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Simon’s Story

Simon Paine is co-founder and CEO of the PopUp Business School, a very alternative approach to Business Schools. His approach has been creative from the start.

Simon’s dad was the local policeman in Sussex and then Hampshire for over thirty years but advised Simon to do something different.  Simon confesses to having watched Top Gun fifteen times a week but when the RAF offered him something less exciting than being a fighter pilot, it felt right to ignore his father’s advice like every rebellious teenager and join the police.

Simon loved it for the first few years but by the time he was 30, he had outgrown it.  He says he was thinking too much, suffering from a bit of what was probably a bit of PTSD and depression. He had dreams of being a rock star or an entrepreneur.

Instead, Simon did business consultancy jobs, helping an immense variety of people from artists in the back streets of London to the senior execs of British airways.  He started and failed a few projects, became involved in a charity for a while, and then went back to consulting.  Finally, at the top of that profession, earning the best money, traveling with the world in five-star hotels, everything changed.  One minute he was in Raffles in Singapore and four weeks later, working in a community center in North London for the PopUp Business School.

In his early consultancy years, Simon was a Program Manager for the Government’s Business Link, He was asked to deal with a letter of complaint from a businessman called Alan Donegan.  Alan said the advice to write business plans and take out a loan was appalling and left him demoralized.  Simon found his views fascinating.

Simon describes Alan being born into an entrepreneurial family and the sort who sold T-shirts at school.  But the family had coped with a business bankruptcy which left Alan with an aversion to debt.  He believed there had to be other ways of teaching how to start a business. 

Simon and Alan started to meet regularly and then tried out a few advisory events as preliminary to the Business School. Simon had to remain in a job to feed his family.  In 2014, Simon remembers Alan taking him to a particularly dodgy Asian buffet in Milton Keynes and telling him he was needed full time.

Founders - PopUp Business School
Simon Paine and Alan Donegan (wearing glasses), co-founders of Pop-Up Business School, photographed in London

The PopUp Business School

The PopUp Business School’s aim is to give everyone a chance to run a business. The courses, which teach people how to start and run a business, are free, sponsored by councils, housing associations, and the private sector and various philanthropists.

They needed sponsors and targeted housing associations, believing they still had the will to make a difference. They drew up a list of 25-30 chief executives of housing associations. Each was sent a plastic dinosaur with a cover letter asking if their approach to enterprise was still in the Jurassic Period and if their business advisors were extinct. 

Simon then had to make calls, saying “This is Simon, and I am calling about the dinosaur”.  Most said they were expecting his call but a couple of associations told him that they were not the sort of people that they would ever want to deal with so please not to call again.  Simon says it felt bruising.

Their first Business School event was in a backroom of a timber workshop.  Others were in empty shops.  All the focus was on making sales rather than on business plans and getting into debt. 

The media defines a typical entrepreneur who is a white, middle-aged, suited (bar Branson) risk-taker.  Simon thinks it needs redefining into someone who is focussed on doing something they love and is able to make money from that.  The more they will admit to what they don’t know, be willing to learn and surround themselves with people who are better, the further they will go.

From the start, the traditional organizations found the PopUp Business School threatening.  Simon observes that change always makes people scared.   Their results also scare other traditional business schools and learning methods.

Even the footfall to their Business School Events is different.  Working in the North West, for example, the typical attendance levels to a business school event in a deprived inner-city area might be ten people.  The PopUp Business school got over 80.  Their message is different, relatable.

Since 2012, over seven thousand people have attended the Business School’s events. In 2019 alone, they launched nearly 1000 businesses. They have operated in seven countries, including New Zealand and Morocco.  Simon says it has had some pretty amazing moments, including being able to hold a business meeting, sitting on the side of a mountain in Colorado.  

Alan left 18 months ago, having reached that point of financial independence, but they still speak all the time.  Simon speaks highly of his team.  The senior members are young, which he says suits his very non-autocratic style.  He still doesn’t have a business plan, but he is aware they are running the business with more of a plan in mind.

When the COVID lockdown came, the PopUp Business School lost £200,000 worth of business in two hours.  Simon says when he had finished sitting on the floor and rocking back and forth, he realized how much they would be needed post lockdown. Resilience has become part of the courses they are delivering for councils.

Simon is full of plans.  They have created the PopUp Business Survival Guide and a podcast called the Rebel Entrepreneur.  They are about to re-brand with the same creative agency responsible for BrewDog and are creating a sub-brand designed to inspire and empower.  He can see that the class of 2020 and beyond will be in a real pickle and he is keen to plug that gap, so they are creating a physical school in London. 

Simon’s advice for start-ups

A percentage of the people who come on their courses already have businesses but are struggling to get results, maybe have no sales at all, and are just camouflaging being out of work. 

The biggest problem everyone suffers from is fear. It may be called something else, some minor decision on having a web site or social media, but it comes down to fear.  The paradox is that you have to believe it is possible to make money in order to do so. 

Simon says he finds that many people are also paralyzed by aiming for perfection. They have worked for other people, running established businesses, and are used to being criticized for mistakes.  With a start-up, you have to learn that getting things done is much more important than perfection.

Simon also advises people that having a business is about having money, not owing it.  This is where their advice and traditional business advice differs so greatly, but it makes a huge amount of sense.   He tells people to avoid debt like your most annoying cousin.

When people say to him that they need stock, or storage space or equipment, he tells them to think out of the box and see if they can get it for nothing, in the same way as they used empty spaces. If that fails, try bartering.  Finally, if there is absolutely no other way, raid the attic and the garage and sell whatever you can on Ebay so you have a small slush fund to get you the fliers or whatever is so essential to start.

The best thing is to get the customer to pay upfront.  Tescos, Simon points out, get grumpy if you eat their produce prior to reaching the tills.  Your business can’t afford to be any different.

Without debt, all you need for a business is a customer.  People may say lots of nice things about what you do but what counts is if they will pay for it. Market research can come back full of nice comments but still, no-one will hand over their cash.

Many people imagine that they have to create something that will be guaranteed to support them for the next 20 years.  No wonder it is terrifying.  Simon advises to look at each experience is an experiment, to see if you enjoy it and that doesn’t matter if you don’t. This is a big theme on the Rebel Entrepreneur podcast currently.

Virtually all the people who work for the school have had businesses and actually know what it is like to run one.  Simon is the first to admit that in his early consulting days, he was one of the coaches who never had.  But he says the difference between having an unsuccessful business and a successful one is the ability to get paid and being a creative can help with that.

Simon Paine and Alan Donegan (wearing glasses), co-founders of Pop-Up Business School, photographed in London


If you would like to read more of Simon’s creative side, the link to his blog is here.

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