SMART LUCK

SMART LUCK - Management Today's Andrew Davidson has spent the past 10 years interviewing entrepreneurs. In a new book published this autumn, he identifies the eight key traits of great business-builders and gives a personal account of his meetings with th

by ANDREW DAVIDSON
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Management Today's Andrew Davidson has spent the past 10 years interviewing entrepreneurs. In a new book published this autumn, he identifies the eight key traits of great business-builders and gives a personal account of his meetings with the winners and losers in entrepreneurial Britain. So what has luck got to do with it?

NURTURED NATURE - RICHARD BRANSON

Richard Branson wants to say something. I can tell. He has that look that bosses get when they deal with journalists day in, day out - a faint hesitation of calculation before they open their mouths.

We are standing in an Athens nightclub, way past midnight, sometime in spring, 1993. I've been sent to shadow him, to tag along and write a profile examining his character, his popularity, his determination to overcome all odds. 'Hey, did you ever have a little black book, you know, one where you keep all your girlfriends' addresses?'

I am hopeless at macho banter. I can't think how to respond. No, I reply, fumbling my cue. His face clouds fleetingly. Branson, who at that stage in his career was always making jokes about being an incorrigible flirt, had been aiming for a point of contact and missed. What could he have been about to say? Probably just some good copy, finely judged to look personal. He does it all the time, and I'd muffed it.

The funny thing was, by far the most interesting person on that trip was not Branson himself but his mother. The woman who had brought him up to believe that being shy was being selfish ... I have lost count of the amount of times I have sat in a room with a successful man telling me about how close he was to his mother. I didn't twig till Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, told me about her dad. Her real dad, not the man who had been married to her mother. It was complicated, difficult, not the sort of thing you would wish on any child growing up, but what came through - apart from the sense of her knowing long before she was told - was the bond.

Mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. Perhaps it comes down to confidence, to removing that fear of rejection. A parent who tells a child all things are possible, to push on regardless, not to doubt that they will be loved whatever happens, may well produce egomaniacal monsters for the world, but also a fair proportion of confident leaders, maybe even some great business-builders. That's not nature at work - how many successful entrepreneurs are children of successful entrepreneurs? - but nurture. Or, at least, some cunning combination of the two.

SOFT RESILIENCE JAMES DYSON

I posit another theory. One key to success is failure - how you respond to your own inevitable failure. Everyone gets knocked back. No-one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say: 'Right, let's give it another go. Who cares what others think? I believe in what I am doing, I will never give up.'

James Dyson nods. 'You're right,' he says. 'Success is made of 99% failure. You galvanise yourself and you keep going, as a full optimist.' But it is not just perseverance that counts, he goes on, it is hope. 'I think hope is the most important element in success.'

Of course, this mixture doesn't always make you the most personable character in the world. You have to believe when others don't. You have to pursue when others give up. You have to push aside when others get in your way. You have to bounce back when the rest of us would probably say: OK, enough, I'm staying on the canvas.

Look where it got Dyson. The inventor who for more than a decade was told his idea for a bagless vacuum cleaner was as worthless as carpet-dust now sits on a pounds 700 million fortune, sees his picture on the cover of the Sunday Times Rich List, and finds himself feted by the great and the good and the greedy. All because he never gave up, in the end designing, engineering, manufacturing and marketing his own invention.

The great British public and others are now happy to pay hundreds of pounds for his finely sculpted machines, and even bitter rivals like Hoover have adopted similar technology.

And is he content? Mostly, although at times he seems ambivalent about it all. The money. The scale. The profile. And he is quite open about his ambivalence and the people he fell out with along the way, including his own family. Like his transparent vacuum cleaners, he is a man with nothing to hide.

DRIVEN DISCIPLINE - SIR ALAN SUGAR

Sir Alan Sugar sits at a small round table in a long, wood-panelled study. The room is spotless, characterless, part of the cavernous beige penthouse suite that is up for sale. He scowls slightly, grumpily, avoiding eye-contact, making clear any conversation is going to be like a long hike up an icy slope.

When you were young, did you just have a nous for business? 'Yeah, and a lot of discipline, yunno? A lot of that. You have to discipline yourself when you are working for yourself. There's no-one else to report to on a Monday morning. You have to discipline yourself so by Wednesday you have earnt the salary you needed.'

Are you good with figures? 'Well, I'm not a brilliant mathematician but quite good with figures, yeah.'

A good salesman? 'Very good, yeah, I would say. It's about being logical, yunno, making offers that was difficult for them to refuse, propositions that were no-brainers, make them assume that offers were good. That's always been my forte. Fair value for money, never overselling something, never charging more than you should do.'

Do you think luck played a part in your success? 'There's no luck involved in my business success. I've got to tell you that. You can't say it's always a bit of luck. You can say that in football, but at the end of the season you play 38 games and can't say it was luck that got Manchester United to the championship.'

DETOURED BRAINS - MIKE LYNCH

They used to say brains were a hindrance to entrepreneurial ambition. Don't go to university, get out there while you're young, get experience. Classic entrepreneurs were men like Sir Alan Sugar, who were uncomplicated in their ambitions, didn't need exams to prove themselves, just the right edginess to ride the flow of money in, money out. Too much brains would capsize you, weigh you down like a backpack of heavy books in the current of capitalism. They used to say that.

Dr Mike Lynch's mouth moves faster than his dark eyes.

Close-up: 'I was born in Ilford but I left it rapidly - ha-ha! My father is a fireman, my mother a nurse, I grew up in Chelmsford, Essex. What was it like? Actually, it is quite difficult to judge Chelmsford till you move away ...'

Lynch, boss of Autonomy, the Cambridge software giant, is not a mellow man. What he wants, like many academic entrepreneurs, is the challenge of complexity, the buzz of overcoming the seemingly insurmountable, staying top of the class in a school where he writes the rules too. And when he is not on the office whiteboard or stuck on a jet mid-Atlantic he likes to tinker, to pull apart and rebuild machinery bought from agricultural fairs near his Suffolk home.

'I like old things,' he says. 'You can learn from them. People always seem to think that we are cleverer than our ancestors, but it's just not true.' So he collects 'old rubbish' and he also collects time. 'I like doing that. You are only gone an hour in my business and everything is changing. It takes me an hour to drive into work, through winding country lanes with no traffic, and I see the seasons change ...'

Time is what he doesn't have enough of, he says, but time is what he, more than most, has whittled away with his innovations that speed up computer traffic. A noose for his own neck, as it were.

SLY AMBITION - CHARLIE HOULT

Sometimes you meet someone before they've made it, before they've accumulated the praise, the millions, and you think: Are they really a contender? Sometimes you never know.

The first I heard about Charlie Hoult was when he e-mailed me - typical Charlie, hassling for attention, said his friends. Hoult, PR man turned entrepreneur, wanted me to look at his latest project, an e-business incubator called metrocube based in an old building bang next door to London's Millennium Bridge.

Hoult's scheme was simple: take a short-term lease, wire up the premises, give it a lick of paint, call it an incubator, charge pounds 500 a desk per month, sell a few services, throw a party every so often, and don't pressurise the occupants for equity in their business. He already ran a successful tech PR agency, Wilson Harvey, out of the building, and funded the expansion from the proceeds of some technology newsletters he'd just sold, and backing from well-heeled investors, including his father, the deputy Lord Lieutenant of Tyne and Wear, and Luke Johnson, restaurateur and newspaper columnist.

But what struck me on first meeting Hoult was how sly ambition now has to be. Despite inviting me in, despite asking for the publicity, Hoult was positively diffident. 'Oh yeah,' he says, 'I did win an award, I think it was a Top 5 Entrepreneur of the Year award from Enterprise magazine, probably only five people entered.' He laughs. Don't be fooled. Someone sent in that entry form, and you can bet it was Hoult himself ...

DIVINE ENERGY - REUBEN SINGH

March 2001: I am being driven across Knightsbridge in a bright yellow Bentley by a 24-year-old Sikh who was once listed as Britain's youngest self-made millionaire. Reuben Singh is large, bearded, brimful of enthusiasm, banging on about his businesses, his car, his life. He is a torrent of words and smiles.

Singh has a lot to be enthusiastic about: he set up his first retail business while still doing A-levels, sold it to move into other sectors - currency trading, dot.coms - was championed by Tony Blair as an example to others forging ahead in capitalism. As he drives, the traffic parts almost in deference to his pent-up energy.

How far can you get with sheer push? Ask Felix Dennis. An hour or so after we've first met, after I'd posed the question, after I'd listened to the rant on a baking summer's day at his Warwickshire manor, Dennis, perspiration beading his forehead, is still talking, rapping away like he's being paid millions per word per minute.

'Am I good with figures? Ha! No, I'm terrible, I can't understand what a balance sheet is and I am not joking, but I can spot anomalies and that's important. Why do I want to set up in America? Because that's where the big boys play, that's the belly of the beast ... I don't care about the money, I never did. That gives me a tremendous advantage.

I don't know how much I am worth, nor does anyone else. Share prices might have something to do with it, but I've got an awful lot of real estate and an awful lot of art ...'

People wonder how Dennis made it - the money, the houses, the land. They just put it down to sheer, bristly energy.

DOUBLE VISION - SIMON WOODROFFE

Simon Woodroffe, founder of the Yo! Sushi restaurant chain, is sitting in an unkempt glass and concrete booth - his office, I think - off London's Clerkenwell Road. His denim shirt lolls open.

His desk is piled with papers; letters and press cut-outs decorate the walls. All rather haphazard, unlike the scrupulously cut blond sideburns that trace his solid jaw-line.

Woodroffe has a vision, and a plan. It's the same plan adopted by his role models, Richard Branson and Stelios Haji-Iaonnou, founder of easyJet.

You turn the person into the brand, you embody the values, you put yourself about, you provide the face for the corporate monolith. The only problem is, you have to be a special kind of personality to pull it off, not to become unbalanced. Woodroffe knows this. He is quite open about his methods, quite unashamed about his copycat techniques, quite happy to invite your criticisms.

But like many visionary entrepreneurs, he now faces the toughest conundrum: the bigger his business becomes, the less suited it may be to his talents.

Few could imagine him as the boss of a large organisation. 'Going through the tedium of all those tasks, bringing people along, checking this, checking that,' says a colleague. 'I don't think so ...'

So his team rein him in. They smile kindly on his plans for Yo! hotels and spas, while counselling not now, Simon, be patient. 'You've got to ride his wave of consciousness every day,' says another to me. Surfing the entrepreneur, trying to tame the sea of his ambitions ...

But he is brilliant at vision. 'I've got this idea,' says Woodroffe, 'for the Yo! Sushi in the City, to do different prices at different times of the day, depending on what everyone else is buying.' So if demand is high, prices go up. If the restaurant is empty, prices go down. 'I've got to get it right,' he says, 'but it could be real fun. Imagine. And if a restaurant is empty in the middle of the afternoon it should be cheaper.'

And you think, yes, he's right, why didn't I think of that.

Later, while I'm talking to Woodroffe's brother Patrick on the phone, he makes an interesting comparison. He's friends with James Dyson, he says, and you know what Dyson and Simon Woodroffe have in common? Single-mindedness. Whatever anyone else thinks, they are convinced that theirs is the right way to do something, and they try to push it through. They see what others don't and never lose that vision, always stay resilient, never get deflected by the carpers and non-believers.

That doesn't make them easy people to be with, but it has defined their success. Great entrepreneurs have to have that combination: vision and single-mindedness. Without one, the other has no purpose, and no fulfilment.

SMART LUCK - CHARLES DUNSTONE

Ping! Charlie Dunstone has an e-mail. 'Hi Charles, I liked your picture and profile in one of the recent magazines and took a fancy to you ...'

He's reading it out to me from the screen on his desk, a look of bemused wonder on his chubby face. At 36, unmarried, worth an estimated pounds 600 million or so, Dunstone is one of the most eligible entrepreneurs in Britain.

'... I wondered if you were dating anyone. If not, can I take you out?'

Dunstone, founder and chairman of Carphone Warehouse, who is dating someone, looks at me and shrugs as if to say: What can you do? The world is weird.

Well, be careful when you invite customers to e-mail the boss, I guess.

'Yeah,' says Dunstone, reading on. 'According to my IT rep, he is forwarding my home phone number, address and vital statistics ...'

Dunstone says he is the luckiest man since Ringo Starr, quite the smartest summation any entrepreneur has ever given me. Dunstone lives to downplay his achievements. He makes people ask constantly: Why him? What's he got? He's too nice.

I don't understand. Then I get talking to an American editor about someone else I'm writing about in California. That guy is an enigma too. I know everything is booming out there, I say, Silicon Valley going crazy, money thrown around like tinsel etc, etc, but why is this guy so successful? It doesn't stack up. He's so unassuming. Is he just lucky?

She laughs and says: 'We have a phrase for it out here that we use a lot right now: smart luck. That's him.'

I like the phrase so much I want to make it my own.

Smart Luck by Andrew Davidson, with photographs by Harry Borden, is published by FT Prentice Hall this autumn.

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