An interview with James Booth on entrepreneurial advice, fundraising and motorcycle racing...
What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?
Structure and convention have consistently been an issue for me. At school I would spend hours practising musical instruments, often missing classes because of it. At music college I ducked sessions run by uninspiring people and gave up on it all after a year as the formality was spoiling my joy of playing. I was a nightmare for anyone wanting me to conform.
By accident I found myself working for a foreign exchange business in Paris in the 90s and bizarrely went from nervous cashier to running the French operation in about a year. But I would still spend many late nights covering shifts for cashiers who had been dealt a bum deal by the planning rota. I realised the importance of working with people on a level – never asking for anything I wasn’t prepared to do myself. Seeing how my guys responded was inspiring. I realised that I wasn’t going to be happy unless I was working with people in this way and for me, this would mean starting my own business. That opportunity came when a stint of spare-time session guitar playing in Paris introduced me to computer music; from there it was a short step to discovering CompuServe and the early web. And after fiddling with how to make music work on zero bandwidth, I created the technology concept that launched my first business Tangozebra.
It’s often said that new ideas come from things that frustrate us. Can you name something that frustrates you right now?
The levels of dishonesty I see within my industry frustrates me. Too many people are focused on making a quick buck in a short-termist frenzy. Internet technology has allowed new forms of media buying to materialise in the shape of programmatic trading platforms. Sitting behind these platforms are hundreds of thousands of blogs from which media space can be traded. This is a positive development for many reasons but abuse is never far away. The ad exchange world is now heavily populated with ‘bot’ sites, which are no more than URLs populated by robots pulling in items. These and other extremely poor quality environments, including sites that are simply not brand-safe, are being traded on behalf of brands, all in the name of a quick margin and by many who should know better. The level of malpractice is eye watering. That frustrates me.
What’s the best advice you have for entrepreneurs looking to raise money?
Raising money is a time-consuming process; it’s also a time when if you’re not prepared you can have the confidence knocked out of you. I would advise being over prepared and to find someone friendly, with a background in raising investment in the relevant sector, who can bench-test your proposition and pitch (without insisting on taking a slice for the pleasure). Otherwise, keep the narrative simple; remember you are pitching to people who don’t have your deep level of understanding of your area.
What have you learned in your career that you wished you’d known when you were starting out?
Focus. It can be extremely difficult to focus properly on a core proposition, especially in the early stages when the urge to earn revenue from wherever can appear too strong to resist. The same is true with product development, especially in the technology sector where feature-creep is a common problem, as is the temptation to believe that horizontal solutions for any vertical are the right way to go. They’re not.
I continually challenge myself about how poor I am at focusing properly within my own business. And as a non-exec to several, I’m horrible about it – I pick holes where focus isn’t absolute.
What’s your favourite spot to relax, reflect and work stuff out?
Top of my list for clearing the cobwebs and switching off completely is tearing round a racetrack on a motorcycle. A day doing that has more impact than a fortnight in the sun, which must sound ridiculous but it’s true. But that foolishness is more of a summer pastime, so as the nights draw in I’m distracted with restoring an old farmhouse.
And it didn’t take me long to make up a reason to buy a few key essentials – a JCB and a dumper truck. There is much joy to be had in digging foundations with a JCB.
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