There's nothing like the dawning of a new year to encourage latent entrepreneurs to throw off the drudgery of a nine-to-five and strike out on their own. If that's you, then congratulations! Not just from me, because I can assure you, you will have the gratitude of economists and politicians too. Right now, we need every entrepreneurial hand on deck, because, in case you hadn't noticed, there's a bit of a recession on.
Or is there?
It's easy to grumble ourselves into apathy. But tarring the entire economy with the same brush is short-sighted, foolish, and the preserve of political points-scorers. Entrepreneurs are allergic to staying in bed and there are always opportunities.
Let me give you just one example of a sector which is flourishing: the luxury market.
This week, Bentley, the luxury car marque, announced a whopping 37% rise in sales for 2011.
Across 2011, Surrey-born property developers, the Candy Brothers, successfully marketed the prestigious One Hyde Park development for extraordinary sums - and if you've still got cash in your pocket, there's a McLaren supercar showroom on the ground floor. Nick Candy, one half of the duo, is also the squeeze of Aussie actress/singer Holly Valance. Jealous, me? Pah!
Another pair of London's most stylish and reliable entrepreneurs are Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, regularly described as the most consummate professionals in the restaurant world. They chose the dismal fag-end of 2011 to launch the Delaunay; a high-budget sister for the Wolseley restaurant which nestles next door to the Ritz Hotel.
None of these businesses cater to Poundland customers. But none of these businesses is doing badly, either.
Even in the height of recession, there are going to be rich people. I am not saying that's fair. I am not saying that the social divide shouldn't be narrower. I am not saying that Russian oligarchs should bathe in champagne while ordinary people can't afford their mortgages. I am not engaging in social commentary, I am just observing the facts.
Rich people are more immune to recession than us mere mortals, which is nice. But they have one further characteristic which makes them the perfect target for a new business - even the smallest new business. They love service.
They want discretion. They want humility. They want total commitment. They want all the things that big companies do very badly, and which you, as a small startup, can do very well. They don't want to hold, or press one for sales, or speak to a different person each time. They want absolute one-to-one service, and they're prepared to pay for it.
That's rich pickings for the hard-working and committed entrepreneur. Back in April last year, I wrote this about a company called ACT Clean:
"For ACT Clean, instead of providing a budget cleaning service for smaller companies they targeted the top hotels and restaurants. They realised that the delivery requirements would be stringent, but if they got it right, the returns would be substantial.
"It is a great day when a small start-up attracts their first big-name client. For ACT Clean it was securing Gordon Ramsay Restaurants as a client. Television viewers will know he demands the highest standards in everything he does and does not suffer fools gladly.
Now, I have to say, I might have been over-generous to Gordon Ramsay - his star has certainly taken a few knocks from the foodie firmament recently! ACT Clean, however, goes from strength to strength, providing a consistently exceptional service to a top-end clientele (see the full article below).
So, if you're starting out this week on the new and exciting journey that is business ownership, you have plenty of options. There are many pitfalls; and the luxury market is only one suggestion amongst many. But don't assume that all avenues are closed. They're not. Good luck!
For the Financial Times Saturday 9th April
A Recipe For The Perfect Start-Up
When people ask me about the perfect start-up, I reminisce nostalgically about the company I co-founded in the 80s. This is ancient history in entrepreneurship terms, so it is always interesting to discover more recent start-ups who have followed the simple model we outlined in our book,The Beermat Entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurship always often starts with a few friends having a good idea in a pub. In our case it was some University chums who took a comedy show to the Edinburgh Fringe, and then later founded a computer services company.
For ACT Clean it was three employees of a cleaning company who played in a football team which also included one of their clients. The four of them saw a market opportunity and decided to start their own business.
There is always good money in delivering something which others find a chore. For us, rather than writing software, we provided training services for the better-established and more glamorous companies, computer vendors.
For ACT Clean, instead of providing a budget cleaning service for smaller companies they targeted the top hotels and restaurants. They realised that the delivery requirements would be stringent, but if they got it right, the returns would be substantial.
It is a great day when a small start-up attracts their first big-name client. For us it was a consultancy contract with X/Open, a consortium of the biggest computer manufacturers.
For ACT Clean it was securing Gordon Ramsay Restaurants as a client. Television viewers will know he demands the highest standards in everything he does and does not suffer fools gladly.
From then, the challenge is in growing a company is hiring, training and managing the best people. Delivering housekeeping services to a top hotel requires scrupulous quality control and a significant management overhead, in order to maintain the highest possible standards.
Discretion is key, and ACT Clean cannot publish details of some of their most high-profile customers. But their web site features logos and testimonials from some of London's top hotels and restaurants
Hiring good people is just the start; you also need to give them a clear career progression and an ever-improving quality of work. For us, it was moving from training and consultancy into bespoke software development for the computer manufacturers, giving our people the chance of working with some of the cleverest people in the industry.
Someone working for ACT Clean who has proved that he/she can deliver immaculately serviced rooms for five-star hotel clients, can now progress to their new domestic division, ACT Home.
This service is focused on the demanding and well-heeled purchasers of wharf apartments and luxury residences, which require a luxury housekeeping service. This is not just cleaning, but the same level of personal service, immaculate delivery and client discretion they receive at a top hotel.
The most basic metrics of success in any venture are the profit and loss accounts. We grew our company from zero to a £7.5M turnover in five years. ACT Clean have achieved 100% organic growth year on-year since they started in 2006.
A more important and human measure of success is staff loyalty. 20 years after we sold our company, I am deeply moved that our former employees still speak well of their experience.
ACT Clean employs people like Inga Gilpin, who arrived ten years ago from Latvia, unable to speak English but with a burning ambition to be a successful housekeeper. At the recent UK Housekeepers Association Event, Gilpin was proud to say she worked for the best and most prestigious cleaning company in the UK.
For a Beermat Entrepreneur, that is true perfection.
ACT Clean can be found at www.act-clean.com
ACT Home can be found at www.acthome.co.uk