Christian has launched several small businesses over the years, and for the first time reveals his top secrets in his tell-all book
I start with the idea that anything is possible and that I am just as capable of making that happen as anyone else, Christian Nellemann, Founder and Executive Chairman of XLN, tells me. I am an optimist and I am confident that if I put my mind to it and put the effort in and really work at it, I can make a success of something.
Christian Nellemann grew up in Kolding, a small town in Demark where being ‘rich’ wasn’t cool. It was more acceptable to show up in an old, used car than an eye-catching convertible. Christian was an active child and would wake up at the crack of dawn, always ready for the next adventure. His father owned a department store and a timber business in town, so he lived quite comfortably growing up. Christian’s father was always working hard in his business and taught him the importance of discipline, commitment ‘ and those early life lessons never left him.
Once he reached university, 22-year-old Christian decided to start a business selling wine by mail order. He ended up not gaining enough sales and decided to try selling T-shirts. That didn’t work out either, and he closed the business down. Christain had a go-getter attitude and always looked at the brighter side of things, so he decided to try again. This time, Christian wanted to sell perfumes door-to-door. His father’s friend owned a perfume business cloning famous scents such as Opium and Obsession, and the 22-year-old was inspired to do the same. During the last year of university, he flew to San Fransico to meet his father’s friend and learn the trade of perfum selling. At the age of 22, he launched ‘Scentura Creations Ltd’ and began selling the scents door-to-door.
The business became so successful that Christian opened up offices all over the UK and Europe, recruiting a team of 200 employees. The business initially did really well, Christian said. I recruited and trained a sales team and we started selling the perfumes in exactly the same way as I had been trained to sell them in San Francisco, by taking them door to door into businesses and selling them to the employees. As sales grew, I opened up offices all over the UK until I had a team of 200 salespeople, all working on commission only. Then I opened offices in Denmark, Germany, Austria, Holland, Italy and Greece.
However, the business was short-lived and Christian had to shut it down as operations cost increased. I was making a lot of money but after almost ten years the factors underlying the business started to change, Christian said. The overheads of opening new sales offices had risen but we couldn’t put the price of the perfume up because people would have stopped buying it. There was no longer the potential of making large amounts of money that there had been and it wouldn’t have been fair to keep on recruiting salespeople who worked on a commission-only basis if there wasn’t the opportunity for them to make lots of money. So, I shut the business down.
Christian was never one to throw in the towel just yet. He and his father decided to start selling office products via mail order which became very successful, but Christian didn’t think the business would scale to great levels. Even though the business was successful, he later sold his shares in it for £1 million. Later, Christian worked with an electricity company and was asked to help customers find better deals with their electric bills. He realised there was a gap in the market with SMEs, as many were looking to save money on their phone bills and electricity costs ‘ and his idea for XLN was born. In 2002, Christian launched XLN, a telecoms company that supplies small businesses with phone, fibre, broadband, Wi-Fi, data and card payment services that suit the needs and challenges that SMEs face.
However, Christian was faced with an immense problem at hand ‘ his business was growing too quickly. The biggest struggle was actually managing a business which was growing too fast. In the first year we got 800 customers, in the second year we got 8,000 new customers and in the third, we signed up 25,000 new customers, Christian explained. The company I had partnered with to provide customer service wasn’t willing to invest in more people or systems so the service levels we offered to our customers deteriorated. We simply didn’t have enough people to serve the growing number of customers we were signing up.
Christian decided to set up a customer service call centre in India, but it didn’t work out in the long term due to operational differences. He moved the call centre to Scotland and eventually decided to start his very own call centre in Sheffield. Since then, XLN has scaled to incredible heights. The award-winning firm is now worth over £250 million, with 400 employees in London and Sheffield helping over 110,000 small businesses across the UK. XLN promises to answer every phone call within three rings and tries to resolve every issue within one call, with all calls handled by its UK-based contact centre.
Christian has since taken the business through three successful private equity-backed deals with plans to turn XLN into a £1 billion company in the next five years. Christian has also won many prestigious awards over the years, including Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year twice and CEO of the Year from the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association. He was inducted into EY’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
Christian is now an angel investor and a mentor to early-stage entrepreneurs, passionate about helping small businesses and ensuring high streets in the UK continue to thrive. Christian prides himself as an ‘optimist’ and believes ‘anything is possible’ as long as he puts in the effort and hard work. I start with the idea that anything is possible and that I am just as capable of making that happen as anyone else, Christan said. I am an optimist and I am confident that if I put my mind to it and put the effort in and really work at it, I can make a success of something. But there is also a part of me that is paranoid, in the sense that as much as I am focused on the opportunity and finding solutions, I also have half an eye on what could go wrong and making sure I am not walking into a dead end. I don’t want to waste opportunities or make mistakes if I can avoid it.
Christian’s top tip in business is to ‘never give up’, but also said that achieving a big goal isn’t all that it’s cut out to be. He has since learnt that the journey towards his goals is what truly brings him happiness and satisfaction, adding, The biggest disappointment was that when I reached my first big goal, it didn’t make me happy. It just left me with a feeling of, is that it? But then I realised that it was the journey of getting there that made me happy, rather than actually reaching my goal.
Christian has since written his first book ‘Raw Business: A straight-talking account of what it means to be a successful entrepreneur’, revealing the most important life lessons and core principles throughout his 30-year career. You can buy his book here.