Business development · 2 September 2015

John Lewis advises early-stage entrepreneurs: “Delegate what you can’t do and be your company’s best sales person”

Having done it all from the beginning himself, John Lewis has words of wisdom for today's entrepreneurial community
Having done it all from the beginning himself, John Lewis (left) has words of wisdom for today’s entrepreneurial community

Liverpool entrepreneur John Lewis is the managing director of SOG, and his company has created business locations for science and technology companies through a combination of providing scientific-grade commercial space alongside technical support skills on-site.

The Heath Business and Technical Park in Runcorn has become an award-winning blueprint for regeneration of sites where large companies have either closed or down-sized. In Runcorn, it was chemical giant ICI who decided to relocate its headquarters and research and development away from Runcorn in 1999. Since then, Lewis and his team at SOG have rejuvenated the location, making it the epicenter of new opportunities and a valuable community resource, which is now home to 170 separate companies employing around 1,750 people.

Now, his company is behind the acquisition of land from the pharmaceutical company, Sanofi – which has become the Londoneast Business and Technical Park in Dagenham, continuing the trailblazing model of creating scientific commercial space with support infrastructure and people skills on-site, enabling companies moving in to utilise a ready-made supply chain on the doorstep.

As well as various awards – “Entrepreneur of the Year” in 2004, “Knowledge Leader of the Year” in 2013 in Merseyside along with a variety of SOG company awards – Lewis has received recognition and high praise from a range of former and current government figures for his work and the progress of his company.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has said: “When Sanofi left their great site in Dagenham in East London they wanted there to be a legacy for life sciences, so I am absolutely thrilled that SOG have taken up the torch and at Londoneast they will be creating a new destination for life sciences, in pharma, lengthening London’s as a world capital in these industries.”

For Lewis, it is a long way from leaving school at the age of 16 with three O Levels and joining the family flooring business, where he freely admits he was “not great at laying floors, but good at bringing in the work”. To find out more, we put some questions to Lewis in the hope his answers would provide sage advice for those considering a move into business creation.

(1) What was your first taste of being an entrepreneur, and what did you learn from the experience?

Well, I’m not sure I would call myself an entrepreneur actually. I was recently asked to speak on the subject, and I posed the question: “What is an entrepreneur?” For me, my definition of an entrepreneur is somebody who makes it possible for other people to be better than them.

When I was about 11, I organised local kids around where I lived to help me collect two tonnes of waste paper. I offered to pay them wages and everything, and that’s no small amount of waste paper to collect in any one go when you’re that age. I earned about £50 – which in 1972 was a good sum of money, which we all took wages from but I retained the profit.

I suppose that was my first experience of delegation, and understanding that you can’t be the best at everything, you need other good people around you to come with you and help achieve the bigger goals, and you need to put people in the right seats on the bus and make sure everyone’s on board and with a willingness to head in the same destination.

(2) How did you apply that early experience and knowledge in your own business journey?

My first taste of real business was working for my father’s flooring company, which when I started it was a sole trader business. Soon, the company grew and we had a number of very big clients, including ICI, Shell, Royal Insurance amongst others which is how I became aware of The Heath site and the people that worked there.

We changed the status of the company to meet the growth, and I suppose I was not that great at laying floors, but I was the person who was good at going out there and bringing in the work.

The growth in the company enabled us to successfully achieve at the time BS5750 Quality Assurance accreditation and embrace new technology with computer aided design (CAD). You have to bear in mind that at the time for a flooring company to be able to utilise CAD in its work was very new, so much so that we were able to turnaround blueprints for work in super-quick time leaving the competition virtually standing.

Even then, I could see a real value in the highly-skilled workforce that I had lots of contact with on the ICI site, particularly the facilities management department, and so when later it was announced the site would close due to financial losses, that’s when I saw an opportunity in the site itself and the people that made it tick.

John Lewis has shown his vision to leaders such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
John Lewis has shown his vision to leaders such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair

(3) What advice do you have for people who may be thinking of starting their own business after being made redundant in particular?

In my view there are three types of people who are likely to start off their own business or attempt to develop a small business.

(1) The early entrepreneur – Usually young with a level of business acumen and a skill, product or service they believe they can commercially trade. Enthusiasm often outweighs experience and early mistakes can often be neutralized by time being on their side.
(2) The person who is being made redundant – They are well trained, have experience, are more mature and see self-employment as a real option to being once again employed.
(3) Post-retirement self employment – These are often people who have much to offer and would like to put back much of their experience into the business community as being their own boss.

(1) The early entrepreneur

Assuming you have taken a systematic approach to your idea and reviewed it thoroughly with advice from people in the know in areas where you lack direct knowledge or experience, then you need to focus on one thing: sales.

You need to become your company’s best sales person and get yourself out there and literally sell, sell, sell. Don’t waste time on the things you can affordably delegate out to people with the right skills in the early days, your business will not survive unless you have developed a sales pipeline and got your name out there.

It’s not in everyone’s comfort zone, but if you are going to run a business, as the owner of the vision for it, you must nurture a real talent for selling what you do and what you have to offer.

Selling doesn’t always translate into revenue – you might be looking for investment, or partnerships or even suppliers and employees – but if you can’t ‘sell’ your USP and your value, then people will not buy into you or your business.

In my company’s business locations we have a policy of encouraging inter-trading between the businesses on site and we facilitate that with introductions and encouraging the use of communal spaces for networking. A good location for your business when starting out, near people who might need what you have to offer, with flexible terms on a pay-as-you-need license rather than a long-term lease can be very helpful in the early days, depending upon your type of business of course.

(2) The person who is being made redundant

The above applies with the added advice that if early signs are giving an indication that investments in the business are beginning to outweigh the income and benefits of being self-employed, proceed with great caution and have the courage to cease operations before investments can seriously affect that persons longer term future. Sometimes in these cases the belief of self-employment is not necessarily the reality and those that have been in long term employment are sometimes better spending more time seeking direct employment elsewhere than losing the family jewels on a business venture that simply will not work for them. Recognition for early-stage opt-out is crucial if the negative signs are apparent.

(3) Post-retirement self-employment

Item 1 also applies without selling you will have very little to do. Adopt the approach where you don’t expect the phone to ring as you will possibly find at the very least it doesn’t ring as often as you would have expected it to, no matter what position you held previously in the workplace. You have to be able to offer something different as well as your knowledge and experience, at the end of the day customers want value for money. Above all my advice is only take on such a venture if you believe you will enjoy it. In these circumstances to me, that is what it is all about – enjoyment and fulfillment. The moment this ceases to be then it is time to stop being self-employed.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

In addition to freelance writing and a passion for theatre and film production, Eric Woollard-White is a business development, marketing and PR consultant and founder and CEO of Thirty7 Productions. For ten years, he worked with entrepreneur and Dragons’ Den panellist Peter Jones in a variety of communications and senior management roles, prior to which he trained and worked as a news reporter, before moving into PR within Royal Mail Group and then Omnicom.

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