Jonny Cadden was the man with a dream to stage a tech event in Manchester that would be heard all over the planet. Business Rocks may have cost £700k to stage – and left him with £100k+ of personal debt - but he couldn’t be happier and says the journey has only just started. Chris Maguire looks at how the story unfolded.

About 18 months ago I met Jonny Cadden for the first time. We had a coffee in Philpotts sandwich shop at the bottom of Manchester’s imposing City Tower.

I thought I was a quick talker, but I was nothing compared to Cadden. If the National Grid could tap into his energy levels then the lights would never go out.

He ran a recruitment business called Fluid but the purpose of the meeting was to discuss his plans to create a global technology and investment conference in Manchester with a headline speaker that would attract thousands of attendees.

If a thought bubble had appeared from my head at precisely that moment it would have said: “Yeah, right.”

I wasn’t alone in my scepticism. How could one person deliver an event of this size and scale with no track record of doing so?

Business Rocks

I told Cadden that he would be judged on his ability (or inability) to deliver the first event.

“I know,” was the gist of his reply. “I’m putting everything on the line for this.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He booked Manchester Central for the two-day festival on April 21/22, 2016, and got a secured loan against his house to pay for headline speaker Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple.

In the months that followed Cadden visited virtually every tech entrepreneur in Manchester in search of investment, without success.

“You’ve got to admire his b*lls,” was how one wealthy businessman described him after they met. “I just worry that he’s taking on more than he can chew.”

Steve Wozniak on stage at Business Rocks

Although his passion was undeniable the problem was nobody would invest - until Manchester businessman Scott Fletcher stepped in at the 11th hour and pumped in a six-figure sum.

The founder and chairman of ANS is a well-known angel investor and admirer of entrepreneurs willing to take a risk, much as he did himself at the age of 22 when he founded his own business from his back bedroom.

Fletcher’s (pictured, right, with Cadden, left, and Wozniak) mentoring extended beyond offering financial help and the two turned up on the first day in virtually matching outfits!

Jonny Cadden, Steve Wozniak and Scott Fletcher

Manchester-based events specialist Wolfe, run by managing director Laura Wolfe, came on board to deliver Business Rocks.

Fast forward 18 months from our first meeting and Cadden is still “buzzing”. Business Rocks has been and gone and the 36-year-old has just come out of a meeting with a Hong Kong investor who flew over to Manchester for the event.

“We are now negotiating to create the global brand that we always dreamed of,” says Cadden.

“We are looking to do a UK event next year then are exploring the idea of Hong Kong later in 2017 so we can build on our strong links with the Asian tech corridor."

Cadden is busy reviewing the performance of Business Rocks, which was attended by nearly 3,000 people.

Business Rocks

I was in the audience for Wozniak’s hour-long interview and it was standing room only.

If I was being ultra-critical I didn’t think the questions from the interviewer (Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard) told us anything new about Wozniak but there’s no denying the 1,000+ crowd sat transfixed as the legend shared his memories of Steve Jobs, his thoughts on artificial intelligence and his predictions on the future of technology.

Wozniak’s view that all companies, including Apple, should pay a 50 per cent tax rate made headlines on the BBC and around the world while he was also featured in the Sky tech show Swipe with presenter Gemma Morris.

 

“I am over £100,000 in personal debt with this business but I have followed my dreams and my passion,” he says.

“We have created something totally unique for Manchester and the amazing entrepreneurs that love the city. This is just the start.

"The risk is worth it for the magic we created. Events like this tend to lose money in the early years, hence the need for investment.”

Cadden admits that only attracting funding 14 days before the event was problematic.

“Some of the city have backed this project and supported me from the start,” he says.

“Others did not want to risk reputations. I can understand that as people knew we had no funding and track record.”

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With that in mind he says the backing of Fletcher was pivotal. “Scott was essential to the project happening,” he says.

“He took a very big risk, knowing all the facts.  Even with his cash investment it was still far from a guaranteed success – there was a lot to do to make the event a success.

“When Scott joined the business the city rapidly believed in the project. From day one everyone in the city felt it was too big, too ambitious with no track record, so it was essential to get a ‘Dragon’ on board that would instantly add that credibility.

Steve Wozniak selfie at Business Rocks

“There were a lot of factors that could have seen the event fail. Laura Wolfe’s involvement was a big factor in us pulling the event off.

“Everything comes back to cashflow and funding. The overall event cost me £700,000 but until I got investment on board I was holding off a tidal wave of suppliers and contractors. I was constantly driving to meetings trying to put these deals together and I knew that everything was on the line.

“That’s pressure, but I couldn’t give it up. When Scott got involved it changed. It was not a normal business, event or situation.

"If we had a proper marketing budget and a team and backing from the start, we would have smashed 5,000 people.”

Looking back, Cadden lists his highlights as opening the London Stock Exchange and picking up Steve Wozniak in a convertible Rolls Royce.

Steve Wozniak arrives at Business Rocks in a convertible Rolls Royce

He describes Wozniak’s performance on the first day of Business Rocks as ‘amazing’. 

“I was sat with friends, my long-suffering fiancée Emma and Scott on the bean bags,” he recalls. “It was surreal.

“If I reflect on the event as a whole the opening party was not that well attended but that’s life. The KPMG two nights of roof top drinks were absolutely amazing with live acoustic and some awesome people from all over the world.

"The VIP hotel party was very special with live bands downstairs, DJs on the roof, poet Longfella and a stunning live acoustic performance. It was so full we had to turn people away.”

 

Cadden is already busy planning Business Rocks 2017 and he’s thinking big.

“We now have funding, track record and global reach,” he says.

“We can achieve anything. We have all the media contacts and a line of tier one software vendors who want to partner with us. 2017 is going to be off the scale.

“We achieved the impossible without key figures in the city on board and everyone thinking I was crazy. We now have the complete backing of the city and everyone is very excited and optimistic about the future of the event. The possibilities are unlimited.

“We have now had further investment from Garry Partington, of Apadmi and RealityMine.

Garry Partington of RealityMine

"His influence and connections in the mobile world are exactly what we need to take this thing to where it needs to be.

“This will be the biggest tech and music festival in the UK, emerging as the gateway for inward investment into Europe.

"Nothing will come close.”