Taking a page out of risky business

Pop Up Projects at The Hordern Pavilion.JPG

Michael Watson was only 21 when he created his first business Wats On Tap, a mobile bar hire and beverage catering company.

Starting out, Watson juggled his burgeoning business with a career in marketing – these days, Watson has long since left behind his corporate life to focus on his business.

Four years since Wats On Tap, Watson has recently launched his second venture, Pop-up Projects, which provides mobile event spaces.

We talked to Watson about life as a young entrepreneur:

Where did the idea for Wats On Tap come from?

We started in 2009, and just going to so many weddings and engagements and other private functions, I would see everyone using trestle tables and I thought that was so ugly and unprofessional, surely there’s a market for mobile bars? That’s where the idea initially came from, and I had no idea where it would take me. I started off with one bar and just went from there.

You were working in a corporate environment when you started the business – how did that work?

I worked for Pacific Brands at the time, so the beauty of starting a small business when you’re still working full time was still being able to generate income, which was good. It was quite easy to juggle initially, just because there wasn’t much work. I was just doing a little bit of marketing here and there, trying to get the name out, and after about six months or so I could see that there was real promise there. I was getting a lot of enquiries and that’s when I took the risk and left the job. But initially it was good having that full time job and running the business, because I still had funds coming in and didn’t jump into it straight away.

What made you decide it was worth the risk?

It was a massive gamble, I guess, because it wasn’t making a lot of money, but I saw a market there. It got to the point where it was taking over from my full time job, and I had to give it away and sell the concept to somebody, or leave my job with a guaranteed wage and jump into it. I obviously went for that option, which was a good decision. Everyone said to me, you’re only young, you’re 21, so if it all falls apart in two years you’re only 23 years old, it’s not the end of the world, you haven’t got a family or anything like that. I guess that tipped me over the edge to give it a go.

How did the business grow?

From word of mouth, and also from just being something really different. If it’s just something normal, you’re one of 1,000 other companies, but since it’s something different, people saw it as a new concept. Google Ad Words, too, was 100 per cent the best marketing for us. Nobody knew that mobile bars even existed, so to get that out there with a good website and targeted key words through Google has been our best form of marketing.

What challenges have you faced running the business?

The biggest challenge was initially caterers. Caterers have a liquor license, and they try to do all the drinks side of things themselves, and the fact that we don’t do the food component, when people are planning a party, they’ll go down the catering route to start with, and then caterers can up-sell beverage packages, while they’d be coming to us just for the beverage side of things, so we were never the first port of call initially. That was a challenge, getting people to come to us first, or use the caterer for the food only and come to us for the drinks side of things.

Now, with the bigger scale things that we do, working with a lot of brands, the challenge is competing with the big marketing companies. But we can use that to our advantage as well, we’re really small and personable, and we don’t treat anybody like just another number like the bigger companies might. It makes people feel more special, like we’re looking after them better.

How did you know the time was right to launch Pop-up Projects?

We do so many launches and events, doing fashion shows or things at the races, lots of corporate stuff – we would do the bar element, and somebody else would come in and do the décor side of things, someone else would do the fence, and this and that. I thought, we’re going to so many events where there’s other contractors there doing the same thing, so I thought it would be good to create this pop-up space that’s like a turn key operation. Anyone who wants a VIP space or wants to do brand activation can have a fully licenced area – we have a picket fence, astro turf, bars and bartenders…it’s a one stop shop so they don’t have to go to five or six different contractors, they can get it all from us.

The main thing was that we saw so many other people do it, and they didn’t do it well, and the one event manager would be dealing with five or six different suppliers whereas they could book Pop-up Projects and we could have everything covered. We have everything in the truck and can set it up in four hours. It’s a full event space that can be completely branded for any event and any brand.

You’ve worked with big clients already – what’s next for Wats on Tap and Pop-up Projects?

As well as the weddings and engagements and corporate events, which are our core business, we’re trying to transition into the larger festivals. We want to work with brands and work with people running events to do the whole bar management side of things for larger festivals. We just won a couple of big ones, like the Newtown Festival, which is 80,000 people. That’s a much bigger scale than a 500 people corporate function.

We still want to do our core work, like the corporate events and functions, but we want to position ourselves to be a household name or first port of call for anyone doing a large festival, too.