The Secret Entrepreneur: My mentor was hiding a dark truth

An early client and mentor with a talent for negotiation. But why was everything so secretive? Our Secret Entrepreneur reveals all

Taking you inside the mind of a successful British business owner, The Secret Entrepreneur is here to tell the full, unvarnished, truth about life as the CEO of a fast-growing company.

Our Secret Entrepreneur has been sharing their angst, frustrations, and the realities of running a multi-million turnover company right here.

In their last column  our Secret Entrepreneur provided a brutally honest assessment of maternity leave legislation – and revealed what other entrepreneurs really think.

This week, things aren’t always what they seem in business, so choose your associates carefully.

“A lot of the entrepreneurs I know have had mentors who’ve provided them with guidance and helped them to learn valuable business lessons. I’ve been fortunate enough to have assistance from a few such people during my career so far, some of whom I didn’t even realise were playing that role at the time.

My first mentor, in fact, was actually one of my first clients. I didn’t quite realise the true source of the lessons I was learning though.

I didn’t waste much time getting in to business. In fact, I skipped the ‘working for other people’ bit entirely (I could never really see the point) and ploughed straight on in to the very first opportunity I saw to be my own boss.

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Through a remarkable series of events, this led me to – as a very green youngster – sitting in front of the desk of a frankly terrifying guy and bullshitting my way through one of my first business deals.

The negotiation process in itself was a mini MBA, conducted in less than an hour. I ended up agreeing to do the work for a fraction of what I’d initially proposed – but for what was still a substantial amount of money for someone my age. I learnt more about negotiation in that meeting than I ever did before or since.

I also managed to successfully pass myself off as an established business, when in reality I was in my teens and it was just me working out of my bedroom.

Of course, this bluff unravelled at the very end of the meeting, as it was bound to do. Fortunately though, we’d already shaken on the deal and I was impressed to discover that while frightening, he was a man of his word and the deal was still on.

What he impressed upon me quite clearly though was that I now needed to be as good as my word, and deliver on what I’d promised. I took this to heart (and have stuck by this principle ever since), delivered all I said I would and went on to work with him for many years. Every project involved a negotiation battle, but I never minded because I always learnt something and I always knew that whatever we agreed, he’d hold up his end of the deal. I knew I would too, because I was still terrified of this guy.

Being a naïve young thing, I never thought more than that he was naturally an intimidating guy. In many ways I was in awe. He was relatively young (although nearly twice my age), powerful and clearly successful. I knew he had lot going on and the business that I dealt with him for was just one of his ventures. I wanted to study and learn all I could from him. I always found it odd though that he never wanted his picture taken and was very careful not to give much away about his dealings. I took this as a tactic to increase his perceived power and importance.

Time passed, things moved on and eventually we no longer had a reason to do business together. I remain to this day firm friends with many of the people he employed though and met a few of them not so long ago for a drink.

We got to chatting about the old days (because this is quite some time ago now) and discussing how much we’d learnt from this guy. As the stories rolled on over the course of an evening, it was then that I discovered that he was in fact a gangster. I don’t mean that in the flippant sense. I mean that at the time I was negotiating with him he was a senior guy in proper gangland outfit.

Suddenly it all dropped in to place.

I’m glad I always delivered on my end of the deal.”

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