Having just taken my company through a significant pivot and with the new year just arrived, I have been reflecting on my journey as an entrepreneur and leader.
I started my business in Liverpool in the 1990s, where challenges loomed larger than opportunities. I am dyslexic and didn’t do particularly well at school, dropping out at the age of 16 to fit tyres at the local garage.
When that opportunity didn’t work out, I thought about starting a gig of my own – selling tires on the internet. I was lucky because I had my family firmly behind me and my ideas, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t scary or I knew immediately what to do and how to do it.
On a visit to the Job Centre, I spotted a sign on the wall offering support to enterprising young people from The Prince’s Trust (set up by King Charles III in 1976). I reached out to them and got a £500 grant (a lot of money by my standards at the time) and some very useful advice. The money I used for a computer and a printer for my bedroom, essential business tools, but it was the advice that really made the difference. The advice was – find a mentor, find a person you admire and ask them for advice.
I was already a pretty brave kid, but the charity injected an extra bit of confidence into me. I wrote a letter to a businessman I had briefly met while stacking shelves in Tesco: Sir Terry Leahy, who was CEO at the time. Imagine my surprise when he invited me to join him for a cup of tea. Against all odds, or perhaps because of them, Terry and I found a lot of common ground and he went on to help me with mentoring and advice, as well as investing in my business, which eventually became my first successful venture, Blackcircles.com.
Terry saw me as an entrepreneur: ‘Entrepreneurs do things that other people think are too difficult to do’ he said, ‘Michael had a fire in his belly’. And he should know, after all, he set up the Tesco Clubcard loyalty scheme even though the board reportedly turned it down originally and presided over Tesco’s incredible growth through the Every Little Helps strategy.
It turned out, in time, that the traits we had in common and which he fostered in me were the exact traits I needed to succeed in my business. Taking risks, staying nimble, focusing on customer service, and thinking outside the box – we agreed these were essential skills for a CEO and for a business to succeed. It was Terry who helped me learn to find the outliers in my spreadsheets (not an easy feat with dyslexia). Terry explained how to reward the customer for doing what I want them to do. His lessons have proved more valuable to me than school or university could have been.
The wisdom shared by Terry has helped me at my starting point, but his continued friendship and support through the years have made the biggest difference as I worked to grow my businesses and made decisions about their future. No less important is the fact that Terry found inspiration in me as much as I found it in him.
You can’t be good at growing your business if you are not sharing your learning. These days, young people face more obstacles than ever to succeed. With the economic slump, cost of living and education, unemployment and mental health issues the odds seem stacked against young people more than ever before. I want to help and that’s why I am a patron for the Prince’s Trust, but even more so, I want to share what I have learned with young people today. I take a mentoring approach to building my team and supporting individual staff members. I think young colleagues have a better chance to succeed that way, with a less pressured approach to guidance and advice, and the opportunity to make mistakes and learn on the job.
Being an entrepreneur, and building your own business, is not something I learnt in school or university. Before starting my business, I didn’t have other jobs or other bosses. I had to rely on Terry and other mentor figures to learn how to succeed as I went along. It is what worked for me and that is how I try to teach now. I think my leadership approach, which resembles a mentor-mentee relationship, helps me and my business get the best out of people, feed the ‘fire in their belly’ and give them the best foundation for their future.
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Image source: Mike Welch