Iain Dale, Managing Director of Politico’s Bookstore in Westminster explains the pitfalls faced by those starting new businesses.
Since Politico’s first opened its doors in February 1997 we like to think it has firmly established itself on the Westminster scene. Two years on, we are approaching the future with some confidence having hopefully cleared the first hurdles of establishing a new business. And what an experience it has been.
Many people have now admitted to us that when we opened, although they wished us well, they felt that the venture would fail as the market for political books was not large enough and the shop was in the wrong place. Wrong on both counts.
It is quite clear that if the market for political books was not there before, we have now created it. This is partly due to the woeful performance of the chain stores whose political selections are limited in the extreme. I just wish we had double the floor space.
Those in retailing will say that location is everything, and to a degree they are right. While I would love a prime spot on Parliament Square, our present site in Artillery Row offers much that a site nearer to Parliament would not. Parking, accessibility, passing trade are all important factors in our business.
Starting a new business is probably the most foolish thing anyone ever contemplates in their life. Most people who tread this precarious path believe they have a good idea, or good product to sell and invariably they do. But what they very often fail to comprehend is the amount of barriers that even in this post Thatcherite deregulated economy (some joke) are put in one’s way.
Forget the local authority regulations, health and safety, environmental health – they are a cinch compared with dealing with private sector suppliers. I had always thought that a publisher’s role was to sell books through bookshops. I could not have been more wrong. Almost without exception my calls were never returned and letters remained unanswered. We were seriously in danger of opening a bookshop with no books. Now that we are established, they can’t wait to sell us their books by the lorry load. Lesson number one in starting a new business – never assume that your suppliers have any confidence in your business, let alone any interest in it.
Lesson number two is to learn that in the first phase of a business’s development “Cashflow is King”. Undercapitalisation can lead to terrible cashflow problems which can threaten the whole stability of a business. Retailing is reasonably positive from a cashflow viewpoint as one takes money over the counter all day every day. But where there are account customers who are invoiced on a 30 day payment period, any business is lucky if they majority of bills are paid on time. For small businesses this is a killer. We have quite a few account customers, who range from Government departmental libraries to media organisations and lobbying companies. Contrary to popular myth it is usually the Government departments who pay quickest. I always dread the morning each month I have to devote to chasing late payment.
Creating the right team of people to work with is vital for any organisation. Although I am seen as the public face of Politico’s I have a partner, John Simmons, who eschews the limelight completely. We work well together as a team. I am the temperamental one who tries to do a hundred things at once and he acts as the cautious adviser who stops me from doing things I might later come to regret. Like many others I have always worked well with people whose character is opposite to my own.
In the past twenty years several political bookshops in London have come to grief, at least partially because they appealed to a very small niche audience – predominantly left wing. We decided from the outset that we had to be politically neutral and the fact that in 2 years only 5 people have accused us of being biased towards one party pays testament to the fact that we have achieved that goal. I used to refrain from becoming involved in political discussions but soon gave that up. I’m a Thatcherite and proud of it! Among the seven others who work at Politico’s I am unfortunately alone in holding such views, but those are the times we live in. I am always amused by the number of people who appear to assume that I am a supporter of New Labour and who are genuinely shocked when they find out the awful truth. I guess it is partly because we dress casually in order to help the shop avoid having an intimidating atmosphere. It is astonishing that people are still intimidated by politics and politicians. Part of the whole raison d’etre behind Politico’s is to make politics more accessible and more fun.
We have now formed a separate publishing company, Politico’s Publishing. We had not intended this to happen – it just has. It as been an equally steep learning curve but our first set of books have been quite well received. This year we are set to publish Jeremy Thorpe’s memoirs as well as the Collected Speeches of Ann Widdecombe. And why not?!