Sarah Willingham: I will never start another business again

The entrepreneur and investor on top leadership skills, pivotal career moments and Dragons' Den.

by Management Today
Last Updated: 08 Jul 2020
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On picking up the phone and taking control of your own diary:

My first job was at Planet Hollywood, when it was still cool. I did the project management opening new sites in France, from the first brick in the floor to the first customer through the door. They then offered me a job running franchising across Europe.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Planet Hollywood’s business model wasn’t the most sustainable, with huge capital expenditure meaning it would never get a good return on investment, but I loved the international angle, so I looked around at which UK brands had the legs to expand abroad.

This was 20 years ago, and I thought Pizza Express and Pret a Manger were perfect, so I phoned them both, a super-confident 25 year old, and said I can help you expand abroad. Pret put the phone down; Pizza Express asked me in. 

I ended up running their international development, which was a great job but there was always someone telling me where I’d be on a Monday morning. By the end of my 20s I realised that if I ever wanted to have a family and some freedom, this was not my path.

I went on my own, managing my own diary, and built the largest chain of Indian restaurants in the UK, the Bombay Bicycle Club, taking it from four to 17 restaurants, sold it and started investing. 

On her biggest business lesson:

The biggest skill you can have in any leadership position is to be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses. 

I started a business ten years ago called Let’s Save Money, which was profitable but it wasn’t a success. That was a big learning for me. I probably already knew this, but it reminded me that I’m not a creator. 

Other people are so much better at starting businesses than me. When they get bigger and want to grow, that’s me. I’m great at growth, but I will never start another business again, ever. It’s not what I’m good at. 

That self-awareness is so important, because it means you surround yourself with brilliant people who enhance your strengths and fill your weaknesses. In my 20s, I recruited in the mirror, which was an absolute disaster because you end up with loads of people who have all your weaknesses. So understand your strengths and weaknesses, and own them.

On Dragons' Den:

Dragons' Den came out of nowhere. I got an email asking to do a screen test, and within days they offered me the position. It was brilliant but it was terrifying to begin with. I remember walking into the room, seeing those five chairs and thinking I was going to vomit. I have a lot of respect for the people who walk in and do their two minute pitch.  

We were lucky, because we all really got on - to the point that it must have been quite hard to edit because there was no scrapping. I’m still great friends with some of the dragons.

My best investment was without a doubt the Craft Gin Club. The guys who run this business are the best I’ve ever worked with. I’m so lucky to be involved, and it’s been phenomenally successful - there were 3,000 members when they came to the Den, now we have 80,000.

My investment criteria haven’t changed - is there a need for your product or service, is anyone else doing it, is your offer better than what’s on the market now, can I see a clean marketing model for letting people know you exist, are you more qualified than any other person to do this?

It sounds like a cliche, but it starts with the people. Even if the business model isn’t quite right, you can work on that, whereas if you have an amazing business model but the wrong people, you’ll never get there. 

This is an edited extract of Sarah Willingham’s interviewed by Work. magazine editor Claire Warren at Management Today’s Leadership Lessons Live virtual conference

Image courtesy of Sarah Willingham

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