Opinion

"Fail elegantly – and remember that you tried"

9 min read

27 September 2011

Milo Yiannopoulos sits down with Adam Street owner James Minter to talk through what he has learned from the failure of his last venture, Notting Hill's Tabernacle.

When James Minter spotted a 500-capacity auditorium in the middle of Notting Hill – one that came with a beautiful 2,000 square foot garden and had once played host to Pink Floyd, The Clash and The Specials, but which had since become sadly dormant – there was just one thing on his mind: resurrecting this iconic venue.

But his mission to reinvigorate the Tabernacle, while successful in its ultimate goal, came at a heavy price – not least to his investors, who lost £500,000 in the process. Last week, in his first interview since the company behind the Tabernacle’s revivification went into receivership, its former director bravely, and with good humour, shared with me some of the things he has learned.

James Minter is quietly charismatic and, though outspoken, impeccably well mannered. We sit down to lunch at Adam Street, the private members’ club he founded ten years ago next month, and he begins the conversation abruptly, with a sentence I’ve heard from a lot of serial entrepreneurs. 

“The lessons of failure seem embarrassingly obvious after the fact,” he says. “But they certainly didn’t at the time.” 

How obvious are we talking? I ask. “Well, for a start you really have to make sure you have a viable business model before you commit a penny of expense.”

He leaps straight into the detail. “Long before it was clear that the idea was a goer, I’d retained accountants, lawyers and licensing experts. While you might think that level of commitment helps with motivation, all it really does is make your negotiating position weak.”

Among the many expenses he incurred, Minter reserves particular wrath for public relations firms. “I spent £20,000 on PR. Amazing, I know. I’m not sure I’d ever spend a penny on it again.

“That was probably the worst excess. Partly it was because I’d raised so much money. Spare cash is like a dangerous addictive drug: it makes you complacent, it stops you being efficient and it allows you to make daft decisions based on whimsy. Too much choice, and not enough focus. Plus, you negotiate much better deals when you’re not sitting on piles of cash.”

When I ask for an example of poor decision making, Minter pauses for a moment, before replying, emphatically: “contracts”. 

“It’s so important to get flexible terms on all your contracts. The main asset of our business was a management contract, so I should have sat back and waited for much better terms than I ended up with. But I didn’t, and we ended up investing money into an asset that we didn’t own, predicated on a management contract that would have been very difficult to sell on.

“At the time, I came up with all sorts of intelligent reasons why our way would work, but it bore little relation to reality.”

Sensing a rare frankness on offer, I ask Minter whether he had any other big lessons to share. “Well, yes. Don’t get into bed with anyone who doesn’t entirely share your vision and values. Because starting any business is a rollercoaster ride. Having a sour relationship is a horrible extra layer of stress.” 

Minter doesn’t pull any punches about his own former partner. “Carnival Village, my partner in the building, was a grants-funded organisation.” 

I grimace mischievously, inviting him to continue. “They were brilliant at producing calypso and steel band music but appalling at any form of organisation, business or vision beyond that.

“In fact, it sometimes seemed that, for them, revenue – particularly profit – were cause for suspicion, not congratulation.” Very “child of Labour”, I remark. 

Minter declines to comment but smiles. “All I’ll say is that we had heart-breaking moments like having to turn Robert Plant away, because there was just no drive to make a profit and no culture at all of customer care.”

Carnival Village wasn’t the only outfit Minter had to navigate that was uncomfortable with business. The local council at times seemed actively hostile. “No one who isn’t an expert should deal with councils,” he says. “Their purpose is to avoid risk, redistribute money – though never to you – and they spend their time dealing with complaints from vocal but tiny minorities.

“All this is diametrically opposed to entrepreneurial endeavour.

“You need good people around you to negotiate with people like that. We had some very good and some very bad people. The mistake I made was not being brutal enough in cutting the dead wood: if you don’t get rid of the bad people, the whole team gets dragged down.

“To a certain extent, you have to rely on time and luck, but the one rule I’d say always holds is this: hire quantifiably-experienced people with track records of success. Pay them modestly but reward them handsomely. And get rid of them if they don’t perform.”

This is especially true of salespeople, I suggest. “Absolutely. Mike Lynch from Autonomy says something like this: a salesman should be able to sell as easily as he can breathe. He wouldn’t come to you and say he can’t breathe any more, because he’d be dead. If he comes to you saying he can’t sell something, it’s his job that needs to take a leap. Sack him and get someone else.”

Minter begins to rattle off a few other golden rules. “Nothing markets itself.” “Have a book-keeper from day one.” “Get independent mentorship.” “Have your own office.” But I stop him and ask how the failure of his business affected him. At the height of its success under Minter, the Tabernacle hosted Lily Allen, Jamie Cullum, Florence and friend and Take That. Adele launched 21 at the Tabernacle too. How do you recover from something like that?

“It’s important to fail elegantly,” he replies. “You have to admit that it is your fault your business failed. Be decent to staff who have lost their jobs, and don’t forget to thank and apologise to investors whose money you’ve lost.

“And be understanding with your wife, who probably hasn’t seen you in a good mood for two years.”

I smile, but wonder if he’s dodging the question. “Look,” he says. “After three years of lobbying, planning and fundraising, and after the huge artistic success we had, of course I was heartbroken when it all went wrong.

“But that’s where the most important lesson of failure comes in. Dust yourself down and get back out there.

“Remember that you tried, and that trying is an extremely laudable thing to do. Most startups fail. But society depends on those prepared to take leaps into the unknown. Remember the good things you’ve achieved. The Tabernacle is still going, even if it’s not me behind the wheel.

“Above all, learn from your mistakes for the next time.”

Minter’s cagey about what that next venture might be. But over the course of lunch he’s fired half a dozen apparently spontaneous ideas at me, and I can tell: there’s a rugged entrepreneurial heart beating beneath that genteel exterior.