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The SMART Interview #17 Theo Paphitis

  • TN-TheoPaphitis
  • 17 Oct 2014

The Dragon’s Den stalwart rose from tea boy’s assistant to owner of high street names like Ryman and Robert Dyas. And with a resumé running the gamut from chairman of gritty Millwall FC, to lingerie retailing, Theo Paphitis knows how to pull himself up by his boot (or bra) straps. So how did he learn the ropes?

At Heathrow Express we like to celebrate doing things that bit smarter. Each month we seek out someone who really exemplifies this approach to work and life and we ask them some questions. This month: Theo Paphitis.

Are people born entrepreneurial or is it something they learn?

Most people can become entrepreneurs. It's about the level they can get to. Some are born with more passion and talent. It's like football. People can make a success of it in different leagues, but all make a living playing football. Some are born with huge natural ability and they make it to the Premier League. The ones at the top of the game definitely tend to have that talent built in.

Thinking smarter, being creative; it’s something many people struggle with – is there a secret?

I like the word 'smart'. People sometimes tell me 'I'm working really hard'. But that's not enough. I try to break things down into bite-sized chunks and deal with them in a modular way. So, take small steps. Don't worry about the thing you might struggle with later on. Just focus on getting the first bits right first.

Having a good idea is the easy bit. How do you take a good idea and make it commercially successful?

Even some brilliant ideas are no good for making money. When you do have something you think has potential you have to adopt what I call the 'honesty/passion' rule. Before you embark on making money with this amazing idea, do your research – and really listen to what's coming back. So many people just ask their best friends and their aunty Ethel for an opinion and think they've done the research. Secondly, even if you have a good idea that looks like it really might work, you will need passion when it gets tough. It will get tough – it's bound to. And if you don't have the passion to see yourself through those times you will fail.

You’re a champion for small businesses – what’s the biggest mistake people running small businesses in the UK make and how can they remedy it?

People start without enough cash. They assume everything will be fine. Even the ones who have worked the numbers properly and really understand what they are doing tend to base their forecast on nothing going wrong. You need to be realistic and make sure you have enough cash to help you when something goes wrong. Lack of profit is like a cancer. It kills you slowly. Lack of cash flow is like a heart attack. It kills you straight away. What you don't want is for the first cold to be pneumonia.

Theo Paphitis
Image: Theo Paphitis

Like Richard Branson you have dyslexia. Has having it given you greater drive to succeed? Has it contributed to your success?

Richard's family were pretty comfortable, but I came from a poor family. Being poor was what drove me. But my dyslexia contributed too. It was an asset – not a liability. All the way through school, I had to work harder to be average. I had to develop work-arounds to do everything. When I left school I realised that it was actually a great skill. Every time I encountered a problem that stumped people, I could find a work around because that was how my brain worked.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your business life - and what did you learn from it?

I’ve made lots of mistakes in my business life and the guy who says he doesn't is a liar. The important thing is to make sure your mistakes aren't life-threatening. I never bet the farm on a decision. I think the biggest one was relying too much on advisors in my early days. Now I still have advisers, but I always make the decision.

Finding time for family life is tough for most business people. Any suggestions for striking the right balance that you've learnt along the way?

I haven't got the right balance, as Mrs P constantly tells me. And I hope she'll be doing so for the next 36 years too. So my suggestion is have a long-suffering partner; a major supporting act. The only concession I made was when we had our fourth and fifth children – twin girls. My wife really needed help with them. That was the first time I did school runs. They are 18 now. The other thing I gave into 20 years ago, as it was cheaper than a divorce, was to take every school holiday off to make up for it. The kids always saw me in a good light when we were on holiday and I was relaxed and had time for them.

Do you travel much? Is there a particular part of the world you love to visit?

I travel lots and I love it. I've got a boat and all my holidays are spent travelling – mainly on the Med. Making TV shows has been great for travelling too - Vietnam, India, Brazil. It was lovely to get paid to do that kind of thing. It was all organised for me. I thought I was in heaven. I have business interests in Canada so I go there quite a bit and the Caribbean too. And, of course, I love to go back to Cyprus. That's still home for me. That's where I will rest my bones after a long career in business. You can bury me there under an olive tree.

What do you always take with you when you travel and why?

I always take an iPad or tablet. Connectivity is all I need. I don’t take anything to remind me of home as I go to forget about home. I love magazines too and that's the only time I get a chance to read them. I'll have T3, Stuff, Field, Shooting Gazette, Trout loaded up on my iPad. I'm a typical bloke.

Find out more about Theo’s work with small businesses at

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