5th November, 2017

Don’t be a shrinking violet: to win, you need to get out more

I am often asked how I find my investments. I can’t pretend I have a scientific method of selection. I wish I did ­­— but somehow I don’t think such a formula would actually deliver results. The world of business is simply too haphazard.

When I analyse how and why I did the deals that really mattered, it is hard to draw hard and fast rules. However, I do have some habits and techniques — developed over the past few decades — that I think have helped.

Most important, you should position yourself where events flow fastest. This principle applies to anyone with ambition who wants to make an impact, in any walk of life. Go where the action is greatest. Make yourself open to new connections. And meet dynamic people as often as you can; face-to-face encounters really matter when forging new partnerships.

Digital networking methods, such as email and LinkedIn, have their place, but actually being in the room can make all the difference. So make the effort — show up; you never know what might happen.

Introverts might argue, “I can’t do all that schmoozing, I’m too shy.” But the truth is that most of us are like that too much of the time. We lack the self-confidence and charm to shine in such semi-social settings. So, like most activities, it requires practice and determination. Rehearse a few good opening conversational gambits; concentrate on remembering people’s names; always carry business cards, and dish them out generously; learn how to be a good listener; and force yourself to make a minimum number of new acquaintances at every event you attend.

Even after 35 years in the game, I still probably go to too many conferences, receptions, trade shows, dinners and so forth. Some are not productive, but now and then you strike gold. I don’t network for its own sake; I do it because you need to be in the swim to be in contention.

You never know where the next vital introduction will come from, ­­ but by getting out and about, and energetically following up leads, serendipity will surely bring possibilities to your door ­­— be they a job interview, a big order or a new venture.

To better exploit these prospects, you must adopt an opportunistic mindset and be prepared to seize the day. Be ready and willing to embark on new entrepreneurial adventures, even if they emerge from unexpected directions. This approach requires a powerful sense of curiosity, and a sustained willingness to keep exploring.

Experience can often make one cynical, but a negative attitude can be a dangerous trap. The antidote is to adopt a belief in lifelong learning, and to realise that there is no substitute for genuine excitement and enthusiasm. Rather as the 19th-century historian and author Thomas Carlyle said: “I’ve got a great ambition to die of exhaustion rather than boredom.”

I will admit that a part of the reason I write this essay every week is to connect with people ­­— an entrepreneur who needs backing, perhaps, or a chief executive looking for the next role. I have always included my email address at the bottom of my column because it is important to be accessible. If you stand aloof and make it hard for people to contact you, fewer situations will come your way.

I also get out and about giving speeches. Sometimes I am paid for them, sometimes they are for charity, and sometimes I do it to hustle some business. They can be draining and they take preparation, but they can also act as a pitch to would-be partners who want to understand your philosophy and why you might be a person with whom they should do business. Again, I do not believe you need to be a raging extrovert to give a half-decent speech ­­— but you do need to apply yourself to the task.

None of these tactics obviates the requirement to do research, and to target industries that offer growth and returns, using data and computing power. Nevertheless, I doubt you will spot the next big thing by sitting at your desk. Moreover, artificial intelligence may well be able to undertake that sort of forecasting.

By contrast, there is no substitute for human interaction and turning up in person. I have always argued that identifying great business openings is as much about intuition and common sense as it is about spreadsheets. And, of course, it is about optimism: approach the world with a positive viewpoint and you are likely to be luckier ­­— and better placed to take advantage of the moment.