Winners go against the grain — on Brexit or in business

First published in the Sunday Times on 5th June 2016.

I believe that one of the secrets to a rewarding life is to take the less trodden path. Of course many would agree with this philosophy in principle — but actually doing it is rather harder than the theory. The pressure to conform, to follow the crowd, both at work and socially, is considerable.

Interestingly, living in London — if you mix with educated types from, for example, the media and financial worlds — you find that a large proportion are in favour of remaining in the EU. I have met none who are passionate about it — indeed, most are critical of the institution — but they reluctantly think it is the safer, and perhaps more socially acceptable option.

I would wager that not many understand how the EU operates or have bothered studying the issues but, in their view, staying in somehow feels more modern and enlightened.

The tyranny of the status quo, together with the massed ranks of the posh establishment shoving their version of the truth down our throats, appears to have convinced social grades A and B that independence and democracy don’t really matter very much. Yet outside the prosperous world of the capital city, much of the rest of the country takes a different view.

This referendum is a classic case of how difficult it can be to dissent from the conventional view. It is worse if you are willing to speak out on the matter. I have had many media approaches recently asking for comment as a business voice in favour of leaving the EU. They say finding such spokespeople for the “leave” campaign is hard. Yet I know plenty of entrepreneurs who believe the EU damages our competitiveness and long-term economic prospects, but they do not want to be seen to oppose the consensus.

I suppose for civilisation to work we must all conform in most aspects of life — otherwise anarchy would prevail. But humans are not sheep: we do not have to follow any particular political creed or career path. Indeed, a belief in diversity is virtually a form of religious faith these days. Yet choosing to adopt an unfashionable position takes a degree of resilience, and raises the risk that one might become a social pariah.

Peer pressure is a powerful and insidious force — rebelling takes more effort than quietly acquiescing. Sometimes avoiding conflict, in return for an easier life, can seem like the nicer option. But on the big topics, I believe people should stick to their beliefs.

This philosophy doesn’t just apply to politics. In my opinion, unquestioning compliance with widely accepted views about investment and business is both lazy and perversely hazardous.

Groupthink is a chronic disease of large organisations, and a big reason why upstarts constantly usurp giant incumbents. Reasoning individuals should do their own thinking and decide for themselves. History shows we should not just accept what we are told, even by apparent experts.

But it can be less troublesome simply to nod one’s head in agreement rather than diverge from orthodox opinion.

In the investment world, standing out can leave you exposed — so few dare to do it. Better to stick with the majority, even if they are wrong.

Large banks and investing institutions dominate financial markets, and swimming against the tide in such giant businesses can imperil one’s promotion prospects. But the idea the bosses of such outfits are all-knowing is a joke when one considers the herd-like behaviour leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. Similarly, most of the economists warning about the perils of Brexit were strangely silent about the risks of the euro. Even hedge funds often imitate each other’s holdings, although they claim to offer original ideas and charge accordingly.

Most people are followers, not leaders. Either by choice or instinct they feel happier clustering. Inevitably, therefore, a standard viewpoint tends to emerge — even among intellectuals.

Recently I organised the purchase of Brighton Pier. Among quite a few observers, two impressions had formed: first, that a seaside pier is an old-fashioned business, and therefore unattractive; second, that it is downmarket and therefore unappealing. I took the opposite view: millions of people enjoy traditional pleasures on a sunny day at the beach. And similarly, I ignored the snobs who said fish and chips, candyfloss and fairground rides were passé. I think they are classic delights that cut across ages and classes.

I believe our bet on the pier will prove the doubters wrong. Time will tell.

Anyone who wants to make a mark in life needs to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom now and then. You may be labelled as eccentric, awkward, or not a team player. No matter. Better to ignore the crowd and exercise your own critical faculties. As the poet Robert Frost wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

I’ve backed a builder before and experienced just what a precarious trade it is — low margin, cyclical and prone to disputes.

It is no coincidence that there are many more rich property developers than there are wealthy builders. After all, landlords receive quarterly rents in advance, and change the locks on their property if their payments are in arrears. The system is iniquitous, but then UK law has been written by landowners for their own benefit for centuries.

For exporters, getting paid by foreign customers is yet another challenge to add to the many legal, cultural and market obstacles faced by those bold enough to venture overseas. It is a big reason why so many global companies use local distributors: they can handle debt collection and judge credit risk so much better. As ever in business, so much is in the detail and execution.