My Biggest Mistake: Simon Burke: I got involved in a business, but did not keep control

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake was getting involved in a business venture, and then losing control of it. When I was in Dublin, not long out of school, I used to be a fanatical player of board games; these were not your typical family games, they tended to be strategy- or business-orientated and would take hours to play.

One or two people in the group were very inventive and good at dreaming up ideas for games. One day we decided to invent one, and we succeeded. It was all about the election of the Pope, and the cardinals who were coming to Rome to vote but who suffered various mishaps on the way. Amazingly, an Italian games company actually paid us pounds 1,000 for the rights to the game. It was an absolute fortune to us then.

We thought, "Hang on a minute we are onto a good thing. Why don't we see if we can set up a business and sell some games ourselves?" The company we set up was called Centurion. We put in all the money from the Italians and a couple of us topped it up with more, including me.

We decided to manufacture a game called Realpolitik. It was a good game, but complicated. We had many meetings to decide how to produce the thing. But then I was transferred by my company to London and had just finished training as an accountant. I left the whole thing in the hands of friends and also invited a couple of colleagues from the accountancy firm to become involved and to help manage it. I was a bit worried there wasn't enough professionalism in the outfit.

I was trying to half-run it from a distance, which was a complete disaster because they all became quite resentful of me interfering. Even though Dublin is not far from London, I was out of the circle and did not really know what was happening. Gradually, things went wrong and the people I had brought in weren't that interested.

We were taken to the cleaners by a guy who did some work for us. He was signed up because he was a pal of one of the other directors. We were told he would do a great job at a cheap price. He actually was not equipped to do something that complicated and didn't have the gear to make all the components.

He ran out of control and spent all of our money. Because he was a friend of the other director we couldn't take action against him. And we did not really want to create a huge row among ourselves and people's families. This was a very good lesson. The absolute worst thing to do in business is to involve family and friends.

The enterprise collapsed. The game was only half-manufactured and we ended up with somebody's garage full of little plastic figures and maps of Europe, with nothing else and all the money gone. I lost every penny I had put in.

Since then I have never invested money in a business or a venture I have not been able to manage myself. This way I can keep on top of what is happening and if things go wrong, I am in a position to do something about it.

We have all moved on now and are still friends, except the printer. We actually joke about it often and we are all amused and slightly embarrassed about it. Most of the people involved have gone on to have professional careers or are running businesses of their own. All of us look back on this and think how naive we were. But it was a cheap lesson in some of the fundamental things about business.

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