As a teenager, having bright ginger hair meant I learnt how to handle rejection pretty quickly – mainly from the girls school up the road. It stood me in good stead for when I first came down to London at the age of 18.
Having failed all my A levels at a school where Oxbridge was the norm, I saw an advert for a job in London. The advert read: “This time last year I was working as a dead-end waiter in a restaurant in Nowhere’s Ville, now I own five houses, a Ferrari and date supermodels. This can be you! Apply now.” I did.
I attended the interview in London, which was not in some palatial water-fountained atrium in the West End or the City of London, but above Pizza Express in Putney High Street. The interview lasted two minutes and I was successful.
The job? It was knocking door-to-door trying to sell investment savings plans. Unfortunately, I was blighted with two setbacks. Firstly, I still had my fairly broad Scouse/Yorkshire accent which made me sound like I was a debt collector every time I opened my mouth and, secondly, the territory I was given for “door knocking” was Kensington and Chelsea.
Having a ginger-haired Scouse/Yorkshire 18 year-old knock on these millionaire’s doors normally resulted in the occupants thinking they were being cased for a future robbery or I was looking to sell something illegal. I soon got very use to doors being slammed.
After a few months failing, I successfully applied for a normal 9-5 sales job, selling dictation equipment to businesses. I was given a fantastic one-week intensive sales course and as the role involved “cold calling” to businesses, we were taught to walk into a business reception full of confidence, never breaking eye contact with the receptionist and proudly announce: “I am here to see the managing director, thank you” – and then shutting up. About 90 per cent of the time I would be asked if I had an appointment, whereupon my wheeze would be uncovered and I would be asked to leave the building. But the ten per cent where I actually got to speak to the MD more than made up for the rejection, quite often resulting in a pitch – and a sale.
I was given Hatton Garden as a territory and the norm was to walk into a multi-tenanted office building, go straight to the top floor and then cold call each business on the way down.
It was relatively easy to just walk in and make my way to the top floor, until the advent of door entry systems. That made it easier for the gatekeeping receptionist to question my intentions and block access to the building.
However, I soon learnt a tactic to counter this barrier. Putting my hand over my mouth, as I talked into the door entry system, I distorted everything said and, more often than not, the door would just click open! It worked – for a while.
Unfortunately, that tactic was banished forever when, on putting my hand to distort what I was saying at yet another door entry system, to my embarrassment, the receptionist requested I move my hand away from my face so she could hear me better. CCTV was now playing a part too – they could see me.
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From business rejection to business success
Those early days of being turned away and told “no” shaped and prepared me for when I started my first business. Being told “it won’t work”, “it’s never going to catch on” or “your business plan doesn’t stack up” washed over me, just like the challenges of working around the gatekeepers, door entry systems and CCTV. As we progress in our careers, we must overcome bigger, more complex challenges, but it is important to face them with the same bold and brazen approach.
Every business leader has the opportunity to shape their company culture, and that culture will contribute to the success of the business. My bold and brazen approach has certainly shaped every business I’ve founded or been involved in. It takes more than just the determination to succeed. It takes creativity. It means approaching obstacles head-on and thinking outside the box to overcome every challenge.
A lot has changed since I first began knocking on doors and disrupting people’s evenings, but that disruptive drive still remains. Pessimism will only lead to more locked doors, while persistence is the key that opens them.
This article is part of a wider campaign called Founders Diaries, a section of Real Business that brings together 20 inspiring business builders to share their stories. Bringing together companies from a wide variety of sectors and geographies, each columnist produces a diary entry each month. Visit the Founders Diaries section to find out more.
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