“Don’t be afraid just because you’re a one man band in an office,” says Lara Morgan, the entrepreneur (and force of nature) who started her hotel supplies business with no funding and sold it for £20m. “Actually, that’s bollocks. Let’s be honest: your bedroom.”
Part St. Trinian’s hockey mistress, part jetsetting super-strategist, straight-talking Morgan is, despite having grown up in Hong Kong, possibly the most archetypal Englishwoman you’re ever likely to come across outside of a Richard Curtis film. Plus, she has a wicked sense of humour.
“I’ve sold to people I don’t like, and that’s fine,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “I just sell at a higher margin.”
Morgan had expected to follow the conventional university-degree-to-career route, but in her late teens, her father’s business was declared bankrupt and she was forced to rapidly reconsider her options. She opted for a job in sales, did spectacularly well, and in 1991 moved to the UK and set up Pacific Direct, working as a sole trader from her bedroom. Unsurprisingly for a woman whose business card is printed with the words “Stop fannying about”, getting the company off the ground was a feat of pure persistence.
“I’d get up in the morning and start making sales calls,” Morgan explains. “For each one, I’d draw a line on a piece of paper. Every fifth one, I’d cross it off to make a fence. After 20 fences, I’d be allowed coffee.”
Eventually, she persuaded the famous Dorchester Hotel to order some miniature sewing kits and, after some “sweaty-knickered moments”, the business started selling to high-end establishments all over the world.
For Morgan, success is largely about two things: careful planning and asking your customer what they actually want. In addition to working out the profit margins you need to survive, she advises implementing an extra “tits up” margin for problems that hit out of the blue – and which all too often wipe an inexperienced business out in the process.
“We’ve got a 4% ‘tits up’ margin on everything we do,” she says. “The world is your oyster – if you plan!”
One of the most common problems for startups is how to entice customers away from their longstanding suppliers, but according to Morgan, “there’s low hanging fruit everywhere.”
Most companies, she says, never bother to ask their customers what they actually want or what they can do to improve, meaning that a new company can win over a major client by solving a relatively small niggle that’s gone unnoticed by a larger competitor.
“Selling is about trying to understand what the pain is,” she says. “And that means calling up and saying, my business is trying to learn how to be the best in the industry. What’s your pain?”
Want to build a £multi-million business, Lara Morgan style? Here are our top 5 takeaways:
1. Know your business inside out
Do you know what your bank balance is right now? Have you got a word-perfect 30 second pitch, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice? Do you truly understand what margins you need to add to turn a profit, factoring in your time, insurance and daily running costs? Have you mapped your customer journey to figure out exactly where you can add value? Have you worked out the cost of each activity you perform and the “order of sacrifice” that you will drop these in when customers start to push you on price?
If you’re not answering yes to all these questions, you probably don’t know your business well enough – and you should focus on educating yourself before you try to expand.
2. Adapt to your audience
When it comes to pitching what you do, “talk to people in the language they want to hear it in,” says Morgan. That means being able to switch between brusque and to-the-point, chatty and casual, and even jargon-laden business speak as the situation demands.
Study after study has shown that influential people are especially adept at subtly mirroring the body language and speech patterns of the person they are dealing with – and when you are working with people from different cultures and backgrounds, it can be a tremendously useful skill. Observe your audience closely and follow their lead.
3. Use your time well
“If you’re a perfectionist and you’re running a business, either shoot yourself or get a job,” says Morgan. You should be endlessly striving to do things better than your competitors, she says, but there’s no point in making endless tweaks and changes that have no impact on your actual capacity to sell. Every activity has a cost, she says, but “time is the most expensive commodity.” Innovate and improve, but don’t be a “busy fool”.
4. Educate yourself
Morgan might have dispensed with a university education, but she’s spent a lifetime learning everything there is to know about selling. For her, building strong relationships with clients is all about asking them what they want and then really, really listening to the answers. You can then take those insights, analyse your competition and make sure you beat them on the things that actually matter most to your clients.
But, says Morgan, remember that “the customer will buy from you first.” No matter what it is your company does or how well they do it, clients first and foremost need to like and trust you (or your sales reps) enough to make an order. Face-to-face meetings and regular, thoughtful contact both help to build and cement these personal relationships.
5. Trust your team
“Hire slow and fire fast,” says Morgan, who says that she now only works with people that she respects enough never to have to ask them where they are or what they’re doing. Once you’ve surrounded yourself with those that deserve your trust, give them plenty of reasons to want to work hard and do well – and then leave them to it, she says. Both your productivity and your people retention “will soar”.
Of course, for this to work, you have to be very good at sharing your vision and getting others excited enough to want to make it a reality. Make sure you’re crystal clear on what you’re trying to achieve, and that your team knows exactly what you need from them. “As you grow your team, unless you become a world class communicator, you will fail,” says Morgan.
… and finally
“Remember people’s names,” says Morgan. “It will make you money!”