Interviews

Julian Fisher

Julian runs a consultancy called Africa Integrity. It provides practical risk management advice to companies operating in Africa. Julian’s credentials for this are ten year’s experience with the Foreign Office, the banking sector and then specialist consultancies.

Despite the photo, he insists that he was never a spy.

Julian helps his clients manage and reduce ethical and corruption risk. They have a legal obligation to know about this under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the US and the Bribery Act in the UK. But the real reason clients need Julian’s services is that as consumers grow increasingly concerned about the ethics of businesses they transact with, best integrity practice can actually increase shareholder value.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Creating a profitable business with no external investment. I pulled the company up by the boot-straps, working all hours in the early months to generate enough money to invest in branding, systems and people. I can’t really remember how I did it, other than by working super-long hours and refusing to turn away work, however narrow the margin. We have become much more discerning since then.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Going it alone. Sharing the burden with a like-minded colleague would have been a significant force-multiplier. Single-handedly pursuing business development, developing the brand, keeping on top of regulatory requirements, managing and growing a network of sources and delivering client projects is not an experience I would want to repeat!

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Learning to turn down work. You start out taking on every bit of work because cash-flow is a matter of day-to-day survival, but it is a difficult habit to break. There is real danger of being pigeon-holed as someone who will break his back to deliver work to unrealistic timetables and un-viable budgets.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Becoming too personally involved in the brand. There is a fine line between creativity and entrepreneurship, and I have seen too many people running small businesses refuse to change their brand, even when it is evidently not working for them. It’s like writing a book and then refusing to take advice from an editor: perfectly understandable, but ultimately foolish.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Be clear at the outset about why you are doing it. Is it for life-style reasons, for income, or to create something with value to sell further down the line? If you are not absolutely clear about this from the start you will have to spend time later on considering your motivations – time which would be better spent getting on with the job.

Africa Integrity is at http://africa-integrity.com

Julian’s email address is jfisher@africa-integrity.com

 

Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson

In the late 1980s Mark was one of a happy band of young fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) marketers who were suddenly sought after by employers in the financial services industry.  In the late “noughties”, after 20 years developing new credit card propositions in the UK and the US, he gave up the security of full-time employment to do his own thing.

His “thing” is helping banks and financial services companies around the world to understand more about payment cards, particularly credit cards – how they make money, how to develop strategy, and how to optimise profitability. He spends half his time “analysing data and consulting” (which satisfies his geeky side) and half his time “in the classroom” running workshops (he thinks his real vocation was always to be a teacher).  He works all over Europe, the Middle East, and for banks based in Latin America, often in developing markets where payment cards are in a very high growth phase.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Having the courage to go it alone. I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur and I’m not a natural risk-taker.  I enjoyed the corporate world and the team environment, particularly in “challenger banks”.  I’m probably the last person my friends and colleagues would have expected to go it alone, but I wanted to take control of my own time and to balance work with other interests.  So I’m very pleased that I bit the bullet and set up a consultancy, and delighted that it’s still going strong after seven years.

What was your biggest business mistake?

The classic one – atrocious pipeline management.  I started the company with a handful of clients giving me work “out of the gate”, and I fell into the trap of neglecting business development. This was fine for 18 months or so – in fact I was running so hard that I was looking forward to a break for a few weeks.  But the weeks turned into months and I realised that I had a problem.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Trying to emulate some of the great people I’ve worked for.  I’ve been fortunate to work for some terrific people. They were all totally different and I learnt a lot from them – and from one of them in particular.  The problem was that he made people management look so easy that I naively concluded that there was really nothing to it.  How wrong I was!  The task of managing people and helping them be the best they can be is as hard as it gets in business.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Forgetting the reason why they became entrepreneurs in the first place. I have watched many people start their own business, build it up, and then find themselves spending all day managing exactly the same problems that they wanted to escape from when they were in a more corporate environment.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

I can only really speak about “going it alone”; the business of marketing your own skills to other people. There is a perceived wisdom that you have to put everything on the line to be a successful entrepreneur, that you can only achieve it when the alternative – penury – is so frightening you have no alternative but to succeed.  My advice is the complete opposite: only do it if you can afford it!

By that I don’t mean you have to have a lot of money – I don’t – but if you can survive for a short period without an income you can develop a better business proposition for the long term.  You can focus on what you are really good at and you really enjoy, and you won’t have to prostitute yourself to generate income in the short-term.  You can concentrate on building the two most important things in a one-person business: credibility and reputation.  In my view, entrepreneurship is not about proving you can make money; it’s about proving you can do stuff that you enjoy, stuff that you are good at, and that other people value too.

Mark can be contacted at markrobinson@catapultconsultancy.com

Ian Merricks

Ian pic biggerIan is a busy man.  It’s exhausting just to read the list of businesses and initiatives he is involved in.  He is a serial entrepreneur, having launched, built and exited a music PR agency, two record labels, 16 radio stations, an academic contract publishing business, a network of best-selling city guide books and websites, and a youth promotions agency.  He has also worked with the boards of EMAP and IPC as a corporate troubleshooter.  Take a deep breath before reading on.

How would you describe what you do?

I have a portfolio of activities.  These are the three main ones:

  • White Horse Capital is an early-stage investment and M&A advisory business for media and technology businesses.  We handle £100m of transactions each year
  • The Accelerator Academy is a support programme for high growth tech startups, providing workspace, training, mentoring, and access to capital.  We’ve supported 67 startups in a little over two years, and so far our alumni have raised £10m in seed funding
  • Communication Partners is a B2B media planning agency which aims to halve our clients’ advertising cost and double their effectiveness

I’m also an advisor, ambassador and investor in a range of other initiatives, including Dell’s Centre for Entrepreneurs, the Startup Funding Club, the Cabinet Office’s £10m Social Incubator Fund, Virgin Media Pioneers, BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT Professionals, and the Entrepreneur’s Network think tank.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I’m not sure if it’s my greatest achievement overall, but at the moment I’m really enjoying what’s going on at the Academy.  Our mentors (12 exited tech entrepreneurs who are collectively worth more than £1bn) are making a huge impact on UK startups, and seed stage investors are proving very supportive.  One of our startups which was pre-revenue a year ago will generate £1m of sales this year, and another which was a sole trader 18 months ago now employs fifteen people and has raised £1m of seed capital.  White Horse Capital’s options in these entrepreneurial companies hold real promise.

What was your biggest business mistake?

After 18 years, there have been a few…  If you make me pick just one, it would be running an under-capitalised business during a recession.  I had worked really hard for five years with a talented team to build up a diverse media group, but our publishing arm was hit hard when Borders and Virgin Megastore collapsed in 2008.  It was enormously frustrating that our investors didn’t have the appetite to support the business: it had great prospects, but lack of capital forced us to close the publishing business, and sell off the remainder of the group.  This painful experience taught me the importance of life-stage specific support, and the powerful role of capital in making or breaking early-stage growth companies.  My next venture was to try to bridge the gap between entrepreneurs and investors – hence co-founding White Horse Capital.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

From the perspective of sheer workload, the whole of the noughties was pretty tough.  During the early part of the decade I was travelling daily around the UK, building up a network of radio stations.  In the mid noughties I was building media sales teams (publishing, outdoor, digital) in the UK and Scandinavia, and in the last part of the decade I was weathering a recession, and launching new startups in investment, media planning and business training.  It was relentless, and to misquote Spinal Tap, I had to keep the energy level “turned up to 11”.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Lack of focus.  Enthusiasm takes over and leads to a scattergun approach which requires far greater resources (money and management) than are actually available.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Build the absolute best-in-class team, reach for the stars, and make sure you have appropriate investment for the journey.

White Horse Capital is at http://www.WhiteHorseCapital.co.uk, the Accelerator Academy at http://www.AcceleratorAcademy.com, and the Communication Partners is at http://www.communicationpartners.co.uk

Adam Singer

AdamI first met Adam when he was KPMG’s media guru.  He gave talks which confused some people at the firm; I found them riveting.  You get a sense of why from his description of what he does:

“I weave tapestries from the threads of others. No one has an original thread but they can make an original tapestry.”

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Selling Flextech  to Telewest.  In which a 60p share turned into £14 and was a great deal for Flextech shareholders.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Selling Flextech to Telewest.  It led to the demise of a business that we had built from scratch.  It didn’t need to die.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Learning to deal with post-corporate life.  It takes time to find out where you begin and the company ends. You can never know who you are when you take your pay and victuals from others.  We all bend ourselves into strange shapes for the sake of reward and we don’t even know we are doing it.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Living in the illusion that sheer force of will can make it happen: running down the road, everyone following you, little legs pumping, yelling “We can do it!” while wearing a blindfold.  Do you have any idea how silly you look when you collide with reality, because you couldn’t see when to jump.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

“Ah, grasshopper…”  Listen to advice; ignore advice.  You need your own view which may be contrary to others – but being contrary doesn’t make you right: remember it’s all down to luck.  Yes, you can help your luck, but luck is luck: it’s random, and anyone who tells you anything different is in denial.  Success is surfing a wave of luck without a wipe-out.

Mark Johnson

Picture1

Ten years ago, Mark was cycling around Richmond Park, near to his house.  He enjoyed his job as a Strategy Director with M&C Saatchi, but he loathed the commute into Central London.  He began to wonder if he could offer his experience from his garage instead of in a noisy, open-plan office where it was hard to think.  Musing on his triad of skills in research, planning and writing, he came up with the name of his new consultancy: manwith3heads.

Mark helps create stronger, clearer brands for clients which vary from startups to multinationals, and which are located all over the world, from East Africa to San Francisco.  What unites them is their need to navigate a period of change.

He still cycles around Richmond Park.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Building and maintaining a solvent one-man communications consultancy which people enjoy working with enough to keep me busy.  Sometimes, I am genuinely surprised that it has succeeded for so long.  Touch wood.  Always touch wood.  

What was your biggest business mistake?

Not capturing significant equity in the agencies I was part of before.  I did have shares in a design firm that we sold to Chime plc in 1998, but the proceeds were helpful rather than life-changing.  Then, for many years, I charged too little for my time as the manwith3heads.  I have long been guilty of under-estimating the value of my time to others – and I am still working on it!  

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

A one-man road-show in East Africa, rolling out a new brand to a financial organisation across four countries in four days.  It was a tough gig, and it got worse when I fell ill half-way through.  At times I wondered if I would get through the day – or indeed past some of the people with guns.  Luckily it all ended well, but I’ll never do that again ! 

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Underestimating the need to really, really focus their offer, and to build a brand rather than a business.  This can be done very early in the growth process, if you set your mind to it.  But financial and other distractions tend to push the brand and focus issue down the agenda in the early months and years, despite the fact that it is your brand that creates your long-term shareholder value.  

I’ve also noticed that quite a few entrepreneurs are truly dreadful people-managers, and they are often slow to accept this and do something about it.  Poor people management is a real hindrance to growth. 

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Think long and hard: are you sure you want to do this?  How big could your salary be elsewhere?  Are you still sure?

Mark’s website is http://www.manwith3heads.com/, and he can be contacted at mark@manwith3heads.com

Karrin Nicol

Karrin

Karrin founded the technology search firm Asari Partners eight years ago to help high-growth US technology companies attract and hire great talent in Europe.  In her previous career as a senior HR executive for NVIDIA, TiVo and SGI, she had used many search firms, but was often disappointed by their lack of client-side experience, and consequent lack of insight into the culture of their clients.   Karrin argues that search is about more than just research, and she set out to offer clients both craft and culture, which would deliver better results.

As an American who has lived over here for many years, Karrin is well placed to bridge the cultural gap which often appears when US firms start operating in Europe.    The firm also provides HR consultancy to clients whose European operations are presently too small to require a full-time HR person.  Asari will complete more than 30 searches this year, in addition to delivering consulting services.  Key clients include Box and Jive Software.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

It was difficult to give up the comfort of a monthly pay check and start my own business.   Eight years on, I’m proud that we’ve grown the business consistently – last year we achieved 150% growth.   I am really pleased to have achieved a measure of success in both the corporate and the small business worlds.

What was your biggest business mistake?

In the early days, I didn’t pay enough attention to some of the basics – like forecasting, cash flow, tax accounting, etc.  You mustn’t take your eye off these balls, even if things are going well.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

During my HR career I have had to do some pretty tough things such as downsizing organisations.   The people business is hard, but on the flip side it can be very rewarding because it truly is the people who make a good business succeed.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

It is easy to dwell on the things you love doing and not pay enough attention to the boring commercial basics like accounting.   Also, I sometimes see entrepreneurs spending money on things that don’t really help grow their business, such as expensive offices in the centre of London!

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

You are who you hire.   As your business grows, hire people who are better than you – people who will complement your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.

Asari Partners is at www.asaripartners.com, and Karrin can be contacted at karrin.nicol@asaripartners.com

Adrian Gregory

AdrianLow res

Adrian is the CEO of DQM Group, which helps organisations to protect their data and to profit from it.  These days you can’t read much about business without seeing the phrase “Big Data”, and we all know that data, like brands, is a valuable business asset.   Used well it can transform your business; used badly it can cause disaster.   

DQM Group provides specialist advice, research, and insight.   Its proprietary data tracking and audit services are used by 80% of the UK’s leading commercial data owners and increasingly by leading brand owners.   One customer recently recovered over £1m in undeclared royalties from one of their global partners based on its work.

In 2011 DQM Group launched the DataIQ programme of online and offline publications, events and research which promotes best practice and the intelligent use of data and technology.  DataIQ is already accessed by over 3,000 business professionals.

What was your greatest achievement in business?

There has been no “penicillin” moment, I’m afraid, but I’m excited about the way we are helping organisations to transform their performance by using their  data better.  Our clients include great organisations like Adobe, BT, Callcredit, Experian , Royal Mail and Teradata.

I’ve been an entrepreneur for 25 years now because I love to create things rather than copy them.  I suppose my first big success was selling 25% of my first business to France Telecom within two years.  They were a great partner and they doubled their money, which I’m very proud about.  More recently as Chair of the Data Council of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM), my colleagues and I developed and raised funds to enable the IDM, to offer the first qualification in data management.   More than 600 marketing, IT and data professionals have enrolled  in the first year alone.  For the IDM we also developed the first ‘Spring School’ for final year numerical graduates to encourage them into the exciting world of data.   There is a huge and fast growing demand for more data analysts. The first course was fully subscribed.

What was your biggest business mistake?

I once ceded pre-emption rights to an investing company when I sold them a minority stake in a business I had started, effectively giving them control.   I then discovered that we had very different objectives, which led to two years of in-fighting which damaged everyone involved.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

That would be when I had to close down a call centre employing 80 staff.  Very, very painful.

What is the most common serious mistake that you see entrepreneurs make?

Because I know how hard it is to start a business I have enormous respect for the people who do it, and I may be guilty of focusing too much on the good things they do.  I also find that most entrepreneurs are great company.  If you push me, I suppose I would say that sometimes they don’t make sure they have enough cash in the bank to keep control of their own destiny.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer less experienced entrepreneurs?

Starting and running your own business can be lonely, so I recommend that entrepreneurs find a way to share their challenges, perhaps by joining a group of fellow business owners and leaders.   Also, always pay for the best advice you can afford.   In 2006 I treated myself by attending the Cranfield Business Growth Programme.  I wish I’d done that before I started my first company back in 1988!

DQM Group is at www.dqmgroup.com, and Adrian can be contacted at adrian.gregory@dqmgroup.com

 

Noel Penrose

noel_0

Formerly a Vice President at Omnicom, Noel Penrose now runs an advisory business, Juniper 2.  The piece below is extracted from the first of a series of articles I wrote for the Financial Times: it’s a few years old now, but the advice remains sound.

Although he has done over 100 transactions, including the multi-million pound acquisitions of Wolff Olins, Adelphi and Claydon Heeley, Noel is not most people’s idea of a deal-maker.   He looks more like a creative director than a “suit”.  This is perhaps because he came from a career in marketing services rather than one in corporate finance.  He was working at Interbrand when it sold to Omnicom, and he learned many of the key lessons about deal-making from negotiating that transaction.

One of the most important of these lessons is the distinction between transaction-based and relationship-oriented deals.  In transaction-based deals, the two sides do not care about the interests of the other party; they are completely focused on getting the best outcome for themselves.  They just want to complete the transaction and walk away.

Most transactions in marketing services are relationship-oriented deals, where it is crucial that vendor and purchaser maintain good working relationships throughout: they literally have to ‘live the deal’.  Noel’s deals were always relationship-focused, because the vendor is usually also the top management of the acquired business, and they will have to work closely with the acquiring group’s management and sister agencies in the years ahead.

Noel argues that the most important things to get right in a relationship-type deal are:

  • Choose the right partner.  This may sound simplistic, but making sure that both sides see the world the same way is key to a happy relationship going forward. You should like each other and want to work together.  An encouraging comment after one pre-deal meeting was: “these people are more like our people than our people”
  • Be absolutely clear about what you want and what the other side wants out of the deal – and ensure they are equally clear
  • Be sensitive to the powerful emotions that arise during a deal.

People who have worked with Noel on transactions clearly think he observes these rules.  John Dodsworth of the law firm MacFarlanes comments that Noel has “a non-confrontational style, which is clearly important when buying “people businesses” on earn-outs.  He would instruct us to produce an “even-handed” first draft of the Share Purchase Agreement, but he would make it clear to the other side that we did not expect much negotiation of the agreement.  He knew what was important to him (e.g. non-compete clauses) and would not give on those points.  But he was able to do it in a charming way and, invariably, win the point.”

Jon Claydon is the chairman of the Claydon Heeley Group, which he sold to Omnicom.  He says that Noel takes very seriously the need to nurture his company’s reputation as an acquiring organisation.  “You get the feeling that Noel genuinely cares about the welfare of the companies he is buying.  Up to a point this is simply enlightened self-interest, because in this business it’s either win-win or it’s lose-lose.  But there is more to it than that: Noel is a genuinely likeable guy.”

Jon says that Noel tends to offer a fair deal and then not accept too many changes.  “They explain why they think the offer is reasonable, and then the negotiations tend to be about minor points.  Personally this suited us, because it meant there was no wasting time with poker games or battles of egos.  You feel like you are working on the deal together.  Noel also has a subtle way of making things seem like your idea when actually they are his.”

But however much time and care you put into executing a deal, is it worth the effort in the first place?  Numerous research projects have demonstrated that many deals destroy value: the purchaser pays the seller more than the value it receives in the acquired business, or more than it generates by combining the two businesses.  The media and marketing services industries have their fair share of examples: Vivendi’s transformation from a water utility into a media conglomerate destroyed shareholder value on a massive scale, and in retrospect the Time Warner executives responsible for the merger with AOL famously asked themselves what they were smoking the weekend they consummated the deal.

There is less agreement over whether deals are inherently good and bad, or whether there are just well and poorly executed deals.  Noel is adamant on this point: “deals don’t fail because the fundamentals of the deal were wrong; they fail because the structure wasn’t right.  The expectations of both buyer and seller should be properly reflected in the deal structure.”

Deal structure defines who gets what under what circumstances.  Often in marketing services, most of the payment is in the form of an earn-out: the vendors get paid more or less according to how well the business performs for a period of time after the deal is done.

One of the most contentious parts of the deal structure is the representations and warranties section.  Lawyers spend a great deal of time and money arguing about these.  Warranties are the buyer’s insurance policy.  They require the vendor to confirm a wide range of statements about the business, its clients, its staff etc.  The buyer wants comfort that the business they buy is the business they believe it to be with no hidden problems, and the vendor is asked to give that comfort as part of the agreement.

“Deal structure is like an iceberg.  The key terms are the ice that floats above the water.  The detail is in the bulk that lies beneath the water line such as service agreements, warranties, protections for the seller during an earn-out etc.  Getting these right is critical to the overall value of the deal for both parties.”

This is why good advisers  – corporate financiers, lawyers, accountants, strategy consultants and others – are crucial.  Their thoroughness and attention to detail is essential to ensure that clarity is preserved and elephant traps are avoided.  But in a relationship-type deal, they also have to make sure that the principals don’t become alienated from each other.

There are many sources of new companies to buy, but there are certain financial and strategic fundamentals that must be in place before negotiations are even contemplated: a hurdle of revenue and absolute profit, a hurdle of margin (and a nervousness, too, of unsustainably high margins), and of course a strategic logic for doing the deal in the first place.

If these basics are in place, Noel asks themselves three big questions about the management teams of prospective acquisition candidates:

  • Can we get on with them; is the chemistry right?
  • Do they ‘get it’? Do they understand why profitable performance and growth are important?
  • Can they adapt to becoming part of a corporate environment?

This last point raises the vexed question of synergies.  Fundamentally, there are only two ways to improve business performance: raise revenues or reduce costs.  Most deals are based on the claim that combining two businesses will do either or both of these.  There is a cynical but widely-held view that revenue synergies are the exciting ideas that people use to justify deals, but that only cost synergies are real.

Noel denies this.  “We buy companies that can benefit from being part of our group: they can cross-sell to and learn from the like-minded individuals that already belong.  But we have a light touch: we don’t force people to work together; we just give them the tools to do it.  You can train skills, but you can only recruit attitudes.”

So if you are hoping to sell your marketing services business, does Noel have any tips for how to conclude a successful deal?  “First, figure out who your key staff are, the drivers of your business, and how you will tie them in post-deal.  The buyer cannot do that for you.  You need to sort out in advance how you plan to lock them in and reward them for loyalty – ideally through shareholdings.

“Second, start behaving like you are already part of a corporate and clear out the ‘lifestyle’ expenditures that often pass through the profit and loss accounts of privately-owned businesses.

“And third, be clear about what you and your partners want from the deal, both financially and in terms of ambition and personal development .”

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