Luke Johnson: Why cards do the trick

A stylish business card still stands out, even in this digital age; fledgling entrepreneurs need role models; some pro-business MPs I like the look of.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2011

On New Year's Eve, 1980, my future was hanging in the balance. I was DJ-ing at the Chelsea Arts Club while at university, unsure if I wanted to pursue my medical studies. A smartly dressed fellow my age introduced himself, explained that he was his own boss running a printing firm - and presented me with his business card. Now that impressed me - better than a stethoscope any day.

Ever since then, I've had something of a fetish about business cards. I have a collection of virtually all the cards I've ever ordered - from our Groove Thang mobile discotheque of decades ago to my Risk Capital Partners cards of the present day. This is the era of always-on electronic communications, yet they remain a very handy, elegant tool. I rarely leave my office without them. They mostly cost little but can say a lot and can deliver a lasting impression whenever you exchange them.

And business cards have entered the digital age. Moo.com is very much a global online success story, but is actually supplying good old-fashioned business cards - a device first invented in the 17th century as a calling card for visiting aristocrats. In my mind, they remain a small symbol of status and professionalism.

Really shoddy cards - like the sort produced automatically by kiosks in Underground stations - do send a certain message. Just as hugely expensive, bespoke cards for a shoestring start-up also tell a different story about the founders' attitude towards costs. Yet, worst of all is the show-off who says either: 'I don't need cards' or 'I didn't want to waste money on cards'. Both those responses are bullshit and suggest either arrogance or laziness. Ultimately, business cards are convenient and appreciated, otherwise they would have disappeared.

Occasionally, I worry that I am a little like the unspeakable financiers in the book and movie American Psycho, who obsess in an almost orgasmic way over the quality of their business cards. I'm not that bad, but I did recently order some magnificent new ones from a specialist letterpress printer called Blush Publishing. They are smart and classic in design, and terrific value. I accept that with facilities such as LinkedIn this is a rather eccentric hobby, but so what? Even capitalists are allowed their foibles.

This autumn, I have spent many evenings promoting my new book, Start It Up, at various public events. It has been an uplifting experience. From the Royal Society of Arts to the Made in Sheffield conference, from the Manchester Festival of Business to the LSE, I have met hundreds of actual and would-be entrepreneurs. Their enthusiasm and inventiveness is infectious. Times may be tough, but there is no shortage of enterprising individuals out there, willing to give it a go.

Cynics who lack the courage to take the leap forever find comfort in the belief that most new businesses fail. In the first place, I suspect this is an urban myth, reflecting the fact that Companies House strikes off lots of limited companies every year - most of which are dormant anyway. And, second, most entrepreneurs who eventually triumph make several attempts before they succeed. Fortunately these days, many more feel able to discuss their past setbacks openly. This is helpful, for nothing cheers up struggling beginners more than hearing the war stories of those who have made it. I have long believed that sound role models are as important as tax cuts or deregulation in inspiring people to become their own boss. The culture of ambition and growth which pervades Silicon Valley is more important than the concentration of venture capital houses that are headquartered there.

My view is simple: we should all do more on every front to boost entrepreneurship - government, the media, banks, and the business community - from legislative changes to mentoring to education.

If we are to reduce the regulatory and legal burden on business, we need the right people in Parliament. I have been critical of the attitude of many politicians towards entrepreneurs in the past, but the interest shown by a number of the newer MPs I have met in the past year gives me hope. Among the most impressive recently elected backbenchers are Julian Smith, Nadhim Zahawi, James Morris, Priti Patel, Mike Weatherley and Jo Johnson. And, in the Cabinet, I rate Jeremy Hunt highly.

All of them understand enterprise and most have run their own companies. They know how difficult it is to create a substantial undertaking, and how crucial such activity is for job creation. I suspect they could all earn more money outside politics, but they appear to believe in public service as a calling. I admire their sacrifice, if that is the word, and I hope they and others like them can influence the Coalition in constructive ways.

My modest interactions with Number 10 suggest that the Government is trying hard to find ways to promote start-ups. It is examining every aspect where it could have an impact: regulation, taxation, infrastructure spending, education, planning, banking and mentoring - among others. On many fronts, it is clear that the Conservatives are being unhelpfully restrained by their Lib-Dem partners. In other cases, Westminster is constrained by appalling diktats emanating from Brussels. But, overall, I get the sense that Cameron and Osborne are doing their best in extremely difficult circumstances.

Whatever happens, the present administration is clearly a better bet on a decent future for Britain than Miliband and Balls. And any capitalist who supports the Opposition should find a new career.

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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