Here is how I got started in business and also how I grew my company form a two-bedroom apartment into a multi-million dollar global concern.
I am going to cover this at the grassroots level and that will set the scene and platform for future articles, that will delve into the detail and the specifics of exactly what you need to survive and profit in the uncertain and volatile world of business today.
Business in a living room
“Unit 37” XXX Road was my address for my first and real startup that was going to later make headlines and win me the coveted Sunday Times “Virgin Atlantic” Fast Track 100 fastest growing UK business awards for a record two years in a row — 2000 and 2001.
And I just have to add the prize of two Virgin Upper-Class return tickets to anywhere in the world where Virgin Atlantic flew to, which I put to good use.
Thank you, Mr. Branson!
You see, I had this “word” with the postman as we term them here in the UK or mail delivery service in the US and that was to explain why mail would come to my first-floor apartment in converted Victorian house in Bromley, which was a town that was part of Greater London and also the county of Kent in the UK.
I assumed and rightly or wrongly that he may look at the mail and think to himself that why is there the word “unit” before the address of what is nothing more than an apartment in this ordinary residential street in the town.
I had used the term to convey professionalism to my global clients who were the worlds leading telecommunications vendors at the time.
I originally wanted to call the company Bromley Telecom (BT), but my friend who was a key contract worker in the industry and also a former member of the French Foreign Legion informed me that I might have some “issues” with the abbreviation!
My friend was totally nuts, to say the least, and we had some great times going out and drinking in the bars of Bromley, but he also gave me a great insight into the world of telecommunications and the Foreign Legion at the same time, whilst introducing my cat Chester, to the benefits of the great French drink of pastis!
We were consuming a little of the stuff after returning from the traditional London night out, which consists of having a few pints of beer followed by an Indian meal — in reality about ten pints of beer and a fiercely hot Indian curry each and then settling down to a little after-dinner drink as my friend was staying with me as he was on leave from a contract in Germany.
Poor old Chester just happened to be passing when my friend dropped his drink, which was flavoured with blackcurrant juice and this lovely black and white cat now had a slight tinge to his pure white marking!
Still, he survived and in my opinion, quite enjoyed the experience as he was firmly attached to my friend for the rest of the evening and apparently followed him to bed looking for a little more of his new-found favourite after-dinner libation.
So my business start-up has some history behind it and after the installation of what was then a high tech device — a combined telephone and fax machine, with another telephone line to make outgoing calls, I was firmly in business.
Only I had a slight funding issue — in that I had none!
Business cash and no flow
“Don’t make a drama out of a crisis” is a spin on the traditional saying and I was not going to let a mere lack of cash get in the way of my latest entrepreneurial dream, as I now had the power of the French Foreign Legion and pastis behind me in my latest business venture.
I negotiated with my main creditors — my bank who had lent me the money to buy the apartment and my electricity supplier (who was demanding payment and threatening to cut off my supply — outrageous!) and bought myself enough time to live, whilst I started to go out and get some clients.
My last business had failed due to a complete lack of business understanding, feuding partners and a recession, so this time I needed to do things properly and with no education — formal or business and a failed business behind me, you could easily see how I was an attractive proposition for any investor, so I decided to use the available resources at hand, which was my credit card limit of £5000!
I was in business!
Now the first thing I had to overcome was the daily commute to my office — a walk of about 3 meters from my bedroom to my “office” which was my converted dining room and you have to realize that this was actually a problem.
When you are working in the traditional sense, it is easy to get into the habit of getting up, dressed and traveling to your office, but when you don’t have to do those tasks it is easy to get lazy…and I did.
On Monday mornings, there was a great Greek cooking program on satellite television and the lure of spending my limited reserves of cash on octopus and red wine to cook a delicious meal, overpowered my desires to pick up the phone and call world-leading telecommunication companies and this was the pattern for a while — simply because I was running away from reality.
It’s funny how you will always convince yourself that “tomorrow I will change,” whether it will be to embark on a new diet, stop a wrong behaviour or in my case, start a business and I was no exception.
Somehow and I don’t know exactly how something inside kicks in and you take action.
To make matters worse, I had a business partner at the time and he was a casualty of the last business like myself and he was living with me during the week to work in our “office” and traveling back to his family at weekends.
He was putting in more than his share of the work, while I struggled with my motivational issues and to be fair, he was unperturbed by it all and simply got to work.
Between us, we had managed to get face-time with senior executives of the worlds leading telecommunications companies to sell our services and all from a converted dining room in a South London first floor apartment.
The trouble was that this “success” came with a cost — my limited budget (credit card) was rapidly running out and now I had to finance an overseas trip to see the clients I had talked my way into, without really thinking of the financial consequences.
The flight and accommodation were going to smash my credit limit into oblivion and then I had to pay for meals etc.
I now had to put my sales skills into action and convince my credit card company to increase my limit, which they agreed to do and also my bank, to allow me to miss the next two mortgage payments, which they reluctantly agreed to do and my electricity and gas company to suspend their payments which they did not agree to do in order to fund my trip.
I took my chances with the electricity and gas companies and simply didn’t pay them, which was not a good idea because they were going to cut off my supply, but I had gambled (I never usually gamble by the way unless I am on vacation and for fun) on being able to pay those bills with the revenue we would bring in over the next three months.
We had another contract in the mix as well as my international meeting, so in my optimistic and simplistic way, we were already in business.
Growing business revenues
Within those three months, the revenues slowly trickled in and now we were really in business as we had progressed from an idea to real cash…and we never looked back.
I had also gotten over my love of Greek cooking programs and the repeats of Dallas (little did I know at that time I would one day be living there and visiting the set of the T.V. program) and other T.V. classics to get myself firmly into “work mode” and drive myself harder than I could ever have imagined.
I eventually moved my converted dining room and into an office, then another and another until I settled into our new “headquarters” which was still in the same town and not far from where I was still living.
By now, the business had taken off and I was traveling all over Europe, meeting the demands of the companies who were in desperate need of people to grow the mobile network infrastructure that was about to be de-regulated so that there would be no single country operator that controlled fixed or mobile communications — it would be opened up to competition and that meant we were firmly in a market boom or a bull market.
Bull markets are great, but remember that if you are in one, then everyone else is in it too and the telecommunications market was no different — there were tons of new startups that were incorporated every day and each one wanted to take your lunch…as well as your breakfast and dinner!
The competition was fierce and most of that competition was cost-driven.
Now remember we are in a bull market, so prices were being driven up, but for new entrants to the market, their quickest “win” was to offer the same services at a cheaper price…and it was, of course, a dream, to the companies on the receiving end of the service!
I had done my homework and the pricing we offered was fair and gave us a nice return, so I wasn’t going to discount just to keep pace — I had to maintain my stance and that could only be done through “evangelizing and educating” — the two “Es.”
Firstly, I would like you to understand the “big picture” of my thinking and that was to deliver something “new” to my industry that would see salespeople call the hell out of companies to pester them into handing over job vacancies, in the hope that those salespeople could fill them and earn a commission.
The industry was split into two categories — those looking for full-time or permanent work and the others like my friend who was in the Foreign Legion, who was committed to temporary or contract work.
He knew that the world would become dependent on a new type of worker — one that would work on-demand, anytime and anywhere.
A pro-active approach
As he had a military background, he was well used to traveling the world and living out of a suitcase — he was also intensely disciplined, technically skilled and not frightened of a challenge and this type of person was exactly what the industry needed.
Who was I to disagree?
I, therefore, planned my business around this philosophy but added the dimension of delivering a pro-active service — rather than phone companies and ask them to give me vacancies, which they would have given to any company who called (within some reason).
Let me explain that part for a minute:
In the mainstream world of recruiting, companies do not pay agencies (like mine) until the agent delivers the service — it is a true no risk model and what is termed in the industry as contingent recruiting.
At the top end of this scale, you have what is termed “Executive Search” or headhunting and this is usually reserved for senior executives — companies using this service will pay a fee upfront.
I have already talked about contract or temporary recruiting and that is where I wanted to focus.
Enter the “virtual workforce”
“A highly-skilled, specialist workforce that is available at your demand, anytime, anywhere”
Customers loved it and that was my core message and one I was now going to evangelize!
I had two parts to my “success philosophy” — one was to specialize and the other was to make sure that I would personally visit the companies that I was looking to do business with — I would be there as the owner, the chairman, CEO and the person who could sort out any problems and who was available 24/7, 365 days of the year.
Customers double loved it!
Now let me define a customer:
Most of my competitors viewed the customer as someone who was going to give them business and who could “sign off” the orders and quite rightly so.
But I didn’t want to play in that space — I wanted to get far above the competition and talk to the executives they would never dream of talking to and largely because they were scared to.
I played on the fears of my competitors and even if they overcome those fears, then what would they actually say to the CEO of the company, if they could even reach them and I made sure that through deep and specialist research and a thirst for general knowledge, I would be able to converse at that level and at least hold my own.
Getting to the C-suite/Executive Leadership level was easy…at least for me because I was born to sell!
I would simply call up the executive assistants of the people concerned and ask them to review a proposal I would like to put forward to their boss and give me their opinion.
How simple is that?
It still amazes me to this day as to how many people complicate the sales and selling process.
My pet hate is the sales trainers who make a living out of telling people what they already know.
The art of sales in business
In my opinion, we are all born with the ability to sell — we learn it as children when we will convince our parents to give us that ice-cream cone just before dinner and use every tactic in the book to do so.
Children have a sense of instinct that us adults seem to lose and then suddenly “find it again” and then sell it back to us.
Instinct, imagination, fearlessness, determination, and passion come naturally to children, so why do we as adults struggle with this…and especially salespeople.
There is a shortage of good, solid and reliable salespeople and that is because I haven’t been able to get my hands on those who could make it!
I am half-joking here because I really mean it, but also know that it is an impossible task because most will never listen.
But I have trained hundreds of people in the art of selling and from all walks of life — many who have gone on to become extremely successful from executives to global company leaders.
So I was able to evangelize everything I believed and from making that first call to the top executives of the company to meeting them and telling them my story and giving them the message.
Now here comes the “competition killer!”
I would ask each of these executives to get their usual contacts who deal with the seemingly small matter of finding specialist technology people who will help their companies grow to get the owners, chairmen and chief executives of my competitors to come out and meet them!
Customers triple loved it!
They didn’t even bother to follow up — at least as far as I know because that one statement was enough to convince them that I was a different animal… and my company was a reflection of me.
So, my dear readers and successful salespeople…if you want an example of a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) then there it is!
I would continue to do this and around the globe — I don’t think I had one “pushback” to the approach save for one example when I visited a board director of a well-know telecommunications vendor, who say me for over an hour and then gave me the global contacts for each of the regions.
I approached one and he told me firmly that my meeting with his boss “cut no ice with me,” and literally shut the door in my face.
Well. I could not resist a challenge and informed him that I found his attitude unwelcome and unnecessary and if he had an issue with his boss, then he should take it up with him and that if he was not careful, I would show up at the annual general meeting of the company (I was a shareholder) and name him personally as an obstructive individual with regard to the success of the company and its shareholders.
He looked at me in disbelief, but then quietened down — I will add that over a thirty-five year entrepreneurial career, it is only the second time I have had to revert to such measures.
the first time was when I cold-called a company and the guy told me in no uncertain terms “where to go” and I called back and asked him what had gone on and he did the same.
On the third call (I am resilient), I told him that I was a shareholder (which I was) and I would do the same as I outlined to my telecommunications company executive.
I do like to do business with companies that I invest in and you should too because there is a vested interest — I help them and in turn, they help my investment as well as their own. Many employees also have a vested interest in their companies so they should look objectively at other companies and people who can help them succeed.
You don’t have to invest a fortune and I started my fund with a couple of hundred U.K. pounds!
I was never an academic in the traditional sense, although today I can hold my own in conversations relating to many subjects, that knowledge was amassed way after I left school and college.
The other thing I loved was research — no matter what the subject, but provided I was interested in it!
And I would research it relentlessly — doing business in different countries really excited me and I loved learning about the different cultures and particularly the food.
I am a passionate cook among other things and I cannot help myself in trying to re-create recipes that I have sampled from my travels around the globe.
I can see myself writing a book and doing some cooking videos at some point, relating to my travels and doing business around the globe and the food that I loved during the process.
It also gave me a great talking point to discuss with my customers, potential or otherwise as who does not like to talk about food?
It was a double win for me!
What I didn’t realize, however, was that the industry was slowly sliding into a deep recession and having survived one before, I was as ill-prepared to face the second one as I was oblivious to the first.
We were experiencing a global boom and common sense tells even the most amateur of economists that a “bust” must follow and I hadn’t even seen the signs, let alone investigated them!
Over the years, I developed a strong business model that saw me take my turnover from zero to around $65m and I have learned some serious business lessons along the way.
Let me also explain to you that at the time, I was earning serious amounts of money and enjoying the trappings of success — a Ferrari, Mercedes and a lovely house in the beautiful Kent countryside.
I’m only sharing this to put things into perspective because I came from a very ordinary background and I am totally self-made.
My parents were divorced when I was 7 and I was raised by my Welsh Mother and Grandparents and I live in Wales today, as I am passionate about the place!
The Internet had taken off and the whole world was Internet-focused.
My company had contributed to the development of the Internet by building the transmission infrastructure that enabled faster communications, although the mobile Internet was just a dream at the time.
Unfortunately, the whole world was driven by the belief that you could be a dot.com millionaire and a crash was well on the way.
In 2001, I had signed a global deal with a major telecommunications vendor and it was the product of 6 years hard and solid work.
But just after signing the deal, the market crashed and that same company, along with the others was to see it’s workforce reduce by around fifty percent.
By comparison, we were minnows and on top of that, we were too slow to react.
Ultimately I had to lose over fifty percent of my own staff and this was a really difficult task.
Many people took the attitude that I had nice cars and a nice house so I will be OK, but they totally miss the point — I had taken the risks to start the business in the first place, had taken a lot more to expand it, create the jobs and now had to find a way to keep it afloat.
And I was not alone — many of my competitors were feeling the same pain and it’s funny how in times of adversity, we come together and try to work out solutions, dropping our egos and simply going back to being who we were before we had such success.
I sold my Ferrari at a loss, but as one of my friends said to me — at least I had the pleasure of driving it, which I did and now I had to put back a serious amount of my own cash back into the business to satisfy the bank that was financing me.
This is the side of business that employees don’t see, but from being totally financially secure, I now had to put a great deal of my wealth on the line…if I wanted to continue and some people told me to “hang up the gloves” there and then and sit back and enjoy life, which I could have done.
But that is just not my style and I vowed to fight on and win the battle.
Ultimately, it was a severe blow that took me over ten years to get on top of…and it saw me change the focus of my salesmanship and living a globetrotting life selling to the worlds leading executives working for the worlds leading companies, to selling to the bank and my creditors.
Business in the USA
I moved to Dallas, Texas in 2005 and spent ten years living there, whilst also starting three new companies and having another aspect of my life change it altogether!
I had my first child…well, of course, not literally!
Having my first child changed everything for me and at that moment, I lost all of my thoughts concerning the struggle for my business, it’s future success or development and now that child was to be my first and only focus.
It is probably the fact that I had a relatively unhappy childhood, that I was determined to make sure that my daughter would not have the same and that is why I re-directed the drive in me from my business to my child and when I had two more children, it further cemented it.
I am an entrepreneur at heart and I will never retire for sure, but some things in life change you and it is if you are powerless to stop that change.
I had to return from Dallas suddenly because my Mother was taken ill and that meant the family came back with me and now thoroughly enjoy their life in Wales.
My daughter, who was actually born in the year before we left for Dallas had the toughest challenge as she was about to start what is equivalent to secondary school in the U.S. She has adapted and is making a pursuing a classical singing career, attending the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama on Saturdays to ultimately study there when she leaves college.
My two sons were born in Dallas and they are pursuing a professional football career and currently are in the development program for Cardiff City.
Now I can see the Franklin entrepreneurial spirit in all of my children and that brings me to the next point…
I love coaching and mentoring –– its something I have done naturally throughout my life and now something I want to pursue full-time.
I know it sounds “cheesy,” but I genuinely want to give something back as I had very little help when I started my business in the early days.
Career coaching my children in the pursuit of their dreams is a godsend to me and I come from a musical and a sports background — I am a classical pianist, drummer, and a former Martial Artist and Olympic Weightlifter!
In reality, I simply “connect the dots” and can use each of my life experiences to help and inspire others, which is exactly what I want to do today.
So that was how I got started in business and how I sold my services to some of the leading companies in the world and I can help you do the same, as well as battle through some of life’s inexplicable and toughest challenges!
- Neil Franklin is an award-wining entrepreneur. He provides coaching and mentoring for startups and entrepreneurs who need guidance to build thriving businesses.