How 4 of the UK’s Business Greats Got Started

There’s a very old saying: great oaks from small acorns grow – in other words, even the biggest names had to start out somewhere humble. And indeed, if you look at some of the greatest names in Britain today, or in the recent past, it’s amazing how many of them started from very modest beginnings.

Does this mean we can all become entrepreneurs? Well, it’s certainly worth taking a good look at how these titans of the business world started out, because there are a lot of great lessons to take away. Here are four of the UK’s great business people and how they started out.

1. Sir Richard Branson

The Virgin mogul deserves to be close to the top of any list of successful British entrepreneurs, who – having started out with just £300 to his name – is now the fourth wealthiest person in the UK, with a net worth of around $4.6 billion.

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Branson was no star student – suffering from dyslexia, he dropped out of school aged just 16.

His first project was a magazine that had sufficient advertising revenue for him to distribute it for free. Unsurprisingly, it was a roaring success and provided a great kick-start to his career.

Branson’s mail-order record business – the first time he used the Virgin name – came next in 1970, followed by a record shop, which gave him enough capital to grow.

His next move was to create his own recording studio, the famous Virgin Records, which was used by industry giants such as the Sex Pistols, Culture Club and the Rolling Stones. Going for unusual and even controversial choices, the studio steadily rose to the top.

He followed this with a string of other acquisitions and launches including Virgin Megastores in 1984, and the Virgin Atlantic airline. Given all of his successes, what lessons can we draw from Branson’s story?

  • Keep looking for opportunities. Branson says: “Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming”.
  • Don’t dream, do. And don’t follow the crowds. Branson says: “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over”.
  • Use your failures to grow. Branson says: “Do not be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again”.

2. Lord Alan Sugar

The acerbic Lord Sugar is probably best known nowadays to UK audiences as the man who barks “you’re fired!” at hapless would-be apprentices. But this business behemoth began in the most humble way possible, on an East London council estate.

Lord Sugar was another young starter, buying and selling goods after school and at weekends. He started his signature business Amstrad (a combination of Sugar’s initials and ‘trad’ from ‘trading’) when he was just 21.

The story goes that the astute businessman had spotted a market niche for turntable covers (for those old enough to remember vinyl records). If you’re not old enough, basically something to help protect the turntables from dust.

He invested his school year earnings into an injection moulding machine to make his cheap (but effective) covers. Lord Sugar cashed in on this success by adding other hi-fi related goods such as amplifiers and tuners, always following his low-cost mantra.

Having listed on the Stock Exchange in 1980, which made him a multimillionaire, he was determined to go into the then new world of computing. Much research and consultation later, the Amstrad PC was born.

The business was later bought by BskyB for £125 million, but Lord Sugar still has many fingers in the business pie, not least through the Apprentice series and ventures such as IT services provider Viglen.

What lessons can we learn from Lord Sugar’s story?

  • Do what you’re good at. Sugar is quoted as saying: “The entrepreneurial instinct is in you. You can’t learn it, you can’t buy it, you can’t put it in a bottle”.
  • Deal with people fairly. Sugar says: “I have always been an honest trader. I come from a school of traders where there was honour in the deal”.
  • Stick by your principles. Sugar says: “I have principles and I am not going to be forced to compromise them”.

3. Dame Anita Roddick

The founder of Body Shop started a trend in ethical business that has inspired countless others to follow in her elegant footsteps.

Dame Anita opened the first Body Shop in Brighton based on a format she had encountered in San Francisco. She had no training or experience but saw entrepreneurship as a means of survival. Body Shop’s blend of natural, quality skin care products teamed with sustainable practices far ahead of their time and innovatively truthful marketing proved an instant hit. Roddick opened her second store within six months.

By 1991, there were 700 branches of the Body Shop and by 2004, this number swelled to 1,980, serving 77 million customers around the world. The group was sold to L’Oreal in 2006 for £652 million.

So what lessons can we learn from Roddick’s success?

  • It doesn’t hurt to be ethical. Roddick said: “All through history, there have always been movements where business was not just about the accumulation of proceeds but also for the public good”.
  • Be passionate about what you do. Roddick said: “If you do things well, do them better. Be daring, be first, be different, be just”.
  • Size doesn’t matter. Roddick said: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito”.

4. James Dyson

James Dyson was a country boy with teacher parents – his father died when he was just nine. At art college he partnered with an engineer, initially building and selling an amphibious craft. Another early invention was the ballbarrow – a wheelbarrow with a ball instead of a front tyre.

His grand obsession with vacuum cleaners began in the late 1970s, when he became frustrated with his existing model’s lack of suction. Having seen a cyclonic separator and believing the principle would transfer to a vacuum cleaner, he spent five years making and testing prototypes.

Having perfected his cleaner he showed it to various domestic appliance makers, who rejected it, and then licensed it, which proved to be a disaster. Next, he borrowed $600,000 to manufacture it himself.

Sales started small, in catalogues. The break he needed was acceptance into one of the UK’s largest electrical stores. Within a year, off the back of a truly great advert with the slogan “say goodbye to the bag”, the Dyson vacuum cleaner was the biggest seller in the UK, and he has since invented other products such as the Airblade hand dryer and an innovative bladeless fan.

What lessons can we learn from James Dyson?

  • Believe in and act on your dreams. Dyson says: “Everyone has ideas. They may be too busy or lack the confidence or technical ability to carry them out. But I want to carry them out. It is a matter of getting up and doing it”.
  • Keep looking for new ideas. Dyson says: “As an engineer I’m constantly spotting problems and plotting how to solve them”.
  • Don’t let rejection and failure get you down. Dyson says: “Enjoy failure and learn from it. You can never learn from success”.


If there are themes that link these entrepreneurs, they are self-belief and persistence. These are also people who take shrewd risks, and follow their dreams. What are you waiting for?

Which entrepreneurs inspire you? Let us know in the comments below!

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