23 June 2019

fields of dreamers - Lawrence Jones MBEWe are all capable of great ideas. No one has a monopoly on those moments in the bath where we think of an amazing idea that could completely change your stars.

Back in 1999 when we set up UKFast, pretty much every potential customer that called our sales line or that I spoke with, miraculously had an almost identical idea to Google.

Google was in existence back then but it certainly hadn’t taken off, and there were a number of websites you could use that were cataloguing the internet even back then.

So why is it that, with thousands of search engines vying for top spot and millions of budding entrepreneurs with similar ideas, only one survived?

The answer is “execution.”  The bigger point is that whilst only one made it to the size of Google, there were millions of others that darted off into a billion directions inspiring new ideas.

We can all dream to our heart’s content and I am a great believer in the power of dreaming but, at some point, you have to knuckle down and commit your life to making it happen.

It’s as simple as that. It’s the only way. To change a dream into reality, whether that’s to become a professional athlete, sportsperson, musician or entrepreneur, it takes a great deal of sacrifice.

I was watching a documentary about Thatcher and, whether you like her or not, she certainly turned the country around during her early tenure, from being completely at rock bottom with James Callaghan’s three-day week and the Winter of Discontent where we weren’t even able to create enough physical electricity to operate the country across the week.

It’s mind blowing as a concept not to have something as basic as electricity and, whilst it was during my lifetime, I was too young to really remember it. It’s hard to even imagine.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

Thatcher believed that we should encourage our children in society to grow as “tall as possible”. She was referring not to height, but potential. Something we take for granted today. Our levels of ambition as a nation are significantly higher than back in the 70s.

Labour supporters today who have grown up on the staple diet of Blair and Brown have enjoyed very buoyant times with normal tax rates and, most of the time, a growing economy. Roll back to the Seventies and the top rate of income tax under Labour was 83pc (or as much as 98pc on certain categories of “unearned income”).

It’s quite ironic that the students marching against Thatcher at the end of her term are now the high earners decades later. They are now the ones concerned over Corbyn’s 70pc proposed changes.

In Thatcher’s early years in a speech in New York she praised the US culture where they encourage “tall poppies” to grow whilst in the UK we had, and still do have, a tendency to cut people down to size.

Thatcher’s sentiment was genius. Without people reaching for the stars, where would we be as a society.

If we create a barrier to prevent people from going further in life, once they reach it they will stop. This does not support innovation and entrepreneurialism.

It’s so important to create and introduce competition into everything we do. By turning something into a game and creating challenges, it helps us take our mind off the mind-numbing tasks. It doesn’t take long, and pretty soon people start trying to out perform each other.

Yet we have started to remove a great deal of measuring and competition in school, and we are reducing the volume of sport children once used to be encouraged to do. The result is that we are not rehearsing the skills necessary to help us in later life. Sport helps us develop our confidence and we continually rehearse how to pick ourselves back up each time we fail. You cannot underestimate the importance of this in society.

Cutting Down The Poppy Fields

Whilst we do seem more ambitious as a country these days, we haven’t lost our tendency to cut down the tallest poppies. In fact it seems to be quite fashionable right now, more so than any other time I remember in history.

It’s very easy to find fault with someone you don’t know but who looks successful. It’s easy to assume they may be greedy, selfish and mean. However, the reality, from my own experience of meeting some very successful first generation entrepreneurs, is totally different.

It would be easy to assume that wealthy people hideaway all their money and don’t care about others. Yet the entrepreneurs I have met, and I appreciate I have not met them all, but the successful ones do a great deal in the community helping others.

Before you look at an entrepreneur as a capitalist, it’s worth remembering where they came from. In my experience, most self-made (certainly the ones I grew up with)  entrepreneurs come from tough beginnings.

When you come from tough or humble beginnings it’s very difficult to forget your roots.

I know from my own start in life, my friends from Denbigh and Ruthin and even Salford when I first came to Manchester, are still my friends today. You may leave an area but you never forget who you are and how you came to be. Whenever I return to some of the places I spent during the difficult times of my life, like in Eccles in Salford on Victoria Crescent or Ordsall in Regents Park, you can’t escape that feeling that you had all that time ago. It just doesn’t go away, no matter how hard you work.

The underlying feelings that drove me to work harder to help my Mum and Dad, who were struggling, is still ingrained in me today and it’s bone deep. Even if I wanted to change or stray away from it, I can’t. It’s who I am, it’s my DNA.

And when the people around you are safe and secure, what do you do? Do you stop? No, you extend the circle.

There will always be those around you worse off. No matter how bad your life is, there are always people less fortunate than yourself.

That’s why we launched Tech Manchester, The FastForward Project and our Community and Education Trust and lots of projects that no one will have ever heard about. These were ideas from the bathtub, dreams as a kid, struggling seeing my family and people around me in every town and city I visited. Life was tough and it still is for a great many people. Far too many people.

This is why Tech Manchester was born. To give people in business a head start. The people who have contacted me for support; they aren’t paying rent, they don’t pay for phone bills, business rates or electricity. It’s tough enough to get your venture off the ground, so I turn a blind eye. For how long I don’t, but for now, I know that these small businesses are doing great work, paying taxes, creating jobs and providing the oxygen this country vitally needs.

The same applies to our educational work too. We don’t get paid for it and I never want to get paid for it. A few weeks ago I had an idea that I believe will inspire thousands of school kids to get creative and get into media, journalism and music. Without these daft ideas and our ability to execute them, life would be very dull indeed for many many children.

There are some ideas that would be so easy to execute, and whilst I am not in Number 10 it doesn’t mean I can’t do my best to influence either Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson when they are the next Prime Minister. I am due to see them next week so they can expect an earful!

Pay every single public sector worker a 10% pay increase. I don’t care whether you are a nurse, or in the police, sweeping roads, teaching. If you are working for the country, it’s safe to say you’ve been undervalued for a long time. Well, the time has come to redress the balance.

Yes it will cost money, but actually it’s the right thing to do. We could pay for it by not having any more wars and conflicts, by taxing the tax avoiders. Tax us entrepreneurs a bit more, I don’t care, but that should be step one. The financial gap between the hardworking engine room of the British Isles needs closing.

The greatest ideas

Ultimately, you can have all the ideas in the world and if you don’t believe in them enough they just not happen.

Our greatest idea to date, UKFast, is the culmination of a great many extraordinary people using their hearts and minds to build something really special. The work we do to help others less fortunate than ourselves is made possible by the efforts of this much wider team.

I could squirrel all the money away and run away to sunnier climbs, and believe me with the torrential rain over the past few weeks it’s tempting, but something tells me my job here is far from over.

So far, thanks to our amazing clients and teammates past and present, our (not quite so little) company these days has been able to give back well over £10m to some amazing causes since inception.

What is exciting is that the amounts are growing as the business and our momentum grows. My goal is to one day break the £100m mark.

The good thing about spending our own money on initiatives, is that we spend it wisely too.  Because we have experience running small businesses, we know how to execute a plan properly and make sure all the money goes to making a difference.

So whilst I don’t agree with some of Thatcher’s politics near the end of her stint as Prime Minister, I do believe we should be growing fields and fields of poppies. We should be encouraging people to stand out and we should be working together to ensure we all benefit from the tallest of them all.



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