Rich Ambler runs Brighton-based language training business Cactus, which provides courses in 25 languages in 45 countries with clients including Channel 4, Burberry and BT. He shares with GrowthBusiness some of the business and life lessons he’s learnt along the way.
I set up my first business with three friends while at Leeds Polytechnic. It was a skiing club and we arranged trips to Sheffield’s dry ski slope and once a year we’d go to the French Alps.
After graduating in 1991, we decided to continue the business, Victoria Real, which lasted for 18 months and then fell apart. We were four people who all wanted to be entrepreneurs. That meant four departments, cheque books and sets of accounts, but nothing to sell.
The memory of that basic error has always stayed with me. My current business has different sections and people often suggest that I split it into different parts, but I’ve resisted – all you’re doing is creating extra levels of bureaucracy. I want us to remain sales focused because ultimately it’s from there that the success of the business will come. It may be a generalisation, but I do believe that if you look after the top half of the P&L, then the bottom half will take care of itself.
When I left Victoria Real in 1993, I decided to go travelling with a friend across South America, teaching English along the way. We even ran a coffee shop in Colombia, which we sold after eight months.
I returned to England and moved to Brighton. The dotcom thing was beginning so I opened a sandwich shop in Brighton, developing a website so people could order online. The site looked great but, like many other websites back then, it didn’t work properly, plus broadband hadn’t happened, so no-one was really online anyway.
This meant we had to go and sell in the traditional way, visiting people directly, which actually did me a favour as it’s the best way to gain fresh customers.
One of my biggest contracts for the sandwich shop was with a language school. I asked the principal of the school if I could take the foreign students on day trips to London and that soon became a business on its own. During the week, I was running Lunchbox and at the weekend I’d be going to London, Hastings or wherever.
At the end of the summer of 1998 it occurred to me that if there are loads of foreign students coming to the UK, then there must be plenty of Brits who want to go overseas. The sandwich shop finished and Cactus was born.
Recently, we opened an office in New York and the plan is to expand further internationally. As the company grows, so does the necessity for me to really keep track of the figures and that’s where having my number two, Richard Bradford, who is now MD for the UK, is a great help.
Luckily for me, Richard is a good communicator. As my staff would probably testify, that isn’t necessarily my strong point. I like to think I’ve a strong vision of how I want the company to develop, but he is actually much better at translating that from out of my head and making the staff understand what it is I want us to achieve.