Andy Clayton, CEO of LNP China

 

 

Andy is the Oxford-based CEO of LNP China, offering an easy and secure solution for the best small companies from overseas to thrive in China. 

Q: What is your background?  Why are you doing this?
A: I was a successful corporate executive in China. I founded my business 8 years ago, originally as a chain of toy stores. This failed dismally, and I had a big turning point about 5-6 years ago, parting with the original investors, and setting off in a new direction.

Since then, we have been making it very easy for Western SMEs to get started in China. We allow foreign companies that don’t have their own entity in China access to the complete suite of business functions there, such as issuing invoices, taking payments, repatriating profits, hiring staff, and importing/exporting product. This allows companies to test the market for 2-3 years, before deciding on whether they want to set up their own corporate operations in market. It’s a great stepping stone for companies wanting to try out the China market.

We have operated over 20m pounds of business for foreign companies in China, and are starting to attract and work with larger and larger clients, such as Sesame Street, Topcashback.com, and Arsenal Football Club.

Q: What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
A: An entrepreneur is someone who creates a vision (or ‘mission’ or ‘purpose’, however you want to define it) that gathers together and motivates a group of people to a common cause. That cause may become communal, and bigger than that individual, but they are responsible for curating it.

I don’t buy the whole ‘intrapreneur’ thing, whereby people in big companies describe themselves as entrepreneurs, that is a nonsense. The point about entrepreneurship is about taking a risk, about staking it all on a dream, with the real possibility of failure. Most people in this world are motivated primarily by security; entrepreneurs are those few who are willing to pursue something even though there is no backstop, no insurance, no plan B, and no-one to blame if it goes wrong.

Entrepreneurship is not so much about creativity, a lot of people equate it with ‘having lots of ideas’, this is quite wrong. Entrepreneurs are people who take risks in order to take ideas to market. An entrepreneur is judged really only by one thing, and that is the ability to sell. That doesn’t mean necessarily as an individual salesman (though many are very good at it), but be able to create an organisation that can grow sales.

Q: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
A: I became an entrepreneur for all the wrong reasons: I wanted to get rich, quick; I wanted to be a big shot and impress people; I wanted to say goodbye to the awful boss I was working for; and I was naïve enough to think that it would be easy, after all, I’d succeeded at everything in life so far, so why not this?

My reasons for remaining an entrepreneur have changed a lot over time though. Some of these are also negative: I realised after a certain point that I was probably unemployable, what little diplomatic and team working skill I once had are long disappeared; I know that I could not do well in an environment where I had to obey orders, be told what to do, or not have a strong degree of control over things; and an innate stubbornness just keeps saying “No matter what, never, ever, ever, ever give up.”.

But there are also strong positive lures too. It has forced me to face up to who I really am, I cannot mould myself around another, delegate responsibility for my life to anyone else, or accept a passive position of acceptance. I have had to learn positive ways to deal with adversity, that do not involve harming myself, or just running away. All this has, I believe, made me a better version of me, and I value that.

Q: So what would you say are the top skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
A:You have to be personally tough. I’m sorry to say that resilience, grit, and determination are key factors in, if not becoming an entrepreneur, certainly for remaining one.

It’s all about personal responsibility. You can’t pass the buck, blame bad luck, or defer the big decisions to anyone, you really have to own your own fate.

You have to get to know yourself well. Be able to spot your weaknesses, the things you keep getting wrong, and surround yourself with people who have complementary strengths. Counterintuitively, a high degree of personal humility, or at least understanding, is crucial. Verne Harnish, a speaker I respect greatly, likes to say: “There are no ‘how’, or ‘why’, or ‘what’ questions, there are only ‘who’ questions.”, by which he means it’s not our roles are entrepreneurs to figure out or answer anything, all we need to do is find someone expert who can.

The ability to say “No” a lot is very important, both to yourself, and to others. Sticking to a given market positioning or strategic direction, even when you’re having an idea a minute, or ‘opportunities’ are presenting themselves everywhere. Discipline and focus.

Q: What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
A: Freedom. I get to choose to live the life that I want, on my terms, doing what I want to do.

Q: What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
A: I am a member of the Entrepreneurs Organisation, and the many incredible members there have inspired me, and taught me how to be an entrepreneur.

Q: If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?
A: We meet all the time!

Q: What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
A: My experience is that wins are small and incremental. Anything that feels like a ‘this could change everything’ deal probably isn’t, or won’t happen. It really is a case of steadily plugging away at it for a long time, and gradually getting momentum on your side. Early on, it’s very hard, as you try and get first clients, first staff member, and partners to buy into a vision. You have no money, and aren’t even sure yourself whether what you’re doing makes sense. It feels like every action is a push against a large, heavy flywheel.

Over time though, if you stick with it, the flywheel starts to work in your favour. Happy staff start to bring in more customers. New business gives you more resources to develop and expand. A good reputation starts to attract people and business towards you, and each little win starts to reinforce the others, contributing to the next one.

For me, some particularly important milestones included: settling on a market positioning and business proposition that works (and doesn’t change!); capturing a mission, vision and values that clearly define company culture (then sticking religiously to it); I’ve had some great wins on the recruitment side, with some super smart people in the team; and of course, each new client contract is a moment for protracted fist pumping and cheering, inside and out.

Q: What would you say have been some of your mistakes as an entrepreneur?
A: Too many to list, but here’s a couple of highlights.

Not dealing with the wrong people soon enough. May not be appropriate to go into specific examples, but many times I have made the mistake of holding onto the wrong people for too long, and for the wrong reasons ….  a distorted sense of loyalty, fear of change, or even just a comfort in having someone around.
Constant change of direction. I have been through periods where everything was the ‘new me’ or ‘the new us’, a chronic inability to just stick with one thign. This may feel entrepreneurial, because it’s all about chasing perceived ‘opportunity’, but in truth is nothing short of naivety. We always underestimate the cost and difficulty of entering a new space, be it a new market, product, or positioning. It’s so easy to think that the ‘grass is greener over there’, or that ‘we’re leaving money on the table by not trying’, whereas in fact it’s always much, much harder than you imagine. I now have a strict discipline: “We are either number one or two in it, or we don’t it.” Non-negotiable.

Q: What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  Bad?
A:  Start with the bad. Ridiculous cost of housing. It’s way out of control in Oxford. In fact, we are at the point of leaving. Simply put, Oxford needs to build a ton of new houses, and they’re going to have to rip up green fields, swamp little villages, and tear up the countryside to do it, just like back in the 30’s. If you run from Oxford to Banbury (and I have), you will realise that there is in fact a vast amount of countryside around Oxford, there will be plenty left even if we build a couple of extra miles of housing in every direction. Oxford literally could, and should, double in physical size, based on the demand of the economy.

On the good size, there is an interesting cluster of entrepreneurs, and start ups here. The city itself is of course lovely, and there are enough professionals and educated people around to create a lively intellectual, cultural, and business scene.

Q: If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship information or resources in Oxfordshire, where would you send them?
A: We work out of the Launchpad at the Said School, which is a great resource; good community, nice space.  And join the EO Accelerator program, it’s excellent. It is London-based, but offers a fantastic platform to learn and get the support you need to grow your business to over $1m turnover.