The most challenging of the creative arts: building a company
First published in the Sunday Times on 14th May 2017.
All of us have the chance to invent our own lives. We can decide where we live, who — and indeed if — we marry, and what we do for work. We can spend the years on meaningful activities, or waste them on pointless endeavour. Ultimately, it is up to us.
The key is to be proactive and make your own choices, rather than passively do what others expect and allow events simply to happen to you.
Sadly, too many people have always taken the less adventurous path and live close to where they were born, earning a living to survive, dreading Monday morning.
Conventional wisdom dictates that intelligent young people should attend a decent university, obtain a good degree and settle down in a steady career. But I think many higher educational courses offer poor value, and are impractical qualifications in the real world.
Lots of respectable professions, from law to journalism, are threatened by technology and changing economic structures. I suspect traditional qualifications are becoming steadily less valuable, while practical experience becomes more of a prize.
Hiring hundreds of staff over many years has taught me that character and personal attributes such as self-discipline, grit and persistence trump exam grades. An entrepreneur friend says he has found that the best indicator of these features is whether a 21-year-old has held plenty of real jobs during holidays and at weekends — not internships arranged by their daddy at an investment bank, but jobs in local factories, shops or pubs.
A job becomes a vocation when it stretches you, and when it activates your creative genes. I have always sought challenges and deferred gratification rather than putting comfort and lifestyle first. This means my hobbies and pastimes have been neglected, but my work has provided immense challenge and stimulation.
The more impressive individuals I have met and known have learnt to master their time. They have a purpose and a plan. Their life has an agenda. They make that a cause and a journey, investing their energy in a specific direction.
Perhaps they come across as dreamers or fantasists or freaks. No matter. Better to pursue your own path, even if it is strewn with obstacles and setbacks, than copy others and simply conform like a robot.
I believe all of us have a creative urge, which can be satisfied through hobbies such as music, art or gardening — or through an occupation or a charitable venture. This is easier to do in a smaller organisation — perhaps even through your own business.
In our culture, artists of various sorts — painters, composers, writers, performers, directors and so forth — are typically seen as the only people who exercise creative expression. But I think this belief is narrow minded.
Moreover, art has its drawbacks. I have been involved in several of the creative industries — in television, theatre, advertising, publishing and art colleges — and a career in the arts suffers many defects. Be it plays, films, TV shows, books, music or painting, most artistic expression is project based. Much of it is transient.
And a great deal of artistic output is experienced only by small audiences. Quite a lot is obscure, irrelevant and self-indulgent.
By contrast, creativity that is expressed by starting a business is not designed as a short-term exercise. It is all-encompassing in ways that few purely artistic pursuits are. It has a practical element that is invigorating.
There is a fair amount of snobbery directed at commercial activities by many in the arts world. But among the companies I’m currently involved with are ones designing and making an ebike, building new restaurants and cafes, launching new holiday resorts, and dozens of other such creative undertakings. Many of these are just as aesthetically valid as much of the content produced by full-time, professional artists — and a great deal more useful to society.
The book Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, outlines why certain societies succeed and others do not. It describes how extractive capitalism — corruption, cronyism, perverse incentives and dysfunctional institutions — lead to negative outcomes. Equally, a life well lived is one where you add value.
A clever person once said to me that when you leave any organisation where you have worked, it should be in a better condition than the state in which you found it. Good entrepreneurship does that — it improves enterprises, rather than asset stripping them. In this manner, capitalism generates jobs and pays taxes.
Investment, innovation, sound stewardship and patient capital are some of the essential ingredients.
I believe that is the creative and productive way in which to conduct a life in business.