At Somerville, Dominic Perks was writing essays on T.S. Eliot. Today, he’s an entrepreneur whose 2011 start-up employed 120 people within three years. Tattoo removal and laundry delivery are just two of the industries he’s ventured into and through his merchant bank, Hambro Perks, he’s now investing in and advising others too. We asked for some tips.
WERE YOU BORN AN ENTREPRENEUR?
I was 4 when I had my first retail outlet – a shop underneath my parents’ stairs selling stationery and confectionary. Embarrassingly, I also used to bring art projects back and create pop-up galleries. At school I set up a rival school magazine called Scoop to compete with the incumbent and funded it by selling advertising space.
WHAT DID OXFORD MEAN FOR YOU AND FOR YOUR CAREER?
I loved my time. I played a lot of cricket, opening the batting for Somerville. A friend and I turned around an ailing newspaper called The Word. He edited it and built an editorial team and I ran it. We made it viable by selling ads and creating supplements.
YOUR NEXT MOVE WAS TO MORGAN STANLEY, WHERE YOU WORKED AS AN INVESTMENT BANKING ANALYST, AND THEN AS A STRATEGY CONSULTANT. HOW DID THOSE POSITIONS EQUIP YOU TO STRIKE OUT AS AN ENTREPRENEUR?
My first job was surprisingly creative as I had to come up with investment ideas from a clean sheet of paper for private equity firms. I’d been drawn by the quality of the people and by the variety and access you got. I soon realized I was more interested in what you’d do with a business post-acquisition – the strategic and operational questions – than how you financed it. That’s why I moved to McKinsey as a strategy consultant, which I loved because you’re solving problems for CEOs. It was full of bright, challenging people. I left McKinsey with an open offer to return, which helped me take the risk of striking out myself.
WHERE DO YOUR PARTICULAR STRENGTHS LIE AS YOU START A NEW VENTURE OR ADVISE OTHERS ON THEIRS?
It’s learning to identify the right people that matters most. Our experience is that ideas change but that people rarely do, and all of our successes have been because the people involved have been brilliant. The reverse is true too – the wrong people make projects fail. I am spending a third of my time talent spotting and hiring – finding great people to work with at all levels, from chief execs to interns – which is probably fairly unusual. What I particularly look for is a combination of positive energy – a will to make it work – and integrity, because they need both the inner confidence to keep going and the self-awareness to take advice and nurture a team.
YOU STARTED A NEW SERVICE APP CALLED LAUNDRAPP IN 2014. WHAT ARE THE TYPICAL CHALLENGES WITH THIS KIND OF TECH STARTUP?
I had the idea in January 2014, did three months of research and concluded that the market was ready for an on-demand laundry service. I recruited the team and we built the product and technology in six months, developed the supply chain, soft-launched the business in October and hard-launched in January 2015 with TV advertising and so on. We recently closed a series-A fundraise into the business of £4m. But it’s quite a challenge to launch something that doesn’t exist as a service – persuading people via an app to give you their clothes.
HOW DO YOU PICK A PROJECT?
What I enjoy is the mischief of disrupting large industries with disruptive technology. Businesses that can scale at great pace and that meet emerging consumer needs, that can be internationalised – all of these things can be interesting to me. And I like fragmented markets as well – London alone has 1,500 dry cleaning shops paying high rents and rates. We’re an app that’s providing a better-value service and that collects and deliver at your door.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO PEOPLE STARTING OUT AS ENTREPRENEURS?
To get as much advice as possible – and the resourcefulness it takes to find good advice is the same resourcefulness you’ll need to make a start-up work. For a venture to then be successful, you need stakeholders in and around the business who have aligned interests. You also need to know yourself – energy and optimism is crucial but you need to work against your own personality a little. You need those people who worry about process, execution, legalities and contracts – often the person who can win the contract is not the person who diligently ensures it gets signed.
WHAT’S THE QUICKEST GROWTH IN STAFF NUMBERS YOU’VE SEEN?
Proskin, my skincare clinic chain, grew to 120 staff within 3 years and is now national. We specialize in all sorts of advanced skincare treatments. Tattoo removal is particularly popular. For example, one in five of the UK population has a tattoo – and one in five of them regrets it.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO PURSUE THIS KIND OF WORK?
I love working with talented, driven people. I love the variety of working across different sectors and learning about different industries. I love helping develop people – I feel very excited at developing their careers and unlocking potential in people. A bit like a good Tutor at Somerville might do. I also like that what I do is quite creative – inventing new services and businesses is exciting.
WHAT’S YOUR ANNUAL TARGET FOR NEW BUSINESS CREATION?
I plan to found or co-found at least three businesses a year and to invest in a further five early-stage-growth businesses.
WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON REASON THAT STARTUPS FAIL?
They’re not capitalized appropriately – or cashflow is not managed correctly. Or the founders are not pragmatic enough to respond to the market. But it’s the people and their drive and determination which see the idea given the very best chance.
YOU’VE HAD A LARGE TECH FOCUS, SO WHY IS HAMBRO PERKS BASED IN LONDON?
The European and London tech market is growing at an exciting pace. Unlike when I left Somerville, the talent of Europe is now migrating to London. Aside from family, that’s why I’m excited to be here. As for the US, there are some government tax schemes – SEIS and EIS – that give private, angel investors tax relief for investing in startups and those government schemes are attracting a wave of capital into UK-based startups. It’s exciting for London and the UK – and investors young and old alike are interested.
WHY HAS THE US DONE SO MUCH BETTER IN TECH START-UPS THAN EUROPE?
The US universities are very geared to it. The size of the US market is such that it’s possible to scale businesses bigger in that territory – plus they all speak one language across it. There’s also the social or cultural element around a celebration of thinking big and a greater comfort around or ease with failure which culturally cultivates more appetite for risk-taking – in short, less conservatism and a greater willingness to try things.
HOW IS THAT NOW CHANGING, IF AT ALL?
These new UK government tax schemes provide tax relief for investors if the company fails as well as if it succeeds, which is a really interesting approach. So you could argue that the government is encouraging risk-taking.
WHAT IF SOMEONE AT SOMERVILLE WANTS TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS…?
We’ve had five interns from Somerville and have got three more coming this summer. We’re always open to meeting talented individuals.
HOW SHOULD THEY START OUT AS ENTREPRENEURS?
Anyone interested in building companies should probably not do it first but get some other experience and skills to bring with them. The key is to be excited about what you are doing and feel as though you are learning. And that, frankly, could be anything.