Of all the lessons we give youngsters hoping to start their own business, a simple often overlooked quality is the importance of persistence. Success in business is not a straight line, and is invariably a messy pattern of ups and down. An aspiring entrepreneur needs to be able to navigate their way through the peaks and troughs.
Thirty years ago this week, I got my big break in business and remember it like yesterday. It was the opening of the new Terminal 4 at London's Heathrow airport on 12 April 1986. My company Travelex, against the odds, won the exclusive contract to be the first ever non-bank foreign exchange provider at Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world at that time. This was the culmination of a protracted battle over several months.
Looking back, it's a case study in persistence and resilience. The background is that the then owner of Heathrow, British Airports Authority (later BAA), was in government hands but was looking for ways to increase its non-regulated revenue, in the run up to an expected privatisation. Its strategic objective was to build up its retail revenue as part of this brave new world. My company, Travelex, which I had founded ten years earlier, was an expanding SME at the time. Having registered our interest in participating in the tender, I soon received a letter saying the list of companies invited to bid had been finalised and Travelex was not amongst them (I have kept a copy of this infamous rejection letter). My team and I were really disappointed. We had been shut out before the game had even begun. It was apparent that BAA had a preference to work with the large banks.
I called them up to remonstrate and persuaded them to give me another opportunity to make my case for Travelex to be allowed in to the tender. Again they started to say no and again I implored them to let us in. Eventually and reluctantly they agreed. We had been allowed on to the playing field but we were still the rank outsiders, the challengers against the big, established banks.
We worked round the clock to prepare as compelling a tender document as we could. In those days, before computers, we had to type our proposal and financial forecasts. We submitted our document just in time, and heard nothing more for weeks. Then suddenly I was called in to see BAA urgently. They went through various points for clarification, and then told me the amazing news that they were going to appoint us to operate foreign exchange at Heathrow's new Terminal 4. They reminded me of the risk I was taking, as this was the first time they had ever appointed anyone other than a clearing bank at any of their (then) seven airports.
Rather like a politician winning an election, the really hard work was about to start. We had to have everything ready for the opening in April 1986. We had three months to recruit 70 staff enabling us to open 20 cashier positions. This represented an almost doubling of staff, as we only had 40 employees in the whole company at the start of the process. We worked round the clock to ensure everything was ready.
When I look back on this seminal episode in my business career, it obviously gives me a lot of personal pride. Our small team managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Three decades on, what do I think are the key lessons for the entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow? First of all, as an entrepreneur, you have to show perseverance, tenacity and resilience. You must respond positively to setbacks, because they happen in the development of any business. This Travelex story shows that even if the face of rejection, there can be scope for a comeback. If you are passionate about something, you should not give up easily.
A second lesson is never to underestimate the importance of hard work. Winning new business involves a huge amount of slog, especially if you are starting something from scratch. The buck stops with you. Only in very unusual circumstances, does business success come quickly and easily. It invariably involves a committed group of people working towards a common cause and often through difficult times.
Finally, when opportunity comes, it may not be the ideal time, but you have to seize it. Entrepreneurs are often people who recognise an opportunity early, and go for it. After Travelex became the operator at Heathrow Terminal 4, we soon opened further bureaux de changes at other London terminals and then at JFK Airport in New York. By the time the business was sold in 2014, it was a world-leading operation and today it has a presence at 125 airports as well as many other locations around the world.
For Travelex to win the contract at Heathrow Terminal 4, we had to embody a spirit of enterprise. In the UK, we need to encourage more of this entrepreneurial activity. All things being equal, the more entrepreneurs a country has, the healthier will be its economy. I welcome the fact that more businesses than ever, over 600,000, were started in the UK last year.
It is not always easy for youngsters starting up their own business and I am immensely proud of the work done by the Prince's Trust, a charity which I chair, to help thousands of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds start their own business every year. In its first forty years, the Trust has helped 80,000 young people set up a business.
Such are the whims of commercial life, not all of them succeed. But the qualities of tenacity and determination will take you far. As Winston Churchill once put it succinctly: "Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." To be an entrepreneur, then, is to have the courage to operate with uncertainty, and to persevere in hard times, to work hard and to spot an opportunity.
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