COMING UP FAST: Innovators who just can't stop starting up businesses

COMING UP FAST: Innovators who just can't stop starting up businesses - Portfolio entrepreneurs are high-profile figures who launch a succession of enterprises - and stay polygamously committed to them. What makes them do it? Guy Clapperton reports

by GUY CLAPPERTON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Portfolio entrepreneurs are high-profile figures who launch a succession of enterprises - and stay polygamously committed to them. What makes them do it? Guy Clapperton reports

Polygamy isn't the conventional topic of choice at most business lunches. Yet for some entrepreneurs, it's a way of life. Sometimes known as portfolio entrepreneurs, they're the select few who find the challenge of running one business far too tame.

Instead, they prefer to run several - all at the same time. It's this that sets them apart from serial entrepreneurs, who will start a business, run it, and sell it before moving on to the next one. In contrast, portfolio entrepreneurs like to keep their fingers in all the pies at once, running two, three, four or more enterprises at any one time. And, unlike marital polygamy, it's legal.

Obvious examples of portfolio entrepreneurs include Richard Branson and the Virgin brand, and Stelios and the Easy chain of companies. Yet managing several companies at once needn't involve being hands-on chief executive of each one. It's more likely that each firm will have its own MD, its own accounts, its own directors, and even its own offices. The portfolio entrepreneur acts as the overall supervisor, helping to bring individual companies to fruition but then stepping back from the day-to-day operations.

A typical example is Cliff Stanford, chairman of Redbus. Under the Redbus umbrella are companies as diverse as a landmine clearing operation, an internet hotel-booking group and a film distribution company. As chair of Redbus, Stanford is the ultimate head of all these companies. But his real involvement is as a venture capitalist, providing the funds and the experience to help new entrepreneurs see their ideas turned into successful businesses. After that, the companies manage daily operations themselves.

'I have an interest in innovation,' says Stanford, explaining his involvement in such diverse companies. 'I've been very lucky and I've earned a lot of money. I wanted to put something back into society - hence the landmine clearance and the others.'

Stanford has always been restlessly entrepreneurial - he was one of the first to bring the internet into the UK with Demon Internet, which he sold to Scottish Telecom in 1996. He used some of the pounds 30 million he made from that to set up Redbus, which now has 15 different companies under its wing. Each company is a completely separate entity, with its own staff and accounts. All they share is the Redbus name.

This is a common strategy, and one that seems to work well for portfolio entrepreneurs. The Virgin and Easy brands are among the larger examples to take advantage of marketing a single brand and using common reporting structures. It's been a highly successful strategy for both Branson and Stelios.

Other portfolio entrepreneurs run one or more companies as a subsidiary of the first. Patrick Naughton, MD of Telecom One, also chairs its subsidiary, the Dating Channel, and has plans to add more digital channels to his portfolio. He has plenty of experience of the portfolio role - before Telecom One he ran a magazine publishing company in China and a telecoms business in the UK.

Naughton believes that the only way to survive in such a role is to surround yourself with good people. You can't do it all on your own. 'If I were a micro-manager I would have a problem,' he says. 'Being MD of Telecom One is a bit like being prime minister; I don't have the day-to-day responsibility, I have good people around me.'

Instead, Naughton tries to limit himself to being the creative and strategic thinker with an overview of both businesses. And having got to the stage at which the core business has achieved critical mass, there isn't much that a hands-off, 'strategic' MD could do to change the strategy anyway.

Then there is Sir Christopher Evans. At one point he was director of 17 companies, although he has now whittled this down to four, and is chairman of Merlin Biosciences. The entrepreneurial bug bit once he left college and went to work in America, with the ambition of being a research scientist.

But he soon quit in order to found Enzymatix, after discovering a previously unknown enzyme. Before long, he had split Enzymatix into two and was running the resulting companies simultaneously. He also set up Toad Innovations, which specialised in car security; environmental technology company Enviros; and neuroscience company Cerebrus. He has been a workaholic since school and says he relishes the challenge.

Yet Evans has worked hard to get the balance right. 'I remember one day in the mid-1990s sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper,' he says. 'It had a lot about my companies, which were going up in price, and I thought: this is good. A year later they were all going down.'

As CEO, it was up to Evans to do most of the fixing. At the same time, it became obvious that his position wasn't workable. Evans refers to his multiple entrepreneurship of the time as unsustainable. 'It got to the stage where one day I was rushing off in the morning and my wife called down to remind me to kiss the baby goodbye. I thought: 'You were about to forget little Amy. For Christ's sake get a life.''

His solution was to form yet another company, this time to act as an umbrella for his other interests. 'You absolutely can't just walk away from businesses for which you're responsible,' he says. The winding-down process - which is still going on - was done through his new firm, Merlin Biosciences, a venture capital group for life science companies with 22 companies in its portfolio.

For other portfolio entrepreneurs, delegation is the answer. Stanford has worked 18-hour days in his time but no longer has to do so because he has an excellent team around him. His experience at Demon taught him that he couldn't do it all on his own. 'There was no life, it was all work,' he says now.

Remaining accountable and accessible to more than one firm, even if you are principal shareholder, is an issue facing all multiple entrepreneurs. Stanford has a relaxed attitude to conflicts of interest. 'My first reaction is to do nothing and see if the problem goes away,' he says. 'It's amazing how often it does; very often, other people can handle the issue competently if you just let them.'

This approach enables Stanford to enjoy a comparatively relaxed lifestyle. 'I spend two weeks in Spain and two weeks else- where in a month,' he says. He remains available to colleagues by e-mail and mobile phone.

Naughton shares Stanford's feelings. 'I'm not a workaholic,' he says. 'I take plenty of holiday and I have a weekend flat in Brighton that I get to when I can. There's only so much one person can do.'

This attitude wouldn't suit every would-be business polygamist, though. Evans believes a CEO should be a full-timer utterly focused on the main company, or the whole thing falls flat. Other core values help, like physical fitness and attention to diet. He has two PAs, one in his London office and the other at home to handle personal, domestic, social and charity arrangements. An intermediary is essential, but Stanford likes to make himself available. 'My PA deals with outsiders; everyone else has my mobile number.'

Time management is vital. Typically, Evans is up at 6.30 and into the gym; breakfast meetings happen at home or in town, then he works his way into the London premises via a series of meetings - typically between eight and 18 meetings a day. A couple of hours are reserved for the children in the early evening and are non-negotiable; otherwise, evenings are filled with meetings or business dinners. He remembers to get to sleep by 1am.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the disparate experiences of these polygamous entrepreneurs it is the need for delegation. Says Naughton: 'If you're still losing sleep over your businesses when you've been running them for 17 years then you should probably be doing something else.' He cautions against the portfolio entrepreneur route unless it's something you really want to do. 'You need to ask yourself why you're doing it. If you're happy with one business, there's really no need to set up another one.'

Yet those who do seem to be passionate about it. Evans becomes most excited when talking about enzymes and how things work - he couldn't stop being interested if he tried. Stanford has a more serene attitude on the surface, but being one of the chief proponents of the net in the UK when it was unproven must have taken dedication. And Naughton believes he is working on something that is likely to start making money soon and will become a major factor in the growth of digital media: Text TV. 'If we're really going to have all these digital channels, then they've got to be filled with programmes. And this is very cheap,' he explains, animated.

Like the others in their fields, he'll have been the first. And to a lot of people, that makes a powerful difference.

HOW TO SURVIVE AND THRIVE AS A MULTI-BOSS

Portfolio entrepreneurs need to be driven, and if you're thinking about it rather than doing it, the chances are it's not right for you. There are, though, useful guidelines for anyone about to undertake more than one directorship ...

- Delegate wherever possible, and don't lose sight of your personal life.

- Build an excellent management team that you can trust, and learn where your weaknesses fall - build the management to plug your own gaps.

- Used judiciously, a good PA is your greatest ally.

- Consider bringing all your businesses under the one umbrella - branding is easier, and a single board meeting will suffice for multiple companies.

- Pay attention to physical wellbeing.

- The internet and mobile phones make your physical location less important than before.

- Give people space to solve their own problems - they often do so even after they have brought an issue to you.

Cliff Stanford.

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