I believe one of the most important aspects of leadership is multitasking: the capacity to keep one eye on the present and the other on the future.
This isn’t just true for growing business operations, but also for nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs. If small businesses are the backbone of the British economy, individuals with the courage and ambition to strike out on their own are the vertebra. Business leaders have a responsibility to mentor and support them to secure the future of the UK’s business landscape.
So, when the daughter of our invaluable Head of HR asked me to help her with a sixth form project on entrepreneurship, I was happy to tell her a bit about my own experiences in an interview. I hope they might be useful for any aspiring entrepreneurs reading today – her questions were certainly incisive!
Please tell me about yourself before you started your first venture:
The son of Irish immigrants, I had been working since 17, including in two major retail chains. I then joined a family business that provided passenger transport and same day delivery services.
I would say that I’ve always been entrepreneurial in my approach to my career: ambitious, forward thinking and, most importantly, not afraid to fail.
Were your parents, relatives, or close friends entrepreneurial? How so? Did you have any other role models?
My father was a huge inspiration. He emmigrated as a self-employed brick layer and, through decades of hard work, eventually became his own boss as a builder.
My godfather, John Griffin, also showed me how a commitment to always doing the best job possible was integral to achieving success. John, who is the current chairman of Irish TV, is well known in Ireland for winning the Kerry Man of the Year and the Mayo Man of the Year awards.
In what way has your education supported the development of your business? How did you start your venture?
I come from a family of academic talent; my twin brother achieved the highest mark in London for his Pure Mathematics degree at Kings College and went on to achieve a masters at Cambridge.
I’m very proud of his achievements, but I took a different path. I missed university, collected a handful of ‘O’ levels and started full time work when I was 17. There is no right or wrong approach, but attitude (and determination to succeed) is very important.
Prior to starting the business, what experience did you have? Was it helpful?
My best (but perhaps the hardest) career decision was to leave a successful family business (Addison Lee) and travel to the USA to work for a distribution business that was in effect a start-up. The exposure and learning curve was priceless; we went on to achieve an IPO (Initial Public Offering) and became a public traded company on the Nasdaq exchange.
How did you spot the opportunity?
I understand that sometimes people have a “light bulb” moment, but I believe that people have usually formed an idea about what could be successful and adapt their strategy to achieve success. I didn’t have a crystal ball or a clear vision about my path, it was more about having the confidence and ambition to take the opportunity when it arose.
Did you find or have partners?
I have a great partner for success: my Finance Director Gerard Keenan. Our strengths and weaknesses absolutely complement each other and I believe a great team is having the right people in the right roles. It’s the sum of all your parts that delivers success.
Did you have a start-up business plan of any kind? If so, please tell me about it
I haven’t started a business completely from scratch, but I did start the first passenger motorbike service in London whilst working at Addison Lee. The first rider that I put through an advanced driving course is now the Managing Director of the Virgin Limobike services provided for high end passengers.
What was your most triumphant moment? Your worst moment?
I felt huge triumph breaking through the £100m revenue barrier and knowing that my team and I could push on. Worst moment was having to exit long serving personnel that could not contribute to the future of the business
Once you got going, then:
Just as a more confident football team perform better, success makes a tremendous difference to morale. But you always hit bump in the road and how you ‘ride’ over these is critical. Don’t be too hard on yourself but do recognise shortcomings and respond. Understanding and recognising your strengths and weaknesses is key.
What were the most difficult gaps to fill and problems to solve as your business began to grow?
Building a team. Not only my immediate team but the layers below.
When you looked for key people as partners, advisors, or managers, were there any personal attributes or attitudes you were especially seeking because you knew they would fit with you and were important to success? How did you find them?
The ability to ‘manage upwards’ and speak up when they don’t agree. This constructive environment is vital.
Do you spend more/same/less time with your business now than in the early years?
Probably more, because in my role you have to be aware of global models that might threaten or change what we do. The advent of technology has disrupted traditional business models and the rapid rate of change due to technology is more acute than ever.
What have been the greatest problems or difficulties encountered as an entrepreneur?
Only having 24 hours in a day! And the challenge of recruiting and keeping the right talent.
If you had to do it over again, would you do it again, in the same way?
Yes, just faster!
Looking back, what do you feel are the most critical concepts, skills, attitudes, and know-how you needed to get your company started and grown to where it is today? What will be needed for the next five years?
This is a question that doesn’t have a definitive answer. You have continually evaluate and question your strategy and be prepared to change course. However, at this moment, I believe we have identified the right strategy for success over the next five years.
What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur? Could you suggest the three most important “lessons” you have learned?
There are two main pieces of advice I’d share with anyone wanting to start or run their own business. First, you cannot do it yourself (whatever my godfather might say!), and second, you will only be as good as the sum of all your parts: your team. So focus, support and nurture this area because it will pay you back again and again if you get it right.