A founder’s epitaph: he was vitally engaged in his pursuits

First published in the Financial Times on 18th November 2014.

The late retail designer Rodney Fitch embodied the greatest qualities of an entrepreneur

Sometimes it takes a death to remind us of what matters in life. Recently my friend Rodney Fitch passed away, and inevitably I have been ruminating on his achievements, as both an entrepreneur and a man.

For me the key point about Rodney was summed up in a marvellous appreciation delivered at his funeral by Will Wyatt, the former managing director of BBC television, who said that when Rodney became involved in something he was “all in – a 100 per center”.

This is what we should all strive for: to be vitally engaged in our life’s pursuits.

As Andrew Carnegie said: “The average person puts about 25 per cent of his energy and ability into his work. The world takes its hat off to those who put in more than 50 per cent of their capacity, and stands on its head for those few and far between souls who devote 100 per cent.”

Rodney was a pioneer retail designer, who founded one of the dominant agencies in the industry worldwide. His practice has worked for many of the biggest names in shopping design in Britain and elsewhere, and was the first company of its kind to go public in 1982 on the London Stock Exchange.

It is now owned by WPP and has 18 studios across the world. He also co-wrote a definitive textbook on the subject, Fitch on Retail Design. More recently, he had become a professor and taught the subject at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

Like very many successful individuals, Rodney’s great skill was enthusiasm and commitment. He was able to encourage others to share his passions – be it designing shops or restaurants, cricket, opera, horseriding in the American west, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the University of the Arts London, or the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone.

His keenness was never selfish, but always inspiring and infectious. Rodney was a self-made man, and I hugely admired his energy and appetite to be busy and doing things – be it work, family, charities, hobbies or collecting.

Most of us drift through life as observers, passive consumers rather than producers. But as Teddy Roosevelt said: “There has never yet been a man in our history who led a life of ease whose name is worth remembering.”

Everything important takes effort and perseverance. The world can use more initiators, the vital catalysts who are the prime movers in new undertakings. Followers are always plentiful.

But originators need to show dedication to the task. You cannot be half a leader, or indeed half an entrepreneur. You must have sufficient skin in the game, otherwise why should any investor back you?

As Kirk Coburn, the Texas based start-up advocate and venture capitalist puts it: “The first question every potential investor asked me (including my Dad): ‘How much are you investing in the idea?’ There is only one correct answer. Everything I have.”

When I receive a business plan or a pitch from a start-up team, I focus on the founders, and try to gauge what they have on the line.

There is nothing more off-putting than would-be entrepreneurs expecting to be paid big salaries from day one, and who put negligible cash into the project.

They should be prepared to work all hours, operate from cheap premises and sacrifice better pay elsewhere to create their own business. This is not because it is a rite of passage, but because with so much at stake they are more likely to conquer the inevitable challenges that will arise.

I even like the idea that there can be no Plan B. If you wager your body and soul in a venture, then you will move heaven and earth to make it work.

This philosophy could be seen as somewhat impractical, but if there are too many soft alternatives, then founders may be tempted to bail out when the going gets tough. Bailing out early is not how difficult tasks are achieved. That is why grit and character are the favourite traits that enlightened schools try to imbue in their pupils.

Research shows those who possess them are much more likely to win – eventually. And that is what Rodney Fitch had, especially towards the end, when he was very ill: true grit.