My Biggest Mistake: Johnnie Boden

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The Independent Online
The 32-year-old former banker and stockbroker set up Boden, the mail-order clothing company, two-and-a-half years ago. Based in north London, it now has 30,000 customers, a turnover of 1.5m pounds - and just 10 employees

I HAVE made so many mistakes that I often consider it a miracle that we've survived. However, as someone once put it, if 51 per cent of your decisions are correct, you're laughing.

In setting up a business after several years of corporate life, one is beset with indecision. I spent days agonising over problems to which I was convinced there was a 'right' answer.

The head ruled the heart: so-called professionals were consulted (at not inconsiderable cost) to make decisions which, in truth, they had no business making. These decisions were mine to make. I was merely being weak. If I were to pass on one piece of information to any budding entrepreneur, it would be this: don't be frightened of making mistakes.

For each problem, there tend to be only two possible solutions (or variations of the same). Make a decision trusting your guts. If you don't and the decision is the wrong one, you'll kick yourself; if it's the right one, you won't have learnt anything. So within reason, follow your guts. If you are right, you will feel great. If you're wrong, you'll have learnt a lot. Most importantly, you won't regret it.

My greatest mistake emanated from a head-based decision that almost crippled the business. On the advice of an expensive firm of consultants, I decided to entrust the 'fulfilment' arm of the business to a third party. 'Fulfilment' is mail-order jargon for the taking, processing and despatching of customer orders. We paid an outside company to deal with our existing and potential customers.

Fortunately, the orders rolled in. According to the daily information I received, orders were taken, goods were sent out, cheques were cashed and everyone was happy. All I did was monitor the operation from afar and count my blessings, rather pompously, that I was spared the nitty-gritty and could thus devote my energies to the 'major issues' - or so I thought.

Cracks soon started to appear. Tales of inefficient service and slow delivery filtered back to me, normally indirectly, or at great parties which were thereby ruined.

Not only did such tales catch me completely unawares, but I was utterly powerless. The frustration of such impotence in an ultimate service industry was indescribable. This fulfilment company held our stock, its telephone numbers were printed in our catalogue and it had all our data.

On reflection, (as my guts, wife and mother had told me all along), how could I expect someone else, all nine-to-fivers, to care as passionately as I did about customer service? These were our customers, our livelihood. I would have stayed up all hours to satisfy them. What were they to the fulfilment company but a very indirect means to an end?

We eventually parted company. But as a result of our experience, many of our valued and ill-treated customers will never return, thereby wasting considerable amounts of money spent on attracting them in the first place.

Now we speak to the customers direct. I no longer delegate important aspects of the business to people over whom I have little control. Of course, we continue to make massive mistakes. But at least we've only got ourselves to blame.

(Photograph omitted)