From humble beginnings to worldwide phenomena

FastTrack with Richard Branson 1997

FastTrack with Richard Branson 1997

After failing his 11+ exams and feeling he wasn’t good enough for University, Nick Austin graduated from business studies in 1979 and has gone on to have a hugely successful sales and marketing career in the toy industry working with Warner Brothers, Disney, BBC and more.

What’s your wildest memory of Portsmouth?

I remember we were in an interdepartmental football final and we won it. We went to celebrate and there was a nightclub that had just opened called Some Place Else. That night they had a sponsored Pernod evening and, this was how long ago it was, Pernod was 10p a shot. We’d just won the cup, having a great night out and I remember on the way out, the exit was up a set of stairs, and I missed my footing and bowled all the way down to where two hulking bouncers were stood looking at me.

What was your first job out of University?

My first job was with British Steel in Sheffield. I was a graduate trainee and British Steel had sponsored me during my degree so I was obligated to work for them for a year after graduating.

I then joined Proctor and Gamble, known for products including Pampers Nappies and Head & Shoulders, as a sales and marketing rep.  

You became a Managing Director at Matchbox at 30 years old. What pressures did you face?

When we took over at Matchbox, it had just gone bust so it was a company of incredibly low morale. An entrepreneur had bought us out and he wanted the company to be turned around quickly so that it wasn’t losing money. As a 30 year old, it was pretty tough and I wasn’t an experienced manager at the time and turning a company around is a really hard thing to do because, not only do you have to turn the company performance around, you have boost morale. I had some great people around me and thankfully we managed to do it, mainly through picking great products and brands.

You then started your own company, Vivid Imaginations. What was one of your biggest successes?

We started the company in 1992, in the middle of a recession with everyone saying we shouldn’t do it. We were the new kids on the block and I remember we were 354th out of 355 toy companies in 1992. By 2002, amazingly I still don’t know how it happened, we were number one. We had an amazing meteoric rise and became the number one toy company in the UK. It was a phenomenal journey.

What toys have you worked on during your career?

We had lots of great successes with toys like Spiderman, Thunderbirds, Bratz,  Star Wars Return of the Jedi, Care Bears and Moshi Monsters.. In the late 90s Thunderbirds was a big part of my life and was probably our most famous project, particularly Tracy Island which was the toy of the year for a couple of years.

We also produced dolls from big pop bands so we worked with One Direction, Little Mix. The first band was Take That. Everyone said you’ll never be able to sell dolls from pop bands and I think we sold quarter of a million of them.

Did you have any product launches that didn't go as well as expected?

Yes there were lots. If you work in the toy business, you’re in the fashion business and you’re constantly having to reinvent yourself and bring new products to the market. Someone once said to me “if you haven’t had enough failure, you’re not trying hard enough.”

One I specifically remember was the pop star from Culture Club, Boy George, who had these long dreadlocks and was hugely successful. The company I’d just joined had bought the rights to make dolls of Boy George. The day before they went to launch, there was a picture on the front page of the newspaper which showed Boy George having cut off all his dreadlocks! We had a warehouse of 50,000 Boy George dolls with his dreadlocks and he had completely changed his image. No surprise there, the product was a spectacular failure.   

What's your advice for future entrepreneurs?

First of all, don’t rush into it. Research, research, research because it’s a competitive world out there. You’ll probably need capital to get off the ground and you don’t want to through your hard earned cash into something you haven’t researched. Secondly, go into an industry you understand, a business you have experience in as chances are you’re going to have to learn some hard lessons before you get it right. You’ve got to work your guts out and have a long term vision.

If you were to speak to are recent graduates, what advice would you offer them?

I think the most important thing is to know yourself and know what fires you up. What are you passionate? If you can find a career or a job in something you’re passionate about, the chances are you will succeed and the money will look after itself.

You can watch the full version of Nick’s interview here.  

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