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01.07.11 | Philip Jones
Luke Johnson has his own version of the favourite tea-towel slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On". In Johnson’s language, the phrase becomes: "I survived all the balls-ups and I’m still plugging away".
The book trade could be forgiven for raising its collective ironic eyebrow, perhaps remembering Johnson’s ill-fated ownership of Borders UK. But Johnson is phlegmatic—all business is a risk: "I’ve been involved in at least 50 businesses, and I’ve had some hits and misses, but that’s the nature of the game. If you don’t think there will be setbacks, then best not get into it in the first place."
The ex-Borders owner continues his literary adventures with Start It Up: Why Running Your Own Business is Easier Than You Think, to be published by Penguin’s new business imprint Portfolio in September.
Johnson is still better known for his business hits than his misses. He ran Pizza Express and was chairman of Channel 4; and through his company Risk Capital Partners he now owns chain eateries Giraffe and Patisserie Valerie. He is also a non-executive director of art book publisher Phaidon, and writes a regular column for the Financial Times, having previously written a Sunday Telegraph column called "The Maverick".
He believes his return to the longer format is timely. "I had a number of points I wanted to make in book form, rather than [in] an article. There is a sense of entrepreneurship abroad, and I’m slightly different from most people who write these books, because I have been in the trenches, and I do actually run businesses as well as write about them." He also enjoys writing: "One of the wonderful things about writing is that you do it on your own and you can do it till you drop."
Despite his recent history with the book trade, Johnson remains a fan of the medium—and of publishers. "Books are portable, they do endure, which is important. I love books, and to a degree it’s got me into trouble in the past." He admits that he, like almost everyone else, misjudged the speed at which digital would impact the business, even though it arrived late. But he doesn’t think the new medium will destroy the old one. "Clearly there are challenges. What happened with broadcast media is that people ended up watching more—watching just as much broadcast television, but also watching additional online content."
His book begins in typically honest fashion with his failures—or "setbacks" as he says he prefers to call them. Borders UK, perhaps at the behest of his publisher Penguin, is not referenced. Johnson was involved for about two years, exiting a year before its collapse. He says: "I thought it was a turnaround that could be achieved, but actually the structural changes that were going on in the industry were too great. Anyway, it was a challenge beyond me."
On dealing with the bumps, he says: "You’ve just got to overcome them, learn from it, and move on—and don’t bet the house. Unless your home is on fire, and you’ve lost a limb, they are inconveniences." Some are more painful than others, he admits. "There is financial pain, the ego obviously suffers, but also there is reputational pain. Having said that, the world is surprisingly forgiving."
Johnson says the book is more than just a self-help guide, and thanks to his robust writing style, it is also a homage to capitalism. "There is something very creative about starting a business—or in the case of Amazon, almost starting an industry." He imagines that entrepreneurs will dip in and out of the book as is necessary, or perhaps pick it up when they need a pep-talk. Chapter headings include "Time to go on the offensive" and "There will always be blood". There is also a chapter on why journalists are so gloomy.
Johnson himself appears indefatigable: "You should get wiser, but of course there are a million and one things that can go wrong, and no one can predict the future: but the key is to not let it deter you. The freedom and independence to be had from building a business and the satisfaction is hard to beat, and that’s what the book is about."
With apologies to Penguin, I risk one further question about the book business. Did he consider Waterstone’s when it was put up for sale? "After my experience with Borders, I thought [I’d] better not. Once was enough." As for advice for the new owners, he says: "I do wonder whether it is entirely wise that James Daunt said he would not shut any shops. That isn’t realistic.
"If Mamut is willing to subsidise the business they can presumably keep as many shops open as they want, and as a consumer I think that is magnificent news for Britain. But if they are looking at it ruthlessly as a business that must make a return on capital then they are going to have to do some restructuring—that is inescapable."