Backchat

What I wish I'd known: Scott Nursten

Oct 09 issue
 

In a sense, I wish I could have kept some of my initial naivety and idealism. When I started my first company, and then s2s, I didn’t even have a business plan. I just went right ahead and did it.

As you get older you start to question more as the paralysis of analysis creeps in. There is sometimes a sense of wishing there were things that I didn’t know now. If I’d stopped and thought about some of the things I was doing back then, I probably wouldn’t have achieved what I have.

Know when to listen

Starting my first business in Zimbabwe was a big mistake. My father tried to discourage me from moving there, but I’d dropped out of school and have always been a bit disruptive, shall we say. So I moved back anyway and started up there when I was 15.

I chose Zimbabwe because there were no internet service providers in the country, and being first to market is a huge advantage. Not only that, I’d always loved the country as it is where I was born.

I really thought I could do my bit and change things. At the time, a lot of people believed that a reason for the country’s problems was because so many talented people were leaving.

The problem, of course, was president Robert Mugabe, and ultimately there wasn’t anything that could be done about his leadership of the country.

The writing was on the wall in that country for a long time, but I just poo-pooed it. Between 1995 and 2000 the exchange rate went from ten to one against the pound to 1,000 to one. When we sold the business nine years ago, it was worth next to nothing. I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 20, but instead when I moved to England I was practically penniless.

Be realistic
While growing s2s, I thought that I could achieve all my targets with just a handful of people. By 2003 I realised that wasn’t going to work. We needed a more formal management structure and more staff in place. Had I known that sooner, we could have reached our long-term goals more quickly.

Maybe there was part of me that wanted to keep it at a relatively small size. I’ve always been a bit of a rule-breaker and didn’t necessarily want those formal structures in place that come with growth. But the truth is that companies are hierarchical by nature. After what happened in Zimbabwe I was determined to make the company successful and sell it. I should have stayed focused on that goal and taken the measures to achieve it sooner.

I guess because we started it in 2000 it was part of that dot-com feeling, and perhaps I thought it was possible that someone would be prepared to buy the business from a bunch of hippies. I was caught up in the cool.

Breaking point
In 2004 I reached a crisis. At that stage we were paying all our employees’ salaries on credit cards, as we wanted to keep our cash reserves free. And because we were growing the business with such a small team, I was putting in very long hours – sometimes nearly 20 a day. My wife got really upset because she wasn’t seeing me and we couldn’t even pay the bills. That was a really testing time.

We did hire more staff in the end. Maybe we should have done sooner, not just for the sake of the company but because it would have had a positive effect on all of our work-life balances.