Books: Scraps for the kitchen-table entrepreneur

The author has a great track record as a company founder, yet his advice is not so apt for small businesses, says Antony Buck.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When a book is subtitled 'How to make millions from apparently impossible ideas', you might expect some sort of how-to manual covering new ground on business start-ups, and in particular businesses based on 'apparently impossible ideas' - whatever that may mean. The reality is quite different: Find Your Lightbulb is, in fact, a thoroughly conventional and endearingly idealistic guide to setting up and running a new business.

When you find that Mike Harris was the boss behind First Direct and Egg, you understand this reality. There's a world of difference between starting a business from your kitchen table with the prospect of losing your home if it all goes wrong, and starting a business with the backing of a major company (such as Midland Bank or Prudential). So this book offers a big-business view of how to start a new business. Inevitably, this has at best partial relevance to most real-world entrepreneurs.

It divides into two parts. The first deals with generating the idea for a new business and getting the business to the point of launch; the second deals with what to do once the business is operating.

There is little here that helps you choose the 'impossible' idea in the first place. It's not helpful to base the chapter titled 'Making million-pound ideas' on a tongue-in-cheek Linus Pauling quote: 'The way to get good ideas is to get lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.' And advice such as 'Ideas that work meet an unmet need - they provide a solution to something that people or businesses need now or might need in the future', may be true but is hardly radical. There's nothing to help you decide why idea A is a 'good' one, whereas idea B isn't.

More concerning is the over-emphasis on enthusiasm. The entire first two chapters, 'Living the dream' and 'Star in your own soap opera', focus almost entirely on the importance of enthusiasm. Yes, of course you must believe in your dream and you need to be persuasive, but you only have to watch an episode of American Idol or Dragons' Den to see the danger of the most damaging lie in the modern world: 'You can achieve anything as long as you want it enough'.

Much more helpful to the prospective entrepreneur is the chapter dealing with the value of critics. Using criticism from informed experts to improve your idea is good advice, although I wouldn't call this 'the best-kept secret in business', as the book claims.

The second half of the book deals with what to do once the business is up and running. It provides a sensible checklist of stuff that you should be doing. The most interesting idea here is the separation of ends and means - keep your ultimate goal inviolable but stay nimble and flexible with your route to achieving it. This could stop a lot of struggling new businesses from throwing good money after bad. Beyond this, the chapters on brand-building, culture and leadership are filled with sensible advice.

My suspicion, though, is that they'll be relevant to few new businesses. These are generally small businesses, and the problems and opportunities they face are to do with smallness. How do you control rapid growth? How do you exploit your position as a speedboat versus established oil tankers? Can you really afford a new coffee machine? The central problems aren't solved by a new logo or a culture consultant. Oh, if only they were ...

Harris has an extraordinary business pedigree. The success of First Direct and Egg demonstrates that it's possible for even the biggest and most bureaucratic businesses - and they don't come much more so than a Big Four bank or a major insurance firm - to rapidly launch initiatives that are innovative, nimble and modern. Maybe he should have written a book about that instead.

Find Your Lightbulb, Mike Harris. Capstone £12.99

- Antony Buck is co-founder of REN.

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