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By James Robson, Entrepreneurs' Forum Chairman

I had the pleasure of attending the Entrepreneurs’ Forum spring conference recently, joining almost 300 other aspirational entrepreneurs in Newcastle for what must be the region’s largest event for fast-growing business owners.

Hosted once again by the ever brilliant Alfie Joey, speakers at ‘Together we can take on the world’ included entrepreneurs and athletes from across the UK who came to the region to share their experience and inspire guests with stories and advice on a wide range of business topics and principles.

Sir John Timpson, owner of shoe repair chain Timpson, which has more than 1,900 branches nationwide, addressed the audience with a simple, yet effective, piece of advice:

“Common sense is so often ignored in business and it is actually one of the secrets to success. Stripping out complicated processes and giving people the autonomy to make decisions that allow the business to succeed from the front-line has served us well.

"We trust that our colleagues will serve our customers in the best way possible. The have the freedom to do this and that allows us to apply our successful ‘upside-down management’ structure, where those on the shop floor are at the top and the rest of us serve them.”

Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of British premium chocolate brand, Hotel Chocolat, spoke of his early origins and entrepreneurial journey, while stressing the value of establishing a strong brand identity:

“With any innovative business, you have to protect your brand otherwise people will chip away at what you’ve created. IP protection is incredibly important, we’ve had infractions right from the start and while it isn’t as bad as with the fashion business, it is getting that way.”

Angus’ first business idea was the creation of the ‘successor to the corporate pen’, the Mint Marketing Company, which bore companies’ logos on mints. It soon expanded to include chocolate, but it wasn’t until 2004 that he founded Hotel Chocolat with business partner Peter Harris.

Mica McNeill, part of the duo that achieved Team GB’s best ever women’s bobsleigh result, spoke of her disappointment that funding had been pulled just months before the 2018 Winter Olympics. It was through a successful crowdfunding campaign, #PoweredByThePeople, that she was able to compete at the Pyeongchang Games – after smashing her funding target of £30,000 in only six days:

“Focus on the process and the outcome will take care of itself. This is something that was in my head leading up to the Olympics and I think will stick with me for the rest of my career.”

Adventurer, athlete, broadcaster and World Record holder Mark Beaumont, drew on his own experiences of taking on epic challenges, emphasising the importance of setting ambitious but achievable goals with the right team around you:

“One of the biggest mistakes people make is setting their goals to repeat history. Success needs to be defined and to have a clear blueprint, as you almost never do better than you aim to.

“Over the last 10 years, I have failed on many projects, but on balance, I have been successful in the team’s I’ve been involved in. Understanding your weaknesses is important; I know what I’m not good at, which is why I need the right people to fill the voids.”

Drawing the conference to a close was North East entrepreneur Julian Leighton, co-founder of pioneering interaction design agency Orange Bus. Counting major brands like O’Neill and Force India among its clientele, Orange Bus employs over 140 staff and has offices across the UK. Recently sold to Capita - an ambition Julian always held, to build something and leave behind a legacy - it is a multi-million pound acquisition success:

“When you’re growing you need credibility and the opportunity to attract key clients can come from anywhere. The key is to take and maximise each opportunity when it appears. It’s not about luck, it’s about being open to new ideas, trying new things and not letting opportunities pass you by.”

It was refreshing to hear all five speakers share their personal journey with honesty, energy and passion.

Despite big differences between their goals and numerous major achievements, there were a number of common factors of success, with the importance of teamwork, having great people around you, humility, integrity and staying determined and focused playing a key role for each one.


James Robson_cropped


James Robson, Entrepreneurs' Forum Chairman

Founder of Exwold, James has built a business that operates from four sites and employs around 120 staff. With turnover in excess of £10m and customers around the world, Exwold has come a long way in its 20+ year history. An accredited coach, North East Mentor of the Year (2016) and Entrepreneurs’ Forum chairman, James has received an MBE for his services to North East business and dedicates a lot of his time to supporting other aspirational companies. 


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