Sixty-five-year-old Mike Clare brims with boyish enthusiasm, even over Zoom. Despite lockdown, he’s full of entrepreneurial joie de vivre. And it’s contagious. As he chats, it’s not hard to imagine him turning a £20,000 investment into Dreams Beds, which is precisely what he did between 1985 and 2008. And his energy is such that it makes you believe you could do something similar – even during a pandemic. That’s because Mike is the sort of entrepreneur who inspires positive thinking and decisive action. “Coronavirus is horrible, nasty, no one asked for it,” he says. “But it’s a game-changer. Opportunities will come. Some people will look back three years from now and see 2020 as the year they broke through and made it.”
In this article, Mike shares his wisdom with us all. Once you’ve read it, we predict you’ll feel more able to treat the current situation as a springboard to success.
1) Get busy. Plan.
Mike’s LinkedIn bio (at the time of writing) reads:
Don’t wait for the storm to pass. Learn to dance in the rain. Get up early… work hard… have fun… sleep well… and never ever give up on your Dreams.
This is his mantra and it nods towards his Dreams adventure – the company he sold for £222m in 2008. But they’re not the empty words of an entrepreneurial has-been. Today, Mike remains active as the chairman of both Clarenco and AmaZing Venues. He also continues to invest in start-ups across the country.
On what business leaders should be doing now, he says: “Be positive. Try to think of the best outcomes. Imagine what the world will be like in a year and plan for that. Right now, businesses should be focussing on rebuilding and not dwelling on the negatives. Yes, problems have to be dealt with, but not at the expense of planning.
“Be imaginative and think about doing things differently. Those who will be successful after this will be the ones who come out fighting, rising like a phoenix to find new strategies and methods rather than trying to revert to their old ways. This is an opportunity to refocus. Analyse the past. Think about what you did wrong? Write a new business plan. Be optimistic. Be brave.”
2) “Put your balls on the line.”
When Mike took his first steps towards building Dreams 35 years ago, he went all-out to achieve his goal by quitting his furniture-sales job and borrowing money against his house. Today, he believes that removing the salary safety net was a big reason for his success.
He says: “I started Dreams at the age of 30. It was my sixth or seventh try at launching a business. But the difference between Dreams and my other failed efforts was my level of commitment. I had tried to launch the others on the side, without giving up my job. That’s why they failed.
“When I opened the Sofa Bed Centre, which became Dreams, I decided to leave my job. I put everything into it. Yes, it’s a risky strategy, but when your balls are on the line, it drives you. If it had gone wrong, I’d have lost everything, including my home. So, there was no option. It had to succeed, whatever it took. If it’s only ‘a bit disappointing’ when it doesn’t work, quite often it won’t.”
3) Now is the perfect time to surprise and delight your customers.
With everyone experiencing unprecedented challenges, now is the best time to wow customers, asserts Mike. You can gain a long-term advantage over competitors by doing something unexpected, memorable and – of course – appropriate.
He says: “The best way to impress is by doing something they [your customers] don’t expect and therefore remember. It doesn’t have to be massive. I use the example of our delivery drivers wearing slippers. Yes, it sounds crazy, but you wouldn’t believe how successful that little gesture became! It happened because we had a dilemma: should our delivery drivers take off their bloody great big boots in customers’ homes to reveal their sweaty socks, or leave them on and put mud up the stairs? We came up with an idea – wear blue slippers. It worked a treat – customers raved about our fluffy footwear on their feedback forms. It’s ridiculous really as we spent a fortune on advertising but those slippers always made the biggest impression!
“The point is, do something unexpected. If you promise the Earth in your advertising, you’ve got to deliver it, or you let people down. Hold something back and surprise them, and they’ll be impressed.”
Mike offers another nugget: “If you make a mistake, correct it fast and well. Over the years, I’ve discovered that customer complaints are actually opportunities. If you rectify the problem efficiently and professionally, you’re more likely to convert that person into a loyal customer than if they never complained in the first place.”
4) Success is not about avoiding pitfalls; it’s about dealing with them positively.
A positive attitude makes all the difference when handling a business’s inevitable problems and curveballs, argues Mike – so much so, that he sees ‘learning to dance in the rain’ as a vital entrepreneurial skill.
“Everyone has problems,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve been through the usual: bad debt, pressure from the bank, staff sickness, suppliers that let us down, leaky roofs, computer crashes. But they are issues everyone has – that’s how business is – so it’s how you approach them that really matters. Coronavirus is the same. It affects us all. So, you can’t get despondent. You have to focus on the good stuff and be resilient. Some people get fed up and think life is against them because things have gone wrong, but you have to take it all on the chin and stay positive.”
5) People are your biggest challenge. Treat them well.
The Dreams founder reveals that over the years, recruitment and team-building have provided his toughest tests. However, he believes these two disciplines are absolutely vital to success.
He says: “When I opened my first store, I had zero management experience but plenty of self-belief. I was a salesman, delivery driver, book-keeper… everything. But I soon recruited a team and had to learn the tricky art of hiring and managing people. Initially, I was distrusting, wanting to micromanage and meddle, but over the years I came to understand how to motivate and build a happy team and a great working environment.
“With recruitment, I always say that if you pay 10% over the going rate, you get someone twice as good. So, we’d always pay a bit more and build in lots of bonuses, incentives and fun extra rewards.
“But it’s not just about the money. I used to think it was, but it’s not. Good management is actually about understanding what makes every individual tick. So, I always used to ask my managers: ‘Are you motivating your staff?’ And, of course, they’d say yes. So I’d ask: ‘You understand they’ve got a home life, and they go on holidays with their families? Where did Christine last go on holiday? What are the names of Steve’s kids?’”
“What I was trying to do is send the message that excellent team-building needs managers who know and understand their teams as individuals. My final, key question to them was: ‘Do you know Steve or Christine’s dog’s name?’ If they didn’t, then I’d know they didn’t know their staff! To understand what makes people tick, you have to take an interest in their lives.”
“And today, because I took that approach, I’m still friends with all my old Dreams team. We still have a Christmas party every year. We’re genuine mates.”
6) Learn the art of sales.
As you’d expect of an entrepreneur who made his fortune starting on the shop floor, Mike believes in the power of traditional face-to-face sales. He shares some juicy details on the techniques he used at Dreams:
“We’d focus on the initial customer-salesperson ritual,” he says. “When customers walk into a shop, they generally want to be left alone. But the salesperson has to get in on the act, so says, ‘Can I help you?’ To which the same reply always comes back: ‘It’s OK, I’m just looking.’
“That opening salvo – the ‘can-I-help-you-no-thanks’ interchange – is a ritual, like monkeys scratching each other. Once it’s over, you can get on with selling. So, I told our salespeople to politely and subtly ignore customers’ requests to be left alone. I suggested they carry on the exchange by saying something like: ‘OK, please take your time. The bunk beds are over there and the divans are there. By the way, what sort of bed do you sleep on at the moment?’
“That gets the ball rolling, but the real action is in the closing. We used to practise many different ‘closes’.
“In the ‘alternative close’, you’d ask if they wanted the red or the blue headboard, or the luxury or basic mattress, and then get them to buy the bed.
“The ‘fear close’ would mean you saying something like, ‘We’ve only got two left in stock’. Or, ‘The sale ends today.’
“For the ‘silent close’ you say nothing and wait for the customer to fill the gap.
“And in the classic ‘assumptive close’ you plough on regardless, moving to take their name and address to make the customer feel they’d already committed.
“There are many more, but you get the idea!”
Speaking to Mike Clare provides a real shot in the arm. His positivity, energy and sense of fun offer a welcome break from the relentless gloom of COVID-19. Moreover, his message – that despite the undoubted pain of this pandemic, many golden business opportunities lie around the corner waiting to be discovered – is absolutely spot on. Now is the perfect time to absorb some of Mike’s buoyancy and, as the man himself says, start to plan for a new world. What are you waiting for?