Mike Southon’s Life Story

Went to Papplewick School in Ascot, where one of my contemporaries was Richard Curtis (whatever happened to him?) I then to Wellington College in Crowthorne, where Chris West was my best friend – we met in 1967, outside the headmaster’s study.

I had a relatively happy time, considering the unpleasant nature of British public school boarding in the 60s. My first housemaster was James Wort, who was definitely my first Mentor.

He was a very lovely man. His first words were “you should go down to work the theatre – you’ll enjoy it”. I’ve been in show business, one way or another the rest of my life – thanks James!

I then went to Imperial College to read Mechanical Engineering, but got thrown out after one year for having fun with my new friends, rather than going to lectures.

I then had a few lab-type positions, culminating in one of the best jobs I ever had, working for Tate & Lyle Research in Reading, turning sugar into detergent. I was particularly good at making washing powder….

About that time, Chris wangled me into an Oxford undergraduate Dixieland Jazz band called ‘The Oxcentrics’. Chris and I were never at the university itself, though Chris was at the Poly (now Oxford Brookes University) for a while.

Fronting The Oxcentrics was a complete hoot – we did dozens of May Balls and I got into all sorts of scrapes. I was the singer/compére.

You can find details of the Oxcentrics here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxcentrics

Chris and I also ran a mobile disco in the 70s called The Piglet Productions Roadshow with Mike Gould (who founded it) and Graham Michelli, another pal from school, whose school wear business I am currently helping.

Around 1977 all my pals were leaving Oxford and I felt it time for a change of career. Fortunately, my second Mentor, Dr Mike Inkson, suggested going to The University of Bradford to read Chemical Engineering and Management Economics.

I can highly recommend going to University at the age of 24 – you have much more idea on what you really want to do and are more focused. For example, this time I actually went to the lectures.

I decided to try my hand at acting, but lack of any genuine talent meant auditions for the university drama group were mostly unsuccessful. I formed a review company, which eventually contained local professionals, including Ian Bleasdale, who plays ‘Josh’ in Casualty.

We eventually toured a show called The Perils of Arnold Hardstaff every Fresher’s’ week for ten years.

It was while doing theatre shows that I met Mike Banahan and Andy Rutter, who were the same age as me, but by then were computer science lecturers at the university.

After a loss-making visit by the University Drama to the Edinburgh Fringe, Mike Banahan and I went to Edinburgh to see if we could do a deal at a central venue, by offering free technical support (sound and lighting) for all the shows in the venue. This was in exchange for a free rent in the main house for two slots, a lunchtime show and an evening show.

So, we went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1980 with another show I wrote called Delusions of Grandeur and performed at St Columba’s by the Castle. Mike was in charge of the technical production for all the shows in the venue and Andy Rutter drove the van and worked on many of the shows.

Our evening show was specifically timed to catch the outgoing crowd from the Tattoo, so we were sold out every night and made a tidy profit! In retrospect, this was my first foray into entrepreneurship, with the same people I was later to found a very successful computer services company.

I scraped a 2:2 at Bradford, and then started working in the construction industry, building oil refineries, or, more specifically, wandering around with a clip-board while skilled men did the actual work.

I eventually became site manager on a 150-person project, though it was rather like the upper-class twit 27-year-old officer nominally in charge of a squadron of soldiers, who actually listens to the 40-year-old Sergeant Major for the important stuff, like how not to get everyone killed.

The site had an excellent General Foreman; the only skills I had that he actually needed were the ability to read, write and add-up. He did the rest and his management style was very direct: fire someone the first thing in the morning to create the right attitude in the men. We didn’t have Human Resources in those days.

I’d probably still be there had not the bottom fallen out of the market and I was reassigned to selling scaffolding. I was utterly hopeless at this job, mainly due to my complete lack of sales training.

I went back to my university pub in Bradford, The Shearbridge. Mike Banahan told me that he and Andy had written a book about UNIX (UNIX the Book), and were doing freelance training for a company in Soho.

I managed to secure a sales job there and soon persuaded Mike Banahan to join. We would probably still be there had not another person joined, Pete Griffiths, the original Beermat Entrepreneur, who suggested we start our own company.

Pete Griffiths, Mike Banahan and I co-founded The Instruction Set in January 1984. Andy Rutter joined six months later and Pete’s brother Dave Griffiths, an alumnus from Goldman Sachs, six months after that. In retrospect, more by luck than judgment, this was an ideal team – a bit like The Beatles plus Brian Epstein.

Five years later we had 150 employees in the UK and USA (I co-founded an office in Boston with Rick Medlock), and a turnover of £7.5M.

We had no outside capital (sorry to any Venture Capitalists out there) – and the five 5 of us each had 20%. We were profitable every month of operation (except one) and cash-positive from month six.

Eventually, we got an offer we couldn’t refuse and sold the company in 1989 to Hoskyns (now Cap Gemini Ernst & Young).

If anyone out there is considering a trade sale, please ask me for advice. It was a very difficult time – as we say in the book, two weeks later I was depressed and wished I could give the money back. Well, sort of…

Over 25 years later, the Hoskyns/Instruction Set acquisition is now regarded as a model example, with many of our former employees still working there. Others are senior executives/partners in big companies, and some started businesses that ultimately were miuch more successful than The Instruction Set.

We often have reunions reunion and people fly over from the USA and Australia to be here, which made me very proud of the company I co-founded.

I wish I could take credit for the excellent people management which resulted in such warm nostalgia, but that was down to Pete and Dave. I was just out selling, which I finally learned how to do reasonably well.

Anyone who has executed a trade sale of their company soon learns the Golden Rule: “Money in itself does not make you happy…but it does make misery a lot more comfortable”.

We had a two-year earn-out, so I left in 1991. I retired, and then came back three months later, bored. It was clearly time to have fun, so I decided to play in another band.

Original clarinet player Oliver Weindling re-formed The Oxcentris, with Chris West on drums and myself as vocalist/front man. Oliver sourced some fabulous jazz players, mostly members of Loose Tubes, including Ashley Slater (Freakpower/Fat Boy Slim), Mark Lockhart, John Eacott, Mark Bassey, Robin Aspland, John Maul and occasionally Django Bates, Billy Jenkins and the Argüelles brothers.

We expanded the repertoire through swing, jump-jive to rock and roll and I realised my first love was sixties music, so I formed The Coffee Machine which swiftly migrated to ‘Mike Fab-Gere and the Permissive Society’.

I packed the band with top session musicians (e.g. people from Iron Maiden, Deep Purple and The Zombies), and for a few years from 1991 played every college in the country several times. The repertoire was rock classics: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, T-Rex, Bowie etc.

One of the best Entertainments Managers on the circuit was at University College London: Ricky Gervais. He was not at all like David Brent in those days, but even back then (1992) he had real star quality and was very popular with the students. I bumped into him in Hampstead many years later, and was delighted to see he still had the same partner from back then: the outstanding novelist Jane Fallon.

After that, I toured major regional theatres with a show called Freak Out!, which also starred David Bowie lookalike John Mainwaring from Jean Genie and often Marc Bolan lookalike Danielz from T-Rextasy.

When I was getting a bit fed up of touring, I began to listen seriously to requests from my chums for help with their start-ups.

Since then, I’ve worked on about 17 start-ups, some just helping out a mate for 6 months, others serious ventures that eventually went public (Micromuse and RiverSoft).

RiverSoft was a real experience – much of the book is based on what I learned there, especially from my then Mentor, Sir Campbell Fraser, who was our chairman.

The section in The Beermat Entrepreneur about Mentoring is based on him. Every bit of advice he’s ever given me has been excellent, including the decision to try and get the book published.

Some of the start-ups I’ve worked on are still going, while some have gone bust – I learned much more from the latter…

All the while I’d been a visiting lecturer at Cass Business School, and the talks gradually migrated from ‘Open Systems Technology’ to ‘My Horror Stories About Start-Ups’.

Another Mentor, Martin Rich at Cass, suggested I write a book, but I did the sensible thing and found a proper author, my old school chum Chris West, who in the interim had published travel and crime books, plus a stunning set of murder mysteries set in modern China, featuring ‘Inspector Wang’.

He turned my unstructured ramblings and weird life experiences into a methodology for turning a good idea in a pub to a great business: The Beermat Entrepreneur.

It’s published by Pearson and is available in all good bookstores and on-line from Amazon.co.uk in hardcopy and Kindle versions.

We’ve sold over 100,000 in the UK, are published in the local language in The Netherlands, Spain Japan, Russia, China, India, Thailand, Lithuania, Indonesia and Romania. We’re currently re-writing it, itself a fascinating process, as it will now include everything I’ve learned in the last 15 years.

The Boardroom Entrepreneur (about how to be entrepreneurial in a large organisation) was released in March 2005 and Sales on a Beermat in August 2005.

Chris then wrote Finance on a Beermat with finance experts Stephen King and Jeff Macklin, released in March 2006. Finally, Chris wrote Marketing on a Beermat based on his own knowledge and experience, and this was released in 2008.

Chris’ has since written many books, including a social history of the UK, based around stamps (a lifelong passion of his). It’s called First Class in the UK and A History of Britain in 36 Stamps in the USA.

His latest book is Eurovision! A History of Modern Europe Through the World’s Greatest Song Contest. It’s really, really good – I give it douze points! More info: www.chriswest.info

Today, I’m one of the most experienced entrepreneur mentors in the UK, having completed over 1,500 face-to-face mentoring sessions.

I speak at events all over the world, including material on the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs: The Beatles and Sir Richard Branson.

My Beatles credentials started with being a huge fan, then spending much time researching the band in Liverpool. This led me to The Casbah Coffee Club, where The Beatles played before The Cavern. There I met original Beatle Pete Best and his brother Roag, who is also Neil Aspinall’s son.

Neil was The Beatles’ Road Manager who later ran their company, Apple Corporation.

More details on Pete, Roag and the Casbah Coffee Club here: www.petebest.com

My Branson credentials stem from the five live interviews I have done with him over the last year: At his house in Oxfordshire, at the launch of The Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in Montego Bay, at the launch of his book Screw Business as Usual in London, in the O2 Indigo and, most memorably, in front of 3,000 people at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Liverpool.

I’ve also been using the material in The Boardroom Entrepreneur to help local authorities become profitable social enterprises. More information on that here: http://www.mikesouthon.com/entrepreneurship-in-local-authorities/

But it also seems like I’m making a return to entrepreneurship in theatre, a distant, though recurring echo of James Wort’s advice in 1967 and my first entrepreneurial venture, going to the Edinburgh fringe in 1980.

If you’ve got this far, and would like to know more about my latest adventures, please send me an e-mail: mike@mikesouthon.com

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