Entrepreneurs made in Manchester: Anthony H. Wilson

Made in Manchester. No, not a label on a shirt, pie or micro-brewery bottle, but a badge of honour for entrepreneurial folks who gave birth to their craft in the best city in the world. Manchester was, and continues to be, the home of great free-traders and free-thinkers, men and women alike. Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.

It was in Manchester in the mid C19th that the Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx met to discuss revolution and the theory of communism. The desk and alcove where Marx and Engels worked and studied at Chetham’s Library in 1845 are still there today and remain unaltered. It truly was a meeting that shaped the world.

Enter Manchester University’s Sackville Street building via the Whitworth Street entrance and you’ll see the names of twenty-five Nobel Laurette prize winners, household names in sciences, economics, medicine celebrated on the wall. They include Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work on Graphene – although Konstantin said it was for ‘mucking about in a lab’.

Manchester was home to Ethel ‘Sunny’ Lowry, the first British woman to swim the English Channel in 1933 aged twenty-two; Emmeline Pankhurst lived at 62 Nelson Street, where she founded the Suffragette movement, Marie Stopes was the first female academic at Manchester; Enriqueta Rylands built the Rylands Library. Latterly Caroline Aherne and Kathleen Ollerenshaw were also women who made Manchester.

For me, there is one adopted Mancunian who ‘Made it in Manchester’ who personified the C20th entrepreneurial ambition, impact and vibrancy of the city. If you lived in the north-west in the late 1970s and 1980s, you knew the attention seeking broadcaster personality Tony Wilson, who reinvented himself as Anthony H Wilson because Anthony was how his mum knew him.

For years I watched him each evening as an opinionated, populist Granada television presenter. He became an idiosyncratic Manchester entrepreneur who dedicated his life to making the city famous as the self-appointed ringleader of Manchester music and culture. He was someone you loved, or hated, or loved and hated at the same time.

Wilson was born in Salford where his family ran three jewellers’ shops before moving to Marple, near Stockport. His mother felt it would be a better place to bring him up, but he kept in contact with the grittier, more darkly romantic Salford. After passing his 11-plus, Wilson attended De La Salle Grammar School in Salford. He developed a love of literature after he saw a performance of Hamlet.

He began his career as a news reporter for Granada television, a great northern institution. He became a favourite. Wilson adored the attention, and shrewdly exploited his role when it came to what he was really interested in – helping Manchester to recreate itself, with its radical, inventive and progressive traditions intact. The first sign of Wilson’s interest in the counterculture and in new ideas was when Granada allowed him to present his own show, What’s On, covering the local arts scene. In 1976, it turned into his own music show, So It Goes.

Wilson was one of the 40 or so people who turned up to see the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976. Everyone in the audience was inspired by this incendiary performance – founders of the Buzzcocks, Magazine, The Fall, The Smiths, and Joy Division were all present. Wilson was galvanised by the anarchy of the music, philosophy and imagery of protest, and it changed his life, as it did Manchester itself. Taking pop culture seriously as a social and political force, he was ahead of his time.

In 1978 Wilson opened the Russell Club (renamed as the Factory Club) in Hulme showcasing new local music talent. Manchester had its very own cultural curator, an exuberant nuisance inspiring or irritating those around him with his forceful personality. Along with Rob Gretton, Alan Eramus, Martin Hannett and Peter Saville he founded Factory Records. It was the catalyst of creative Manchester culture, home to great Manchester bands such as Joy Divison (subsequently New Order), A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, The Stockholm Monsters and latterly Happy Mondays.

Wilson started the company with the inheritance of £12,000 left to him by his mum, and released an EP, A Factory Sampler, featuring acts that played at the club. In 1979, Joy Division, headliners at the club many times, recorded the first album released by Factory, Unknown Pleasures. The Factory brand became renowned for quirky innovations, none more so than its cataloguing and numbering of everything it produced with a unique reference number. Numbers, not necessarily in chronological order, were allocated to albums, posters, badges and even places: Joy Division’s Closer was numbered FACT 25, the Haçienda club was FAC 51.

Wilson was an entrepreneurial tour de force, his efforts, antics, shenanigans and eternal spouting off to anyone who would listen, about tales and talent from his beloved metropolis in the north are legendary. He had a romantic, missionary zeal to make an impression and a worldly confidence rarely seen in Manchester. The subversive Factory Records became the link between Manchester’s reforming radical past, the Sex Pistols’ legendary performance and the new modernised Manchester that Wilson had in mind.

Factory opened the Haçienda Club in an old textile mill turned yacht salesroom. A radical, stunning design by Ben Kelly, it looked like something from New York, and anticipated a new, bold C21st-Manchester. It was visionary and captured the essence of Wilson’s radical mindset, importing experimental house music from America. The club lost money due to poor commercial management. It does, however, have a permanent place in Britain’s social cultural history.

In 1983 New Order’s Blue Monday (FAC 73) became the best selling twelve-inch record of all time. Unfortunately it failed commercially too, the original sleeve, die-cut and designed to look like a floppy disk, was so costly to make that Factory lost money on every copy sold. Factory fell apart in 1992, and was declared bankrupt with debts of £2m. The Haçienda closed in 1997 after a frenetic decade of being the night-time home of hedonism and a magnet for thrill-seekers – Madchester – replaced by a luxury apartment block. Peter Hook, bass player with New Order, has six guitars made using wood from the Haçienda’s dancefloor.

Wilson constantly shape-shifted in his lusty pursuit of the next thing. Too big for his own boots, full of himself, banging on relentlessly like a broken record, yet he had a real genius for processing the discoveries and inventiveness of others. Talking Head’s guitarist Tina Weymouth, once remarked of Factory: I grew up in New York in the Seventies, and I’ve seen a lot of people who live life on the edge, but I’ve never before seen a group of people who had no idea where the edge is.

Despite many questionable decisions and the ultimate failure, Factory remains a moment of time in music and Manchester’s history of innovative startup ventures, so what can we take from Wilson’s entrepreneurial spirit, vivacity, attitude and creativity into today’s startup thinking? How do you keep innovating and pushing the ambition? Here are some of the best values of entrepreneurship and disruptive innovation that I see from Anthony H. Wilson that will spark startup thinking.

A DIY ethic drives innovation Under Wilson, Factory were revered for their Do-It-Yourself abilities. They made it up as they went along, like a startup they had to find their market, experiment and determine product-market fit, working out where their audience was.Factory was about keeping it simple and raw. Success achieved by being out there and sheer-bloodied single-mindedness to get up there and make it happen – talent rocks, but attitude is king. It’s about conviction and determination to make it happen.

Belief Wilson took on an established industry with major labels in control and broke the rules. In doing so, he changed the dynamics and disrupted an established market. He had enduring success and created a lasting legacy, albeit measured in cultural terms, if not financial. Wilson made the mind shift change that is needed to begin thinking and behaving like a startup and ask themselves the questions that an entrepreneur must ask.

Authenticity inspires customers Factory started with bold artistic expression of their own, truly authentic, not seeking to copy or replicate others. They inspired a revolution. The startup leadership lesson here is one of my favourites: you can be confident and competent all you want, but if you’re not accepted as real, and having a point of difference in what you offer customer, you won’t inspire a following. What’s your signature tune and tone of voice?

Wilson said Just copying something is no good, unless you just want to be a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be your own image If you plan on getting noticed, establish a brand promise and create an image that is memorable. Peter Saville’s design made Factory stand out visually, just as John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album.

Playing it safe gets you nowhere If you don’t take risks you’ll never excel. Playing it safe all the time becomes the most dangerous move of all. Deviate from routines. Rote activity doesn’t lead to the path of innovation or disruptive technology. Wilson never played it safe.

Open mindedness Factory’s uniqueness is the product of constant change and combining existing elements in new ways, producing something entirely their own, with a prowess for throwing stuff together randomly to discover new combinations and possibilities. Wilson was a maverick, he followed the classic entrepreneurial track of ‘lets give this a go’.

This ability to create genuine uniqueness is a key trait of any entrepreneurial business. Not all of Factory’s experiments worked, but their willingness to try out new ideas, knowing that not all will triumph, is a trait every entrepreneur needs.

Have a vision, and be true to your purpose Wilson had a vision, was strong minded and had a clear sense of purpose. He was shaped by deeply held personal and passionate values and remained true to them, quickly finding out that there were millions of people who shared those same values and aspirations.

Of course, Factory Records failed, through inadequate commercial management. It didn’t lack for innovation, maybe a bit more common sense could have prevailed, maybe too much experimentation.

Wilson was an entrepreneurial tour de force as a catalyst of ideas. Just as Manchester had emerged originally in C19th, the C20th version was invented in Factory Records by a rousing collective of dreamers, schemers, writers, musicians. It gave amplification to a sense of audacious soundtrack of innovation and disruption that has always been the hallmark of Manchester.

Of the Factory founders, Wilson, Gretton and Hannett are no longer with us, having all died young, but their legacy remains. Mutability is the epitaph of worlds, change alone is changeless. People drop out of the history of a life as of a land, though their work or their influence remains – the words on Wilson’s tombstone in Southern Cemetery. It’s from Mrs G Linnaeus Banks’ 1876 novel The Manchester Man. That’s a great epitaph to inspire the ongoing spirit of entrepreneurship in Manchester.

Perhaps his most famous statement was writing Joy Division’s contract out in his own blood, which simply read: The musicians own everything, the company owns nothing. All our bands have the freedom to f*** off.  He had the ‘Made in Manchester’ ethos.

Wilson died fifteen years ago on 10 August 2007 from renal cancer. His coffin has the Factory catalogue number FAC 501. He was a compelling, unique hybrid of visionary, entrepreneur, inconsistent genius and down-to-earth agitator that regenerated a declining city both economically and culturally.

Check out this lovely piece by Mike Garry and Joe Duddell: St Anthony: An Ode to Anthony H Wilson

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