Five lessons learned: Sir Tom Hunter

For Scottish serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter, to commit to a life of business is to commit to a life of learning. Here are five lessons he's learned along the way.

13th November 2018

People matter

The absolute imperative for any successful entrepreneur is to know your limitations and your strengths. Recruit to them; hire better people than you to plug your weaknesses and lead by example. An entrepreneur who starts the day in a miserable mood sets the tone for the entire business. Even if you’ve been up worrying about how you pay your people at the end of the month, don’t show it. Motivated teams can change the world and build incredible businesses. However, as you grow your business you need to understand that it often outgrows your people. It’s tough, but a team that built a £1 million business often as not can’t take it to £50 million, so you need to know when it’s time to upscale your people.

Kindred entrepreneurial spirits

As the leader, particularly in a high growth business, it can often be a lonely old place, so my second lesson would be this: find an incredible mentor and kindred entrepreneurial spirits. Scotland is blessed by some wonderful networks such as Entrepreneurial Scotland and the likes of (for early stage businesses) Entrepreneurial Spark. In both cases you can share your challenges and learn from one another. This could save you a fortune in both money and time. Likewise a mentor – I was blessed to have my father as my mentor. We learned business around the kitchen table and I kept on learning from him all of his life.

Never fear failure

Never, ever let your heart rule your head. Sure, gut instinct has a role to play, as does the odd emotion, but never let it lead in business decision-making. Failure – which we should never fear – teaches us well. So it was with my passion for motor sport: I opened one of Scotland’s first go-karting centres, and world champion Jackie Stewart (not a Sir at the time) was on hand to launch the venture in a blaze of publicity. It was a disaster, but it also taught me another important lesson …

Know when to stop and when to start

Too many entrepreneurs, particularly in technology, spend way too much money, time and resource refining, refining and refining their product(s). Instead they should spend more time market testing. Does anyone actually want to buy my product? Sales, sales and sales – that’s what drives success. Be sure, and very early on, that people want to buy what you’re selling. It might sound obvious, but look around at how many businesses fail because of a simple inability to sell. You cannot test the market too early, and here’s the trick: if your idea bombs get out quick. Fail fast and cheap, learn the lessons, and move on to your next idea.

Reach out

Finally, don’t ever feel afraid to shout for help – we’ve all done it. Scotland is blessed by a network of support both from the public sector (Business Gateway, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Scottish Government) and from the private sector including the likes of Scottish Edge (which my Foundation supports) and RBS. Being an entrepreneur is tough. It’s not for the faint hearted; it’s a rollercoaster and, like them, it can be exhilarating and at the same time terrifying. But, and this is a big but, you are not alone. We have all been there, staring into the abyss and finding a way around it or simply stopping, recalibrating and going again. Remember, if not for you our economy is dead in the water. Scotland’s ability to offer free tuition fees, free care for the elderly and support for the vulnerable in our society is down to business success; we pay the taxes, the Government doesn’t. So be proud of your endeavours, mitigate the lows wherever possible and always enjoy the highs.

Good luck!

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