When I got my first senior management role, I was younger than those who reported to me. I tended to be hesitant rather than assertive because I thought I was conceding to experience. A lot of the views I had were strong and compelling, but I didn’t have the faith in my own ability.
Time gives you more confidence. I ran a systems engineering consultancy business in London during the dot-com era, where I learned from the mistakes of others. The dot-com world was going along nicely for five years or so, but I saw a lot of deals with equity that turned out to be worth nothing. Colleagues of mine were backing websites left, right and centre, and I saw so many people lose their money. The lesson was not to be caught up in the hype and to be selective, and today unless I can see a real value proposition which people can tangibly make money out of, I don’t invest.
After I left the consultancy business I went to work for a firm called TFM Group. There were four of us as partners and everything was going well at the beginning. I wanted to grow the business, and raise some money to diversify.
After two years though, I wasn’t sure my fellow directors shared my vision of expansion. The four of us sat down and talked individually about what we each wanted out of the venture. One guy didn’t want to take any risk, another had started a separate company, and the final guy just liked the idea of being involved in a lifestyle business.
The lesson is, make sure you choose your partners well and that your vision is aligned from the beginning. At Team Telecom Group it was absolutely essential I had the right partners. We all knew the journey we were going to have, for the short, medium and long term so there would be no surprises down the line.
Another challenge at TFM Group was building a business in China. It was early days for UK businesses opening up outlets there, and a lot of people thought they had to throw a lot of money at building relationships. I wasted a lot of time eating scorpions on sticks, pigs’ bladders and ducks’ feet, trying to fit in with local hospitality, but little came of it. While building relationships is good, it’s still all about having the right products and the best business propositions.
Dealing with Chinese business partners now, rather than do the hospitality rounds and waste time we ask ourselves from the outset, do these people want to do business or not, and it works.
Talking of getting the offering right, at Team Telecom Group we invested a lot of money developing what we thought was the Rolls Royce of products on the advice of our engineers, but it turned out to be too expensive, and no-one wanted to buy it. It’s simple, you have to be able to deliver something the market actually wants. We were lucky not to lose much financially; I’ve been fortunate enough to not make one of these gargantuan mistakes where someone loses millions.
Overall, you’ve got to trust your gut in business, and this is particularly true when hiring. The people I weren’t sure about, but might have employed because I was desperate, all turned out badly and the ones I had good feelings about all went on to do great things. Over the years I’ve learned that if someone leaves and moves on you must part on good terms; it’s always beneficial to keep in contact with the best ones.