Sixteen South’s Colin Williams: If it’s only about how rich you can get, then you’ve missed it completely

Colin Williams, Sixteen South

Gary: Sixteen South is one of Northern Ireland’s best success stories, but a lot of people are probably unaware of it. So tell us a bit about what you do, Colin.

Colin: Sixteen South is a children’s TV production company. We create and produce kids’ TV for broadcasters all over the world. We don’t work for local broadcasters – simply because none of them buy kids’ TV, so we sell our shows to the leading networks across the world.

We don’t make documentaries or anything at all for adults. Kids’ TV is our focus and we try our best to make great shows that kids love. If you spread yourself across lots of different genres, I don’t believe you can be brilliant across all of them, unless you’re a massive company.

Gary: You’ve been responsible for some pretty big shows haven’t you?

Colin: The company is under 5 years’ old and in that time, we’ve been very fortunate to have been so busy and to have been trusted with major projects – and to work in partnership with people we’ve really looked up to. We work in puppetry, live action and lately in animation, but we would be known throughout the world as only one of maybe 5 companies that make puppet shows. To partner with Sesame Workshop on our first show, ‘Sesame Tree’ was incredible. To win the gig was brilliant, but to actually work with them and learn from them was just fantastic.

We’ve just finished production on our fourth show, ‘Pajanimals’ – a bedtime show for 2-3 year olds with the Jim Henson company in LA, and that was a three way partnership between Henson, ourselves and the broadcaster, Sprout.  I produced it, but I worked really closely with Lisa Henson, who is Jim’s daughter, and now runs the company. But it was made here – proudly made here – in Belfast.  And it’s a show which is going out into 250 million homes in the US, Australia and across Europe. It broadcasts on Sprout, which is a 24 hr kids channel in the States, and every Saturday morning on NBC.

It’s a great channel – and we love their ethos.  They run a campaign called “kindness counts” and they’ve a ‘kindness counter’, which encourages kids to do acts of kindness…very, very positive family values and a strong sense community.. These are things that are important to us as a company and me as a person, so to work with them was wonderful. And working with the Henson family was incredible too – the guys who created the Muppets!  They’re great partners and friends.

Gary: So these major TV shows that you’ve produced; you’ve won a number of major awards that recognizes the quality of your work?

Colin:  We’ve won 13 awards to date. On an Irish level, we won the IFTA (Irish Television and Film Award) for the Best Children’s show for ‘Big City Park’ in 2011.  That was lovely; it was very much a show from Northern Ireland.  We’ve proud of who we are and where we’re from and we don’t shy away from that. Winning that was wonderful, but then to win a BAFTA last year for the same show was amazing.  We’ve won lots of international awards – Hugos and Golden Eagles – and that’s really helped to raise our profile in the industry. Because we are a creative business, it’s important for our creativity to be recognised – but as a ‘Creative Business’, the other side matters too – the business.  We won Best Creative Business in the Belfast Business Awards and the Rising Star in the Deloitte Fast 50 awards last year, which is great, because it recognises our success as a business.

We’ve just heard that we’re finalists in three categories in this year’s Belfast Business Awards – ‘Best Creative Business’. ‘Best International Trade’ and ‘Best Business Innovation’.  I’ve also been nominated as ‘Business person of the year’ too.

Gary: That’s an enormous amount of success and recognition in a very short space of time. How’d you manage to do that?

Colin: I feel that people buy into us as a group of people. And things that are important to me in life are also important in business.  We’re genuinely passionate about what we do. When we go and we pitch, people see that. Passion is something you either have or you don’t – you can’t pretend to have it.  We want to treat people right, with respect, and we want to see the creative industries grow because I believe that it will continue to transform our city.

I recognized a long time ago that I can’t do everything or be amazing at everything – so I surround myself with people who are great at what they do. I believe strongly in working as a team and listening to everyone. When you invest in people and you trust people, they give their best.

Gary: So what is it that drives you, Colin?

Colin: Many businesses are driven by the desire to get richer – but that’s not my driver. The company is financially very strong, but what it’s actually about is using your talents to make a difference in the world. It’s not about money.  We’re setting up a not-for-profit foundation to produce some work through.

I graduated as a designer and worked commercially for 13 years – but I really wanted to use my abilities to do some good.. Kids watch a lot of TV, they learn from it, and as children’s producers, we have an incredible opportunity to positively impact on the lives of children who watch our shows.  We’re going into production on our first animated show in April, and that show will cover a whole range of things that children experience – celebrating life and death, themes and topics that are not often covered in TV.  It’s about trying to help kids be better people.

Gary: Sometimes people are passionate about a business, growing that business, and a vision for success at almost any cost, whether it’s people that work with you, for you, customers, family, whatever. That doesn’t sound like the business you are trying to build?

Colin: No. It feels like a family in here. We couldn’t do what we do if we were to run this business in a cold and callous way. That wouldn’t work.

Gary: Does this go beyond your particular business in children’s TV? Could you apply what you’re saying to any business? The values you’ve talked about of mutual respect, of growing people, of everybody being passionate – is that only in this creative space or is it applicable more generally?

Colin: It’s across the board. You have to look beyond the balance sheet. We’re all on this earth for a fixed amount of time. If it’s only about how rich you can get, then you’ve missed completely what life is about. If you can run a business, add quality to people’s lives, bring people with you and have fun doing it – is that not better?

Gary: Colin, you’re the founder of this company. So how did that come about? Did you have a background in puppetry and children’s TV, did this seem like a natural thing to do?

Colin: No – this is actually the second business I started. The first company was called ‘Inferno’, a commercial production company and it was very successful. It was born out of my frustration in working for “the man” and a desire to work for myself.  I had to remortgage my house to raise the money to start it. Inferno made TV ads, promos, and did a lot of work for a lot of large companies. That taught me a lot about business.

But I wanted to something that really would be more life-affirming.

My daughter was a toddler at the time and we were watching a show called ‘Bear in the Big Blue House’ and she loved it. And so did I.  I began to think that I’d really like to make a show that is not only beautiful, but is iconic, like this one. And the shows I loves growing up – Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, I wondered: could I ever get involved in something like that?

A local broadcaster told me that it would be too hard to break into, but eventually I found myself pitching for a new version of Sesame Street to be made here called Sesame Tree. Somehow, we won it and Sixteen South was born. I ran both companies together for a period until I realized where my heart really lay – it was making these children’s shows. So I took a brave decision to pull the shutters down on Inferno – a company that was still making money.

So my route into this was really a desire to use my abilities and talents in a different way, to do something that was worthwhile and to reach a bigger audience.

Gary: A great deal of what you do is selling. In that you are pitching ideas, new concepts for a new programme and so on, to some major players. And you’ve been very successful. What are the key skills and attributes you need for that?

Colin:  Creativity is still the biggest part of my job, but because I run the company, I need to have a handle on everything that goes on – everything from signing off on scripts to what the music sounds like, as well as the management of the company.  Selling is a big part of what I do too. People buy two things – you have to have something that’s good enough that people want to buy – but also, people buy people. And people buy into people’s visions. If people see you have passion and that they can trust you to do the job, that’s a major part of it.

Gary: So people need to recognize your passion, your integrity, your ability to deliver the idea.

Colin: Yes, all of those. Broadcasters have very few slots to fill and therefore they need to know that the show they’re buying will draw an audience. So there is huge pressure – not just in selling the show, but then to make a show that people are going to watch!

Gary: Colin, you were a speaker at a recent TEDx event and your theme was fear. And you talked about how crippling it can be in a business setting or in other areas of life. And you said you thought that was particularly a characteristic of Northern Ireland – could you say something about that?

Colin: I’ve worked in the creative industries since 1995 and in that time I’ve worked in advertising, in Internet-land, in commercial production and now in TV production. In each of those areas, I got to know my peers – the competitors. And in each of these areas – and I would guess throughout the rest of business in Northern Ireland – people play their cards very close to their chest. It’s like being in an exam where you keep your arm around your work. Where you feel that if people see what you’ve got, you’re going to lose it.

In Northern Ireland we’re the only dedicated children’s TV producer and we have a few neighbours that do some work in this genre too.  These aren’t our competitors, though – our competitors are ALL of the companies from around the world who are at the markets with us – pitching for those few valuable slots with the broadcasters. We compete with the world’s best.

What we’ve found is that there is more to gain than there is to lose in building a relationship. We are best friends with many of our competitors and congratulate them when they win a piece of business we were also pitching for. But the culture in Northern Ireland is that you don’t collaborate and you don’t share. People are too busy watching their own backs to realise that don’t realize that if you collaborate you can achieve way more.

We were asked by NI Screen to host an event promoting children’s TV in the QFT. We agreed.  We brought the children’s commissioners from CBBC, RTE and CITV, and other industry experts – and the theatre was filled. People warned me that I was being crazy – that I was giving away all of our secrets! That summed up where we are in Northern Ireland.

Was I afraid of people taking away the relationships I had?  No. We had much more to gain than to lose. When we share what we have, we don’t ever lose it. When you share your knowledge, you still have it, but then others benefit from it too.

On that day there was a pitching session and we opened up the opportunity for our peers and local neighbours to pitch to broadcasters,. That was good.  From that, we are in active discussions with some of our neighbours in Northern Ireland about potential collaboration projects. It has broken those barriers, and shown the rest of the industry that we have nothing to lose by working together. We’ve had a lot of people get in touch with us since about new ideas, new projects which wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done that. So sometimes you do need to take a chance.

Gary: Colin – thanks very much.

Colin Williams speaks about “Fear” at TedxBelfast


About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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