Luke Johnson: What makes us tick?

How Gatsby helps the fretful entrepreneur; the British Growth Fund is a dud - what UK plc needs is angels; the power of offline social networking - aka a good dinner.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 25 Jul 2016

I spend most of my working time in the company of entrepreneurs and I remain fascinated by their motivation and character. What drives them? How do they handle disappointment? When are they satisfied? What gives them their relentless self-confidence? But I suspect even apparently bullet-proof bosses have their moments of doubt - I know I have plenty.

They say that four in the morning is the bleakest hour of all. It is when you are most alone, the world is darkest and all your fears seem so much worse. At moments like that, I imagine every budget is missed, every bank covenant is broken and every company I own is heading for bankruptcy. And if all the decades of effort really end up worthless, will I have the energy and the confidence to pick up the pieces and start again?

Such a lively sense of paranoia is not altogether a bad thing. We live in treacherous times - it can pay to think about the downsides. Inflation is rampant, credit is tight, interest rates are heading up; meanwhile, consumers are broke, competition is ferocious - and if all that doesn't kill you, then regulation and taxes will. So why bother?

But the animal spirits don't stay repressed for long. A thirst for adventure, the urge to build, the profit motive, a desire for independence - all these powerful forces renew one's sense of optimism and ambition.

Thus I return to the fray, a glutton for punishment, hungry for even a tiny piece of glory and fresh opportunities. Is it nurture or nature that forces us on? Who knows? The magnificent closing line of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby sums it up pretty well: 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'

Since the credit crunch, UK clearing banks have suffered deserved criticism for reducing lending to smaller companies. So in a PR stunt designed to fend off such attacks, they have launched a project called the British Growth Fund. This is a £2.5bn private equity vehicle that plans to inject between £2m and £10m a time of finance into established companies. Unfortunately, the problem it claims to address doesn't exist: there are at least 50 funds of various sorts which already target this market and there is simply no shortage of capital for industry that falls into this category.

Essentially, all viable propositions of this type can obtain money on pretty attractive terms - anyone who is unable to work this out simply does not understand the market.

I know about this issue because Risk Capital Partners has focused on exactly this space for some time - and I understand just how competitive it is among finance providers.

Already we have to fight off players such as LDC, part of government-controlled Lloyds Banking Group - and hence effectively subsidised by the taxpayer. Now we have another giant competitor fuelled with our taxes (via RBS and Lloyds again).

Yet the real shortage is in very early stage, angel funding, if you like - which is high risk, and much harder work - but would serve a true economic and social purpose. Genuine venture capital to seed innovation is in short supply in Britain and more of it would boost the chances of start-ups succeeding.

Instead, the big banks have failed to do their homework - or perhaps their proposal is more cynical and the whole exercise is a sham. They have hired establishment grandees such as Sir Nigel Rudd, who are perhaps more familiar with monopolistic behemoths like Heathrow operator BAA than the struggles of ground-level entrepreneurs. I predict the British Growth Fund will be a failure. It will not find enough decent projects to back and it will overpay for those it does. Meanwhile, the major banks will continue to overcharge small businesses and squeeze their lines of credit.

Like all such hollow schemes dreamt up with political rather than commercial motives, in a few years it will be quietly shut down, leaving the battlefield to those who have concentrated on this activity for decades and actually possess a bit of domain knowledge.

The power of meeting face to face should never be underestimated. Emails, posted letters, videoconferencing and telephone calls only go so far. These secondary forms of communication can never match the depth of conversation possible when talking to someone in the flesh.

I chair the advisory board for an organisation called Fast Track, which ranks Britain's private companies. At the heart of its offering are a number of evening events where owners and managers can connect over a drink and a meal. These dinners - which are invitation only and free to the entrepreneur guests - are very high-quality affairs. On every occasion, I end up getting to know various fascinating individuals who run extraordinary businesses.

Online social networks such as LinkedIn are all very well, but they can never provide the serendipity and intimacy that a brilliantly choreographed supper and speech is capable of delivering. Attendees know that Fast Track gatherings are best of breed and that most similar receptions, soirees, awards ceremonies and so forth are unimpressive by comparison.

These days, I frequent fewer such amicable congregations than I once did, because I have young children - and as a consequence, I suspect that I miss out on various commercial and social opportunities.

If you are ever invited to one of these suppers, I strongly advise you to go - you are bound to make some excellent connections.

- Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners

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