Embezzlement, tornados and intensive care: Why we shouldn’t romanticise entrepreneurship

Serial entrepreneur and Huboo CEO Martin Bysh speaks candidly about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.

by Paul Simpson
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2023
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Before you start your own business Martin Bysh, CEO and co-founder of the Bristol-based global ecommerce fulfilment provider Huboo, says you should ask two questions. “What do I want out of this? Is it fame, wealth, status, or something else? And if you get it, will you be satisfied?”

In reality, he says, most people become entrepreneurs for one reason only: “They will work 16 hours a day, endure constant stress and probably neglect their own families primarily for the benefit of not being told what to do.”

That sounds like Bysh - who, still in his fifties, has founded and sold four companies in his career - is pessimistic about the British entrepreneur’s lot. He isn’t, likening it to a decades-long ride on a rollercoaster.

Any would-be Alan Sugars or Peter Joneses should recognise that most British governments can barely spell ‘entrepreneur’, let alone understand how to support them. As he says: “When the government thinks about business, it’s all about London and the City. They really need to help people invest in business as a whole by making it a lot easier.”

The idea that businesses operate in a VUCA (Volatile, Complex, Uncertain and Ambiguous) marketplace is a hoary old cliche but Bysh’s career as a serial entrepreneur suggests it is true.

The unexpected hazards that have made his past 25 years so challenging include – but are not limited to – a week in intensive care after a second bout of Covid, a client arrested for embezzlement (days before Bysh and colleagues were about to kickstart a new bespoke system with him) and a tornado that recently blew the roof off one of Huboo’s warehouses in Germany. “Imagine that,” he says, with a wry laugh, “how do you assess the risk of something like that happening? I mean, a tornado in Germany!”

Some hazards turn out to be blessings. By the late 2000s, his dating website Smooch.com had become one of the top five in the UK. Yet the business was hard to monetise and he worried that new regulations would make things worse: “There was constant talk about users being compelled to validate their ID, which many of them wouldn’t do and, even if they did, the cost of processing this would ruin the business.”

He was so concerned he sold the company. Although the regulations never changed, the launch of Tinder, shortly after the sale, made him realise how lucky he had been.

What it takes

Being an entrepreneur is effectively, he says, a matter of solving problems. And the sheer variety of problems explains why, in his view, people need to understand what drives them. “Most people don’t have a lot of self-knowledge so they gravitate towards what they’re good at – or think they’re good at, which isn’t always the same thing – or what they enjoy doing.

"When I started out, with my background as a games writer and software engineer, if my company faced a problem, I assumed the solution was to develop a new feature. It took me the best part of ten years before I realised that, a lot of the time, the answer was something completely different - like running a better marketing campaign or focusing on user acquisition.”

In a similar vein, he says, many entrepreneurs assume that because they are good at something, it must be good for the company. “I have a friend, whose business I’ve invested in, who is really good at making deals. The problem is that the company is at a stage where it doesn’t really need that many deals negotiating.”

It is easy - and dangerous - he says, to romanticise entrepreneurship: “There is a tendency to focus on the glamorous things – the brand – or the easy things - creating a lovely logo - rather than on things that really matter. There is nothing romantic about spreadsheets - or, for that matter, the fluctuating cost of capital.

"A while back, I would have recommended budding entrepreneurs to seek funding, rather than bootstrapping [financing themselves] but now that fewer investors are willing to take the risk, you may discover that your freedom disappears and choices are forced upon you.”

It doesn’t help, he says, that many lenders assume that entrepreneurship is a young person’s game. As he got older, he recalls, “When I walked into a meeting with a new VC, I’d often find a twenty-something associate looking at me as if to say: ‘If this guy was going to make any money, he’d have done it by now.’”

Much Huboo

The three themes that span Bysh’s various careers are technology, flexibility and resilience. At 13, fed up with school, he bought a ZX Spectrum home computer and, within three years, was writing and coding his own games, including a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle title.

Mindful of the rise in consoles and large development teams, he changed tack, launching a web agency before moving into internet dating and then online polling. (He also helped launch - and still sits on the board of - Enthuse, a company that helps charities manage online donations more effectively.)

The idea for Huboo emerged from conversations on the touchline as he and co-founder Paul Dodd, who managed logistics business change for Procter & Gamble at the time, dragged their sons to football games. Dodd (who is now the company’s CIO) became so excited about the idea of launching a tech-based logistics business that he learned code and wrote half of a warehouse management system.

Huboo launched in 2017 and, after a first round of financing a year later, it had, Bysh recalls, “two rooms in Safestore in Bath and revenues of around £25,000.” In the year to September 2023, the company won £20m in new business, acquired 1,100 clients and became TikTok Shop’s first certified fulfilment centre in the UK, giving it a crucial role in the Chinese tech giant’s drive into social commerce.

Yet there have been serious setbacks too: in March this year, with consumer spending waning and stock markets wobbling, the company made 100 staff redundant, reducing its headcount to around 650 and scaled back its global ambitions. Instead of expanding into 16 markets, it focuses on five: the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and the US.

The company’s emphasis on putting employees first, giving them autonomy, and promoting internally had led to a churn rate of around 2% (compared to an industry average of 37%). Bysh admits he found the redundancy process agonising, but saw no other way to protect the business. With consumer confidence recovering, and ecommerce and social commerce retailers growing, Huboo is now looking to recruit again.

Ignorant politicans

To succeed as an entrepreneur in the UK, he says, you have to accept that, although you won’t exactly be swimming against the tide, you won’t be swimming with it either. “America is a deeply entrepreneurial place, with a sense that anyone could - and should – make it to the top,” says Bysh. This attitude was mythologised in Horatio Alger’s bestselling rags to riches novels of the late nineteenth century and has helped to shape the way Americans see themselves.

That isn’t the case in Britain where of late, he says, an insulated political class has emerged that has little understanding of how business really works. During Covid, for example, the government stipulated that the logistics sector could work normally, but did that include fulfilment services, which could hardly work from home? Huboo tried, unsuccessfully, to get specific advice from Whitehall before eventually deciding to take the risk.

Bysh is not scoring party political points. Only 7% of present MPs are from working class backgrounds, and even in the Labour Party, that proportion has shrunk by more than half since 1987. He grew up in Leytonstone, east London and was raised by his mother, a dinner lady, spending time in a hostel for the homeless before moving into a council house.

In a way, his life is a Horatio Alger story and he remains hopeful that there will be more such successes in the UK: “If you look at the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk, you realise it only takes a few success stories to help turn this around.”

Putting entrepreneurship on a pedestal isn’t useful but nor, he argues, is ignoring it, as British culture often does. “You see business on television - especially now with dramas like Succession – but what you rarely see in this country are novels about it.” David Lodge’s Nice Work (1988), a clash-of-cultures tale, pitting academia against industrial engineering, is decent but, once again, the Americans have done it better, notably A Man In Full (1998), Tom Wolfe’s epic, brilliantly detailed saga about financiers and property magnates in America.

Most business owners think reducing corporate taxes would have a much more immediate impact (spoiler alert: he does too) but his point is valid. At present, outside of the finance sector, British business lacks soft power – and that undermines its hard power.

One example, which he feels passionately about, is the government’s enterprise zone strategy which he has described as “an arbitrary approach that will inevitably fail to support thousands of British entrepreneurs who are creating high-potential businesses from their kitchen tables.”

He has a point. If the government is to help business owners, the criterion should surely be how good they are, not where they are.

Illustration created using picture supplied by Martin Bysh