Interviews

The road to serial entrepreneurship? It's paved with a 'high rewards low risk' mentality

13 min read

26 March 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

We're all desperate to learn the secret to entrepreneurial success. But how about learning what it takes to set up multiple successful businesses? Stefan Allesch-Taylor, international serial entrepreneur and business lecturer at a world-leading university, shows us that there are no rules to successful entrepreneurship. His particular (and winning) blend is a combination of stellar commercial initiative and a desire to help new entrepreneurs grow through education.

What’s a more interesting question to pose to business leaders rather than asking them what it takes to become a successful entrepreneur? It’s asking them what it takes to become a serial entrepreneur.

Starting one successful business could be down to the workings of a favourable ecosystem at a given time, where all the right market conditions happened to be in place. In other words, it could have been down to kismet. Finding out how someone struck business gold not once, but numerous times is a far more interesting story to discover.

Professor Stefan Allesch-Taylor CBE is the right person to speak to where serial entrepreneurship is concerned. He can tell you about what it takes to develop not one, but a series of successful businesses. A former City financier, he’s co-founded and invested in more than 50 new companies operating across 15 countries over the past 32 years.

Not only a highly successful entrepreneur, but he’s also a socially conscious one too, (Allesch-Taylor has acted as a mentor and funder for over 40 start-ups), but more on that later.

As King’s College London’s first ever Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship, Allesch-Taylor is doing his bit to help bridge the worlds of enterprise and education, with the hope to help stimulate a mutually beneficial economy. Let’s meet the man behind all those good intentions…

Tell me about your first ever business endeavour, how did it go and what did it teach you?

My first business venture was a niche advertising agency that specialised in celebrity endorsements. This was a long time ago (I was 19), so it wasn’t quite as common as it is now!

It went really well from an operational standpoint, we secured the Dime Bar Harry Enfield TV ad contract for example. It ran for years. It coined the phrase ‘Oi Nutter’ across the playgrounds of schools in the UK in the early 1990’s – I’m very proud of that!

However, business isn’t just about what business you secure, it’s about how you manage money and resources along the way – that wasn’t as successful for me as the ads were for either Harry or Dime bar!

You’re King College’s first ever Professor of the Practice of Entrepreneurship! How does that feel? Should universities and enterprises be working more closely together?

It felt daunting, genuinely. Age is not a barrier to great knowledge and having age isn’t a guarantee of having great knowledge either. There are plenty of students at King’s that know more about their subject or sector than I do, however, entrepreneurship isn’t a specialist subject per se, so it’s extremely subjective.

I can, however, bring experience into the debate – good, great, bad and dire all have their value! I can draw on every single mistake and false move I’ve made over a 32-year career and I can speak with authority about ‘likely’ outcomes of actions in the cycle of a business.

Most of my time at King’s is a cathartic wander down memory lane … so it feels great! As for it marking the start of universities and companies working more closely together – there are many strands to that but in short – it had better! King’s College London won Entrepreneurial University of the Year 2018 at the Times Higher Educational Awards – so there’s no question the KCL team and their approach is being heard and appreciated as part of the natural evolution of higher education in the UK.

With rising fees and lack of vocational courses, do you think that universities are going to have to justify the reasons for their existence to young people in the coming years?

Say what you really think! (laughs) – I have no criticism of universities in the UK, they are going through an incredibly unsettling period at the moment (much like the rest of the UK). If I started to list their achievements to make clear my admiration for all they have accomplished, we’d be here a while!

However, you have, of course, touched on a very important point – universities are here to prepare the next generation for the challenges they face and to help propel our society forward as a whole. The pace of change in the workplace is unprecedented and universities are going to have to adapt their approach or risk their futures as institutions of choice. I think, at least in the field of entrepreneurship, it’s beginning in a positive way.

Why is business mentorship so important to you? Is it something you could have benefitted from back in the day?

If start-ups get money and no mentorship then the money will be blown – it’s as certain as gravity in my view. I get increasingly frustrated with organisations making money available and then sending the venture on its way – it’s a casino strategy and it’s bad for everyone involved.

I would have benefitted enormously from mentorship – but I wouldn’t be as experienced in the art of surviving appalling decisions if it had been available to me! So thinking about it, I’d be wealthier, happier, less jaded but less useful to entrepreneurs starting out as a result.

How does mentorship work?

You tell me what your plan is to solve a business problem and I say: a) ‘it’s brilliant I have nothing to add’ or b) I say – ‘ohhh – I think you should consider the following approaches and then decide’, (diplomacy for ‘are you crazy??’) or c) I say ‘It’s one man’s opinion anyway – but ask yourself if you are really just trying to take a short cut or sticking your head in the sand – either of those don’t end well, as a rule, keep thinking about it’.

Are the days of ‘just for profit’ companies numbered?

This is a really interesting question. I’ve never heard it put as ‘just for profit’ – nice – the answer is no – but it’s coming, for lots of reasons. However, you show me an entrepreneur that isn’t an eternal optimist…

Tell me about a landmark moment you’ve experienced as an entrepreneur?

Stefan Allesch-Taylor is both a business academic and a serial entrepreneur.

My landmark moment as an entrepreneur is working with an incredibly dedicated leadership team at the UK water charity Pump Aid, and seeing them prove that entrepreneurship can be used in a way no one tried to envisage.

At Pump Aid, we have alleviated water poverty in Sub-Sahara Africa by creating the Self-Supply Model that saw 22 entrepreneurs successfully trained to deliver over 25,000 people with clean, sustainable and fresh water for the first time in over just 18 months.

We won UK Charity of the Year (Aid and Development) 2017 at the UK Charity Awards and millions in funding from the UK Department for International Development.

I’m in awe of the team at Pump Aid for delivering what everyone told me for years would be impossible.

You describe yourself as a ‘serial entrepreneur’, how do stop yourself losing focus when juggling multiple projects?

Don’t do more than one venture at a time. It deeply upsets your investors and team if you do! However there’s nothing wrong and indeed much to be benefited from having other leadership roles in your portfolio, as a non-executive – or on a volunteer basis, they can really help you understand yourself and others better and in context. It can be a powerful tool in not focussing for a bit and coming back to issues, whilst still being productive!

How do you ensure that you practice what you preach when creating and helping impact businesses flourish? What is your own personal definition of an impact business?

Now that’s a bit of a reality check question, isn’t it? ‘Practise what you preach’… definitely not one of my favourite phrases. I try to practise what I preach with my tenure at King’s and on my journey in the business world and in the humanitarian world.

In all these things I am held to account by company boards, business partners, and colleagues. I do, strangely enough, have a mental ‘Impact Report’ at the end of each year to consider what was actually achieved as opposed to what I think was or perhaps should have been. A social impact business is one with a demonstrable positive impact on any aspect of society.

What, in your opinion makes a successful entrepreneur flounder?

Too many possibilities to articulate – however, if you push me I’ll say an over-inflated opinion of self.

Is it possible to invest in businesses within industries that are less affected by dramatic economic changes, is there a way to be a dynamic entrepreneur but not a risky one? Or is great entrepreneurialism all about high risk and high rewards?

This is a great question because it debunks a myth. I don’t believe any businesses aren’t materially affected by dramatic economic change. Property is ‘safe’? FTSE equities are ‘safe’? Government Bonds are ‘safe’? Nothing is safe! There are two types of risk – speculation, and calculation – you need to veer heavily, but not exclusively on the latter. Dynamism is crucial if you want to be a successful entrepreneur. A truly great entrepreneur, however, focusses on high rewards and low risk!

Any exciting projects in the pipeline for this, and next year?

It’s more of the same – one of the great things about being entrepreneurial is that (you believe at least) all the projects you work on are exciting. I promise to come back to you when my exciting plans become exciting realities!