Successful entrepreneurs who risked everything to start a business

Remortgaging their homes, quitting university, and spending their life savings: Read on to get inspired by these start-up stories from UK entrepreneurs

It should be of no surprise to any of us that a standard definition of what constitutes an entrepreneur reads: “A person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit”.

Indeed, risk- taking is seen by many as a fundamental characteristic of an entrepreneur, but it’s not just money that’s on the line. The Oxford Dictionary defines risk as “a chance or possibility of danger, loss, injury or other adverse consequences”.


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Risk-takers in the business world aren’t just betting against their bank balance. Their livelihoods, reputation and even personal relationships can all entirely depend on the decisions they make.

“Risk-seeking people appear to be motivated by a desire for potential” – Professor Lola L Lopes, 1984

Business books and self-help guides are littered with examples of huge success stories by daring businessmen and women who put everything on the line to realise their start-up dream.

It’s no secret that Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard university to create what would become Microsoft, while Oracle founder Larry Ellison would test the patience of his developers by promising early customers non-existent features that he hoped would be built in time.

Although few people will ever match the success of Microsoft or Oracle, the truth of the matter is that all entrepreneurs have taken a huge risk when deciding to set up their business.

Startups.co.uk founder David Lester even gave up a promising career as an accountant to work full time on his first business –a video game company called Impressions.

Ultimately, it’s a desire to reach an ambitious end goal, coupled with huge self-belief and passion, that results in so many entrepreneurs being less risk-averse than the average person. For aspiring business men and women, the thought of eventually being your own boss in the long term, outweighs the potential risks of failure.

The Jewish philosopher Maimonides once remarked that: “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision”, and while it’s easy for some to be enthralled by tales of daredevil entrepreneurs seemingly defying all possible odds, the overwhelming majority of risks taken in the business world are weighted up, mulled over and calculated – rather than impulse actions taken on a whim.”

In one, entrepreneurs are not risk takers, they’re calculated risk takers.

“The best entrepreneurs figure out a way to reduce risk with every step they take”

As Professor Leonard C. Green, a lecturer in Babson College and serial entrepreneur, has commented: The difference between risk takers and calculated risk takers is the difference between failure and success. Risk takers bet it all on one roll of the dice. If they fail, they fail spectacularly and in such a way that they DON’T live to fight another day. They literally go out in a blaze of attempted glory.

“But this is not what the best entrepreneurs do. They figure out a way to reduce risk with every step they take.”

Often fearless, but seldom reckless, UK entrepreneurs take calculated risks everyday – but possibly none is bigger than the initial decision to start a business.

With this in mind, we spoke with a group of inspiring entrepreneurs and start-up founders who have taken thse calculated risks and made some big decisions, to realise their business dream. Prepare to be inspired…

The man who used his life savings to fund his business dream and start again

Reef-Knots-Startups-100-2015

Founder: Patrick Dudley-Williams
Start-up name: Reef Knots
Launched in:
August 2013

It’s never a good time to lose your job, but for Patrick Dudley-Williams the timing really couldn’t have been any worse.

Two days before his wife gave birth to twins, Dudley-Williams was made redundant from his stock market job and found himself at a crossroads.

Throughout his 13 years in finance, he’d seen many of his peers ditching their ties for fear of looking ‘too corporate’, wanting something that looked more personal and relaxed instead. With this idea ‘eating away’ at him for years, Dudley-Williams decided the time was right to go it alone.

Using all of his personal savings, including his redundancy package, Dudley-Williams launched Reef Knots – a specialist in producing and selling handmade ties – a gamble to say the least.

The theory that one’s best success comes after one’s biggest disappointment is gospel for many business owners, and for Dudley-Williams there was no alternate ending.

The Startups 100-listed company now counts the likes of Boris Johnson, Mike Tindall and even Sir Richard Branson, who famously is adverse to ties but made an exception to support Reef Knots, as customers.

Largely ocean-inspired with regards to its designs, the business also donates a percentage of its profits towards ocean-saving Blue Marine Foundation.

On his decision to risk it all, Dudley-Williams said:

“In my career as a professional investor I was used to taking risk, but it was largely with someone else’s money. Risking everything on your own on an idea in your head is something quite different and certainly required a change of mindset.

“That said, if you truly believe in your idea it doesn’t really feel like risk in the traditional sense. Before I launched the company, I was so convinced by the concept for Reef Knots that I almost felt like I knew something other people didn’t.

“That is essentially where the confidence to go out and build something comes from. The unwavering belief that you will succeed. Once you have that, your risk appetite expands significantly and the risks become manageable.

“I was lucky to have a supportive wife who was equally confident in the prospects for the product and the brand. Her belief in the business and in my ability to deliver it, helped immensely during often lonely start-up phase.”

The female entrepreneur who put her home on the line to fund a factory

Nutriment-Suzanne-Brock-Startups-100-2016

Founder: Suzanne Brock
Start-up name: Nutriment
Launched in: 2013

Before starting a business, most entrepreneurs will take out a business loan for seed capital. But what happens when the bank lets you down at the last minute?

Well, that’s exactly what happened to Suzanne Brock when she launched her raw pet food brand Nutriment. Left with no external finance, the former army officer bit the bullet and decided to remortgage her home to raise the necessary funds to open a factory.

Fast forward to 2016 and Nutriment is now stocked in 350 pet stores and online via Ocado. Staff numbers have grown to 40 and the business now enjoys annual turnover of more than £5m.

Testament to its success, the raw food brand has also opened a second factory on the prestigious Laverstoke Park Farm Estate.

Ranked 25 in the Startups 100 index 2016 and crowned Lean Start-up of the Year at the Startups Awards 2015, Nutriment looks set to continue on a fast-growth ascent.

Looking back at her decision, Brock recalls:

“After a number of years working in the pet food sector and being very passionate about feeding dogs a raw food diet, I decided to make a leap of faith and set up my own company.

“I knew that if we produced a high quality, carefully balanced raw food for dogs, I would be able to sell it. This was the drive behind everything that followed and led me to not allow any hurdle to stop from starting Nutriment. There were a great many hurdles, from the bank failing to follow through with its initial support, to unscrupulous competitors using bullying tactics to put us off.

“In order to open the doors of our factory, I needed to take out a second mortgage on my home and borrow my mum’s life savings. It was truly scary to be risking everything for Nutriment but I really believed in the product and our ability to market it and sell it.”

The duo who sold everything they owned to realise their business idea

Wheyhey-crop Founders: Greg Duggan and Damian Kennedy
Business name:
Wheyhey!
Date launched:
2013

New start-up finance options are being launched all the time in the UK, with more start-ups getting funded than ever before (just look at our funding news).

But back in 2013, Greg Duggan and Damian Kennedy were struggling to find the finance needed to get their business idea for protein ice cream off the ground. Eventually, they sold everything they owned – from cars to flats – in order to raise the necessary cash to kickstart their start-up venture; what would go onto become WheyHey!.

Now backed by £2m funding, including investment from supermodel David Gandy, Wheyhey! has listings with major stockists such as Tesco and has developed a strong exports arm – with sales in Germany and other European countries, and plans to export to the USA.

The entrepreneurial pair’s success also saw them recognised as Young Guns in 2015.

On risking it all, Kennedy says:

“I often hear starting a business described as an exhilarating, inspirational rollercoaster ride – a rush of adrenaline and fun. But it’s no fairytale. It’s intense and life-affirming, sure. But it’s also exhausting, risky, all-consuming and one of the most terrifying things you’ll ever do!

“Duggan and I sold our worldly possessions and put quite literally everything on the line to make Wheyhey! a reality. At one point, I was living on Duggan’s couch to save vital cash we could pump into the business rather than into two lots of rent. And we’ve almost given up a million times.

“It’s hard to put into words the intensity of emotion and pressure you feel when things go from high to low and back again in what feels like an instant.

“The lowest point for us? When our entire stock was left to melt overnight in a faulty freezer we’d hired, when we were just days away from fulfilling our first major order. But we’ve stuck it out. And some really influential investors have believed in us, and our mission.

“We set out to offer people a healthier option – to deliver great tasting, nutritious foods that are full of protein goodness. We’d had enough of the brands selling indulgence that was just plain bad for you.

“To this day, we’ve stuck to those principles that made us risk everything. And of course it’s all been worth it.”

The optician who gave up a promising career to start-up in a new industry

Founders: Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia
Business name: Union Hand-Roasted Coffee
Date launched: 2001

For so many people, a dream of starting a business remains just that – a dream.

The sense of security from a regular nine-to-five job often provides too much of an incentive to stick to the status quo – after all starting a business often means forgoing a guaranteed regular income and having a skewed work/life balance. But Jeremy Torz was willing to make the sacrifice.

Having trained as an optician, Torz (pictured right) had set his sights on a long and successful career until he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

Inspired by the coffee roasting scene while he lived in the US, Torz retuned to the UK andm with business partner Steven Macatonia (who himself was working as an immunologist) founded Torz & Macatonia – a precursor to Union Hand-Roasted Coffee.

15 years later, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee now generates more than £11m turnover annually and the duo aim to double this figure in the next three years.

Union Coffee also supplies wholesale specialty coffee and barista training to high street chains such as Harris + Hoole, Gail’s Artisan Bakery, Brasserie Blanc and Peach Pubs.

On the decision to leave a guaranteed career for a start-up venture, Torz told Startups:

“I originally trained as an optician but during a career break in San Francisco in the early 1990s, my partner Macatonia and I fell head-over-heels for speciality coffee, which wasn’t really available in the UK at the time. The decision to leave a set career path to run a start-up in the nascent craft coffee industry was risky to say the least.

“Thinking back to our Essex workshop, we had only a vague notion of how to roast coffee and how the industry worked.

“The learning curve seemed practically vertical at the time, but it was an utter labour of love, so we learnt, refined and consolidated as we went. Fortunately, it all worked out, and I’m extremely proud of how far Union Coffee has come in the last 15 years.

“While the journey wasn’t always easy, it was certainly worth it. Looking back over more than two decades in coffee, Macatonia and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

The young entrepreneurs who sacrificed a university education to build a business

social chain startups.co.uk

Founders: Steve Bartlett and Dominic McGregor
Business name: Social Chain
Date launched: November 2014

Dropping out of university to pursue a business in an industry you have no experience in – risky, reckless, foolish even? That’s what some outsiders might say about Steve Bartlett and Dominic McGregor’s decision to quit their degrees to start a marketing business.

But for these two young Manchester entrepreneurs – aged 24 and 23 respectively – the choice would be one that would change their lives forever and see them become millionaire founders.

Launched in November 2014, Social Chain works with social influencers to control online conversations and generate campaigns for its clients.

With a vast network of social communities and a reach of around 305 million, Social Chain works with huge global brands such as Apple Music and Disney to deliver creative campaigns, and can get any topic trending on Twitter in under 17 minutes – yes, really!

The business has also secured some $2m investment from Germany’s NVC, which was used to open an office in Berlin, and there are plans to expand to the US.

So why did Bartlett and McGregor opt to switch lecture halls and seminars for client meetings and boardroom discussions? The pair explain:

“Rather than seeing our lack of experience as a risk, we used it to our advantage. By forging our own path, we were able to defy convention and weren’t tied down to any standardised way of thinking.

“What we may have lacked in qualifications, we certainly made up for in entrepreneurial spirit and a propensity for taking risks.

“So what was the great idea that persuaded us both to drop everything and try to make our mark in the world of marketing? To put it simply: the idea that social media, if done correctly, can be harnessed by brands to really get inside the heads of ‘millennials’ and understand exactly what makes them tick.

“To achieve this we have developed a unique business model; we own and manage content for hundreds of popular social media pages and use social listening tools to accurately measure what is trending and the sentiment behind it.

“Adopting this unconventional marketing method has meant that our business is now on track to reach its target of £8m revenue by the end of the year. Our success is testament to the fact that if you have a brilliant idea then risks really can pay off.”

The friends who borrowed money from the ‘bank of mum and dad’

Adam-Rossiter-and-Elliot-Dawes-BULK-POWDERSFounders: Adam Rossiter and Elliot Dawes
Business name: BULK POWDERS
Date launched: 2006

Speak to some aspiring business owners and they might tell you that asking family members for start-up funding is an ‘ask too far’, yet it was this ‘ask’ that enabled Adam Rossiter and Elliot Dawes to build a multi-million pound global company.

Back in 2006, the duo borrowed £6,000 from their parents to start sports nutrition business BULK POWDERS. This finance injection would serve them well – after six years of single-handledly running the business themselves, the pair began to take on staff, delegate and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, BULK POWDERS is achieving multi-million pound revenues – with the company set to turnover £25m for 2016. It has over 85 employees, over 100,000 fans on social media, and has achieved 100% year-on-year growth in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Rossiter and Dawes’ ambition now is to become the world’s largest company of its kind by 2018.

Evidently, the founders’ decision to gamble their parents’ money on their start-up dream was a risky one, but one that paid off. Dawes has said that it was actually less pressure borrowing money from family:

“We took the decision to launch BULK POWDERS as we saw an opportunity to shake up the sports nutrition industry. At that time, the direct to consumer model in sports nutrition was relatively unique, but we took this even further by offering greater product transparency, incredible value for money and a wide range of products.

“It was a growing industry, so we were always quietly confident that we would be successful. Back then though, we had a different definition what constituted success. At the time it was to turn it into a full-time business, which would provide us with a  comfortable living whilst doing something we enjoyed. We achieved that relatively early on – so now the goalposts have moved and success looks very different.

“Our lending was fairly small, at only £6,000. Our parents were more than happy to support us. Our investment was used to purchase stock, which we always knew could be resold relatively easily at around cost price if things didn’t take off as we hoped. We convinced our parents of this, and they trusted our judgement.

“In a way it was actually less pressure borrowing money from family than it would have been had we borrowed it from an external source. The repayment deadline was flexible, which took the pressure off – and […] we were actually able to repay it within the first year of trading.”

Do you want to start a business but are worried about the risks involved? Get more business inspiration here.

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