Coming up fast - Youthful manifesto to unlock enterprise Britain - He's made several millions, breakfasted with the prime minister - and he's only 22. Reuben Singh has plenty of ideas about entrepreneurship in the 21st century, as he tells Alexander Garrett.
Talking to Reuben Singh it's easy to forget just how young the guy is. One minute he's holding forth on the need for a more entrepreneurial culture in boardrooms, and reflecting on his meetings with Tony Blair and other grandees. The next, you remind yourself that Singh was just two when Margaret Thatcher came to power, and six years ago, he was still taking his GCSEs.
But that is the point. For Singh, 22, who in February became one of the country's youngest-ever multimillionaires when he sold his Miss Attitude retail chain for a reputed £22 million, has made the quest to gain support and recognition for young entrepreneurs into something of a personal crusade.
'When I was 17 and studying at school and I wanted to start a business, I was told 'you can't do it',' he explains. 'I went to see the banks and they wanted track record, management, security - and I had none of them.
Even when I had eight to 10 stores after the first year, it was still very hard because people thought this was a flash in the pan.'
But in the entrepreneurial stakes, youth has many advantages over experience, he says. The younger you are, the fewer responsibilities you have, the more prone you are to take risks, and the more commitment you can put into your business. 'When I started Miss Attitude, I would eat, sleep and drink it,' he says. He would like to see entrepreneurs afforded the 'street cred' that is heaped upon footballers and fashion designers. He's started his own seedcorn fund to help other young people get their ventures off the ground. And he's got another idea up his sleeve, for a company that will match young entrepreneurs with big companies, sending out talent scouts to find them. Nobody could accuse the boy of being a late developer.
Singh's story is by now well known. He grew up in Manchester in a family that owned a fashion import business. In his early teens he was helping out and learning about business after school. He started Miss Attitude as a 17 year old student during his A Levels, selling fashion accessories ranging from nail varnish to handbags, based on what was 'in' with the girls at school. Then, having grown it to a chain of around 40 stores, he sold out to Klesch Capital Partners.
Some have questioned the amount Singh was paid for Miss Attitude, and the true extent of his wealth but, for a first venture, you can hardly knock it. Given the rate of failure in the retail industry, to create a chain from scratch in three years and then it sell for a substantial sum is a feat that many of his elders would envy.
Singh concedes that timing played an important part in his success. 'I launched Miss Attitude in the midst of a deep retail slump,' he explains.
'I was the only person opening stores when everybody else was closing them. But I think that as an entrepreneur you have to go against the flow.' The depressed state of the market meant that property institutions were ready to take a chance on a teenager, where the banks were not.
Singh says that he was also prepared to take huge risks. 'I did deals which, if they had failed, would have finished me.' These deals involved buying large volumes of merchandise at bargain basement prices. 'As I looked at it, the price was low, rather than the risk high.'
He overcame the lack of any financial backing by creating a business that was cash-generative. 'It was an excellent concept that had very high sales, so I was able to grow it organically. And I had very, very low overheads. By the time I had 20 stores open, there was still no head office. I simply ran it from one of the shops.'
Another of the lessons he believes he has learned is that 'you only succeed when you are in survival mode. Today, when we look at starting a new business, we are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on research and development, but then I did all my market research walking around in the rain, fitting my own shops out at 3am.'
Singh is also more than happy to acknowledge that his background, both family and ethnic, have played their part. 'My parents came from India during the 1970s, and they had to succeed, because it wasn't their country,' he says, adding that he was fortunate they introduced him to the world of business, but that it had made him all the more determined to make it on his own, not to be seen as a 'rich man's kid'.
Singh's attitude to wealth is somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, he clearly revels in being talked about as a multimillionaire, and is keen to promote the idea that he is extremely wealthy. On the other hand, he denies that money provides his motivation. 'Money is not what motivates entrepreneurs; it's acknowledgement - a craving for your ideas to be acknowledged.
It's all about seeing your little idea turn into reality, a success.'
As it happens, he has few quibbles about indulging an expensive taste in cars and designer clothes. His current collection of the former, he says, includes two Rolls-Royces, a Bentley, a Mercedes, a Porsche and a Ferrari. By his own evidence, he has no need to ever work again. As it happens, though, he has a number of companies on the go, and various plans in the pipeline, which could make a good deal more money if they prove successful.
Sound Image is a new retail operation which sells upmarket audio-visual equipment such as home cinema systems. It has already opened its first outlet in Manchester. J24 is another retail venture, on which Singh says he has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on research. It is still top secret and he says: 'It is aimed at the teenage market, but it is not about fashion.'
He has a property company, and a currency trading business, and is also researching a couple of internet ventures. Then there is Dream On Attitude, his 'small' venture capital company designed to invest money in young entrepreneurs. 'It's already made a few very successful investments - mainly in retail; we will only do areas that we know.'
But he is also working on a 'big idea' that he believes gets right to the heart of the issue about encouraging enterprise. Internally, it's known as 'the dating agency', and the idea is to recruit entrepreneurs who can be teamed up with big companies. 'Companies have a managing director, a finance director, a marketing director - why not have an entrepreneur as a position in the company?' he asks.
He is a little hazy on the detail as yet, but believes his venture could find entrepreneurs who have ideas and flair but lack resources, and team them up with management teams who have plenty of experience but are lacking that essential drive. 'Bringing the two together is like having an accelerator and a brake in a car. You can't have one without the other.'
Right now, Singh is in great demand, not least from politicians on both sides of the divide. He's breakfasted with Tony Blair, been asked to speak at a succession of conferences, and has been invited to serve on the Competitiveness committee set up by trade secretary Stephen Byers. With Labour and Conservatives vying to establish themselves as the party of enterprise, the Sikh from Manchester is a potent symbol of the young energy that could transform Britain into a more prosperous society in the 21st century.
To his credit, he's not simply prepared to go along with it. He seems genuinely concerned to do what he can to ensure that his success is emulated by other young people. 'We've got to start, because otherwise this country has got a serious problem in 20 years' time, both economically and politically. Where are the entrepreneurs of the future going to come from?'
SINGH'S RECIPE FOR CREATING A UK START-UP CULTURE ...
- Politicians to find ways of providing public recognition for entrepreneurs.
- More incentives for companies to reinvest their profits in start-up businesses. 'There should be some kind of tax relief for companies to invest £10,000-£20,000 each year in start-ups. They could set up a new venture in the industry they know, and use their own middle management to give them an entrepreneurial streak.'
- Reduce Capital Gains Tax. 'Abolish it would be better, but I don't think you could achieve that.'
- Education. 'More effort should be made to promote entrepreneurship in schools - university is too late because people have made up their minds what their career will be. It's got to be on the curriculum for the third, fourth and fifth form at secondary school. Offer business studies in all schools at GCSE.'
- Review laws on bankruptcy and business failure. 'We should have another look at the legal burden placed on people who have genuinely failed. If you have genuinely failed, I don't see why you should be penalised at all. Not everyone succeeds.'
AND HIS TIPS FOR YOUNG WANNABES ...
- Be prepared to put in 150%
- Be honest and loyal to yourself. Do you really believe this idea will work?
- Stick with it. The more someone hits you, the more you've got to stand up.
- Be self-confident. There's a fine line between self-confidence and arrogance, but you have to believe in yourself at all times.
- Start small. If you can succeed with a few thousand pounds, then you can do so with much bigger sums.