James Layfield, one of the youngest managing directors in Richard Branson’s Virgin group, has come up with a unique gameplan by asking people to invest in him. Many in England and across the world have already started taking him seriously. Layfield is no pushover. He was named in the ‘Top 30 under-35 UK Entrepreneurs’ by Growing Business magazine and has some hugely successful businesses under his belt: 360 Marcoms, Escape Airports, NEVEREVER Ltd and Inside Consultants. Layfield tells Manav Chopra why he considers himself the market’s most maverick product.
How did you come up with the idea behind offering a 10 percent stake in yourself?
I put it down to frustration with the current system. Fundamentally people invest in people, so rather than ‘gamble’ on my latest venture, why not take a 10 percent stake in everything I make for the rest of my life — from salary, dividends and the sales of my companies — by investing just £1 million.
Considering you have such a good track record, you could easily have sought bank credit…
Banks don’t help in creating new opportunities. No bank lends money to start a business, and right now not many banks will support even a profitable enterprise. All of my ventures are completely separate companies — the only common ground being me: hence the idea of investing at the top, in myself.
How will this new investment proposal work?
The basics are simple. If you invest £1 million, you will get up to 10 percent of everything that I make for the rest of my life. Ideally just one individual would invest this £1 million, but since several small investors have shown interest, it could be split proportionally. But I’ve made it clear I will not take the funds until the £1 million level is attained.
Will you be personally listed on the stock exchange, or have some other method for paying the money back?
It’s not about paying back, it’s not a loan. It’s an investment. You receive ongoing returns, and will be involved in the exciting opportunities that come my way. There’s no current plan to get listed on the stock exchange.
How will investors price the risk in the investment in you? You could get sick at some point or move into loss-making areas?
The deal will ensure that even if I am not around my ventures survive me and investors still see their returns.
How will investors assess the performance of their investments?
Like any good investment, they will have regular meetings with the board, me, and get reports on how things are progressing. They will receive their returns annually, so will be able to assess the level of returns. The real reason to get involved is because I’m looking to exit from my ventures. That is when my investors will get to make more than what they have put in.
Has anybody invested so far or shown interest?
So far we have had some strong interest, of around £250,000 — which is a great start.
What do you think of the business climate in India?
I believe India offers an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs. Some of my friends are already doing business here.
Do you have any plans to expand your business in India?
I have two ventures that I feel are ideally suited to your market, the first of which is Grand Central, my new membersbased workspace. So yes, I’ll be out here pretty soon.
Have you thought of fundraising in India?
I have, which is why this interview is perfect. I would love to seek funding from your market. Please get in touch with me onwww.nevereverlimited.com if you want to join me on this journey.
What did you take away from your experience at Virgin?
For me, working within Virgin was like being paid to do an MBA. Let me put this in context. When I was around 12, we were asked in school what we wanted to be when we grew up. Though at that age I couldn’t even spell the word, my hand shot up and I straight way shouted, ‘Entrepreneur!’ And Branson was my inspiration; working for him a childhood dream. So when at 25 I was made a marketing director for one of his businesses, it was a dream come true. I was working at a dotcom, helping to shape the way Virgin entered the new media age. I attended board meetings with Gordon McCallum, Branson’s second- in-command, and had millions of Branson’s pounds to play with. This is what I meant when I said it was like being paid to do an MBA. In my years at Virgin I learnt how to — and how not to — run a business. I also experienced the worst sides of business, in particular having to make the very real and very difficult decision to make one of my good friends redundant. In most companies you are an employee, you don’t really appreciate what actually goes on and how a buiness survives.
In what ways did Branson influence you at Virgin?
He was a massive inspiration, because I came to feel I could do this myself. This is not said out of arrogance, but from being able to see him up close. It was clear that he was just a man — a man with a particular penchant for beards and jumpers, but a man nonetheless. So this was a very positive thing for me. The other key thing I saw was that he was very good at hiring very good people — the idea being, employ people much better than you and get them enthused!
What businesses did you start after leaving Virgin?
I had a lovely soft landing for my first business, The Lounge Group. I put in no money at all. Virgin Mobile very kindly came on board as our first client and prepaid us for the full year. I decided that for an agency to really be able to help its clients connect with young people, it would need to be in touch with them. Eventually we had a network of around 10,000, all under-35, with whom we were constantly connected. And that became our winning USP.
A bottom line your businesses share?
The common element among my businesses is a strong understanding of the consumer, and that leads to insightful brand-led enterprise. In all other respects they can be as different as they like; but yes, all of them must be nice workplaces.
You have so many businesses, why start another one?
My passion is business, I’m a business geek! I love it, business gets me up in the morning and it keeps me awake at night. It gets me writing this to you on a Sunday afternoon. For me, work doesn’t feel like work: it’s fun. I just recalled how amazing it was when I opened my airport lounge in JFK, New York. It felt so good to stand there, knowing this was my lounge and that all of these happy customers were being looked after by my team.
What do you seek in budding entrepreneurs and promising managers in your company?
Passion, that’s the main thing — that fire in your belly. Only if you have it can you learn the skills. And I can’t teach you passion.