Small Business

Rewriting the script

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Tony Abrahams has the ideal business model – he is helping people with disabilities while at the same time creating a growing and profitable consulting operation.

Take someone who is so academically strong that he winds up in one of the most prestigious universities in the world and turn him into an entrepreneur. It sounds like an exciting journey, but for Tony Abrahams it was not enough.

Abrahams, a Rhodes Scholar who later became a high-flying markets player, decided that he had a calling for something more important. The result is TAJ Productions and Access Innovation Media. The latter, in particular, promises to improve the life of the hearing impaired – and is developing into a powerful business in the process. In fact, it is already heading in that direction after only two years of operation.

“I started TAJ Productions with my partner Alex Jones, who is an actor and appeared on (Australian drama) All Saints for six months, and he is also deaf from birth,” explains Abrahams.

TAJ is a specialist production and consulting company that helps transform the experience of disability through events such as live theatre and festivals. Together, Abrahams and Jones put on school performances and school tours, and they managed the Deaflympic Cultural Festival, which Melbourne hosted in 2005.

They also guide corporations on how to ready themselves and better serve disabled customers. Through this consultancy arm of the business, the pair have created a very profitable relationship.

“One of our first clients for AIMedia was Foxtel,” Abrahams recalls. “They were looking at how they could introduce closed captioning when they introduced their digital service.”

Closed captioning refers to program subtitles for the deaf or the hearing impaired. They are closed in the sense that not everyone sees them; they are an option for Foxtel subscribers and many free-to-air viewers.

“Most of us don’t want to read along with a program but 10 per cent of Australians have a hearing impediment,” Abrahams points out. “And a large percentage of those prefer to watch television with captions. And if you are clinically deaf, it is the only way you can access television effectively.”

So why does a highly qualified Commerce graduate with an honours degree in finance accounting from the University of New South Wales choose a community-responsible business such as AIMedia?

Abrahams takes up the story: “My partner, Alex, who was born deaf and is a classically trained actor, is a very inspiring person, and it is quite difficult to get acting work in Australia if you’re deaf. If we didn’t have a go at business he might have ended up waiting on tables like so many other actors. So we went into Foxtel, as we knew they were under an obligation to introduce closed captioning when they launched the digital service. They didn’t know how to do it and we did.”

The basic legal proposition that created an opportunity for AIMedia is that all manner of organisations must provide goods and services for people with disabilities, covering the gamut from things such as wheelchair ramps to closed captioning. Smaller businesses are sometimes exempt, but a big outfit such as Foxtel is expected to conform.

TAJ launched in January 2003 and nine months later AIMedia started as an offshoot on the basis that there was room for another player in the market to oppose the incumbent, the Australian Caption Centre, which does most of the subtitles for free-to-air television channels.

Abrahams and Jones believed they could provide a cheaper solution for a multi-channel platform such as Foxtel, and the pay-TV operator agreed.

“Starting from a clean slate gave us an advantage and the Australian Caption Centre stood to prejudice their existing markets by quoting lower prices to get the Foxtel business,” Abrahams explains. “We also offered a lot of flexibility to Foxtel.”

A side benefit for AIMedia was its ability to negotiate office space in the Foxtel building. This doubled as a desirable risk management option for the 10 Foxtel channels that AIMedia serves.

In a sense, the business growth around closed captioning has been cleverly orchestrated as Abrahams was initially just an adviser to Foxtel. He advised the network to do its own closed captioning; luckily for Abrahams the broadcaster did not want to own another cost centre, so they asked him to tender for it. It was an offer that could not be refused and the decision was made to start a captioning company.

AIMedia offers closed captioning services for 10 of the 20 channels on Foxtel, but the potential for growth is significant given there are now 100 channels available for the intrepid Australian television addict, though many programs (such as Fox News) come in from overseas already captioned.

“We now have a staff of eight and we have a number of offsite captioners,” Abrahams says. “Captioning is quite a skill and we have some of the best.”

On the potential of the business, Abrahams is upbeat.

“We are probably the only organisation of our type in the world determined to bring the full value equation for our customers. We assist them with the marketing of the captioning service and we also get feedback from subscribers on what they want captioned next. And we also investigate business cases for increasing captioning, which means it could effectively pay for itself through higher subscriber numbers.”

The strategy is to set a price that helps build long-term relationships with all of the channels because of the potential large audience and the relatively low cost of captioning.

“We have cut the cost of captioning by about 65 per cent,” Abrahams says. “And we are very fast – our customers ask us to caption a tape and not long after we can say, ‘It’s captioned’.”

AIMedia looks after the hearing impaired who tune into Fox 8, Arena, The LifeStyle Channel, TV1, Hallmark, Movie One and other well-known channels.

All of this is a far cry from the life Tony Abrahams led before going into business, and he admits as a younger man there were not any obvious signs that he would end up being his own man in the corporate world. Dig deeper, however, and there were signs that an entrepreneur was waiting to burst out.

“Before this I was on a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford and did an M.Phil in Economics and then an MBA. And while doing the MBA, I also worked with the Balliol College to set up the Oxford Internet Institute.”

The institute was the world’s first multi-disciplinary internet operation, and looks at the social, economic and political implications of the internet on society.

“We raised £15 million for that and it now has 30 or 40 employees and (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair has applauded it as a truly independent think-tank.”

With nine years at university, Abrahams realised that thinking about economically lofty issues really did not excite him, while building and creating something did. That said, the lure of a life as an employee prevailed before he set out on his own venture.

“I worked for a year with Rubicon Partners, a small hedge fund manager, and sat in front of a Bloomberg screen for six months buying and selling things and did well. But the career path it projected was not something I wanted to get out of bed for.”

Looking back, Abrahams realises he was programmed to look for the challenge and creativity of running a business. He is enamoured with the nature of the work in which he is currently involved.

“I passionately believe in the work of the companies I have started,” he says.

While the foray into his two businesses is driven by a passion to do something emotionally worthwhile, Abrahams’s accounting background would not allow him to roll up the shutter on his business without some planning and projections.

“We knew what result we wanted,” he says. “Low-cost captioning solutions – scalable for the subscription TV market in a manner that would maximise the amount of captioning on the platform for a given cost. This would benefit hard-of-hearing viewers and also channels and platforms.”

(Abrahams had done management consulting and had had a stint at accounting firm Arthur Andersen, so it was expected that his union of hardnosed business principles with his passionate desire to build a socially valuable business was bound to produce a positive result.)

Abrahams and Jones did not sound out external experts for guidance. The Foxtel connection meant the operation began in close consultation with their prospective clients and gave the pair surety about the likely prospects of the fledgling operation.

On the big lessons he has learnt about business on the job, like many of our other entrepreneurs in this book, Abrahams instantly focuses on having the right people.

“Make sure you employ the person who is right for the job,” he insists. “There are great people, but that is not enough. You need to find the person-job fit and when you have it, the organisation will sing. Without it, you have a major problem.”

Along the way, Abrahams believes people change as the responsibilities of being an entrepreneur start to sink in.

“You learn to trust your instincts,” he says. “To be confident in the face of resistance to change and to persevere is important. Also, you must also be open to new ideas as new information comes to hand.”

While the entrepreneurial trip can be lonely, AIMedia’s launch as a partnership means Abrahams has known from the outset that his business dream depends  on colleagues, as well as family and friends who helped fund the concept.

“Without partners and funders, it is just a dream,” he says. “But it not only converted a dream into reality – it also added discipline, accountability and perspective.”

Support from others, in that they shared his vision, gave Abrahams a confidence boost that convinced him that he could make it happen.

University life has also played its part in his business success, with Abrahams saying the impact has been “immense”. University study has taught him to solve problems using a framework and he has noticed that others he has worked with who have not had such training sometimes look lost because they lack structure.

“The hard and soft skills I learned in all of my business study applied each and every day in the job,” he says. “It provides a framework and a depth of experience.  The innumerable case studies encountered with my MBA that I have pored over actually are paying off.”

Abrahams cannot see his business ever being big enough to justify an IPO. It is not just that he is underestimating his own ability to build a business good enough to publicly list. No, he says, he would hate to see a business that is doing so many things to help people be at the mercy of an economically driven board that is overly concerned with shareholder value.

He simply won’t hear of it.

A business balancing act

With no real track record in the closed captioning business, Tony Abrahams and Alex Jones had to rely on a newly created network when they launched TAJ Productions.

It has proved vital in the success of the business.

“When you are a new player, the only currency you have is trust,” Abrahams says. “What your network gives you is that trust. For those outside your network, trust must be built, which takes time.”

He cites no outstanding individual as a source of inspiration, but Abrahams believes his current and former colleagues and friends have been powerful influences that have driven him to make the business work.

To make it happen, life is soon overwhelmed by the business imperative, which means the life-work balance gets way out of alignment. Abrahams, however, believes he has a special situation that makes the business-building time tolerable.

“When building the business, there really wasn’t any ‘balance’, but if you enjoy the work it doesn’t become a chore,” he says.

“My partner and family are also involved in the business, which helps.”

Published on: Thursday, June 18, 2009

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