LONDON — Nick Wheeler, the founder and owner of shirt maker Charles Tyrwhitt, says the advice he gives entrepreneurs is not always popular.
“People think: ‘OK, there’s a guy with a business that’s worked, can he give me a little bit of magic dust that I can sprinkle on my business that’s going to provide some magic formula that will make my business a success overnight,'” Wheeler told Business Insider. “The answer to that is always a resounding: ‘No.'”
“There are very few businesses that take off straight away. A lot of it is good old, cliched, hard work and dedication. It’s loving what you do so you’re prepared to put in a lot of time and effort to make the business a success.”
Wheeler founded Charles Tyrwhitt — named for Wheeler’s two middle names — in 1986 when he was an undergraduate studying geography at the University of Bristol. For several years he ran it simply as a side project.
“When I started my business I did £12,000 a year in sales for the first four years. Everyone said to me, give up, it’s not going to work.”
Today, 31 years later, Wheeler’s business turns over tens of millions of pound and his shirts sell in the UK, Germany, Australia, and the US. The business has grown naturally, with Wheeler simply reinvesting profits each year.
Wheeler regularly gives talks on entrepreneurship, most recently addressing The Budding Entrepreneurs Club in London earlier this month. He tells startup bosses who approach him during talks like these that perseverance is key.
“I get a lot of people who come to me and say: I’ve been running my business for four years, nothings really happening, it’s all a bit of a disaster, I’m thinking of giving up, what should I do?” says Wheeler.
“As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to believe in yourself and believe in the business and you’ve got to plug away. There’s no quick fix.”
Wheeler also tells entrepreneurs to remain focused, rather than trying to diversify if things are going slowly.
“One of the really important lessons I learned is a lot of it is about focus,” he says. “Early on, in 1994, the business was going quite well — I was doing £2.5 million in sales, £250,000 in profit. Great little business. I got a bit bored. I went out and bought a chain of children’s clothes shops and that was a disaster. What I was good at was selling shirts to men by mail order. That’s what I should have concentrated on. I lost more money in three months than I’d made in the last three years.
“If you do three different things, you’re going to do three different things badly. If you do one thing, you’re going to do one thing well.”
Another piece of advice Wheeler shares is that businesses don’t necessarily need to go down the venture-capital-fuelled hypergrowth model that is in vogue today. Charles Tyrwhitt has never taken outside investment.
“People tend to go down the route of: I’ve come up with an idea, I’m going to raise a shed-load of money which I’m going to spend over two years, and hope for the best,” he says. “Quite often it ends in tears.”
“When you read about entrepreneurs, you tend not to read about the people who built amazing businesses over the course of a lifetime. If you look in America or in Europe, you’ve got some big family businesses: BMW, Estee Lauder. They built businesses over a lifetime. You don’t read about them because it’s not an exciting story. You read about Jeff Bezos, or Sergey Brin, or the guys who’ve done Snapchat and Uber. It’s all very well and good, but for everyone that succeeds, there are five that don’t.”
“I think Warren Buffett said that there’s nothing wrong with getting rich slowly. Some of the worst business decisions are made by people in a rush.”