Gary Martin has extensive professional experience within the events industry, beginning work as a DJ in 1981. Eight years later, Gary set up his own company, Zap, which provided DJs for events across the UK.

After establishing himself as a successful supplier of DJs to the corporate events market, Gary then began to build props and themed items to be hired-out alongside DJs. His skill at developing unique table centre designs prompted him to found Table Art in 2007.

Since its launch in 2011 the company has experienced rapid growth and seen Dragon’s Den panelist Hilary Devey become a principal investor in the company, and its chairman.

Q: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

A: Yes, from a very young age I was keen to develop my own business. My father has always worked for himself and encouraged me to do the same. I set up my first business when I was about 12 years old. It was called Junior Auto Wash Service (JAWS for short). I designed and produced leaflets and distributed them all around the area where I lived. I soon had my evenings and weekends filled up with car-washing and I was making some great pocket money! I even took on my best friend as an employee.

Q: How did you develop the idea for Table Art?

A: On leaving school I became a DJ and quickly moved into supplying the corporate events market with discos. From there, my company started manufacturing and supplying room theming. It occurred to me that the space in the centre of dining tables was underused, and as an area that was directly in front of guests’ eyes, I felt that we could utilise table centres to create a cost efficient but dramatic effect. Balloons had been very popular but were starting to become dated and the only alternative was flowers - beautiful but not necessarily inspiring or modern.

The technology was just about in place to develop radio-controlled battery operated lights for the centrepieces, plus our website had been optimised for the phrase “table centres”. It all came together at the same time and seemed a natural direction to take.

Q: How difficult was it to transform your idea into a viable business?

A: We already had a good client base and it wasn’t difficult to show them the advantages of using table centres to create a big impact at their events. I also had the experience to know what would work so I was confident that Table Art was going to be a success, however I had to make the decision to invest in quite a lot of equipment so that we could make our own products. I felt this was vital to maintain efficiency and quality. I also spent quite a lot of time and money on our website to steer clients towards our new products.

Q: Following your appearance on Channel 5’s The Business Inspector, you received investment from now Dragon’s Den panellist, Hilary Devey. How did the business change following this investment?

A: Hilary Devey’s investment has enabled us to expand at a much faster rate. We have been able to draw on her experienced accounts and legal teams as well as take advantage of her own invaluable business growth advice. Hilary loves and understands the product and shares my vision for the future. We are now looking at a number of international licences which will take the concept worldwide.

Q: You’ve said that despite the economic downturn, Table Art is bucking the trend with orders in September and November 2011 up 50 percent compared to the equivalent months in 2010, while October’s orders were up 25 percent on last year. How have you been able to achieve this?

A: This year our growth is running at around 100 percent. Some people might think our products are luxury items but, because they are illuminated, they actually reduce the need for other more expensive room lighting and props. As such, it is possible to create a huge impact but with much lower costs, which in this economic climate is obviously appealing to our clients.

Q: Do you think SMEs are to play an important part in the recovery of the British economy? If so, why?

A: I think SMEs are often where world-changing ideas originate. The UK has always been known for great design and I think that small scale, high quality manufacturing is returning to this country and will help the UK to get back on its feet.

Q: In what ways does Table Art make sustainable business choices?

A: Table Art is proud to have produced items which greatly reduce an event’s carbon footprint. We have installed solar panels on our workshop and all batteries are charged from the sun’s natural power. We also use highly efficient LED lights with lithium batteries and are continually refining our products, making them more efficient to transport and package. Moreover, we have created a table centre made out of 100 percent recycled materials.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about working in the events industry?

A: I enjoy the fact that we are in an ever-changing environment. I love creating new designs using the latest technology and that this industry is full of enthusiastic people who are keen to embrace new ideas. I get to meet so many interesting people and go to some fascinating places, particularly now that we are looking to expand internationally.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced while running the business?

A: One of the biggest challenges is maintaining a flexible, high quality event crew. Keeping them productive when we have experienced quiet periods, but also coping with the enormous work load and long hours in busier times is a difficult balance. With our current growth, we need to expand the crew but also ensure that they are well-trained to maintain our very high standards.

Q. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs currently starting a business?

A. My advice would be to ensure you have a definite unique selling point. It is difficult to go into an existing market if you are offering something that is already available unless you have something new to offer. It is also important to have focus and specialise in a specific area where at all possible - don’t waste time and energy trying to be all things to all people.

Q: How do you maintain a work/life balance?

A: I do try to spend time with my family doing things that help me to relax. It is not always simple or even possible when starting up a business, but things do tend to become easier once the business is up and running. It is important to ensure things are organised properly to enable some time off occasionally.

Q: What has been your proudest moment when running the business so far?

A: There have been many proud moments during my career but seeing my designs on the tables at the MOBO Awards last year, which were broadcast on the BBC, was amazing. The TV cameras kept focusing on the stunning effects we created using the remote controlled lights and my phone didn’t stop ringing with friends and colleagues congratulating me. It has led to more bookings for televised award ceremonies this year.

Q: What are your plans for the business going forward?

A: Our immediate plans are international expansion with worldwide business partners. I am also working on new technology that will completely change the way events are lit.