When I decided to launch Go Ape in late 2001, my motivation was as much flight from an unhappy corporate career as any long held desire to run my own business.
After a rewarding, formative, and modestly successful six years as an army captain, my three years working for two of the top two companies listed in 'The Best 100 Companies to Work for' was at best shallow, and mostly pretty disastrous.
Setting up my own business seemed to me the only route available whereby I had a chance of building the lifestyle I visualised for me and my young family. My experience of 'corporate' life was such that I have never liked being called a 'businessman', preferring bad-but-memorable puns such as on-tree-preneur or adventurepreneur. My business card title 'chief gorilla' is no better.
I deeply wanted to be part of an organisation of which I could be proud of, where I could work with people I liked and respected, doing something fundamentally worthwhile which I enjoyed. And not to live in fear of falling into the 10% fired each year as company policy. I also thought it important to be able to be a part of breakfast or tea-time with my family most days. As I couldn’t think of any such company I realised a bit reluctantly I had to set one up myself. Go Ape was born.
Go Ape's journey is like a rowing race. At the beginning I just jumped in a boat and started to row. I managed to persuade some other enthusiastic amateurs to jump in behind me. It was great fun, and we gave it our all, but working harder didn't equate to going faster. We could only look backwards and couldn't see obstacles ahead or where we were going. As the boat got fuller we nearly sank.
Thankfully, I heard about the Business Growth & Development Programme (BGDP) at the Cranfield School of Management. It is designed for owner managers and their businesses. It requires two days at Cranfield every fortnight, for two months.
Cranfield teaches you that you shouldn’t try to be the most powerful rower in the boat. In fact the best place is not to be doing the work at all. The leader needs to switch place from hero to zero, to become the cox of the boat, the team strategist.
The cox's job is to look forwards, encourage the team, get everyone pulling together, coach what needs to change, keep an eye on the competition, and steer the best course to where you need to go.
The programme was a lot of money to me at the time, but worth every penny. Looking back, it was when Go Ape grew up. Our growth and profitability rocketed upwards. It also gave us a hugely valuable and supportive long term network of other entrepreneurs and business school academics, who have helped hone Go Ape into a stand out enterprise.
Cranfield encouraged Go Ape to enter awards. It's a healthy test to put your business through. The application process makes you take a long, cool look at your whole business. Whether you win or not, you get valuable independent and expert feedback on how well your business scored against the winners’ benchmark in key areas. This helps you target improvement.
But if you do win it's a terrific morale boost for your whole team, and also introduces you to a stellar network of useful contacts and leading entrepreneurs, who I have found to be invariably friendly and generous with their advice. Lots of good things came from it.
The 2013 National Business Awards is coming up (entries need to be submitted before 31st May). What have you got to lose?
Tristram Mayhew is founder of outdoor activities chain Go Ape!.