My biggest mistake: Bad time in a wrong market
Wednesday 29 September 1999
I MADE a series of mistakes, partly about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In New York, working in the bond market for Reuters, the emerging threat from Bloomberg was getting to me. Nobody at Reuters was taking real notice of them, but I was having sleepless nights on a personal crusade to have a competitor taken seriously. I thought: "If I'm losing sleep I should do it on my own account." I also had an urge to be an entrepreneur.
I had the idea of setting up a travel company, Back of Beyond, to take stressed Wall Street traders to the Australian outback. My business partner came from a sheep-farming family, and we found a station in Queensland who would take traders and make them round up horses and shear sheep. I had the theory that holidays should have a week when you got exhausted and a week relaxing.
I wrote my business plan, raised money, and resigned from Reuters 17 days before the market crash of October 1987. That precipitated a nervousness in the markets, and meant it definitely wasn't the best time to start a company encouraging dealers to leave their desks for two weeks. I don't think anyone spotted it coming. But I was committed and I couldn't change direction.
We had some great successes. A partner at Goldman Sachs went out and loved it. A lot of New York women went, expecting to meet the man of their dreams. Australia was big in the US; Crocodile Dundee had come out, Australia had won the America's Cup and Foster's was the biggest-selling lager.
But I was running the company from 7.30am to 2.30pm then going in to do consulting for Reuters. All the money I was earning was going into the travel company but nothing was changing. I had to take a tough decision and tell my investors it just wasn't going to work.
I thought the most important thing was getting the company properly formed from a legal point of view. I spent days and thousands of dollars until I'd gone through 10 per cent of the money I'd raised. I wanted to see stationery with my name on it and proper share certificates, to convince myself I had a company. I later realised if the legals don't exactly take the back seat they shouldn't be doing the driving. A product to sell and someone to sell it is most important.
Setting up a travel business in New York was difficult and it was just bad timing, but over-committing in a market you're not sure of is definitely a mistake.
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