6 judgement calls that drive Go Ape’s success

Go Ape's founder Tristram Mayhew reveals six maxims that took the adventure company from start-up to a £12.5m-turnover business

The most common thing I see in other entrepreneurs is the ability to make a decision and go for the opportunity before you have all of the facts – to have the confidence to take a risk.

Big companies don’t like making mistakes, so they will gather information until the opportunity has passed and somebody else has taken it. People are afraid of making mistakes where they can be blamed and lose their job.

That, for me is why you start, and as a business owner following your convictions gets results, as these six ‘rules’ have for Go Ape:

Embrace mistakes

I’ve worked in businesses in the past where there’s a culture of fear, one business had a policy of firing 10% of its staff every year and the reason for that was they always felt there’s 10% of people who aren’t good enough.

It made everyone terrified of making mistakes and being put straight onto the ‘get rid of’ pile. I thought that was a very poor way to motivate your people and get them to be bold and entrepreneurial, so I made a policy to do the absolute opposite when I started.

Embrace change

Most entrepreneurs start their business and then its whole world of change after that. In my case we moved out of the city, we lived in the country, we had a second baby on the way, I chucked in my job, we sold the house and we set up a business we’ve never done, in a sector we’d never been in before. It couldn’t have been more change.

So our lives were changed and we have just carried on doing that ever since. We are 40 times bigger 10 years later than we were when we started and our culture is always to say, what can we do better? What do our customers want us to do? What are they asking us to do?

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To do that we make change a non-scary word. It’s just what we do and it’s what keeps it interesting. I think if we were just doing the same old thing or keeping the business going, how dull is that and why would any intelligent person want to stay in that environment?

Embrace peers

Entrepreneurs tend to be quite egotistical and it can be quite lonely at the top. So discuss your business and others’ businesses with people in the same boat.

I took my business to Cranfield School of Management for something called the business growth programme, a collection of people running their own businesses and putting the theory into practice.

It was a great way to meet 40 other people in your position and you learn a huge amount from the other business owners. The other thing executive education helped me do was to encourage me to test our business alongside the best by entering awards.

Embrace distance

Sometimes as a leader you need to make tough calls and just hope and trust that people come along with you. It’s a mistake to try and be popular and aim to be everybody’s friend because that’s not your job.

In my experience if you do the right thing and try to be fair and reasonable to everybody people respect that. You may or may not be popular as a result but that should never be your goal.

Embrace patience

You need to come up with plan, think it through and work out the resource implications. Secondly you need to communicate the plan and get everybody to buy in so they can get enthusiastic about it as opposed to resisting it.

Thirdly, you need to have the determination and resilience to just go at it without being distracted. Stick to the plan and like a marathon runner. Don’t think about mile 21 and mile 26. Just think about getting to mile one and then when you get to the end of mile one just think about mile two.

Measure your success. If you measure what you are doing and make sure that you are sticking to the plan, the measurements will tell you if you’re heading off course.

Embrace independence

I’m exactly where I want to be. I have the enormous privilege of working with a fabulous group of people doing a job I love which our customers write in to tell us how much they enjoy doing.

I also have time for things. I can take my children to school, see my daughter sing in a school competition, and I’m going to do the school run this afternoon.

Part of the motivation of starting the business was being there at tea time and working for other people doesn’t usually allow you to do that. So I am exactly in the place I want to be. With a lot of luck and a little bit of judgement it’s worked out.

Tristram Mayhew is chief gorilla at outdoor adventure company Go Ape, which won the SME title at The National Business Awards in 2009. Entries this year close on May 31. To enter visit www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk .



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