"I did my doctorate in materials science and was funded by ICI. I was focusing on trying to make man-made materials replicate natural materials – in particular replicating the strength of natural ceramics which are formed out of very thin layers. My supervisor came up with the material and I was modelling how the material behaved under mechanical loading. Subsequent successes here opened this avenue up to commercial applications, and I worked in several organisations applying this science and other learnings from my PhD until the age of about 30.
"I eventually decided to do an MBA. Sometimes when you are working for a commercial organisation in a scientific role, you notice that the decisions made can conflict with your expectations of what could or should be done. You realise that the more commercial functions such as marketing and financials come into play too, and I did an MBA to enable me to get the full picture and marry this with the engineering that I already knew. Obviously this is important for being able to run a business, whether it’s your own or someone else's. I knew deep down that I wanted the challenge of setting up my own business. The motivation was complex but included the pure challenge of seeing if I could do it, but I also wanted to be able to recruit the team of people I worked with.
"I set up my first business, Active Hotels, immediately after my MBA with my cousin Adrian Critchlow. This ended up becoming quite big in the end. We employed about 150 people, were growing at over 100% per annum top line and we sold for about $160m – it is now worth many billions. The initial success does give you some credibility in grovelling for cash following your first venture, although as with many things the success is partly luck and partly due to your own endeavours!
"Most of the companies I have helped set up since then have been Internet-based. In my opinion this fits perfectly with an engineering background. You have a plethora of data and can calculate in considerable detail what generates profits and what doesn’t. You can measure in considerable detail what happens on websites, what transactions take place and you can use modelling to optimise it. It is surprising how well these things marry together.
"I am doing all sorts of things at the moment, I have started up several companies, and have been involved in several others at various points but most right from the beginning. I am currently chairman of a company called Top Table, an online restaurant booking service. I am Chairman of Green Traveller, which helps people go on low carbon emission holidays principally in Europe. I am director of company called Reevoo which helps electrical retailers collect feedback, and consumers to choose the right electrical product, and I am also a director of a venture capital trust, and chairman of a company (i2o Water) interested in preventing water leakage to conserve resources.
"I am a big fan of a doctorate for business. I was obviously in a numerical and scientific-based doctorate so I am not sure I can comment on all doctorates. However the intellectual rigour it teaches you to put things through is massively useful. The doctorate teaches you to analyse all the possible reasons for things and to defend your processes. There is a danger of thinking that your way of thinking is the best way and – even if it is – the rest of the world often don’t quite use this reasoning, so you’ll need a variety of methods of bringing your colleagues with you. Sales courses have been very useful to me, however small companies like mine can find it difficult to fund training, so this where it can pay to get into a large company early on in your career. There have been certain influential individuals. One particular person recruited me straight after my doctorate, and helped develop a broader understanding of how businesses and teams work. We have a very complementary skill set so we still work well together too."