At the age of 23, Lara Morgan started her first business, Pacific Direct Ltd, manufacturing and distributing brand licensed toiletries and amenities to the hotel industry. Seventeen years later, in 2008, she sold her majority share for £20 million.
Since then, Lara used her experience and passion for business to found CompanyShortcuts.com, which has an ambitious plan to support entrepreneurs who want to maximize success. It helps companies in the accelerated growth stage, providing practical solutions to issues that restrict ambitious companies.
Lara is a straight talking, no-nonsense entrepreneur and mother of three, who is always learning and looking to self improve. Passionate about leadership, self and employee motivation, Lara regularly talks about these and other specific topics based on her own experiences.
Easyspace were delighted to catch up with Lara for an interview:
Q1. You wrote the book ‘More Balls Than Most’ which reveals the secrets of how you built a globally recognized company from almost nothing and sold it for £20 million. It’s an inspirational business book about how you grew your business and maximised profits, which will no doubt be of use to entrepreneurs, managers or CEOs. Did you write it in order to encourage people to believe that they have it within them to create a successful business?
Exactly the message I’m trying to get out there. Did I ever, in my wildest dreams think that I was going to have, from a one man band in a Bedford cottage, a multi-million pound venture supplying to 110 countries, I’d have to be out of my tree to think I was going to do that. And I don’t believe anyone imagines… well I don’t believe anybody with a sound mind imagines that……
I got very lucky………The fact is we all need some luck in life, and I have been extremely lucky, but I’ve worked my arse off to get there and you know I’m determined to get more British people believing that there’s an awful lot of common sense in business and that actually people are at the heart of every success in some shape or form. So the more we can get people to appreciate that it isn’t bloody rocket science and it doesn’t need to be miserable, and of course there’s going to be some bad days – welcome to the real world – that’s ok.
The more people we can get to talk about their mad journey, then the more people we might inspire to have a go themselves.
Q2. What led you to becoming an entrepreneur?
I don’t ever think I knew I was going to become an entrepreneur. One of the things I’ve always said is if people refer to you as an entrepreneur, I would say that’s a big compliment on behalf of other people. I started my journey 25 years ago. I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur – I set out in 1991 with Pacific Direct to make a living… it is that simple. I needed to earn money, to pay the bills.
It was the last recession and that’s an important point in the modern day, because you hear people say it’s very tough to start a business. Actually, I’d go as far as to say it is tough to start a business, but it’s easier in a recession because the flexibility, mobility and the hunger of a young, small company that’s not dealing with corporate change dynamics, have a huge advantage to get a head start.
Q3. You recently appeared on The Apprentice: You’re Fired. How do you think the experiences of the candidates in Apprentice compares against setting up a real business?
Dreamland in some areas, but on the other there are fundamentally some very, very solid lessons about behaviour and how not to do something in some cases, as much as actually the good stuff that people do. I think I also learned the lesson in the importance of a program, in how really solid business people are reminded of the very good lessons of behaviour, and they see through the sort of…. shall we call it entertainment factor? Of course some people don’t, but that is life. Not everybody is going to be a successful entrepreneur, if I can be so crass.
Q4. For your first business Pacific Direct, how did you get your first sales, and what sales strategies would you recommend to new businesses?
I didn’t know what a sales strategy was. I think the fear factor needs to be taken out for the people who are still starting a business today. By which I mean, I literally started calling the hotel section of the Yellow Pages. Why did I do that? Because my prior job had been selling Yellow Pages and I knew the alphabetic order and it was literally I didn’t have a strategy, I just wanted to go and meet hotels and understand about the product range I was potentially going to offer them and was it of interest.
So actually I would say I did market research, a lot of customer listening, and a lot of understanding as to whether my product & price would be of interest, and a learning curve about the service I would then need to provide. I went to market having done that thorough homework, not really knowing I was doing it because I didn’t know what the bloody hell I was doing 95% of my time. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but the fact is: do not start investing money in all the bloody frippery of business until you’ve gone and seen a broad church of customers and established there is a need and a market. I’m fed up with people saying to me “I need a website” – why do you need a website? Actually, you need to know is your idea going to sell? Everything else is pointless, superfluous bollocks.
Q5. When you set up Pacific Direct you had no knowledge or experience of branded toiletries, guest hotel amenities the hotel industry, etc. Also, when it came to expanding your business you had no experience of shipping products overseas, logistics, setting up manufacturing, etc, which would have made things difficult. How did you overcome this, and cope with what must have been a steep learning curve?
I had never sold in the hotel market. I had never sold a bar of soap in my life. Never shipped anything. Never been in logistics. Never had any knowledge about freight…. the “never” list outweighs any other list that you can imagine.
How did I overcome these difficulties? The power of not being afraid to ask questions and to have humility. Find experts and phone them up and pick peoples brains using quality manners and a begging technique and just an approachability, a willingness to learn….. an interest in learning, a respect for other peoples knowledge – those things are priceless.
Q6. Did you follow a business plan when you started and how difficult was it getting the business established?
A business plan… are you having a laugh? The answer is, truthfully, and I will give credit to Barclays Bank – I got a Barclays Bank ‘Business Plan’ (small moron guide) and I filled in the boxes, mostly the ones around characteristically “Am I the type that can run a business?”, etc. I think that’s very powerful, because at the moment the government has brought out this absolutely ridiculous campaign: “Is there a business in you?”…. what a load of rubbish.
This is really fundamental, because the one fail safe skill I had and the confidence I had was I can sell, and I went out selling. I didn’t realise I was establishing a business, I was simply selling my products, listening to the customer, delivering my promise, asking the customer for feedback and doing it again. If you can sell, you can build. If you can’t sell then I simply believe you don’t have a chance. I’m that black & white.
Q7. Being an entrepreneur can often be portrayed as being quite glamorous and glitzy. However, during the early days of Pacific Direct, when it was just you on your own, trying to make sales, trying to contact potential new clients, etc – how did you motivate yourself during this time?
Glamorous, glitzy…… do you mean delivering to the back of the Dorchester next to the fish vans at 6:15am in the morning in order to beat the other buggers? It’s not glamorous, it’s bloody hard work.
It was lonely. I set myself self-goals and treats which kept me going – and the treats could have been as small as, I got to go and have lunch with my partner that day, if I made X successful sales calls in the morning – that is really serious – I kept a “cricket card”….cricket score i.e. a fence mechanism where you have 4 lines & a line across….. if I got 20 of those in a morning I got to go and make myself a drink. That worked for me, but I wish people would understand that running and growing a business is relentless, it is hard, it is lonely. You need good support of friends & family around you and it isn’t for the faint hearted, and it isn’t for everybody.
Q8. What basic skills or strengths does somebody need in order to run a successful business?
Resilience, persistence. I’d say focus but the truth is in the early days as an immature entrepreneur you don’t have that, but if you can get focus and stay focused then wicked. Bloody hard working, a willingness to roll up your sleeves. I don’t think risk taking, but I do think calculating opportunity is a skill. The willingness to have a go – and people define that as risk – and I define it as you’ve got to have a willingness to take action.
Q9. How did you market Pacific Direct when you first started and how do you promote your new business CompanyShortcuts.com now?
I didn’t. I just phoned hotels and I sold to hotels and there was no marketing budget. I knew nothing about marketing, the only thing I did was sell. So again, the idea that people get wrapped up with need to have a marketing budget….NO… you need to have a prospects list, which anybody can get because there’s the telephone directory – there are lots of sectors in the telephone directory and you need to go and sell. And then once you’ve made some profit, then you can re-invest and then you get to play marketing fun.
Q10. How did you go about building the Pacific Direct team and what was it like taking on your first members of staff, and what recruitment advice would you give to a new business, which is considering recruiting their first employee(s)?
Taking on my first members of staff was terrifying. It gave me sleepless nights, because I felt it was an immense responsibility, that I was going to be paying somebody else’s salary. I think, still today, that the enormity of the first step of bringing in your first employee is one of the biggest, and it gets easier in terms of making the decision, but the actual recruitment process is always a tough one and not to be taken lightly.
Don’t employ friends or family, it’s a recipe for disaster. You may think it’s the right thing to do, and it may be a way of keeping the costs down but the pain emotionally in the end when the person isn’t right…… Always try and recruit…… and these are lessons that I’ve learned, not necessarily things I did – always try to recruit the best people you can hire, who are different from your skill set. What’s the point of employing somebody else who can do your job? You need the people that don’t do your job, but do other stuff brilliantly, that you don’t like doing.
Q11. Over seventeen years, you built Pacific Direct into a global company, with customers in 110 countries. Tell us about how you established & managed the overseas expansion of the business i.e. establishing contacts, making sales, dealing with different business cultures and languages, etc.
Again, same old process, but by then I had understood, and this is a really important strategic point, once I had understood the power of the Dorchester Hotel becoming my first customer, which was more luck than judgement, I very quickly understood that if I could get the top brand customer buying my product in any new territory, then others would see me and it would make the job of an introduction far quicker and far more superior. The other thing I learned is the sooner I employed the top sales people from the competitors in my space, the faster I would get to grips with the local market. That means not employing British abroad, it means employing and trusting professionals abroad in international places who have great skills.
But equally I taught myself French. When we had a very big contract with Sofitel Accor I knew that I would impress the customer if I could speak French, so I went to Luton University and learned for the first time Business French. It scared me shitless by the way.
You have to have a willingness to learn. The business thing is not a one off “now I know it” – it’s a constant learning journey.
Q12. What advice would you give to businesses wanting to sell their products/services overseas?
British product is very much respected overseas and it has a value. Think very carefully about your pricing. You might be surprised you can get more not less. People immediately assume abroad we’ll make less money, but actually we might make more. I think discovery is enormous fun, and today you can fly to more places from Birmingham Airport in Europe at a cheaper than you can get to London on the train! So it’s inexcusable not to go to Europe at least, and sometimes further afield. And when you go, pack your humility in large amounts because the world doesn’t need Britain and we have to start learning to sell professionally abroad, and we are slow of the mark, and we need to get our act together.
I am an Export Ambassador for the UK, because too many times we are trying to steal somebody else’s British cake, instead of taking an international piece of cake. The international piece of cake is growing and ours is not…. How insane are we?
Q13. What sacrifices did you have to make when growing Pacific Direct?
That’s a great question. I think I went in with my eyes open, and although I have three beautiful children there are some sacrifices I made in terms of the times I spent with my babies, so to speak, but I absolutely traded those sacrifices for a thoroughly challenging job which I loved. I would race to get to work today rather than change nappies. That’s how I saw it.
Other sacrifices…. I can genuinely say that I have a very close, small group of friends who mean the world to me, but I didn’t see as much of them, and I didn’t have a what you would call a normal social life in my late twenties, because I worked like stink! But I loved what I was doing – so do I look at them as sacrifices? No. Do other people? Possibly. I never read drivel magazines, and I never watched much television.
I always played sports – I would never sacrifice my sport because it kept me healthy, fit, engaged, alive, energetic and with an important release. Yes I made other sacrifices, but I never noticed because I liked what I was doing – I was fully engaged. It paid off in the end and that’s where I’m lucky. Remember 50% of exit deals don’t get done.
Q14. Prior to starting Pacific Direct you had a successful job in sales in the Middle East. Where does that drive to be your own boss come from? Why did you decide the life of a 9-5 employee was not for you?
I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t get a job in 1991, even though I could sell. So I was going to be my own boss like it or not. I do believe in make a job don’t take a job, because at the moment there are no jobs. I do think some people are starting businesses because genuinely they have to make their own way in the world. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think what will happen is the wheat & the chaff will separate, and frankly those who are cracked up to make the sacrifices that you will invariably make, will stay being enterprising. Then as the job market grows once more, some will swap back into the easier, guaranteed life of a living wage.
Q15. Tells us about your new business CompanyShortcuts.com, and why you decided to set it up
For me CompanyShortcuts is genuinely intending to be my legacy gift, because I want to change Britain’s ability to sell. Britain can’t sell. Britain is rubbish at selling compared to many others in the rest of the world. I spoke to an audience of 400 the other day, and only 11 had formal sales training and yet these were business owners and founders and I’m thinking we need to growth accelerate in this company…. How do you growth accelerate? You learn to sell, and you sell more in a more disciplined structure way.
I’m horrified in terms of people’s answers about selling. We’re really bringing a mass of energy. I learned my selling in Canada, through Bell Canada Corporation. I really know there’s a structure to every sales organisation, if applied. The big challenge for many growth businesses is when they go from the lead sales person, who tends to be the owner, to try to delegate to build a team, and they just struggle and struggle – it’s a nightmare.
We need to change that. We need to give them skills and tools, where they get people to shadow them, where they write down their sales pitch. What I want to do over the next ten years is build CompanyShorcuts into a global business (because that’s what I do – I can’t see that the world is just built in Britain).
I want to see really passionate people selling, professionally well and profitably, rather than being busy fools. There are a lot of blue arsed flies in our world who aren’t making money. I absolutely know that even somebody who is….. you can’t say every single person can sell, that would be ridiculous, but at least with a process you can give somebody the confidence that they can sell.
Q16. What are some of the tools that CompanyShortcuts.com provides?
One of the products CompanyShortcuts invented is called KUTA which stands for a Kick Up The Arse – and you get a text on a daily basis, which is about continual improvement, it’s about constantly progressing and looking for improvement in every single area of your business. You need to be passionately paranoid that some other bugger is catching up in the competition.
We have The Aim High Club and for mid-sized companies we do a sales review which takes all your sales material asks is it cohesive? Is it co-ordinated? Does the message flow? And actually, most importantly is the message your USP? And is your customer getting the message in the way you are presenting it when your selling your product? If it’s not then there’s a lot of stuff that needs to change.
We in Britain have got to start putting the customer much more first, as opposed to telling people about us and our products – its bullshit. Nobody wants to hear about you and your products. They want to hear about what you can do to help somebody else grow their business
Q17. Tell us about one of the other businesses you are involved with: Gate8 Luggage
Gate8 Luggage is a fantastic story about persistence. The owner of Gate 8 is Alistair Callender and he in effect, in a right stalking kind of positive way, was determined that I was going to be involved in the business, because he knew I knew China and sorting and he knew I knew bags from my previous job in manufacturing. In the end, after two & a half years having him take it on the chin, some pretty direct feedback, which again in Britain we need to be more honest with each other when we think the product is not good. I said to Alistair “your brand is rubbish, your website is rubbish, your product is not particularly good, you need to….” – I gave him a list of 19 things and 5 months ago he came back to me and said “look I’ve done them and for 1 day a month I’ll give you a share in the business”.
It’s a fantastic business product, so it totally relates to the people I’m trying to get off their arses and go and export. Gate 8 provides a brilliant garment bag, that delivers a fantastic opportunity not to have to check in your luggage to an airline – and that is cool. (With my travel experience) I feel I can really represent a product, and I don’t underestimate this – it changes your life when you don’t have to let go of all your garments, and all your office kit, to check it into some airline and you may not see it at the other end.
I align myself with products and my investment strategy is around toiletries & cosmetics, because it is actually something I know about and I only wish more people would only ever speak from experience. You can’t be an expert in everything, so I work hard to only give advice around stuff I know about.
Q18. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc, to promote your website? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?
No to Facebook, I think Facebook is a social platform, and I haven’t required it in any of the businesses I’ve done yet, but I see it as something for branding that I’ll use in due course.
Definitely LinkedIn and I’m using Twitter as I’m learning. You have to be up to speed and growing with whatever is going to make you faster, more efficient, more attractive, more competent…. Name all the “mores” you like but you’ve just got to do it all.
Regarding YouTube, for Gate 8 we’re doing a video recording at Chichester Aerodrome because we want to show people the brilliance of a journey when you don’t have to check-in your luggage.
Q19. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?
Be ready for a much longer ride than it looks like you might have from the outset. Because the majority of people who have been successful do not do this gig overnight. This is not something that just happens. It took me 17 years, it took Deborah Meaden approx. 12 years or whatever…… There’s a lot of us and the press give these sort of impressions of “Hey Ho …. It just happens!” I started when I was 23 and sold when I was 40. It was not an overnight journey and you will have to live with the bad days. On the other hand, they’re your days and you can make of them what you will and at least you have the ability to work harder and to make decisions. So I think the upsides far out weight the downsides.
Q20. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
It’s so crass but I genuinely read Richard Branson’s book 20 something years ago, so he is one. But in terms of the enterprise journey, also my Mum was an unbelievable hard worker as were both my parents. Being brought up in Asia and seeing how people worked unbelievably hard is another great example of the benefit I had and that international upbringing made me see the world as a small place. So again a significant advantage that I saw the world as a small place from the outset.
Q21. What mistakes have you made in business, and what would you have done differently?
We haven’t got time…… we’d have to start the interview again 🙂 By which I mean… going back to skills you need… you are going to have to be able to bounce back because you will stuff up. But standing still is not an option. You have to make decisions, you have to move on and you have to be resilient about stuff that’s going to go wrong. Don’t look upon it as a mistake, look upon it as a learning journey
Q22. Some people may have a good idea for a business, lots of resources, skills, finances, etc but they still don’t take the leap in starting their own business – and this is mainly down to fear – how would you encourage someone to overcome this?
Get a coach maybe. But the fear thing…. If you can’t overcome it then somebody else can’t run your business. If you are not a decision maker then you are a procrastinator. There are some characters who are simply not cut out for bearing the responsibility and the significant burden of for.
For example I woke up on the 1st of every month, knowing I had to pay X many peoples mortgages, and I lived with that and actually in the end when it got to nearly 500 people, I started thinking “do you know what, this ain’t fun anymore”. So sadly, there are times when you have to go “this isn’t for me……”
Some people ask the question: are entrepreneur born or made? I don’t care. Have you got the balls? Because you can be born, made, crystallised…. I don’t care. If you’re going to be intransigent and be unable to take change in your stride then you’re not going to be an entrepreneur are you? It does go tits up and there are some shit days
Q23. You set up your first business when you were only 23, during a recession, no university degree, no real experience of your chosen industry. For people who want to run their own business, what are your thoughts on the importance of having a degree, and whether it is wise to set up a business in the current economy?
So I went to WHSmiths book section, in business, on any subject I knew I was incompetent at – so you can imagine I have a significant business library of every topic, because I knew nothing. The most important skill is self-awareness. Admit what you don’t know, and then work hard to learn.
Regarding a degree….. for me aptitude comes second after attitude. If you want it enough and you’re willing to work at it hard enough you can teach yourself anything. I absolutely want my doctor and my dentist and my professionals to have a degree and be an expert in their fields having gone to university before they delve in my mouth or body. But when it comes to enterprise and experience, I haven’t met any MBA’s that have been entrepreneurs.
As for setting up a business in the current economy……. it’s the perfect time. But think about the capital that you’re going to need, because it’s less perfect for some than others. There isn’t a lot of cash around. The banks are not terribly supportive as we know. But even back in my day you had to be trading for 3 years before they gave you an overdraft, unless you were unbelievably exceptional. So the idea that it’s must different from what it was then, is true but it’s not so far from the truth because the banks are the lenders low risk.
With my businesses I always have a significant point of difference, or something unique or different that I believe makes us outstanding and builds our possibilities
Q24. Can people with no special skills or original business idea really develop a successful startup?
Yes, if you are going to offer an exact same product or item with better services, better delivery, better innovation, better reach, etc. How many people really come up with a brand new, original idea and concept? Pens are still re-designed today. We just have a new shape and a new style. If you’re passionate about it and can think it different and better than Parker Pens then come to the market.
Q25. What’s it like managing your current business? Describe your typical day.
Chaos. I’m very lucky that I’m really poor at most things so I employ real experts who always show a hunger to learn and grow. I give immense trust. I do much more overseeing, and touching base around my interests. I certainly cannot cope with anymore interests so I’m in the “I’m not investing at the moment” stage, because it would be inappropriate for me to mislead people. I’ve got to the point where I say I’m just not going to look at it. It may be the next Google young man, but a) I don’t know enough about the web, and the internet is not my sector, so I’d quickly say no. And b) you wouldn’t want me on board because my pound isn’t valuable enough in that sector for you to want me on board – you’d be a fool, because a pound is not a pound. So I’m very strict now that I say no nearly all the time, but I’m learning still.
Q26. What are your future plans for CompanyShortcuts?
Global domination in their sectors. Why do it unless you want to be the best – I really do believe that. It’s not meant to sound arrogant, but I’m not here to play at it, I’m here to be the best. Why would I want to come second if I can come first? Why would I want to employ a B grade player if I can get an A grade player? We need to get more ambitious, and it’s not lacking humility to be ambitious if it’s done the right way.
I am delighted to support anything enterprise. Every penny of CompanyShortcuts, the build is my legacy. It’s very important to me. I want Britain to become a sales nation. The only thing I think I am genuinely competent at is I Can Sell.
Q27. So you’ve still got a real hunger for growing another business and thrive on a challenge by the looks of it?
God yes! What else am I going to do with my life? I’m 46. A lot of people try retiring and find it’s very boring, it’s very unrewarding and anyway, what sort of example to my children if I am not enjoying my life and getting the most out of what the world has to offer by continuing to learn.
It’s what I enjoy doing. My husband would divorce me if I for one minute was deluded enough to think I should stay at home, because he’d be driven nuts…… no man alive should live with me anyway…. So I have to stay busy 🙂
There is a serious point in there though…You have to do what makes you happy, and if you’re not happy – change it!
Thanks Lara, from everyone at Easyspace.