Duncan Cheatle

Most entrepreneurs aren't in it for the money - there are easier ways to make it

Duncan Cheatle's 'supper clubs' have become a vital way for entrepreneurs to meet, discuss their experiences and share best practice. His own experiences and watching them in action has taught him that success is not easy: it comes from hard work, being flexible and perhaps a sprinkling of luck. He talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about what he has learned.

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Duncan Cheatle’s ‘supper clubs’ have become a vital way for entrepreneurs to meet, discuss their experiences and share best practice. His own experiences and watching them in action has taught him that success is not easy: it comes from hard work, being flexible and perhaps a sprinkling of luck. He talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about what he has learned.

While his early years of selling tuck, washing cars and shovelling snow hinted at a future of entrepreneurship, Duncan Cheatle took a different path having left university and trained as an accountant. He has few regrets about the experience, believing it provided a valuable schooling in how to handle numbers, but within a few years, he was itching to be closer to the action and make a real difference to the life of a business.

He spent four years as the financial director for a venture capital-backed publishing business in the pharmaceutical sector. Everything fell his way except for sales and editorial: that meant HR, accounting, technology. It was the experience and motivation he needed to set up on his own, starting Prelude Group in 2000. He spent three years working with turnarounds and start-ups, mentoring and advising.

Attending regular networking events, Duncan realised that much of the time there were too few entrepreneurs and too many suppliers. In 2003, he started inviting people he knew to small roundtables, harnessing the power of an entrepreneurial peer group free from suppliers pitching. There were strictly no accountants, lawyers or consultants unless there to share specific advice. He says: “Fifteen years later, I’ve built it up to 500 members.”

The Supper Club now holds around 20 roundtables each month along with larger panel discussion events. Membership combines this face to face networking with a personalised concierge services that makes valuable connections at critical moments. It also enables entrepreneurs to raise finance and has created a mentoring programme. It is designed to provide a forum for businesses to share information and insight freely. He says: “It needed to be founders only, with them helping each other, sharing information. There are lots of resources for start-ups, but far less for scale-ups.

It took time to get the pricing right. “I remember when we doubled our pricing only to find no change to the conversion rate. This was a lesson in how important it was to price properly. Underpricing is a huge problem for entrepreneurs – understandably, they want everyone to buy their product.”

He was also clear that they needed good quality control on the roundtables: “It’s rare, but we’ve had the odd member who behaved inappropriately, who would waffle on or had an over-sized ego. We would manage personality clashes behind the scenes and were sensitive to certain characters. When there were problems, our first port of call was to talk to the members, but we have had to stop working with some people. We also make sure we train the Chair to incorporate all members and ensure everyone is getting value. We don’t want anyone to be ‘silently unhappy’.”

Duncan has also been a champion for the scale-up sector, working on the campaign against plans announced by then chancellor Alistair Darling to abolish taper relief on entrepreneurial businesses. In 2011, he co-founded StartUp Britain, which was launched by David Cameron and designed to promote UK entrepreneurship.

Duncan’s latest venture is Learn Amp. The software platform combines learning, engagement and performance measurement. He says: “It makes it easy to map out the employee journey in an engaging and effective way. This should improve effectiveness and retention, two major drivers of business success that are often overlooked.

What has he learned about entrepreneurship? “It is clear that ignorance is bliss. Many say that if they knew how deep the lows would go, they would think twice before starting out. The majority of success comes from hard work and adaptability. That said, there is also a bit of luck involved – it is easier to be successful at certain times in the market. Entrepreneurs tend to be good at creative problem solving. They understand how to get people with talent to work for them when the business up the road can pay more. They are selling a vision and need to draw people into it.

“One important point is that it appears to be nothing to do with academic capability. There are entrepreneurs who can barely read or write operating multi-million turnover businesses and plenty have been told by school teachers they won’t amount to anything. At the same time, most entrepreneurs aren’t in it for the money – there are easier ways to make it!”

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