Luke Johnson: How many great entrepreneurs have lied on their CV?

Many entrepreneurs are in a ferocious hurry to become successful - which frequently means cutting corners - says Luke Johnson.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 16 Oct 2013

Entertainment mogul David Geffen recently gave a fascinating interview in which he narrated how he got his first break in Hollywood. He never attended college, but lied on his CV and said he had a degree from UCLA, and was hired by William Morris, the talent agency.

He realised that he would be fired if the untruth was found out, so he came in early every day for six months until he intercepted the UCLA letter saying it had never heard of him - and replaced it with one saying he'd graduated.

On the back of that - ahem - chutzpah he has been a massively successful music manager, film and Broadway producer, and founded studios and record labels. Today he's reputed to be worth $5bn.

So how many other great entrepreneurs started it all with a little cheating? Many know the tale of Richard Branson's early arrest and fine for VAT fraud. I'm sure if one analysed forensically the initial careers of many tycoons there would be dubious incidents. It is the nature of risk-takers to be in a ferocious hurry to become successful - which frequently means cutting corners.

Thirty years ago this summer, I ran a quasi-legal, all-night rave every Saturday on Fulham Wharf.

On busy nights, we had 1,000 punters dancing till dawn, and charged £5 a head. We were never busted by the police, but the landlord eventually realised what was going on and served me with a writ to close immediately. It was a formative experience. It should have been fun, but I think I was so anxious to prevent a fire or fights or about the takings being stolen that I didn't enjoy myself as much as I might have.

I'm not excusing bad behaviour. I suppose entrepreneurs are engaged in circumventing the rules and taking the contrarian position. Sometimes this involves grey areas. Government, big business, apathy and entrenched competition mean launching a startup is always a precarious undertaking.

Doing everything exactly by the book with minimal resources is a fantasy. And without such endeavours there would be less job creation, innovation and tax collected. There is a need for a book or website consisting of war stories from established business owners called My First Big Break.

And the most interesting bits will be the descriptions of fly-by-night projects - and what was learned from them.

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One of my all-time heroes is Daniel Defoe, who was among the very first novelists - but was also an entrepreneur. A Londoner by birth, he was obsessed by commerce and lived through momentous events such as the Plague and the Great Fire of London.

He is chiefly famous as the author of Robinson Crusoe, perhaps the bestselling novel of all time. But he was so much more than just a writer of fiction. He was a merchant, journalist, adventurer, publisher and spy. Above all, he was a true pioneer in much of what he did.

He wrote over 500 publications, was made bankrupt, imprisoned in the stocks, served in various governments, was arrested as a Dissenter and ran a brick factory. A newspaper he founded and edited, The Review, was probably the first to feature such items as obituaries, gossip columns and lead stories.

He also wrote the first management book, The Complete English Tradesman, an excellent manifesto for the emerging business class of the 18th century. He even thought up a name to describe these adventurers: projectors. Indeed, they were the subject of his first published work, An Essay Upon Projects.

He saw first-hand how Britain had entered a 'Projecting Age', with the invention of joint stock companies and the advance of science and technology.

Defoe was a classic risk-taker, a huge promoter of early capitalism and a prodigiously hard-working and resilient example to all. As well as being a giant of literature, he also deserves to rank alongside great names such as Adam Smith and James Watt as one of the individuals who helped invent and explain the Industrial Revolution, and who created Great Britain - with all its flaws.

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Years ago, there used to be wonderful drawings showing how different rock'n'roll bands split and the members went on to create many other acts over the years. It depicted how a few highly talented individuals had a disproportionate impact in a particular musical genre.

You could prepare the same sort of genealogical trees delineating the roles played by small groups of entrepreneurs in starting and building companies in various industries.

Take the casual dining sector. Members of the board of Pizza Express in the early 1990s are partly responsible for the growth of Strada, Patisserie Valerie, Giraffe, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Punch Taverns, among others chains.

Ex-My Kinda Town directors have built Bill's, Cote, Gaucho Grill, Carluccio's and others. I was lucky enough to serve on both boards and have followed the many trajectories closely.

In business, if you've done it once, then confidence, capital, connections and experience combine to give you a huge advantage subsequently. Moreover, if you come from a good stable, the chances are you'll do well.

Two longstanding colleagues of mine at Risk Capital Partners have recently become independent restaurateurs in London: Bobby Hashemi with Pizza Union and Mark Farrer Brown with Whyte & Brown. I'm sure both will prosper mightily.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP

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