Book review: Start your business in 7 days, by James Caan

Whether it's the universe or a business, you only need a week to get it going, apparently. John Vincent warms to an encouraging mix of theory and good sense.

by John Vincent
Last Updated: 04 Jun 2013
The book's promise is this: James Caan will hold your hand for a week as you ask yourself the big questions you'll need to answer in order to start your own business. Or, alternatively, in order to decide that your idea isn't going to work, or even that being an entrepreneur is not for you. 'When those seven days are over ... you may also decide that your idea is simply not going to be profitable ... to me that is not a failure, it is victory because it will save you so much in so many ways and allow you to learn from the experience and move on to an idea ... that works for you.'

Before we begin, we are asked: 'Is this really me?' Caan gives the reader a chance to opt out of being an entrepreneur completely. And he takes us through how to spot if dealing with the uncertainty or the long hours of running your own business is not for you.

If God can make a world in seven days, Caan mischievously tells us, you can start a business. Unlike God, we are not allowed to rest on the seventh day. The steps/days are these: Is my idea really a business? Does my idea work? Have I got an order? Does my costing work? Have I put together the right team? What have I missed? Is my investment in place?

You may be forgiven for thinking these questions are a bit simple. But that is their beauty and their power. A theme of the book, and one that resonates with me, is that many would-be entrepreneurs ignore common sense.

So I found myself really warming to Caan's advice and examples. On rare occasions, Caan succumbs to the pantomime role that Dragons' Den can sometimes invite the Dragons to adopt. But mostly he shows humanity and empathy, and a real desire to help the reader.

Why does Caan have the authority to write this book? First, on Dragons' Den and with his 'private equity' business, Hamilton Bradshaw, he has seen many hundreds of pitches. Second, Caan has lived many of the lessons he is preaching and made the mistakes. The third reason is that Caan's core business is people. Headhunting. Career management. Fitting people into roles that suit their 'genius'. So his insights have substance.

One of the defining things, in my experience, is the ability of an entrepreneur to constantly and quickly iterate both strategy and action. The 'just do it' sort of book encourages an adrenaline-driven and passion-filled approach to business, which can end up convincing people that belief and desire are everything. Equally, I struggle with overly theoretical tomes. When I am asked whether strategy or implementation is more important, it is like being given a 35mm camera and being asked: 'What is more important, the camera or the film?' Strategy and action cannot be divorced. So I like the balance in this book between careful consideration for theory, deep practicality and psychology.

Caan wants readers to 'get on the train', but suggests we decide first which train to get on. That means asking, for example, what the most important piece of research is to determine whether the idea is good (eg, footfall for a particular cafe location). And it means thinking critically about the size and shape of the business from the start.

One of the most powerful lessons is to actually get on and get an order - to find buyers and show them a mock-up or even a drawing of the product and ask them what they think. How much should your product retail for? What size and colour should it be? And then to work out whether the economics stack up, given what you've learnt.

Caan describes a friend who had a machine that could embroider clothes. Instead of showing it to potential buyers, Caan's friend procrastinated and made more and more (and better and better) finished samples. So a year went by before this very dedicated man showed it to any buyers. A friend of mine calls this 'letting perfection be the enemy of good'.

This is a theme that runs through this book and it is clear that Caan has been pitched to by many people whom he sees as tragic figures - those who spend years perfecting an invention that will never have a market (like the mechanical rotary washing line) or people who are trying to solve a problem that is too small or not universal enough (like the guy who invented a device to undo a hard to reach nut under his sink).

Is there a bit of self publicity here? Well, yes. There are references to his personalised number plate and Caan does describe Hamilton Bradshaw as 'one of the biggest private equity companies in UK', which is probably a bit of a stretch. But let's put that aside and focus on the fact that many people could have a different and more positive future if they read this book.

Start Your Business in Seven Days: Turn your business idea into a life-changing success

James Caan

Penguin Portfolio, £12.99


- John Vincent is co-founder of Leon, the progressive fast-foodchain.

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