BOOKS: Struggles on the first rung

There's much to empathise with in this diary of a start-up, says William Sargent

by William Sargent
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The White Ladder Diaries - The pain and pleasure of launching a business

Ros Jay

White Ladder Press £9.99

MT price £8.99 (see panel p29)

This book - a sort of John Harvey Jones Jnr meets Bridget Jones - is a diary written by one of the founders of White Ladder Press over the nine-month period between conception of the company to publication of its first book. The final chapter was written six months later, updating the reader on progress. The book is also a sort of mystery non-fiction with villains and the suspense of 'will they or won't they succeed?' The publishers may have hit on a new genre.

The White Ladder Diaries is a microcosmic illustration of vertical integration in the publishing industry. The author and her partner are writers, moving up the food chain to become publishers. It's a lively, occasionally self-conscious, account of how they uncover and cope with the mysteries of production, sales, marketing, distribution and the rest.

Creatives, on the whole, are not natural business people. When the venture starts out, the founders are typically determined to let the products speak for themselves and to keep nonsense like corporate branding on a back burner, or even in the fridge.

As the story develops, you see the lights coming on. They recognise the benefits of a strong brand and adapt their thinking accordingly. Most successful creative entrepreneurs will recognise and smile at this evolution. I set out unconvinced of this type of book, but quickly warmed to Ros and was rooting for them to sell a million copies of their first publication.

The book seems to be targeted at the virgin entrepreneur and has plenty of helpful advice (if not quite enough of it) on the nuts and bolts of ground level start-ups. The author has distilled a large number of so-called 'golden rules' of setting up shop. Some are valid, others too vague to make a useful contribution. I am not certain, for example, that the advice to 'get everything right from the start' is an easy one to follow.

These are minor criticisms. I believe Diaries makes a useful contribution, not necessarily to budding entrepreneurs, but most definitely to the massive phalanx of service industries and others who pay lip service to the idea of encouraging these vital members of our society and economy. I am thinking of giving it out to civil servants in the spring to accompany my plea to them to spend a week in a small firm.

The villains of the book are the banks and British Telecom. BT's less-than-helpful role - failing to repair the company's rural phone line promptly just as the first product is coming on stream - is just about redeemed at the book's end, when proper contact is established and compensation agreed. Banks, however - in this case HSBC - seem to display a startling indifference to the company's efforts, referring enquiries to call centres when what is needed is an informed financial partner rather than a drone.

(Incidentally, they have a very useful trick for getting past the call centre, which I won't disclose here).

Jay presents quite a lot of detail on White Ladder's strategy regarding corporate sales. If I were them, I'd be onto the CEO of HSBC and the others tomorrow to get a copy of this book into the hands of every single business banking manager in the country.

We can't know whether White Ladder Press will be the next MacMillan or Penguin. The founders are bright and enthusiastic, but they are under-capitalised, having started the venture with just £8,000 of their own money. Throughout the book, they reiterate that they don't want to risk losing their home if the venture fails, but there is no sign of anyone advising them on grants, soft loans or venture capital injections. The firm is trying to launch itself independently of those ugly, frightening things called financial markets. But this, I think, is where it most needs to direct its attention if it is to find the power to break into orbit by year three. The author proves that White Ladder Press can produce the business goods, but on financial structure and advice there is a deafening silence.

A bigger capital cushion would mean they could focus more attention on international markets, and less on the shoestring approach of local network marketing. While these latter efforts are commendable (eg, getting the local itinerant hairdresser to flog copies on commission), capital constraints on the business are limiting its vision as to target market.

The issue of foreign sales, a harder but bigger and juicier nut to crack, is continually put off in favour of pursuing smaller, cheaper, local opportunities.

The White Ladder Diaries is essential reading for those who profess to make their living out of helping small businesses to grow. For entrepreneurs, I expect this shared experience will be entertaining but not necessarily enlightening. For all that, it's a good book, written by someone whom I found myself willing to succeed. I also hope that she is still keeping the diary. The first three years of a start-up offer a fuller picture than just one.

William Sargent is co-founder and joint chief executive of Framestore-CFC. He is also chairman of the Small Business Council, advising government on the needs and concerns of small businesses.

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