By the time he was 11, a London boy named Alan Sugar started his career selling rags to a scrap merchant. Although the merchant swindled the young Mr Sugar by handing him half a crown for what turned out to be wool, rather than £1.10, he was beginning to develop something known as the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’.
By the age of 15 he bought a camera and started selling pictures of children in his neighbourhood to parents and grandparents, making some extra cash on the side while studying. But to the horror of his parents he left school early to work in a factory. His story is one of rags to riches, from the back streets of Croydon to heart of London, Southbank. Today he is arguably the most iconic self-made man in the UK.
But with so much media talk of entrepreneurship – a clear ideology of the coalition government – as the “Big Society” begins a process of decentralisation and looks to create space for new business start-ups to take the flack of the recession, it has made me question, what does it mean to be “entrepreneurial”? And is it the way forward?
Just two days ago at the Cardiff business club, another celebrity entrepreneur and politican Lord Heseltine spoke of his journey to success in his early days after graduation from Oxford. Of course he faced uncertainty. He had to start out somewhere, eventually becoming one of the most successful publishing moguls of our time. Lord Heseltine said he started out with £1000 in his pocket and began his entrepreneurial journey by renting a 9 bedroom flat with a friend and letting it out for a small profit. The pair then moved their business into a hotel. A snowball effect culminating in the genesis of Haymarket with a friend from university.
What can we learn about entrepreneurship from these two men? The lesson I took was to make the most of a little. There were many times when projects failed. Heseltine’s magazines, <emMan about town and Topic were a flop and Lord Sugar nearly lost his fortune with the demise of Amstrad. But persistence, resilience and some luck managed to pull them through.
The Oxford dictionary defines entrepreneurship as characterized by the taking of financial risks in the hope of profit. But is entrepreneurship solely about taking risks and making profit? Perhaps it is about having a sense of commercial awareness, resourcefulness, energy, creativity and an understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses. So when a spot of luck comes your way, you are ready to make the most of it. And perhaps the best outcome is to benefit society with the by-product of some profit.
Perhaps part of his success is down to the fact that he is not afraid to be himself. What you see is what you get.