Telling the truth about SME life today

21 business lessons from Luke Johnson

1. The world is in love with the romance of start-ups. But all other things being equal, I believe it can sometimes be better to buy a business than start one.

2. Never demand a certainty: if you wait for that, you will be on the sidelines for ever. 

3. Leave behind the notion of the big idea and just do what most successful entrepreneurs do: copy and improve. Imitate first, and then devote yourself to constant incremental improvement.

4. Whenever you can, make sure a name has some underlying meaning. Don?t copy the example of Diageo; one of the world’s biggest drinks manufacturers. “Diageo” means nothing. It’s not even easy to spell, or to Google. For everything that’s bad about high-concept names, look no further than Diageo’s own toe-curling explanation: “The word Diageo comes from the Latin for day (dia) and the Greek for world (geo). We take this to mean every day, everywhere, people celebrate with our brands.” I wonder if Diageo’s management realize that having to listen to that sort of rot could well make its staff want to quit and start their own business. 

5. Today is a better time to start a business than tomorrow, no matter how today looks. 

6. Achievement changes people. Once someone attains status and wealth, their attitude towards sharing the spoils and the glory alters. It slowly dawns on them that actually all the clever moves and breakthroughs were their idea and, in fact, they are the only one who really does any work. 

7. When I interview managers, I ask them about their customers and competitors. The high achievers will know them intimately, and can talk for hours about the strengths and weaknesses of their rivals. 

8. I tend to respect actual experience in a line of work, or a specific trade qualification, over an MBA. 

9. It can be better to take a bad decision and correct it later than procrastinate and sit on the fence. 

10. Anyone who employs talented people knows that talent is a rare commodity. The entrepreneur should move heaven and earth to hire it. Yet at the same time, no company should ever be in thrall to its stars. 

11. Football clubs are essentially charities run for the financial benefit of staff, as are most investment banks. 

12. It’s a sad fact that if an entrepreneur employs enough people, sooner or later there will be a thief on the payroll. 

13. The most common personal issue I’ve encountered among associates has been the male mid-life crisis, with the classic accoutrements: mistress, motorbike, drugs, long hair, and even cosmetic surgery.  

14. The very utterance of the letters HR should strike fear into the heart of every self-respecting entrepreneur. Human resources are like many parts of modern firms: they are a pure expense and a burden on the backs of the productive workers.  

15. The life of a self-made man is not always pleasant. Driving hard bargains, dealing with litigation, juggling creditors, making staff redundant, fighting for customers these are all part of the craft of running your own show. Managing a business can have a brutalizing influence on your character. 

16. Hugely successful entrepreneurs probably don’t make for tranquil life companions as a rule. 

17. The greatest ritual of all is, of course, the “meeting”. This is a magnificent engine of bullshit of all kinds. It gives the participants the feeling they are making progress with their project, whatever it may be. 

18. It soon becomes apparent that some angel networks are run by people with no obvious record of great success themselves. 19. Robert Frost put it best: “A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back again when it begins to rain.”

19. The most fertile period for innovation is when people are in their twenties: from Nobel Prize winners, to entrepreneurs, to composers, to writers, real breakthroughs and greatest works tend to be the province of the young. 

20. A complaint that’s well handled often leads to repeat business. The fascinating thing is that good service does not necessarily cost a firm more to deliver than shoddy service. 

21. Beyond a certain point, the trappings of wealth are merely a game to keep boredom at bay.

These quotes are from Luke Johnson’s new book Start It Up: Why Running Your Own Business is Easier Than You Think

Luke Johnson is the chairman of Risk Capital Partners, a private equity house. He is the part owner and chairman of Superbrands, Giraffe Restaurants, Patisserie Valerie and Baker and Spice. He is also director of car-park equipment firm APT Controls.


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