After returning to the United Kingdom, I got involved in the early days of barcoding and soon started my own business selling artwork used for printing barcodes on products. The business expanded, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, I set up Joint Ventures in five former Eastern Bloc countries. They are still great success stories in their own right.
I recently married my new wife, Lisa. I have a daughter, Jessica, that we adopted from Romania. We all live in London.
Raise the Bar, Change the Game is my first book. My passion is mentoring young people to start and grow their own businesses so I have turned it into an online course.
I always wanted to start my own company, but I had no idea what that company might be. In fact, at eighteen years old, I had no special interests, although I did have A-level qualifications in French, German, and Italian. So, I took a vocational guidance course, which consisted of multiple-choice questions that were analyzed by a computer. As it turned out, my aptitudes were maths, sales, business activities, and accounts. Other interests included administration and any occupation dependent upon persuasion, such as sales or politics. I also scored above average in writing. The course included an interview with a consultant, who highlighted my most likely path to greatness. He told me to steer away from farming and suggested I might enjoy law or possibly management.
Although the results weren’t really decisive as far as my direction was concerned, they gave me self-confidence. They showed me how I could pursue the best likely outcomes and unveiled my potential talent, which had, up to that point, remained hid- den. A good friend of mine had also taken the course, and the consultant recommended that he go into the film industry. He got a job with Walt Disney and thrived, which confirmed the credibility of the tests.
In the meantime, my parents sent me off to Paris to work for a friend in the soundproofing business as an apprentice. I could hardly call it work. I spent ten hours a day making tea and photocopies, so I didn’t learn much in terms of business. I did, however, hone my French language skills—in which I am still fluent—and I studied marketing at the Sorbonne for three weeks, which was quite productive.
And I had a ball in Paris! I was dating an American girl, and one day she suggested something that only the young would ever consider.
“Let’s go to Place Pigalle tonight and dress Brian as a prostitute,” Bridget said to our group of friends. “He would look great in my dress, and we could have fun making him up!’
“You can’t be serious!” I said. “A prostitute has to wear stiletto heels, and there’s no way I’ll do that. I would feel like an absolute idiot.”
“Come on. Please?” her friend Jane said. “It will be such fun!” So, I capitulated.
They made me up with garish makeup, and I wore Bridget’s provocative clothes, lips daubed with thick red lipstick, and feet clad in her high heels.
Off we drove to Place Pigalle, the center of nightlife in Paris—and where most “ladies of the night” hung out.
They dropped me off opposite a shady doorway outside a small block of apartments that could well belong to one of those ladies. I stumbled out of the car and tottered over to the doorway, making a dive for the wall to stop myself from falling over. My friends drove away, convulsing in hysterics, and took up a vantage point on the opposite side of the street. I stood in the doorway, adopted what I hoped was a suggestive pose, and waited to see what happened.
Nothing happened for half an hour until a large man with a moustache and beret sidled up to me and asked in French:
“Combien la nuit, chérie?” What do you charge for the night?
What on earth was I to do? I was cornered; so, being a quick thinker, I said to him:
“Chéri, let me go and ask my boss how much to charge you—maybe get a special rate for you, hein? Go to the end of the street, and I will have an answer for you when you get back.”
To my huge relief, he bought this and turned away and started walking.
The moment he got some distance away, I made a fast exit and disappeared around the corner, where my friends picked me up. I escaped!
When I returned to London from Paris, my mother decided that my career would be in her father’s brokerage firm. Another partner’s son had already joined the firm, and she worried that he might inherit it rather than me. They took me on, and I learned the business—or at least I tried.
One day four years later, the senior partner called me into his office and said, “Brian you’ve been here four years. It’s quite clear that you don’t always manage to get the best deals on the floor, as you lack the ability to build relationships in the market. It might be best if you found another career path because you don’t seem very suited to this one! Your grandfather is sad that the stock market doesn’t seem to be the right fit for you.”
In other words, I got fired—from my own grandfather’s business! Mother was not pleased, and I was so ashamed.
So, what was next for the intrepid entrepreneur? I thought I might try my hand at commerce, since institutions hadn’t seemed to work out. After all, the vocational guidance course had recommended that I work for a large commercial firm.
My father ran an haute couture dress business in a shop in Knightsbridge, the fashionable part of London, but his business didn’t interest me. However, he had many business connections and arranged an interview with the overseas director at Wiggins Teape, one of the more famous paper manufacturers. They employed 22,000 people across forty-two countries, and they agreed to take me on for a two-year training program with the intent that I would be posted to one of their locations overseas. Would it be a plum spot like Australia, or would it be a dump like Lagos? I was fortunate; I was assigned to South Africa, where the company was called Alex Pirie & Sons. I made my way there in 1970, on a British Airways DC 10 at the tender age of twenty-four. I couldn’t help but make fabulous friends and live the life of Riley. I had servants, a swimming pool, and plenty of golf. And I had a great time at work. My first job was as a tea boy—definitely the bottom rung of the ladder—which I’m happy to say didn’t last too long. Soon, I became a salesman and covered the whole of South Africa, a vast country. I drove tens of thousands of kilometers in various Ford Cortinas over the years, selling high-quality papers.
We made a paper called Readaspeed that had a very smooth surface coating and could pass through the IBM 1275, a high-speed sorting machine. It read printed numbers on utility bills with a cathode ray tube similar to the tube in a TV. As a result of this exposure, I became very interested in computers and friendly with the buyer at IBM, who bought tons of the paper.
We soon added carbonless copying paper to our portfolio of products, which eliminated the need for messy carbon paper. I successfully targeted continuous business forms manufacturers which, up until that point, had to put reels of carbon paper between the forms they printed that fed through the high-speed computer printers of that time.
As a successful salesman, they next sent me to our label printing division in Cape Town, where I met my gorgeous soon-to-be-wife, Liz Bruce-Brown from Durban. This is where we printed the wine of origin seal, a statutory label that authenticated wine. This necessitated multiple visits to all the wine estates to discuss their statutory needs, and I thought I had the best job in the world!
After a year or so, I went back to Johannesburg to be marketing manager for the fine papers division; we sold high-quality printing and writing papers like Conqueror, the best-known brand. It was at one of my promotional events that I got fired for a second time.
It happened at the annual advertising awards competition, which Alex Pirie & Sons had entered to promote one of their brands of fine papers. Our entry included a rather glamorous young lady—a colleague from our Cape Town office. I hired a local composer to write some music and got a dance professional to teach her a routine. My idea was for her to appear on stage wrapped in the promoted paper from head to toe, wearing nothing underneath. When she finished the dance routine, she let some of the paper slip, exposing strategic parts of her anatomy.
You can imagine what happened in a theater full of male advertising executives! We won first prize.
And I got fired.
My boss, the marketing director, called me in the next morning. I thought he was going to congratulate me.
“Brian,” he said, “I know you won last night, but it was in very bad taste. Alex Pirie cannot be associated with nudity on stage and such a tasteless piece of work. I think it appropriate for you to move on. Maybe it’s time for you to return to England and pursue a career there.”
This was a huge shock to me. I had expected a heap of praise, not the firing squad.
FINDING MY WAY
It was time to return to England. I applied for two jobs, one at an insurance company in London and the other at Spicer Cowan, a paper merchant owned by Reed International that was even big- ger than Wiggins Teape. Both companies offered me the same salary, and I had to decide which one to take. Spicer Cowan won out because of my skills and experience in paper.
After a few months, I was asked to join a small division called national accounts, which was run by one of the directors. It was really just a fancy name for a small department that had only one product—printing paper from a small Portuguese mill. There were only three of us in the department, and we were tasked to sell tons of this stuff to national accounts.
It didn’t take long before I got bored being a one-product pony, so I asked my boss if he would mind if I looked around for
It didn’t take long before I got bored being a one-product pony, so I asked my boss if he would mind if I looked around for something else to sell. He agreed. I wanted to visit the commercial departments of the various foreign embassies to identify countries that had paper mills that weren’t yet represented in the UK. After visiting seven such embassies with no luck, I got fed up. When the German consul gave me the same sad story—that they had no unrepresented German paper mills—I answered.
“OK,” I said, “I understand that there are no German paper mills without UK representation. Is there anything else you have on your books that you don’t know what to do with?”
“Yes,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. The consul went to a large drawer in the corner of the room and started rummaging through some papers. After a minute or two, he turned around and brandished a green-and-white brochure.
“This has been on my desk for a year. It’s from a company in Augsburg called Datronic, and I can’t find anyone who’s interested in it. What do you think?”
I looked at it and saw some barcodes highlighted within the text. It seemed this company manufactured pieces of film on which they plotted a barcode, which printers used for printing onto retail products. They called them Film Masters.
I later learned that the barcode had to be plotted onto the film with .005 mm accuracy to allow for any ink spread when the label was printed—which could interfere with the label’s scanability at the checkout. This required special equipment.
My interest was aroused. I connected a few dots: computers, paper, printing, barcodes—the connection was obvious.
“Yes,” I said, “I am very interested. Thank you very much.”
I left the embassy with the brochure and felt like I’d found something new we could sell. It made sense to promote these Film Masters to our current customers that already printed retail product labels. I hoped my boss would see the same potential.
He did, indeed, buy into my vision and gave me full permission to pursue the opportunity. I phoned Datronic that same day—there was no email back then—and said we would like to represent their company in the UK. They flew over the following week, and we were accepted as their UK agent. The next month they trained me for three days in Augsburg, Germany.
At that time, there were only five companies in the business, which meant we could make a big splash. Our price was the same as the competition’s, and because each product and product variable—as well as the boxes for multiple quantities of product—needed a unique barcode number, it was very profitable.
I captured 14 percent of the market share in year one through grit and hard work. I went to supermarkets and scoured the shelves to find products that didn’t have barcodes. Then I contacted those manufacturers to offer our services. Slowly but surely, I built a base of business.
It was 1979, only four years after the first store in the UK, Fine Fare in Spalding, had adopted scanning technology. They had determined that to make scanning economical, at least 80 percent of all products should have barcodes. The market was huge.
If you get fired, it’s not the end of the world. Just pick yourself up after a bit of self-analysis and move on. I believe that everything that happens is meant to be and is for the best—and how right I’ve been! If I hadn’t been fired from my grandfather’s firm, I wouldn’t have gone to South Africa and met my wife, Liz. If I hadn’t been fired from Alex Pirie and returned to England, I wouldn’t have gone into the barcoding industry.
It’s never too late. At this point, I was already thirty-five years old, and I had yet to discover what sort of company I wanted to start. I always knew I wanted to start my own company but never knew what I wanted to do. So, I kept following the opportunities until they led me to something that appealed to me.
You must recognize opportunity when it presents itself. Don’t make excuses and say that the timing is wrong or that you don’t have the money. Opportunities in life are few and far between, and you must grab each one as it comes. You won’t get another chance.
QUESTIONS FOR YOU:
Think of something dramatic that happened in your work life that knocked you back. How did you react? Did it shake your self-confidence for a short time? How did you pick yourself up? What did you learn from your mistakes? Can you think of anything positive that came from it?
Do you want to start your own company? Do you know what business you want to be in? What are you very passion- ate about?
Think of an opportunity that you missed. Why didn’t you seize it? Do you have any regrets? What could you have done differently?
2 BEGIN WITH A PLAN
So, you’re desperate to be your own boss, but how do you make that transition from employee to self-employed? You want to make a difference in the world, but how and where
do you start? If all the original ideas have been taken, how do you disrupt existing markets?
Why not borrow someone else’s idea and do what they do— but better? This leaves the playing field wide open and allows you to stretch your mind and imagination.
Start by taking a blank sheet of paper and writing down the things that you’re passionate about. You’ll have a better chance of being successful if you’re passionate about the subject because there will be many ups and downs and hard knocks that you’ll have to deal with over the years. Without passion and a strong belief in what you do, it’s easy to give up when the going gets tough.
At some point, you’ll probably present your idea to a friend, family member, or colleague who will pour cold water on it and say that it won’t work or that it’s been done before. These people give off negative vibes. They’re naysayers who’ve never built a successful company. Do NOT listen to them! Take to heart the immortal words of Sir Richard Branson: “Screw it; let’s do it!”
Belief in yourself and confidence are crucial. Ninety-five per-cent of people lack self-confidence, which means that only 5 percent have it. Self-confidence allows you to see the big picture and will motivate you to see things through and ignore the naysayers. You need a positive attitude.
Do not, however, confuse self-confidence with arrogance. Being arrogant is not a good characteristic.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Law of Attraction, which states that if you put out positive vibes, the universe will respond and send back positive things and people. The opposite is also true: negativity begets negativity, so beware!
Once you know what you’re passionate about, write down a BHAG—a big hairy audacious goal. This is a dream that describes what your business will look like in five years, ten years, and twenty years down the line. Use a blank sheet of paper to allow your mind to wander. You can achieve anything, so dream and dream big.
Sit down by yourself or with your team to do some Blue Ocean Strategy thinking using colored Post-it notes. Write down seven things you are passionate about and put the notes in a row across the top of a piece of flip-chart paper. Next, create new notes for the businesses you could start from these seven things.