The following interview with James Lohan, the entrepreneur and CEO of Mr & Mrs Smith, the ultimate collection of hand-picked boutique hotels around the world, is part of the wider Entrepreneur Interview series by Guy Rigby, Head of Entrepreneurs at Smith & Williamson.
Guy: I’m going to kick off with a really early stage question here. Most entrepreneurs don’t have glittering academic careers, how about you?
James: I would tick that box, yes.
Guy: OK, so tell us about that.
James: Well, it’s not very shiny at all. I left school; I didn’t even finish my A Levels. I did one year of A Levels. In my last term I decided I wanted to go to Art college so I dropped out of everything apart from Art and Sport, which I enjoyed, so that I could get my portfolio together to get to Art college a year early. This is what I did, much to the disgust of my parents, particularly my father. So yes, I left school at 17.
Guy: So you are absolutely fitting the entrepreneurial mould.
James: I do seem to be a bit of a stereotype in terms of your entrepreneurial briefing fit. Yes, absolutely.
Guy: Did you get a job? Or did you go to Art College?
James: Yes, I went to Art College for a year because I thought I wanted to be a famous fashion designer but decided I’d probably end up spending the rest of my life designing t-shirts for Topshop. And so, I did a year’s Art College and then left to go out to work because I wanted to go out and work.
Guy: So you didn’t immediately go out and form your own business?
James: No, I mean I was only eighteen, just over eighteen. Eighteen and a half at that age, so I actually got my first job in fashion, because that was the only thing I’d had a little bit of experience in. Also, I thought it was all going to be catwalk shows and models, a really glamorous life.
Guy: A good reason to get into it!
James: And it wasn’t. It was more chasing up orders from India and various other places around the world, working in a dodgy warehouse in Harlesden. Although the company was a good company, it was just at the beginning of the 90s recession and the company folded. I then had very little choice of what to do next. I think my advice was either estate agency or PR, as I had no qualifications whatsoever. I didn’t want to be an estate agent.
Guy: What’s been very interesting in these entrepreneur interviews, what comes through, is that people have often done something before they’ve formed their own business. I think that’s a really important thing. We’re trying to encourage all these young people to go out and create businesses. But actually, I think there’s a bit of an apprenticeship, don’t you?
Guy: I think that’s once you’ve learnt a little bit about life, you’re much better qualified to go out and start a business and that’s exactly what you’ve done.
James: Exactly. I think you need something. Or you need a mentor, or you need someone to help you, you need some experience. I think some people don’t, obviously, but for me way back then, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no idea at that point, I really didn’t. I knew I was quite good at talking, I enjoyed writing, I enjoyed selling, I enjoyed speaking with people and really, the PR fitted that really well for me. I think without that apprenticeship, as you called it, then it would have been tough to get to where I am now, that’s for sure.
Guy: And in fact, Mr and Mrs Smith isn’t your first venture is it?
James: No, I’ve had a few businesses. I’ve definitely been a bit of serial entrepreneur.
Guy: So, tell us a little bit about that.
James: So, my first business. I was in PR in my early twenties and I actually wanted to be a radio presenter. That was my dream back then. This was when Chris Tarrant was cool, if that was ever true, if that ever happened.
I was on Charing Cross Hospital Radio and I had a weekly show. This is where a lot of the great radio DJs start. And they had a discotheque that you could hire out and use, provided you gave some money to the charity for the hospital and a friend of mine asked if I would DJ his sister’s wedding. So I said ‘yeah sure. You can pay me £100 and I’ll give £50 to Charing Cross and I’ll take £50.’ So, I bundled up all the kit, I put it in the van, I went down there, I did the disco and I thought ‘this is great, I really love this, this is great fun and I’m getting paid to do it’. So, that’s when I set up my first business which was actually just a mobile disco. I was doing discos at weekends whilst doing my PR during the week.
I then ended up taking over a nightclub and DJ’ing every weekend, every Friday and Saturday. I was being paid more money than I was getting paid doing PR, so I thought I’m going to go into nightclubs and nightclub promotion. I’d learnt how to write press releases and sell myself, so I knew that I could sell my own nights. I did a lot of event management while I was in my short stint in PR, lots of awards ceremonies, that kind of thing. So, clubs seemed to fit well with that. I went off and starting running and promoting and organising my own club nights, that’s how it worked.
So, I went from mobile discos to club nights to big club nights. I mean we were doing 2,000 or 3,000 people at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Ministry of Sound. Big club stuff. And I did that, and the irony was that from the club business I went back into corporate events. Because we were doing these very cool club nights, some of the cooler advertising agencies were saying ‘can you come and do my Christmas party?’ So, we ended up going back into the corporate world and we were the first people to start doing two rooms of music at a Christmas party. So, rather than having one DJ where you have 60s, 70s and a bit of 80s, 90s house and the grownups would sit down and the youngsters would get up, we started treating corporate parties like club nights. We started to build a really great, cool events company called Atomic Events.
So, I did Atomic Events, I had the club nights running on the side and then I decided I wanted my own permanent event. I wanted my own bar, restaurant and club. So really, I’ve just been looking after my peers as I’ve got slowly older. I think that’s been something that’s been really important for me, I’ve always run businesses for my peers and things I’ve been passionate about and interested in. So, I went into late night bars, restaurants and clubs and bought something called The Whitehouse in Clapham, which was the first member’s bar south of the river back in the late 90s/early 2000s, when I think brown leather furniture was in and DJ bars were very new. I got into having my own permanent event essentially, which was every night down there. So, I had three businesses at that stage.
Then hotels became the next fascination. Partly because I was going to bed earlier, partly because I was trying to take my now wife away for the odd romantic weekend and finding it very difficult to find a reliable, trusted source of where to take her. The guidebooks back then - and some of them are still around so I won’t mention any names - felt very old fashioned and they weren’t talking to a thirty-something as I was then. So, I thought we could try and rewrite the way guidebooks are written and that was how Mr and Mrs Smith started.
For further information, to volunteer for an entrepreneur interview or to discuss any aspect of your business, call Guy Rigby on 020 7131 8213 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By necessity this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Article correct at time of writing.
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