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Managed Networks: delivering safe, efficient IT solutions to the West End and beyond

Venue operators in Theatreland are far removed from the world in which their venues first saw light, and while the digital era has delivered enhanced financial and admin systems, it has also brought with it the attendant risk of cyber crime. Specialist IT provider Managed Networks is on a mission to help the industry tackle this threat…

For the audience, theatre remains a resolutely analogue experience. Behind the scenes, however, the theatre world has been through a profound digital transition. West End theatre is no longer the domain of the flamboyant auteur carried from success to failure and back again on a wave of champagne, cigarettes and passion. Nowadays it’s big business, and, like the rest of the corporate world, it depends on efficient, computerised operation.

It’s not just about selling tickets on the internet; most West End venues are now owned by one of a small number of big groups, each of which has all the IT requirements of any large-scale business: marketing, health and safety, finance, staff admin and so forth.

As Theatreland has gone through this change, one company you’ve never heard of has provided the know-how and the technology to support it. Over the last 15 years, Managed Networks has come to be the IT provider to more than 75% of the West End, and the leading provider of IT to live entertainment.

“What we do is the dull stuff that keeps these increasingly corporate businesses functioning efficiently and safely,” says chief executive and founder of Managed Networks, Ben Rapp. “What we ask is for the customer to tell us their IT requirements and let us then work out how best to meet those needs.

“Sometimes you have to help companies sort the real priorities from the surface dressing – they might think shinier laptops will make it all better, but often it’s less exciting stuff that’s really getting in their way. The big advantage of our DesktopLive all-inclusive IT product is that we’ve put together an end-to-end solution that we know delivers what the customer needs. We own every part of it and take full responsibility for its support, efficiency and maintenance. The customer is able to transfer all responsibility to us, including security.”

Managed Networks grew out of Rapp’s long-standing interest in computing – he’d even done some commercial software testing work in his teens. He started his first business while still at university, mixing academic studies in French and philosophy with the grittier realities of writing financial accounting systems for a major corporate.

By the time he returned to London, the business had already taken on a life of its own, with work ranging from managing the IT for Kiss FM to designing safety-critical software for London Underground. In the 1990s, Rapp focused the business, then called Information Structures, on software development. The work, and the money, was in financial services and the business grew strongly on the back of a focus on private equity.

“It was very rewarding, but also a narrow field, and you lived from project to project,” he says. Rapp wanted to develop something that would have a more consistent revenue stream, so he compared the quality of the computer systems at the large businesses his firm worked for with those at smaller outfits.

The difference was glaring. “I felt there was a real opportunity to bring structure and quality to IT for smaller companies, using what we’d learned working with global corporations”.

The idea – a fixed-cost IT management service for small and medium-sized enterprises – was an immediate success, and after only a few years the software development business had been sidelined and Managed Networks was the main focus.

“We were still mainly working in financial services. It’s a high-pressure, demanding environment – a great learning experience, but not necessarily all that fun,” he says.

Then Managed Networks started to pick up clients from the theatre, notably Delfont Mackintosh and Nimax. After a decade of dealing with the high-stress environment of financial services, Rapp actively opted for a client base in the more congenial environment of the performing arts.

“As my family grew, I decided that I could do without working with the demanding side of financial services,” he says. “I wanted to enjoy my client meetings and to be able to go home to my family at the end of the working day. The thing about theatre professionals is that they are fundamentally decent people, they don’t think they are better than you, and they know how to work together on complex projects.

“Let’s be clear, though – one of the things that’s happened over the last decade is the corporatisation of the West End theatre, which is now dominated by four or five major groups: Delfont Mackintosh, Really Useful, Nimax, Ambassador Theatre Group and Nederlander – all very grown-up management teams. So when you are trying to sell something to the West End now you are likely to come up against pragmatic business people for whom the money is as important as the art. But at least the art also matters.”

With computer hackers proliferating at an alarming rate, ensuring the security of their systems has become something of an obsession for Rapp and Managed Networks.

“At the moment the level of concern about cyber security in the entertainment industry is not high enough,” says Ben unequivocally. “The main threat used to be that the kit would break. Now that the kit works, the main issue is some kind of cyber-security breach. The attackers are becoming ever more sneaky and ingenious.

“Most of us pay for our tickets through payment card transactions, which are governed by the PCI-DSS, a commercial cyber-security standard that has been largely ignored for years. Now, all of a sudden, people are taking more notice of it and banks are urging companies to comply with it. If you don’t have a well-managed, properly monitored, secure and stable IT platform in the first place, it’s a lot of work complying with the PCI-DSS, never mind actually being secure.

“What we really want is for people to care about cyber security more broadly. That said, our DesktopLive platform is more secure than anything they will build for themselves, which is a key part of the value we offer.”

Such is Managed Networks’ mission to educate the theatre industry in avoiding the pitfalls that the company holds free seminars on cyber security. The next one is at the Soho Hotel (4 Richmond Mews, London W1D 3DH) at 3pm on Thursday, March 23.

“It is non-technical, aimed at senior management. You’ll learn what you need to know about the risks out there and where you need to start,” says Ben. “You absolutely should be frightened about the risks from cyber crime, but it can be managed and we’ll show you how.”

Q&A: Ben Rapp, CEO, Managed Networks

When did you first get interested in the theatre? 

I did a lot of acting at school and university. I was never good enough to think about becoming an actor although we did transfer a student production of Vlad the Impaler to the Old Red Lion in Islington, London.

Did you ever consider a career in the theatre?

Just at the end of my time as a student I produced a translation of an avant-garde Russian play at the Man in the Moon Theatre in Chelsea. It was a catastrophic disaster. I lost my shirt and the experience put me off producing very effectively. There are only so many things you can do in a day, and I was trying to run a business and have a life at the same time. I still get asked to invest, but I’m not brave enough. Managed Networks was a founder patron of Stage One, and we sponsored the WhatsOnStage Awards for three years; now we’re sponsoring The Stage award for London theatre of the year. I don’t see myself attempting to produce again! You need a better ability to understand what people will pay to see than I have.

What sort of shows do you enjoy seeing?

I’d pay to see Mark Rylance or Michael Gambon read the phonebook. I like intense performance at close range. All my best experiences have been at low-tech shows where it’s all about the performance.

Why do you think theatre matters?

Ultimately, for me, theatre is about being in a room with other people watching actors pretending to be somebody else so convincingly that you believe them. It’s about being made to think, being swept along in the moment and having your emotions manipulated. You fall in love with every leading actress if she is any good. You don’t need technology for that.

Is the theatre slower to keep up with IT solutions than other sectors?

Not any more, certainly not in the commercial theatre. These are mid-size companies who understand the benefits of technology and will push for it. It is still a Byzantine system behind the scenes when it comes to buying a theatre ticket but in corporate terms they are at an appropriate point.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I like to spend time with my family – my children are nine and 14. When not with the family, I’m a keen cyclist and bike builder. I cycle to all my meetings in the West End so people are used to see me turning up in a helmet and various states of Lycra. Cycle commuting is more about survival than enjoyment, but out in the countryside you can still have fun. We’re also keen skiers and – obviously – get out to the theatre a fair bit.


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