Starting up

Luke Johnson is described as “Britain's busiest tycoon”. The man behind Pizza Express with a personal fortune estimated to be £120 million, he knows the world of business inside out. At a time when the UK is crying out for new entrepreneurs, he has decided to impart part of that knowledge through a new book, Start It Up. He spoke to

Luke Johnson is described as “Britain's busiest tycoon”. The man behind Pizza Express who has a personal fortune estimated at £120 million, Johnson knows the world of business inside out. At a time when the UK is crying out for new entrepreneurs, he has decided to impart some of that knowledge in a new book, Start It Up.

He says: “I see my role as being a practitioner of business as well as a writer with a focus on entrepreneurship. I want to champion entrepreneurship because I think Britain needs more people to start companies.”

He realises that starting a business can seem intimidating, but says that the risks involved are perhaps sometimes exaggerated and that this intimidates people. “The good things about entrepreneurship – the freedom and independence – are underestimated,” he says. “It's the satisfaction of controlling your own destiny rather than being part of a large organisation with a hierarchy.”

He says it is becoming easier and cheaper to set up your own business. Many new digital businesses are now set up from home and the modern online world allows people to set up virtual businesses on the side of other jobs. This is the route Johnson recommends for those seeking to minimise the risk associated with starting a business. “You can try things more easily and you can fail cheaply,” he says. He calls it “part-time moonlighting”. “I'm in favour of all of that,” he says. “It's what I did. I used holidays and weekends to run businesses on the side while I was in my early 20s and working in an investment bank.”

He adds: “Having a salary allows you to trial things and make mistakes. You learn at someone else's expense.”

He advises working in the industry sector you want to set up a business in so you “acquire domain knowledge”.

Women entrepreneurs

Johnson believes female entrepreneurs are likely to be a much greater force in the future. “When I go around promoting my book I talk to audiences full of recent graduates and there is a much higher proportion of women than there used to be. Almost half of the audience are women. They are seeing starting a business as a viable career alternative.”

He believes promoting more role models of women entrepreneurs will help to increase their number.

"More and more I'm convinced that our future growth in this country will come from unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit in business and, more importantly, I believe that the future will be predominantly female," he says.

"Successful, self-starting capable women who strive for success are increasingly visible in the businesses I see and invest in. The potential, skills and creativity are all there in women whether they're presently at home or in the office. Young women increasingly assert through their drive, ambition, creativity that if old fashioned ideas and prejudice holds them back from the ladder of career success then they're going to use their own ladders."

One of the things that has put women and others off in the past, he says, is what he calls “the most pernicious myth about business” – that it is all about having a hugely innovative idea. “Most businesses are very similar to others. If you look at what is successful in another place, for instance, the US, and copy that, having researched the market, then that often works. There is no shortage of ideas out there you can pick from,” he says.

His book gives a lot of straightforward information on all the different forms of funding available to new businesses, including angel investors. He advises being persistent when pitching to potential funders. Indeed he says the key to doing well in business is to “respond creatively to defeat”.

Johnson says the early years of starting a business can involve long hours, but it depends on what your ambitions are and ultimately there is a lot of flexibility, which is appealing to parents. He is thankful he didn't start a family till later in life so that he can spend more time with his family now. His children are one and a half, five and six. His wife is a part-time pharmacist. He says he has tried to encourage her to start a business, but “she has not succumbed yet”. “I almost consciously became a dad late. I don't regret it as I am a better father because of that. I think I am much less stressed about my work and career,” he says.

His eldest daughter asks him about business a lot, he adds, but he wouldn't want to push her into anything. However, his passion is clearly contagious. In the book, he writes: “I would say to those who face bleak job prospects: take the plunge, and if your schemes come to nothing, then at least you tried. The most fascinating people I've ever met are those who have seen life as an adventure, a great experiment, and managed to retain their optimism along the way.”

* Start it up: why running your own business is easier than you think by Luke Johnson is published by Penguin, price £12.99.


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