'I once used my house as collateral for the rights to a show - I'd never do that these days'

ShinAwil CEO Larry Bass talks about what it takes to make it in the TV industry.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

SHINAWIL IS ONE of Ireland’s best-known television production companies.

Founded in 1999 by Larry Bass and Simon Gibney, the Dublin-based firm has produced a number of smash hits including the Irish versions of Dragons’ Den, the Apprentice, Dancing with the Stars and Popstars.

For the latest instalment of our question-and-answer series, we spoke to ShinAwil chief executive Larry Bass about what it takes to make it in the entertainment industry and the importance of checking new recruits’ references.

Here’s what he had to say:

Larry-Bass-Shinawil-CEO Larry Bass
Source: ShinAwil

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

I don’t recall actually having dedicated ambitions, but I always looked forward to working rather than going to school.

I started work fairly early, pumping the gas in a garage near where we lived. I started my entertainment work aged 13 as a DJ on pirate radio.

I was certainly more suited to getting out and working than being a scholar. I probably had more of an entrepreneurial spirit than academic intent. From the get go, I was more comfortable getting out and working for myself than working for people.

On average, what time do you start work in the morning and what time do you clock off?

I’m an early riser. What I tend to do out of habit – and because it’s a really good time to get things done – is get up early to catch up on things.

I’m usually up and at it by 6.30am. I will try to put things away when I get home in the evenings. So I usually clock off at seven or eight in the evening, if I can, and try to have some leisure time before lights out.

What’s the worst job/task you’ve ever had to do?

As I said, I used to pump the gas and continued to do it all through school. I have vivid memories of doing a night shift, sitting in a cubicle in a petrol station in Dolphin’s Barn.

At 4am or 5am, it was a very interesting place to be, on your own in a glass box in the middle of a forecourt, having a window into a world that was sometimes scary, sometimes entertaining, but never boring.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

In setting up ShinAwil, we had to acquire the rights to a TV show. I suppose through naivety, we used the house I’d purchased when I first got married as collateral for the rights to a show.

Had it gone wrong, that would have been an interesting place to be. But I think they’re the things you have to do when you’re starting out. You do have to put things on the line and get on with it.

It’s certainly something I wouldn’t do these days, knowing what I know now about how risky that was. It certainly isn’t something I would advocate.

90334580_90334580 Dragons' Den promotion
Source: Sam Boal/PhotocallIreland

What’s one thing that would put you off hiring someone?

I’m a big believer in checking people’s references. There are very few people, if any, we would hire without checking references.

I also trust my instincts if we’re putting a team together. You just get a sense that people know what they’re talking about and have the ability to fit in to the team.

It’s critically important when you’re running as many production teams that we sometimes run that you make those correct decisions.

What bad work (or business) habit have you had to kick?

I’ve got a very bad habit of starting projects and having many of them on the go. It’s sometimes difficult to get focus on priority projects, but that’s what you’ve got to do.

I’m constantly having to refocus where we spend time. That’s a constant battle. It doesn’t change or go away. This is an ideas-driven business; you have to be liberal with ideas and then try to make as many of them land as possible.

What has been your biggest mistake to date and what did you learn from it?

If you hire the wrong people in the team, it can have a detrimental effect and demotivate people. We certainly were guilty of that back in the day.

You learn as you go – I think we quickly realised, once we addressed it in the past, how refreshing the team was when you took somebody out.

Sometimes it’s about setting somebody free. Some people may not be properly qualified for a role, but will do it because that’s what they’ve been asked to do or that’s what they’re hired to do.

The lesson I would have learned is that if you do find you’ve hired somebody in the wrong position or hired the wrong person, you need to do something about it fast and not let it linger.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give to someone starting out in your industry?

It’s an industry that’s going through a huge change. The way that we operate, the way we generate new business, is rapidly changing and will probably completely change again in the next three to five years.

People have to be open to new ways of working, to see themselves working in what is definitely a global business – it’s not a national business.

And they need to have really strong characteristics of persistence, patience and determination because it’s not for the faint of heart.

What have you found is the best way to motivate staff?

Giving people responsibility and letting them get on with their job. Recognising qualities and skills people have and letting them use it.

There’s nothing worse than someone who is highly skilled working at a lower level. Nothing will demotivate somebody more.

Most people will exceed your own expectations. It’s one of the things I take most pride in.

For example, the series producer who’s working on Dancing with the Stars has worked with ShinAwil on and off for a long time, probably 15 years, and started life as a production runner and worked herself all the way up.

We’ve seen that with lots of people over the years. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing people flower and grow.

Who is Ireland’s most underrated business person?

There are so many people you could talk about in this regard, but one of the people I’ve got to know a little is the director general of RTÉ, Dee Forbes.

I think a lot of people don’t realise the level that she attained in her career outside of Ireland.

She was the managing director of Discovery Networks Europe, probably one of the biggest group of media companies on the planet.

She helped recreate that business and was part of a team that negotiated all the rights to future Olympic games for Discover Networks. Incredibly huge deals.

Prior to that, she was a very senior executive in Turner Broadcasting, which owns and runs Cartoon Network, CNN.

This is somebody who never worked in the television business in Ireland growing up. She worked outside of the country and achieved pretty much the highest level you could.

She came back to take on the national broadcaster role and probably didn’t realise how difficult the landscape was in terms of finance.

It’s a really difficult climate, but she was prepared to roll up her sleeves and get stuck in. I have admiration for somebody who’s prepared to do that and breath new life into something.

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