Age No Barrier

In the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Stephen White sat down with two entrepreneurs at opposite ends of the age spectrum to discuss whether or not age is a barrier to entrepreneurship. 

Kieran Aitken, 20 years old

Scottish entrepreneur, Kieran Aitken, is among the next generation of Britain’s entrepreneurial talent, We caught up with him to hear more about his story, and to learn why youth is no barrier to business.

How are things progressing with Orbit Enterprise Education?

Really well; we started working with three schools, this year we’re hoping to work with around 40. We have operations in Glasgow, while bases in Edinburgh and Manchester will be up and running in the near future. We are looking at opening in Birmingham as well. We have three directors and we’re taking on more staff, so the business is expanding.

When did you first discover your passion for business?

In school I used to sell anything I could in the playground, like sweets and chocolate. I also created a map of the school to help new students find their way around. I sold advertising space to local businesses, and made a few hundred pounds from that early venture.

I had a few problems going on in my early teenage years, and it was around the age of 14 that I knew I had to make some changes. I remember travelling through the Highlands to England, and I just had an epiphany and I knew entrepreneurship was for me. I’ve never had a moment as powerful as that; the desire to run my own business started, and it hasn’t stopped since.

What practical steps did you take to get started?

I bought Starting A Business For Dummies, and about 50 more books, from Duncan Bannatyne’s book to Michael Porter, and publications like Harvard Business Review and the Financial Times. I had a good grounding in business theory by the time I was 16.

Then I began a car valeting business with £150. We’d charge customers £25 per month, and for that we’d clean, wash and valet the customer’s car once a week for the month. That £150 turned into a five- figure sum within around a year. That was the first real business I had, when I had to take real responsibility.

Did you receive any help in the early days?

I didn’t receive much support when I got started. The car valeting was pretty much done off my own back. These days I get a lot of support, I mean, you have to be aged over 18 to get a lot of support, but when I was 17 there wasn’t a lot of help.

Do you consider age to be a barrier to doing business?

Age is definitely a barrier, but I prefer to see it as an advantage. I was a young guy coming in; I felt that some of the investors who ran the business ecosystem in Scotland were more receptive to me because of my age and my ambition.

I used my age as a brand to a large extent, but sometimes it worked against me. I’ve met some people who are quite stuck in their ways and a bit arrogant, who won’t deal with you based on your age.

I’ve come across ageism, but you have to look at your age in a positive way. I think I’ve gotten further because I’m younger than

I would have done were I ten years older.

Do you have any role models in business?

Absolutely; there are a lot of Scottish entrepreneurs who I look up to, such as Sir Tom Hunter, and Michelle Mone. Duncan Bannatyne is a big inspiration too.

Also, rappers like 50Cent – he had circumstances that I could relate to in many ways. When I heard his story and how he got into business, I found that really inspiring.

You won Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards Edinburgh, What did it mean to you?

It was amazing; I was so happy and grateful for all the support that I’d had. The award was massive for us, and a huge credibility boost. It makes you look a lot more serious when doing business if you’ve won something like that.

The exposure has been fantastic; a few journalists have been in touch and I’ve been invited to speak at events, so that’s been great.

What advice would you give to young aspiring entrepreneurs?

Use youth to your advantage. If you’re smart enough, you’ll find a way of handling yourself. Youth can be a USP in many regards, and it will help you to stand out.

You can get in touch with a lot of big names because you’re young. It certainly worked for me. Flip age on its head and you can really have success with it.

Brian Chernett, 81 years old

After selling the Academy for Chief Executives at the age of 75, few would have blamed Brian Chernett for taking life a little slower.

How did you start in business?

I became a Department Manager at the John Lewis Partnership at 30, and that’s where I developed my people and business management skills. Then I more or less changed businesses every five years or so, I became a serial entrepreneur, developing many different businesses.

I got involved in an organisation called Vistage, the largest company in the world that allows CEOs to improve their businesses. I was invited to become a chair of one of the Vistage groups, and I loved it. It inspired me to go on and set up the Academy for Chief Executives (ACE) which, similarly, helps chief executives to develop their leadership. I ran ACE for twenty years, and sold it at the age of 75, by which time I was listed in the Maserati 100 list.

How did you create Ella Forums?

I remembered how effective it was when we had invited charities to join us at the Academy. I thought there might be a market there, and spent four years developing the Ella Foundation, which then turned into Ella Forums (Experiential Leadership Learning Academy), a Community Interest Company.

I was mainly copying what I had done with ACE. The challenge was getting charity leaders to spend the money to improve their efficiency. I raised tax-free cash under the SEIS scheme, and sourced £140,000 investment from ex-members from my academy days. I had money from selling ACE and put in £150,000 of my own money, and it’s only now showing surpluses. I’ve not been earning any money from it all as yet.

Employing the same techniques as we did with ACE, we tapped into profound learning. It was valuable because not-for- profits have much more working against them than for-profit organisations. The stress on CEOs of charities is enormous; we teach them how to deal with that pressure and how to work with trustees. Four years later and we’re working with just under 200 charity leaders and 17 groups around the country.

When did you discover your passion for business?

It was when I joined the Royal Air Force for three years at 17. After little education, I found myself passing small exams and getting small promotions and I ended up working in Gibraltar, helping to get people over from Spain to build officers’ barracks. I discovered I wasn’t bad at managing people.

My growth period was in John Lewis; I started on the junior circuit then started to run departments and after five years, the MD left. I was 30 and he suggested I join him to help build a chain of stores and small retail shops, and help them develop their department stores overseas.

Do you have any role models in business?

There were a few people in the early days in the first companies that I worked for whom I admired. In the early days, I’d read most of the business books – my favourite one is Good to Great (Collins, 2016). I went to America to hear Jim Collins speak, and he was fantastic.

Do you consider age to be a barrier to doing business?

Absolutely not, I think more and more people see that you don’t lose your marbles at 65. I couldn’t think of retirement. I’m 81 now and I’m told by many of those with whom I work with that I’m more effective than ever, particularly as a coach.

What are you looking for in the candidates that you’ll be judging at the GBEA?

I think I’d like to see how they are measuring the value that they deliver to civil society; social ROI is really important.I’ll look at how they build their teams; how they work together. If they’re charities it will be interesting to see how they’ve worked with their trustees. It’s essential that a good CEO charity works in partnership with their chairs.

What advice would you give to young aspiring entrepreneurs?

We have a charter on all our business cards that says to make sure that you understand the purpose of what you’re doing. Make sure you stay on purpose and follow through with it in all you do.

You can take a look at a full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.

Register for the Great British Entrepreneur Awards regional finals (online)