The single event that gave my business the direction it was lacking
Sometimes in business you have to make important decisions based as much on gut feel and belief as you do on the logic that surrounds the circumstance. In my own experience, and working across 50+ industries, it is when instinct meets instruction and goals interact with guidance, that great things begin to happen in a business.
I can pinpoint the single event which gave my first business the direction it was lacking, but at the time I didn’t have any way of knowing that. Here’s my story that I hope you can learn some lessons from, I certainly did!
April 1991. Where entrepreneur and opportunity began to make sense
Whilst in full time employment working at Softshop, I met a guy from DTK, a Chinese company based in London, who could get us a better deal on computer stock than the people they were previously using. For some strange reason the owner (my boss) didn’t want to deal with him directly so I started importing them myself and selling them on to Softshop (even though I worked for him – go figure). He even paid me in advance for the stock. So by the time I set up my own business – SOLFAN – in April 1991, DTK had already started to see me as quite a significant reseller! For the first few months, I simply started talking to all of the people I had built personal rapport and trust with over the years. They wanted solutions from someone who they knew would understand and care about their needs – and that is what I did.
One of the earliest deals that I got involved in at SOLFAN, came through a contact that I had made with some university students. During the summer holidays I employed a couple of university students who were associated with AIESEC, an international educational organisation. This influential group would gather together the top achievers and upcoming brilliant young minds from all over the world, and bring them together to discuss global issues. As well as the brightest people coming through the educational systems of the world, its contributors included the French and British Prime Ministers, other major European leaders and the President of the United States. In 1993 AIESEC’s annual conference was being held in Brighton, so it was also attracting major coverage across all of the UK’s national press.
It was just after the first Gulf War and the events surrounding the conflict were still very high on everyone’s agenda – so that was due to be a major topic of discussion. Many of the students were being asked to write up the details of the symposium, particularly the Middle East conflict agenda, and needed computers to facilitate this. Without really knowing where it would lead, I suggested to the two students working for me that I might be able to provide them with some hardware – to be honest it was little more than an offhand comment at the time – but they didn’t hear it that way.
So at one of their regional meetings, when I was introduced to the president of AIESEC UK, who was organising the forthcoming international event, I got a bit of a shock. Before I knew it I was being treated like a hero and the saviour of the whole event because I was going to get these computers for them. Of course then I had to deliver, but my ‘just started up a new business’ budget didn’t really stretch to giving away loads of very expensive equipment that I didn’t even have.
So I went to DTK and offered them the opportunity to be a joint sponsor of the event with me in return for the computers I needed. They jumped at the chance to get some high profile representation in the UK market and we were off. Buoyed by the success (in truth it was a just a phone call – but it felt massive) I went off to broker a few more sponsorship deals. I now had ‘hero’ status to live up to and I wasn’t going to let an opening like that slip. So I got Canon involved as the print sponsor and on the day I (just one-manband me) stood there alongside Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) and ICI as the main sponsor of the AEISEC conference that year. The deal led to a front page profile in The Times newspaper and inclusion in the computer equipment supplies catalogues for all of the universities throughout the UK.
So from then through to 1996 my business grew rapidly, initially as an IT supplier in the educational arena and then branching out into the businesses sector – particularly in the motor trade. All the time we were focused on the principles of understanding a customer’s need and then fulfilling it in a profitable way.