Books: Bringing something original to market

Baby food or green grass, it's not just product or money that inspires entrepreneurs, says Emma Barnes, it's how they do it

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My Big Idea
Rachel Bridge
Kogan Page £14.99
MT price £13.50
To order, visit

I can't watch Dragon's Den. Earnest prospective investees troop in, baring their souls, sharing their dreams. They hope the judges will identify with them - which rarely happens. Instead, the bravest thing these people have ever done comes under fire. There's a sense that these dreamers must be put in their place. And that's the last thing I want for them or for myself.

That's why I found My Big Idea such a delight. The book tells the stories of 30 entrepreneurs who have founded businesses ranging from babyfood suppliers to internet access providers. The accounts of their setbacks and hard-won successes are frequently inspirational. They dared to dream - and after a lot of hard work it paid off.

Indeed, the ability to work hard seems to be one of the few consistent attributes of this diverse set of people. The businesses themselves are as varied as their founders' motivations. Some start-up ideas grew out of personal experiences. Will Ramsay established the Affordable Art Fair because he found traditional galleries expensive and intimidating. His sales now exceed £50 million.

Other ideas came from looking at the market. Karen Darby started SimplySwitch when it dawned on her that she would have greater success if instead of cold-calling customers she let them come to her when they wanted to change their utilities provider. Her sales forecast for 2006 is £6 million.

Inspiration has also come from personal passions. Judy Craymer spent 14 years and a £20,000 overdraft trying to convince sceptical investors a musical based on Abba would be a success. Mamma Mia has grossed $1 billion and been seen by 24 million worldwide.

The secret was all in the execution. Stephen Waring's Green Thumb business promised to turn lawns green - a service that no other company offered. He had to sell both the concept and the product - and make sure it delivered results. At the other end of the spectrum, Sally Preston set up Babylicious. The concept of selling baby food is not a new one, but she froze the food into ice-cube trays and achieved excellent publicity, resulting in nationwide stocking of her babyfood. The success of both companies came from effectiveness of execution.

My Big Idea throws light on the sort of person it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur. Several founders embraced IT and are constantly learning - ex-physicist David Salisbury has built all his own IT systems, so they're perfectly tailored to his conservatory business.

People often say that success comes to those who are lucky, but several of this book's subjects experienced enormous problems from which they bounced back. Preston overcame cancer, divorce and malicious interference. Others have recovered from floods, over-rapid expansion and cashflow crises.

Several were bullied at school - which they say made them tougher. They are relentless optimists, which I identify with. After all, what's the worst that can happen? You go back to your old job? How much worse to have missed out on the adventure of a lifetime.

My personal favourite story was that of Richard Tang, the founder of Zen Internet. My company uses Zen's broadband services and I had cause to phone Zen the other day. I'd just come off the phone with Orange: I was on hold for 45 minutes and then cut off. Zen managed my far more complex query in two minutes; the upgrade went live 10 minutes later and I received an unexpected rebate on my rental charge the next day. Whatever Zen is doing differently, it's working.

And that's what is at the heart of the best new companies: the intent to do things differently, to bring something original to the market, whether it's their product, their methods or just their attitudes. Small businesses are rarely started solely to make their investors wealthy. Something more fundamental always creeps in, be it a wish to take pride in one's work or the search for happiness through job satisfaction. Gordon Montgomery, founder of music retailer Fopp, sums it up: 'I'm chuffed ... I always wanted to build a business that had some substance to it.'

I'd like to think The Big Idea will inspire more would-be entrepreneurs to take the leap, to see that failure isn't necessarily to be feared and that the rewards go far beyond the prospect of being wealthy.

Emma Barnes is co-founder and MD of book publisher Snowbooks, which won Small Publisher of the Year 2006. She is one of MT's 2006 '35 Women Under 35'.


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