Entrepreneurs celebrate in Cardiff as Stephen Fear tells the story of his phonebox success.
It was the occasion of the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards evening in Cardiff. The great and the good from across Wales and into England as far east as Bristol descended on Entrepreneurial Sparks, Cardiff. And Stephen Fear, entrepreneur extraordinaire told a story that left the audience in rapt attention.
There were all sorts of people there and all kinds of ideas to dazzle you. There were people with honey farms – Felinhoneybees Ltd, tech to wake you up if you fell asleep on the train, a service for helping people jump on the housing ladder, ‘a massage service for pirates,’ – yes, there really was, and there was young Bayley, the 12-year-old entrepreneur, nominated for an award, an organic product that can you give you fake tan – Tanya Whitebits, and a charity for lonely people – Marmalade Trust. And many more.
Among the speakers was Darren Pirie, who is in charge of entrepreneur development at NatWest He warned that fear of failure was holding people back from starting-up in business and how that is something that has to be fixed.
Stephen Fear, the man behind the Fear Group, a company with a turnover in excess of £100 million, was the guest speaker of the evening, and he told the tale of how he got started in business.
One of his first ideas related to the local paper round. But the young Stephen’s pitch was different. “I would go the local paper shop” – WH Smith’s in his case – “first thing, and ask if they had any paper boys who had not turned up?” They would invariably reply that this indeed had happened – “a nightmare” they would say. There might have three or four of them who had not turned up. So, Stephen would offer to do all their rounds.
“I would ask ‘how much do you pay?’”
And the reply “12 and six” – that’s 12 shillings and six pennies, just over 50p.
I replied, ‘oh no, I charge three times that.’”
They would resist at first, saying “but this is our flat rate.” But the young Stephen, barely knee-high to a grasshopper would walk away, and return every day until he got the deal. “That’s when I learned the power of walking away from a deal. You have to walk away and mean it, and keep walking.” One guy, Pete who worked at Smiths back then, tells him today: “you were a nightmare.”
Later, but still very young, he found out, after reading an article in a paper he delivered, about a new service selling an oven cleaning product.
Stephen saw an opportunity.
But to take his idea forward, he needed to call the supplier. How do you do that? Stephen was brought up in a council house in Bristol, with a loving, but busy father, struggling to earn the money to pay for the roof over their heads.” We never had a phone” said Stephen “we never had a carpet, but there was a phonebox at the end of the street.”
He had never used a phonebox, so he rang the operator. “This lady answered: Joyce Thomson” – that was in the days, back in 1968, when it was possible to speak to the same person when you rang the operator, there was not one massive central location – operators were local. And the young boy struck a rapport with Ms Thomson. “How old are you?” She asked. “19, replied the 14 -year old Stephen Fear. The operator clearly did not believe him, but there must have been something about this young boy.
There was a snag, the number he wanted to ring was in the US, or so Ms Thomson informed him.
“Put the coins in the phonebox in advance,” she suggested, “so that the business in America does not hear the sounds of coins dropping, and I will call them for you,” and rather than say she was the operator, she said, “I will say I am your secretary.”
And that was how it began – making deals from a phonebox, gaining the support and trust of the operator.
As for the US firm, Stephen soon realised he was not going to be able to the deal he wanted at the off, so he set about building a rapport “I used to read books on America and chatted to the American [whose name was Barry] about what was happening over there.”
And so the story continues, Barry and Stephen and Joyce Thomson became friends – the 14 your old boy could not afford to keep ringing America, so chose times to call Barry when he knew he was not in, and would leave a message for him to call back, and so Stephen, sat in the call box, waiting for the call. “that’s when I learned a new idea – preserve your capital.” And when the phone rang, he suddenly realised he needed a company name.” He thought of the name on the spot: he answered the phone but had no name for the company and he said it without thinking: “Good afternoon Easy Clean.”
And from that, his mighty empire was born.
He says, anything is achievable.
That may be so, but what is clear, is that a new breed of entrepreneur, a type that probably did not have the disadvantages that plagued the young Stephen, is evolving. It is the single best piece of news on the UK economy in ages, the UK is more entrepreneurial. And that is why we need to celebrate entrepreneurial successs.
If you are an entrepreneur, or entrepreneurially minded, find out about The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards visit this page.