In 2005 Sir Ronald Cohen left Apax Partners, the private equity firm he had founded and led for 30 years. Now running Bridges Ventures, a social investment firm, and the Portland Trust, a charity that promotes peace in the Middle East, he's also found time to write a new book called 'The Second Bounce of the Ball' (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 304pp, £20), which aims to show entrepreneurs how to succeed.
MT: Sir Ronald, you spent 30 years at Apax – do you miss it?
I must say, I’ve not missed it at all. Partly because I focused on the succession as being a real challenge to pull off, so I left with a sense that I’d achieved that as well as building a business. But there were other things I wanted to do: to develop Bridges into a major organisation and push the concept of social investment as a new asset class; to get more involved in the management of my own assets; to develop the Portland Trust, and to write a book. So in some ways, I left for even bigger challenges.
MT: What was the thinking behind this book?
I wanted to show that being an entrepreneur is not about opportunism: there are rules to being successful, and these rules can be learnt. However, they’ve not been analysed in any of the books I’ve seen. So I wanted to show the road to be travelled; to set out the fundamentals of entrepreneurial strategy as it applies to the choice of opportunity, the building up of a management team, raising finance and creating opportunities through networking.
MT: So entrepreneurs are made, rather than born?
I think it’s a mixture. There’s an element that’s innate: ambition, drive, resilience, work ethic, the capacity to cope with setbacks without losing confidence. Then there are a whole set of values that tend to come from your background: the confidence to go and do something on your own; the scale of your ambition; the presence of a support group; your appetite for uncertainty. And then there are the rules, which this book tries to impart.
MT: This ‘appetite for uncertainty’ is clearly an important trait for entrepreneurs.
Yes, that’s right at the core of the book. It's all about taking advantage of uncertainty; if you run away from risk, you shy away from opportunity. There’s still a real fear of failure in this country – people think they must avoid setbacks completely, and give up if they have one. But in my experience you can’t avoid them; the challenge is to view each one as an opportunity to move ahead faster. It sounds facile, but it can be done.
MT: You suggest that entrepreneurs must be good recruiters?
So many entrepreneurs try and adapt the needs of their business to themselves. The key is to recruit people who are better at doing their job than you would be. That’s crucial as you move from being the centre of your organisation to becoming the leader, delegating to others. Most recruiters look for things in an interviewee – but a great recruiter also understands what that person expects from you. You need an inspiring vision; if you start with a weak vision, you’re unlikely to recruit great people. And that has a knock-on effect: the type of person you settle for determines who else you’re able to recruit.
MT: You talk about the importance of intuition, which you say is more often found in women – so why aren’t there more female entrepreneurs and CEOs?
Yes, it’s something I decry in the book. The reasons are partly historic: it takes time for men to get round to the idea that they should recruit women and offer them the same terms. Also, a lot of women aren’t – yet – interested in having careers that keep them away from home a lot. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that it’s not easy to build a business. Entrepreneurs tend to be obsessive, and you have to make sacrifices. It’s a constant juggling act, and it took me a while to get the balance right.
‘The Second Bounce of the Ball’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, is available now.