James Caan - From broom cupboard to ‘enter the dragon’

TELL Series interview with James Caan, Former Dragons' Den Star and Serial Entrepreneur

James Caan  From broom cupboard to enter the dragon 1140x346

Playwright and polemicist George Bernard Shaw once wrote, ‘When I was a young man I observed that nine out of every ten things I did were failures. So I did ten times more work.’

It is often acknowledged that starting a business of your own frequently leads to failure, and failure is widely accepted and even celebrated by the entrepreneurial community as a badge of honour, a necessary pathway to eventual success. However, it’s not for everyone.

From broom cupboard to multimillionaire

At the age of 19, entrepreneur, investor and television personality James Caan decided to give failure a wide berth and aim for success at the first attempt.

Hidden away in a “broom cupboard” in Pall Mall, and armed only with a copy of the Yellow Pages and a phone, the young Mr Caan launched his new recruitment business, Alexander Mann.

Today that company is now the largest talent solutions company in the world, with revenues north of £1.8bn, operating in 22 countries, employing 8000 people and managing the entire talent of large FTSE 100 and Fortune 500 corporates.

As Mr Caan says himself, “my mother would say that the ‘boy did okay’”.

It seems a little trite to wheel out such epithets as ‘the Midas Touch’ as a way of describing Mr Caan’s subsequent entrepreneurial career, but King Midas he certainly is, only without the drawbacks.

After founding Alexander Mann, in 1993, Caan co-founded the executive headhunting firm Humana International with recruitment entrepreneur Doug Bugie, eventually growing the business to more than 147 offices in 30 countries.

In the same year, he launched trade magazine Recruitment International, and in 1996, Caan co-founded AMS with Rosaleen Blair, CBE. Caan subsequently sold his interests in AMS in 2002. In 1999, Caan sold Humana International to CDI International, a New York listed company. Later in that year, Caan sold a minority stake in Alexander Mann Group to private equity firm Advent International.

Caan’s business skill and shrewdness is undisputed, and that alone would have granted him access to the wider public consciousness. However, it is the field of television where he really began to leave his mark on the public’s imagination with his appearance on Dragon’s Den, the reality television business programme.

Enter the Dragon

During his time on Dragon’s Den, Caan made 18 investments, including a company making ‘Toastabags’, an easy-to-install blind business called Blindsinabox and a dog treadmill business, Fit Fur Life.

Leaving the Den

As if being a serial investor, business success story and TV star wasn’t enough, it was inevitable that someone in government circles would get to hear of James Caan. That person was no less a figure than the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

In 2012, he became chairman of the Start Up Loans programme – the government-backed scheme designed to provide loans and mentoring to people looking to start a business – and he remained in this role until 2015 when he ‘stepped down’. A matter of fact, CV-style statement that is impressive but lacks drama.

The ‘drama’ (not the devil) was in the detail of the Start-up Loans programme and is very worth recounting!

Start-up Loans programme

“When I left Dragon’s Den I thought about my experience there, and realised that I had met around 1000 entrepreneurs. Of the 1000 entrepreneurs, 900 would never make it,” says Caan who was interviewed recently for the latest TELL series by Jane Khedair, Executive Director of LBS’s Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital (IEPC).

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