Richard Newman, award-winning corporate communications expert whose consultancy clients include a Formula One team, celebrities and international business leaders tells us what inspires him in business.
What do you currently do?
I run a communication training company, working with clients all over the world. We gain over 1,000 event bookings per year from clients across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and North America. I have been running this business for 18 years and we have a really talented team of 20 people delivering our events.
Our work is split between small group workshops, personal coaching and large conferences. That’s where I spend my time – speaking on stage to large teams who need inspiration and strategies to drive their business forward.
What was the inspiration behind your business?
At school I lacked confidence, especially for public speaking. I was so poor at communication that a friend of mine bought me a book for my sixteenth birthday called ‘Body Language’. She said I needed to read it because it would help me to interact with people. I was amazed by what I read, but felt I would never be able to excel in this area. When I was seventeen another friend of mine was turned down for his university application, due to poor communication skills in the interview. He was one of the hardest working, most intelligent people I knew. At that moment I realised I would have to figure out how to improve my skills in this area.
I applied to teach overseas in a remote area where they most needed help. I ended up at a Tibetan monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas, where I was asked to teach English. They spoke no English when I arrived, so we had to communicate through body language and tone of voice alone. After six months they could speak conversational English and I had gained much greater skills in non-verbal communication.
I then studied acting at a London drama school for three years. There I learnt more about stage presence, storytelling and connecting with an audience. I put these skills into action, briefly as an actor before applying them to business. My first major client was a Formula One racing team. They were giving technical presentations to their sponsors and wanted my help to make the delivery more engaging. I then began hosting two hundred meetings per year with their sponsors and VIPs, delivering complex scientific presentations to people from all over the world. Meanwhile my coaching work took off after a conversation with my hairdresser. I mentioned my experience with teaching, acting and business to him. He asked me to come and train his team to have better communication skills with their clients. This training proved so successful that we still train their mangers and leadership team eighteen years later.
Soon after my first session with the hairdressers I received a phone call from the head of an engineering company. He said that his hairdresser had recommended me to train his team.
Word of mouth began to spread and I needed to build my company to meet the demand. Soon we had clients all over Europe and a thriving business.
Who do you admire?
I admire people who do the right thing, even when it’s hard to do. I admire those who are courageous in the face of great opposition. I admire anyone who has built a business based on good principles, caring for their team and clients, and making a positive impact on the world, because I have seen how challenging this is to achieve.
The well-known people who come to mind are Barack Obama, Richard Branson and the Dalai Lama. However, there are many close business contacts who I admire for the positive work they have done, the incredible success they have achieved and the good nature they have approached their work with. For example, my business coach Georgie Fienberg. She visited a remote area of northern Ghana twenty years ago and discovered extraordinary challenges that people were living with every day.
Charities would come along and just drop off fridges and toilets, in a place that had no electricity or plumbing, then leave.
She worked to build a charity that would understand the needs of the local community and empower them to make positive changes. Her work has since transformed the lives of thousands of people in the region. The charity she built is Afrikids. Her extraordinary skills for understanding people, creating change and positive leadership have made a huge impact on the way we run our business.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I would have measured success differently at the beginning. It is so hard to build a successful business, not least because you may face cynicism from friends and family who fear you will fail and cannot see the fruits of your labour.
Early on I knew that I was gaining momentum and more clients kept coming my way but the people around me were doubtful. I was keen to make the business grow as fast as possible, so that I had something to show for my efforts that would convince others that I was building something worthwhile.
I think many business owners give up on their project because it doesn’t pay their bills soon enough or they can’t see its potential. Looking back on the numbers now it is so clear that the business was going well, but I didn’t know how to measure it then. In the early days the business was growing by 40-60% per year, but the only number that friends seemed to care about was how much income I made compared to the ‘real jobs’ I had turned down. Thankfully, the business continued at 40% growth per year for another decade, to the point where friends were then asking me how I did it.
What defines your way of doing business?
People come first. We never make a decision that will harm someone in order to increase our profits. We look after our team and our clients, even if it causes our profits to drop. It’s the right thing to do and ultimately it’s the right business decision. Running a business is a marathon. The people who work there need to enjoy it and believe in the mission otherwise they won’t stay. Making short-term decisions to boost profits while harming people will only cause problems later on.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
When I talk to aspiring business owners now I simply suggest a few areas to think about:
- Start as small as you can, ideally continuing your regular job so that you don’t need to rely on income from your new business in the early days until you are ready to make the leap
- Do something you love. Don’t do it for the cash. You’re going to have to commit your life to this project and you’ll go through very challenging times when it will be easier to give up than go on. You’ll only keep going if you really believe in what you’re doing
- Aim for constant, sustainable growth. Measure growth not income