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Conversations: Harry Beard & Adam Flanagan, Future Labs

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Just last month, we spoke with Harry Beard & Adam Flanagan, Founding Partners of Future Labs. At just 17 and 18 years old respectively, Adam & Harry are experts in Gen Z and social media, and advise established brands across multiple industries on how to accurately engage this new generation of consumers.

They chatted to WhichPLM about just how different the business world is today. For baby boomers, millennials, and Gen Zers alike, this conversation makes for a compelling read.

Name: Harry Beard

Occupation: Founding Partner & Marketing Lead

Likes: Cricket, Rugby, Fives, Contemporary Art, Bedford

Dislikes: Deliberately confusing words

Words to live by: “Listen to the kids”

Name: Adam Flanagan

Occupation: Founding Partner & Tech Lead

Likes: Cricket, Rugby, Fives, Contemporary Art, Bedford

Dislikes: Nature, Design, Squash, Reading

Words to live by: “Move fast and break things”

WhichPLM: Thanks for joining us. We’ll get onto Future Labs shortly (as it’s somewhat cryptic from your site, so we’re intrigued to find out more), but we just wanted to begin by chatting a little about what you’ve both already achieved – which is pretty remarkable considering your ages. Adam – you founded Future Summits at just 14 years old, is that right?

Adam Flanagan: Yes, that’s right. I set up Future Summits a number of years ago after attending a ‘grown-up’ tech event and finding I was the youngest person there by 10 years or more, and so I went about setting up a similar event but for an exclusively teenage audience. It is an attempt to address the skills gap that exists in Northern Ireland as we look towards our goal of becoming Europe’s largest knowledge economy by 2030; it was also, I guess, my first conscious realisation that your whole brand and offering must be different if you want to attract the teenage market.

WhichPLM: That’s very interesting; so what kind of thing happens on the day, at Future Summits and how do you design your events to be engaging for a teenage audience?

Adam Flanagan: For me, it all boils down to interactivity. While you by no means need to be a coding genius to attend our events, it is a hackathon and in that way the attendees are engaged and focussed throughout the event and are learning in a hands on way, which I think is really important. The second aspect, which I think is crucial, is having speakers who are as close in age as possible to the audience. This is actually how I initially got in touch with Harry, as I had seen Harry’s work and reached out as I thought his story would be relevant and inspirational to our audience.

Harry Beard: So in the day you meet with like-minded individuals – I met Adam and all of his friends and the event has definitely got a good buzz about it. If I were to ask people from my hometown whether they wanted to spend a whole day at a hackathon, the answer would probably be ‘no’. So, it’s really about this cult following that Adam’s built through Future Summits. There’s this stigma with coding, but you quite quickly realise when you’re there that the main issue with technology is the creative side rather than the coding. Because, whatever happens, you’ll find someone who can code, but you can’t always find the people who have that creative spark and enjoy building things. It’s a great incubator.

What’s amazing, in my opinion, is how many people take the ideas from the hackathon and put them into real life. One example is a 2017 finalist team who have gone on to create a company called CropSafe and are travelling to Silicon Valley next month to seek funding! Adam gives away a great deal of prizes, including cash, Amazon Alexa’s etc. – all sponsored by some really big companies who back Adam’s vision. So, it gives these teenagers who’ve just come together a chance to come up with an idea, supported by some mentors from these huge companies who tour around and, by the end of the day, they’re presenting their ideas to 200 other people. Standing up and speaking in front of an audience doesn’t come very naturally to many people but it’s great to see that everyone gave it a go and no one faltered at all!. And, after the pitches, they can come away with thousands of pounds’ worth of prizes.

Adam Flanagan: This year the winners were a group of girls, only around 13 years old, who had a phenomenal idea: automating the school registration process using the iOS TouchID SDK. I think that is what is most exciting about Future Summits events: injecting a teenage perspective into projects and seeing what the end result is. In a way that is really what we’re trying to do with Future Labs: help companies inject that teenage dynamism and perspective into their various projects.

WhichPLM: It sounds a little like the European Web Summit, but specifically for younger people. 

Adam Flanagan: Exactly. I mentioned earlier that I founded Future Summits after frustratingly realising I was the youngest person at a tech event by 10-15 years; that event was Web Summit!

I wanted to create an event for teenagers that gave them exposure to the global technology market in the same vein as Web Summit, but was delivered in language they could understand. This is a tall order and there are many careers events offering teenagers an insight into the tech industry, but in my view they don’t offer the same quality experience that has driven the success of Future Summits; we hope to have hosted events in Dubai and London by the end of 2019.

WhichPLM: Sure – it makes it exciting and interesting for young people. So, Future Summits is where the two of you initially met? Because you actually also founded a couple of businesses before Future Labs as well, Harry? OPEN is a successful marketing agency here in the UK, and before that you founded a streetwear clothing brand, is that right?

Harry Beard: Indeed. To cut a long story short, when I was quite young I wanted to earn a little extra cash, and started a streetwear company. Within a year, it traded at five figure sums, had a pop-up shop in London, global sales and so on. I was getting Youtube views every day, upwards of six figures, featured in people’s videos. There were a couple of days where I was featured within between 5 and 7 million’s worth of Youtube views. There was a bit of a cult following behind it. And the press got in touch and published an article about it. So, I then had a couple of companies contact me for help. They recognised that I was a kid who had taken a company with no identity, no geographical location, no headquarters, and no nothing, and built a following. They had an identity, they were established, and had a physical location so should, as they put it, be gaining more exposure than me.

I then went into a local restaurant – who was my first client – and did some work with them. They then referred me to some other local clients and, before you knew it, I was earning more through just marketing local businesses than through selling clothes. For me, as a student, the whole process of creating a clothing collection was quite expensive; I’d be designing, sending designs off to other designers to finish up, to travel on the train towards Derby, to then create samples, bring them back home and send to another designer, to go back to Derby. So, before I have a product, I’m down £100s – which, when I was 16, during the height of my GCSEs, was a lot. I also lost a lot of time, which was precious in that period of my life.

So, to have this digital marketing thing, which came from nowhere, I was earning more money, it didn’t cost me anything up front, and I could also work remotely from home. If I’m diligent enough, I can do a month’s worth of posts within a few hours.

From that, the marketing company was recognised by Ernst & Young, and I was named as the UK’s second best student entrepreneur in December. From that, Adam invited me to speak at Future Summits, and that’s how we met, and we got on well and shared similar interests.

I forget where the idea of a Gen Z specific company came from, but it did. I’d subconsciously been doing that kind of stuff for a lot of people already.

Adam Flanagan: Exactly. Clearly the fact that established brands sponsored our events is testament to the fact that they were targeting Gen Z, so offering a consultancy service based around that seemed to be a natural progression.

Harry Beard: One of the things we found quite early on was that a lot of big companies would speak about how they found marketing to Generation Z particularly tricky – because the way Gen Z use the Internet is quite different to how others do, and Gen Z are quite savvy because they’ve grown up with social media rather than seeing it as a new experience. For example, if you send me a cold email, the chances of me responding to it, compared to my parent’s or grandparent’s generations, are very, very low. So a lot of businesses have this idea in their head that marketing to Gen Z is so tricky.

Adam Flanagan: Recruitment is also a big issue, and often when companies sponsor our events the money comes out of their recruitment budget rather than marketing or CSR, as there is a realisation that these young entrepreneurial minds are their future employees and it is in their interest to promote the opportunities to them at a fairly early age.

As well as that though, Gen Z demand very different things from the workplace – for example there is a greater emphasis on independence and charity within the workplace – and that will really become noticeable in the next few years, which is why companies need to take the steps now to future-proof themselves.

Companies who obstinately refuse to adapt their ethos or workplace practices risk a high employee turnover, which ultimately translates into lost money.

Harry Beard: So, a Gen Zer comes into the workspace thinking they’re going to make a massive impact on the work force, and realises that they’re part of a big chain of thousands of other employees. So, in 6 months time when they, according to the statistics, will probably leave that job, the business have gained absolutely nothing from it, lost thousands in pounds/dollars, and then the process begins again and they recruit another Gen Zer. It’s a never-ending cycle really, where they train them up and invest a great deal of money in them, only to have them move on.

So a lot of companies are losing a lot of money, and we realised that we can help them with that.

Adam Flanagan: And that’s where we came together; between the two of us, we realised we cover both of these bases, and we could probably educate quite a lot of big businesses.

Harry Beard: One of our first clients came in the form of a large established bank, and it is quite strange to be a teenager advising a bank’s marketing team on marketing, especially as I have never received any formal education in marketing.

WhichPLM: That makes perfect sense. Because, why not? You are Generation Z, so you know better about that cold email that isn’t going to be read by Generation Z because they aren’t sitting waiting for emails, they’re on social media. That’s how they’re going to communicate with one another.

Adam Flanagan: Exactly. And, beyond social media, there’s a disconnect in the generations of how we live our lives. For example, banks wonder why more people aren’t using contactless payments in the UK, yet there are very few contactless cards for under 18s. Which is a very simple thing.

WhichPLM: That seems so obvious, but I suppose not to someone not directly affected i.e. a non-Gen Zer. Other than the obvious social media difference, what else is so special – or different – about Generation Z?

Harry Beard: Well, there are a lot of different things – the way that we buy things being the clichéd response. I also think it’s the way that we act, and our mind-set is completely different. Fashion is a great example. Look at the generation before us, it was all about looking smart in a suit and tie. Suits, in my opinion, aren’t comfortable. I believe that people wear suits to fit in, and to try and impress the person sat opposite them. It’s a façade: neither of us want to be wearing a suit – I’d be much more comfortable in a t-shirt, a pair of jogging bottoms, and some Vans trainers. But society tells us that that’s not acceptable, and that’s not how you look to go to a meeting. I’d rather impress someone through who I am instead of what I wear. Also, by wearing comfortable clothes the atmosphere is far more personal. You are talking to the real me. Not a commercial me. There’s an air of mutual respect when two individuals can be relaxed around one another. A sense of trust. Suits kill this idea.

Securing a dream no longer requires one external validation from someone in power. An example I like to give is a recording artist: if someone my father’s age wanted to be a recording artist, you have to work very hard for a meeting, to then hope that this one person liked your work and would give you a recording contract. Whereas now we’re looking at artists such as Chance the Rapper, who has never actually sold a piece of music, and came through Soundcloud without a label. If I wanted to become a rapper now, instead of having to go to established record labels, I could just make that music, put it online and share it with people – and if they like it, I grow. This generation is all about impressing through delivery. Content driven. Chance didn’t need one individual to believe in him, he could focus on his craft and let his creations do the talking. It’s way more authentic.

There are countless examples of this. If my parents wanted to create a clothing brand when they were younger, or sell anything to America when they were younger, it was just never going to happen. But these are all things I did when I was 14. The world is just so, so different today. I wasn’t there to experience their world, but when I tell my dad I just had an order to Rwanda, or to Finland, I can see the shock on his face. It’s obvious that this “new world” is completely foreign.

Gen Zers can do anything from anywhere at any time. The boundaries do not exist. This is the first limitless generation.

WhichPLM: To put that into context, back when I [Mark Harrop] was in my 20s, a design system that did colour and shapes and so on would be £250,000. A technical specification with collaboration wasn’t available. It was all fax machines and telephone calls. Today, that software for pattern-making is free of charge, and 3D software and the Adobe Suite can be purchased on a cloud subscription for a minimal amount per month. If you have that creative mind-set, you could be putting your 3D designs on a site for less than a few hundred pounds, and within a year’s time you could be the next Supreme. 

Adam Flanagan: Definitely. Technology has enabled anybody with a laptop and an Internet connection to start a business that could transform not only their lives but the entire world – all with virtually no set up costs.

WhichPLM: There is a mental block for those that don’t look out of the box. It’s nice that you’ve embraced Gen Z so much. The people, like me [Lydia Hanson], who came before you, don’t really like to embrace the term millennials. I suppose that’s because there are, unfortunately, a lot of negative connotations that come with the term – lazy, entitled – and we want to reject that. But, it’s great that you’ve embraced Gen Z so much.

In doing so, you guys are quite big voices for your generation. We, in business, don’t hear as much from Gen Z as we do from millennials and baby boomers, simply because there are less of you in the business world. Do you feel any pressure from that?

Harry Beard: There are quite a few Gen Zers in business, and it’s odd because quite a few of us know each other. We speak to a lot of Gen Zers who have had their businessses acquired for large sums! So in that respect we don’t feel any pressure. I do appreciate that, when we’re working with a big client, we’re a bridge between a whole generation and that client. Obviously our aim is to get the best results for the client, but we also have a responsibility towards Generation Z to ensure we’re creating content they’ll enjoy.

It’s also important that we give the client a really good impression of who Generation Z is, what they want and what they want to see.

Adam Flanagan: The best way that we look to go about that is to acknowledge that the two of us don’t know everything, and never will. So what we do is work with some of the most influential Gen Zers and the ‘coolest’ Gen Zers globally to ensure that our work, our vision of Gen Z, is as up to date as possible.

Harry Beard: We’re seeing these cool 18 or 19 year olds popping up everywhere, doing cool stuff on social media, and we want to work with them. Not only do we want to learn from them, but we also want to partner up the biggest companies in the world with these people. We want to work with all these people who your average person has never even heard of; Generation Z know of their products, but businesses don’t.

And we want to help turn their passion into something that can generate money for them, offer something to the viewer, and of course create a buzz around the client.

WhichPLM: So, you guys work in lots of different verticals. You’re open to anyone and everyone?

Harry Beard: Yes, to anyone who’s got an interest in Gen Z, really. Obviously there are certain fields that we target, because we know they have pressure points; finance is a huge one. But any generation that we feel needs Gen Z attention – be it retail, academia, or finance – we target. But then there are more niche areas as well. I got off the phone this morning with a major sporting body for example. When those fun projects, that we weren’t really expecting, pop up we love to take them on. And if we don’t know the area ourselves we can always link them up with someone who does.

On the consultation side of things, a lot of it (to us) seems quite obvious. And much doesn’t really change much from field to field. Most companies are doing the same wrong thing, if that makes sense. One of the biggest errors, we feel, is this very formal identity that most companies give themselves on social media. So Gen Z can’t connect with the company or brand. Companies like Wendy’s are willing to tweet McDonald’s, and vice versa, and that’s what blows up on social media. Companies need to loosen up with their identities. Kids won’t really engage with what you’re doing unless you’re willing to be at least vaguely humorous.

We can send something out to focus groups of thousands of Generation Zers and ask what they think: do you like it? Why don’t you like it? What would you change about it? And often it’s things like all of the posts in a feed being words rather than a mixture of videos, images, gifs, and text.

WhichPLM: Would you categorise Future Labs as a consultancy business then?

Adam Flanagan: Of course, we want to and are willing to engage in any and all projects surrounding Gen Z. Marketing is the natural fit within that, but we also offer product design, with the ‘Gen Z’ user in mind.

Harry Beard: We like to use the term consultancy because it’s so broad and, in Gen Z terms, it’s ‘clickbait’ because nobody really knows what it is so they’re willing to reach out and see if we can help with their Gen Z related query. 

WhichPLM: Sure. You mentioned before a bit of advice, or rather anti-advice on what not to do to engage with your generation, but as millennials and baby boomers, without giving all your secrets away, what should we be doing to engage with Gen Z?

Harry Beard: Be funny. Be real. Be a person. Don’t sit behind a brand image. Don’t think that because you’re tweeting as a certain company you have to be really professional, and use X number of syllables, and only use text as opposed to gifs. Be Lydia Hanson; be Mark Harrop; be whoever you are. Show a bit of personality and be a bit quirky. Be willing to break down the walls that have been built up over years of mainstream press. Social media is a completely different world. Without wanting to sound like Kanye West, or sound to deep, just be real.

Be Authentic.

Generation Z can tell when you’re trying to sell to them. They’re less likely to spend under 40 minutes on Youtube as soon as they click onto the site, than they are to spend more than 40. They know full well that as soon as their favourite influencer is pushing something on social media, they’re being paid to do it. Gen Zers are savvy and they see through advertisements. Instagrammers even alert viewers of paid adverts now. You’ve just got to be authentic, and if you’re not authentic you’re not going to succeed.

WhichPLM: And, finally, do you have any advice for other young people hoping to become entrepreneurs?

Adam Flanagan: It’s hard to give advice without being clichéd but the key thing is to be fearless, and recognise that you have very little to lose. In some respects I think it’s easier for, say, a 15 year old to set up a business than someone who is maybe in their early 20’s, as they will probably not be as sensitive to other people’s opinions. For example, when I first set up Future Summits I just emailed loads of companies that I thought were potential sponsors, without even considering what their reaction would be. To be honest, I would say only about 10% of those companies actually replied to the email – never mind sponsored the event – but I think that perseverance is also necessary if you’re to succeed as a young entrepreneur.

The other thing is that success is probably even more impressive at a young age, as it is easier to differentiate yourself in the relatively smaller pool of young entrepreneurs, than it is among the ‘adult’ entrepreneurs.

Harry Beard: Essentially, you can’t lose if you start at 17; but you can win, and you could set yourself up for life.

Keep up to date with Future Labs, Harry, and Adam.

Lydia Hanson Lydia Hanson has been part of the WhichPLM team for over four years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.