4 March 2012

The dictionary classifies an entrepreneur as: “A person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on financial risk to do so.”

I suppose it’s safe to agree with this, although I believe an entrepreneur is the person who initiates the venture, taking on all the risk from the outset. It is a very different person who takes the business to the next level. Often, entrepreneurs find this element challenging and employ an operator, a CEO or managing director. I’d describe these people as businessmen or women. I am not one of these people. My natural instinct is that I am more suited to accepting the whole challenge and taking ownership of every part. I am having to learn the other skills and surround myself with great operators as our business expands. I believe a successful business needs a balance of the two.

From my perspective, I ventured into running my own businesses as it seemed the natural thing to do. I didn’t work for someone else and dream of one day being a businessman; I simply went to the bank to set up a business account. I didn’t know any better.

I got a rather blank look and they told me I’d need a “letterhead.” I asked what one of those was and I promtly returned a few days later with a business name, letterheads and business cards.

If only the next stage was as simple. I think it’s much harder for people in full time employment to give up everything they have and risk it all for a crazy notion that, you are told, is statistically unlikely to work!

So, I had my letterheads. What next? I needed something to sell. Well, I could play the piano so this seemed as good a place to start as any.

The problem with setting up in business at 17 years of age is that it’s very difficult for people to take you seriously. I remember being told by an agent who took a contract off me for the Midland Hotel, “You are the worst piano player in Manchester, and you will never make it as a businessman.” It was tough enough to lose the income that fuelled my entire life without having my nose rubbed in it.

This drove me hard in those days to better myself and whilst I see the same person every now and then still tinkling the ivories, I feel no animosity. I lost the contract because of my own failings, not because he won it. If I’d have been doing the job correctly, it would have not been under threat. These are painful lessons to learn when your mortgage repayments and dinners count on you keeping your contracts.

There are a number of people throughout my business career and life who have helped me raise my game, often by being unkind or a bit too honest!

So often you hear successful people explain that at school a teacher said something along the lines of, “you will never amount to anything.” I have a few teachers who would probably be a little shocked to hear that I am doing OK, but it was probably my father whose classic, “you wouldn’t be able to hold down a job as a bin man” showed a complete lack of faith in me. This must have had a profound effect on me, although I can’t pin point any one incident that triggered it. He was relentless with his forthright belief that I would fail.

I will never understand this. I don’t resent him for it, far from it, we are good friends nowadays and he jokes that this is probably why I am successful. I’d agree that it might have helped my determination.  I remember that, whilst holding down my first job at 15 in a screen printing factory, he was so embarrassed to introduce me to his boss who was picking him up that he locked me in the garden and, when I knocked on the window, he refused to open the door, explaining to Geoff, “just ignore him, he’s the gardener.”

It backfired as I sprinted down the garden, scaled a 20ft wall and jumped out into the road as Geoff pulled up alongside me in his brand new Jag.

“Isn’t that your gardener, Ken? We should give him a lift.”

I played along with my father’s ruse and got a lift to the roundabout on the outskirts of Denbigh, whilst my father went purple in the passenger seat. I learnt from Geoff that really successful people take people at face value. Weighing someone up and changing your behaviour due to someone’s appearance is a bad practice.

That was a great summer and I got a taste of standing on my own two feet.

I arrived at the screen printers, Humphries Signs, to find a pile of ‘for sale’ boards piled up to the top of the factory roof. My job was to throw them in the skip.

After a few days, one of the 2 brothers who owned the business had a rant at me for spreading mess around the car park. Whilst I was supposed to keep the perfect ones, I had realised that the For Sale signs all came in varying conditions, but even the worst had elements that could be reused. So, I stock piled them and stripped them accordingly and started reorganising the factory to place all the elements in order of assembly. About 6 weeks later, the same brother was furious when a lorry load of materials was sent back, as we had no use for it. We had inadvertently saved the company thousands by recycling.

I remember just before leaving for Manchester,  Mr Humphries was keen to get me back, and offered me the job for the summer again. I turned up and turned around when I saw the same pile had regrown back again. Whilst I love a challenge, I knew I needed new lessons.

In that way, I haven’t changed. I have a tendency to look for new exciting challenges all the time. I think this helps to keep us fresh and on our toes. Keeping our eyes and ears open are important traits of being successful in every walk of life. Being a great listener and knowing when to take action are key when you are considering your direction or strategy.

I am still learning in all aspects of my development. There is no one area that I feel I have mastered and I suppose that’s why I still love coming into UKFast every day.

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