National Business Awards Entrepreneur finalist focus: James Caan, Hamilton Bradshaw

Describe your background and journey into the business world
I left home at the age of 16, having picked up the business bug from my father who manufactured and sold leather garments. I decided not to go into the family business and began working in recruitment. I instantly loved it as I am naturally a people person and recruitment is based around people. I met my future wife Aisha and helped her start up her own boutique business.

Once that was profitable, I was itching to start up my own business in recruitment. I founded Alexander Mann, which was initially just me in a tiny Pall Mall office with a phone and a copy of the Yellow Pages. Eventually it grew into a global brand, with 30 worldwide offices and a turnover of £130m. Now with Hamilton Bradshaw established as a leading private equity firm, I have the opportunity to actively invest in entrepreneurs and small businesses, which is something I’m hugely passionate about.

This was another reason I became Chairman of Start-Up Loans; to be involved in a scheme where we could create tens of thousands of jobs is something which really inspires me.

How did you fund your business?
I had to be a bit creative at the time. The first business I started with Aisha was largely funded by taking out 3 separate credit cards with banks that had an overdraft facility. I then used a small amount of money from this business to start up Alexander Mann. As it was a recruitment agency, I didn’t actually need much capital at the start – all I was paying for was rent, a phone and some business cards.

How are you managing the challenges associated with starting up your own business?
Starting a business is never easy, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong. But I am somebody who absolutely loves the challenges; it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.

I often say that it is your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude. If you have that entrepreneurial drive to be a success and to solve problems, you will be able to take any challenges head on.

I am also a firm believer in thinking outside of the box – my motto has always been to observe the masses and do the opposite. If you can surround yourself with people that have a similar mentality but different areas of expertise, that will energise you and help take your business to another level.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
During my time on Dragons’ Den I saw thousands of business pitches so I understand how difficult things can be for start-ups. Self-belief is all important. It’s very easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that can sometimes be painted, but if you have a bankable idea and a passion for what you are doing, you can be a success.

You should also ensure you have a good cashflow. This is something that is important for all businesses, but especially start-ups. Negotiate strong payment terms with customers and try to build good relationships with suppliers. The success of your business is not based on how much money you will get in 60 days’ time, but how much cash you have available.

How do you foster innovation throughout your business?
I think it’s all about creating the right culture. Don’t just pay lip service to it – create an environment where employees are actually encouraged to come up with ideas.

Hiring people who have a real passion for innovation plays a big part in this. Sometimes when I come across somebody who I think can make a difference to my company; I create a role for them even if we aren’t actively recruiting. Another piece of advice would be to make sure you and other people within the firm are constantly analysing the market and looking for trends and gaps.