The Alchemy of being an Entrepreneur

By at home

Anyone who imagines the world differently and who has the ability to make things happen is on the way to becoming an entrepreneur, says the greatest alchemist of them all, ANITA RODDICK

Two experiences helped me discover myself as an entrepreneur, both back inthe days when my parents ran the Clifton Café in Littlehampton.

Like all entrepreneurial projects, sooner or later the café had to change and my father converted it into an ice-cream soda bar, just like an Americandiner – with a milk bar serving exotic concoctions like knickerbocker glories in tall glasses.

We wore uniforms that looked like one of Norman Rockwell’s Soda Fountain gals and I was dazzled by it all. It taught me, among other things, just how important a sense of theatre is for business and how important it is to create an atmosphere.

Then, when I was 10, my father died and we all had to work even harder atrunning the café, which seated around 70-80 people and was often full. Working became an important part of our lives.

I learned that business is not financial science: it’s about trading – buying and selling. It’s really as simple as that. And my mother taught me how important personalities are in business.

She made me realise that you can’t be a nondescript person or you will havea nondescript product. "Be special," she would always say. "Be anything but mediocre."

I also learned about trading at my convent school. My father had brought back a great stack of comics and bubblegum from America. Anything American was like the Holy Grail in those days and I was able to trade the comics and bubblegum for entire collections of cigarette cards and movie albums.

Although I had the whole stash at home, I pretended the stuff was arriving in small batches week by week in order not to flood the market, and I would whet my customers’ appetites by pretending there was an incredible Batman orCaptain Marvel on its way. It was an interesting discipline.

So I don’t believe we should over-complicate the business of being anentrepreneur. It isn’t primarily a matter of making money. You can struggle on building a business with the sole intention of being wealthy andyou might not change people’s lives one jot – and probably won’t get richeither. 

The money is a by-product of entrepreneurial success, and very welcome it is, but it isn’t the heart of it.

Entrepreneurs change the world first, even in very small ways. They seesomething new that others don’t. They imagine the world differently – even if it’s just imagining a cosmetics shop with refillable bottles, or a business with a heart as I did.

You can’t measure your way to it. It isn’t a matter of doing the maths. Andprobably the heart of it is not something that you can even learn – certainly not at business school.

How do you teach obsession, after all, because more often than not it’s obsession that drives an entrepreneur’s vision? How do you learn to be an outsider, if you are not one already? Why would you march to a different drumbeat if you are instinctively part of the crowd?

No, entrepreneurs tend to be outsiders with a work ethic. That’s why immigrants make such good ones: not only are they outsiders, but they are not usually frightened of work. The Bangladeshi community in Britain, the Jews and the Italians are not part of the throng; they look at things in a different way.

They are not scared of sacred cows like bank managers or hierarchical structures or problems that would daunt others. But immigrants are also marginalised. Being the only Italian immigrants in a little blue-collar, South Coast town like Littlehampton gave me a different viewpoint.

That’s why, even if it’s possible to teach entrepreneurship, it is probably particularly hard to teach it to the rich. Rich people aren’t usuallyoutsiders. 

You can teach them the ‘science’ of entrepreneurship, but you can’t teach juicy, backs-to-the-wall, seat-of-the-pants, bootstrapping stuff to people who don’t know what frugality is, who don’t have a passion for wanting to establish freedom from structure and process.

What’s more, creativity – the very essence of entrepreneurship – is often stimulated by being hard up. If you’re wealthy and everything is available without a struggle, you don’t always have that hunger that drives entrepreneurs.

Just as artists create a painting from scratch, so entrepreneurs can realise their own dreams by turning an idea into reality, earning a livelihood from it and, hopefully, by making a profit.

That’s making considerable claims for entrepreneurship. I’m not saying a beautifully constructed company is somehow equivalent to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or a Dickens novel. But there are parallels.

Both are the result of a driving creative passion. Both are the result ofimagining the world differently, and both are – in essence – nothing to dowith money. 

The central tool of someone who wants to imagine the world differently and wants to share that vision is not a matter of accountancy at all. It doesn’t come from the masculine aggression school of business textbooks and political rhetoric. No, if you ask me, the central tool of entrepreneurship is the ability to tell a story.

From the very beginning of The Body Shop, we wanted to be able to tell stories. We wanted to be honest about the products we sold and the benefits theypromised. 

We wanted to go in the opposite direction to the rest of the cosmetics industry. I would give that advice to anyone: set your sights and skills on an idea, do the research, see what the competition is doing and then see how you can communicate that difference in stories.

People listen and respond to stories in a way they never can to balance sheets.

Nor is storytelling just important when you start a company. Stories about products and stories about the organisation were critical at The Body Shop.

Stories about how and where we found ingredients brought meaning to our essentially meaningless products, while stories about the company bound and preserved our history and our sense of common purpose.

Lose those stories and you lose your history as a company, and that can destabilise you as much as any financial crisis. When we failed to listen to our stories at The Body Shop, we ran into trouble.

Any organisation that is effective has a story, and it is one that doesn’tjust stretch back into the past – before its foundation, to the reasons itwas set up in the first place – but forwards into the future.

Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They have heroes and villains– and they have a moral. And often at the heart of the story, there is irritation, or even anger, about the way the world is. Sometimes that is therage you feel that the products you want are not available – or the services are so poor.

Like Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who was an eco-mountaineerfurious that the mountaineering clothes he needed were not available – so he made them himself.

But it is often an anger about the way the world is that extends beyondthat, and the sense that it is possible to make a difference – not just byavoiding harm in your business practices – but by actually making the world a better place.

I certainly learned from Yvon, and borrowed his idea of a child day-care centre at The Body Shop. But I also learned from Ben Cohen, the co-founderof Ben & Jerry, from the way they used their products as social emissaries – taking messages out on their cartons.

Anyone who imagines the world differently, who makes things happen, is akind of entrepreneur – and I’ve learned from many of them who never went so far as to start their own businesses.

As an entrepreneur, you need the ability to stand out from the crowd because you need to act instinctively on what they see, think and feel.

It is difficult to have that kind of confidence in yourself sometimes, butthere is always some truth in reactions.  There is, after all, a fine linebetween an entrepreneur and a crazy person. Crazy people see and feel things that others don’t.

An entrepreneur’s dream is often a kind of madness and it is almost as isolating: the key is to know which ones are too crazy and which ones you can make happen.

But you have to believe that, once you have decided which is which, then everything is possible for you. If you do, and you start to tell that story that stretches into the future, then those around you will believe it too.

You have to be optimistic before any planning is done, to realise there willbe setbacks along the way – without letting them dent your confidence.

So whatever they may tell you in the business manuals, and whatever equations you might learn in business school, being an entrepreneur at heart is about alchemy. It is about turning the base metals of your ownimagination into a story, and a story into – well, perhaps not gold to begin with, but something even more exciting than that.

Because it is not given to everyone, even in small ways, to be able to change the world. But entrepreneurs can.

"Dear, never forget one little point: it’s my business. You just work here. " Elizabeth Arden to her husband

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