Look around you. At that person sitting over there. At that book on the table. At the money in your wallet or handbag. Look around, because at this very moment, there may be a valuable opportunity (perhaps even a life-changing one) swimming around nearby in the Brownian Motion of your existence. Look around – and maybe even risk reaching out.
So it was back in 2011, when Charles Vallance and I were working together as part of a Hiscox company management ‘Away Day’ for that insurance brand – a brand which, as it happened, was named after its founder, and which would, in due course, have added significance for us. Late in the day, and later still into a bottle of modest Soave, the discussion between the two of us chanced upon whether there might be a common and interesting characteristic that marks out eponymously named brands – such as Hiscox, and in the same category, Boden clothing, Sainsbury’s supermarkets, Laithwaite’s wines, Paul Smith’s fashions, et al – and distinguishes them from ones named after fruits or baby noises or South American rivers. We wondered if there was a book in the idea – and, as of that moment, we decided to seize on the opportunity to find out. Back in my room, I registered two domains.
Eighteen months later, we have just published The Branded Gentry – How a New Era of Entrepreneurs Made Their Names. Following the original thought, it is the story of the successes of thirteen eponymous entrepreneurs (a baker’s dozen, culminating in baker Jonathan Warburton), and attempts to identify the rationale in, and consequence of, them putting their names over their doors. Included in the thirteen is, quite naturally, Robert Hiscox, an extraordinary character who having given his life over to the insurance industry still goes out of his way to face risk and challenge – by hunting wild buffalo and riding powerful motorcycles. ‘I know the odds,’ he says, ‘and if you do, you can decide if a risk is worth taking.’
Risk featured a lot in our interviews. Risk and its bedfellow, opportunity. For more than anything else, our thirteen subjects – in their different ways – could sense a raindrop of opportunity when it touched their face, and didn’t interrogate it so much that it evaporated back into thin air. Hiscox had ignored the safety-first advice of his consultants; Emma Bridgewater had to visit a supplier in Stoke-on-Trent and recognized a town full of potential; Tony Laithwaite decided on a whim to act on a wine idea; James Dyson with his engineering; Paul Smith in hospital after a near-fatal crash…. Lesser folk move along, fearful of risk, or lazy in effort, and complain about never having been given the chance. Not this lot.
In writing the book, we were determined to avoid producing just another business self-help manual. Instead, we tried to delve into the personalities of our subjects – what it was like actually visiting their offices, meeting them in person, listening to them talk. Perhaps it was because of this live-interviewing approach that our interviews generated so much practical wisdom – not only about entrepreneurial existence but even about living life itself. And perhaps because of this, it is next to impossible to pick out one overriding entrepreneurship theme. We learnt that entrepreneurial success is not like that; not defined by one factor; one criterion.
Yet the book came about by a moment of opportunity. So it is right that, in writing this summary – appropriately enough on the Hiscox small business blog – I contradict myself, and highlight the recognition of opportunity as being the single element that well and truly stood out as we journeyed from one subject to another.
Look around: the truth is that, wherever you are at this moment, there may well be chances and opportunities surrounding you, decaying by the second before they slip into the half-life of unfulfilled promise. John Hegarty put it this way: never be afraid of new or different or interesting things, because the more of them you try, the more will come back to you – a kind of Newtonian law of creativity. One day, each of our interviewees saw a particle of opportunity, stuck their entrepreneurial neck out, and waited for the consequence. Look around you. Now….