Tom Ketley is the founder of FLY Events based in Edinburgh.
FLY was initially a small club night for friends and has now grown into one of the UK’s biggest dance music brands delivering festivals both in Scotland and abroad.
While a career in the nightclubs and the events industry may sound like a dream job for most young people, Tom’s career path wasn’t linear. In fact, he came to Edinburgh to study, with intentions to fulfill a career as a stockbroker. He started working as a promoter to support himself through university and that’s when the original seed was planted for FLY.
Six years later, pre-covid, Tom is running a successful weekly club as well as two annual music festivals that take place in beautiful locations - one under the iconic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle and the other in the grounds of Hopetoun House, Scotland's finest stately home.
But, the main reason FLY is unique is it’s committed approach to supporting local Scottish talent. While it has attracted world-class DJs such as Peggy Gou, Nina Kraviz, Solomun and Sven Vath (to name just a few) it has also served as a springboard for many Scottish acts including Denis Sulta, Jasper James and Theo Kottis who have all gone on to play the likes of Glastonbury, Ibiza & Coachella.
In an effort to learn more about the power of persistence, we asked Tom to tell us about his career journey including the difficulties he had to face, the people that helped him move forward, and why following your passion is important.
The Power of Persistence
Tom’s first contact with the events industry was as a university student in need of a job. He started as a street promoter who handed out wristbands for clubs in Edinburgh and made 50p commission per band. As he became more familiar with the nightlife space, he started to see opportunities to create something himself. He became obsessed with the idea of “running his own night”.
He met roadblocks at the beginning - “every club I tried to contact said no, but eventually I managed to partner with this other promoter, who I suppose was kind of my mentor because he showed me the ropes of how to do it.” In the end, they managed to find a club willing to let them run their own night, and that’s what got the ball rolling, which led to other similar events.
Tom was met with similar roadblocks when trying to get permission to run the first FLY Open Air Festival in Princess Street Gardens, having to get very scrappy when it came to paying for the talent, the clean up and council sign off but ultimately his persistence paid off - leading to the success of FLY.
Learning from Failure
Tom is an advocate for trying to focus your time and energy into doing something you’re good at, but also enjoy.
For instance, he didn’t really start working on FLY as the main project until he graduated from university and tested the waters as a stockbroker. When he couldn’t find the passion in this line of work, he tried an internship at a creative ad agency in London, which also fell through. In the end, he decided to focus on FLY and turn it into the game-changer of his professional life.
“I went back to Edinburgh [after the internship], and that made me think “Screw it, if I’m going to be a club promoter, then I may as well go all out and go for gold!” So that's how that happened.”
Tom told us about the various paths that didn’t work, and the strength required to keep going even when the odds are not in your favour. As he put it, “I’ve done nights where literally zero people turned up, I’ve lost fortunes at times and had countless sleepless nights thinking “what on earth am I doing?!”, but I always stuck with it.
His life philosophy when it comes to every type of difficulty is summed in this phrase: “You should never give up. When I think of everything I’ve failed in the past, never once did I think of quitting. If anything I thought what were the learnings from this, where did I go wrong and what would I not do again - this then gave me more desire to give it another go and vehemently sticking to the don’ts.”
Mentors, Networking, and Giving Back
As he tried navigating his winding career path, Tom was lucky enough to receive advice and support from people he now sees as mentors.
According to him, it’s important to find someone who is already in a similar position to yours. And, when you find them, don’t be shy about asking for their advice. “All they can do is say no but pretty much every time I’ve asked, they have either helped or pointed me in the right direction of who else to ask.”
Tom also emphasised the importance of the network of people he created organically while trying to get FLY on its feet. The genuine connections he made along the way provided support by either participating in events, spreading the word, or providing a helping hand when needed. If you build genuine relationships with people, it’s easier to be direct and ask for what you want in your time of need. It’s important to keep your mind open and always look for opportunities that can help promote your brand and grow organically.
Nowadays, FLY is a powerful brand in dance music, among other things, supports and promotes local musicians. According to Tom, “if you're starting a business it should be about what you're doing and what you want to champion.” Therefore, their biggest success stories came from the people based in Edinburgh who they promoted (DJs like Denis Sulta, Jasper James & Theo Kottis are all residents who both FLY and the artists have benefited from the relationship.)
Always Moving Forward
As Tom himself puts it, he had a lot of failures. But he also learned from each and every one of them and kept moving forward. He went from organizing student nights to owning his own business, and now his brand is expanding overseas.
In hindsight, this progression may seem natural, but when you consider Tom’s position at the beginning (a student with no experience in the entertainment industry) it is amazing how much he has managed to accomplish.
He even told us one of his secrets to success: “I like to write down what I want to do and stick it on my wall so I can see it every day. Then 9 months later you look back and more often than not realise “Wow we actually did that!”.
In the end, it’s all about perseverance, surrounding yourself with the right people and the courage to accept failure as a teaching moment. After that, the opportunities start to create themselves.