Steven Smith was one of 14 of the UK’s most committed supporters of entrepreneurship inducted into the Great British Entrepreneurs Champions Hall of Fame in association with NatWest and JD&Co in 2019, a brand new initiative led by the Great British & Northern Irish Entrepreneur Awards.
In a special issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs magazine, we sat down with Steve to look back at his entrepreneurial career so far.
Looking up and down the High Street, few have a more humble beginning than Poundland and its founder, Steven Smith.
Business and entrepreneurship has been the very fabric of Steven’s life from an early age, almost from birth. So it was only natural that he followed what he knew.
“I was on my parents’ market stall from the age of two, so I’ve always been around business – learning to buy, learning to sell, learning to work with customers,” Steven explains. “From an early age, I was taking money on the market stall. I used to go to school in the morning, come back at 3:30 to do my homework on the floor and head to the warehouse to serve customers and help out.”
Steven identifies his father as his entrepreneurial inspiration: “I learned almost everything from my dad.”
“My dad was living with his parents and wanted to get his a place for him and my mum, who was pregnant with me at the time,” he adds.
Steven’s father was a draftsman but secured a license to trade on a market stall on the weekend. “He soon found that he could make more money from the stall on a Saturday than he could all week working as a draftsman.”
It wasn’t long before he quit his job, with Steven’s mum joining him on the stall shortly after. “They couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they took me with them in my pushchair,” Steven recalls. “I grew up alongside the business. My dad taught me how to buy, how to sell, where to get products from – everything from displaying products to which suppliers to go to, and making new friends and customers.”
More than the inspiration to run a business in the future, Stephen’s father unknowingly provided the inspiration for what would be one of the most well-known High Street stores and the start of a £5 billion industry.
“The idea for Poundland came from working on the market stall,” Steven says. “Anything that came in its original packaging was thrown into a cardboard box and sold for 10p. This box took more money than anything else.”
Steven’s father sold his business in 1989, right around the time the new £1 coin was redesigned. “It was perfect because we had this idea of selling everything for one price and the new £1 coin was coming, so we put two and two together. We came up with a few ideas for a name but settled on Poundland and opened our first store in Burton-on-Trent in 1990.
Although it only stocked 48 products, Poundland took £13,000 on its very first day. It wasn’t plain sailing, though. Steven initially had difficulty convincing people on the concept of selling everything for £1 and having the best position on the High Street or in a shopping centre. In fact, he describes it as his “biggest challenge”, explaining that people “just didn’t believe me”.
His strategy to overcome this hurdle was bold. First, identify the most prestigious shopping centre in the country, which turned out to be Meadowhall Shopping Centre in Sheffield. Second, get a meeting with the owner.
Steven recalls: “I found out who the owner was and picked up the phone, turned up to speak to him and he eventually agreed to meet with me. I did a presentation on Poundland and he said ‘I love the concept, but I don’t have any free shops at the moment’.”
Undeterred and ever positive, Steven saw ‘I love the concept’ as an opportunity rather than focusing on the negative of ‘I don’t have any free shops’. The previous night, without enough money to get a hotel room, Steven slept in his car nearby. Before settling down, however, he took a walk around the shopping centre to identify the prime locations. His favourite was occupied by a popular video store. With videos moving to DVD and online, Steven didn’t see the store having a long-term future. “I said to the owner of the shopping centre, that if that unit became available, I wanted it,” Steven says. “He agreed and three months later it went bankrupt so we took the store and took nearly £140,000 in the first week.”
It was that moment that Steven identifies as the breakthrough for him as an entrepreneur and Poundland: “It allowed me to go to landlords and say ‘If Poundland is good enough for Meadowhall, it’s good enough for your shopping centre’.”
He sold Poundland in 2000 for £50 million. And in 2014, it listed on the stock market with a capitalisation of £750m. Evidently, Steven is a hugely successful businessman, but what makes him really stand out from the crowd is how he identifies his success and what is important to him. It is not the many millions he earned selling the business, or the many more the company has generated. Instead, it is the time spent working with “fantastic people”.
He explains: “Over the years, I’ve learned that you meet somebody and you weigh them up as to whether or not they’re good or bad. We employed people based on their attitude and ability, rather than exam results. It wasn’t me that built Poundland, it was my team. I’ve been incredibly fortunate enough to work with some fantastic people, so I think that’s my biggest success.”
Further evidence of the person Steven is how he reflects on his entrepreneurial career and how it shapes his time now. “If I look back on my life, I have a few regrets. You have to get the balance right, which I didn’t. I didn’t see my daughter grow up. She’d be asleep when I left and asleep when I got home.”
Offering advice to younger entrepreneurs, he continued: “Not only have you got to be a great entrepreneur, you need to be a great parent, a great partner and a great person. If you can get that work-life balance right, you’ll be happier.”
In fact, family absolutely comes first for Steven now. He says: “In January every year, I sit down for a full day with my wife and we put in the diary all the things she wants to do, all the things I want to do, and the business has to fit around it. Thankfully, I’m fortunate enough now to be able to fit it all in. Get the balance right would be my advice.”
Nearly two decades after selling Poundland, Steven’s goal is to support young entrepreneurs. “Championing and supporting entrepreneurs is important to me because if my father hadn’t have given me £50,000 Poundland wouldn’t be here today and have created tens of thousands of jobs and created a £5 billion market.”
That’s not to say support is all about funding, however. Far from it, in fact. “It’s about your contacts,” Steven explains. “It’s taken a lifetime to build those up, so people like myself can really work to help young entrepreneurs to find that break. There are so many entrepreneurs who have great ideas, and people who want to invest. I try to put those people together and if I can help get their big break, that’s amazing.”
What really comes across from speaking to Steven, even if just for a short while, is his energy and enthusiasm for passing on his knowledge and support to others earlier on in their journey. And that is summed up perfectly by this final quote: “I just love working with like-minded people who have a passion to grow something. It’s all about attitude, wanting to make it happen and that’s my slogan – ‘let’s make it happen’. I love working with people who want to grow something and make a difference in the world.”