If you see a chance, just take it
First published in the Sunday Times on 15th November 2015.
There is one phrase above all others that entrepreneurs must follow: seize the day. And now is the time to join the entrepreneur revolution. People who start a business in Britain don’t realise how lucky they are. We are certainly one of the least corrupt nations on earth – by contrast, doing business in many countries is a precarious proposition. According to last year’s Global Entrepreneurship Index, which surveys 130 countries for their enterprise ecosystems, Britain leads Europe and is the fourth best country in the world in which to start and grow a business. From our acceptance of risk, to human capital, to the rule of law, to property rights, to the levels of opportunity here, to the availability of funding, the UK has an increasingly positive attitude towards entrepreneurs and business.
As the economist John Maynard Keynes put it: “The thought of ultimate loss which overtakes pioneers, as experience undoubtedly tells us and them, is put aside as a healthy man puts aside the expectation of death.”
In my travels I meet quite a few would-be entrepreneurs. Some have a vision of starting or buying a business, but always find reasons why it’s impossible. Their excuses as to why they haven’t created an enterprise are impressive, but in truth none of them really stand up to cross-examination.
First on the list is always a lack of capital. But most things can be done for less if your life’s dream depends on it. And there is equity and debt out there for the right entrepreneur. There are all sorts of pockets of institutional and private cash for a sound project, from government agencies to angel investors to crowdfunding. It has never been easy to tap these sources of finance, so you need to be good – and persistent. Howard Schultz of Starbucks did more than 250 presentations to raise the early-stage funding to really kickstart his coffee bar chain.
A second obstacle is income: people get addicted to a nice safe salary as an employee, and are unwilling to give it up for the uncertainties of the entrepreneurial life. It’s certainly true that plenty of self-employed people earn less than they would working for others. But they do it because of the freedom and satisfaction it brings – and because they refuse to give up on their hopes. I accept there are those who have heavy domestic responsibilities – a mortgage, family obligations and so forth. But anything really worth having requires sacrifice – do you want to deny yourself exciting possibilities and live a life of regrets?
A third reason is the idea: too many prospective entrepreneurs are waiting for a breakthrough concept to arrive one day, fully formed and ready to launch. But capitalism isn’t like that. Most new firms do something pretty similar to many others – they provide familiar services or products, fulfilling a definite demand – with perhaps an incremental improvement. You do not need an earth-shattering invention to achieve success. Those triumphs happen rarely, and normally only after vast amounts of heartache. What you want is a solid proposition that generates sales and cash quickly, using skills you already possess, with economics you understand, and serving a known market.
A fourth reason is risk aversion. Too many people fear failure more than they want to win. Of course your start-up might prove a vain attempt at the prize, so you may lose money, time and pride. Everyone who has achieved much has suffered setbacks. And you know what? Life carries on. As Confucius said: “Our greatest glory lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail.”
There are a record 5.4m businesses in Britain, owned by those brave enough to believe in the future, energetic enough to see an opportunity and optimistic enough to deny the possibility of defeat. There is never a perfect time to commence the journey. But if you have ambition and are willing to apply the effort, then stop procrastinating – get out there and start battling.