Oli Barrett, MBE, has a list of achievements to his name that most of us can only envy – Co-founder of Start-Up Britain, Cospa and as the man behind the Tenner campaign, the school enterprise scheme, he has done more to encourage the development of entrepreneurship culture starting with schools, than just about anyone. He is also a public speaker extraordinaire and is hosting this year’s NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Year awards, and we managed to steal 40 minutes of his time – to pick his brain, and share the benefits of his wisdom with you.
And we start with a problem. He says that successful entrepreneurs often begin with a problem that they think they can solve. “The vast majority of entrepreneurs that I have met do not have money as their main motivation when starting and growing their businesses.”
So, that is quite the statement, entrepreneurs don’t care about money, then?
Err, no, that is not what Oli means at all. “What some people tend to hear when I say that,” he explains is that “they think I just said that money doesn’t come into it, but I haven’t just said that at all. I talk about people’s primary motivations, but that doesn’t mean that money isn’t a factor within that, but it doesn’t seem to be the number one driver.”
It’s a good job too, suggests Oli, as “very few businesses make a lot of money at any point, let alone in the early stages.”
On the subject of money, these days, Oli is doing alright for himself. But like many entrepreneurs, he learned much from an early failure – an events business he ran as a fresh faced young man. “Maybe if I’d known what social enterprise was back then, I might have formed it differently, but my mission wasn’t actually to make lots of money from it, my mission was to make a difference to students and help them find jobs that they loved. My temptation was to seek advice from the wrong people, I was easily swayed by somebody telling us that ‘today it was a student event and tomorrow it will be our own hotel brand’. What I should have done is have quality focussed time with one of our investors, who was a chartered accountant, looking at the numbers and thinking about the business and working on practical techniques to bring in the sales. I recognized that in future ventures I would need somebody who complemented my skill set – technical skills, but also around the financial route of running a growing a business.”
Oli himself has a strong track-record of launching companies and projects, but what would his advice be? It seems to be something he learned the hard way. “Have a really good hard look at your skills and abilities and think of who you are going to need to complement them, the founders that I know are good at a small number of things and have other people to support them with the things that they are not so good at. I know it sounds quite obvious but it is very important. The perfect co-founder or team member may not be the person that you get on with like a ‘house on fire’ on the first meeting, but may be complementary to your own skill set.”
He continued: “Go and meet someone face to face who has done something of a similar nature and ask their advice.” He has a warning, “everybody around you, friends and family and the person in the pub, will have advice, but I would put that in a totally different category. People are much more open to receiving emails, letters, and calls asking for their advice and reflections, even if you consider them a competitor. I failed to do that with my first company, that was clearly a mistake, and that business failed.”
School teaches us to be afraid of strangers
School teaches us to be afraid of strangers
There is one thing that Oli is clearly good at, and that is talking to people. He certainly does not come across as your shrinking violet type. But he says this can be the key. “I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands of founders over the years and the one thing that they have in common is persistence, not taking NO for an answer and not being afraid of making contact with someone that they don’t know. School teaches us to be afraid of strangers and a lot of people are not good at connecting with people that they don’t know, I think if you are going to start and grow something, you have to be able to do that.”
But then the UK has this reputation for being afraid of failure, of a culture that sees failure as an anathema, rather than a key part of the learning experience. But is this reputation justified? Oli says: “Every week I hear the line that we are not good at embracing failure in the UK, Britain might be one of the greatest places on earth but we love a good moan, so actually stories of things not working out, of cockups and hiccups are readily embraced and I don’t see why that can’t be celebrated at the same time. So, I am sceptical about this idea that Britain doesn’t embrace failure. We need to talk about approaches, techniques, initiatives and experiments that didn’t work.”
Then we turn to this extraordinary revolution in entrepreneurship that seems to be enveloping the UK. Oli partly puts it down to beards, or lack of them. Time was when being an entrepreneur was “perceived as something for a bloke with a beard,” for example Sir Richard Branson or Lord Sugar. But things a different now, and this difference is creating something special. What is that? That is a story to be told in a few days.
To find out more about The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards visit this page.