My Biggest Mistake: Oh Dell, why did I listen to them?
Wednesday 15 September 1999
I HAD been at Electra for a week, looking at the accounts of these boring manufacturing companies, and thinking it was hard to get excited about this.
I got called into a presentation at the last minute because everybody was out of the office. An American college kid had an idea which seemed amazingly simple: when it comes to buying a PC, going into a shop to be patronised by a 17-year-old with bad skin isn't pleasant. Why not sell over the phone? It takes out the cost and leads to a better shopping experience. It seemed so gobsmackingly obvious. I thought, fantastic, my first deal. I raced off to tell colleagues, who said: "Start-ups always fail, and if the idea was so obvious, someone would have done it."
I felt I was new in the business and new in the country. They've been in this for years. So I turned the investment down. The guy was Michael Dell, who's now worth $8bn.
I left Electra for Virgin, where my job was to look at new ideas. Meeting Richard Branson was a turning point. I took him some research and he said: "Don't pay much attention to that - if you'd buy the products, that's the best guide." Western training teaches obedience and conformity, but he's never worked for anybody; he's never done anything but trust his instincts.
One of the first things I thought about at Virgin was getting a pension sorted out. I'd never bought a personal finance product, so I called my bank, the Equitable and an independent financial adviser. But I couldn't understand what they were saying - and I'm an accountant with three degrees in finance. I saw that 95 per cent of the reputation and 50 per cent of the income of these pension providers was tied to commission-earning salesmen. Every instinct told me we could do this better and keep it simple. People will buy it, and if you don't have to pay huge commissions, the product's cheaper.
Everybody said: "You have got no idea how complicated this business is." But now I am someone who trusts my instincts first, my analytical ability second, and what other people say a poor third.
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