London in the sunshine, 230 exhibitors, 160 seminars and 20,000 people with some aspiration to starting up a business. I dropped into Business Startup 2007 at ExCel with no particular agenda other than to listen into conversations. Real ones, as opposed to the online ones we all tune into. In the brash, cattle market atmosphere of ExCel, full of multimedia presentations, Darth Vaders and kids with loud microphones, you just cannot go to all the presentations, visit all the stands, or network with people you need to connect with. I knew I definitely wanted to listen to Stelios.
So I queued, with the aspiring chef, nutritionist, private investigator, life coach, the small motor-mouth Jewish fifty year-old who used to run a cemetery somewhere up north and was now ‘looking for new opportunities’, and the granny from Liverpool who was setting up a company to help people with a phobia of flying. And Stelios was queuing too. At first glance, he looks a bit like an encyclopaedia salesman who has done plenty of long lunches. White trousers that hang too long over loafers, an over-sized blazer that hangs awkwardly on a rugby player’s frame. He looks slightly nervous. You have to blink hard to think that this guy is seriously rich, powerful, a captain of industry.
Then he starts to talk, in his Anglo-Greek, and you know you are in the company of a master communicator. Stelios confessed to not having prepared anything – except for one slide with the 17 Easy brands he stands for and a plug for the new EasyOffice space for start-ups.
So here are the sound bites I picked up, between a fair bit of laughter and the occasional discomfort when people referred to his wealth, especially with one young guy who tried to put him on the spot about ‘investing in young people’.
1. You really must want to be your own boss if you are going to start up your business. I know it sounds obvious. Either that, or you get a rich Dad, like I had. Sure, Dad’s money helped. But the over-riding desire to be your own boss has to prevail. In my family, I knew there were too many bosses. I knew I had to do my own thing. I called my first business StelMar to make a point. I was the brand. Nobody else. Even if my first foray was in shipping, which is where my family had made its money.
2. You have to be a risk taker to be in business. Don’t expect to get superior returns without risks. You have to be prepared to risk your own capital.
3. You have to take calculated risks. Don’t bet the farm. Yes, sometimes you have to mortgage the house. But if it gets to that, you really need to stop and take a good hard look around you.
4. I’ve taken my share of knocks, like everyone in business. Especially after September 11th. But I have always believed that I can see things through. Even in the bad times.
5. The best culture for entrepreneurship is one that celebrates success and tolerates failure. That’s not always the case in the UK – unlike the Chapter 11 cushion you have across the pond.
6. You have to learn from your mistakes. You have to survive them, learn not to make the same ones, and move rapidly on.
7. If you have a product to market, decide from the outset who is your target audience. Are you marketing to the many, or to the few? I’m a B2C mass marketing guy – I serve the many. It’s OK to do B2B – though I still think that you cannot lose sight of who the end customer is, whichever sector you’re in.
8. Offer value for money. You cannot take the cheese out of a pizza! Or if you do, call it something else. Call it bread, just don’t call it a pizza. We all know that Ryan Air does not care about their passengers or their crew. Michael Ryan makes no secret of that. We do things differently. And that’s a good plug, no?
9. Startup entrepreneurs have to behave like consumers from day one.
10. There is no stigma to going the franchising way. We do that, in many places. We partner our brands with the entrepreneurial activities and energies of individuals. Franchising works – and so does outsourcing. EasyBus in entirely built around the outsourcing concept.
11. I got to ExCel by Tube. A driver would have taken the same amount of time. The Tube gives me a great opportunity to see what my customers are seeing, on their daily journeys to and from work. I run a consumer-facing business. I have to stay in touch with what they face.
12. I’m a Blackberry addict. I am a total believer in technology productivity. I travel a lot. Technology means I am always available, to the people who need to reach me.
13. A Brand is a promise. Before we had a quid’s worth of revenues, we had to spend all the money we had on marketing the product we had. A million’s worth of it.
14. You should, on average, allow three to five years for a business to become profitable.
15. An entrepreneur is not always likely to be the best operator. The character traits are totally different.
16. You cannot delegate entrepreneurship.
17. You inevitably have to delegate a lot when you go to the stock market. I have always insisted that the roles of Chairman, CEO and largest shareholder vest in different persons at Easy Jet.
18. My biggest mistake was believing my own bullshit during the dotcom bust. We believed that the Internet Cafe’s could become like McDonalds – and we proceeded with investing considerable sums of money to grow the numbers. Everyone knows that in situations like this, costs spiral out of control. I was advised, at one stage, to let the Cafes go under. I decided that I had to do what was right – pay off the debts, restructure, take the hit. I also had to limit damaging our brand. Nowadays, Internet Cafes are primarily used by tourists, as everyone else seems to have a laptop and wireless. And yet, in every city I go to, there is always the ubiquitous Internet Cafe. So some sense of legacy we do have.
19. Work hard! There is no free lunch, on quick win, despite the occasional rich Dad. Entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do. EasyMoney is a cool name, but not a promise that money can be made easily.
20. Doing business in other countries is very different to doing business in your own. Be careful of cross-border deals – be aware of differences in culture, labour practices, mind-sets. Sometimes, it pays to franchise!
21. People are more likely to trust a person than a company they have never heard of. Do not be scared of using your own past successful track record as a PR vehicle. Personalisation is key – I have always preferred to use PR rather than plain vanilla marketing.
22. Make a difference in people’s lives!