The best insights top entrepreneurs have shared with us this year

Pearls of wisdom from the entrepreneurs we spoke to during 2009

It’s been a tough year for businesses large and small, but that hasn’t stopped owner-managers talking a good game. Of the hundreds of entrepreneurs we’ve spoken to over the past year, here’s a small selection of some of the memorable pearls of wisdom the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs gave us in 2009:

Philip Green, Acadia Group Charles Dunstone, Carphone Warehouse Deborah Meaden, Dragon Simon Calver, Lovefilm Tim Smit, The Eden Project Peter Jones, Dragon Joe Cohen, Seatwave Julie Meyer, Dragon Nick Jenkins, Moonpig Charlie Mullins, Pimlico Plumbers Nigel Kershaw, Big Issue Invest

Philip Green, Acadia Group

On achieving success: “The days of financial jiggery-pokery are gone. If you were going to buy a business today, you’ve got to believe that you’ve got operating skills for that sector. It’s going to be about knowing your market, your sector and how to make it work. More importantly, you should have a three to five-year view. You need to be able to hold the assets, operate and manage them. There are no quick ins and outs. Your product has got to be great, you’ve got to understand your customer and you’ve got to know your market. You can’t learn how to have a good eye”

Charles Dunstone, Carphone Warehouse

On starting Carphone Warehouse: “It wasn’t an amazing piece of inspiration. I opened a shop selling phones and was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. That’s all I’ve done really.”

On sticking to what you know: “I’m not a serial starter of businesses and 19 years on I’m still working in the only business I’ve ever started.”

On surviving the downturn: “You’ve got to batten down the hatches, focus on costs and just get through it. You have to face up to the fact that this is happening and people won’t be spending the money they have been in any area of the economy for some time. You have to cut your cloth accordingly.”

On the secret of retail success: “Retail is really about attention to detail. There’s never one big thing you can do. It’s millions of little things that you have to work at, getting as many of them right as you can”

Deborah Meaden, Dragon

On her reputation: “The rest of the Dragons seem to spend their whole lives defending me. I recognise the person I see in the Den, despite it not being the full rounded me, but I’m there to decide what is and isn’t a good investment, not to win a Miss Congeniality contest.”

On the definition of success: “It’s not just about money, although that’s part of it. It’s reaching the stage in your life where you can pretty much do whatever you want to.”

On office politics: “I’ve seen so many businesses get completely bogged down on bloody car parking spaces or who’s using too many Post-It notes. If you dump the small stuff, then you’ll focus on what really matters to your business.”

On crazy Den pitches: “The ratio of wacky to commercially viable ideas in the Den pretty much reflects the pitches I get in real life. The difference is, outside the Den I have someone to filter out the crazy ones.”

Simon Calver, Lovefilm

On tech: “It’s easy to overestimate how quickly technology will be adopted by consumers, but it’s also easy to underestimate the long-term impact it will have on the marketplace.”

On moving from the corporate world to a small business: “There’s nothing more exciting than having a business that you can influence, control and pull the levers on to see how big you can make it. You have to be prepared to roll up your sleeves. I tighten the toilet seat if it’s loose. It’s a question of mucking in to get things done. The longer you spend in corporate life, the further away you get from that.”

On good advice: “Michael Dell taught me to fix a problem as soon as you find it. In a small business, you don’t have the time to carry people or constantly work through mistakes and issues. Find the problem, fix it and move on. That’s a mantra that anyone in business should follow.”

On borrowing ideas: “I’m not too proud to say we’ll look anywhere we can to get good ideas to grow our business.”

Tim Smit, The Eden Project

On business rules: “People seem to think the rules of business were handed down on tablets to Moses himself. The way we look at the public limited company and the structures that surround it are deemed to be perfect. They’re not. I’m not anti-wealth. I’m just against the perception that great business implies exploiting a market rather than developing it.”

On social enterprise: “We need new structures that combine a mixture of public and equity involvement. I think over the next decade, you’ll start to see social enterprises managed by really good people, making a profit and paying the individuals that work there good salaries. Everyone expects a return. It’s just got to be moderated in a different way.”

On great leadership: “You need to develop techniques that enable the people around you to be positively critical. A lot of novice managers think their authority is being challenged when people question it. Many of the best ideas at Eden came out of the gardener or kitchen staff saying: ‘Have you thought about doing it like that?'”

On getting funding: “If you have a certain amount of charm, and you won’t go away, people will eventually pay you large sums of money to do so. It’s worked very well for me.”

Peter Jones, Dragon

On business failure: “If you fail three times in the States, they’ll assume your fourth business will be a success. Here, we won’t even give you a job.”

On signing up for Dragons’ Den: “At first, I didn’t know whether to do it. But BBC2 had a strong factual ethic, so I knew it wasn’t just about entertainment and I agreed to a pilot. Even then, I thought it might go under the radar.”

On Duncan Bannatyne: “If he had half a brain he’d be dangerous. It’s difficult to have an intelligent conversation with him.”

On James Caan: “He hasn’t got a shred of fashion sense in his body. He’ll go into a house and think the flowery curtains would look good on him. My message to James would be to stop dressing like the interior design of property and learn about true fashion.”

On whether money buys happiness: “Yes. Without a doubt. Money gives you choices. I’ve been in both camps and I’d much rather have money than not. It’s great to walk into your garage and see a lovely Ferrari in there.”

Joe Cohen, Seatwave

On the UK tax system: “There has never been an effort to help middle classes to grow up economically and build up wealth. To have a system that protects wealth at the top and a safety net at the bottom, and have people in the middle pay for both feels 200 years behind the times.”

On chasing file sharers: “Skype is probably one of the most innovative companies to come out of this country in a long time, and it was created by the guys behind Kazaa. They would have been prosecuted under new proposals to force ISPs to turn over records of people who are file sharing.”

Julie Meyer, Dragon

On being your own boss: “I’m always fascinated when people talk about job security or risk, because the biggest risk I’ve always felt is working for someone else. I think that would freak me out the most, if I wasn’t in control.

On being an early stage investor: “There are a lot of so-called early stage venture capital firms that really want the entrepreneur to prove the validation and have about £1m of revenue before they’ll get involved. A lot of the risk is taken out of a business by the time it has £1m of revenue in it. We go in much earlier, to help set the DNA of the company.”

On Dragons’ Den: “I gave it a 50:50 chance that the BBC would want to work with me, because I said I’m not going to be rude, I’m going to be the way I am.”

Nick Jenkins, Moonpig

On starting a web business in the 90s: “I decided that if I was going to start a business I didn’t understand, it might as well be something that no one else understood either,”

On MBAs: “You can’t come out of it thinking you’re a commercial wizard, but it does give you enough to bluff your way through every facet of business. In some respects, it’s about lifting the mysticism of business.”

On receiving death threats: “As homicidal criminals go, the Russians are quite sensible. If they give you a death threat and you take notice of it, you’re not going to get killed.”

Charlie Mullins, Pimlico Plumbers

On business loans: “I don’t want outsiders involved in my business. I’ve never met my bank manager and I never will. My view is that outsiders will try to control things when you borrow money so if you don’t need loans steer well clear of them.”

On exit strategy: “I don’t ever plan to sell. If you build something up from scratch why would you want to part with it? I’ve built a successful, profitable business. A jockey never jumps off a winning horse.”

Nigel Kershaw, Big Issue Invest

On seeking bank funding: “The banks don’t understand what it is to be a pioneer. They ask us for a proven business model, but we’re still going through a proof of concept. As a start-up, you face this problem time and time again: the problem is finding those people who believe in what you’re doing and are prepared to back the early stage.”

On funding social enterprises: “When you look at the way that social organisations are financed, you find that they are typically under-capitalised. Where’s a social organisation that’s grown from zero to huge in a relatively short space of time? The answer is there isn’t one.”

On business vs. charity: “We’ll make sure that your financial and social objectives are being met by the one investment. I’m not anti-charity and I’m not anti-philanthropy, but it’s not necessarily the way to make social change within the marketplace.”

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