By Charlie Mullins OBE
I’ve been in business for fifty odd years and I can honestly say that for the first thirty of them I’d never heard of blokes like me being called entrepreneurs, let alone considering myself to be one. But you go with the times, and if people want to use a fancy French word for doing business to make a few quid, then who am I to stop them?
True Entrepreneurs love the thrill of the chase
I think at the core of all true entrepreneurs is a delight in making money. But it’s not just the making and the having of money that’s key, although when you grow up poor like I did that’s part of it for sure. No, it’s the love of the money-making process; the thrill of the chase. It’s the idea that you can literally go out your front door, as the Only Fools and Horses theme song says, with a ‘pony in your pocket’, and, unlike Del-Boy Trotter, turn it into a bull’s-eye by lunchtime.
For me playing the game has always been part of the attraction right from an early age growing up on the Rockingham Estate in South London’s Elephant and Castle. I was the kid who was always looking for a way to make a couple of bob, whether it was by bunking off school aged 10, to work for our local plumber, Bill, or ducking and diving as the estate’s best unofficial errands and courier service.
I used to do the rounds of the local shops and if the butcher needed some fags I’d go to the tobacconist for him, and on the way back pick up the grocer’s shirts from the laundry and get paid twice for the same leg-work. Back then I needed the cash to get by, but I have to admit I used to enjoy making it, as well as having more coin in my pocket than my mates.
Sure, there’s risk involved but you need to be calculated
It’s true that the dividing line between an entrepreneurial brain and those doled out to the rest of the population is the fact that the former is drawn to rolling the dice and taking risks. There are many great minds, complete geniuses who don’t possess the gene for risk-taking, and that’s probably just as well since the world needs inspirational leaders and brilliant scientists. The drug companies might have done okay out of the Covid pandemic, but where would we all be without the white-coat brigade who came to the rescue with their vaccines?
But just because being an entrepreneur means you need to take risks to get results, and let’s be honest, make money and get rich, that doesn’t mean going mad and taking punts with ridiculous odds. That kind of behaviour isn’t entrepreneurial it’s just stupid and leads to bankruptcy court. If you want to win big go to the track or a casino, if you want to succeed in business you need to calculate the risks involved in a venture, and if necessary be prepared to walk away if things don’t stack up.
Seeing what others don’t . . . . .
There might be a very real distinction between being a risk taker and taking an impossible shot at capturing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, but that doesn’t mean others won’t think you’re insane. At the core of being a true entrepreneur is the ability to see what others don’t, and profit from your vision. Just because something has always been done in a certain way, or considered impossible, doesn’t mean there’s not a better answer.
The simplest ideas are quite often the most fruitful, and more often all they do is approach an old problem in a different way, or maybe adapt new technology to do something better. As CEO of Pimlico Plumbers I never changed how plumbers fixed boilers and leaking pipes, all I did was realise that the industry had a bad name and cleaned things up.
I put my plumbers on self-employed contracts, paid them well, and made them responsible for fixing any mistakes (on their own shilling) if they got things wrong. They had all the benefits of being self-employed, six-figure salaries, and I took care of the marketing and job management side so they had plenty of work. People loved the service and were prepared to pay for it, and ultimately a bunch of Americans bought me out for £150 million.
Rolling with the punches and coming back off the ropes
Being your own boss and making big money are often all the outside world sees, whether you’re a millionaire, who is regularly featured in the media, or just the bloke next door, living in the big house and driving an expensive car. But anyone who’s ever made a quid (or million) knows there are days when you can feel the dole queue beckoning. That’s when you need to fight like your life depended on it because being an entrepreneur means there’s no safety net. If you fail, the business fails and there’s the added stress of knowing many others depend on you for their livelihoods.
Back in the early 90s when recession was ripping through the country and businesses were going broke all over the place I’d just bought the building I thought would be my ‘forever’ headquarters. Then suddenly the bank wanted its money back and I was f***ked. I didn’t have the cash and I’d gutted the building so it was worth only a fraction of what I owed the crooks in suits. Two insolvency experts told me I was screwed and I would probably lose my house. One said fight the other advised me to go belly up. I decided to fight rather than throw in the towel and the business came out the other side, and my family didn’t end up sleeping on the streets.
That’s my ‘fight to the death’ story and it’s all true, but as my next door neighbour famously sings ‘it’s not unusual,’ and most successful entrepreneurs have their own version of my horror tale. My point is that being in business means there’s a flip side to the high-life people see. It’s the sleepless nights and problems with the tax man, staffing issues, supplies, legal changes (and challenges) and all the time keeping the customers happy. If you are not made of strong stuff you will end up a nervous wreck or an alcoholic. Being an entrepreneur is a tough gig and all the great ideas and ability to take calculated risks will not be enough unless you have the hide of an elephant, and a super-human ability to soak up stress and make decisions under pressure.
Walking away is the hardest thing to do
I’m not sure what I thought it would feel like when I woke up the day after I sold my company. Truth is initially there was a great sense of relief after all the stress had exited my body. But the euphoria only lasted a few weeks and was soon replaced by a feeling of loss and a yearning to get back into the game. So if I have anything new to say about being an entrepreneur it’s that you never get to retire because a real entrepreneur’s brain never turns off.
So the ultimate answer to the question – what qualities does it take to be an entrepreneur is: You need to the love rough and tumble of doing business; possess the ability to assess and take calculated risks; have a keen eye for a new or unique idea; the hide of a elephant, and realise it’s like being in the mob, you’re never out.