Kitchen table to <£350m turnover - Johnnie Boden shares 10 things he's learnt in business and life

Author: Charlotte Bowater / Joint Programme Manager.

I recently attended the LSI Alembic Canteen in Bridport to listen to a talk given by British entrepreneur Johnnie Boden. Boden started in 1991 at the kitchen table with eight menswear products. Last year the business chalked up 2.5 million customers worldwide and sales of over £350 million – all the more impressive given that Johnnie started out with no fashion training.

Johnnie’s talk was structured around 10 things he has learnt on his journey: the highs and lows, the mistakes and lessons learnt, no holes barred. As I listened I was struck by how similar these lessons were to those learnt through the process of mentoring. Just like our Mentors Johnnie shared wisdom gained by having travelled the road himself and we were at ease with his personable and friendly manner. Let’s hope when his diary eases we can persuade him to join his peers and become a Dorset Mentor!

I have decided to impart his download in stages. Johnnie’s 10 points will therefore be added to this page incrementally to form a single article here so that by the end you can refer to them all in one place.

Johnnie opened his talk by characterising his youth and upbringing. Everyone can identify with the sometimes bumpy passage from child to adult, the seeking of one’s own identity and journey to independence and ploughing one’s own furrow. There are many parralels to setting up your own business. Lesson 1:

1. Seek the Truth

  • Be yourself – stop pleasing other people (e.g. pursuing a career you are not passionate about because you want to please someone else)
  • Engage both sides of your brain – logic, practicality, numbers all have their place but intuition and authenticity are as important
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Entrepreneurs are disrupters by nature – not managers. Learn or get help.
  • Learn to ask, and be open to being asked, the difficult question. Some of our DORMEN mentors called it the known unknown but what does it mean? It means that the entrepreneur or someone in their team knows the problem if something isn’t working, but either they are denial, they choose to ignore it, or perhaps it seems to challenging to them or requires effort in an area their skills are weak, perhaps they just don’t know what to do. Johnnie’s point? You have to ask the difficult question, or have someone alongside who is prepared to ask it for you or of you. You will only hold yourself back if you don’t.

My recommendation, as a business owner myself who has used the DORMEN service, is get a Mentor.  They will help guide you in all this and be the person prepared to ask you the difficult questions – not to criticise but to help you and your business grow and succeed where others fail.

2. Listen

  • Listen to feedback (positive and negative)
  • Listen to your team. You cannot succeed without a happy team.
  • Be happy with failure. Learn from it. Businesses fail because they do not listen – whether that is to their customers, to their staff etc.

Johnnie’s reflection which he couldn’t emphasise enough: “I wished I listened to negative feedback earlier on”.

3. Partners

To be successful in business Johnnie impresses the importance of surrounding yourself with trusted partners. These may variously give you practical, financial and emotional support: the key is to have them in your work and at home.

The best partners are those who actively listen to you, those who are prepared to tell you how it really is when required. It can also be lonely running your own business, ultimately everyone is looking to you, you might dole out praise but not necessarily receive it, you might find decisions weigh heavily on you or responsibility to investors or staff stressful. Partners can make all this weigh less heavily, help you reframe your thinking and encourage you.

Whether you are a sole trader with a fledgling business or Johnnie Boden with a £320m plus turnover, both positions can be lonely. Partners are vital and this is where a personal business Mentor can be of enormous value: to be an objective sounding board for all aspects of your business whose motivation is only to help you succeed. In so doing they will listen, they will encourage and praise you, they will help you work through your decisions and be a sounding board, they will help you manage financial commitments and work through employment challenges.

DORMEN Mentors are also holistic in their approach to your business and personal life, recognising that the dynamics of the ‘group’ around you (family etc), your motivations and your beliefs are intrinsic factors that affect your entrepreneurial journey. On occasion your partners can be too close or non-objective – so having someone on the journey with you who can see the bigger picture and help you navigate is invaluable.

Ultimately it is vital to always have a growth mindset and be open to learning from those who’ve trodden the entrepreneurial or business path before you. After all, they’ve experienced many of things you have and many wished they’d had a mentor as a trusted partner to support them when they had to learn lessons the hard way!

4. Top people

As you develop and grow your business Johnnie impressed the importance of hiring people who are better than you. It can be scary and expensive, but the investment pays back quickly and will take you to new places.

Interviewing: Boden being a fashion business largely relies on creative people. Rather than limit interviews to typical skills related questions, go a step beyond to establish the character. Johnnie’s ultimate filter is ‘Would I want to sit next to this person on a long-haul flight?’, so he might ask questions that draw out how creatively minded a person is ‘where do you go on holiday?’, ‘what do you cook?’, ‘describe your sitting room?’ The budget they have is irrelevant, it’s about how creative they are in response to it, what it tells you about the things they care about.

If you are considering appointing someone to a senior role take them out for dinner. People tend to relax over a drink and you get closer to the true person.

When you think that the Army effectively interview recruits for 40 hours, really invest in your selection process and have a probation period. Remember, it is your business and you must focus on what you and it need to succeed.

5. Culture and plans
If my mind was wandering at all during the talk I sat up and took notice when Johnnie said ‘Other people can do a plan, just get on with it and do it really well!’. Having a business of my own I didn’t have a plan for the first 5 years, it just grew around me – and this is typical of many young businesses. However, when I had one of those ‘perfect storm’ years I was suddenly all at sea. When I requested a Mentor form DORMEN there was no judgement about why I didn’t have a plan, but there was enlightening explanation as to why. I now get it! It doesn’t HAVE to be a complex 30 page business plan, it can be on one sheet of paper at the least. Either way it gives you something to put in your top drawer and refer to, to see if you are on track, whether you need a rethink or to focus on some area of the business that is detracting from you reaching your goals.
So, yes, other people can help you with your plan, but do own it yourself and make it memorable. This said, Johnnie is spot on: once written just get on with it and do it really well (and better than your nearest competitior!)
Culture-wise Johnnie underlined that a productive business is one where you admit your mistakes to set a culture of openess and learning. Encourage staff to bounce ideas off each other – allow individuals to own and take responsiblity for their work but ensure pride is collective. To illustrate the point you could say this is the difference between an unsafe and safe hospital!
As a leader where there are problems get close to them – develop a rapport with the team and get among them, be part of the solution.
Ensure your brand values and purpose are clear – then your team know where they are aiming and what they are checking their work and behaviour against.
Recommended reading: Matthew Syed “Black Box Thinking”
6. It never gets any easier, the problems are just different.
As your business develops the nature of challenges do too. Where you once only had to worry about your income, you’ve now got to consider employees, corporation tax, your own work/life balance – the list goes on. This point perhaps comes back to the earlier one of partners. Ensure you surround yourself with the right partners who will support your endeavour.
Johnnie made the point that to be really successful in business (and I guess we are talking about his perspective of a £320million turnover) you have three choices:
-family & friends
-family & work
-friends & work
For many ultra successful entrepreneurs it is a challenge to juggle all three and many fail. So, be clear about what your goals are and what, if anything, you are prepared to sacrifice unless you have the right partners.
Next instalment next week!


I will upload the next instalment next week – so stay with us and follow us on Twitter or Facebook @DorsetMentors.