The one lesson from 30 years of being my own boss
I’ve spent an entire 18 months of my 57 year life being an employee – on graduating I became an assistant editor of a small newspaper and then editor of an even smaller one. After that I became a freelance writer for The Independent and The Sunday Times which was hugely thrilling but lacking an environment to spark off other journalists. One evening 30 years ago I was telling some friends that a billionaire I’d written a feature on had invited me to his office and asked why he didn’t get more positive profile of the sort I had given him.
I told them I’d replied that he must be dodgy and that I should have done my research properly if he was asking me that, which made him laugh but he kept repeating the question. One of my friends then said I should set up a PR company and get him to be my first client. The next day I phoned him and he agreed. I then phoned about ten other business owners whom I had met and asked the same thing: if I set up my own PR company, would they be my first client? Staggeringly, they all agreed and for years each boasted that it was them who started my business career by giving me my first break. I dreaded that I would ever be in the same room with any two of them.
It was a cushy lifestyle and soon I had my own Chelsea flat and obligatory flash car. But after three years, I decided to jack it in as I was busy building the brands of others rather than one for myself. I co-founded a magazine publishing company, gave all my PR clients to someone who worked for me so she could set up her own firm (which she still has) and was happy. But I still hadn’t created my own brand and that’s what led me on a path to create the most ambitious Indian restaurant the world had ever seen.
It was during the roller coaster ride of creating The Cinnamon Club that I realised the most important thing about having your own business and which business courses and manuals never teach you: that you are on your own. When things look good everyone falls in around you but when things get difficult, you are isolated – alone and with no-one to share. The sleepless nights, the tension, the awful way people pursue you if what you predicted didn’t materialise. Everyone is looking at you to fix the things we didn’t expect to happen.
The people you bring in turn against you, your investors get a kick from giving you a kicking, people who catch on to your coat tails in the good times suddenly disappear when things go sour. I fixed it all and moved on.
The following 10 years were much less challenging as from the outset my next venture Roast seamlessly delivered staggering results beyond my wildest imagination but was no longer challenging me and so oddly, I felt alone in a very different way.
Luckily, I enjoy my own company and so I’m happily entering my fourth decade in business with a mind-numbingly ambitious set of new ventures which hopefully you’ll enjoy as customers but I will enjoy in a different way and here’s an example of what I mean: on the night before the launch of The Cinnamon Club we were still putting finishing touches to the space up until way past midnight. When it all got finished and the general manager was locking up after the builders had gone, he called out: “Come on Iqbal, it’s time to go.” I said he should go as I was going to sleep there that night and he asked why.
I said: “Up until now, it’s been all of us creating this space and from tomorrow it will be the public enjoying it. Tonight is the only time it will be just mine.”
Even when you’re surrounded with people, a founder on many levels is always alone. If you enjoy being alone, there’s no greater experience.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is a London based entrepreneur who founded Tandoori magazine as well as The Cinnamon Club and Roast restaurants. He is Chair of EQUAL, a criminal justice action group and is a past High Sheriff of Greater London.