Resilience is undoubtedly a key trait in successful entrepreneurs – and Steve Witt has fallen back upon it more than most.
Witt is the co-founder of Dorset-based Not Just Travel, which develops lifestyle holidays and claims to serve 100 leading tour operators, as well as sister business The Travel Franchise. He seems on the up; but it is not the first or even second time he has scented success.
During the Dotcom Bubble around the turn of the century, his first venture – a subscription service to dial-up internet – crashed and burned in spectacular fashion.
“We took the concept to Freeserve, Demon Internet and a number of other potential partners who said it absolutely could never work,” he tells the Secret Leaders podcast. “We eventually found a partner that was willing to give it a go, partnered with other companies to add extra value-added services and took the whole solution to a big telco in the UK.
“We launched it on-stage at Wembley; they loved it so much that they went out and sold it till the cows came home. We made an absolute fortune in the first couple of weeks of the service and then, because of the volume, the system died, in effect. It crashed and burned because so many people were trying to access it.”
The company began haemorrhaging money overnight as it repaid users to try and regain their trust. “I’d moved to Blackpool and bought a house, which I ended up having to sell. I then lived with my business partner and his wife and three kids on a sofa, just trying to make ends meet as we were trying to recover the service and turn it back into making money as opposed to losing money,” he continues. “I had literally sold everything I possibly could to keep things going.
“That one was interesting because we tended to blame it on other people as opposed to sort of looking inside ourselves. A big learning was to have more of a plan, not rely on other people for your own success. Have a plan B and a plan C.
“We could have predicted, had we thought about it more, what was going to happen given the volume of people signing up, but we didn’t do anything about it and we didn’t take control of our own destiny.”
Witt’s story is told in more detail on the Secret Leaders podcast, hosted by serial entrepreneur Dan Murray-Serter, which is launching a mini-series focused on failures rather than triumphs.
A former firefighter and champion windsurfer, Witt bounced back and in 2007 sold his next company, virtual web hosting firm UKDomains, for a life-changing amount of money. However disaster was again around the corner.
“It was a great payday, but the one thing they don’t teach you is what do you do with your money? All of a sudden you feel that you’re super successful and you know everything about being an entrepreneur,” he explains. “I made a few investments, one of which was into a friend’s company, an overseas property company. Everything he had touched in the past had turned to gold.
“I didn’t do my due diligence. I ended up continuing to invest in that company to help them through some difficult times and then someone ran away with all the money. I invested with a hope, not a plan. I learned so much at that point about what you shouldn’t do when making investments, and how to diversify and spread risk.”
Leaning upon the generosity of friends and family, he says he also learned a lot about how to make a comeback.
“I didn’t go into debt, but I lost everything which I’d made out of the sale of the previous business, which I’d spent 10 years building up. I was basically back at ground zero,” he says. “It would have been very, very easy just to ‘drink myself into happiness’.
“It was literally the most depressing point ever: you’d just realised that you’d lost everything; the friends that you thought you could trust, you couldn’t trust; and having gone from this huge high of thinking you were the cleverest entrepreneur in the world, you realised you’re not as clever as you thought.
“As soon as I started to earn a little bit of money, the first thing I did was start to see a life coach who really helped me come to terms with the loss. They helped me understand that it was a learning for me and I’d invested in education, if you like, rather than seeing it as a complete negative.
“That was a great turning point for me because it helped me deal with a lot of potential demons and gave me the motivation to learn from it and decide what to do differently to build the next opportunity bigger, better and stronger, so it didn’t happen again.”