One of Hot Pickle’s pop-up shops.
Rupert Pick Cambridge MBA (2008) alumnus, and co-founder of marketing agency Hot Pickle talks about how Dennis Stevenson supports him and his business.
I’d been running Hot Pickle, a marketing agency that specialises in retail innovation and brand licensing, as a cottage business, but it was really during my MBA that I took it full-time. That was a consequence of talking to both my classmates and to Dennis. During a Cambridge MBA Leadership in Action course he said anyone with a good idea should come and see him. So my classmates Patrick Hammond, Barclay Rogers and I did just that, and Dennis immediately saw the potential and encouraged us to explore how it might become a permanent business.
It was 2009, the height of the recession, and my options were narrow. I found the idea of going back to corporate life a little depressing, to be honest. Then I met a guy called Will Hobhouse, a very well-known retail entrepreneur. At the time I was doing all the licensing for Marmite – mugs, key rings and so forth – and he suggested that we open a pop-up shop. It was a slightly crazy venture but we asked Dennis to support us, and he said yes.
We convinced Unilever, which owns Marmite, to let us do it and found ourselves a site on Regent Street. None of us had run a shop in our lives but, helped by the fact that it was the Christmas period, it was a roaring success. We were profitable within about seven weeks and it opened up a real opportunity for us to expand into the non-retail world. From a business of three people with no employees and a first year turnover of a quarter of a million, we’re now a business of 15 people turning over about £2.5m. Patrick Hammond, another Cambridge MBA alumnus and I are still business partners and he is an integral part of our success, plus Andy St Clair Johnson who joined us as a co-director in 2010.
Establishing and running a business is quite a grey area. It’s not a definitive five-minute conversation where there’s an obvious answer; it’s a discussion. In terms of a mentor you need someone who’s really open, who understands you as an individual and is able to flex their style to fit yours. They need to understand your qualities and your failings. Their job is not to turn you into a “mini-me”.
Dennis is an investor, so he’s a shareholder in the business, but he’s probably the only investor I’ve ever come across who’s not that interested in the numbers. He’s there to provide counsel on big strategic decisions, or personal decisions around family life – when you run your own startup, they are intertwined. He provides strategic, directional advice rather than the specifics of what to do on a day-to-day basis.
Why does it work? He’s not a conventional mentor, and he and I are very different: he can see the areas where I need help and also the areas where I could probably do with a bit of a push. I don’t think we’ve had any conversations about the work we’re doing. It’s absolutely about: “are you enjoying yourself, are you finding this fulfilling, are you growing, what is it like?” He loves coming to our office. Here’s this powerful businessman in our small office and he sits on the floor because there aren’t enough chairs. That’s Dennis.
Am I Rupert’s mentor? Well, Rupert’s never actually said to me: “Will you be my mentor?” but I suppose I have been. I’ve invested in one startup a year since I was 25 – that’s around 40 startups – so I have very strong views on starting up businesses.
Rule number one: I invest in the person, not the idea, and I have to like and trust that person. Of course, you’d have to be demented if you didn’t have some level of belief that the idea could make money, but the absolutely key issue is the person. And I can point to a number of businesses that have been very successful – and I knew they’d be very successful – but I didn’t like or trust the human being, so we didn’t invest.
And rule number two is that the people running the business have to feel they are going to get more from me as an investor than purely money. Naturally, there are some intangibles. Rupert’s clearly a decent, straight, honorable human being, but how do you know that about someone? In Rupert’s case it was confirmed pretty quickly: he’s clearly very bright and gets things done. He’s a doer, as is his partner, Pat Hammond.
It’s a very informal relationship and we go for long periods of time without talking. He normally contacts me when there’s a problem. A few years ago, they had a serious cash flow problem that was very dramatic. They came to me on a Friday evening and it got sorted by Monday. In fact, it wasn’t as bad as they thought it was. As we tend to get our own personal problems out of perspective, so it is with business. I was able to help them get things into perspective, calm them down, make them realise that although they hadn’t been brilliant, this was not an original sin and there was a way of solving it. At the moment they’ve got the nice problem of making sure they can fulfil all the orders in their swelling order book.
What should you look for in a mentor? Someone who has got relevant all-round experience, yes, but also someone whose personality merges with yours. And the acid test – ask yourself this: can I take criticism from this person, even if it hurts me, and I get cross? After all, mentors have to be critical from time to time.