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CEO of Hamilton Bradshaw and former Dragon in the ‘Den’ speaks to us about both employment and entrepreneurial success.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?

JC Make sure that you are ready to fully dedicate yourself to the business. Make no mistake about it, starting your own business is an amazing experience but it is also one of the toughest things you will do. The best entrepreneurs are the ones who are truly passionate about what they are doing.

Also, when starting out, focus on landing your first order. Things like designing business cards are important of course, but the most essential part is getting customers on board. Your business will only truly be up and running when you have landed that first sale – and believe me when I say it is a fantastic feeling.

Do people need to come up with a unique business idea?

JC Not at all, very few business are based on an idea that is completely brand new or unique. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – the key is to find a differentiator, a solid USP. What sets you apart from your competitors – are you faster, cheaper, more efficient? Whatever it is, it has to be watertight and then communicated effectively to your customers.

What sets apart successful entrepreneurs from those who don’t succeed?

JC There’s a couple of things – the first is drive. Successful entrepreneurs have a single-minded determination to be the best they can, no matter what the obstacles are. I recently launched an initiative where I was looking for the next recruitment entrepreneur to back. The response was absolutely phenomenal and the ones who have made it through to the next stage all have one thing in common – the drive to not only start a recruitment business, but grow it to scale.

The other difference is the attitude to failure. There is no entrepreneur who will be 100% successful. Failure is part and parcel of business, but the ones who learn their lessons, pick themselves up and start again are the real deal.

“I always say that success is a journey rather than a destination. Even now, after over thirty years in business, I am constantly learning new things and developing my skill set. The more you as an entrepreneur develop, the better your business will be.”

How important is the research behind a business idea?

JC No matter what sector your business will be in, the basics remain the same. You don’t want to go into the market underprepared so your research has to be exhaustive. Know your customers, competitors and numbers inside out. Use the Internet, analyse key market trends and go to networking events – it will all help.

How important is self development to business success?

JC I always say that success is a journey rather than a destination. Even now, after over thirty years in business, I am constantly learning new things and developing my skill set. The more you as an entrepreneur develop, the better your business will be.

Is the timing of a business launch important?

JC Not particularly – of course depending on your market, there may be certain periods of the year when it is best to launch – but generally speaking I think any time is great to start a business. In fact, I have always lived on the philosophy of ‘observe the masses and do the opposite.’ When people think it’s maybe not the best time to start a business, that’s when you should strike.

How much does passion for an idea play in its success?

JC It’s without doubt the most important thing. If you don’t believe in your idea, nobody will. Products and services will not go to market and become a success on their own – it is the passion of the entrepreneurs behind them that determine how well they do.

Idea testing or product completion first?

JC Absolutely idea testing. I saw this on Dragons’ Den a lot, and it is a common mistake that people make. They spend so much time designing the perfect prototype and not enough time testing whether there is a market for it. I would always urge people to create a simple prototype and take it to potential buyers. They are experts; they will get the intricacies of it if you explain them. Crucially, they will then be able to tell you how viable it is in the market – if you come to the conclusion that it isn’t viable, then you’ve just saved yourself a huge amount of time and money.

How would you define ‘entrepreneur’?

JC Every entrepreneur is different; however it’s the passion, conviction and ability to go the extra mile thatdefines a true entrepreneur.

Why do you think more women are starting their own business?

JC In my experience women are extremely entrepreneurial; it’s more about the execution and determination rather than gender. Having your own business is seen as something to aspire to by everybody and there are opportunities for all out there – it’s just about being creative in the way you find them.

40% of the first 4000 loans through Start Up Loans were awarded to women. Do you think this will increase?

JC Currently 36% of our 14,500 entrepreneurs are women, and this has remained stable over the lifetime of the scheme.

At Start Up Loans we work hard to approach all entrepreneurs whether they be men or women, young or old, from the North East to the South West. The key for us is a sound business proposition and the ability to repay the loan, so really, the proportion of female loans is decided by these factors. We urge all female entrepreneurs to continue to come forward and realise their dream.

How important is mentoring in business development?

JC It’s a huge help. When you are running a business you can get really immersed into it, and at times even emotionally caught up. When this happens, you may lose sight of the bigger picture, so having someone to go to for guidance is a real asset. Some people are almost ashamed of asking for advice but this shouldn’t be the case – there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

Is being an entrepreneur innateor a skill that can be acquired?

JC I think it can be acquired. Of course there are people who have been naturally blessed with some of the characteristics of an entrepreneur, but as I’ve said earlier, you can always develop and learn new skills. From my point of view, although I always had the ability to take risks and think outside of the box, I also learnt a huge amount from watching my father do business. That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about investing in other entrepreneurs – I try and pass on as much knowledge to them as possible and I love watching them and their businesses grow.

What’s the greatest skill advantageous to an entrepreneur?

JC Focus – Being able to prioritise is something many entrepreneurs struggle with, especially when first starting out. There are so many things going on when running a business, but you need to remove yourself from what I call the ‘noise’, and focus on what will help you get your business to where you need it.

On Dragon’s Den what was your most memorable pitch/person?

JC It was this couple who came into the Den claiming they had devised a product that would stop one of the most common arguments partners have – when one person encroaches onto the other person’s side of the bed. They said they had found the perfect solution so myself and all the other Dragons were fairly curious. It turned out to be a white bed sheet with a black line down the middle. We were waiting for them to explain further, but that’s literally all it was! We found it hilarious, but they had spent 3 years developing it!

“Being able to prioritise is something many entrepreneurs struggle with, especially when first starting out. There are so
many things going on when running a business, but you need to remove yourself from what I call the ‘noise’, and focus on what will help you get your business to where you need it.”

Where’s the craziest place someone has tried to pitch an idea to you?

JC Once I was stuck in a huge traffic jam on the motorway and the driver in front of me recognised my number plate. He just happened to be carrying his business proposal and a product sample with him, so he walked out, knocked on my window and pitched it to me there and then!

It must be hard trying to get people to face the ‘reality’ of their business. Do you have any tips to help people avoid pitfalls?

JC Seek feedback from as many people as possible. People can sometimes be a bit paranoid about sharing their ideas but the more feedback you get the better and I don’t mean from family and friends, who may tell you what you want to hear. I mean people from your target market and also experts. I would also urge the entrepreneur to grill their own business idea and almost look for reasons why it might not work. Analyse absolutely everything from the costing through to the sales journey. Essentially, I want them to think like a Dragon.

Do you think women have to compete with men in the corporate world in order to succeed?

JC I think things are certainly getting better. There is still work to be done of course but it isn’t as difficult for women as it was some years ago. There are some extremely successful women within the corporate world and this is sure to increase.

Do you think it’s possible for a woman to raise a family and have a successful career?

JC It is possible, although of course there has to be an element of flexibility. But with entrepreneurship such a popular theme in Britain now, more jobs are being created, which in turn creates jobs for all sorts of requirements, not just the standard 9-5.

What advice would you give for someone interviewing for a new job?

JC Be absolutely prepared for anything that can come your way. In this day and age, with the access to data we have, you should know everything about the company you are interviewing for. This in turn will help you go into the interview in a confident, positive state of mind – if you know you have prepared as thoroughly as you can, you will feel a lot more relaxed.

I also think it is important to ask questions yourself in the interview. Don’t let the process become onesided, show how keen you are to know more about the company and role.

What’s your opinion of the board room quota? Should it be ‘the best person’ for the job as opposed to gender specific?

JC You always want the best person for the job, there’s no doubt about that. However the recruiting process should not make it difficult for women to get on to the shortlists. As long it is transparent and fair, you will always get the best person for the job no matter the gender.

What was your first job?

JC Delivering papers for my local newsagents.

What book are you reading?

JC Steve Jobs: The Biography.

How do you relax?

JC I have an apartment and a yacht in Cannes where I go to unwind.

Favourite holiday destination?

JC Cannes!

How can people stay motivated when things don’t go to plan?

JC I always say that success is a journey rather than a destination. Failure and mistakes are all part of this journey. Rather than being disheartened – learn from the mistakes and make sure your next idea or venture is better.

How do you deal with stressful decision making?

JC I have to deal with many decisions on a daily basis. However, I don’t get stressed about the process. I ensure I have all the necessary information and then I act on it. If the decision you make is not the correct one you will soon find out and then it’s important to learn from this.

What made you decide to study at Harvard?

JC I came to a point in my life where I sold my businesses and asked the question what next? I looked at my CV and wanted to fill the education void, so decided to go to Harvard Business School. There were two types of Advanced Management courses – one for entrepreneurs and one for corporates. Although the entrepreneur’s one was more ‘me’, I felt I’d benefit more from being with corporates and adding another string
to my bow.

www.james-caan.com

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