The Entrepreneur Interview: Stuart Miller

The following interview with Stuart Miller, CEO and co-founder of ByBox, the logistics business, is part of ‘The Entrepreneur Interview’ series by Guy Rigby, Head of Entrepreneurial Services at Smith & Williamson.

Guy: Many entrepreneurs don’t have glittering academic careers. How about you?

Stuart: Glittering!? That’s interesting actually. I left school at 18 and went to work for UniLever and after about 10 weeks I realised that this might have been a mistake and that I should have gone to university. My Dad did his nut, he went absolutely bonkers at the thought of me going to university; he couldn’t see the sense of it. But, I went to Loughborough University out in the Midlands and did a business degree. I got a first and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I have actually used some of it.

One of the funny things about that is that the strategy lecturer at the time, a guy called Jim Saker, I’ll never forget the first lecture he gave us. He said that “going to university knocks the entrepreneurial stuffing out of you”. I argued against that and said that I disagreed and really wanted to become an entrepreneur. And oddly enough, here we are 25 years later and I have recently been asked to become entrepreneur in residence at the university, so it’s kind of coming full circle.

Guy: What did you study?

Stuart: A business management science degree.

Guy: Isn’t Loughborough a very sporting university?

Stuart: It is yes, sports and engineering are really their strong points.

Guy: So, actually when you went there, you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Stuart: I did! It kind of begs the obvious question of why mess around going to university. It’s a thorny area in terms of should you really just crack on and start your company aged 13?

When you step back from that I don’t think there is one single blueprint. I think that everyone has their own journey and that for some people it involves becoming professionally qualified, such as Martin Sorrell who springs to mind as somebody who is very well educated with a Harvard MBA and so on. And James Dyson is also really well educated, but then there’s the likes of Alan Sugar. I think there is a journey there for everybody but I don’t think there’s a blueprint that we should all try and follow.

Guy : No, but the bit I do see is that you get some quite young ones coming straight out of school before the fear factor has kicked off, followed by some much older ones. You do see people starting businesses in between but typically the older ones have learnt their trade and figured out how to do it better than their employers.

Stuart: Yes, the school leavers. They’ve got that wonderful naivety and that unquestionable enthusiasm and energy to really have a go and ask the stupid questions and not be scared to challenge and just go for it.

Guy: What were the biggest challenges around setting up ByBox?

Stuart: The biggest challenge was probably the fact that in order to offer a sensible locker base delivery network we had to be national; there was no midway point. We couldn’t just say “We’ll do it for Croydon”. It needed to be national, from Truro to Inverness and most places in between.

National infrastructures generally don’t lend themselves to start-ups on the grounds of cost and demand, is the opportunity really there and so on. We were just very fortunate that we got involved with Hays at a time literally just before they were going to break-up the group and they saw delivery of parts to field engineers as being a niche, and a niche that was too small for them to be interested in, and so offloading it in a way that we could afford was just tremendous timing for us.

You couldn’t have baked that into any business plan with any credibility. It was just pure good fortune for us. Then all of a sudden we inherited thousands of mechanical lockers, a customer base to die for and we suddenly leapt from having one set of problems, which was how do we become national, to being we are national and we had better get our heads around this and manage it pretty quickly. We were lucky, we were very fortunate.

Guy: And we entrepreneurs need luck!

Stuart: Yes, I agree and what you see is that the good entrepreneurs with the great teams will make the most of that luck.

Guy: One of the things I say in my book, ’From Vision to Exit’, is that the perfectly balanced management team is made up of three types; a dreamer, a doer and a cynic. Would you agree with that?

Stuart: I would. I’ve heard a different one which is a dreamer, a counsellor and a son of a bitch, which is kind of a similar thing. I think you’re right though, I really do. Actually, I don’t think I’ve met a single person that has all of those qualities themselves.

Guy: Yes, it’s very hard. It’s almost impossible because they are all opposites.

Stuart: Yes I agree.

Guy: Are you a dreamer?

Stuart: Oh completely!

Guy: So, are you about seeing what the possibility is?

Stuart: Yes, although I wouldn’t like you to get that confused. People often say “Oh, I’m the ideas person”, which is fine but you’ve got to be able to execute and you’ve got to be pretty hard core with that. It’s no good just being some airy-fairy dreamer.

Guy: Yes, otherwise the idea is worthless.

Stuart: Yes, I definitely dream about where we can get to and what that journey will look like. Then I look around at other people and they are healthily sceptical and cynical and we have to get those people on our side as they will be fairly grounded.

Guy: How do you classify yourself in terms of your role now, what do you do?

Stuart: I suppose at a very macro-level it’s probably to set and agree the strategy, agree the direction of travel that we should be pursuing, make sure we have got the right people on-board to get us there and then whatever is in their way, unblock it.

Guy: So, to set the strategy and enable it.

Stuart: Yes. Occasionally, as we’ve gone through inflection points in growth, I look around 3-6 months later and everyone is pretty exhausted and sometimes I wonder if that’s because the senior team has been successful at unblocking any blockages.

Guy: Would you regard yourself as successful?

Stuart: No. I reckon if you asked all of our senior management team at ByBox if we are successful I reckon they’d all say not yet!

Guy: Last question, when you eventually sell the business, retire and probably start to become an investor in other businesses, what’s the legacy that you’d like to leave; what would you like people to say about you?

Stuart: I suppose that’s a semi-philosophical question. I suppose what I would like to be true is that the principle that has been proven many times before me; that if you give more than you take then good things happen. I think that it’s a really healthy thing; I firmly believe it is true and it would be great if we can be another group of people that preach it.

Guy: Fantastic. Thank you very much Stuart and I wish you and your team every success with ByBox!