Alternative Thinking for Business

Alternative Thinking: Oli Barrett, plural entrepreneur ‘Let me introduce you.’

Oli Barrett just about qualifies as a millennial, but exhibits so many core millennial values you’d be forgiven for thinking he invented the phrase just to describe himself. In fact describing himself is an ongoing challenge as he seems to be the sort of entrepreneur that didn’t so much as ‘go’ plural as start out that way. He has fingers in many pies now, but prefers to describe himself in terms of his best work. When pressed, he will talk about doing something genuinely useful, not just for society at large, but for anyone, and then being paid according to its value and the ability of the beneficiary to pay.

I think his real skill, however, lies in juxtaposition: philosopher James Beattie wrote in the 18th Century that comedy is ‘pursuing the clash of incompatible ideas’, so seemingly unrelated ideas are compared for laughs. Oli uses comedic strategy to find groups of people who don’t appear to have a great fit, then brings them together to create something special for the benefit of a project. 

I thought about who I could introduce this week

‘I get a great kick out of introducing people. In fact this morning I sat and reflected for a few minutes in Battersea Park and I thought about who I could introduce this week. I know it’s not how most people write up their weekly to-do list, but it works for me.’

Oli has a personal history of making compatibility out of incompatibility, having abandoned two university degree courses, each in their first year, because he couldn’t work out how either would provide any real benefit to what he might want to do with his life, yet at the same time earning his spurs as a performer by working for Disney, as a Butlin’s Redcoat, and as an entrepreneur by starting his first business, ‘Amazing You’, an antidote to the po-faced, big corporation-led university careers fairs. It burned brightly then returned to earth while he was still a student at Leeds.

One day the bailiffs turned up

‘When we had a presence in nine cities and sponsorship from Saatchi&Saatchi, people were congratulating me on being a millionaire. Then one day the bailiffs turned up at the office and that was the end of that.’

It was a learning that came early, and taught him that having people around you that think and work exactly like you is a recipe for a good time, not commercial success.

‘If you are going into business, you have to find people who have the skills that you don’t, and work with them. Of course it’s important that you get along, but that should be based on mutual respect and common purpose, not skill-set.’

Oli encountered his next business partner by doing what he does best when still running Amazing You – he called up Simon Woodroffe of Yo! Sushi out of the blue and asked him to speak at an event, persuading him to appear for no fee. Simon’s ‘reward’ was a beer in a London bar where Oli was introduced to tech entrepreneur Ben Way, with whom he then started Rainmakers, the start-ups consultancy. But while he was building Rainmakers, his covert theatrical performing and producing eye was sizing up the events business and noticing how staid it was. When he received a call from an events producer with a spare speaking slot, he persuaded them to let him try a party game. Speednetworking was an unfamiliar idea in the UK at that time, but his first trial was a success, and Oli began running his own events in London. Pretty soon he was being called to add Speednetworking sessions into large corporate events.

Diverse contacts

‘After we got more established I started to ask the more regular business people who attended to bring a guest, but someone with a completely different background, like a surgeon or a farmer. Over five years I built up such a broad network of people that I now have a bank of incredibly diverse contacts that I can draw on for projects. And it’s also how I came to do what I do now: bringing groups of different people together to collaborate on solving a problem.’

But his work at Rainmakers and with Speednetworking wasn’t quite enough, so Oli started giving talks to schools, and that gave him the idea in 2007 to start Tenner, the project that pledges £10 to young people aged 11-19 to start a ‘business’, make as much as they can, then return the tenner and keep the profit. Oli says that he plucked out of the air his target of 10,000 schoolkids in the first year, and achieved it, with 99% of the funds being returned so that the scheme could keep running, and now 30,000 kids each year participate.

Now Oli channels his interests, which include speaking at and hosting events, working on Government initiatives (he was a member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Social Action and a founder of StartUp Britain), and leading trade missions overseas to support start-up businesses, through his co-founded agency CoSpa, which specialises in bringing brands and organisations into mutually-productive contact with social enterprise. For example ‘Volunteer it Yourself’ (VIY) is a project that challenges young people to fix up their local youth clubs, while at the same time gaining trade skills learned from Wickes’ customers who volunteer.

The alchemy of groups

‘VIY is a good example of an idea that created genuine benefit all round: commercial and image benefits to the brand involved, and real value on the ground. The way we can begin to solve the really big problems we still encounter in society is not to leave it all to government, or charity or business, but to try to find ways that build on the knowledge of all these groups and more. The trick is to get them to work together with a common goal,’ he says.

In the end, this is what Oli brings to the party. He’s certainly a ‘plural’ entrepreneur now, and enjoys having a number of lines of activity and income, but his real skill lies in the alchemy of groups. He seems to be able to find ways of bringing diverse people together to make a team that works better than the sum of its parts, then scaling it up to create something extraordinary.

But doesn’t he feel that, as the ideas man (he freely confesses to being interested only in the beginnings and ends of projects, so surrounds himself with others who can fill in the middle) he runs the risk of being shut out of the money?

‘I’ve noticed most recently that large organisations have huge resources of talent, but they often have challenges making connections to the larger system, whether that’s society at large or even their customers. That’s where I believe we fit in, to make connections where all parties can turn round later and say thank you. Maybe I’m naïve but I don’t remember an occasion where I looked back and thought that I should have been cut into a deal and wasn’t.’

Oli’s outlook is bound firmly with the millennial concept of the sharing economy, but neatly he has found ways of making money from the cracks in the network, not in an unscrupulous way, but by providing a genuinely needed service to help squeeze maximum effect from a global talent pool. The difference between him and the blue-sky futurologists lies in his motivation also to decode the vision and bring real projects to a conclusion.

Politicians should take note: there are alternatives.

Oli’s Three Start-Up Tips

  • Don’t just go into business with your mates; find people with different skills to you.
  • Do find a group of people with whom you can share issues. Things will go wrong and it gets lonely.
  • Never forget that you can’t control events, but you can control the way you react to them.



Witten by David Thornton, Partner of Blank White Page, the coaching and consulting business that specialises in entrepreneurs and business-owners.

In association with Fredericks Foundation, helping to unlock the future of new entrepreneurs.

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