6 March 2009

Yesterday I wrote a blog about people power which was really a tribute to the colleagues I work with at UKFast. I was drawn to remember the finals of the EY (Ernst and Young) Entrepreneur of the year awards last year 2008. I remember the process vividly as if it were yesterday. I remember going home from the finalist’s day a little shell shocked.

The two entrepreneurs who interviewed me had both received venture capital funding to help grow their business. For those who are not familiar with the process it is a little like putting your business on steroids. Although the short term gains are noticeable as the injection of cash excites the company members and gives the previous owners more muscle power, the injection of cash comes at a price. There is a new board that is assembled to help guide the rooky MD’s through this new unchartered territory, if there is any sign of someone being out of ones depth, they quickly step in to “help you protect your business.” As you now are a minority share holder or stake holder, you have to sit on the side lines. You will have read such headlines as “such and such stepped down from the board to go travelling” or “to realise their full potential in another area”, or “to follow a life long dream.” These are all polite ways for entrepreneurs to save face in the open market as their noses are publicly put out of joint.

I was very excited to learn that the two entrepreneurs who interviewed me were Dylan Thwaite of Latitude Search Marketing and Simon Nixon of MoneySuperMarket.com

I was excited mainly as I viewed these chaps as bigger and better entrepreneurs than me.

I quickly learned during the interview process that I was not going to win! Both these two incredibly successful entrepreneurs failed to understand why I spent so much time growing people and why I put people so high up on my agenda when discussing my strategy for the future and competitive edge. In fact I probably attributed nearly every successful part of UKFast to the team in some way shape or form. It clearly irritated them which fascinated me. So I turned the question on them, keen to learn what they had done that was so amazing, they talked about corporate strategy and their own leadership skills. They view my lack of “exit strategy” as a weakness in my entrepreneurial gene makeup.

For a nano second I even dared to question my resolve and the way we run the business before openly breaking into a smile from one ear to the other. They were clearly not getting me and thinking “how has this Welsh country bumpkin managed to get this far? And what is he doing here?”

Behind my grin I was thinking “what an earth is the point, if you can’t share the journey with those around you who help get you there?”

They were both right of course. There were formidable entrepreneurs littered around the foyer as we socialised and told each other of our experiences.

It was in the foyer of EY in their Leeds office that 2 young men gravitated towards me. Jason Tavaria and Rob Williams of a business called Dolphin Music. The three of us probably looked a little uncomfortable amongst a room of massive personalities all of whom were trying to make an impression. Even Simon, the biggest of the entrepreneurs there showed his need to stand out in a crowd. Either that or he doesn’t read memos as he turned up in a casual outfit whilst everyone else was suited and booted regardless of their industry.

The 2 young men I met, like me, didn’t win the Entrepreneur of the Year award but in my opinion are true entrepreneurs in every sense. As long standing school friends, they travelled to Liverpool University together and it was there that they started Dolphin Music.

Without VC financial backing these boys built a business in the music equipment sector using the internet as their route to market and they literally revolutionised their very antiquated industry. 100 year plus businesses like Forsyths Brothers were just flattened in their wake.

They had had a similar day and I remember Rob saying he felt “a little violated” by the whole experience.

Ironically companies who win such awards usually have to sacrifice part of the entrepreneurship for the outside investment. Even the best entrepreneurs struggle to build businesses of these sizes without external help. For the privilege of attaining such an accolade I am sure they’d be the first to admit their management style and teams have to change.

I had just finished “people power” yesterday’s blog and I received an email from my Marketing Director Paul Harris. Paul used to work for Dolphin so he and I both have a great deal of respect for what these boys have achieved.

The email hit me quite hard, as I am sitting here in the solitary peace and quiet of the Maldives. The destination is deliberately chosen, as I was fortunate to survive a skiing accident 8 years ago in the French resort Alpe D’Huez. My wife and I always spend time as far away from snow as humanly possible at this time of year.

Rob Williams one of the founder members of Dolphin Music had lost his life in a tragic skiing accident in Verbier. Skiing in a “white-out,” the rescue helicopters were powerless to help as they were unable to fly in such conditions. He died after it took seven hours to reach him, even though he had been located using twitter and his mobile phone with in minutes.

This is a tribute to Rob and his business partner who I am confident will take the business forward in his honour to new heights and ensure his work and memory lives on. He died like many entrepreneurs, pushing the boundaries. A trait that is an essential ingredient that helped him become a successful businessman.

I often worry that I trivialise my own accident when talking to people about my experience. It is a nervous protective cover that holds the most life changing momentous event from reducing a grown man to his knees and quite often to tears.

My heart goes out to Robs family and Jason at Dolphin and all their colleagues. It is said that entrepreneurs are a dying breed. It is therefore a doubly sad day to loose such a great guy and such a great entrepreneur.

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