A true story - Fred’s idea - The Old Varsity Tavern - A chink in the armour - A drainpipe and an open window - An unexpected turn - Is that me on the monitor? - Big bouncer’s mitts - The prize moment
The beautiful thing about writing your own blog series is the freedom to wander whether your (semi) literal whim takes you. In this weeks blog, I certainly step off my primary path to tell an entrepreneurial story (of sorts). Bear with me. There is a point to be made – which I will draw us towards at the conclusion of the piece. Who knows, you might even enjoy the temporary escapism from my standard fare also?
An entrepreneurial story
This is a true story.
It is September 1993.
I am twenty four years old and coming towards the end of a gruelling 15-month course to become a Royal Marines Commando Officer. Our starting batch of 36 men has been whittled down by a third – with many fine colleagues falling short of the required standards or, simply, conceding defeat. We are exhausted but offered a (rare) weekend to recuperate; a treasured opportunity to visit the fleshpots of civvy street.
A good buddy, Fred (now a vicar), suggests a venue – a return to his old stamping ground of Birmingham University and – so – on an early Friday evening, a full car of party-seekers sets off north on the M4. We arrive first at Fred’s suggested launch pad – a pub popular with students: The Old Varsity Tavern. It is absolutely heaving with the return of the campus to a new academic year and we quickly charm our way in – with our erudite charm and (standard issue) looks. Ok. I made that bit up. We do, however, have a lot of fun – pretending, no doubt, to be returning PhD students (“but why the same short haircuts?”).
As the evening progresses towards closing time, an intriguing conversation unfolds: “you guys do know that the biggest party of the year is taking place tonight?”. With a wry smile conceding that we, perhaps, are not as familiar with the local scene as we originally let on, we enquire further. “It is the Freshers’ welcoming night at the Birmingham University Student Union. Without doubt, the craziest night of the year – but – if you don’t have a ticket then entrance is impossible.”
Did he just say “entrance is impossible”?
To five testosterone-jacked, steely-eyed, nearly-fully-badged commando officers (you get a sense of our youthful ego!)?
And, so, the challenge was set.
Off we headed to the campus in search of this building (or was it an enemy installation?) with its promise of promises. Through the fog of alcoholic consumption, we started to shift back into our now highly-engrained operating mode. First off, a detailed 360-degree recce of the “impossible to enter” location.
We regroup to discuss. To be fair, the security is phenomenal – way beyond the usual student union night – this must, indeed, be a night-of-nights. It is a huge building – with multiple bars and dance areas – music pulsating out – but no obvious side-entrance (did Tony just say “ingress point”?).
Another 360-degree circuit. There are yellow-jacketed stewards everywhere. This has clearly been the hot-ticket event for many a year and their numbers (and patrolling pattern) indicates an experienced security operation that has seen off many a half-hearted free-rider.
But this time round, we spot it. A small chink in the armour. An unlit service courtyard at the rear of the building which once inside reveals a slightly ajar window on the first floor – with a ground-to-roof drainpipe running three feet to its right. The room behind the window is probably just a service cupboard or unmanned office – from which we can then enter the belly of paradise.
With beer-inspired logic, we decide it must be possible to get our first man up the drainpipe, through the ajar window and into the building (did Rob just say “establish a beachhead?”). I volunteer. I suspect because my faculties have been most influenced by earlier imbibement.
The others look out as I climb up the drainpipe – all the work on the bottom-field 30′ rope eventually paying off. I get level with the window and have a moment of huge sobriety. This is very high up. The window is a good – and totally committed – arm reach to my left. To mess it up is near-certain broken legs and, most likely, worse. Am I sure I can do this? As they say: “hesitation kills” and so I launch across.
I am now hanging from the window. Strewth! Doubt enters my mind. When have I ever pulled myself vertically up into a window before? Has all the gym-work – under the gently-encouraging eyes of Royal Marine PTIs – been enough?
I pull myself upwards – fearing failure at a fairly primeval level. With every sinew of applied grit and struggle I should soon be over the lip – and into this (presumed) unoccupied store room.
“What on earth is going on?” my mind screams.
The room is not empty. Indeed, there is a man holding a video camera and pointing it straight at me. What is that on one of the monitors at the back of the room? “Oh my giddy aunt …”, I think … it is my strained face being filmed as I struggle up onto the window ledge. “THERE IS SOMEONE TRYING TO BREAK INTO THE UNION”: he narrates in a loud, excitable tone – with the air of someone who has landed on a BAFTA documentary award-winning moment.
“Help me in!” I retort – trying to make sense of the expectation-dislocation moment. What is going on here? Slowly, my sense-making faculty produces some answers. A guy behind turntables, multiple monitors and wires … this is the nerve-centre, the music-and-media-hub for the entire party.
Stepping over the DJ’s turntable – to continued frenetic narration, I am handed straight over to a very large (head of security?) more-weight-than-muscle bouncer. He is enjoying this one – some catch. And, so, I am manhandled – with his thick mitt wrapped around my left arm – down a corridor and stairs to face the inevitable ejection.
Fresh from the world-renowned commando course, only one thought appears in my head. Whenever captured by the enemy, you have to escape early!
We walk down another corridor – approaching some double swing doors to my right. The dance music thumps from the other side. This is the moment. I drop my right shoulder and swing up with my left into a shoulder barge – knocking him out of his grip. I smash through the double doors and wade quickly through a sea of densely-packed, sweaty dancers into the epicentre of the cavernous dancefloor. There must be thousands of revellers here – cloaked in the anonymity of a dark, lazer-filled, throbbing mass of humanity. I quickly remove my top – change of colour – and join in the throng. An occasional glance to the edges – to the yellow-jackets peering earnestly into the dark confirms that I have pulled it off. They can’t locate me. I am in!
So what happened next and what on earth does this have to do with a blog on entrepreneurship?
Well, these were the days before we all had mobile phones; so, unfortunately, I could no longer whistle-up-to-my-oppos that the coast was clear. The spoils of the venture would have to be now mine alone; I knew they wouldn’t begrudge me the moment. That’s probably where I should leave it – suffice to say I met a charming, young lady who excitedly pronounced: “are you the guy I have just seen projected onto the wall?” – pointing at a huge 30’ by 10’ screen that has now returned to showing music videos. Suffice to say, the party – and the night generally – lived up to all its promises.
A link to entrepreneurship? Is this an entrepreneurial story?
Ok. This will not be without some straining of metaphor (but … come on … hopefully it is an amusing story in its own right). It’s just that it occurred to me recently – that this story says as much about the entrepreneurial struggle as your typical, hackneyed successful entrepreneur story might do.
If I had to capture what it takes to step-out into a startup, the indefatigable “improvise, adapt and overcome” spirit required to succeed in building a business then maybe this yarn would be the candidate.
The allure of the whispered prize, the early exploration of an unknown place, the desperate search for a market opportunity, a unique entry proposition, the 100% committed risk-taking, the audacious pursuit of a path-less-trod, the very real implications of failure, applied grit, flawed first strategies but keen-eyed, opportunistic regains … this is what entrepreneurship is about. Oh, and not to forget … the creation of stories en route!
And, so, if you are perhaps pondering whether you have it in you to take your bar-conversationalist-idea into real-world-reality, to step off onto the entrepreneurial journey, I would encourage you to look deep. Ultimately, a fair swathe of success will hinge on whether you possess a tenacious, beyond-the-herd, ever-opportunistic, ever-positive, obstacles-are-what-I-see-when-I-take-my-eyes-off-the-goal type mindset.
As such, this is an entrepreneurial story. Of sorts.
Normal service resumes next week.
So, what’s next?
Next week, I will take a look at the concept of a value map and how such a device can be used to frame and develop your business growth agenda.
Hopefully, you’ll join us on this journey. It’s totally free, and you don’t have to be a Method Grid customer (though you’re more than welcome to sign up for a free trial here).
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Great story – I’ve got fond memories of the Old Varsity Tavern and Birmingham Uni students Union (my Alma Mater) – wish I’d been there to see your break in!
Certainly this resonates on a number of levels – in particular the ‘never give up’ / ‘can’t is not in our vocabulary’ type of attitude, which you need in order to survive as a small consulting firm.
I particularly like the self belief required to leap without a safety net!