How to build a billion pound business? Here are 8 secrets from a successful entrepreneur 

Richard Harpin, Founder and Chairman of Home Serve, shared his top tips on how he built his billion pound plumbing and repairs business

EBL Richard Harpin

Richard Harpin, Founder and Chairman of Home Serve, kicked off the first keynote speech of the day at Elite Business Live 2024, speaking about his entrepreneurial journey and the secrets to how he scaled his business. “There are 8 things that I know now that I wish I’d known at the start of my entrepreneurial journey 30 years ago,” Richard said. “If I had, maybe I could have taken that £50k start-up to a £4 billion business in 15 years rather than 30.”  

Speaking to the audience, Richard touched on his first secret. Sometimes people get afraid to copy brand names, business strategies and ideas, Richard said. However, it can be essential to scaling your business. “We’re told at school that copying is bad, but actually in business copying is a really good thing to do,” he said. “Find a business model, copy it and improve it.”

In 1976, Richard began his first entrepreneurial venture. He made money tying flies and selling them to fly fishermen. He went to fishermen’s conventions trying to sell his handmade supplies when he noticed several women complimenting his work. Not for fishing, but for jewellery. That’s when Richard saw a pivot for his business. “I went from fishing flies to high-fashion earrings,” Richard said. 

With just a £10 marketing budget and a genius brand name, Richard’s brand went to the front pages of every newspaper, TV station and radio channel in the country. A clever marketing trick was all he needed for an effective PR strategy. “I was going to call these earrings danglers, but someone told me you can’t possibly call them danglers, it infers something unseeingly and organic,” Richard explained. You should call them hookers!” 

Richard went to York University to do an economics degree. He later joined Procter & Gamble as a marketing professional before he and his business partner started buying properties in Newcastle and renting them out. However, he and his partner faced a problem with rentals. Tenants would call on Friday evenings complaining about water leaks and heating problems, but it was nearly impossible to get a plumber in on the weekends. Richard then had a Eureka moment. He and his business partner invested all their life savings and set up a plumbing business. 

High costs with low demand for plumbing services landed them in murky waters. Within 5 months of launching the company, the bailiffs arrived. Richard and his business partner needed new ways to raise capital, so they started brainstorming on how to get an investor. They went round to all the big water companies in the UK to find potential investors, but they were shut down immediately. With a stroke of luck, one water company gave them a chance for half a share of the business. Richard didn’t change the business model but used the investor’s money to break even. But within a year, they were back in the same position with even more losses.

“My friends and colleagues were saying, Richard, your days of being an entrepreneur are over,” Richard said. “You better go back to work for Procter & Gamble. When you’re really determined and you want to be an entrepreneur and make it big, this was my last shot. I’ve done loads of other businesses; I couldn’t walk away from this one.” 

With a final £10,000 in the business, Richard pivoted and decided to roll out a plumbing insurance scheme. He sent it out to customers through direct mail with his fingers crossed hoping this would revive the business and drive profit. And to his surprise, they received dozens of checks back. They turned half a million pounds loss into almost £1 million profit the following year. 

Richard spoke about the importance of coaching and mentoring. He wanted to move his business to America but realised he needed a mentor to navigate a new market. Through persistence, Richard managed to get some time with his dream mentor, Nigel Morris. He was advised to hire a local American team, and it skyrocketed his business. Richard talked about the importance of utilising digital platforms but also have a site for your business. Richard spoke about how an optician’s business drove up website visits by launching a real-life store. It also helped them to have more credibility, and sales and conversion rates went up as people trusted their business. 

Thinking of hiring a replacement? Richard touched on the importance of hiring a CEO to deal with the day-to-day running of the company. Some business owners do this early on in their journey, but others do it later on. Find the time that is right for you, Richard said. Having boots on the ground is essential if you want to skyrocket your business. Hiring locals is important, they know the patch better than you as well as the cultural expectations and norms, Richard said. “If you want to be a serious international business, you need to have a few people on the ground in your most important countries,” he explained. 

Evolution, not revolution. “Every business needs constant evolution, change, improvement, small steps forward,” Richard said. “Not revolution, that is dangerous,” Richard explained how it is important for businesses to always constantly evolve with the times. However, completely changing your brand and business model can be detrimental, because you lose your customer base and confuse your audience. Stick with what works, but make some adjustments along the way, Richard said.  

Follow a not-to-do list. Richard spoke about the importance of scaling down your business model with a few simple questions. “What are you passionate about, what can you be the best in the world at, and what’s your economic engine?” Richard asked the audience. “Come up with your hedgehog strategy. Answer those three questions in no more than 20 words.” With a few simple sentences, you can simplify your business motto and company mission towards the right direction.

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj

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