Interview with entrepreneur Tom Wakefield, Cotswold TV
- Credit: Andrew Higgins©Thousand Word Media
Entrepreneur Tom Wakefield dreamed of being self-employed when he was nine. Three decades on, he’s living the dream with his in-demand production company Cotswold TV
Computers, back in the day, were massive, weren’t they? Great beige behemoths, crouched back-to-back, crammed side-by-side on long desks in computer science labs.
When I was at school, IT hadn’t even been invented. And so, to prepare us for the 21st century, we spent an hour a week, slowly, laboriously typing one-one-fingered commands on Microsoft Word and trying to figure out how to make Excel add up.
We’d been trying to explain this to our seven-year-old the night before I meet up with Tom Wakefield at his Cotswold cottage.
Just up the hill from the splendid Rendcomb College, this long, low, handsome honey-coloured house which looks out over rolling farmland is the nerve centre for Cotswold TV.
Tom is a rare breed. He knew, aged nine, precisely what he wanted to do for a living. And three decades on, he’s still doing it, all thanks to those BBC Micros.
At Kingshill School in Cirencester, Tom was pretty good at computers - at a time when people simply weren’t.
“I always wanted to be self-employed,” says Tom, endlessly energetic and full of fun - helped by his wife Rowena and angelic 14-month-old daughter Ariya who is busy devouring scrambled egg with granny while we talk.
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“I didn’t know doing what. But my father was self-employed and ran a bakery, and so I decided all I wanted to do was work for myself, because Dad seemed to be quite a good promoter of that.”
In the days before websites, Tom’s dad Colin ran The Old Bakehouse in Malmesbury and delivered bread to 40 pubs and hotels. And so Tom - ever attuned to a business opportunity - started designing and printing laminated menus and business cards for the owners.
“The best thing was, I was doing all the printing at school,” laughs Tom. “During lunch, I’d go up into the computer room and this very nice lady who used to work in reprographics used to help me print all the menus and laminate them, and I’d give them to dad the following morning.”
He was 15 and, he says, it was one of the most profitable jobs he’s ever done. The teenage entrepreneur called his brand Furry Feet Studios and it quickly morphed from creating menus into a web design company with clients he has kept to this day. Except now he makes videos for them. Tom quickly tired of A-levels at Cirencester College - particularly business studies, which he says was too fixated on “Japanese laws of management” and not enough on helping him complete his tax return. For his design A-level, he built a motor show stand, complete with brochure and multi-media presentation on a TV screen.
“I remember my teacher saying, ‘Tom, this is brilliant. Completely off-brief and not relevant. And so you’ll get a C because you haven’t done what you’ve been asked to do. But I can see your plan is to use it as an example to get a job.”
It’s Tom’s ability to spot the next big thing that has kept Cotswold TV business at the top of its game for so long. Behind his relaxed, easy-going exterior is an extraordinarily agile business mind - an entrepreneur with a flair for vision and sound.
“What I’ve tried to do is move with whatever people are doing,” says Tom, 36. “To move into whatever the latest craze was. I’d always had a love of video, so for example when YouTube became popular, I’d make YouTube films, especially animations.
“As a kid, one of my favourite things to do was animate little cartoon characters made of Plasticine figures with a voice-over, a bit like Wallace & Gromit.
“A lot of what I did as a kid was leading me to what I do now. It’s only now, technology, that’s allowing me to reach those goals I had when I was nine.”
To that end, he’s recently made a superhero cartoon for Target Catering in Gloucester, promoting its induction hob with a flying 3D character. But he also works with £100m global businesses like Corin in Cirencester - the medical device tech giant - Renishaw, Creed Fooservice, the RSPCA, BP. His clients are a Who’s Who of the UK’s best-known firms, and yet he still works with schools, charities and community groups.
Where once Cotswold TV focused on community events, making its money from sponsorship - a business model akin to terrestrial TV advertising - the brand now operates more in the corporate sphere, bringing businesses to life on film.
Think videos on websites, the Cotswold Life Food & Drink and EMI Awards. And even a Deadpool baking special.
Cotswold TV’s clients are ever-expanding, jobs ever-evolving thanks to technology like green screens - think a Sky News set in your sitting room - which Tom uses for news broadcasts from high-profile events like Badminton Horse Trials and instructional videos for businesses keen to update staff on their latest company news in an engaging, time-efficient way.
It’s this ‘storytelling approach’ that Tom is keen to do more of.
He’s also just finished a time-lapse film for leading grower Agralan in Ashton Keynes, a slow-motion record of a seed germinating. For it, he set up a 48 mega pixel camera in his utility room and banned the family from going in for a week so as not to alter the light.
Other jobs are faster. The day John Lewis released its Elton John piano-playing Christmas ad, Tom immediately shot a film of Ariya playing a toy piano stocked by his Oxfordshire client The Piano Gallery. It went wild.
Another new venture, and one of which he’s justifiably proud, is making documentaries.
He’s recently completed one for Michael Quinn, grandson of Jaguar founder Sir William Lyons featuring his daughter Pat Appleyard, a formidable, 91-year-old former rally driver.
Called DNA Jaguar, viewers see the pair tearing up Shelsley Walsh Hillclimb in Worcestershire in a vintage Jag, Pat ticking off her son for crunching the gears.
“When I see clients, my role is to come in and turn their thought processes into a film,” he says. “I take what they’re thinking and put my spin on it. Clients seem to like it because they get to speak to the guy who’s been making the content for the past 20 years.”