MY BIGGEST mistake was to get involved in a business that I knew absolutely nothing about - for sentimental reasons and because I thought it was a good idea.
In 1994, a cousin had a business helping aid agencies in Africa. It was a supply, purchase and delivery operation in Harare, Zimbabwe, with an office in Southampton for administration. If Oxfam said they wanted 200 tents in Mozambique, the tents would be purchased in Southampton and sent to Harare. My cousin wanted to buy himself out from his previous company and set up on his own to run this business. The process needed capital and I had a bit. It seemed a good idea with great potential: the business plan looked good. A lot of emotional activity went in, rather than total objectivity.
Peace broke out the next year - as soon as Mandela was released from prison and the elections in South Africa were sorted out. The war in Angola calmed and the war in Mozambique stopped, so our two major areas of business - the refugees suffering from those wars - dried up, although it took more than two years to recognise that peace had actually happened.
Then, instead of the aid agencies putting things like sanitation and roads in all these places, it went over to the private sector. They were trying to encourage indigenous private sector operations to cope with what was required. That left us up a gum tree. We had put a lot of capital into a business that could hardly sustain its overheads. We struggled for three years, cutting back and back, until we had to close.
The main thing I learnt was that I didn't know the marketplace. I didn't even know how to ask the questions: how dependent was the business upon war? I went in to help a family member. Since that experience, I have tried to become as objective as possible.
The people I now talk to are in company start-ups, and it's all about people. Often they are more important than the business plan.