“Fear is a Liar” – Featuring @olivercookson

“Fear is a liar.”  Entrepreneur Oliver Cookson shared this great one-liner with a room full with like-minded people at Insider Magazines annual 42 under 42 dinner, held earlier this month (14/10).

Telling a wonderful story, which started with a single bag of Whey purchased from a farmer who took a gamble on him, Cookson simply took the concept of Protein supplements, evaluated the supply chain and margin capability, then disrupted the sector by selling it direct through his own website. It worked.  The business – My Protein – went on to sell for around £60M to The Hut Group. I’m always hugely interested to listen to stories from Entrepreneurs, there are always so many valuable takeaways which you can use for inspiration in life or business.  Let me share a few things that resonated with me from the talk that Oliver gave….42 Under 42 - 4759
  • He came from a single parent family and left school with a single GCSE in Science, he left college after two weeks.  So much emphasis is put on further education in life, however do not let it be an inhibitor to your ambition or determination to change your dynamic or outcomes if you weren’t successful at school.  Time and time again, in successful people, is a back story of early adversity.  No silver spoons, but a taste of life that they later choose to de-couple from and start anew.  Look to all the big entrepreneurs, you’ll find a story.
  • Gaining an apprenticeship kick-started his career.  With so much focus on apprenticeships right now, you can see how valuable they are in providing structure to a young person, an opportunity to be coached, mentored, educated,  moulded and injected with confidence.  If you don’t provide apprenticeships in your business, why not consider it?  One apprenticeship could change the life direction of a young person.
  • He had an idea and actioned it.  The major difference between those that seek success and those that dream about it.  Those that seek it, take action.  Oliver took his action by understanding the market, defining his own product, then pursuing it with a drive and passion.  It all started with a single bag of Whey, purchased from a farmer who agreed to sell it to him to stop Oliver from calling him so often!  That farmer later enjoyed a huge business with Oliver as he rewarded him with business to the tune of 50 tonnes of whey a month.  There are so many lessons in this paragraph alone, take action, don’t give up and give someone a break!  He commented during the talk – “the hardest thing was starting.”  I’ve spoken before about fear and “fear of failure” is a big distortion which stops people doing things in life.  The bottom line is fear is a manifest of our imagination, hence the brilliant but true line “fear is a liar”.
  • Cookson went social, before the world went social.  Back in 2004/5, web 2.0 was just starting.  With little marketing budget or resources, Cookson set to convince the world of his product by spending time in forums and also introducing a referral scheme in his customer base.  World of mouth soon spread and it went viral.  This ultimately meant the business didn’t have enormous marketing costs and Cookson had no debt from the day he started until the day he sold it, retaining 100% of the equity.  That is a considerable achievement and just shows the power of communities.
  • Get the baby ready!  An interesting part of the evenings talk was when asked about the sale of the business.  Cookson had a beauty parade of top hitting investors keen to take the business off his hands including Nestle and Pepsi.  Building a business from scratch, moulding it to be your own and then preparing it for sale is a tough job, particularly the last bit.  Investors want to see robust processes, professional management, long term strategies and particularly that the business will survive independent of its original founder.  That can be tough for a founder as they hand over control to others by bringing people in, having to give up the reins and see others take it in potentially different directions.
  • What shall I do now?  Sitting in a serviced office, a multi-millionaire, yet with a huge void in his life through the sale of his business he stared at a whiteboard with a pen and asked himself the question.  What should I do next?  And thus the next phase began, albeit with a shedload of money behind his next venture – Saints and Slimmers.  The big lesson here is about purpose.  Despite being incredibly wealthy, Cookson retains the desire to create, which is what I really admire.  Money doesn’t buy purpose, purpose is a natural driver that every human being needs, money or no money.  Define yours.

A Business Adventure

Sitting in a bar in Frankfurt last night, having a read of the FT and catching up after a long day, my Blackberry started flashing with an e-mail from an industry contact asking some advice about doing business in Japan.   Over the next half an hour or so, we exchanged three or four e-mails on the subject, the final message contained the words –  ”I think this will all be a great adventure.”

It put a big smile on my face, because the individual involved has built up a fantastic business, which is now exporting products all over the world.  He’s a colourful character and absolutely passionate about the products he makes and the business he runs.

It got me thinking about the word “adventure” and how entrepreneurship is an adventure for those starting and growing businesses.  A journey without a defined end, which may or may not end up in the place that you thought you were setting off for or out to.  A journey of highs and lows, opportunities, personal challenge and – at times – immense personal satisfaction or desperation as things don’t always go to plan.

I loved the essence of doing something because it is an adventure, for the experience, for the unknown and for the inevitable learning that will come as a result.  In big companies, Corporate governance can dampen down adventure.  Perhaps the greatest Corporate adventurer of them all – Richard Branson – with his “blow it, let’s do it” attitude would some many Corporate risk executives to an early grave.

However, we need adventurers in business.  People that want to find new frontiers, new challenges, new markets, new products, new services and new ways of doing things.  Inevitably they tend to be the entrepreneurs, however leaders can also bring this adventurer culture to their own businesses by being more supportive of failure, listening to new ideas and devoting time to innovation among all the other demands.  What have you got to lose?

Are entrepreneurs born or nurtured?

Earlier this week I sat on a panel for Insider North West magazine – four leaders being interviewed in front of an audience of around a hundred.  Idea being we share our stories, which were all different, in order for the businesspeople present to draw down experience from.

As we got onto the audience questions, the inevitable question came about entrepreneurship being in your genes or something learned?  Sat alongside me was 25 year old entrepreneur – Kirsty Henshaw who won funding on Dragons Den for her additive free food range Worthensaws Freedom and Matt Ainscough from the Ainscough business dynasty, who now runs industrial machinery installation and re-location business Ainscough Vanguard.

Both entrepreneurs had different stories.  Kirsty had a tough upbringing in a poor family, yet had started a number of different small businesses before hitting the big time with her Dragons Den investment.  Matt, had been put into the business at a young age on the ground floor to learn the ropes the hard way, his family being very business focussed.

Aswell as running the current business which he purchased from his father, he has since also started other businesses too.  Then there was me, who has worked for employers for most of my working life, running a business entrepreneurially, but with other peoples money.

The observation I made was this.  Regardless of your background, some people have a flair for business and get on with it (pure entrepreneurs if you like), others might possess the flair, but may not have  had the social environment for them to flourish when growing up (potential entrepreneurs).    Kirsty is a great example of someone who had a tough upbringing, but had potential inside her to make a living off her own back.

Today, you can start a business in your home and access a global marketplace of people via on-line marketplaces (Amazon/eBay) or via social media or via your own website.  The tools have changed, the ability to trade has changed, and the social environment has changed.  TV broadcasts shows like Dragons Den, which encourage people to follow their dreams, initiatives like Start up Britain are equipping wannabe entrepreneurs with the tools they need to get trading.

So, perhaps the environment now is more conjusive to entrepreneuship.  More people with the potential – who may have remained hidden in 9-5 jobs – are stepping forward and learning the necessary skills to run a business.   Yes, you’re always going to get the big stories, Alan Sugar, Peter Jones, Duncan Bannatyne waving the flag, however there are hundreds of thousands of businesses started every year which may not be sparked by the next big idea, but ordinary people inspired by the success of others and the tools available who become brave enough to step up and start trading.

One observation I do have is that successful people always seem to have a story of adversity linked to them in some way. That is, an experience has driven them to do the things they do.   Whatever the answer, and I don’t think it’s definitive, the economy needs people who are prepared to take risks, start things up, follow dreams and create value.


Martha Lane Fox – Digital Champion

Lastminute.com.  One of the big dotcom success stories of the late nineties.  Founded by digital entrepreneurs Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman.

Seizing the opportunity to see Martha Lane Fox deliver a keynote in London last night in her capacity as the Governments Digital Champion,  I wasn’t entirely sure what my opinion of her was, pre-lecture. 

I’d seen her picture a lot in the media.  I’ve heard of the highs and lows of lastminute.com from foundation to flotation.  I was impressed that she replied within a few minutes of my mentioning her on Twitter.  Like anything, you really get to see more of a person – in person - so was keen to form my own opinion of her.  Immaculately turned out, she looked every inch the ambassador/stateswoman.


I hadn’t known (until I did a bit of desk research on here), that she’d survived a horrifying car crash in Morocco in 2004 which nearly left her dead (breaking 26 bones in the process), that she sits on the boards of M&S and Channel 4 aswell as having numerous other business interests in the charity sector.  She is Chair of a Karaoke business she founded called Lucky Voice (must pay them a visit) and graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford where she read ancient and modern history.  More details on Wikipedia here.

Last nights keynote was governed by Chatham House rules, so I won’t detail anything here that doesn’t already exist in the public domain that she may have repeated last night.  I will comment however on her speaking style, which I found relaxed, articulate, engaging and informative.  A masterclass in holding an audience.

Backing Digital

She passionately backs all things digital and is the brains behind the Race Online 2012 initiative whose aim is to address the 10m people who don’t have internet access and get them online. 

Urging businesses and government to take more risk in this area, both financial and non-financial in the name of competitiveness, Lane Fox seeks efficiency improvement and to reach out to all areas of society.  Privileged and underprivileged. 

My thoughts – I agree.  If the UK is to compete on a global stage then we have to turn the heat up here, reduce our costs, make services accessible and transcend through the process of high-touch to low-touch public service transactions.

Crossing the Divide

Whatever the future holds, we have to accept that the web will continue to dominate working practices, divide and unite societies, countries and social groups.  A passionate advocate myself, what I liked most about Martha Lane Fox is the realisation that these tools are operated by humans, for humans to ultimately give us more opportunity to do the things that matter.  Here here. 

Wandering back to the hotel after the lecture, my reflections were that the Government needs people like Martha within it, around it, advising it and keeping the mandate going about lower transactional costs to serve, simplification and accessibility, to us, the taxpayer.  She’s a credible voice, with a “been there, done it”  t-shirt to boot. 

Post-lecture, she’d more than convinced me of her ability to energise, question and create momentum in the projects she is running.  To come back from such a serious accident, shows guts and a steely determination.  If you get a chance to hear her speak, turn up.

Opportunity Engineer

I often describe myself as an “opportunity engineer.” I came up with the description after often be described as ”lucky” or “fortunate.”  It was the golfer Gary Player that famously coined the phrase “the harder I practice, the luckier I get,” after being described as “lucky” himself.

My “luck” comes from having an interest in others and a creative mind.  All sorts of opportunties can be generated if (a) you meet enough people and (b) you can think of ways for those relationships to flourish.  Whether that be a common interest, sharing ideas, opening up your network or meeting up because you just like them.  On my holiday last week, I was able to generate five quick ideas to the chairman of a private hotel chain, simple things, that would increase the numbers of people staying in the hotel during the evenings, rather than walking out to nearby bars (I must credit Mrs Jones with this introduction or she’ll kill me, a topic for a another blog on another day).

These were five things that I had seen through the eyes of a guest, that would have kept me in the hotel more.  The CEO listened intently as I shared them.  Interestingly, I had spent as much externally as I had within the hotel, so a significant chunk of revenue was up for grabs.  He really welcomed the feedback, made a point of writing them all down.  They were all ideas which would result in higher volumes, at lower margins, but overall, the cash margin would be higher.  He agreed they were all implementable and we agreed to stay in touch, to share the results.  So, there is a brand new contact, whom I’ve contributed something to without asking for anything in return.  An opportunity engineered, one more person to stay in contact with and a potential new friend for the family.

It’s not hard, you just have to have your opportunity antennae up at all times and be genuine, not pushy.  Not every interaction has to have a concrete result (or life might be a little dull) however there is plenty of opportunity out there if you look.

You don’t have to be famous to be fantastic….

Fame and celebrity. The whole world is becoming obsessed by it.  Reality TV shows giving everyone their 5 minutes of fame, everyone believing that they can be a millionaire in a minute.  Under the shadow of all of this, tens of thousands of brilliant businesses continue to trade.  Happy to be in the shadows and out of the limelight, wanting to be famous in the eyes of their customers, not the general public.

Entrepreneuralism seems to be very focussed on the here and now nowadays.  Businesses that are just starting or have recently started grab the headlines.  Businesses that have gone through fast acceleration or received huge cash injections are the darlings of the media.  That’s absolutely fine and I love to see new businesses start.  I also love to hear the stories of how businesses that are well established – having been started a long time ago.

These are businesses started ten or fifteen years ago, by then, bedroom entrepreneurs, who didn’t have anywhere near the free resources that todays businesses have.  They’ve seen off competitors and challengers who have subsequently disappeared, they’ve stayed relevant, grown organically and remain as passionate about their customers today as they did the day they started.  Their businesses may not be sexy, like cloud computing, biotech or the low-carbon sector, however they do provide fantastic everyday products or services which differentiate themselves from the competition.

They’ve seen the world change and adjusted.  Seen more than one recession.  Seen the intense value in one to one relationships and understand value, more than price.  There is so much to be learned by their past mistakes and successes.  I am lucky to meet businesses of all ages in my job, new and old.  Everyone has a story and there is always a nugget of transferable gold in their start-up story.   So, today I salute the businesses who are over 10 years old, still competing, still doing new things, winning new business and staying relevant.

Smarta 100

There are so many truly fantastic small and medium entrepreneurs out there, you can’t fail to be impressed by the leaps they made as individuals, the opportunities they create, the risks they take.  Tonights overall winner was Highland Wi-Fi, a really interesting business, which delivers Wi-Fi access to many remote villages and other destinations – such as caravan parks – for a really affordable price.

Spotting a gap in the market – and acting upon it – they were deserving winners.  Chatting with their incredibly nice  MD – Calum – later in the evening (who had incidentally travelled all the way down to London from the Isle of Skye), I took away a steely determination to be successful, driven by his entrepreneurial father, who sadly has now passed away.  It was obvious that this was a very proud moment for him and I’m pretty sure there was a proud  Dad looking down on his son who has made such a success of the business.  Well done Calum and the team at Highland Wi-Fi.

During the evening I also spent time with the MD of this business, Sport Stars, who provide outsourced lessons to schools.  I met their MD – James Taylor – a few years back at a business awards and the business has gone from strength to strength subsequently, it’s so rewarding to see these young entrepreneurs really making a go of their businesses.

Talking of which, I also spent time with the two founders of asuitthatfits.com, an on-line tailoring business, I’ve used them to make some made to measure suits and shirts in the past.  Again, their business is going from strength to strength, how these two guys have grown since I’ve seen them last, more mature, more world wise and with a real sense of clarity about where they want to take the business.  Awesome.

Running a big and established business, it’s really inspirational to see how younger businesses are starting and growing, we rely on them to be successful, for our succcess, it’s not rocket science.  The key lesson I took away is that they are all still keen to learn, to search for that next breakthrough, to learn from experience, from others around them.

It always gives me a huge burst of energy when I get to meet them and hear from them, it’s lovely to pass on knowledge, to debate, to listen and to share success.  Everyone in the room was a winner last night, so a big hurrah from me to everyone in the Smarta 100.  A particular well done to Shaa Wasmund and her editorial team for putting it all together.

RAW North West 2010

Entrepreneurs from all over the UK converged in Manchester today to attend a brand new event in the calender called “RAW“. A full line of top speakers including dragon Theo Pathitis, ex-dragon Doug Richards, Smarta.com founder Shaa Wasmund, MOBO’s founder Kanya King and legendary Joy Division band member and Hacienda founder Peter Hook all shared their experiences of starting, growing and running successful businesses. The brainchild of entrepreneurs Imran Hakim, Scott Fletcher and Mike Perls, the event was designed to be a centrepiece annual conference to encourage entreprenuerialism in the region.

A large turnout of around 500 guaranteed some quality networking and the variety of plenary and breakout sessions, gave the day some great variety.

I hosted one of the early “Think” breakout sessions and spoke about some of the megatrends that I believe are driving social behaviours, changing the way we should approach our thinking, sales and marketing activity. Citing T.A.T or “Time, Attention and Trust” as being in short supply and establising the different techniques you need to deploy to market to generations X, Y and Z as being key for success in the future.

It’s great that an event of this size and scale has been put on, something different, with engaging content and a line-up of speakers, deserving of the quality of the businesspeople in the region. Great job, everyone involved.


I was described as “entrepreneurial” the other day. I was pretty flattered, given that I help to run a large company. More interestingly the description came from someone who is well known entrepreneur in his own right. By definition, I’m not an entrepreneur as I take risks with other peoples money, not my own. However, I’ve argued for a while that leaders in large business can have the essence of an entrepreneur. That is, they take risks, they are accountable or the outcome, they launch new products or services and see creativity as part or their organisational DNA. I’ve tagged this type of leader as a “Corpreneur”. I recorded a VLOG for upcoming major event called RAW2010 the other day (which you can see below), where I again described the important role that Corpreneurs play in the economy and how they can complement entrepreneurs (it should be up on the site in the next few weeks). The point is, it’s the end result that matters. If business is to be successful, it needs a blend of both. If a region is to be successful it needs to harness the energy of all its talent. RAW2010 promises to deliver that with world class speakers, top entrepreneurs and Corpreneurs all together in one room. Funny enough, the reason why I called my blog “The Corporate Bubble” was due to an entrepreneur friend of mine who said that “Large Companies can’t be entrepreneurial” and that we all live in a bubble removed from the harsh realities of entrepreneurialism (it was late but the conversation was very engaging). From there, “The Corporate Bubble” was born and I resolved to share many of my experiences with others. 226 postings later, readership is at an all time high and many entrepreneurs I know enjoy reading about the trials and tribulations of running a large enteprise. So, todays posting is dedicated to all of those “Corpreneurs” driving innovation and entreprenerial behaviour in their large businesses.