Learning to Zig When Others Zag

Brent Hoberman CBE

Brent Hoberman CBE is a British entrepreneur, who founded Lastminute.com in 1998. Brent co-founded Founders Forum, a private network for digital and technology entrepreneurs, and is a Governor of the University of the Arts, London.

Q: What do you think makes entrepreneurs different?

Firstly, on the whole they have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. Secondly they try, to quote Steve Jobs, to “think different” to think laterally. They all display tenacity: how do you break through the walls and not take no for an answer? Another characteristic is salesmanship – the great entrepreneurs create the aura that the future is here today and they’re building it. Lastly, I think entrepreneurs are on a mission to create something, and carry others along with them.

Q: What was it that made you an entrepreneur?

What made me different was being an immigrant. I think immigrants tend to be entrepreneurs. I’m a Jewish South African, so coming to England aged ten I didn’t quite fit in. I wanted to work harder and became very competitive. I was influenced by my grandfather. We were all in awe of a man who turned one clothes shop in South Africa into 650. But it wasn’t to do with the money. I saw he did what he loved every day, how excited he was to go to work, and I wanted to replicate that.

Q: So when did you become an entrepreneur?

At Eton College in the UK I did some slightly maverick things, like run a pirate radio station, but I think it was really at Oxford University where I did the things that people don’t think of as entrepreneurial but with hindsight they really were. Martha Lane Fox (Co-Founder of lastminute.com) still teases me about this, but the highlight of my C.V. really was running the University French Club. I took it over when it had 53 members and when I left it had 500 paid members, with L’Oréal as sponsors. On leaving university I went to work at Mars & Co – the strategy consulting firm – and I was fired for being an entrepreneur. I had an idea, not a particularly good idea, to put a magazine in the back of taxi cabs; it would have been one of the top 10 circulation magazines in the UK. I told my boss I had a meeting at 8am at the Carriage Office who regulated it, and he set up a client meeting at the same time, deliberately. I said, “I’m sorry, I’m going to my other meeting.” They fired me a few weeks later.

Q: How did you come to found lastminute.com?

I met Martha and had the idea for lastminute.com, but I realised that I didn’t have enough experience, so I went to work for some internet companies first, and then we founded our own business after that. It’s preparation and timing that creates luck. I loved the internet, but I was also at the right point in my career, and at the right point in the cycle to take advantage of it. Then once we were in lastminute.com it was all about creating ideas. We had about ten business lines in 14 countries which was sort of insane and countered everything you read in the textbooks, but it worked for us. We were a founder-driven enterprise and I think we thrived because we were prepared to zig when others wanted to zag.

Q: More recently you’ve been an investor as much as an entrepreneur. What are you looking for when you think about investing in a business?

One of my rivals says that in a meeting with an entrepreneur he will try and distract them. He’ll say, “So tell me about your family, tell me about your kids.” Or “What do you like doing on a weekend?” and if they start going off on a tangent, then he writes them off as not passionate enough. For me, I ask myself, “Would my 25-year old self work for this person?” Then next I ask, “Do I understand it?” And finally, “Can I help?”

Q: Do certain countries produce more entrepreneurs than others? And if so, why?

Yossi Vardi, the great Israeli entrepreneur, has a great line on this which my mother would not enjoy reading. He said that Israel has so many brilliant entrepreneurs because “Jewish mothers, they make their children feel so insecure.”

Israel is the start-up nation, not just because of the insecurity of course, but because there is a non-hierarchical culture.

Everyone questions everything. Then of course there is America and Britain – although we are awkwardly placed in Britain because we’re big enough to build a decent business but not big enough to build a global rock star business. More recently in China there is a counter trend where you’re starting to see a new wave of actual innovators, not just copycats in the digital world.

Q: Do all innovators want to challenge authority?

There are several studies looking at whether former prisoners make the best entrepreneurs. But I don’t think that a problem with authority is the only, or even the most significant, factor in what makes a successful business innovator. In some societies we can see innovation stemming from necessity, a kind of frugal innovation. For me though, the most important factor is lateral thinking, and then the confidence to act on it. This is a problem for Britons, because we will join the queue, whereas the Israelis will jump it.

Q: Do you think an entrepreneurial society is a better society?

There are a number of factors at play here. If you define ‘better’ as a society in which there is more job satisfaction, where people enjoy their work more, then the answer is yes. If you define it as somewhere with more job security, then probably not. I’m not one of those who thinks, “Rah-rah, everyone should be an entrepreneur.” Secondly, are you creating a more equal and fairer society? Well, it will be more meritocratic, with more social mobility, but it will also be more ‘winner takes all,’ and some entrepreneurs do achieve very substantial rewards. It’s not just about a few gifted individuals getting rich. On the other side of the equation, there are businesses like Airbnb that are giving ordinary people a unique opportunity to sweat their assets.

Overall, I’d say that societies with a strong tradition of entrepreneurial activity benefit hugely from that strand of their national life.

Q: Has what it takes to be an entrepreneur changed?

You need to be much more sophisticated now to find gaps in the market. A transport app would struggle against Uber, a generic e-commerce concept wouldn’t stand much of a chance against Amazon. Today you’ve got to understand new technology before everyone else, how you apply artificial intelligence for example. One change however is for the worse. It takes longer to fail than it used to, because there is more money around. That’s not a good thing; if it’s not working after five years, then try something new, or at least that’s my advice.

Q: Why have you devoted so much of your life to promoting entrepreneurs?

I love spending time with other entrepreneurs. Naturally I think they are some of the most interesting people around, and being with people who have all these great ideas helps me to stay relevant and interested. Also, I was successful when I was quite young, so I want others to have the opportunities I’ve had. Entrepreneurialism in Britain is so much more accepted now, but I really enjoy the opportunity to unleash others who may not have had the lucky twists of fate that I enjoyed. The Founders of the Future initiative is all about that.