3 Entrepreneurs choose their favourite business books

No matter how charismatic and driven you are, everybody needs a little inspiration now and then. Entrepreneurs tell Kathleen Hall which books and business theories have made a lasting impression.

Brett Raynes, CEO of IT company Backup Direct, applies the wisdom of Sun Tzu’s Art of War to his company

The book has become popular with a lot of business people, it was originally written by a Chinese general nearly 4,500 years ago. Much of it might seem like common sense, but there are certain aspects that stand out even now.

One principle is: always expect the worst. In our business we’ve applied that approach to everything. From deciding how we could cope if a certain person were to leave, to having ensured that we are not reliant on any one industry or sector, and that no customer contributes more than five per cent of our revenue. In the current climate, that is something that has absolutely paid off.

Another key principle is: know your facts. You should only make a decision on that basis. In the old days, when I ran my first business, I used to make decisions based on gut feeling. I was involved in a company selling software solutions and we were in the customer relationship management (CRM) market. I pulled out of CRM because I thought the market was saturated with those products, and decided to invest £500,000 elsewhere. But it was just guesswork and the company nearly went bust as a result. That’s a really big regret. It’s better to wait and get your facts straight.

For me, those are the two main points. Entrepreneurs are often too optimistic and so considering the downside and fact checking aren’t necessarily something they think about.

Of course, I’ve learnt half of this the hard way. But sometimes you read a book and a bell goes off and you think: ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’ve done.’ The fact this book has been around for so long makes you think that that it’s not just a fad.

Neville Upton, founder of outsourced call centre The Listening Company, came across Frank Dick’s managing your three-lane Motorway theory as a way of restoring his work-life balance

Since we implemented this in 2004-05, our company has grown 40 per cent year-on-year.

Like most other entrepreneurs, I reached a point where I was living and breathing the business. But that can create conflict with colleagues, and puts lots of pressure on friends and family and the people around you.

We had got to a stage where we were doing well, but everyone was really tired and burnt out all the time.

Then I came across Frank Dick’s managing your three-lane motorway theory, which says that life should consist of work, family and yourself. I admit it’s not rocket science; we all want a balanced life. But it gave me a framework and reminded me how important certain things are. Now, if I put something in my diary like going to my kid’s assembly, I’ll go to it no matter what.

[For the company] it was crucial that we did it as a collective effort. We sat around with the executive team and told them they needed to sort out their work-life balance. I really wanted to push across the importance of spending enough time at home and concentrating on their fitness.

It’s really helped to improve energy levels. I think it’s given us more focus and a better sense of what’s achievable. Sometimes there is a tendency to always want things to be done yesterday.

We have 32 account managers, and not one of them has left the company in five years. That’s because of our focus on a balanced lifestyle.

Alistair Morrison, CEO of training company Echelon Learning, heard W Edwards Deming speak over 20 years ago, which had a profound effect on his business approach

I first heard about the statistician and consultant W. Edwards Deming when I was running a training business in 1987. I came across him by chance and heard about a conference he was attending. He was totally incredible. Apparently Deming was responsible for converting the Japanese economy from a basket case into a world-class manufacturing power.

A lot of what he says is common sense, you don’t really need to be told to put the customer first and have good processes in place. But he brings all these elements together under the system of ‘Profound Knowledge’. Although his work was based on the manufacturing industry, he has also demonstrated how it can be applied to other industries.

Deming says the primary driver behind your business should always be ‘delighting the customer’ because satisfying them is the very least they expect. He was also a big believer in having them involved in the projects.

One of the main ways we applied this theory was by understanding and researching customer requirements and rewriting our training – once we did, our key performance indicators rocketed by 20 per cent in three months.

We became very detailed about speaking to the client and doing a lot of research into the organisation. It made our design and production faster because we were getting it right first time.

If every member of staff has a process they are applying in the same way, it builds a level of confidence and trust with the client because they are getting the same treatment each time. No one likes to be bandied about.

When a company isn’t prepared to invest in quality and is internally focused rather than customer focused, that soon becomes problematic. Ultimately, the customer is the arbiter of your entire business.


Kathleen Hall

Kathleen is a journalist with broad experience of writing about law, business, technology, digital policy, government IT, finance and culture.

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