Speaking recently at a House of Lords event organised by entrepreneurs’ forum e2e (e2exchange.com), two thoughts occurred to me. One was that entrepreneurs don’t tend to call themselves entrepreneurs. (I certainly don’t.) And secondly, that at such events we find ourselves seated next to people who are not like us but are actually professionals; accountants telling us about impending tax changes, and bank and private equity MDs asking if we need funding. I’m absolutely certain that straight after that event they rushed down to the local youth centre and offered the same to assorted hoodies.
The group I’m organising a series of discussions for are right to think we need to meet these folk, just as we need good PR advice. I could happily live the rest of my life without hearing another ‘How I Made It’ talk. Mate, go tell it in schools and colleges, not to your peers.
My talk was based on the American theory of human spirit marketing, and at the end someone suggested to me that one thing we business people do too much of is avoid talk of failure.
The Americans are brilliant at dealing with business failure; like boxers, they inspect their bruises and come back braced with the knowledge of what lost them the last bout and ready to go again with a set of moves more likely to make them win the next fight.
However, in Britain we’ve historically been less well equipped to embrace knockdowns. In the 1980s there was a businessman who represented the immigrant dream brilliantly.
Nazmu Virani was a classic settler, booted out of his home in Uganda with no money, who started a corner shop in south London and soon acquired the property next door, and then the one after that, and in a little over a decade found himself chairman and head of property company Control Securities.
He was worth hundreds of millions and everyone was in awe of him – not just because of his commercial success but also because of his commitment to the Prince’s Trust.
And then he crashed. He was jailed in 1994 for his part in the BCCI scandal. When he was freed and tried to re-engage with former colleagues and friends, he largely failed.
I remember a party he attended after his sentence was over which was full of people who’d previously praised him and were probably angling for an invitation to his next royal encounter. They all turned their heads – he stood alone while everyone ignored him and I’m embarrassed to say I did the same. I had a PR firm back then and clients who were at the party said I shouldn’t talk to him anymore.
These days things are slightly different. We recognise that if you fall off the edge of a cliff at least you now know where the edge is. Businesses that are risk averse are often missing out on opportunities that others dare to explore.
I’ve had a couple of failures which have left creditors threatening to break various parts of my anatomy, but this experience turns to dust in comparison with the financial damage those ventures suffered. Of course I only had the second thought later on.
The person who’s handled a business collapse as well as any is my friend Karan (Lord) Bilimoria, the host of the E2E event. When Cobra Beer crashed a few years back, he took his punches from creditors, came back with a rescue plan, and steered the company into profit.
He went straight to the press and said he was sorry that people had lost out, that he would hope to repay them and was delighted to have got Molson Coors to buy Cobra out of administration.
It was a masterstroke of bravado. And the answer to the question about what makes someone an entrepreneur rather than simply a businessperson, is surely that spirit.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab