In the world of entrepreneurialism, your commitment matters far more than your date of birth. Mark Nayler meets four future Bransons (in the best way)
Sam Waley-Cohen, Portman Healthcare
Waley-Cohen can’t remember the last time he was ‘truly switched off’. This includes his recent honeymoon with his wife and laptop to the Amalfi coast: ‘Obviously I didn’t want the quickest divorce of all time. But the company becomes part of you, and you’re not relaxed if you’re wondering what’s happening and what you’re missing out on.’
Waley-Cohen’s company, Portman Healthcare, consists of eleven dental clinics nationwide, the first of which, in Maidenhead, opened only three years ago. The inspiration for starting the company was provided by the poor levels of service Waley-Cohen, 29, had encountered throughout the dental industry: ‘You couldn’t get appointments when you wanted them, staff didn’t communicate what they were doing and it was all really quite expensive.’ His aim, he says, was simple: ‘I wanted to professionalise the profession and treat people how we’d want to be treated.’
How do you make sure you establish a successful chain of dental clinics when you have no technical knowledge of the industry, though? (He has a degree in politics from Edinburgh University.) Waley-Cohen echoes the other entrepreneurs I spoke to when he talks of the importance of picking the right people to work with.
‘Portman has a really good management team who know the dental industry really well,’ he says. ‘My first step was to take them a concept that I wanted to deliver and find an operations person who could help me deliver it. There’s no compensation for experience. I’m the youngest in Portman by some way, but I work with people who have been there and done it, rather than learn on the job.’
But one senses that delegation for the purpose of avoiding work oneself is something Waley-Cohen has no time for: as chief executive of Portman Healthcare, he describes his day-to-day involvement with the company as being ‘very hands-on’. The responsibilities and pressures of having no one to answer to are driving him to make Portman, which he believes has the capacity to be a billion-pound company, bigger and better: ‘You’re your own boss — there’s no sending emails late at night to make it look like you’re working harder than you are or any of that nonsense. You’re measured by your output, so no one actually cares if you’re working hard. If your outputs are rubbish, they’re rubbish.’
Does this mean he has more freedom than he would if he were employed by someone else? ‘You have more flexibility, but you probably have less freedom. At the end of the day there’s no one to pick up where you left off. There are things that can be only done with your input, and if you’re not there then they don’t get done.’
Rubbish outputs are not something he’s familiar with — in any sphere of life. Talking to Waley-Cohen is a little like having a conversation with several people at once, each with successful careers. His conversation is peppered with references to his riding activities, which one might be forgiven for thinking a casual hobby. Although he is not a full-time professional jockey, his achievements at the highest level of the sport are ones any professional would be proud of: in March he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run — the first amateur jockey in 30 years to do so — and a month later he finished second in the Grand National.
A relentless competitiveness — which he says is a must-have characteristic for entrepreneurs — drives him on in everything he does: ‘This sounds incredibly cheesy, but my passion is really for excellence, about being the best you can be. Whether that’s racing, work, family or charity, it’s about trying to make the best of what you have.’
Charity work constitutes another aspect of Waley-Cohen’s hectic existence. His younger brother Thomas died from a rare form of bone cancer in 2004, aged twenty, and he raises large amounts for Tom’s Ward, named after Thomas, at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital. He has also recently launched a charity called the TAWC Fund, which underwrites the cost of student fundraising events such as fashion shows and balls. Waley-Cohen cites his brother’s tenacity and drive — which never diminished despite his long illness — as a huge influence on his own relentless approach to life. Launching Portman, too, has been an important driver of his charitable activities: ‘When you’re running a company, you realise not everyone has had the opportunities you’ve had.’
It’s inspiring listening to Waley-Cohen talk, and exhausting to think of his schedule. One wonders if he ever allows himself a lie-in. ‘Sometimes you lie in bed thinking, “I don’t want to get up.” I have that feeling as much as anyone. But then I think, “I want to get up, create this great company, get this charity running and win this race.” And that’s not going to happen in bed.’
Sam Waley-Cohen photograph by Dan Abraham
Ross Marshall, Your Golf Travel
Ross Marshall is not afraid of risk. On the essential character traits needed by an entrepreneur, he says, ‘You’ve got to be prepared to risk everything, you’ve got to be prepared to go bankrupt.’ The 30-year-old is co-founder of Your Golf Travel, now Europe’s largest golf holiday business.
After graduating from Durham University, Marhsall worked an eighteen-month stint for ING Barings. Though he learnt a lot and made important contacts, he always knew it was going to be a means to an end: ‘The political environment in a big organisation doesn’t suit me. I’m not a political animal and the prospect of climbing the corporate chain in a big organisation never really appealed to me.’ Driven by the examples of his father and grandfather, both successful entrepreneurs, Ross decided to take a risk, quit the bank, and turn his passion for golf into a multi-million-pound business. ‘Most people told me I was crazy,’ he says with a smile. Was he worried it would all backfire? He doesn’t even flinch before answering: ‘Failure wasn’t an option, it wasn’t something I ever actually considered.’
If that sounds straightforward, the reality was far from it. Marshall and his co-founder, university friend Andrew Harding, put in £8,000 of joint savings and £30,000 borrowed on credit cards to start the business. They emailed, faxed and phoned every golf resort and hotel in the country, receiving very little interest in return: ‘The majority of them were saying that every ex-banker and his dog were trying to start golfing businesses, and that they wouldn’t take us seriously until we sent them some business.’
From Harding’s bedroom in Wimbledon, they worked their contacts in the promotions and golf industries and started to make some bookings. Slowly, the business started to roll in, but Harding and Marshall didn’t take a day off for the first two and a half years — ‘that was very mentally challenging’ — in order to ensure the growth didn’t grind to a halt.
Your Golf Travel went live in 2005 and, driven by Marshall’s refusal to regard failure as an option, has expanded rapidly since. Last year they sold all-inclusive golf holidays to 22 countries and turnover hit £27 million: they’re on course for £37 million this year. Those early days of endless rejections are long gone: the company now has more than 3,000 golf courses on its website — a reach which gives them the ability to give their customers exactly what they want. ‘There are very few golf courses in the world that we can’t get for someone to play on,’ says Marshall. ‘That isn’t always advertised, but for the right clientele it’s available.’
The success of his first company has encouraged Marshall into other ventures. Your Golf Travel’s sister company, SpaBreaks.com, is now in its third year of trading and this year took £8 million in sales. This year has also seen the launch of a programme to get injured ex-soldiers back on the golf course: Golf for Heroes will enable those who have been injured in service to access golf courses and lessons for free all over the country. So far, Marshall has more than 250 UK courses on his books.
Like the other entrepreneurs here, Marshall is driven by a conviction that work should be an enjoyable rather than necessary chore: ‘You’ve got to be passionate about what you do, otherwise life’s simply not worth living. You’ll never be great at anything if your heart is not in it.’
Ross Marshall photograph by Barry Lewis
Richard Hurtley, Rampant Sporting
The idea for Rampant Sporting occurred to Hurtley while he was reading for a history and politics degree at Exeter University. According to 25-year-old Hurtley, there was a real ‘gym culture’ at Exeter: often the evening’s social venue would be decided among the weightlifting and rowing machines, and ‘the girls would be there on the cross-trainers wearing their make-up and trying as much as possible not to sweat. You had mirrors everywhere and guys standing in front of them trying to lift the heaviest weights possible. It was a very funny environment.’
The growing preoccupation with fashion Hurtley witnessed at his university gym soon led him to a realisation that students needed a type of clothing that would meet the varied demands of their day: from lecture hall to gym to bar, they needed something they could wear in all those contexts. Rampant Sporting (formerly Lions Rampant) was conceived by Hurtley while he was still at Exeter in 2006, with the idea to sell rugby socks designed to meet those demands, and catered to students who were no longer content with wearing their ‘dad’s old stuff’ to the gym. The socks appealed to both sexes: ‘So girls would wear them with their Ugg boots or wellies and guys would wear them under their suits.’
Rampant Sporting (renamed in April 2010) continued after Hurtley graduated in 2007, still achieving a 2:1 despite the distractions of the business. The name changed, though retaining the ‘cheeky’ connotations of rampancy, and the range of garments was extended to include T-shirts, tracksuit trousers, rugby shirts and shorts. Exactly, you might think, like brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch and Hackett. What makes Rampant different?
Hurtley says the key differentiators are the facts that all Rampant’s garments are manufactured in the UK, targeted at students and born out of the UK university experience, and that the brand has a strong sporting aspect.
Hurtley considered embarking on a banking career after graduation (he has a sister who works in the industry) but was attracted, rather than put off, by the risks involved in starting up his own company instead: ‘I wanted to see it through, whether it meant success or failure.’ He also displays a characteristic entrepreneurial disregard for the work/life distinction, the idea that Monday to Friday is for earning money and the other two days are for enjoyment. ‘I’ve always been of the opinion that you spend so much of your time working, you might as well enjoy what you do,’ he says.
Not that it was always enjoyable. A note of frustration enters Hurtley’s usually measured delivery when he talks of the formidable difficulties in obtaining start-up funding. But even these were nothing compared to the loneliness involved in the early days, when he worked from his parents’ attic. Friends with regular jobs weren’t necessarily sympathetic when he had to refuse social invitations due to lack of time and funds: ‘No one understands if you can’t get to a party because you can’t afford it or you can’t get there due to work commitments.’
Hurtley relied in those early days on supportive friends and family: ‘You realise who your real friends are when they’re helping you to pack stuff at 12.30 on a Sunday evening so your customers can receive their orders.’
His parents provided him with a crucial £1,000 of start-up funding — which Hurtley chose over a Breitling watch for his 21st birthday — as well as advice and inspiration. Hurtley’s mother runs her own business in the care-home sector (360fwd.com) so was well placed to encourage and support her son, and his father — an ‘extremely good sounding board’ — always supplied rational and thoughtful advice.
Like Waley-Cohen, Hurtley attests to the fact that you blend seamlessly in with a company you have built from scratch. ‘People don’t really ask me any more how I am,’ he says, ‘they ask how the business is.’
So — how is the business? Although it’s not uncommon to see people wearing the distinctive T-shirts around town, getting a substantive answer to that question is tricky: Rampant wouldn’t provide us with any specific financial information regarding recent turnover or profit. However, with branches now in Exeter (where it started) and Aldeburgh, and a growing staff of twenty, the lonely days in the attic are long gone. Hurtley says he took the £1,000 rather than the watch on his 21st birthday in the hope that he’d be able to afford his own one day: he can’t be far off now.
Damian Kimmelman, Duedil
‘Any business that makes business quicker is a cash cow,’ says Kimmelman, the 28-year-old founder and director of Duedil. The Soho-based company, described by The New York Times as ‘Lexis Nexis meets Google meets Linkedin’, makes available — free of charge — financial information on 7.9 million UK companies and their directors. And that’s not all: Duedil currently holds ten times the amount of data that is actually on the website and is about to launch an identical data service in Ireland.
Kimmelman sums up the philosophy behind this, his third business, thus: ‘If you have more information about me you can make a decision about me more quickly and I’ve made business quicker.’ By increasing levels of financial transparency, Duedil aims to speed up the process of building trust in the business world. All the information is publicly available from Companies House, but Duedil is the first company to bring it all together on one website free of charge.
It does speed the process up — just putting a company’s name into the search bar instantly gives you its latest turnover and profit figures, as well as a raft of other financial information — but it’s difficult to see how Duedil makes any money. The functional website invites you to become a member, which you can do free of charge, and then you can search for details on an enormous number of companies. For someone whose business is transparency, Kimmelman is rather opaque on the financial side of his own company: ‘We are going to start selling credit scores and further premium services, but it’s difficult to be fully open about it at this stage.’
New Yorker Kimmelman must know thing or two about cash cows, though, having enjoyed financial success with previous ventures. He admits to not having done much work while he was studying for a degree in international relations at St Andrews University from 2002 to 2006, but not because he was drinking the student bar dry: he was busy making his first million instead. Through flipping student properties and taking advantage of the appreciation of the dollar throughout his student days, Kimmelman got his first taste of success.
He used some of the proceeds of the money he made from property to start up Duedil, which went live in April 2010. When asked about the major challenges he faced in setting up the online information hub, his answer is deceptively blasé: ‘I think Duedil has been relatively straightforward so far — I’ve dealt with success a lot of times.’
This confidence in his current enterprise sits alongside a belief in the importance of failure, though, and the instructive role it can play in an entrepreneur’s education. ‘I’ve been round the block a few times so I know what works and what doesn’t,’ he says. ‘I’ve dealt with failure even more than I have with success.’
Failure to adapt to circumstances and recognise when a business is not working is crucial to a young entrepreneur’s success, says Kimmelman, who has a ‘very Darwinist approach to entrepreneurship. The quickest to adapt are better off. All successful entrepreneurs have chequered pasts — not in the dubious sense, but they’ve made spectacular failures. You learn from those more because they hit you harder. Sometimes you don’t know why you won but you always know why you lost.’
Kimmelman is the only entrepreneur featured here to have left his native country to seek success elsewhere. Making money is a much more celebrated and encouraged activity in the US — was he not tempted to return after university to launch Duedil there? He cites the size of the market in America as being the main reason he didn’t go back: ‘Covering all the 50 states would require substantially larger start-up costs and it would be difficult to compile such a huge amount of information accurately. But we can cover the UK perfectly.’
Although he manages to keep fairly regular working hours now, Kimmelman looks baffled when I ask him what he likes to do in his free time, before replying, ‘I read tech blogs. I live and breathe this stuff — I love it.’
Damian Kimmelman photograph by Andrew Connolly