Falling for entrepreneurs


Narda Shirley

I heard the story that Jo Malone used to be a beauty therapist working for private clients in London before her fragrance empire took off. Listening to Desert Island Discs, I was intrigued to discover that she had learned about cosmetics as a child going to work with her mother and later taught herself from books. In this case, an entrepreneur’s inspiration was forged from early life experiences rather than the yearnings of an executive at a big fragrance house to go it alone.

So I started thinking about the ways that entrepreneurs are inspired and whether there’s a particular profile of person who manages to launch the definitive challenger brand of their time. Let me define that a little bit better – I count Soho House, Green & Black’s, Sipsmith, Daylesford Organic, Firmdale Hotels, Moneysupermarket.com, Lastminute.com and Workspace among great challenger brands in that category.

When I think of all the entrepreneurs I have worked with, they do seem to fall into two camps: People who are industry or sector experts who start their own business to improve on an existing product or service (these are the SYC entrepreneurs – keep reading, all will become clear). And then there are the people who seem to just appear from nowhere with something so fresh and new that it redefines a category. I call these the NSYC people because you – never saw them coming. Of course technology, and more specifically the internet has massively increased the ranks of the NSYCs. The tech stuff is well documented. From Ariana Huffington to Jeff Bezos, I’m not going to give a second’s more thought in this blog to ‘digital disruptors’. As a group, the SYCs are generally much less feted by the media, but I’m willing to hazard that their overall success rate is much higher in aggregate.

Another way of thinking about this is whether people sit down and try very hard to invent a challenger brand, or whether the idea is etched into them by their daily experience of working in a company that just can’t or won’t step up. I think that there are many professional services businesses that fall into this latter category. From what we’ve seen of lawyers, management consultants, search firms and innovation teams, it’s very hard to truly innovate in the service sector without sacrificing margins, mainly because it’s people who deliver your brand experience. And if you want the best people in a competitive sector, you need to develop them, or be able to afford to pay market rates.

From a communications perspective, the NSYCs are a dream to PR because they satisfy our constant hunger for the next ‘new’. But let’s be honest, we Brits like a challenger brand, full stop. There’s something deeply attractive about the idea that an earnest entrepreneur is out there somewhere burning the midnight oil trying to create a much better customer experience. Perhaps it’s being cared about as customers rather than the incremental service gains that we really fall for.