Former Dragon from the BBC’s flagship business investment show, Dragons’ Den, James Caan CBE is a figurehead for enterprise in the UK and beyond.
He now invests his experience as an entrepreneur into championing business owners and highlighting their huge importance to the health of the British economy.
After being frustrated by a number of jobs, a 25-year-old James set up his own recruitment agency, Alexander Maan, in 1985. The agency’s prestigious Pall Mall location set the tone for a business that James would sell in 2002 for £95m.
In 1993, James co-founded executive headhunting business, Humana International, with business partner, Doug Bugie. The enterprise experienced similar success, holding 147 offices in 30 countries when it was sold in 1999.
James graduated from the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School in 2003, before starting recruitment investment firm, Hamilton Bradshaw. Now an industry leader, HB’s portfolio turns over in excess of £500m.
From driving global enterprise to launching charitable initiatives in Pakistan where he was born, James’ legacy is changing lives for the better by supporting entrepreneurship, education and development.
The iconic businessman will be scrutinising the stories of Britain’s freshest business talent when he returns to the judging panel of the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards in 2018.
Below, he explains more about his own remarkable career and gives us his business tips.
What appeals to you most about the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards?
What I particularly like about the Awards is that they give an opportunity for Britain to celebrate success. Britain has become such an entrepreneurial country, and the Awards allow business people to really stand out.
We’ve had some amazing some amazing success stories already, such as Tangle Teezer – one of my favourites, which I, in fact, turned down on Dragons’ Den.
The NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards focuses on the entrepreneur’s story rather than on the balance sheet. What would you say is the most exciting part of your entrepreneurial journey?
There’ve been so many twists and turns in the journey; what I’ve probably enjoyed the most is the need to have to consistently reinvent myself. One of the exciting things about being an entrepreneur is that you have to be a bit of a chameleon; one day your business is going in one direction, then before you know it, the market changes and you’re off in a different direction.
As a serial entrepreneur, one minute I’m running a recruitment business, then I’m running a private equity firm, then I’m doing a TV show, then I’m writing a book. It’s been an amazing journey, and I think entrepreneurship gives you that freedom to be yourself.
It’s not going down the corporate single-track; I’ve got the freedom and flexibility to do so many different things. It gives you so much satisfaction, and you really make a difference, because you build something. For me, that’s a huge tick in the box.
3) We hear a lot about entrepreneurial spirit. What does that mean to you, and where does yours come from?
To me, entrepreneurial spirit is the freedom to think outside the box; to express yourself. It’s the opportunity to be different. If you’re in a corporate environment – finance, accounting or HR – you follow a rigid pathway.
The entrepreneurial spirit means there is no box; you have to think outside the box. It’s given me the opportunity to create something with my own ideas and thoughts. The freedom to do that is what I regard as the entrepreneurial spirit.
When did you realise that you were going to go down the entrepreneur’s path?
I was 12 when that spirit hit me. I was at school and my father used to manufacture leather jackets. I used to earn a pound a week as pocket money at the time. My father made me a leather jacket and I wore it in the playground, giving it the ‘look at my jacket, it’s really nice and cool!’ I sold the jacket for £3, which was three times my weekly pocket money.
I thought that was really cool; I saw what my dad was doing and I realised that actually, doing things for yourself is a lot more fun, a lot more exciting. Aged 16, as soon as I could leave school, I just went. I didn’t even take my exams. I instinctively knew I wanted to create or build something that was my own. And it worked!
What was the best advice you were given, and what advice would you give to the entrepreneurs of our shortlisted companies?
The best advice that I was given was from my father. He said ‘observe the masses and do the opposite’. That’s always stuck with me and it’s so true. Today, I run a private equity firm and we invest. When is the best time to invest? It’s when everybody else is leaving the table. When the stock market goes up, it’s not the time to buy. You buy when it goes down. The problem is, when it goes down, you need balls; you need confidence.
So, the concept of ‘observe the masses and do the opposite’ - there’s so much truth in that statement. I absolutely stuck to that advice.
The advice that I would give entrepreneurs today, is to recognise that we’re in an incredibly competitive business market. The modern landscape is much more challenging, it changes so quickly, and you have to appreciate that failure is part of the journey to success. My advice is to embrace failure, because the one thing that you can guarantee in business is that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.