Why you need a not-to-do list

When Nicholas Charles Tyrwhitt Wheeler talks business, you listen. The founder of Charles Tyrwhitt Shirts (“sounds a lot better than ‘Nick Wheeler Shirts’, doesn’t it?” he says) has built a company that turns over £220m. He owns 95% of it. Bolstering his ‘entrepreneurial guru’ credentials yet further, he’s witnessed wife Chrissie Rucker OBE create and grow The White Company into the success story it is today. So, it’s fair to say Nick has picked up a few valuable lessons since launching Charles Tyrwhitt in 1986 while studying at Bristol University. He got a 2.2 in Geography, in case you’re wondering.

When we met Nick, we walked away with seven golden nuggets that we’d like to share with you.

1) People will think you’re delusional. But just keep going.

As an entrepreneur, you need unshakable self-belief. Often, that self-belief feels completely unwarranted and utterly unjustified. For example, your friends will think you’re crazy because all the evidence points to you not having the capacity to achieve your goal. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going.

When I first started the business, it wasn’t long before I thought: “This is going to be a billion-pound company.” When I said it out loud, everyone laughed. They still do. They just don’t laugh quite as loudly now.

2) Identify the mark you want to make – and take pride in it.

People say to me: “How can you get out of bed every morning after 33 years and still think, ‘Whoopie doo, today I’m going to sell more shirts?’” Well, do you know what? I do it because I just want to build a great business. Every day, that’s what drives me.

We all want to leave our mark on life. Some people do incredible things like trying to fix climate change, reduce poverty in Africa or wipe out malaria. I would love to write music like Mozart, or paint like Van Gogh. However, I can’t paint and I can’t compose, so I guess I’m here to run a fantastic shirt company. I’m a shirt maker and I’m proud to be building a great shirt business. 

I love what I do. I’ve always got a kick out of opening a new shirt. The crinkle of the tissue paper and the smell of fresh cotton. And, putting on a shirt always feels good. What Charles Tyrwhitt does is we make it easy for men to dress well and feel good. That’s the mark I’m making. 

3) Constantly find out what’s wrong (and right) with your business.

I adore customer feedback. Every morning I get my Feefo report, listing every bad thing our customers have said about us the day before. I’m probably the only person on the planet who reads every negative comment. Why? Because those words give me a brilliant insight into what’s wrong with my business. Believe me; it doesn’t matter what business you’re in; there will always be things wrong with it. If you find yourself thinking you’ve got a faultless organisation, be very careful. That’s when complacency and arrogance will trip you up.

4) You build and lose a business in exactly the same way – one customer at a time.

The key to the success of Charles Tyrwhitt has been learning what the customer wants and staying true to that customer. When I was selling £12,000 worth of shirts a year, I only had 200 customers, but I’d spend time speaking to them on the phone. I found out what they liked, what they didn’t like, and asked how we could improve our service. I used to pester them a bit! 

I came to understand exactly what people wanted from their shirts and I learned the importance of outstanding customer service. Many companies lose track of what service really means. The CEO says: “We give really great customer service.” But then they’ll sacrifice it all in search of profit. “OK, we’re growing,” they’ll say, “let’s benefit from economies of scale. We’ve got 40 people in the call centre taking X number of calls a day. The wait time is a minute. If we increase the wait time to three minutes, that’s still OK, and it means we can reduce the team by 10.” 

So, under the guise of economies of scale, they drop service standards. That’s a dangerous game. When it comes to service, there’s no such thing as economies of scale. If you’re selling one shirt, it takes one unit of time and effort to sell it. If you’re selling 1,000, it takes 1000 units. So, don’t try to do it in 700. 

There’s a quote by Ellery Gordon – I’m not sure who he is – but it’s stuck with me: “You build and lose a business exactly the same way, one customer at a time.” I agree wholeheartedly. Whether you’re running the corner shop or a multinational company, you have to treat customers the right way. The moment you start seeing them as numbers, you’re in trouble. They are highly charged, intelligent people with their own hopes and aspirations and they are in the perfect position to explain their views on your product. You have to see them as individuals and treat them well. That’s what brings them back. 

5) If you make a slow start, don’t worry. As long as you’re learning.

After university, I went to work for management consultants Bain & Company. I was the ‘thicko’ with a 2.2 in Geography from Bristol, whereas everybody else there seemed to have a 1stfrom Oxbridge. 

In my two years at Bain, my shirt business, which I’d set up two years earlier, flatlined, turning over £12,000 each year for four years. However, the experience I gained as an employee was precious. One reason so many successful entrepreneurs suddenly pop up at the age of 30 is that they’ve worked at blue-chip firms, gained experience, and are now ready to put that experience into action. 

In those first 48 months when I posted just £12,000 a year, I learned a massive amount. I left Bain in 1989, and by 1990, Charles Tyrwhitt’s turnover had increased to £75,000. It then rose to £350,000 in 1991 and £1.2 million by 1992. It kept growing thanks to what I’d learned during those years when I had not been growing, but I had been learning a huge amount. It is important not to rush if you want to build something great. 

6) Write a not-to-do list.

The one constant you have as an entrepreneur is a shedload of opportunities. Everyone comes up with bright ideas about things you should be doing. If you’re not careful, the possibilities swamp you, and you end up having the same conversations again and again. 

Take China, for example. People often say to me: “When are you going to China?” Each time someone asked me that, I used to go through the whole angst of thinking: “Maybe we should be in China. How should we do it? Whom should we partner? What are the risks?” 

Today, I don’t have to endure that tiring process because China, for now, is on our “not-to-do list”. When the topic comes up, I don’t waste all that mental energy. Taking it temporarily off the table saves a tremendous amount of time, which is important because there are many other things we should be doing. 

In the end, it comes down to focus. If you concentrate on one thing, you can do it better than if you try to cover two. That’s why a not-to-do list is just as important as your to-do list.

7) No matter what you do, you’ll make mistakes. Embrace them.

There are countless best-selling books on how to run a business. You can read them all, and talk to an endless number of mentors, but one thing’s for sure: you’ll still make big mistakes. People warn you about potential pitfalls, but until you make the error yourself, it just doesn’t sink in. 

I’ve made lots of mistakes, and they will stay with me forever. You learn a hell of a lot from them. They have made me what I am today and they help me to make better decisions going forward. 

Life is full of ups and downs. If people tell you that they only ever have ups, they are lying. The reason why life is so full of ups and downs is because the downs are there to teach you invaluable lessons. Embrace those lessons, find motivation in them, learn from them and use them to push you forward.

Disclaimer: The statements made by our interviewees are an expression of their own views and opinions and in no way reflect FEBE Ventures’ views or opinions, nor are such views or opinions endorsed or supported by us.