu and NextUp.
- Read Brene Brown’s ‘Dare to Lead’, it will encourage courageous leadership and business decisions and fundamentally transform the way you operate at home and in the workplace.
- Keep improving. Check in after everything you do – what worked, what could have been better and what will you do differently next time?
- Harness brand ambassadors for organic growth – use the existing networks inherent within your product to gain traction.
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