Poverty, loss, bankruptcy and mental illness aren’t things typically yoked to ideas of success. If you grew up dealing with all three, in a rough-and-tumble housing estate in Stoke-on-Trent where the average working wage is 15k per year, your chances are even slimmer. For Ben and Michael Dyer, the fact their business idea even reached their family’s ears seems achievement enough in itself. If ever a tawdry pop-culture reference to ring true, the cousins definitely started from the bottom. And now, they’re definitely here.
Today, the pair head the highly successful National Enterprise Challenge, a nation-wide, inter-school competition that faces budding entrepreneurs with business-based challenges. The two began staging enterprise challenges for young people through their first venture, the Altogether Company, and have since worked with industry kingpins Theo Paphitis and Lord Sugar to make their vision a success.
We caught up with Michael to probe him on the challenges of starting up a business against the odds, how the business world has become sexy, and how not to be rubbish at your job.
Hi, Michael! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Can you tell me a bit about how you got started with your first venture, the Altogether Company?
We started after Ben had heard an advert on the radio for Staffordshire University and a new course that they were running in business start-ups. Ben, having heard the advert, called me up and asked if I fancied giving it a try. I was reluctant at first, having not enjoyed my first year of a criminology degree at another university, but he persuaded me to go along to an induction and we enrolled on the course. Thus, the Altogether Company was born.
What was the first practical step you took in making it happen?
The first thing that we did was to see what was happening in the marketplace. We originally had the idea to raise aspirations by going into schools, giving talks and working with young people because growing up in Stoke we had seen very little in terms of aspiration, which is a real shame, and we wanted to get to the root cause of this. Having spoken to a few teachers about what we were trying to do, we stumbled across the word ‘enterprise,’ so we looked at what people were doing in the enterprise marketplace and decided that we wanted to go into this field using our own take on things: by being ‘for young people, by young people’.
I understand that you both overcame rough backgrounds in one of Stoke-on-Trent’s housing estates. What was the most challenging part of getting your first project off the ground?
The most challenging part is definitely the aspiration side of things, when we told people that we were starting our own business, people laughed (including our family). So the most challenging part then becomes your catalyst to do well. We almost enjoyed it when people said that it wouldn’t work, and every doubter just became someone to prove wrong. We developed the attitude that ‘when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose’.
How did you rise to the challenge?
By being the only people on our course to use the space that we were given. We would work every day for zero pay in the early days, but that wouldn’t faze us. We couldn’t fail since we had so many people to prove wrong, so we just continued writing our school’s programmes and telling as many people as possible about what we were doing.
Was there any distinct point when you were ready to give up?
There have been a few. I lost my mother only a few months into the business which had massive implications on my home life, with an 11 year old sister and a 13 year old brother that I now needed to help my dad to look after, but we managed and continued on the business journey. Stupidly, we took on a pub a few years into the business as we were doing well and its subsequent downfall meant that we both had to go bankrupt in 2011 which ended The Altogether Company.
Was there a distinct, ‘light bulb’ moment where the idea behind The Enterprise Challenge came to you?
After the bankruptcy, we went back to university to top up our degrees and whilst there, myself and Ben had a conversation about how we could build on the success of The Altogether Company. We felt that we were up there with the best in the market in terms of delivery but we knew that we needed to offer more to get the schools to stand up and take notice. We decided that we needed to be National for this happen, but we knew that using the names of two guys from Stoke-On-Trent wouldn’t work. So we starting drawing up a list of potential ambassadors for the Challenge, including Peter Jones, Theo Paphitis, Lord Sugar, Richard Branson and a few others.
When we told people about our plans again people laughed… cue our uncle: ‘I know a good bankruptcy solicitor if you need one.’ This was all the motivation that we needed, so we approached all of the potentials, but after months of trying all we hit were brick walls. Ben and I both took summer jobs to make ends meet and in early September, Ben had a phone call from Claire Young from the Apprentice saying that Lord Sugar had agreed to do it. We were obviously delighted but had no lead time, and we needed to sell and deliver at least 50 schools to make the project work. We had only ever delivered 40 schools in one year previously. That this was sink or swim: and with a team of three volunteers plus ourselves, we sold to 58 schools and the Challenge was born.
What was it like to work with celebrity entrepreneurs like Lord Sugar and Theo Paphitis?
For two lads from Stoke-On-Trent to meet these people was an achievement but to actually have them talk to you, work with you and tweet about you and your business was a dream come true. Theo is our ambassador again this year and his enthusiasm for the project is infectious and it makes us very proud.
Do you think young Brits are becoming more interested in starting their own businesses?
I think that The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den divide opinions in the business community, but one thing that they have done is made business sexy. The Government start up loans scheme which started around 2 years ago, which we are involved in as a delivery partner, has also helped start over 20,000 businesses in that time, which I guess shows that there is a real appetite for business in Britain.
Why do you think so?
More students now seem to be interested in business which is great because it gives people the knowledge they need to make a decision about their futures. The enterprise skills that we work on don’t just focus on starting a business though, they are the skills needed to become a good employee too, including teamwork and leadership. Being enterprising in the work place can lead to promotions and other opportunities and it also gives you the required skills to become an entrepreneur should you so wish.
What do you think are the most important traits in being a successful entrepreneur?
We think that doing something that you enjoy doing is vital, if you don’t enjoy what you do, you’ll be rubbish at it. We could have given up a number of times when people knocked us back but we genuinely care about the young people of tomorrow, and we will always champion enterprise. Another important trait is being yourself, but being the best of you. Too many people that we have come across in business try to be people they are not. We are two lads from Stoke-On-Trent trying to make Britain’s youth more enterprising, so we play on that and focus on that.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one, prolific piece of advice before you’d started out, what would it be?
To manage your time efficiently. There are 86,400 seconds in a day, so use them wisely. Surround yourself with positive people and ditch the doubters. People have lots of excuses why they don’t succeed in business but if you have drive and passion then you won’t go far wrong.
Inspired? Don’t let your apprehensions hold you back — take a look at our range of business courses to help make your start-up dreams a reality.