The serial entrepreneur and author of Richard Review of Apprenticeships speaks to FE Week
From humble beginnings a dragon was born.
The entrepreneurial nous of Dragons’ Den investor and government review author Doug Richard wasn’t always present.
Today, aged 54, he runs the School for Startups social enterprise and keeps an eye on new business opportunities with the Cambridge Angels investment group, but the picture of a young Richard, who grew up near New York City, is very different.
“There was nothing about me that was entrepreneurial,” he says. “I worked for other people as I made my way through university, like most people do in the States.
“I had jobs from the time of 17-ish and was fired from most of them. I was not a good employee.
“My first job was supposed to be cleaning up behind the short order cook in a very greasy spoon diner where I grew up in Buffalo, New York.
“I wanted a job but I didn’t want to work, so I would hide in the attic reading science fiction novels whenever they didn’t need me and inevitably, and probably quite properly, I was fired.”
He had more success at the University of California, Berkeley, where he graduated as a psychology major.
Business acumen remained alien, however, as he followed his lifelong passion for boats. “I started delivering yachts for a living, which was a huge amount of fun,” he says. “Then I went to law school, became a lawyer, worked for 30 days and was unbelievably bored.
“I thought I would rather die than work as a lawyer. I quit and there I was — sitting on the street, broke and unemployed. But I wasn’t bored.”
Richard the entrepreneur came out of the shadows when he was in his mid-20s and he set up ITAL Computers with his older brother, Ken — now a senior vice president for Xerox.
“We started selling computers to small businesses because we were broke and we needed to make money,” says Richard, who also has two sisters. Susan is a US federal district judge and Barbara is an economist for the Obama Administration.
And there I was — sitting on the street, dead broke and unemployed, but I wasn’t bored”
“We knew literally nothing about business — you could not have known less — but over five years the business became one of the largest of its type in southern California and then we sold it for a very small amount of money.
“But it was enough to put a down-payment on a house and to start my second business with a friend. It was called Visual Software, which was my first software company and five years later I sold it for a very tidy sum.”
Richard, who now lives in Cambridge with his wife and three children, concedes that his greatest business lesson came after he became involved with US publicly-listed computer software firm Micrografx, which bought Visual Software from him in 1996.
“They paid me in shares of their corporation, but I had to wait 100 days before I could sell and in that time the price fell 99 per cent and I was wiped out again,” he explains.
“But I held a lot of shares and in an effort to get back I did a hostile reverse takeover and installed myself as the global president and chief executive officer having never run a company of more than 30 people in my life.
“The ensuing four years of trying to turn a massive public company around was, without a doubt, my greatest learning experience. It succeeded and I then sold it. It was real hard-going.”
By 2001, the Richard family was on the move to England, and a period of acclimatisation was on the cards.
“I had finished turning this ugly company around and my wife thought it would be good for our children to have half their childhood in Europe, so I said ‘Why not?’ — I had got my money back and I was up for an adventure, so we moved on a whim basically,” he says.
“I didn’t get involved in anything businesswise for six months. It took me that long to talk to people.”
He jokingly adds: “British people are very odd. I had to learn to understand what people were saying, I had to drive on the wrong side of the road and people kept inviting me for coffee or tea when they didn’t really mean it because they’re all falsely polite. It took me forever to get my act together.
“The first few months were a bit of an acclimatisation nightmare and then a friend and I started Cambridge Angels, which introduced me to a lot of the people I came to know.”
And soon there was a call from Dragons’ Den.
“One of the producers was phoning around trying to find entrepreneurs for the show,” he says.
“The angel group we set up had many high-profile entrepreneurs. A number were called and all of them, being very polite and British, said: ‘Oh no, no I couldn’t do that, but I do know this loud American…’ So I got pointed to and that’s how they found me.
“At the time I thought it was a ridiculous idea and that the show would never happen, and even if it did happen no one would watch it so I figured: ‘Why not?’ I enjoyed it hugely.” He stayed for two series.
With his reputation as an entrepreneur firmly established, in 2008 Richard was asked by the Conservative Party to look at the British government’s support of small businesses.
And this year he was again investigating on official business, this time casting his eye over apprenticeships.
“This is my second government review – it’s a bad habit,” he jokes.
“The first one came about when I was approached by the Shadow Business Minister of the time, Mark Prisk. At the time I thought that sounded kind of interesting, but it was a really challenging because it was commissioned by the party out of power and there were very few resources available to do it. We had to work really hard.
“This one was harder because the system is more complex, but I was afforded many more resources, all the doors were open and everyone in this sector is more open to talk. In that sense it was simpler, but the question was more complex.”
The investigations have come and gone, as have the businesses, but Richard’s one true passion remains, complemented by his work advising new businesses.
“In the real word what I really like to do is sail boats, everything else come after that,” he says.
“I’ve not got one at the moment. I have them, then I sell them — the second best moment of your life is buying a boat and the best is selling the thing.
“It’s my passion. And School for Startups is the single most fun business activity I’ve ever engaged in.
“I enjoy teaching tremendously and I have no intention of stopping any time soon. I’ll be doing it for a long time.”
It’s a personal thing
What’s your favourite book?
Anything by Neal Stephenson, Charles Palliser or Susanna Clarke
What did you want to be when you were younger?
What do you do to switch off from work?
Switch off from work? I don’t understand the question — but if I ever had time to switch off I would sail yachts
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party, living or dead, who would it be?
I would only invite dead people then I wouldn’t have to cook
What would your super power be?
To get a hold of Hermione Granger’s time-turner gadget so I could be in more than one place at once and travel back in time