I’m definitely not one of those people who would tell their 21-year-old self to set up in business sooner.
At 21, I was immature, angry and a bit of a knobhead. I was also on the back of a truck in Baghdad while it was getting bombed – I spent my 21st birthday serving in the Gulf War, and my 18th was in Northern Ireland before that. I knew nothing about business. I was only just starting to really find out about life.
I lost my dad as a teenager and it had a massive impact on me. I’d been a good grammar school student before that, but – for me – no father meant no focus either. I didn’t deal with his death well at the time, I developed a chip on my shoulder and didn’t have him around to snap me out of it. I guess you could say I threw my education away.
What perhaps came across as not caring very much about anything, was actually a frustration that I never felt good enough at anything – except perhaps sport – so I continued to strive to be better and better. The best, actually. But I was really hard on myself in the process – the source of further frustration.
Joining the military, however, catapulted me into a ‘man’s world’ and I had to grow up very quickly. It’s unparalleled training for life, really. You rapidly learn what you can and can’t do, and I enjoyed that. I’d do it again in a breath, but if I’d stuck at education I’d ideally have gone to Sandringham and trained as an officer. I’d have remained a soldier too, and tried to understand myself a bit better. But you didn’t self reflect as a youngster in the 80s and 90s. I certainly didn’t anyway.
There was also a perception then, that you became a soldier if there weren’t many other options for you – it was almost a second-rate role. It certainly didn’t carry the same respect as it does now, and I didn’t want to struggle to find a job on civvy street when I left.
What I didn’t realise at the time – and perhaps lots of people still don’t realise – is just how multi-skilled you are as a soldier. A good one, anyway. You’re disciplined, organised, meticulous even. You’re focused, and you have a fantastic understanding of different people – on your side and others, and at varying levels of seniority. These traits – not to mention an unbelievable level of camaraderie – shaped my mentality as a businessperson all those years later, that’s for sure.
I left the army and worked in sales, selling everything from coffee machines to cars. I didn’t have an education – what else was I going to do? But I was good at it. And when I developed an interest in the emerging telecoms market, five years after leaving the army, joining Telewest (now Virgin Media) saw me start to lay the path towards running my own business.
Somehow, the real world felt much easier than it had before. I always remember being told – they can’t shoot you and they can’t make you pregnant. In other words, nothing is as hard as that.
I gained perspective. I could have a lot on my plate and manage it. I had the balls to say ‘no’ and walk away from an investment if it wasn’t the deal I wanted, even if I didn’t really know what I was doing. Material things didn’t matter to me, which meant I was happy to sell everything to take a risk establishing Vapour.
I also understood the immeasurable power of a team – when the chips are down, especially, I’d like to think I’m someone you’d want in your squad.
All of this came from being a soldier.
It’s only now, in my early 50s (ahem), that I can perhaps reflect on this. I always look forwards – you’ve got two eyes in the front of your head for a reason, and all that. But yes, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. And I’d tell myself that you can keep being better, always better. You don’t have to be so hard on yourself along the way.