A bluffer’s guide to starting a business

First published in the Financial Times on 10th July 2012.

I realised then that half the secret to success is sheer chutzpah

When I was 18, I discovered an important insight about faking it. I wanted to be a DJ but had no experience – although I did have a record collection.

I saw a classified ad seeking a skilled DJ. I responded, claiming to know what I was doing. After a two-minute phone interview, the boss of the mobile discotheque company gave me the task of playing the music at a wedding that weekend.

One of his other DJs turned up that Saturday evening to collect me and my vinyl, and dropped me off at the venue together with the sound system. Not having a clue what to do, I bluffed him into setting up the turntables for me – and even asked how to control the volume. That’s when I was rumbled.

But the DJ took pity and in three minutes showed me the basics. I spun a few discs, the guests started dancing – and suddenly I was a DJ too. That led to me running nightclubs rather than studying medicine, and becoming an entrepreneur not a doctor.

I realised then that half the secret to success is sheer chutzpah and the confidence to believe that you will somehow wing it, no matter what the circumstances. Qualifications and experience matter – but in many walks of life the principle should be: “Do it, then learn how.”

We all start out as beginners and arguably spend much of our lives pretending to be more expert than we are. I’ve spent more than 20 years involved in dozens of restaurant businesses, but still consider myself something of an amateur in the hospitality profession. I think such an approach makes one more open to new ideas. And it is surely better than becoming a smug know-it-all.

Entrepreneurship is mostly about action rather than study. That means every entrepreneur starts with the attitude that they “fake it until they make it”.

Of course, you cannot plunge in at the deep end in certain professions – brain surgery, for instance. But I suspect that learning on the job is always the very best way to really understand the nuts and bolts.

It is a myth that entrepreneurs are born not made. Those young entrepreneurs that we identify as naturals are probably faking it, improving as they go.

I can recall chairing board meetings of substantial companies when I was in my 20s and not really having a clue what I was doing, making it up as I went along. There is no rule book on how to create a great business, so entrepreneurs simply have to impersonate being a great boss and hope they don’t get found out.

Periodically, many of us suffer self-doubt and even worry that we are frauds, about to be exposed as not good enough. There is even a technical name for this condition – imposter syndrome.

It is common to fear that our peers are superior to us and that our accomplishments count for nothing. But in fact we probably underestimate the failures experienced by successful contemporaries. After all, few draw attention to their defeats and setbacks, and most will highlight their positive achievements. But I know well from my own bad investments and misjudged partnerships that mistakes are a critical part of the journey.

Perhaps the most uplifting reality television show of all time was Stephen Lambert’s masterpiece, Faking It, broadcast on Channel 4 (I was chairman of the broadcaster during series seven through nine). It was a modern-day version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the story about the flower girl Eliza Doolittle who was taught by Professor Higgins to pass herself off as a duchess.

Each episode from the nine TV series featured a participant who transformed their career – for example, a cycle courier turning into a polo player, and a newsagent into a showbiz reporter. There was something extraordinarily inspirational about the whole concept – that everyone can reinvent themselves if they try hard enough.

I’m not advocating fantasy. Getting anything worthwhile done requires industry and commitment, not just an ability to bullshit.

Julie Meyer, co-founder of networking group First Tuesday and now a technology investor, has just written a stimulating manual called Welcome to Entrepreneur Country, where she describes the importance of self-belief. She’s right: faith in yourself is more important than almost anything.