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.

7. Embrace Risk!

Johnnie was very open about the risks he had taken on his business journey and there was much empathy in the room from those entrepreneurs and business owners present who remember being in a similar situation for better or worse.

His main point was to make sure you are clear about the level of risk you are prepared to take on and your plans in mitigation. Be prepared to take a risk but pause to consider what the consequences are if you fail. However, do bear in mind that as an entrepreneur you will inevitably have to take risks at some point. The key to mitigation is to have a sounding board, someone objective on side who can help ensure you have stress-tested your ideas, that you have looked at all the options and can own your decision with confidence. You therefore will not be surprised when I recommend having a Business Mentor who will do all this and more!

If you do fail then fail better. Failure is ok, many entrepreneurs (the Dysons of this world, for example) failed many times before they got it right. The key is to take stock and learn, so as not to make the same mistake again.

Generally failure often comes from failure to plan but also not confronting ‘the elephant in the room’. That will be individual to all of you, but often you know or suspect what the ‘elephant’ is, or someone has pointed it out to you but you didn’t listen. The ‘elephant’ could be a misplaced or overpriced product, it could be a lack of skills issue among a team, it could be a failure to dig deeper into what your accounts could tell you about sales and marketing.   Either way, turn to face it and if that feels too difficult or you do not know how, get some support to do so (this is very much part of the remit of a Mentor to help you or to help you understand the nature of the problem and ways you can overcome it)


8. Customers and Competition

Your customers are all-important. If you do not keep your focus on what they want and need things go wrong – often quickly. So engage them. Do NOT design for yourself.

For example, you might get carried away developing a product or service, but make sure your customers actually want it or it could be a costly mistake in time/money. Know who they are: talk to them, survey them, encourage them to feedback openly and USE what you learn. Customer relationships are key to developing your business – again, consider a mentor to help you with how to approach this and work out what is going to be most effective for what you need to achieve.

Next is to ensure and persuade your customers that you are better than your competitors. You should always be watching and learning from those closest competitors to see what they are doing well or not (and use the latter to your advantage!) As important is to surprise and delight your customer. Reward them for placing their business with you. It doesn’t have to be expensive (a free coffee, or a simple thank you, but it always helps to be personal), it could be a free taster for next level service – anything that engages them and makes them glad they are with you.

9. Balance

Everything is a balance: finance & emotion, professional & amateur. What does that mean? Well, every business owner needs spreadsheets, balance sheets but unless they stay connected with staff and customers they do not work. These two cannot can run in isolation, or failure will follow. So KNOW your spreadsheets and your position, but unless you stay in tune with what your customers actually want you will find your business involuntarily drifting.

Another example: be confident but also be humble. Pride/arrogance come before a fall and humility goes a long way. However be confident, be sure of your goals (i.e. direction) and then your teams know what they are aiming for. If they do not, again, drift sets in.

The big one for any entrepreneur is the balance of risk versus security. Don’t ‘bet the farm’, but equally don’t avoid risk altogether. The key is do your research, understand the risk, mitigate it as far as possible and OWN your decision. This is in fact a key area where a Mentor can support you – they will help you stress test your ideas and decisions before you race ahead. They won’t advise you but they will guide you through what you need to be thinking about so you can make that decision with confidence.

10. Broad Shoulders

And finally, you need broad shoulders! It can be lonely running a business – not just if you are a sole trader but if everyone is looking to you to make decisions that affect them. You will inevitably have to carry the burden of duty of care, or if things go wrong you have to deal with customers. It may be that you are overstretched financially or mentally.

Now envision having someone alongside you, who is there only to encourage and support you and who knows what it is like because they too have been there. This person will help reduce risk and increase your chances of success, whatever your mission. They will minimise your exposure by guiding you through planning and decision making. They will provide fresh ideas, impart wisdom and be there to bolster your confidence and skills for the long term

That person is a Dorset Business Mentor. We are the most effective, knowledgeable and accessible resource of private support available for business owners at any stage of business or sector in Dorset. Call us to find out how we can provide you with a Mentor carefully matched to your needs.

And remember, we have professional volunteer mentors on hand, ready to be a support to you in your business journey. They’ve lived it for themselves and will share their wisdom for your benefit. We match mentors to the individual need and character of each business owner and business, this and much more for just £200 per year thanks to our funded status. Find out more by giving us a call on 01202 607 530.