Lunch with… Doug Richard
Tim West, Social Enterprise Magazine
I’ve stepped from the baking June sunshine into the cool neoclassical entrance foyer of Home House, a sumptuous, private members’ club in Portman Square, west London.
The atmosphere is formal but relaxed. Smartly turned out staff smile from behind a highly polished wooden desk, and check for my name.
Moments later, a casually-dressed, middle aged guy with a healthy tan sweeps purposefully through the door, mobile phone at his ear, relaxed grin on his face, American accent pinging back an echo from the high ceiling.
‘Hi Tim!’ says Doug Richard – ‘Ya, he’s here,’ he tells the person on the other end, before hanging up. ‘Hello, have you got a table for me?’ he smiles to the concierge, knowing the answer but enjoying the theatre of the exchange.
‘I like this place,’ he says as we are ushered through to a lunch table in the garden restaurant. They’re not too formal and they don’t mind you using your mobile or laptop, he explains.
Indeed, one of the few rules of the club – formerly home to a notorious countess, various art collections, an embassy and even infamous spy Anthony Blunt – is that ‘nudity is discouraged’.
It seems the perfect London pied-à-terre for Cambridge-based entrepreneur Richard – a serious businessman, yes, who enjoys his wealth and appreciates good food and service, but who is clearly also a fun-loving rebel at heart who doesn’t like being told how to behave, dress or, most definitely, what to think.
Matthew Rock, editor-in-chief of entrepreneurs magazine Real Business sums up the man in a quote used on Richard’s own School for Startups website, describing his ‘almost Tourettes-like honesty’. The word ‘almost’ is important because Richard is, of course, the consummate pro.
Known to many from the first two series of TV’s Dragons’ Den, he says what he thinks, but not without thinking. This is a man who has won, lost and again won large amounts of money through his business dealings. He likes pushing boundaries but has also developed a finely honed sense of risk.
We relax in Home House’s rather lovely garden contemplating the equally exquisite menu, glasses of chilled, citrussy New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc quenching the dryness of the day.
Beginning of the end
I’m interviewing Richard because of his recent forays into the world of social entrepreneurship. He has run School for Startups sessions for social enterprises, and hooked up with Social Enterprise for our RBS SE100 Index launch in early June as a keynote speaker. Typically provocative, he used the speech to suggest we should be marking the ‘beginning of the end of social enterprise’.
He said: ‘This first index of the top growing social enterprises is an important milestone of how far we’ve come… However, it is my great ambition that in my life we can count down the last 100 non-social businesses.’
A clue to what he means is to be found in the way he views the School for Startups, a training academy for entrepreneurs, which he describes as a social business, although it is a straightforward private limited company.
Its mission is ‘to create a vibrant, dynamic culture and economy in the UK that supports and promotes innovation and entrepreneurialism’. Social entrepreneurs and their businesses are a growing part of this market.
‘Social enterprise is a new term for old things,’ Richard says over our starter of roasted scallops. ‘I’ve been starting high-tech businesses my whole working life and I realised I had to have a mission-led business. It’s easier to be a mission-led business than to be seen to be one.’
What does he mean by ‘mission-led’?
He tells of one of his first business ventures, back in the US, which he built off the back of clever software used to stream images from space.
‘We were really good at complex image manipulation and realised we could age people’s looks,’ he says. It led to a link with the national centre for missing children, which used the software to show how missing children might look as they got older.
‘They became our mission,’ he says. At the time, 20 or 30 per cent of leads were successful. ‘By the time we finished, 90 per cent were being found.’
As our main courses of cod and seabass arrive, I ask if he thinks social entrepreneurs should be able to make money for themselves as well as for their cause.
‘Everybody is entitled to earn a living. If I do an honest day’s work I am entitled to be paid an honest day’s wage, which is what the market will bear… How you give back is a personal choice. You have to make that decision independently. If you don’t start there then everything gets complicated.’
Social entrepreneurs, he says, are capable of ‘sheer wizardry’ – covering costs at the same time as delivering a social benefit that otherwise would have to be paid for by taxes.
‘Don’t you think we should encourage that very rare beast?’ he says. ‘The only way is to let them profit from their outcome – I would love to see the first millionaire social entrepreneur.’
He cites the ‘gales of creative destruction’ – the economic theory of innovation popularised by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who believed entrepreneurs were the driving force of long-term economic growth. You have to incentivise people to innovate, he adds. ‘If we don’t incentivise people to the highest degree, why do we expect something of them?’
But isn’t this more about corporate social responsibility than social enterprise? ‘CSR is what you do when you are not doing your business,’ he answers. ‘I’ve come across many people who confuse grants and government money and CSR as revenue… They are doing good but are not doing well.’
By contrast, he became a mission-driven entrepreneur because it helped attract good people. Staff with a shared motivation make for a stronger business.
‘The majority of businesses have to prove some sort of benefit,’ he says. ‘Businesses are mirrors to the public,’ he adds. He cites the recent example of BP’s disastrous venture in the Gulf of Mexico as an example of how public opinion can temper greed: ‘My view of BP is that what you are seeing is a brutal realignment of risk and reward.’
Back in the world of small business and social enterprise, where is Richard heading? Besides some sailing, baking apple pie and time with his wife and three children, he has plenty of entrepreneurial interests. One has just arrived for his next meeting – a software innovator called Alex who has developed a new form of online ‘wavecasting’.
Winding up, Richard says he wants to use School for Startups ‘to help get a lot more social enterprises running in a form that I believe in’. This form is more about what business can achieve for good rather than how the business is structured: ‘It’s about entrepreneurs targeting a social problem and creating an opportunity to reward themselves and society at the same time.’
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