The last few weeks of writing has been intense. There have been pieces about the problems and issues in Ukraine, designer babies, paedophilia, and Belarusian dictators. It is time to lift some of the gloom and I thought we might have a quick canter through entrepreneurship meaning I have to expose some of my weaknesses.
Nothing is better than an idea as a starting point. Ideas have never been the problem and from a very early age I was thinking up new ways to do things. Let’s go through some of the better of them and I measure better by two criteria. First, later they became real and successful or secondly, I still think they are a bloody good and clever.
Skateboarding: I made my first skateboard in 1960! It wasn’t totally new. Some kids had been placing a plank of wood on their roller skates for a decade or so. I started by sitting on the plank which was loosely placed on the skate. We would skate down a steep nearby hill and try and take the sharp corner at the bottom without heading out onto what was not, fortunately, a very busy road.
Next, we took the skate apart and screwed the wheels onto the new, sleek board, giving much more stability but better we could stand as we headed down the hill. With practice and a steady nerve, we could start even higher up the hill. If there was too much pace we would bail out, roll out a little on the pavement while the board shot across the road. I remember the look on a driver’s face as a skateboard sped alone under his car.
The development of the skateboard is normally considered to be in America, but for one summer, there was a small corner of Thornton Heath which was skating at the same pace as California.
Budget Hotels It was in the mid-80s with colleagues we developed the concept of a ‘basic’ hotel, without a restaurant, limited facilities, and pre-constructed room fittings such as bathrooms. It wasn’t so much as we developed it but spotted a trend starting in Japan and we adapted it for the UK. We didn’t really pursue it too hard but within ten years it was the standard for city centre hotels.
Smart Phone Money Transfer There were several other ideas floating around but when I arrived in Dubai I was at my most creative phase and again I was way ahead of the curve.
It was in Dubai I noticed the number of expatriates from India and the subcontinent who needed to send money back home. The queues at Western Union were always horrendous. I wrote a proposal to develop a system for transferring money via the smartphones which then were in their very early days.
One of the biggest markets will be in the third world. The difference in my approach was that the Telco would become a bank as it managed cash moving around the world. A bank never at risk with dodgy lending. Think FairFX run by the phone company.
I tried to work my way up through the management levels of one of the major Dubai Telcos – I think it was Du. There were lots of nodding heads and I worked hard to try and get to the most senior managers who I thought might have the vision, but never quite got there.
Environmental Petrol Stations My next idea was one of two environmental thoughts. In Dubai all the petrol stations are owned by one state company so there is the possibility of concerted action. Also, in Dubai, there is a road charging system which requires every car to be ‘tested’ every year.
This gives the opportunity to ensure that every car and van is fitted with a simple, non-editable, radio-frequency identification (RFI) type device. My plan, which I discussed extensively with the Department of Transport, was to read the RFI of every car that came into a petrol station and adjust the pricing of petrol dependent on the car’s environmental impact. Small cars would be charged less for their petrol compared to the big petrol guzzlers.
The extra revenue was going to go into a charitable environmental fund I was also going to establish. I know if I had managed to pitch this to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum I would have convinced him.
Green Miles an Environmental Fund My next idea I pitched to Emirates and Etihad airlines. Obviously with no luck.
The idea was simple. We were just going to ask flyers to give up their loyalty points which would be transferred for cash into the environmental fund. Airlines, as well as anyone else, have a price for their loyalty points. 5,000 Avios points for a one-way ticket to Newcastle. Anyone interested?
We were asking that passengers show their environmental concern by forgoing the chance to go to Newcastle. With the lead from Dubai, I was sure we could start a global initiative which could embrace other airlines and even such as Nectar cards.
It was going to be called Green Miles, a play on Air Miles.
It was cash neutral for the airlines, a great marketing initiative and a massive positive boost for Dubai. If only I had managed to pitch to Sheik ….. Well, we have been there.
The Emirates University Through many friends who flew with Emirates I got to know the airline business very well.
Emirates has more than 20,000 crew with 135 nationalities and they all go through a significant period of training. The investment in recruitment and training is enormous. Therefore, one of the key performance indicators for airline success is keeping cabin crew a little longer than average. The longer they stay the greater the return on the investment.
They use many ways to increase retention rates, but I had another which again was broadly cash neutral.
Contrary to many a perception cabin crew, at least in Emirates, are intelligent people, many enjoying a special break in their careers. The proposal I put to the management of these companies was to establish their own ‘university’ allowing the staff to build credits to international level diplomas and degrees. I had already sourced courses form The Open University and contacts in New Zealand who would accept remote accredited courses.
The commitment to funded education would keep a significant number of staff longer to finish the course. we called it the Emirates University.
It is still a good idea. Ah, well.
2 MAKE IT LIFE OR DEATH
The truth is that lots of people have ideas. Lots of people have brilliant ideas but only a few ever get to the point of doing something about it.
I suppose the failure to exploit the skateboarding opportunity was my dad’s fault. He should have seen the opportunity but there are examples of kids starting their careers early.
Looking back the source of my failures to turn these ideas into something real was that, although important to me, they weren’t a life or death passion. Success doesn’t come from a good idea but from making it everything in your life.
Of course, I worked on the ideas, I worked up proposals, I had clever graphics and good financials, but I was too easily distracted by, well I was just too easily distracted. I pushed at doors but never hard enough.
For the really successful entrepreneur, for you, it must be life or death.
3 CONTACTS NOT MONEY
There will always be a time when money is the need and that is when the Dragon’s Den is useful but well before then you need contacts.
In all probability, the entrepreneur doesn’t start knowing the right people, but it is the area you need to work on. It is never enough just to get others involved, however senior they are, you need them to share your passion. That is not always easy.
You have a good idea and are convinced it will change the world. If it was obvious everyone would already have made it or done it. The hardest part is getting others to have and share your vision of how the world will work.
As I had my ideas I would close my eyes and imagine cars pulling into petrol stations and the petrol pump price moving up or down. I could see the environmental fund spending money to plant more and more trees. I saw children colouring the educational packs we were going to create. I saw children telling their parents to fly Emirates because it would save the world.
I had a vision, but I used logic and not the heart to try and sell the ideas. That was wrong, and I was never able to share my passion.
On the other hand, I was never talking to anyone who was interested in innovation. It is hard to sell change to those that are paid by results.
If I was CEO of any reasonably sized organisation I would create a role called Director of Innovation. The role would not be in the reporting line. Anyone, from the shop floor upwards could approach them with any ideas that could fundamentally change the nature of the business. Traditional reporting lines inhibit those ideas getting upwards.
A Story of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum
This may be apocryphal, but it says something about Dubai. In the very early days when Dubai was little more than a few developments off the road to Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed is supposed to have driven out into the desert with other leaders.
The 4x4s stopped and Sheikh Mohammed addressed the group. ‘What do you see,’ he said pointing into the distance. There were puzzled faces and finally someone answered with the obvious.
‘Sands and dunes,’ he said.
Sheikh Mohammed shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I see great tower blocks, houses and shops, factories, roads and people.’ He stopped and looked at his fellow leaders. ‘Now, let’s get on and build it.’
If only, if only I had managed to pitch to Sheikh Mohammed. I wouldn’t be rich, but I would be hugely satisfied that in my own small way I had changed the world for the better.