Two inspirational speakers provided food for thought between courses of a Southern Entrepreneurs Dinner at Oakley Hall Hotel as they revealed their own proven recipes for entrepreneurial success

Mike Clare, founder of leading British bedding retailer Dreams, and Nicola Murphy, CEO of award-winning content marketing agency The River Group, took vastly different routes to achieve their business ambitions yet both described similar qualities of drive and determination that underpinned their entrepreneurial journeys.

Long hours of hard work and the ability to overcome business hardships were also common features of their self-made success stories. As Clare said: “If it was easy you would have loads of winners. Quitters never win; winners never quit.”

Clare and Murphy’s presentations enthralled 50 peer group business owners invited to the networking evening by Southern Entrepreneurs sponsors EY, UBS, Osborne Clarke and The Business Magazine.

Among their helpful advice and surprising revelations, Clare spoke about business common sense, the simplicity of Dreams business scale-up, and the importance of concentrating on the ‘3 Ps’ – Perseverance, People and Passion. Murphy revealed that she started The River Group in 1994 with three colleagues as a contract publishing business from a Soho basement.

They clubbed together to buy two computers and won their first money-spinning contract with a major-name retailer on the back of a bizarre marketing presentation and a box of chocolates.*

Mike Clare

Always ambitious Clare started selling things while a High Wycombe schoolboy. Sibling rivalry with his brother was a significant driving factor. Gaining recognition of his abilities through his own business was the objective. Money was a pleasant by-product.

Setting up Dreams was his greatest challenge. Giving up a safe job, having a mortgage but no salary, and being short of funding to
start the business “really focused my mind”, he admits.

Nicola Murphy

“But, you will never see a rainbow unless you are prepared to experience the rainstorm. Simplicity was his business model: “Buy beds for a good price and sell them for a better one.”

Between that profitable transaction lay customer service satisfaction.

“Treat staff like family, and customers like kings,” Allied to a ‘Don’t doubt yourself, just do it’ attitude, and geographical growth based on the next town along the roadmap, Dreams powered to year-on-year profit and 200 stores nationwide when Clare sold pre-recession in 2008.

Since then he has also helped establish the Clare Business School, bringing live business experience to Bucks New University students.

Throughout her career, Murphy has been ambitious and outspoken.

“Having a personality worked for us at River, but you can’t not be who you are.”

From the outset, River championed a creative, different approach to contract publishing.

Riding the breaking wave of Internet and mobile communication, River Group became an omni-channel content provider, assisting client marketing requirements ranging from print to digital campaigns, websites and videos to customer relationship strategies.

Fully understanding what the brand marketing strategy involves, what the touch points are for customer and client, what success looks like for the relevant account directors, have all been key to River’s 22 successful years. Equally, employing the right people, with creative, marketing or strategic skills, for accounts.

“From the client business comes marketing, leading to our creative content, and channel output that drives EBITDA – as a virtuous circle.”

River also moved traditionally free ‘customer publications’ into paid-for formats competing on high-street newsstands – creating fresh client incomes, adding value to contract publishing. Holland & Barrett’s wellbeing magazine Healthy now has a 130,000 circulation, the UK’s highest for women’s health and beauty.

Today River is a vibrant business operating internationally, employing 103 full-time employees supported by 30 freelancers, together
producing a rising £18 million turnover. Coincidentally, both Clare and Murphy sold their companies to US fund managers, Sun Capital Partners (Murphy is still currently CEO of River, mid-way through a three-year earn-out arrangement).

But, both still have their keen entrepreneurial drive. For example, since selling Dreams in 2008, Clare has turned his leisuretime interest in old and intriguing buildings into a thriving business by buying the Solent forts, Scottish castles, Welsh chateau and
Benedictine abbey that he visited.

His new business – AmaZing Venues – has renovated and upgraded them to become luxury locations for special occasions and corporate activities.

The Southern Entrepreneurs evening also included a favoured activity of Clare and Murphy – charitable support. Murphy is a trustee of the Good Rock and Katie Piper Foundations (she recently completed a sponsored skydive), and Clare has created the Clare Foundation as a ‘charity hub’ to help charities to operate on a more commercial, efficient, business-like basis.

Bentley Berkshire provided weekend use of its new SUV and Oakley Hall Hotel offered a leisure break for a charitable draw that raised £1,500 for the Katie Piper and Clare Foundations.