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Financial Times – ‘If you have a compelling project, the money is out there’

James Caan, the venture capitalist, entrepreneur and former TV ‘dragon’, talks to Mehreen Khan

What do you think are the prospects for start-up businesses in the UK, given the uncertain economic outlook?

The climate is challenging because banks are not lending and people are tentative to deploy capital when things are so difficult. But if you still have a compelling investment project, the money is out there, it is just a matter of convincing investors you are worth it.

The current volume of investment is around £2bn ($3bn) a month, so I expect roughly £20bn to be available in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector this year. Clearly, there is still some money there.

You went to Harvard Business School quite late in life. How necessary is higher education for budding entrepreneurs?

My own experience has been that business is not easy at the best of times. Today, there are so many facets you need to master to be successful. The more you understand, the more prepared and capable you are to make better decisions.

Harvard gave me a stronger understanding of international business and trade that I had not experienced before. I went at a point when I had just sold a business, had something of a gap, and I utilised that time to gain a different understanding of business. The decision seemed weird to some people, especially after I had been so successful. “What could higher education teach me?” they asked.

But you never stop learning. If you are not keeping yourself abreast of changing dynamics, it puts you in a weaker position as a business person.

What do you consider your biggest success and failure in business?

Success was the formation of my foundation. I wish I had done it sooner. It is a place where I have an outlet for my success, where I can utilise the proceeds of my businesses in an environment to build schools, villages, help the homeless and be a patron of cancer research.

It is the best job in the world. I have a platform to create capital on the one hand, and then an opportunity to deploy that success in areas where I gain far more satisfaction than I do in business.

My biggest failure was a few years ago, when I invested in a sandwich chain called Benjys. It had 100 outlets and employed 600 people. I thought my expertise could be useful but I failed conclusively and lost all my money – millions; I cannot remember how much.

In terms of your investment portfolio, is there any sector that you would still like to make your mark on or regret missing out on?

The sector that I am starting to focus on more and more is social enterprise, where you have businesses that are real, but that contribute to society because they want to make a difference. It is quite an exciting sector, which plays to my strengths because it is involved with building an enterprise.

There have been a number of times when I did not buy certain shares, and then they went on to triple in value. But that is part of the journey all entrepreneurs take.

Which brand or company do you most admire?

Google. Its impact on our society and the business world is remarkable.

They have created a model based on a very a simple idea that is now worth hundreds of billions. Not only is Google a service that we cannot live without, but it is hugely commercially successful, too.

What do you keep next to your bedside table?

My iPad. I want to know how markets are trading before I go to bed because most of my trades are global, and the iPad is the best thing for it. My wife does not think it is so great but, luckily for me, she usually dozes off by the time I go to bed.

How would you like to be remembered?

I have been moderately successful in business, and in the past seven years, I set up the James Caan Foundation. If I were remembered, I would like it to be as someone who used his skills in business to benefit those who were less fortunate.

I am also involved with the Prince’s Trust [the UK charity] in giving young people loans to set up their own businesses, mentoring them and helping them come back into society with integrity. That is something really invaluable.

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