A fascinating debate on what makes an entrepreneur and how they can flourish in West London formed part of the Capital West London Growth Summit at the Lyric Theatre.
Olly Olsen and Wayne Hemingway, two of the UK’s foremost entrepreneurs, were joined by education bosses Alan Stuart and David Warnes plus senior researcher Jessica Alderson to discuss creating a skills and knowledge economy in the region.
Those expecting an insight into what was behind those success stories probably got a surprise as Mr Olsen, co-founder of The Office Group, revealed he left school without qualifications while renowned urban designer Mr Hemingway revealed he had never done a business plan, looked at CV’s or employed an accounts department.
Mr Olsen and co-founder Charlie Green set up The Office Group in 2003 and now has more than 50 flexible workspaces and around 20,000 members.
“We had one very simple idea which was to challenge and reimagine the way in which we were all working in London,” said Mr Olsen.
“I was driven and determined from a very young age, for as long as I can remember, and I found having that drive where there was nothing that really stopped me.
“I put it down to my parents and some mentors, there was a successful grandfather that died when I was nine years old, and I remember my whole family talking about him and his reputation and I grew up recognising that if you can have other people respect you for the work that you did, then that gave me motivation.
On The Office Group’s success he said: “We were slow, we were diligent and we were careful, we were never in a rush and maintained the focus on what we were trying to deliver as a product.
“We made sure our customers were happy, we weren’t looking at the bottom line, growth, how much of the business we owned, how much we could potentially sell, when we could sell, none of that was on the agenda.”
Mr Hemingway, who is 58, felt he grew up at a time when the word “disadvantaged” never came into play brought up in a single-parent family in a Blackburn tower.
“It was always felt that if you rolled up your sleeves and put a bit of elbow grease in there was no such thing as the Bank of Mum and Dad,” he said.
“There was never that thing that somebody had a better chance than me it was about how hard I was going to work. The other thing for me as well was that I’ve never wanted to go to work.
“In the creative industries I don’t feel I have ever believed for one day, and it is 40 years since me and my wife started our businesses, I can’t remember a day where it was felt like ‘oh god we’ve got to get up and go to work’. I don’t want that feeling.
“We were doing what we did as teenagers, our business came from going to nighclubs, employing mates, we’ve never looked at anybody’s CV, we have never done a business plan, never borrowed any money. We’ve always gone down the route that we’ve wanted to and always been lucky enough or skilful enough to never go to work and that’s what I’ve always wanted.”
Of his company Hemingway Design, he added: “From day one we’ve always had this streamline on our website “design is about improving things that matter in life” and we never look at margin, we never look at the profit we can make, we always look at the other things and you can make money that way.
“We have one accounts lady who has worked for us for 20 years. Even when we sold Red or Dead, and we sold that for a lot of millions, we’ve never had an accounts department.”
Ms Alderson, head of global research for Workthere, believes the technological revolution has made it easier to be an entrepreneur nowadays.
“Flexible offices have helped with that because while a conventional office covers needs like warmth, lighting, flexible offices go a step further and they build social needs, they build security, probably self esteem as well in that you’re in a flexible office with lots of like-minded people around you.
“Although it’s probably still useful to be near a capital city it’s still a lot easier than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Thirty years ago we didn’t have access to all this information that we can now literally type into Google: how to finance, business venture capital – you didn’t have all that information a long time ago so I think that makes it a bit easier.”
Alan Stuart, director of careers and employability, Middlesex University, said it was important to instil in students and graduates a sense of flexibility and adaptability that wasn’t always needed in the past.
“Things like remote working, the ability to multitask, the ability to work across multiple business projects at the same time rather than just going into one large industry and staying there for a long period of time,” he said.
“The message to students is all about being culturally savvy, that’s really important, flexibility, adaptability, resilience is a word that people talk about all the time but that is a critical skill, and I think just being open and ready to take an open door or a sliding door approach.
“You never know what’s around the corner and the resources and information around for people who have the inclination to set up their own business are I think much more profound nowadays.
“And we really do promote working with startups and working with SMEs because that’s where the majority of roles will be.”
David Warnes, deputy principal (development and marketing), Ealing, Hammersmith & West London College, believes the sense of failure can play a part in preventing the entrepreneurs of the future from coming forward.
“There are other ways of being successful,” he said. “We are seeing changes to that – OFSTED for example are now grading schools and colleges and personal development which is not around qualifications and success around exams it’s around some of those things that we’ve just talked about – resilience, effectiveness in working together.
“Those sorts of things are now being graded so schools and colleges will shift their behaviour to do more of that. You’ve seen examples and there are plenty around that don’t go through that traditional route, that don’t come out with those qualifications and are still very successful.
“There’s now a statutory obligation for schools to engage with employers at a very early age and they have to have several encounters with employers over their school life.
“There is a great scheme called Inspire the Future which is an opportunity to volunteer to go into schools as an entrepreneur and a business leader to give talks, careers information, one to ones, mock interviews to start that engagement. It’s a great project.”
Meanwhile, the panel was in agreement in stressing the value of co-working spaces and home working, while Mr Hemingway said one of the barriers to entrepreneurism is that if people don’t feel they have a chance but believes incorporating workspaces into regeneration schemes and using empty public buildings are a valuable way of opening up opportunity.
“There are so many statistics out there to show we are as entrepreneurial as ever but it’s at what section of society it is, that’s the worrying thing,” he said.
“I do wonder if myself and my Geraldine, my wife, with the background that we came from were 18 years old today we would not feel as empowered.
“You need goals and one of our first goals was to be one of the first in our family to own a house. Now at the moment that’s stripped away, that’s a goal that is taken away from young people.
“I believe, with entrepreneurial spirit somewhere buried within them and if that only comes from a certain demographic or it starts to be skewed towards certain demographic, it’s dangerous.”
Mr Warnes added: “That whole idea around inclusive entrepreneurs is really important. Some of our most entrepreneurial students are students with special educational needs and they have fantastic ideas and fantastic entrepreneurial spirit.
“What they need is that support in the community. We’ve got some fantastic projects working with small charities and local authorities where they’re out running cafes or community venues or theatres etc. I think that’s the sort of small-scale project that doesn’t need huge amounts of funding but these third sector, social enterprises, need a little bit of pump prime just to provide that support in that community area. That would really address that inclusive agenda to make these entrepreneurs really sail.”
Mr Stuart said he was passionate about connecting students with small businesses because they benefit from learning real challenges outside a classroom.
“They learn on real projects and that feeds back into the companies where they don’t have the capacity or the resources to work on those,” he said.
“There’s a massive untapped skill resource in schools, colleges and universities and project-based learning, which is all about engaging in real projects in the real world, is critically important. It’s a win-win for both.”