Fast Track: A sweet song of success and synthesizers

CV: Jonathan Cole, Director Of Computer Warehouse
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The Independent Culture
Jonathan Cole, 40, director of Computer Warehouse, never expected to run a multi-million pound company during his earlier career as a musician. He says that building up a business empire has all been a bit of an accident.

FOR ME, I think that the things you end up doing are the ones that you never gave much thought about. I suppose that music was my first love. From my teens upwards I always wanted to be in a band. It was during the early Seventies while there was a lot of change that went on in music at the time. I started making music when I was around 12 or 13 and was self-taught in everything. My mum never forced me to have music lessons or anything but for some reason she sent my brother to piano lessons. It's strange. I ended up becoming a musician and he's a graphic designer.

I did not actually join a band properly until I was about 17. When I was at school, I think everybody saw me becoming an accountant or a lawyer. I worked in an accountant's office on work experience when I was about 15 in the holidays and I absolutely hated it.

At first, I was mainly doing songwriting and guitar was my main instrument. But I bought a synthesizer in about 1978 and that changed everything. It was one of the very first ones and it was a big clunky thing, more like an organ. But there was a feature on the synthesizer which created a little pattern which fascinated me. We recorded a single and eventually signed to a label in London called Realto. They were an interesting company run by Ted Heath's son. That was a fantastic time in my life and we played The Marquee and all those sorts of places around London.

Around the end of 1979, when I was 20, I was doing a BA in accounting and finance in Bristol but had reached my third year and completely lost interest. After we signed the deal in London, I decided to move there permanently.

After that, I probably talked myself into going solo. I was writing songs and playing most of the instruments on different records. I never really glanced back at that degree although it might be nice now to have some letters behind my name. I don't think it made any real difference to what I ended up doing but I can't imagine what my parents thought at the time.

I was signed as a development artist and songwriter and I also started to do lots of visual things, like videos for bands for Top of the Pops.

I met some people who had been playing for me and one of them had a deal and he asked if I wanted to do some keyboard work on his album. So I ended up doing that and realised it was something I was good at and there were not many people playing synthesizers around that time.

And then everything changed when I started to work at an instrument shop in South London which a friend of mine owned. He had loads of keyboards and I rearranged them for him and he asked me if I could come in and sell them. I ended up running their keyboard section and it gave me a chance to look at all of the new equipment which was coming through from abroad. We used to sell some pretty upmarket stuff. The only other company doing that at the time were called Sycho, who sold the really expensive pounds 60,000 bass synthesizers which everybody used on their records.

I did that up until around 1983 when I got head-hunted to open a more general music field for Sycho, which was co-owned by Peter Gabriel and his cousin and had these fantastic offices in Conduit Street. It was a real growth area and we had a large professional client base because our equipment was part of the Eighties' sound.

After about 1986, I could see the technology changing and coming downmarket. You could buy for just pounds 3,000 what you only used to be able to buy for pounds 60,000. I remember coming back from a trade show in America and telling the guys who ran Sycho that Casio had a new machine for pounds 1,500 which they were selling for more than 20 times that. I said that we need to take this on board but they were not particularly interested, so I left.

I looked around for a few months and thought, someone's got to sell these products in the UK to the same people, they are definitely going to buy it, so I started up The Synthesizer Company on a pounds 50,000 start up, helped by a BE scheme. It was a scheme to help business expansion and a tax efficient way for people to invest in new companies. The equipment was coming out of Japan and we did a deal with Casio where we took three months of their supply - we took a gamble on it and it just sold.

We had to employ a couple of other people and we found this great place which used to be a Spitfire factory during World War II.

We started the company in 1987 and I had done a business plan for a year and a half but we blew that in the first three months. Our first year's turnover was something like pounds 1.5m.

Through being involved in the music industry we started selling Apple computers for that but then realised there was a bigger market for them in the business sector.

In 1991, I created Computer Warehouse. Within two years, it was the largest Apple reseller in the UK. We pride ourselves on our mail order advertising and the joke in the office was that for years we didn't even have a warehouse.

I think my talent has been for seeing different people's changing needs for technology and how to meet this. There are so many exciting things happening across our business in audio, video and home cinema, which we are becoming more involved with.

One of the most satisfying things has been providing the technology for different cutting edge developments in music and video. Our equipment has been used by artists as diverse as The Spice Girls and Underworld.

I never regret not staying as a musician. I sometimes see people who started out at around the same time as me and it's a very hard world to work in. I think doing this has given me a much longer career.

Interview By Mark Oliver