Starting an enterprise

Entrepreneur: in the last 12 months that word has taken a bit of a battering. It is a word seldom seen without the prefix ‘dotcom’, and automatically brings to mind the champagne-toting, get-rich-quick schemes of Boo and its confrères. ‘I saw an article in the Evening Standard the other day, saying the demise of the dotcom has killed off entrepreneurship,’ says David Wilkinson, Head of Entrepreneurial Services at Ernst & Young. ‘I don’t believe that’s the case. There is obviously a dip at the moment but the Internet has actually brought some entrepreneurship back into this country.’

Willkinson has good cause to be optimistic. He is national director of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Awards and in the course of one year sees over 300 of the most innovative and committed businessmen and women in the UK. The annual awards, bringing together both the young and the experienced from a variety of sectors, are an opportunity to applaud their achievements, which often go unrecognized. ‘The education system would much rather see an accountant than an entrepreneur,’ notes Wilkinson. ‘I hesitate to say it, but which is adding most to the economy? It’s probably the entrepreneurs, because they’re creating wealth in a way that an accountant never will.’

The UK lags behind the US in its support for business pioneers, seemingly for a number of reasons. One is our national culture; ‘We’d rather feel sorry for failures than praise our successes,’ says Wilkinson, something he feels is deep-seated and difficult to change. He also believes that history plays a part. ‘Take America. There’s such a frontiersman culture over there. I think there’s a link between that and the entrepreneurial culture,’ he says, adding, ‘It’s a long time since we were frontiersmen in this country.’ But there are factors that can be changed for the better. Education and the role of government are two of these. Wilkinson believes there is a place for teaching enterprise at an early level, even for a GCSE in the subject.

The Rev Andrew Mawson, founder of Community Action Network, is also committed to developing a community of entrepreneurs throughout the UK. ‘It is desperately important that Britain move into an enterprise economy,’ he believes, and is supporting the Ernst & Young awards with a new category for social enterprise. Mawson wants to see wealth creation replacing the dependency culture and is working to make that happen. He has found that his hopes for a socially-motivated entepreneurship are shared by many, even those at the grass root level: ‘When I go and talk at the Cranfield business school, lots of them want to make money, but they want to change things too.’

Where does that start? Well, as both Mawson and Wilkinson have found to their frustration, there is no readily available path for young people with big business plans. While Mawson is tackling that issue head on with a system of mutual learning and support, Wilkinson suggests an apprenticeship route. ‘I think it’s probably worth working for someone before you start a business. Find out what it’s like in business, and what it’s like to have customers and keeping books. You need all that basic stuff.’ He recalls asking one of the first EOY winners, Mark Vixon, now CEO of Regis, who had been his greatest influence. ‘He said it was the guy who ran the restaurant he worked in down in the south of France when he was a kid,’ Wilkinson says, adding that Mark’s first venture had been a hot dog van.

There are some drawbacks, however, for those wanting to scale the dizzy heights of enterprise. Not only do you need vision, determination and leadership (all key attributes in the judging of the EOY awards), to be a big success you need focus – and lots of it. Wilkinson tells of one EOY winner, who competed in the international awards in Palm Springs, California. ‘We’re in the middle of a desert in one of America’s supreme playlands. We’re in a nightclub, it’s about quarter past one in the morning and out of the corner of my eye I spotted the chap on the far side of the bar. He’d been asked by at the bar, “What do you do?” So he pulled out of his pocket his portable presentation he keeps with him at all times and goes through his business model to this poor chap at the bar!’

So if you’re planning to be the next Branson, remember there are certain sacrifices to be made. ‘The people who have been most successful in entrepreneurial businesses are people who don’t really have a work-life balance,’ Wilkinson admits. But if your only limit is your ambition, and you think the bigger risk is not taking one, there may be a place for you in the EOY hall of fame.

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