“There is a lot of luck, you need a team, listen to advice but don’t always follow it.” Paul Lees, founder and one time CEO of Powwownow, the leading free conference call company, and judge at the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards, has been talking to Fresh Business Thinking. Find out what a man with an outstanding track record has to say to budding entrepreneurs, the government and all those who care about the future of UK plc.
And we start with luck.
In December 2013, Paul Lees sold the company into which he has invested so much passion and dedication to a trade buyer. He now has new ideas, big ideas, for example, Thortful, a greetings card company that promises to be truly disruptive, yet when you talk to him, it is not long before the subject of luck comes up. Maybe he is too modest.
“I have seen people who have done all the right things and not succeeded,” he says. “Just because you fail does not make you a bad entrepreneur, it could just be bad luck.”
So, does that mean that an investor, looking into a business should disregard an entrepreneur’s track record? “There is the argument that there is a group of people who are good at raising money but then just go and spend it and fail and then raise another amount of money and fail again.” Investors need to be wary in those cases, but although you do your best as an entrepreneur, luck comes into play too.”
Napoleon had thoughts on luck too. When asked to look at the credentials of a general and whether he should make use of the military leader’s talents, he said: “but is he lucky?” But Paul and the former French emperor had a quite different perspective, Napoleon seemed to think that luck follows certain people, Paul is clear, sometimes a great idea, with a great management team behind it, comes unstuck, this does not mean that the management team should not be re-employed in another venture – bad luck is not a reason to turn down a ‘general’ of business.
The solution to the luck problem is probably perseverance, these things tend to even-out over time, so what else must an entrepreneur have to do to be successful?
Paul turns to finding a team. “People who start-up think that they need money, my view is that you need a team to run an idea. If you can’t persuade people to come in with you then it is unlikely that you can persuade people to invest money. Looking at an investment potential, it is the team that I am looking at, not just the idea, and their ability to execute.”
So that’s teamwork, even so, the entrepreneur has to make the big decisions. “Most of what you do is look at a problem and then decide what to do about it, you should listen to advice but you should go with your gut feeling, people will tell you what you can’t do and why you can’t do it. If you just follow advice I suspect that you wouldn’t be a good entrepreneur. You have to listen but then make up your own mind.”
Paul also puts emphasis on experience. I get the impression he is not so wowed by all these younger ‘kid’ entrepreneurs, who made their first million by the time they are 21. Or indeed for that matter, that schools can churn out entrepreneurs just by teaching them in class. “I have heard of an entrepreneurship degree in America, but people have to have a bit of life experience before running a company.”
Then we turn to the government. What can it do?
“Stay away” was Paul’s first reaction. “We are best left alone.” But then he turned to a topic that he clearly feels strongly about. The government needs to focus on supporting the consumer. Surprisingly for such a successful business man, he speaks as a consumer champion – or maybe we should not be surprised, he made his millions by treating his customers with respect and giving them good value products. “It is the governments’ job to protect the consumer, industry in general, tends to be good at special pleading and the government tends to be on the side of the business.“ He cites as an example mobile phone companies “they are constantly finding ways of keeping their headline prices down and making more money by being sneaky,” well Paul should know, the success of Powwownow was largely down to him doing the precise opposite of that. “Another example is rail fares, those guys get away with very sharp practices. It is the job of the government to stop them doing it.”
Of course, in the long run, what’s good for the customer is usually good for the company who is trying to sell to that customer. Sharp practices applied by the big and mighty can create opportunities for the little guy to disrupt.
But there is one way he thinks the government can make a difference, and that is with payment. “Why does it take large companies 90 days to pay? That is something that the government can help with. For that matter, why does the government take so long to pay? The government should help when there is a power imbalance, it wouldn’t cost it anything.”
Maybe, if big companies paid their bills within 30 days, entrepreneurs would need less luck, and that is advice that the government should surely follow.
The UK is emerging an entrepreneurial success story – but more needs to be done, and one way to achieve this is to shine the media spotlight on entrepreneurs, their challenges, their failures and of course their successes.
The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards are currently open for applications, and entrants can apply here.