I always wanted to run my own venture, but the advice I was given was to start as an accountant or go into sales. Accountancy didn’t appeal so I did the latter. I did my training with a photocopying company for several years, which gave me a grounding in what sales is about: calling people up, handling rejection, the emotions, getting up off the floor and realising it’s a numbers game and the harder you work the luckier you get.
My first venture was in the early 1980s; I ran a company selling document management systems that was turning over around £500,000 at its peak. The product was sold in the US, and I took on distribution rights to sell it in the UK. I was starting to build up a very nice business, but when I reported back to the US and asked them when they were going to upgrade the software from DOS to Windows, they said: ‘We’re not’ – so they kind of trashed my first venture.
I carried it on for a year or so before I realised it was going to come to an end. The lesson there was you have to know when to cut your losses. While you’re running a business you need to give it 100 per cent effort but when it’s time to switch off you have to walk away.
Nose to the grindstone
After that I went back into full-time employment working for a software company. Going from running a company to having a boss was a challenge, because all of a sudden you’re not in control. Equally though, it was an opportunity to try and get back in the marketplace, find out what was going on in software while licking my wounds and trying to embrace other opportunities. But after a year the company was acquired, and because I was one of the last in I was one of the first out. I got together with a couple of other guys to start a company in a different space – promotional merchandising.
Things didn’t go well with my colleagues. I was doing all of the work, bringing in most of the sales and the partners were piggybacking off the value being generated by me. In the end the whole thing just didn’t smell right, the equal footing and trust wasn’t there. Afterwards I met up with an accounting friend of mine who said that typically, business partnerships of two equal partners last five years on average, whereas those with three last just 18 months.
In 1995 I set up Martex with a friend of my cousin. We were building what were then called business portals – effectively online trade directories with classification systems to find products. It was way ahead of its time; the internet was an unknown quantity. From 1995 to 2000, we were mainly missionaries preaching the benefits of internet and email at a time when their usage was not widespread at all.
After selling that for £16.5 million, I started again on a project in what is now called business social networking. The first iteration was a music-focused social community involving fans and musicians that predated MySpace and Facebook. The mistake was to become a record label at the same time. While we knew how to build communities online, the error was to try and be something we were not.
We ended up signing four artists, but we lost about £500,000. As well as not knowing the music industry, we were also clearly too early in the marketplace.
I had said, ‘If this works, great, but if it doesn’t we’ll revert to type’, which was the B2B space – so we went back into development mode and started from scratch. Now, my experiences have allowed me to reinvent Mvine as a big player in business social networking software and services with a team who have a 15-year heritage in building communities and growing relationships.