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Venturing into the dragon’s den

11 July 2014

The experience of others is vital when starting up a new business, says Simon Parke

LIFE's arrival is sometimes unexpected. And, to prove this deep truth, at the age of 56 I am about to become a CEO of a company.

With an eye-wateringly low knowledge base - and a few trusted colleagues - I am setting up a limited company; and, with every step, I learn. The Mind Clinic, which takes active listening into businesses and schools, started as two friends having an adventure.

But having travelled this far on passion, good will, and charm (that was my friend's department), we are finding that we now have to organise ourselves; and that, in the real world, companies do not relate to adventures, they relate to other companies. So here we are, becoming one.

Becoming a company is surprisingly easy. "You can do it in a couple of hours," one accountant told me. But, like painting the front room, it is all in the preparation. Many are the stories of friends' starting out in business together, agreeing about everything, only to fall out along the way, and then finding themselves trapped in a nightmare partnership.

"Michael and I used to be friends," one CEO of a successful company said. "So we thought 50/50 ownership was sensible. But, after a few years, we fell out; he wanted us to go in a different direction, and now he does nothing, really, just takes half the profits. The only answer is to go to court, but who wants that?"

There is much for us to learn, and we have been helped by kind businesspeople who have given their time free to help get us going. But just because they are free does not mean that they are polite. Indeed, the past few weeks have been like one continuous episode of Dragon's Den, with me as the hapless entrepreneur who realises, early in the pitch, that it is not quite as watertight as imagined - the phrase "hauled over the coals" comes to mind.

We had wondered about becoming a charity, but were concerned by some of the stories we had heard: "Become a charity, and it's the trustees who will run it, not you. I'm being murdered by my trustees at the moment, as they fight over their various agendas."

This was not a lone voice, and, because we wanted to make our own decisions about our direction, we decided to go down the company route. Of course, we'll enjoy the wisdom and business nous of some fine non-executive directors, variously skilled; they will be crucial to our story . . . but they won't be taking the decisions.

We have also talked about being a "not for profit" company, but, as our dragons have pointed out, it is a ridiculous phrase. Every company has to make a profit; it is what you do with the profit that makes the difference. "You've got to find your missionary/mercenary balance," as one of them told us.

So, from now on, no careless condemnation of the financial practices of others; I must mind my own business.


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