Luke Johnson: Excitement and trepidation

Our serial entrepreneur looks forward to a Christmas shindig, but his natural optimism is tinged with concern for the transitory nature of the e-world we inhabit.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2011

Every December, a few days before Christmas, I attend one of my favourite lunches of the year. I have been going to this intimate gathering for at least a decade. It takes place in a raffish casino in Mayfair and consists of about a dozen or so rakes - stockbrokers, entrepreneurs, fund managers, bankers, financial journalists and other rogues from the business world.

Apart from jokes, champagne and rich food, the point of the event is for every luncheon guest to tip a bull and bear stock for the impending year. I invariably pick my long and short punts a few hours before the meal, and come up with some flimsy reasons for my choices. Usually they do badly.

We each stick £50 in the pot and the winners divvy the stakes up. My fellow diners find obscure mining companies to buy and horribly insolvent banks to sell. The shares to dump always sound tempting, but I don't think I've ever followed any of the recommendations liberally dispensed around the table. I probably should have. I've learned that certain astute diners often know what they're talking about.

The occasion reminds me that I work best by placing a handful of big, long-term bets on private companies. At least with such ventures you have a vague idea that you might just influence the outcome - in contrast to that other casino, the stock market.

I recently chaired a discussion at the Royal Society of Arts on the booming prospects for mobile telephony. It seems everything from payment systems to healthcare will be transformed by advances in portable technology in the coming years.

But this complete addiction to electronic devices comes at a price: our ability to concentrate. I feel this very much myself - I think I am constantly distracted by my iPhone or BlackBerry. We're fooling ourselves if we think we can multi-task and still execute jobs as effectively. Studies show that quality deteriorates if you handle several things at once, and everyday experience tells us this must be right.

Moreover, I worry that we are a generation that increasingly lacks a real depth of knowledge - and the ability to remember almost anything. Now that we can all access the internet any time, thanks to the small gadget in our pocket, who needs to know anything? Or, indeed, recall it?

Something that requires undivided attention is reading a book. I wonder how many twentysomethings do that any more? Earlier this year, I became a non-executive director at Phaidon, the legendary illustrated book publisher. It has a small front list but a big back list, and its books are physically elegant objects, all published internationally.

I believe the management will cope with the transition to digital books far better than most. The future for some players may be much darker. Already, almost a fifth of revenues of certain major trade fiction publishers are generated by eBooks. I fear that soon parts of the industry may face a terrible reckoning - squeezed by piracy, deflation, Apple and Amazon: I desperately hope they manage it better than the recorded music business did.

I was always told that there were three ways to achieve immortality: have children, plant trees and write books.

I've done all three, but I worry intensely that today's books may not endure, as previous titles have for the past few hundred years.

With the next generation's saplings in mind, I am busy trying to establish the Institute of Entrepreneurs, a new thinktank devised by some partners and me. We are a niche organisation that aims to defend and promote entrepreneurship.

It is always exciting starting something from scratch: the world is a crowded place, and winning converts to an idea is never easy. But I have been encouraged by the initial support we have received from all sorts of people and places - because everyone accepts that without enterprising individuals in the private sector, there will be no British job creation to absorb the growing ranks of the unemployed.

Our first project is clear: a thorough study of how burdensome employment legislation acts as a major deterrent to recruitment prospects in small companies. Every business owner I meet has his or her own horror story of a fatuous claim, which drains their will to hire.

Unfortunately, too few MPs or senior civil servants have ever had to meet a payroll or attend an employment tribunal. If they had, they would see how such kangaroo courts drive almost every British entrepreneur to automate or outsource any labour process they can.

We will never come close to full employment when every company - even those with just one member of staff - requires a full-time HR department just to cope with the rules.

Around this time of year, I analyse the past 12 months' achievements and plan for the year ahead. Overall, 2010 has been better than I feared. I was expecting much more economic pain. Most of the companies I own have grown, and I've also made a few fresh investments. But it may be that our difficulties have simply been deferred.

The gruesome unravelling in Ireland is a terrifying spectre that should haunt us. Irish banks were more bust than British ones, and the Irish property boom was madder than ours - but we should not be complacent. We must pray that sterling doesn't crumble and that inflation stays modest - enabling interest rates to remain low for some years. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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