Entrepreneurialism: The new Rock 'N' Roll

Forget Del Boy, running your own business can now be as glamorous as being in a rock band. We look at this new breed of rock'n'roll business owners.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 11 Jul 2014

Although given to hot air and melodramatics, Dragons' Den has helped raise the profile of entrepreneurs

In an alleyway outside a nightclub in London's East End, I'm trying to interview a man who has just come off stage. He's panting slightly and his make-up - a mixture of glitter and neon-yellow face paint - is smudged with sweat.

We try to ignore a pair of his fans, who are hovering next to us and grinning inanely, exchanging little hushed squeaks of adulation as they wait for a gap in our conversation so they can interrupt. Before they get the chance, though, my man's PR minder sticks her head out of the venue.

'I've got someone else who wants to talk to you,' she says to him, signalling that my interview time - all four minutes and 40 seconds of it - is up. The fans look disappointed and shuffle off.

The man I'm speaking to is not, despite the Lycra he's sporting, a rock star. He's not an actor. He's not even a reality show contestant. He's Michael Acton Smith, the founder of Mind Candy, the company behind kids' social networking extravaganza Moshi Monsters (70 million registered users, £47m turnover).

He's here tonight because he is one of the brains behind 'Ping Pong Fight Club', the event we're standing outside that he and several other entrepreneurs organised to help start-ups in Old Street's 'Silicon Roundabout' enclave get to know each other.

The wiff-waff is fast and furious. The atmosphere is electric. The beer is served in plastic cups and the Rocky training montage-style motivation tunes are cheesy, but pretty much everyone thinks it's 'awesome'. In fact, pretty much everyone thinks pretty much everything is 'awesome'. The people in the room are a very optimistic bunch.

Think of an entrepreneur 20 years ago and you'd get Del Boy and Rodney, grimly peddling knocked-off gear from the back of their Reliant Regal in Peckham. Before that, it was Private Walker, spivving it up in Dad's Army. But things have changed. Now, the likes of Dragons' Den and Richard Branson have transformed the reputation of the entrepreneur into that of a slick, charismatic leader: more celebrity than businessman.

Entrepreneurialism isn't a profession any more: it's a cult. An awesome, awesome cult.

The increasing number of business reality shows on TV has helped, but as big business and the professions become less attractive to new graduates, the UK is becoming more comfortable with the idea of the entrepreneur (the French, after all, have no word for it). And we Brits - the nation that invented the tradesman's entrance - are even, possibly, beginning to accept the brash, American approach to making, and talking about making, money.

Acton Smith - whose mop-like haircut alone sets him apart as one of the UK's foremost rock star entrepreneurs - admits to being something of a minor celebrity. He has even been the victim (he insists he was the victim) of a paparazzi set-up involving an Apprentice candidate in a position so awkward the Sun had to use one of his Moshi Monsters ('Furi', if you're interested) to preserve her modesty.

This kind of media focus on a bloke who has started a business - rather than a billionaire or an actor or a pop star - is relatively new. So what has changed? Acton Smith has a theory. 'What has happened is that business has gone from the business pages to the front pages, with Facebook and Twitter and everything else that is going on,' he says. 'I think that definitely puts more of a spotlight on it.'

At the same time, entrepreneurs are increasingly recognising the value of PR - not just for their brands but for themselves, too. 'Anyone can build a huge company - it takes all sorts. Some want to hide and work, and some want to have a slightly higher profile,' says Acton Smith.

With his mop-like haircut, Michael Acton Smith is one of the UK's foremost rock star entrepreneurs. Image: Rob Freeman

Jacqueline Gold, the founder of Ann Summers and a minor celebrity in her own right (her 'lovingly refurbished home' featured in one of Hello! magazine's many pre-royal baby royal baby issues), argues that a certain amount of renown can be helpful. 'That celebrity status makes you more accessible, more approachable,' she says. 'People like to shop with a brand they trust, and if you know the person behind the brand, I think it adds to that element of trust. I think it is a good thing.'

The entrepreneurs who know most about celebrity are Peter Jones, Duncan Bannatyne, Deborah Meaden and the rest of the ever-fluctuating pack of Dragons, who are now able to leverage their celebrity to get brand recognition. Entrepreneurs in the UK are more popular than ever, and it's partly down to them. According to the most recent edition of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, total early-stage entrepreneurial activity in the UK hit 7.6% in 2011, up from its historical average of 6% in the years between 2002 and 2010.

A 2010 report looking into media portrayals of entrepreneurs commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that this new-found respect has been inspired by - you guessed it - the Dragons. According to the findings, one in five of those questioned felt motivated by television business reality programmes to start their own companies, while 58% thought positively about entrepreneurs in general.

With Theo Paphitis's £830,000 chrome-plated Maybach to aspire to, no wonder the yoof is gravitating towards entrepreneurialism. And with everything from the banking crisis to tech giants' adventures in international espionage causing PR crises, the reputations of large, faceless corporations are plummeting. Ditto the reputations of the professions, which with swingeing budget cuts and not even the benefit of a final-salary pension to keep them interesting, look nowhere near as attractive as they used to.

Meanwhile, graduate jobs have all but evaporated: back in the Swinging Sixties, the options of new graduates were determined during the 'milk round', as big business - law firms, oil companies, government departments - visited universities. Now, a survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency has found that a fifth of university leavers are unemployed or in low-paid jobs six months after graduating.

Entrepreneurialism is exciting and creative, and gives youngsters more control over their lives than hanging around the dole queue does. Admittedly, it rarely starts off well paid, but then what rock star started out with the express intention of making money? It's all about the experience, man - not to mention the screaming adoration of members of the opposite sex.

Of course, the reality - making the payroll, arguing with your bank manager, working long hours for less than minimum wage - is miles away from a chrome Maybach. As with those singing into hairbrushes in their front rooms, a high percentage of those setting out to become entrepreneurs won't make it. It's a lot more difficult than it looks on the telly.

That might go some way to explaining why, given the choice between their little darlings becoming successful entrepreneurs and going off to become the world's next great artiste, most British parents would still choose the latter (just look at the results of a 2002 survey of respect for professions by Radio 4's Today programme, in which 'company director' came 84th out of 92). We're still a snobby lot but the new enthusiasm for entrepreneurialism does at least suggest that the UK is becoming more like the US, with its admiration of those who know how to make money.

Vernon Hill founded US-based Commerce Bank in 1973. Having sold it for $8.5bn in 2007, he came to the UK to set up Metro Bank, which opened its doors here in 2010. He is also the author of his very own business tome, Fans not Customers.

Metro Bank sets itself apart from others with slick branding and an 'openness' its rivals would struggle to muster. The pens aren't nailed down and there is no glass partition between the customer and the cashier. There are even dog bowls for pets who might be interested in following in the pawprints of Harry Redknapp's pooch Rosie by opening their own bank account.

Hill is, by his own admission, brash. But although he has had to tone down his American ways for the UK market, he says Brits admire his branding. 'People love Metro Bank. There's some suggestion that you Brits are accepting this kind of brashness,' he says.

In fact, the very existence of Silicon Roundabout, with its legions of T-shirted, ping-pong playing, 'awesome' entrepreneurial wannabes, and the regular appearance of entrepreneurs in our tabloids are testament to that, suggests Hill. 'It's nice to see that the British press and the British public are getting the value of people with new innovative ideas that create businesses and create jobs. It's a great plus,' he adds.

But the real rock star entrepreneurs - those who inspire the sort of hand-wringing, knicker-throwing devotion you normally only see in teenage girls waiting outside Justin Bieber concerts - are the ones whose reputations become entwined in their brands. For an example, look no further than the late lamented Steve Jobs, a man whose very presence caused grown men to weep. And it was all because of the gadgets he was selling. Everyone wanted a piece of Jobs, because Jobs was Apple.

The UK equivalent is Virgin's Richard Branson, whose eccentricities (ballooning, kitesurfing, dressing up as a lady) make him practically un-British. Guy Rigby, the author of From Vision to Exit, says Brits are becoming more accepting of such mavericks. 'That charisma comes from having confidence, and real entrepreneurs have that innate conviction that what they're doing is right and it's going to work - and often, because of that, it does.'

But, sadly, the business has to grow up and often the endearing little foibles of an entrepreneur become market-moving events when you're running a public company.

Acton Smith, who has been the subject of IPO rumours for several months, insists he 'wouldn't wear glitter' to make announcements to the Stock Exchange, but for some entrepreneurs, their eccentricities have been their downfall. For example, Dan Wagner, one of life's grafters but eccentric nonetheless, famously wore a Donald Duck waistcoat to a media photocall before the flotation of his online information business, MAID, in 1994. That stunt was blamed for wiping 10p off its share price. And when, for Branson, the reality of running a public company hit home - debating quarterly figures with analysts, having to modify his behaviour - he gave up and took the business private, retiring to tax-exile status on Necker Island.

Wagner's latest business, technology firm Powa, is due to float in the next few months, but the entrepreneur says he has learned his lesson: not only has he promised he 'won't wear a duck waistcoat this time', but he's not even sure it will be he who takes the company public.

'As a public company CEO, you have to be very circumspect and I'm not,' he says. 'Maybe I'm not the best person to run a public company; maybe it's better if I am the chairman and I have someone else to be the CEO.'

In that respect, the life of a rock 'n' roll entrepreneur is similar to the life of a real rock 'n' roll star: start the company/band, build up a customer/fan base, reach a glorious high before crashing and burning, and realising that perhaps it's best if you're not chief executive/lead singer after all.

'It's pretty scary being a CEO,' admits Acton Smith. 'But then it's pretty scary if you're Bono or a rock star, too. But that's what makes life exciting, isn't it? You never know what's coming.'


Jacqueline Gold

Net worth: £250m

Follower quotient (fans + haters): 7.8

Rock 'n' roll points: 6/10

Gold is responsible for transforming Ann Summers from a sex shop to housewives' favourite - and, by extension, introducing the Rampant Rabbit to the masses. Appears regularly in the Daily Mail, Hello! and other gossip rags.

Tamara Mellon

Net worth: £180m

Follower quotient 5.9

Rock 'n' roll points: 9/10

Former Vogue staffer Mellon admits to a stint in rehab before she approached a Malaysian cobbler to start Jimmy Choo, the shoe designer immortalised in Sex and the City. Mellon appears as often now on the gossip pages as on the business pages.

Richard Branson

Net worth: £3.5bn

Follower quotient 8.9

Rock 'n' roll points: 7/10

The UK's best-known entrepreneur spends his time breaking records, relaxing on Necker, his private island, and jet-skiing with naked women on his back. His ways have rubbed off on his nephew Abel Smith, who in 2008 changed his name to Ned Rocknroll.

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