James Caan – From broom cupboard to ‘entering the dragon’

TELL Series interview with James Caan, Former Dragons’ Den Star and Serial Entrepreneur

Playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘When I was a young man I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.’

It is often acknowledged that starting a business of your own frequently leads to failure, and failure is widely accepted and even celebrated by the entrepreneurial community as a badge of honour, a necessary pathway to eventual success. However, it’s not for everyone.

From broom cupboard to multimillionaire

At the age of 19, entrepreneur, investor and television personality James Caan decided to give failure a wide berth and aim for success on the first attempt.  

Hidden away in a “broom cupboard” in Pall Mall, and armed only with a copy of the Yellow Pages and a phone, the young Mr Caan launched his new recruitment business, Alexander Mann.   

Today that company is now the largest talent solutions company in the world, with revenues north of £1.8bn, operating in 22 countries, employing 8000 people and managing the entire talent of large FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 corporates.

As Mr Caan says himself, “My mother would say that the ‘boy did okay’”. 

It seems a little trite to wheel out such epithets as ‘the Midas Touch’ as a way of describing Mr Caan’s subsequent entrepreneurial career, but King Midas certainly is, only without the drawbacks.

After founding Alexander Mann, in 1993, Caan co-founded the executive headhunting firm Humana International with recruitment entrepreneur Doug Bugie, eventually growing the business to more than 147 offices in 30 countries.  

In the same year, he launched the trade magazine Recruitment International, and in 1996, Caan co-founded AMS with Rosaleen Blair, CBE. Caan subsequently sold his interests in AMS in 2002. In 1999, Caan sold Humana International to CDI International, a New York listed company. Later that year, Caan sold a minority stake in Alexander Mann Group to private equity firm Advent International.

Caan’s business skill and shrewdness are undisputed, and that alone would have granted him access to the wider public consciousness. However, it is the field of television where he really began to leave his mark on the public’s imagination with his appearance on Dragon’s Den, the reality television business programme.

Enter the Dragon

During his time on Dragon’s Den, Caan made 18 investments, including a company making ‘Toastabags’, an easy-to-install blind business called Blindsinabox and a dog treadmill business, Fit Fur Life.

Leaving the Den

As if being a serial investor, a business success story and a TV star weren’t enough, it was inevitable that someone in government circles would get to hear of James Caan. That person was no less a figure than the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

In 2012, he became chairman of the Start Up Loans programme – the government-backed scheme designed to provide loans and mentoring to people looking to start a business – and he remained in this role until 2015 when he ‘stepped down’. As a matter of fact, CV-style statement that is impressive but lacks drama.

The ‘drama’ (not the devil) was in the detail of the Start-up Loans programme and is very worth recounting!

Start-up Loans programme

“When I left Dragon’s Den I thought about my experience there and realised that I had met around 1000 entrepreneurs. Of the 1000 entrepreneurs, 900 would never make it,” says Caan who was interviewed recently for the latest TELL series by Jane Khedair, Executive Director of LBS’s Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital (IEPC).

“What occurred to me is that people do not know what they don’t know and leaving Dragon’s Den inspired me to write a book. It was effectively a book which was about how not to start a business”.

Titled, Start Your Business in 7 Days: Turn Your Idea Into a Life-Changing Success, Caan wrote the book from the working principle that God had created the world in seven days, “and I wanted to show people how to start their own business within the same amount of time”.

“I wanted to tell people something about themselves, as would-be entrepreneurs and get them to be aware of what they don’t know, and what they need to avoid,” says Caan.

The book became a best seller. The late David Young, Baron Young of Graffham, the Former Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, read the book, “really liked it” and mentioned it to Prime Minister Cameron.

Caan was then summoned to No.10 to meet with Cameron, learning that in the UK, a long-term, 20-year forecast revealed that Britain needed to become a more entrepreneurial society because if it failed to adapt and change, there would be a serious shortfall in jobs. However, one very real job was on offer in the here and now – to be the mandarin of the Start-up Loans programme.

What followed hovered between a Grand-Guignol drama, and Whitehall farce. With no salary, no office, and no expenses, yet with a £1bn budget on offer for new businesses, Mr Caan was being offered the job of leading the scheme. He was expected to interview thousands of people, build a support network and galvanise entrepreneurship across the British Isles. Of course, he accepted the role. And with 100,000 British small businesses having benefited from government-backed Start-Up Loans, it has been an evident success.

The finale, but not the very end

The story, as they say in books, does not end there.

In 2013, Caan launched an annual competition to find the UK’s next recruitment stars, offering mentoring as well as capital, and in 2014 he gained the title of one of the top LinkedIn Influencers, more influential than Barack Obama, for his blogs about career advice and tips for small business owners.

In the 2015 New Year Honours List Caan was awarded a CBE from the Queen in recognition of his services to entrepreneurship, combined with his charitable work.

Not bad, certainly not for a lad who used to model leather jackets made in his dad’s factory in order to make sales and who left school at 16 without qualifications!

Lessons in business from James Caan:

  • Only start a business in a sector that you know;
  • Backing good people is more important than backing a good idea as it’s all down to execution
  • Know your strengths:  delegate and hire the best;
  • Know your numbers and evaluate your risk;
  • Go for win-win;
  • Start small and enjoy your success!