The voice of experience

Any start-up embarking on a new venture would do well to listen to investor and innovator Ben White, whose 30-year career has seen highs and lows that have provided him with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

Ben White

Any start-up embarking on a new venture would do well to listen to investor and innovator Ben White, whose 30-year career has seen highs and lows that have provided him with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Luckily you can catch him soon at Atomicon….

Serial investor, Ben White has been up the hill and down the other side in business. He has disrupted, founded, innovated and made and lost plenty of money on the way. And not all of it through business decisions. 

But, although these days he has a very different relationship with his business life, he still gets a buzz out of creating solutions, achieving success and helping and advising those who want his input.

His Notion Capital Group has invested in more than 54 different businesses and he is co-founder and currently executive chairman of retail software firm Upp. Right now, having at one time veered off course into a familiar tale of over-work, stress-overload and seeking assistance in substances that only end up exacerbating his problems, he has a more harmonious relationship with his business life.

“This time round,” he says, “I feel every speed bump, good and bad and it’s a very different journey for me and I think I’m better than I’ve ever been. For me, there’s nothing like having an idea and solving a problem. I’ve been addicted to substances and there’s no better drug than doing something and delivering value to customers and hearing first hand from them and watching your team when it’s working – it’s a fantastic feeling.”

Previously he had experienced both highs and lows in his 30-year career, which started in IT distribution.

“The highs are taking a software business (Message Labs) from the little old UK, taking it to the US, and beating them at their own game. And at the time, being the biggest email security business in the world – and we had a fraction of the funding that our US competitors had. That’s a high. 

“The biggest low, and it’s more of a reflection on the low, is not celebrating hitting milestones – the first £1m revenue, the first £5m revenue, the 100th customer, the positive PR. Just not sitting back and taking time to appreciate each achievement and the moment.”

White has a much more rounded approach to what he does now. The challenges are not lesser, but he is satisfied with the results he now gets and is no longer losing sleep over it.

“Stop worrying about tomorrow, do your best today. Sleep well, tomorrow is another day, good or bad. I tell people to try and switch off at weekends. There’s an intensity and a certain amount of hours that an individual can do in a day or a week, and beyond that they’re making it less likely that it’ll happen, not more likely. Also, if you have a problem, share problems with the team, don’t hide it and you’ll be surprised how many good ideas they’ll come up with.”

It’s an approach somewhat at odds with his more disruptive and innovative moments, which he says are a mix of instinct and thinking and acting fast.

“The secret is to push, and push it out as quick as possible, whatever you are building, and then iterate as fast as possible. You’ve also got to be super sure on your thesis that there is a problem. People may not know there’s a problem and you may need to educate the market – and in a business that only falls into two or three baskets; can I enable them to sell more? Can I make them run their business more efficiently, such as automation? Or can I make their customers happier? That’s it!

“When it comes to a secret formula – there are two options. You can work out that there is a problem and you can make it better or faster, the Henry Ford way – ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ But what they really wanted was a car. Or, and I suspect more go down my route, and they bump into an opportunity. They have a curious brain naturally, always on the lookout for something and fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube.”

These days White is able to provide some sage counsel for those embarking on an entrepreneurial journey of their own and will appearing at sales and marketing conference Atomicon for the Elite Business Live 2023 ‘On Tour’ Programme on the 13th June at 1:50pm. He will be talking about the challenges and pitfalls at the different stages of running a business, “The high highs, lots of lows and everything in between, and more,” he offers.

It hasn’t got any easier, White warns.

Startups are all tough. You’ve got to be slightly crazy, believing in your thesis and a bit of luck. And always reference back to the question, is it really solving a problem? And, is it really solving the problem I set out to solve? And the answer to both questions has to be yes. They sound very obvious, but how many people really ask that type of question to themselves?”

Changes in the workplace, with remote and hybrid workers and post-pandemic challenges such as ‘quiet quitting’ have made it even harder he says.

“When people are in the office or in the pub, you’ve got a much better idea of how to build culture, you can pick people up when they’re down, celebrate success when it’s there and customers are more likely to come into your office if everyone is there.”

Building a business can be scary, fraught and dangerous if you don’t pay attention to the whole picture he warns.

I now take care of myself. The irony is I took much better care of people around me than I did myself.

“Always have your eyes focused on the horizon. If you look down, it’s terrifying. But if you flip your headlights up and go ‘that’s where I’m heading’, that keeps you heading in the right direction, stops you freaking out about the detail, and helps you prioritise the thousands of things you have to do.”

If you haven’t already done so, you can register for free to livestream Ben’s session on 13th June at 1:50pm for Elite Business nightmares – Click here to register.

Ronnie Dungan
Ronnie Dungan

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