Ash Phillips is the mind behind Yena, a networking brand and subscription service for young founders and future business leaders. Here’s how he’s turning a successful events company into a global business support brand.
When Ash started Yena in 2013 it was the Young Entrepreneur’s Networking Association, a meetup for young professionals in Bristol. These days, Yena runs events in 14 cities across the UK and Australia, and that’s not all – the brand has recently expanded to include a business video channel and a toolbox of useful products to help grow a business.
We caught up with Ash to find out his plans for expanding the brand, meeting future business needs and making Yena profitable.
Hi Ash – tell me about Yena.
Yena has always been – whether I recognised this at the start or not – about better access to high-quality business support.
I don’t want to do the sob story here – but I was born in a working-class area, certainly not affluent. I didn’t know where the opportunities were and when I decided to buck the trend and start a business, I didn’t know where to start. I don’t have a network of people to call on who could inspire, motivate or educate me.
You go out looking for government support and it’s free but not very good. Private support sounds great but if you don’t know what you’re looking for you’re not going to find it. It’s also cost prohibitive. And incubators like SETsquared are great but they’re geographically confined or you need to be a tech business to join them. So I felt there was a big gap in the market.
I wanted to make it my job to connect people with people who could help them. Connecting someone from Sneed Park with someone in St Paul’s, for example, is powerful. Far more powerful than keeping things siloed.
We now provide high-quality online business support to anyone, anywhere, as a subscription. You could call it acceleration as a service.
I thought Yena was all about networking events?
We’ve got this challenging preconception that we’re an events organisation, and because those events are free we can’t make money. My job as a marketing guy and a founder is to make sure people know we’re a product too.
We essentially supply three things in response to three core challenges. Starting a business is lonely, expensive and stressful. But all those things can be fixed or made easier. We now run 112 events in 14 cities across the UK and Melbourne – and they’re all free.
People can come to our events 8 times a year in their city, but what about the other 357 odd days where they’re not connecting with other people? So we’ve created a subscription service that provides access to a private community of people like them, connecting on a global basis. It makes it easier to buy from, sell to, connect with, learn from and share with each other. They can build business relationships and personal relationships – so that solves the loneliness issue.
‘The Yena subscription is for ambitious rebels – if anyone feels they fit that demographic, they’re welcome to join us.’
The second thing is the toolbox – a curated list of best in class tools that we’ve negotiated deals and offers on. As an individual, if you were to go to those companies and say ‘can I have a deal?’, it’s not going to happen. But if I turn up and say ‘we have a community of thousands of people connecting every year, what can you do for us?’, it means we have leverage and buying power.
The third thing is Vision, our Netflix for business. It’s completely original content, produced by us, made by experts and on specific subjects our members need to know about. We provide content that’s educational, ad hoc, not course-led, entertaining and from a company they trust.
Our argument is that these three things provide everything you need to grow your business faster, affordably and less stressfully.
The cherry on the cake is we also provide exclusives – free conferences, discounted tickets to events, our member retreat that happens twice a year now. We can negotiate really great offers but it’s less of a regular thing.
Has your audience stayed the same through these changes?
The membership and events are separate – you don’t need to be a member to attend events.
Another challenge for me right now is that the events are targeted towards young people. Yena started as a safe space for future leaders – a place for the next generation of entrepreneurs to connect with each other. The photos that we have for Yena events have been mistaken for stock images because they’re so diverse. That’s great because it means we’ve done our job, but it’s annoying because we’ve worked so hard to fill the room with interesting people and now people don’t think it’s real!
A lot of traditional business events are just full of white, middle-class men in suits. If you rock up as a 17-year-old you’re just going to get a pat on the head. Those environments can be quite intimidating for a generation that’s dealing with a lot of anxiety. So the events will remain a space for under 35s to network for the foreseeable future.
The membership is age-agnostic – anyone can join. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not because I’m getting older! Somebody joined the membership at 34 and they were like ‘what happens next year?’ It seemed really weird that we’d have to kick them out! From a commercial point of view, stopping someone paying you money is not a great idea, but also – what if they need that support? Just because you’re over 35 doesn’t mean you won’t need help.
We decided that the Yena subscription would be for ambitious rebels – if anyone feels they fit that demographic, they’re welcome to join us.
What has accepting sponsorship allowed you to do?
We connect future industry leaders with brands that want to reach them. But only the brands that we feel are appropriate – I’m not going to be pitching a super corporate company. There’s no trust built that way.
Brands get to reach our audience through our events – and the people they reach are highly engaged and early adopters by nature. They’re either smashing it or about to smash it in business or they represent amazing talent you could employ.
We have 4 or 5 different companies coming on board out of 10 or 15 sectors we could cover, paying us as brand partners for work we’re essentially already doing. We’re not just about taking a quick buck – we’re about growth. There are millions of people who need our support, so we’ll be investing sponsorship money into growing the team, proving the product, building new products, and scaling.
Without sponsorship we’d be a nice little lifestyle business but that money will help us grow to be much more exciting.
How will Yena meet the business needs of the future?
The two things that are coming soon both excite and scare me because we need funding when we’ve never raised funding before. People have offered to invest in the past and I’ve declined because we didn’t need or want it – but we might need to soon.
First, it feels like there should be some kind of gamification to the startup experience. When I go for a run I use Strava or Nike Running I get little ‘well dones’ for going further or beating my personal best. Nothing does that in business. The only thing that encourages you is a coach or non-executive director and those cost a ton of money. Why isn’t there some kind of platform that could give you that experience?
‘We want to make business support timely to the point of being instant, accessible to anyone anywhere.’
The second challenge is that we’re a data company and we don’t collect data. Every member of our community – all 3.5k of them – have a city, a team, a turnover, a sector, a challenge – and that’s stuff we don’t know about right now. Which is probably good given GDPR changes! But now we can start as we mean to go on. To get that data we need to give a compelling reason for collecting that data and maybe our gamification platform could be that compelling reason.
Ultimately, we want to make business support timely to the point of being instant, accessible to anyone anywhere. What if that support could be accessed using digital codes and delivered using a chatbot? When we pair that bot system with that gamification platform, it could pop up and say something like ‘you’re 5k away from your target this month, how can we help you reach it?’ It could say ‘let me help you put aside money for your next employee’ or ‘your VAT payments are due’.
That’s where I see us heading and it’s exciting. And very reasonable for £9 a month, I think.
Join a membership community with game-changing benefits on the Yena website.