Business: Raw 2010 – An entrepreneurs’ paradise right here in Manchester

Forget everything you know about business!” heralded the Raw2010 web-site, “On 20th January 2010, the 350 top entrepreneurs in the region (i.e. the North West) will gather to listen, learn, collaborate and move the region forward.” Held at The Lowry, Salford Quays, listed as featured were illuminaries such as Theo Paphitis and Doug Richards from Dragons Den, and the event was supported by sponsors such as Business Link, Smarta, Pannone’s and Investec, amongst others.

Bloody hell, I thought, that sounds better than sorting out a tenanted flat and finishing my accounts, I’d better get an invitation. And with a wheedling skill honed over many years, get one I did, at a very late stage (it was a bit like getting one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets). Furthermore I wasn’t too insulted at not getting an invite months ago ’cause apparently a famous female Dragon didn’t get one either and she’s FAR more successful than me 😉

The fabulous Lowry building
The Lowry, Salford Quays

I guess I also wasn’t so surprised that I wasn’t on a list to get an invite. As a self-employed developer / landlord in the property industry, who no longer directly employs anyone directly, I don’t have office contacts, functions to go to and organised events on tap, so the advent of social media / networking / Twitter has been a godsend. If it hadn’t been for female entrepreneur Shaa Wasmund (founded & sold and general all round business superwoman) tweeting about the event I wouldn’t be writing this blog having attended an inspiring, exciting, thought-provoking and ass-kicking day’s seminars and talks. So thanks Shaa, not for nothing does your name mean sunshine, something was certainly shining on me when I happened upon that tweet. We found we had something else in common; our outrage regarding the media treatment of a very sad incident on the M60 recently, but that’s a whole other blog!

I was rather late registering as it was so last minute and nearly missed the zebra on the way in, kinda liked him, he’d go nicely with my Genesis Cow Parade cow. Like all other attendees, I was presented with a nifty little Spotme networking device, which was sort of free iPhoney stalking buzzing diary for the day which not only told me where I’d to head for each session but also who was sitting next to me, within 3m of me, within 5m of me, etc. Never mind identity cards and terrorist legislation, strap one of those to every UK inhabitant and not only would the Spotme wipe out criminality, but there’d be no messing around when it came to stalking someone who tickled your fancy. I digress.

Part One : THINK

I’d missed Doug Richard‘s first session on Future Tech and Thought Leadership which I was gutted about as everyone said it was tremendous. Next was a break-out session so I scooted off into my first seminar hosted by Ian Gotts called ‘Why Killer Products Don’t Sell’. The group of 350 had been split into three and, although interesting, the seminar I attended was largely about sales with a lot of jargon which I didn’t ‘get’. The message I did get is that it’s essential to figure out what it is you’re selling, who it is you’re selling to, and how you should be selling it to them.

I sometimes forget that I do have customers, as most of my design work comes via word of mouth, so if I want to grow my design business, which I do, I have to refocus on sales. I’ve spent a few years building a property portfolio and playing at being a tv presenter, but the present economic climate means I’ve got to get back to the business of making money (as the banks won’t simply give it to me anymore, the selfish gits :-)). Ian told an amusing anecdote about when he was involved in a business and for the first six months after injecting their capital, the VC’s kept sending him CV’s for a new finance director, as they clearly didn’t like the one he had, though Ian did. He finally reminded the VC’s that they were the cheerleaders not the team, and to p*ss off back to the stands. He also talked about the generational differences and how there is one technological generation gap between 40 somethings and their parents, but 5 technological generation gaps between 40 somethings and their kids – it’s no longer the case that the older generation sit the younger down and collectively say ‘listen son, this is how the world is’, because the world has changed so dramatically. Ian talked of the senior / junior roles as having irrevocably changed. Have they? Maybe technologically, but in terms of life experience and having ‘been there, done that’, I reckon an old head can always teach a young one something, otherwise why would mentoring be so valuable?

My Spotme buzzed insistently, chocolate cookies and smoothies first then off to rejoin the group in the Lyric theatre for a talk by Simon Clarkson from Advance Performance on the Wisdom of CrowdsA large vase of pounds coins had been placed in the Lowry foyer and everyone was invited to take a guess at how many were in there. The guesses ranged from 7000(?!) down to 120, and from memory I think 194 people guessed. The actual value was £749 and when all the guesses were totalled and averaged, the mean sum was 751 – freaky! The point of the talk being the question of whether the collective opinion is often right, because the average opinion is important and often accurate, an alien thought to a room full of single minded maverick entrepreneurs who go their own way and ignore the advice of others…. yet those 350 mavericks, me included, had all gathered together to basically do two things at Raw2010 – learn and network. And good networking leads to collaboration and the sharing of ideas – the very opposite of individualism. Hmmmm, there may be a point to this crowd thing but it still doesn’t mean most entrepreneurs will be any less convinced that in most decisions they are right and everyone else is wrong 😉

More freaky however has been the subsequently gained knowledge that Simon and I were at the same school, albeit that back then he was a titchy lower schooler when I was swanning around as a superior sixth former.

Part Two : CREATE

John Bishop and Kanya King

The next speaker was Kanya King, the inspirational founder of the MOBO Awards. Having remortgaged her home to fund the first MOBO event, she knows just a little bit about determination and entrepreneurial spirit! Her talk was honest and passionate, about why she is where she is, and how she got there. Kanya spoke of how little support and advice she’d been given in her early years (I empathise on that one!) as her family were not from a business background, yet athough her mother repeatedly told her she was crazy in the early days, she was also her biggest fan and ended up following in Kanya’s footsteps and starting her own business at the tender age of 70. She talked about the importance of motivating your staff and how vital it is to both carve out a niche for your business, and to build a strong and consistent brand.

I got the feeling that Kanya, although very much an entrepreneur, is also a strong team player and gains strength from collaboration. She talked of an endless quest for customers, mentors, expertise, the value of networking, and above all help from others. Don’t think of networking as just loading cards onto a rolodex, she warned, it’s about fostering and developing relationships. Her message was that if you have a clear goal, self belief, aspiration and dedication, then success is only a matter of time if you never give up. And she had great hair. And a lovely necklace.

Host - John Bishop

Ahhhhh Google Wave. The source of many internet conversations. I had heard of it, but didn’t have a clue what it was, and after a somewhat cheesy video pitch from two semi-socialised nerdy types planning a faux barbeque, it appears to be a sort of conference call email which lots of people can join and amend in real time, adding images etc. Looked interesting. Some research threw up this article which isn’t too flattering though, and it hasn’t launched ‘properly’ yet so I’m sure they are working on the glitches. Funniest was the compere for the event John Bishop and his caustic comments about the video presenters, unrepeatable on a family blog but suffice to say he didn’t think the two had or would ever have enough friends to host a bbq and the male presenter was slightly excited to be sitting next to a member of the opposite sex 🙂 There were quite a few people I knew there, and a colleague Richard from MakeUrMove was very inspired by the Google Wave idea.

The lovely Shaa Wasmund

Then came the second lot of three break out sessions hosted by different speakers and I chose Shaa Wasmund’s. She’d enlisted the support of colleague Doug Richard to speak about Thought Leadership and to try and sum up what it is, Shaa used Justine Roberts from MumsNet who had been a guest on GMTV that very morning. The MumsNet site is now so irrevocably linked with ‘mums’, that whenever a media story rears it’s head involving the same, they are asked for a quote or interview as Justine is seen as a thought leader in her field, hence her business is being continuously promoted. Some members of the audience baulked at this, rejecting the need for media whoring as necessary to business – one attendee used the phrase ’empty vessels make the most noise’, which Doug didn’t like AT ALL and a debate ensued.  Of course, not everyone is media savvy and wants to sit on the GMTV sofa, but diluted, it’s about striving to be the best person possible to represent your business, the expert in your area. Isn’t that how you become recognised as the finest within your field? Isn’t that what all entrpreneurs are striving for? There was a lot of talk about Twitter and it’s pros and cons, with many people not really understanding what it’s all about yet. I liked this session, it’s still buzzing in my head two days later, and I couldn’t resist a thank you to Shaa for tweeting about the event (she promised the audience I wasn’t a plant). It’s amazing, how Twitter has made incrediblely talented business people like Shaa and Doug so much more accessible to the business community, yes, yes, I know they probably hate us really and think we are all stalkers, but it still FEELS great doesn’t it 🙂

Lunch next, which was a bit of a potato fest. John Bishop had everyone in stitches in the post-lunch warm-up session, linking in the menu with his disastrous appearance on Celebrity Mastermind where he came last with his chosen subject….. The Irish Potato Famine. Very funny man, I usually cringe a bit at stand up comedians but he is well worth watching, a bit naughty and not at all pc, thank god.

Part three : GROW

Dragon's Den victor Imran Hakim

Next up was an interactive session hosted by Bolton mega-success story, Imran Hakim, the inventor of the iTeddy featured on Dragon’s Den. We were asked to watch 3 short videos pitching new business ideas, then vote which one we’d invest in using the Spotme’s. Imran’s a great presenter but for me this was the most pointless part of the day, no-one could get their gadgets to work and vote, it all happened so fast, and I just didn’t see the reasoning behind what we were doing. Sorry! I’d have preferred to hear him talk about his journey and future plans tbh. It didn’t really give the audience clear advice or tips where to go to look for investment capital, but seemed to be there to plug the evening’s Envestors event, once you’ve run out of money from the 3 F’s as Imran said – Friends, Family and Fools 🙂

Apologies for image quality, no flash / tripod! The panel discussion commenced

Pearls of wisdom were then imparted from (l to r) David Pollock, Chief Exec of Cheshire based telecoms firm Chess, known for his voracious acquisitions appetite, the forthright Rob Cotton, Chief Executive of the Manchester based Software Escrow Services NCC Group and a man with strong opinions see this), then Nigel Wray, who is, according to the Sunday Times, worth £165m and is oft likened to an English Warren Buffet, and finally business angel Doug Richard, the Californian technology and software entrepreneur now widely recognised by the UK public for his role on Dragon’s Den.

First off was a discussion about growing your business through acquisitions, which was interesting though not directly relevant to me. After a bit of a debate the panel seemed to agree that acquisitions are a good way to grow a business if you avoid the trouble, i.e. people and staff! So growth through assert based companies = great, but going concerns are a pain in the arse.

In a discussion about mentoring, most of the panel, interestingly, said they hadn’t had one, with Rob saying that his father was his mentor, but there hadn’t been anyone else (John Cauldwell?!). Nigel said he’d only be a mentor to someone if he got shares in their company, not very altruistic that Nigel, but I guess these guys are super hectic running their companies. Doug also said he hadn’t really had a mentor per se. It was interesting watching the interaction between between Doug and Shaa, and clear to see the business respect there – even if it wasn’t a strict mentor ‘agreement’ it was clear there was something akin to a mentoring role at play, and surely that’s what mentoring is, an acceptance by both parties, explicit or implicit, that the one can look to the other for guidance and advice when the need arises.

I didn’t have a ‘proper’ mentor when as a young entrepreneur I started my first building company. Although the Prince’s Trust was great in many ways, our contacts were much, much older so there was no real connection and any mentoring I have benefitted from has been very ad hoc. I can name a number of occasions where I’ve benefitted from guidance from someone more experienced in business than I, who has ‘been there, done that’ and those incidents definitely helped me refocus, make decisions and get through tough situations. Rob suggested looking outside your business for a mentor, but I’m not so sure, maybe that’s an issue of trust and being fearful of exposing your weaknesses to those within your industry. Don’t try and make a mentor of someone who’s out to nick your customers and damage your business would be a good start, but shouldn’t it be more about what you’ll gain rather than what you might lose?

The panel talked about their biggest mistakes: Nigel said his was when the credit crunch lifted the veil from his eyes and he realised a very large investment in a major AIM housebuilder had gone down the pan; Rob admitted that as a cocky 27 yr old FD of a car dealership he’d arrogantly tried to teach the very experienced manager there how to sell cars with the result the manager walked out, as did his staff; David had an investment go sour when he got involved in an organic food company in 98 even though his instincts told him he knew nothing about organic food; Doug trumped all with a complicated buy out story where he’d agreed terms which included a 100 day clause and lost everything when the larger company went bump on the 89th day. We got the impression he was talking about a LOT of money.

The most entertaining slot of the day award went to a very brave choice  in guest – musician and Manchester legend Peter Hook, talking about how not to run a business, or in the words of his book, “What a f*ck up we made of it”. Brutally honest, candid and for me personally a fascinating insight into the background of the Hacienda, a club which was a regular night out during my misspent youth.

Peter told how he looks back now and hindsight, that wonderful thing we all love, tells him that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to sign a 25yr lease on a building, in a property crash, at a rate of 17.5% over base (with the then hugely high base rate), whilst gangsters were running round the club shooting each other in the arse. Acquisitions in the Hacienda, said Peter, took place when switched on young wannabe gangsters watched as skinny white kids from Stoke made £5k a night selling E’s in the club, realised they were missing a trick, bounced the Stoke boys on their heads until everything fell out of their pockets and then said: you’re working for us now. Not quite the acquisitions carried out in David Pollock’s world. And very amusing. As long as you weren’t the kid being bounced on the concrete floor of the Hacienda.

For someone who estimated that, over 16 years, the total cost to him personally of the Hacienda’s mismanagement was £6 million, Peter was remarkably sanguine, to the extent that he’s opening up the old Fac51 building as a club again in the next few weeks. Is he a glutton for punishment / barking mad, or an entrepreneur determined to promote what’s great about Manchester, the latter I’d like to think. Maybe his story clearly shows that being an entrepreneur is a long term game – disasters, knock-backs and failures only serve to make stronger characters out of us, and none of it has put him off opening another club – maybe though that’s because his business model sounds like a lot more fun than most….

Chris Morris peaking at Raw2010

Chris Morris, CEO of Manchester based, gave a very brief talk on the history of the company and some lessons learned. It was a great shame that time was running over and he had to cut short his first hand account of the phenomenal growth of the online bookings company, which was established just ten years ago in small offices in the city centre, was profitable since it’s first year and was sold to First Choice in ’96 for over £100m. Many people wanted to ask him how such clear commitment to customer service seemed to sit so comfortably with rapid growth and it seemed clear from Chris’s passion for his business that going ‘above and beyond’ what was required by the customer has really paid off for them.

Shaa Wasmund being filmed at Raw2010
Shaa about to pounce and cut Chris Morris off!

So did they save the best ’til last?! Imran Hakim provided a suitably upbeat intro to the Keynote speaker Theo Paphitis, who I’d collared earlier for a quick snap…..

The grinning woman behind looks happier than Theo and I put together!

Bloody ‘ell, he started by saying, John Bishop’s gone home, Doug Richard’s gone home, what is this, the bloody graveyard shift? And he didn’t pull any punches after that either…. 50% of small businesses fail in the first 3 years he stated, a figure most of us knew, but when you realise that means 30,000 businesses failed in 2009 and an estimated 40,000 are forecast to fail in 2010, surely something more needs to be done to help them. Theo stressed over and again how massive a part of the UK economy are small businesses, yet little assistance is provided by government, there MUST be more done, or more will fail. He asked for breaks for small business, not for the government to ignore us; we need to be rewarded for long term investment, not the cutting of taper relief, we need capital gains to assist enterprise, not encourage short term gain.

Theo Paphitis on stage at Raw2010

On a positive note, starting a small business gives you better odds than the lottery, he said, with 150 out of every 100,000 start ups turning over above £2m in the first two years! Despite there being the obvious current financial meltdown, Theo was adamant that it was just as good a time as any to start a business.

He had some scary stats:

  • By 2017, at the rate it’s going, the UK’s foreign debt will be 125% of GDP, the same as Greece’s was announced to be in Dec 09. This is sh*t, for those of you who don’t understand economics, I did some research.
  • Debt in the UK has hurtled past the 1 trillion pound mark. A million seconds is 12 days, while a billion seconds is 31 years, and a trillion seconds? That’s 31,688 years. That’s a lot, to you and me.
  • The interest on government debt is currently equal to the education budget, if when interest rates go up, it’ll be equal to the health budget.

He talked about this being a ‘weird recession’ and that is hasn’t really hit public sector workers yet, but has only been felt by those in the private sector. I’ll second that – every new tenant I’ve taken on in the last year has been a public sector worker: nurses, teachers, social workers,etc., all now renting apartments previously occupied by tenants in advertising, property, marketing, sales. It’s so noticeable, the difference in confidence, but I fear even that will change as the inevitable cuts hack through the public sector after the election. He said he was worried, as no politician will talk about it, about how bad it is and is going to get.

Firm indicators are needed, definite guidance, but no-one will give them – why would anyone start a business now, he asked, when things are so uncertain, and all the rules of the playing field could be ripped up and thrown away in a few months time after the election.

C’mon Theo, give us some good news before we all slit our wrists……

Oh, ok then, thumbs up for this news, said Theo: It’s all about passion, drive and ambition, running a business. And it’s all about the staff. If staff are happy and ‘belong’ to the business, then they will ensure your customers are happy and get great service. The work environment needs to be a haven from the world (stick with him on this….), staff already have pressure to deal with at home, so coming to work should be a respite, you shouldn’t be piling more sh*t on them when they walk through the door to the office / shop ( I love this way of thinking, it’s such a reversal of what happens in most companies!). There are a huge opportunities to start businesses right now, better to start businesses in bad times than in good! And like a true entrepreneur, he told us he’d set his retirement date. The day he dies.

So that was that, Raw2010, all in all, a great day. A few familiar faces, a few famous faces, and lots of fantastic new contacts. It ended with one question from the floor to Theo Paphitis :

Did he think an entrepreneur would make a good Prime Minister?

He mulled it over for just a few seconds before deciding a resounding Yes! His reasoning? That no-one in the Cabinet until very recently has actually ever had a proper job, and between them they’ve managed to make a right royal f*ck up of things (his words!), so an entrepreneur would definitely do a better job. I think you’re right, Theo, they are bloody useless cause none of them seem to have any sense of responsibility or accountability. Maybe it’s time for Minister’s Dragon’s Den – 5 minutes to pitch, with only yes and no answers allowed to any questions. They wouldn’t last 2 minutes, never mind 5 🙂

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