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Five minutes with an entrepreneur

posted 1 Jan 2013, 10:34 by Putney Basketball

The following interview was originally conducted by Hiscox PLC's small business marketing team. It was made available in an edited form on the Hiscox website under the title Five minutes with an entrepreneur : Jon Slinn in Dec 2012


Jon has been an entrepreneur since he sold sweets to his classmates in school. Rockshore, which he calls his first “substantial business”, develops real-time information systems for airports, railways and mobile phone companies. It has 50 staff and turnover of close to £3 million.

Why did you want to set up your own firm?

I have always wanted to build businesses. I sold homemade toffee at school, had a team washing cars when I was still in shorts and registered my first business in my first years at university. I then took a little too long (in my view) to go from the small stuff to a real business. I worked for eight years in technology and telecom firms, and when the US firm I had helped establish in Europe was sold to HP that’s when I knew I needed to really go for it. That led to me founding Rockshore. I was 29 and that was the real turning point for me.


Did you alter your business plan once you were in business?

Yes, though that’s always going to happen. Your business plan is a goal – it’s nothing more than that. If anyone gives you a business plan that’s 30 or 40 pages thick and full of projections for the first five years, you know they have no clue what it’s really like to start a business. The future is unknown and unknowable. All you can do is have a sensible goal that’s been thought out as far as possible then go for it.


What has been the biggest lesson you've learnt since becoming an entrepreneur?

There have been a few. Consumer websites have probably taught me the most about what I am good at as I keep trying to start them and failing. I realise now that they need huge backing to get to critical mass. I tried years ago with a ringtone site and more recently with a clipping service for Kindle and e-readers. Both were used all over the world, but neither of them was capable of generating enough revenue early on to support the engineering investment needed in the development of the websites, the running of the servers and the on-going support costs. I now understand why all the big consumer websites or more broadly internet and wireless services have burnt through hundreds of millions of dollars in their start-up phases. It’s a completely different approach from new businesses which are able to generate cash from day one and hence can be bootstrapped (built with little or no cash investment).


What's been your biggest mistake?

Misunderstanding what motivates people. It’s easy when you start something to think everyone has the same drivers as you. It’s not true and it hit me hard when I started to understand that what drives me is not necessarily what drives others. It can lead you to make some big errors on shares, pay and performance management in general.


What's been your biggest achievement?

Building Rockshore to where it is now. We never had any investment, never borrowed a penny and I started with a laptop and a phone. It’s a true bootstrap business, in the jargon, and it proved to me that I was capable of making it happen.


If you were made Prime Minister for a day what would you do to help small businesses?

Full National Insurance (NI) rebates for firms with turnover below £250,000. Charging start-up businesses to employ staff is a crushing cost and leads many to look for ways to avoid it. The government has gone a long way in this regard, with the NI holiday outside London and other efforts, but much more needs to be done. We need a situation where the first five hires a firm makes only cost their salary and where the administration (form filling) is reduced to a minimum. NI is a mess and it’s hugely expensive to fix, so there would need to be savings elsewhere to pay for it.

The other area of taxation where there needs to be a complete rethink is in the sale and purchase of digital goods. The tricks used by major Internet and technology firms to siphon digital sales through Ireland and Luxemburg are extremely damaging to UK Plc and the national tax base. The US is much more aggressive on this issue and we need to get a grip of it too. I can see options for a franchise tax or an alternative minimum turnover tax though none of them are without their own issues.

Also, I would get rid of employment tribunals for all but the most serious situations. Managers are petrified of the employment law and it badly affects productivity, I see this every day in many businesses. No one wants to fire people and they cost a fortune to hire! Every below-standard staff member who stays in their role because their managers are afraid to sack them not only damages their own future prospects – because the role is clearly not for them – but also undermines the work ethic and motivations of those around them.

But it’s also worth giving government some credit. The Companies Act implemented by the last government solved a lot of corporate governance issues. The corporation tax direction is clear and positive for business. HMRC and Companies House are making increasingly good use of the Internet to remove forms and join together processes. There is more to do, but this is generally a business-friendly country—the political consensus has been pro-enterprise since the late 1970s and the parties need to keep travelling in that direction.


Have the banks helped you grow your company?

They certainly have not hindered us, as we use their services every day and have managed to get some very good deals, like zero-fee banking. I don’t share the general view that all banks are evil. Some people seem to think that a bank must lend to them. That’s completely wrong. You need a proposition that makes them want to lend. After all, they need to make a return on their investment, just like you. But I will say that we have a weaker banking relationship than I would like with our main provider.


What's the best thing about running your own business?

Achieving something. I never have to sit there and think: “how do I get to Friday?” It’s an attitude that kills me, but which is particularly prevalent in big firms. Now, I never feel like that.


Entrepreneurship – is it nature or nurture?

Nature, but which can be enhanced with some nurture. It’s a total waste of time to try and ‘teach’ enterprise. You can give people an opportunity but you can’t teach them how to take it. No course in the world can teach how to pick up the phone and call someone with an idea… it’s just in you.

But, at the risk of completely contradicting what I’ve just said, I help out at my old uni [Bristol] with their enterprise course. The reason I am for it is that it’s trying all the time to help people follow their nature. As soon as it becomes a PowerPoint show on ‘How to be an entrepreneur’ I will pack it in.


What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Just go do it… now. Right now. What are you reading this for? Call someone. Sell something. Sorry… that’s all there is in it. Once you’re up and running you can read and learn and go to all the presentations you want, but nobody is going to make that first client call for you.

You have to be prepared to leave your comfort zone: you must have the guts to walk away from that corporate job with its pension, health plan and guaranteed salary. You are going to need to feel the fear and remember none of it really matters because one day none of it will matter… that much is certain in life.

If you can’t do that then stop worrying about it and excel in the corporate world. You can be an entrepreneur inside the biggest firms in the world. To do it alone as a true start-up is hard, often lonely and not for everyone. So be honest with yourself – can you live on £15K a year and eat baked beans all week?