It's true what they say: there's no business like show business
The sky's the limit for the man who put the Dragons in the Den and Nadine Coyle on our screens
In late 2008, I got a visit to our factory in Dundalk from a man who wanted to interview me for a new TV show he was about to film for RTE1. The man's name was Larry Bass and the name of the show was Dragons' Den.
He told me that the programme would centre around would-be entrepreneurs pitching business ideas to a panel of seasoned businesspeople who would invest their own money in exchange for a stake in these business.
Today, Dragons' Den remains one of the most popular shows on Irish TV and continues to play a major role in helping to promote entrepreneurship to a whole new generation.
Last week, the tables were turned when I visited Larry in his offices in Ranelagh in Dublin, to learn how he has managed to successfully grow his company, Screentime Shinawil, into one of the largest and most successful independent TV production companies in Ireland.
Well known by viewers for producing Irish versions of international TV formats such as The Voice, MasterChef and The Apprentice, Larry and his team have also developed many original shows of their own, including You're A Star, Test the Teachers, Obesity Clinic, Socca Stars and the reality boxing show, Charity Lords of The Ring.
The impact of his work goes beyond just making good TV. Through Dragons' Den, Larry has helped many emerging entrepreneurs create new businesses. Through The Apprentice and MasterChef, he has helped open doors for participants to advance in their careers. And through The Voice of Ireland, he has created opportunities for singers to win recording contracts and launch careers.
Looking back at my time on Dragons' Den, I remember being surprised at just how much work and how many people were required to make a TV show. There were the staff who selected and coached the entrepreneurs who came to present their ideas; the crew who put together the set and arranged the props; the cameramen whose job it was to capture the intensity and emotion of every pitch; the sound and lighting engineers and the hair and make-up professionals.
And all the while, teams of producers and backroom engineers skilfully directed and meticulously choreographed every step of process. When the 'wrap' was finally called, the work of the editors then began. For weeks, they studied every frame, their goal being to distil the hours upon hours of footage into eight individual episodes. Pitches that literally took hours to record were condensed into slots of between one to five minutes. While it all flowed together seamlessly, I came to realise that the art of making good TV was something that could not be learned quickly but was a skill that came only after years of experience in the business.
Larry Bass grew up in Dublin's Sallynoggin. At 13, he got his first taste of the music and entertainment industry when he began running local discos and looking after sound and lighting for local bands. Even while attending secondary school, Larry had people working for him and it seemed only natural that this hard-working teenager would eventually make his full-time career in the world of entertainment.
But not everything went smoothly for him. His mother passed away when he was just 12 and this had a profound effect on the young Larry.
"It definitely made my siblings and me much more independent," admits Larry.
After school, he got involved in pirate radio and instantly fell in love with the production side of the business. For the next decade, he focused on developing his knowledge and skills by producing all manner of programmes and shows.
However, by the time he had reached 28, Larry was already beginning to grow tired of life on the road. Staying in nice hotels, the constant travelling, days spent in different airports and living out of a suitcase were all beginning to feel less glamorous.
He took the courageous step of entering full-time education at Dublin Institute of Technology, where he did a degree in communications. By day he attended college and at night he continued to freelance in the TV and music industry, taking whatever jobs he could get, in order to fund his education.
In 1999, he teamed up with former classmate Simon Gibney to set up Shinawil Productions and still remembers the pair's first-ever production.
"It was a documentary about the band Aslan," recalls Larry fondly. However, his big breakthrough came in 2001 while attending his first TV conference in Las Vegas. There, he saw that TV format shows were about to take off.
"Up to that point, I had no idea what a TV format was," admits Larry. "I listened to a description of a novel New Zealand TV show called Popstars, similar to the X Factor, and I remember thinking to myself that if ever there was a TV show created for me to produce, this was it."
He immediately contacted Louis Walsh, who he knew from his days doing sound for some of his bands and asked him to become one of the judges on the show. Popstars turned out to be one of the most successful shows ever on Irish TV and led to the creation of the band Six.
It was also the first time the public would get to see another up-and-coming star, Nadine Coyle from Derry, who would later achieve considerable success with the band Girls Aloud.
Viewers at the time may recall how Nadine, who had initially been picked to be part of Six, had to withdraw from the show after a dramatic revelation about her age. But it all made for great TV.
Since then, things have not slowed down for Larry. His latest shows are Meet the McDonaghs and Teenage Kicks, both on RTE 2 this autumn.
"Meet the McDonaghs is an observational show about an Irish travelling family which came about as a result of Kelly McDonagh Mongan's participation in the series The Voice," says Larry. "Teenage Kicks sees Bressie, one of the judges on The Voice, visit disadvantaged communities with the ultimate goal of forming a band and using music as a way of engaging with young people."
Where does he see the future for the business?
"Because there are only a handful of TV broadcasters in Ireland, we've had to look outside to grow," he says.
To this end, he recently set up an office in Northern Ireland and is working with the BBC to produce a series called Undercover NI about crime in Northern Ireland.
"What we are really expert at is creating content," explains Larry. "Our next phase of development as a business will see us moving from where we traditionally imported formats to where we will now begin to develop and export our own original shows. In that regard, we hope to open an office in London in the near future and possibly the US after that," he adds.
While he sees the digital revolution as a possible threat to the business, he also sees it as a massive opportunity both for Shinawil and for the entertainment sector as a whole. If harnessed correctly, he believes it will allow his business to progress from being a local TV company, focused solely on the Irish market, to becoming a TV company developing content for a global audience but which just happens to be located in Ireland.
What is the biggest secret to his success so far?
"Our business is all about people. And a good TV show is all about good casting," explains Larry.
"But it's also about having the right talent behind the camera. Our staff, producers and editing teams are among the best anywhere in the industry. And if there is one skill I have developed, it is the ability to spot talent and to stand close to it," he adds.
Larry Bass is a visionary within the entertainment industry. He has never allowed his thinking to be limited by tradition. He thinks big and commits himself to quality shows. He is forever on the lookout for new opportunities and new avenues that will enable him to push the business even further.
He remains as passionate as ever about the entertainment sector. The only difference now, compared to when he first started out, is that he has since become a successful entrepreneur and a seasoned business leader. With his sights firmly set on growing his business internationally, I believe we are going to hear a lot more about Shinawil and a lot more about Larry Bass.
LARRY'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
1. Never, ever, be afraid to think big
"Both in business and in life, don't be afraid to reach for the stars. Even though you might never get there, you'll never know just how far you could have gotten unless you try. Having ambition helps you overcome obstacles because you are looking way past them, towards your goals."
2. 'No' means you need to ask a different question
"When you're not getting the results you want, then you have to be willing to adapt, change, modify or rework your plans. You have to be willing to persevere. Success is often the result of not giving in and not giving up. You have to be prepared to stick with things and to see them through."
3. There's no business like show business
"Even in this well-known statement about the world of entertainment, the word 'business' appears twice as often as the word show. While you may initially find yourself in an industry because you have a passion for it, you quickly need to learn the business side of it, if you want to successful."
Sunday Indo Business