How It All Began.

The Birth of The Eleven.

Rob O'Donovan
Jul 22, 2014 · 5 min read

It started nearly eight years ago. On a bench with Ben (my long suffering business partner and best mate) outside a library taking a break from exam revision. I wish it was more glamorous, to be honest…

We always had an imagination, and would often follow wherever it took us buoyed by brash teenage bravado and enough naivete not to know better. As sixteen year old guys, our lives revolved largely around attempting to do two things… get beer and get girls. Preferably in that order as girls were pretty scary.

With that in mind, nightclubs beckoned. Recognising that many of our peers shared similar adolescent ambitions that were (more often than not) left grossly unfulfilled, we convinced a London club to open on a half-term Monday for an underage, “alcohol free” night. We negotiated payment terms so the first bills only arrived 4 weeks in advance, then roped in our mates at schools across town to shift tickets quickly so we had the cash to meet deadlines for the first chunk of payments.

On October 21st 2007 — a good 18 months on from that day on the bench — we stuffed a South London club full of 500 teenagers, raised a considerable sum for charity and caught the entrepreneurial bug that, for better or worse, we’ve never been able to shake. We had poured our entire selves into it, and watching others get so much enjoyment from something we created was an addictive thrill. The high was immense — and the consequent low once it finished agonising — so there was only one way to move forward… do it all again.

Over the next few years we ran numerous events — from club nights and gigs to private parties and tents at festivals — and were gripped by the adventure of building our own business and brand. As the network grew we had grand plans… magazines, members clubs, a clothing line etc. Ignorance was the fuel. What we lacked in experience, we made up for with unreasonable conviction, imagination and obsession.

As our friends left school to travel the world before university, we stayed at home absorbed in our own plans. We shuffled around London meeting whoever would listen to our tall stories and took guidance from anyone who would help, either through intrigue or, perhaps more likely, pity. We were shifting between each of our family homes leaving a trail of scrap in our wake. God bless the love and patience of our parents. It was a messy, disorganised rabble of shambolic ambition — and it was wholly, immersively exciting.

By this point, the majority of our adventures were sponsored by brands who wanted access to our audience. It was clear that these great businesses — the likes of MTV and Nintendo, without whose early support we would likely not be around today — needed to understand and engage with an emerging generation of savvy, digitally fluent consumers, and we had what they needed.

There was no genius or brilliance to our game. We simply knew about young people because, well, we were nineteen. We knew what they loved and hated, what they wanted from their world and what they aspired to give back to it. We knew what they were listening to, what they wore and what drugs they were taking. We understood their aspirations, challenges and frustrations — because we shared them too. Frankly, it was fairly straightforward, but all this information had a value and a clear market who were keen to pay for it…

Soon, we found ourselves in adland, having conversations with brands and their agencies about the world in which we were growing up. We loved the ideas, we loved the opportunities and, more than anything, we loved being listened to. YOUTH was born out of The Eleven and we left the clubs behind us (whilst we were now old enough to get beer, we still hadn’t worked out how to get girls — perhaps it was the haircuts). We were suddenly “an agency”, without the faintest idea what that meant.

Simultaneously, and through circumstances we now consider fate, Ben and I both ended up at university round the corner from each other in London. We had yet to win the argument that uni would be a pointless experience (though not without trying, as my parents will vouch)… so excited about the vision we had for our business, and convinced that a degree would be an immeasurable waste of time, I reluctantly enrolled.

Three years of tenuous dedication and casual class attendance later, I eventually scraped through the academics without completely embarrassing myself (though not without a few tantrums along the way) and with thanks to some extraordinarily good mates who helped me out when the going got tough. Rule number one: make friends with clever people.

Nonetheless, we had an epic three years. We did heaps of exciting work for brilliant brands, met some awesome people and had a shed load of fun. We invited several talented believers to join us full time and rented our first (tiny!) office. We felt like kings (and probably acted that way sometimes). We launched BORN SOCIAL to help challenger brands outsmart the big guys online. We made a ton of mistakes, were found miserably out of our depth on a daily basis and learnt more about business, ourselves and our ambitions than we ever could have expected. On leaving uni behind us, we were a team of five and had the foundations and vision for a bright future.

As I write this, exactly 2 years to the day from the graduation ceremony I never attended (sorry, Mum), we’re a team of twenty two across three different business — we launched creative design and development studio making pretty early in 2014. We’re growing quickly, forever learning fast and on a road to everywhere but nowhere. Today we launch our plan for the next decade.

The last eight years have been one hell of a ride, and we dedicate them in their entirety to all the people that have helped us get there. They’ve been the most exciting, terrifying and bonkers years of my life — and it’s been perfect.

Time for Elevenses

In the UK, “elevenses” is similar to afternoon tea, but taken in the morning. In the US, it’s a custom of a late-morning whiskey . We prefer the latter, but whatever your preference, enjoy yours with some thoughts, views and updates from @TheEleven.

    Rob O'Donovan

    Written by

    Co-Founder & CEO @JoinCharlie, Co-Founder @TheEleven. Tweet @rjodonovan .

    Time for Elevenses

    In the UK, “elevenses” is similar to afternoon tea, but taken in the morning. In the US, it’s a custom of a late-morning whiskey . We prefer the latter, but whatever your preference, enjoy yours with some thoughts, views and updates from @TheEleven.