Sir Bob Geldof: musician, humanitarian, and serial entrepreneur

Geldof talks social entrepreneurship, the African business opportunity, and reveals how his troubled early life led to his global success

It’s hard to imagine that the globally recognised figure who has captivated both musical and political audiences was once a vulnerable young child, uneducated and underfed, living alone in a house in Ireland.

Geldof’s life as a child stands in stark contrast to the wealth of power, knowledge and indeed money that he has since created for himself, but the serial entrepreneur pins his global success on just that: his early understanding of the necessity of doing things for himself.

From classified ads magazine Buy and Sell to TV production companies Planet 24 and Ten Alps, Geldof has tried his hand at a range of businesses since leaving school at the age of 15 and has experienced multi-million pound successes, as well as the inevitable disappointments.

Known for initiating monumental charitable donations to impoverished African communities, Geldof has most recently launched new business venture 8 Miles to help African businesses reach their full potential, while enabling UK businesses to simultaneously benefit.

Speaking at a Hult International Business School event in London, Geldof explains how he obtained the essential skills to become a musical, political and entrepreneurial phenomenon and reveals what it takes to follow in his footsteps.

Troubled beginnings

When his mother died of a brain haemorrhage and his father began to work away from home, Geldof was required to look after himself at the age of seven and soon began to understand the value of independence.

“I was forced by circumstances into an independent life, an organised life. I had to organise the milk, the food, the coal, wrapping up the newspaper, and getting a newspaper to light the fire. I was forced back upon myself, forced into independence.”

Geldof is known for his refusal to hold back when it comes to expressing something he is passionate about, from convincing millions of the need for charity in poverty stricken Ethiopia through globally broadcast charity concert Live Aid in 1985, to demanding that politicians “make poverty history” at Live 8 20 years later. And he puts his strong opinions and determination down to the harsh lessons of his early years.

“There was no-one in the house so there was no-one to temper my opinions as I formulated them raw and child-like. But the downside of it was of course that I really didn’t understand what authority was. If your parents abandon you, even if it’s not their fault, you think, ‘Why should I trust authority? They always leave’.”

First taste of enterprise

It was this refusal to trust authority and premature independence that helped Geldof to develop the skills needed to build his own business. After leaving school at the age of 15 without a single qualification, Geldof served a brief stint as a road digger, before embarking on his first business venture four years later, developing classified advertisement magazine Buy and Sell.

Having never dealt with authority, the idea of being his own boss appealed to Geldof and he set about seeking the necessary capital for his business idea. However, strolling into a meeting with a bank manager “looking like something out of Guantanamo Bay” didn’t quite have the desired effect and after being told, “Come back when you’re 40”, Geldof told him in no uncertain terms what he thought of waiting and set about scraping together the necessary cash.

From classified ads to rock and roll

Buy and Sell was eventually built into a lucrative business and sold for …35m in 1998. However, Geldof did not receive a penny from the deal, as he had previously abandoned the enterprise soon after launch, when his attention was diverted by rock and roll.

“Suddenly into this pretty miserable world came siren seductive voices of possibility, of other universes and they were being muttered by people we now know were pillars of our culture – Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend and so on. 

“They spoke to me of change, a demand for change, the necessity of change, the inevitability of change, the desirability of change and they gave me the rhetoric and platform of that change which was rock and roll.”

In true entrepreneurial spirit, Geldof tired of his magazine venture and sought the next big thing, forming The Boomtown Rats with a group of friends. When 24-year-old Geldof discovered that his rock and roll band brought with it “girls, excellent drugs and huge amounts of record sales”, the decision to ditch a classified ads magazine was a no brainer.

Rock and roll provided Geldof with a platform from which to vent his lack of trust in authority, his dismay at living on the breadline and his disgust at the level of poverty within his own country, but it wasn’t until 10 years later, when his career in pop “began to slide”, that Geldof was first faced with the “pure horror” of poverty in Africa while watching a BBC newsreel, which sparked the development of Live Aid.

Back to business

However, moving into charity did not mean a step away from commercial business for Geldof and in 1992 he co-founded television production company Planet 24 with producer Tony Boland, which developed successful programmes including The Big Breakfast and The Word, before it was sold to Carlton Communications in 1999 for a reported £15m.

Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Geldof, along with Alex Connock and Des Shaw, co-founded a new TV production company the very next day, calling it Ten Alps – a name which derived from the word Planet spelt backwards. Led by Connock until 2011, Ten Alps has continued to grow steadily since launch through a series of acquisitions, including that of TV production firms Brook Lapping, 3BM TV and Blakeway Productions. The AIM-listed company now employs more than 400 people, while Geldof continues to man the ship as non-executive director.

Forever seeking the next big thing, Geldof also took advantage of the internet boom in 1999 and launched online travel business Deckchair.com, which reached a value of £30m, before the dotcom bubble burst the following year and Geldof was forced to sell to World Travel Corporation in 2001 for just £3.2m.

Charity vs entrepreneurialism

While Geldof’s business and charitable ventures may appear at odds with one other, Geldof does not lead a double life, spending half his time as an altruistic philanthropist and the other as a money seeking business mogul. The serial entrepreneur argues that the only route to business success and to re-establishing a thriving global economy is by creating socially responsible entrepreneurs.

“We tend to focus our educational needs on turning out mathematicians and scientists, entrepreneurs and business people. I don’t think that’ll work. 

“Certainly we need entrepreneurs but unless we turn out human beings that understand the social values, then the market won’t work. The good economy and the good society go together – markets only work when they are embedded within the community.”

8 Miles

Geldof’s latest entrepreneurial venture is therefore an amalgamation of his social and economic concerns. Nearly 30 years after allegedly demanding “give us your fucking money” during Live Aid, Geldof has changed course and is now championing a way in which UK businesses can reap the rewards of the African economy.

But for people to begin seeing Africa as a viable business opportunity, Geldof feels that they have to understand that Africa is not a hopeless corrupt continent without prospects and investors and business owners need to start seeing it as an untapped opportunity, “just eight miles away”.

Consequently, Geldof’s private equity firm, focused solely on investments in African businesses is aptly named 8 Miles – the shortest distance between Europe and Africa. Making majority or influential minority investments of between $15m and $45m, the firm offers training and advice to African companies with high growth potential. Ensuring the investments are socially responsible, Geldof’s firm insists that all businesses in which it invests adhere to strict ethical guidelines.

While the philanthropist in Geldof points out the obvious moral reasons for channelling money into a continent racked with poverty, the entrepreneur highlights that investing in Africa is not only the morally right thing to do, it quite simply makes good business sense.

“The world economic structure will consistently fall over unless we bring that 50% of the planet on $2 a day into the global economic common wheel.

“I don’t understand how it’s beyond the wit of man to clearly understand that if we open up a market of 50% of the world that doesn’t already buy our stuff, we will benefit from jobs and wealth from that and they will then sell us their stuff and experience success themselves.”

Geldof is not urging entrepreneurs to donate their hard-earned cash to impoverished African countries, he believes that it is entirely in their interest to start both investing and exporting to Africa.

“Africa will be one of the polar economic centres. The continent grows at 5% per annum. In particular Ghana has huge opportunities, it’s hugely democratic, has a huge free press and it’s growing at 13% per annum.

“We should be looking at this new world. I’m in Africa a lot, I’m part of many African organisations, I have watched it over 30 years. It’s huge, the fundamentals are huge, it’s the fastest growing middle class in the world, the fastest urbanising continent in the world and has more cities of a million people than China or India. It’s the greatest working age population in the world in seven years.”

Geldof believes that what it takes to rebuild the economy is for people to fight against the norm and open their eyes to the available opportunity.

Just as Geldof was forced to survive on his own from a young age, he argues that anyone pushed to the limits of survival has the ability to become a business leader: “Not everyone is naturally entrepreneurial but if they were forced to it, they probably could be.”

The awkward mind of an entrepreneur

For Geldof, a successful entrepreneur is someone “awkward” – the sort of person who sees an established system and instead of finding a way to coincide with it, discovers the means through which to challenge it.

“Look at Churchill, not a great life in his early days. Look at Richard Branson, awkward socially. Look at Bill Gates, awkward socially. 

“The small business owner is the classic unreasonable person, they create jobs, they create ideas, they create wealth.

“Entrepreneurs are uncomfortable within this world they’re given and need to create their own universe in which they can function. That seems to me to be the essence of the entrepreneurial type, the power of unreasonable people.”

For those who have the courage and ambition to challenge the everyday course of life and build innovative, game changing businesses, Geldof offers this advice for discovering a breakthrough business idea:

“For change you need innovation, for innovation you need ideas because ideas are the raw material of change.

“But there’s no big deal about ideas, they’re everywhere, they’re in the sort of culture pollinating and doing all sorts of stuff. Ideas are only a fresh combination of old elements plus the ability to recognise new possibilities within that.

“This world is up for grabs, it’s a fascinating time, it’s entirely plastic and malleable. Make it into what you want it to be.”

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