First published in the Sunday Times on 10th April 2016.
I first discovered business when I was 18, and have been in love with it ever since.
I love business because for its practitioners it offers endless adventures, and limitless possibilities. There is nothing in life more exciting than coming across an electrifying new commercial opportunity, and suddenly visualising how you might seize the moment and turn that idea into something concrete — and profitable.
Even after 30 years of starting and backing companies, I never fail to be inspired when I alight upon some clever innovation and the work of brilliant innovators.
Private enterprise is responsible for the substantial majority of countless advances consumers see every week — ingenious new products and services that provide a better way to do things and a higher standard of living — the material comforts we all enjoy.
Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, wrote: “Business more than any other occupation is a continual dealing with the future; it is a continual calculation, an instinctive exercise in foresight.”
I enjoy business because it is a relentless contest, every firm pitting its resources against all manner of competitors. Out of this struggle, the fittest survive, and society is the chief beneficiary. I find this challenge intellectually stimulating and, since enterprise is not a zero-sum game, there can be many winners, most especially customers. As Walter Bagehot put it: “Business is really more agreeable than pleasure; it interests the whole mind, the aggregate nature of man more continuously, and more deeply.”
Often in business one is engaged in complex and mentally testing arrangements — organising, administering, motivating and recruiting: launching a new product, say, or opening a restaurant or plant. A business with which I am involved recently moved to big new premises. Seeing the operation up and running in its new home was a thrilling sight, a marvel of co-ordination and stamina. I felt intensely proud to be a playing a small part in such an exhilarating undertaking.
I like trade because it is open-minded and classless: background, accent, schooling, academic achievements, social standing — these count for nothing. Entrepreneurs are a considerably more diverse bunch than those in professions like the law, medicine and journalism. According to a Harris poll, Americans consider many other occupations more prestigious than business — firefighters, nurses, architects, police and so forth — yet the private sector generates all the net taxes to pay the bills for our public services. Even if they do not garner so much prestige, businessmen and women enable welfare, education, justice and healthcare systems to function.
As RH Cabell said: “I like business because it is competitive, because it rewards deeds rather than words.”
Business is a practical activity: if you sell shoddy items or provide bad service, you are likely to go bust. The market is unforgiving but real, not theoretical, in its verdicts and outcomes.
At heart, building a business is a creative endeavour, just as much, I would argue, as any artistic pursuit. Assembling all the elements that make up a productive firm — people, capital, property, technology, target market and so forth — is an intricate task that requires both mental exertion and gut feel.
Cultivating a management team is one of the most satisfying by-products of growing a business. Watching people develop their talents, take on new responsibilities, and succeed in their careers, is hugely life-affirming.
Ultimately, the greatest good that entrepreneurs do is to create jobs — to obtain decent work is citizens’ most fundamental desire all over the world, according to Gallup’s polls.
The scope of business is boundless. It impacts every nation, every discipline. It accommodates organisations from the smallest to the largest. It gives constant support to a philosophy of lifelong learning. It embraces cutting-edge scientific applications, and rewards intuitive skills of persuasion and charisma. Almost all respected careers are hidebound by stifling hierarchy but when you start your own business there need to be no such rigmarole: you control your destiny — and take just credit for your own efforts.
Being a part of a booming business is a thrilling experience. Beating sales forecasts, making record levels of profits, hiring more staff, investing for the future, attracting the best people — there is a virtuous circle when business goes well. Of course, managing a business in a capitalist system is not a risk-free affair — failure is always a hazard. But General George Patton got it right when he said: “Take calculated risks. That is quite different from being rash.”
I think of business as a vocation — even a calling. It is dynamic, testing, varied and limited only by our imagination and ambitions.