It would be easy to pick winning entrepreneurs if CVs were all that mattered, but as every venture capitalist knows, it ain’t that simple. Qualifications do not necessarily highlight innate cunning. Of course persistence, optimism, confidence, ambition, industry and intelligence all count — but they are still not all. Experience can help identify the natural money makers. One of the other vital skills I look for in any founder is whether they can sense where power lies.
This is a very valuable talent. If you attend an interview and are confronted by a panel of interrogators, do you know who the real decision maker is? If you pitch a business idea to a group of investors, can you tell who the most influential person in the room is? If you try to sell a product to a buyer, can you sense if they really have the authority to place an order? Savvy entrepreneurs smell a room and work out where the power is centred. Be it in a meeting or a reception, they patrol the territory and understand the dynamics. Often the power rests not with the loudest individual, nor necessarily the oldest.
What are the giveaways that alert the wily business person? Speech, body language, confidence, detail — which all add up to an intuitive feel for the most important individual in the gathering.
Because a genuinely powerful person feels less need to show off, or make their presence felt, they are frequently low key and thoughtful, rather than noisy. Making a fuss in order to impress is typically the sign of someone who is insecure — weakness not strength.
So the rule is often to ignore the loud, bossy character across the table and direct your attention towards the thoughtful one with whom the final decision probably rests.
When analysing a business, it is important to understand who has the power in its main trading relationships. Is it their clients? For advertising agencies, that would normally be the case.
Is it their customers? With the grocers, typically they hold the whip hand over the food producers.
Is it their suppliers? Certain retailers are beholden to key brand owners.
Could it be unions who command the upper hand? That seems to be the case for the train operating companies — forever being blackmailed by their staff.
In other sectors, regulators play a dominant role: financial services, for example, suffers from more supervision than almost any industry I know, so keeping regulators happy is a huge preoccupation for every banker, investment manager, insurance underwriter and suchlike.
It is a principal reason why large firms dominate these sectors — the costs of compliance are so onerous, only big business can afford them. Anyone who wants to succeed in financial services needs to know how to deal with regulators, and be willing to spend plenty of their time doing it.
One of the great ironies of official behaviour towards banks is that the government wants to create more competition, to better serve the public and offer more choice. Yet their onerous and unproductive regulatory regime has enormously increased barriers to entry for new banks. It is a classic case of how state interventions in markets often have unintended and adverse consequences.
Unfortunately, we live in the age of virtue signalling, where politicians and bureaucrats frequently favour form over substance, preferring to look good in the media rather than actually providing people with genuine help.
The left promotes the theory that business is all powerful. This is mostly hogwash. Companies do not make or apply the law; most face fierce competition and struggle to deliver attractive returns. Usually, customers and staff have choices about where to shop and work. Innovation frequently produces poor profits for the pioneers. However, in some sectors, regulations actually help special interests and entrench power.
The Captured Economy, a new book by Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles, describes how the property sector, overprotection of copyrights and patents, favouritism towards incumbent businesses through occupational licensing and financial services have all benefited from the current legal system. The book is written from a US angle, but much of it applies equally well to Britain: big business is helped by the state, while start-ups and entrepreneurs are disadvantaged.
Sadly, politicians and regulators feel more comfortable dealing with big business, because they are all essentially bureaucrats. By contrast, entrepreneurs are likely to appear somewhat alien: not institutional creatures, but rather dependent for their livelihoods on their wits. Shame that the civil servants do not talk more to the self-made.