The secrets of successful startups

By on August 14, 2013
Successful_startups

From engaging brand histories to practical tips from those who have been there, William Kendall enjoys two takes on the theme of entrepreneurial endeavour. 

Those of you who share my curiosity about what makes entrepreneurs tick are going to love The Branded Gentry by Charles Vallance and David Hopper.

It is a real Christmas special of an anthology for people who otherwise get their fix from occasional interviews in the business pages.

The people behind your favourite brand names reveal all in one easy volume. But anyone who was hoping to find a template for building successful brands might be a bit disappointed.

That is not to say that the book isn’t packed with charming stories, but it lacks conclusive rigour and one feels that the authors, a pair of marketing men at the top of their game, have given their subjects an easy ride.

This will not be the first time that the likes of Tim Bell, Paul Smith, Emma Bridgewater and Johnnie Boden have been asked to spill the beans. By now, they will have worked out the best way of entertaining the troops and they therefore require a bit of prodding to reveal the harder truth.

They are some of the nation’s favourites, so nobody wants a hatchet job, but neither do we need a hagiography.

I have often noticed that the best marketing gurus allow you to tell your story unchallenged, interrupted only by an occasional nod of approval – it is their bedside manner. They save their real thoughts until after you find yourself under their scalpel. As they perform open-heart surgery on your brand, you realise that you have fallen for their charm and it is too late to run.

Vallance and Hopper draw some weighty conclusions in their short epilogue. They uncover a near universal fear of debt that is worthy of greater scrutiny, given the widely held belief that entrepreneurs are natural risk-takers. A significant number of our heroes have succumbed to a serious illness that they attribute to their working lives and which has then shaped their approach to business. This alone should provide a salutary reminder to the half-hearted.

The authors spot that many of their subjects draw strength from their personal relationships. Most of them talk about their partners in adulatory terms, and a couple of them, Bridgewater and Tony Laithwaite, even hand over the reins of management to them, resulting in their companies doing better than before.

While seeking evidence to support the central idea of the book – that entrepreneurs whose businesses share their name are somehow a type apart – the authors miss a critical success factor. Nearly all their subjects mention the vital role played by others.

Anybody who has built up a successful company knows that, while it is good to have a figurehead, it is even more important that there are less visible partners sharing the decision-making.

Any book that celebrates the individual business leader is in danger of missing the fundamental point that it is not an individual but effective teams that make for success. Building an organisation is hard and individuals capable of doing it on their own are very rare, although there are plenty who try.

This entertaining book is rather weakened by its flawed central thesis. I don’t think that the business leaders in it are any different from other entrepreneurs who choose not to name their company after themselves.

When Sainsbury’s and Warburtons were founded it was common practice and it still is for design-based businesses like Emma Bridgewater, Boden and Dyson even. Sure, you are going to worry about quality and performance if your name is above the door, but so do all successful leaders, whatever name they have chosen.

Readers keen to pick up useful tips about starting a business are probably better advised to try Dear Entrepreneur – Letters from those that have made it and are making it happen by Danny Bailey and Andrew Blackman.

It is smaller than The Branded Gentry and contains just what it says on the cover – a collection of short letters to the budding entrepreneur from the people behind successful new businesses. Perhaps reassuringly, much of the same advice is repeated again and again. A book therefore for the loo, and to be consumed a couple of chapters at a time.

It is a nice idea but would be much improved by a short summary of each of the companies. Maybe I should get out more, but there are nearly 100 businesses featured and I hardly knew any of them.

They sounded fascinating when I Googled a few but the founders were so busy offering the pithiest of advice that they mostly forgot to tell us what they do and what they had achieved so far. Perhaps an improvement for a second edition?

William Kendall is a director of a number of early-stage investments and chairman of Cawston Press, a small premium soft drinks company. He was chief executive of New Covent Garden Soup Company and Green & Black’s in their formative years.

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