Telling the truth about SME life today

How to be an entrepreneur

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Welcome. My name is Matthew Rock. I’m a director of a company called Caspian Publishing.

We produce business magazines, organise events and publish magazines on behalf of large organisations such as the bank, HSBC, and the Confederation of British Industry.

We employ about 50 people on the King’s Road in Chelsea.

And we’ve been delighted to welcome two Project Aspirations students – Gabriel and Soroush – into the business this week. I hope that they, and you, have had a really interesting and maybe even eye-opening week so far.

First off, I’d like to congratulate you all for taking part in this project. I think you all deserve great credit already for putting your hands up to take part in something like this.

I’ll speak about this more later, but you’ve already shown one of the really key characteristics of people who get ahead in life – simply by being prepared to take yourselves out of your comfort zone and get involved in something new.

Great credit to all of you.

I’d like also to register at this point that I – and we at Caspian – believe that this is a really important and valuable initiative.

In some ways, life is all about setting yourself objectives – even if they seem unrealistic at the time – and then setting out to meet them.

It’s amazing how, if you do things this way, you’ll surprise yourself by achieving your result.

Project Aspirations is, in my view, all about giving you the confidence and courage to set those goals. It’s a fantastic venture and I must applaud John Harris for having the vision to put this scheme together. We’re certainly proud to be part of it.


What I thought I’d talk about today is some of the lessons I’ve learned from the top entrepreneurs and businesspeople I’ve met in my career over the past 20 years.

Just to tell you a little about how I got into my line of work.

I’ve been very lucky in my life.

I was brought up in Ghana in West Africa. My father worked for Barclays Bank. My mother and father split up when I was young and I was sent back home, aged seven, to boarding school.

I hated it and was very homesick!

Later I was fortunate enough to go to a school called Malvern College.

When I left university – I studied English Literature in Edinburgh – I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I really didn’t have any focus and spent months uncertain of what was going to come next.

Then I stumbled into a job working on a business magazine. I only got this job because I knew someone who was working on the magazine – he happened to be my brother! And, really, I’ve been working in this field – business magazines and writing about businesspeople – for the 20 years since then.

I was very lucky to have my brother as a support. But there is a lesson in this for when you embark on the first steps in your career.

That’s to put yourself in the position where people know about you; and that you’re available.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve met many of the top entrepreneurs in the world – and in a few minutes, I thought I’d share some stories about them – and one thing they all say is that luck has played a really important role in their success.

And that’s true.

But I believe that they – and you – can make your own luck.

I’m often asked by people wanting to get into the media world about how to get your foot on the ladder. And it can be very tough.

My answer is always the same, and I think it applies to all types of career: it’s just to try to put yourself in the place where the business or organisation you want to get into knows that you’re interested. Get your foot in the door, somehow.

It’s amazing how powerful this is.

That’s why I think you’ve already made a big step in boosting your future by being part of Project Aspirations.

Our two interns, Gabriel and Soroush, have made a really positive impression in our business. They’ve been enthusiastic and got stuck in and made some great suggestions.

And people remember that! In the future, when we might be looking to recruit a new person, there’s a very good chance that, if we’ve stayed in touch with them, we’ll think – “oh, I wonder what they’re doing these days; we’ve still got their mobile number, let’s give them a call.”

So I can only repeat what I said earlier: well done all of you for being involved. You’ve already got your foot in the door. And I’m sure you’ve already done yourselves the power of good.


Right, let’s move onto my experiences meeting these mega-successful, mega-wealthy entrepreneurs and business people. They’re a pretty interesting bunch.

I was part of a team that started our business, Caspian Publishing, in 1996. We left our safe jobs and decided to set up our own business. Thirteen years on, we’re still going.

When we started the business, we had an idea of setting up a magazine for entrepreneurs. So we thought long and hard about it, and we finally came up with the title, Real Business. We wanted to write about all the dynamic people who set up their own businesses.

You’ll be amazed to know that, when we started doing this, we had no emails and the internet barely existed. It was a very different world!

The magazine is still going and today we’ve got a website – at – and we organise lots of events for entrepreneurs.

As a result, I’ve been lucky enough to meet some of the big names.

What you may not realise – and I’ve met most of them, including Sir Alan – is that most of the people on Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice who now are worth millions started life with very little.

Sir Alan wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth; in fact, his business career started on a market stall.

Theo Paphitis – he’s my personal favourite of the Dragons – had a similar upbringing to Sir Alan.

Duncan Bannatyne had a really tough upbringing in Scotland and was even kicked out of the navy for throwing his commanding officer off the side of a ship! After that, he had an ice cream van and built his career from there.

There’s another well-known entrepreneur called John Caudwell. He is the man who started the Phones4U shops.

When you meet John now, he’s pretty brash and confident; he always looks like he’s come straight off the sunbed. He’s got a big loud voice.

But John had a really tough start in life. He came from a poor neighbourhood in Stoke, in the Midlands. He was bullied at school. He was a really nervous kid.

Today, though, he’s one of the richest men in Britain. When he sold his business – and one of our team was there at the actual moment this happened – he received a cheque for a billion pounds!


My point in telling you about these people is that they have overcome incredible obstacles to get where they are today.

When I started my career 20 years ago, I think that Britain was still a pretty difficult place for self-made people.

But today, I really think it is very different.

I fundamentally believe that, with the right attitude and the right skills, everyone can make it in life.

Yes, you’ll need luck. Yes, you will need the right skills – and I’ll finish off by giving you my thoughts on what those skills are – but all of those successful people that I’ve talked about will tell you the same thing: if you have the determination, you will make it in whatever you choose to do.


I thought I’d finish off today by putting together five of the many top tips about the skills  you’ll need to be a success that I’ve come across over the years.

Two, I’ve mentioned already – first, get yourself out there in front of the people and businesses you want to work with; and, second, sincerely believe that you can do it.

What is so great about this project is that, even by taking part in it, you’ve already started accomplishing many of the secrets of success.

The first one I’d suggest is about the importance of making a good first impression.

By this, I don’t mean that you have to wear a suit! In a lot of companies nowadays, staff wear T-shirts and jeans.

Having said that, I did once read a story about an entrepreneur called Dan Wagner who bought a really flash suit when he was about 16 and went about pretending that he was a hotshot businessman!

No, by making a good first impression, I mean: come across as a positive person. If you’re in a new situation – like going into a business or going for an interview – get yourself up and engage with the other person.

In your careers, you’ll find that a lot of success is down to getting along well with other people. And most of all, people like working with positive, energetic people. In the workplace, negativity is a real turn-off.

It’s really amazing – and it may not be fair, but it is how life seems to work – how quickly we all take a view about someone we’ve just met.

So, yes, be smart. Look people in the eye. Listen to what they say. Ask them about themselves, maybe. Be up. It really will make you memorable.


Next, and this is definitely something that the top entrepreneurs have in common: be active. Keep doing new things, keep trying things.

What do I mean by this”

Well, when you’re starting out in your career or a new venture or just doing something new and difficult, it’s all too easy to become disheartened. You’re bound to face obstacles, and the real test is how you react at difficult times.

In my experience, the way to overcome obstacles is by trying out ways to get around them.

You may not find the answer with your first response but, if you’re active and lively and keep trying new things, you’ll get lucky.

I mentioned John Caudwell earlier, the Phones4U man. He is, I know, a really tough boss, incredibly demanding of his people. One of the ways in which he kept himself going in an incredibly competitive business, was by being super-fit.

He used to run marathons, ride hundreds of miles.

I really believe that, by staying really active and having a bit of a physical buzz, you’ll transmit positive energy.


My third top tip is to play to your strengths, whatever they are.

One of the things about the top entrepreneurs I’ve mentioned is that most of them did not go to university or have loads of educational qualifications.

But they did have a few core skills that they focused on, and those yielded great results.

I think that, in business, there are great opportunities for people who do a few things really well.

Those could be IT/technology skills; or maths; or a hobby that you have. My advice would be to have one really strong string to your bow. You’re all at a great advantage in that I imagine you’re all pretty good with computers. This is a great strength.

There’s a really successful young entrepreneur – he’s only in his late twenties – called Rob Small, who’s got a really successful business called Miniclip. He started this business because he loved computer games and he’s made a huge success of it. So you can have fun and make money!

One little thing, though, that I would add to that: as much as you can, work on your communications skills. I believe that this is increasingly important in the world today.

Whether it’s writing emails, letters, how you present your CV, or the first impressions I mentioned before, it pays to work a bit at these.


Almost there.

This one may surprise you but, again, you’ve probably made a step in the right direction by taking part in Project Aspirations.

If you can, it can be really helpful to find someone to be a guide or a mentor, to help you navigate your way through the world of work, job applications, setting up a business, whatever you’re trying to do.

Now I know that this can be very difficult and there’s not always an obvious person at hand.

But, again, I’m sure that John at the team at Project Aspirations will, in the future, want to play such a role. And if you establish a good relationship with someone in the company you’re working for, they’d be an option.

The other thing to know is that successful people are often very generous with their time and advice. So, if there is someone you know who’s done well and you need some advice, I’d recommend asking them.

One other resource, which I’ll mention because I am involved with it, is the Business & IP Centre at the British Library. This is a really good resource for people who are interested in starting up a business. They have specialist advisers and all the advice is free, so it’s worth knowing about.


Finally, have faith in yourself and don’t be put off whatever you want to achieve.

Whenever I hear about the life stories of really successful people, I’m always struck by how they’ve had really really tough times when it felt as if the world was against them.

Many of them have also experienced failures and rejection.

But, by staying active and positive; finding support and, most of all, believing in themselves, they found a way through.


I’d like to thank you all for your time and for listening to me today.

I hope you’ve found it useful and interesting.

It’s been a real pleasure to be with you.

And I’ll finish in the way I started. Well done to all of you for being part of Project Aspirations.

You’re on your journey to success already!



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