Chris Blackhurst: Snobbery over 'wide-boy chancers'? It's time to embrace entrepreneurial spirit if we want to compete on world stage
Midweek View: No wonder, with that prevailing attitude, so few of our children go on to become innovators and risk-takers
When my eldest son, Harry, was at school, we received a letter from the headmaster. He'd learnt that Harry had packed in rowing, at which he shone, in order to take a Saturday job on the till at Sainsbury's.
In the head's opinion, stroking the first eight was better for Harry's "character development" than working at Sainsbury's. As a proud dad, my initial reaction was to agree with him. In our world, appearing for the school was something to covet, a badge of honour – not just for Harry but for his parents as well.
But that thought was only fleeting. Manning a supermarket checkout, meeting and greeting people from all walks of life, taking orders from the manager and supervisor, looking smart, handling money, having to turn up there every Saturday for an early start and remain there for hours on end while your mates were having a good time… was that not also beneficial?
It says much about the way we are that we attach greater importance to rowing for the school than taking the first, tentative steps into business. No wonder, with that prevailing attitude, so few of our children go on to become innovators and risk-takers. Britain's place, as a non-wealth creating service economy, advising and assisting those who are prepared to live more dangerously, is assured.
Chris Gorman is like my Harry. When he was growing up in poverty in Hartlepool, he did two paper rounds. He persuaded the newsagent to let him reorganise the rota, and to pocket any savings he made. "I reorganised it all for £40, kept the £10 difference, and was in a nice, warm shop," Mr Gorman has recalled. "Even back then I was looking for my own independence."
Mr Gorman is what is often referred to as a "serial entrepreneur". It's an over-used term, and is frequently delivered by those who have no concept of what is entailed in forming your own venture, developing an idea, employing people, putting your money where your mouth is. Their tone is dismissive, which is what you might expect in a society where headmasters like Harry's rule the roost, and our media, the BBC especially, insists on stereotyping those at the sharp end of commerce as little more than wide-boy chancers and con artists.
I'm having a coffee with Mr Gorman, 46, who wants to tell me about his latest start-up. It's called MusicQubed, and it's aimed at providing music for the mass-market listener, or as Mr Gorman and his marketing whizzes like to call them, the Forgotten Fan.
Spotify and other streaming services have libraries of 20 million tracks and more – fine for music buffs but too overwhelming for the person who just wants to listen to the hits of the moment and some classic tracks, and can't be bothered wading through mounds of music. "The majority of music consumers have been forsaken by subscription services such as Spotify, Deezer and Beats, who seek only to serve a narrow group of enthusiasts willing to spend £10 a month to access a database of tracks on their mobile," he says.
With MusicQubed, you pay £1 a week if you're with O2 and £5 a month if you're not. For that you get an app with 100 tracks that updates regularly. "The Forgotten Fan doesn't want a vast database of music and a search box – just the 100 tracks that matter, not the millions that do not," he says.
The 100 is like a playlist that includes the current UK Top 40, plus 60 other songs. "It's like listening to the radio. We do the work of selecting, we provide the playlist," says Mr Gorman. "If you want everything we're not for you, but if you want easy, cheesy entertainment, come to us."
His customers tend to split, between 22 to 35-year-old women and 35 to 55-year-old male executives. "They want a snack service, they want to be able to listen on the school run, in the gym, while they're commuting. We do all the work for them and compared with the cost of the other services, we're saving them money," he says.
As someone who likes to browse through back catalogues, who bemoans the decline of HMV where I could happily while away hours on a Saturday afternoon leafing through racks of CDs, MusicQubed is not for me. But my snootiness disappears when Mr Gorman recites the numbers: more than 1.5 million people have used a MusicQubed service; MQ, as he likes to call it, has garnered more than 1.2 billion data points on the habits of mass-market listeners; it's raised £20m from investors, including Sir Richard Branson, and is embarking on a second round of funding; MusicQubed employs about 100, among them 30 programmers and product developers in Kiev; he's got three families of international patents protecting the operation; and research shows that the Forgotten Fans in the UK and US represent a potential $1.6bn (£1.3bn) market.
Establishment noses will turn up at mention of Mr Gorman. He is not to their liking – never has been and never will be. Like many of our entrepreneurs, he's had his share of failures (and successes). Say his name around the City and sooner or later someone will cite The Gadget Shop and, invariably, raise an eyebrow. That's regardless of the fact that he previously netted fortunes with mobile-phone retailer DX Communications, offloaded for £42m, and internet-services firm Reality Group, which was sold in a £35m deal.
He went into The Gadget Shop in 2002, when it was struggling. He quickly turned it round, clearing out old stock, and achieving like-for-like growth of 10-15 per cent. Then came a spectacular bust-up: Mr Gorman and his fellow investor, Scottish billionaire Sir Tom Hunter bought Birthdays; they were sued by The Gadget Shop directors Jon Wood and Peter Wilkinson.
The claim was that Mr Gorman and Sir Tom had betrayed Mr Wood and Mr Wilkinson, that they'd gone behind their backs to buy Birthdays. Mr Gorman and Sir Tom eventually won, but only after a court case that heard evidence of Mr Gorman dancing on tables in Monte Carlo and crying at a board meeting. The case cost the four £10m in legal bills. Birthdays was sold, at a loss to Mr Gorman and Sir Tom of £5m each. Soon afterwards, The Gadget Shop collapsed into administration. "The Gadget Shop was a great company; the people in it were so passionate about the business," says Mr Gorman, unsmiling. "Having to let them all go was one of the lowest points in my life."
He regrets the entire episode, saying he should have spotted early on that the four of them were not going to get on and walked away.
The Gadget Shop was followed by Quintessentially – Mr Gorman was one of the backers of the luxury-services brand – and Lucid PR, with his pal Charlie Lycett, his co-founder in MusicQubed. Other ventures included Truphone, which provided an app for users of iPhones and BlackBerries to make cheap, international calls, and a tie-in with Bebo, which yielded a tidy sum when the social network was bought by AOL in 2008.
Then, two years ago, Mr Gorman hit the headlines again, when he and his wife, Mary, were arrested after an incident in a Florida nightclub toilet. It was claimed she performed a sex act on a man while her husband watched. The police said they found evidence of possession of drugs. She was alleged to have lashed out at a policeman and both the Gormans were arrested. A charge of interfering (with the arrest of his wife) was soon dropped against Mr Gorman; his wife Mary was also not prosecuted after the arresting police officer said references in his affidavit regarding the sex act were incorrect and untrue, and he also changed his evidence on the recovery of drugs.
The arrests made for lurid and sensational coverage that is still there on Google. Unfortunately, not much of it was accurate and the subsequent dismissal was not so widely covered. For those who regard Chris Gorman as brash and vulgar, it merely confirmed their prejudice.
Whatever they might think, we need more Gormans – not because they keep lawyers busy, but because of what they bring to business and to wealth generation.
Rowing for the school, learning the ropes in retail, starting out on your own… there should really be no contest. We must stop being so snobbish, if we want to give Britain a competitive edge.
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