Business tips from Tim Smit

Tim Smit, founder and chief executive of Cornwall tourist attraction The Eden Project, explains why he distrusts business jargon and believes the best ideas are dreamed up around the kitchen table.

Interview Transcript

The trouble is everyone’s looking for tips aren’t they about how to run good businesses, and the worst people on Earth to actually give you any tips about how to run anything are the people who are actually doing it, because what happens in real life is that you describe your life backwards: “I am here so the reason I got here must have been for a purpose, so de facto all these things I did must have led me here”, which is utter bollocks, because the truth is that real life is about making loads of mistakes, having a couple of lucky breaks along the way, and actually it’s usually a razor-blade difference between success and failure, it really is.

I mean The Eden Project is a case in point. For those of you who have never been there or know nothing about it, it’s a 34-acre clay pit with a whacking great hole, we’ve built the world’s greatest conservatories in it, we have turnover of about £19 million a year, we’ve got 500-odd staff, we’ve contributed £930 million into the Cornish economy over the last seven years, which is more than double the entire European funding for the whole of the South West over the same period… we’re very political: when we built it we always intended that we should run it as if we were round our kitchen table, because where most people go wrong, where most men go wrong, is that they don’t realise that the common sense you have at your kitchen table gets completely buggered when you then go to work and feel you have to impress other men. It’s true, I mean come on, would this financial crisis be with us if we had equal men and women in the boardrooms? Of course not. We know that’s true. So that was the tip side, ok. I’m not going to tell you anymore, don’t be so mean, come and visit.

But the things that I’ve learnt about business are first of all distrust anybody who uses the words ‘centre of excellence’, ‘out of the box’, ‘joined-up thinking’, ‘leading edge’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘bleeding edge’ which is when I assume you’re too close to the cutting edge, and make absolutely sure that you have nothing to do with anybody who thinks they’re capable of ‘thinking the unthinkable’. You can’t think the unthinkable.

But what you can do is just sit down at a kitchen table and realise that some of the world’s great businesses were actually created around kitchen tables, and the reason they’re created around kitchen tables is that you’re normally sensible at that point. For those of you who are watching at home, check out places like the Griffin Hospital, near Boston, fantastic place. Why did it go from the worst hospital in America to the best hospital in five years? You know what they did? Revolutionary: they asked all the potential patients who lived around them what sort of hospital they wanted to visit, and built it. Why don’t we do that sort of stuff? Probably one of the best schools in the world, the Manchester School in Pittsburgh, the roughest part of Pittsburgh, it’s a fantastic school because the guy who runs it, the most inspirational man I’ve ever seen on a stage, he has a motto about running it, which is if it’s good enough for rich folks it’s good enough for poor folks too. Wonderful. I saw 500 grown-ups cry when he spoke about what happens if you forget to put limits on people, and actually assume that everybody is capable of fantastic things. Because people are fantastic things. But you actually need… you need to believe it.

What I learnt in the music business before I went into Eden which was something really profound which was to shape my life, which was if you love something yourself and you are not a freak, there will be millions and millions and millions and millions of people like you, so therefore the only problem is marketing. Let them know about it, and you’ve got a big market.

See also: 5 habits of highly successful entrepreneurs revealed

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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