Sir Charles Dunstone
Sir Charles Dunstone, executive chairman of London-based telecommunications company TalkTalk Group, spoke to students and alumni at Booth's London Campus about his entrepreneurial journey.

On Fortune and Focus

A conversation with entrepreneur Sir Charles Dunstone at Chicago Booth’s London campus.

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With a billion-pound bank balance, regular appearances on the Sunday Times Rich List and even a knighthood to his name, Sir Charles Dunstone could be forgiven for spending his days relaxing on a beach somewhere.

Yet having built Carphone Warehouse into one of the United Kingdom’s biggest success stories, Dunstone is now busy turning around the fortunes of TalkTalk Group as executive chairman. And the fact he’s still working hard rather than sitting with his feet up reveals perhaps the key driving force behind his incredible achievements.

Namely that Sir Charles Dunstone is a true entrepreneur—the same reason an audience of Chicago Booth alumni, students, and business executives joined us at the London Campus for his fascinating fireside conversation with BBC Business Editor Simon Jack.

“Every entrepreneur needs extraordinary resilience, determination and optimism. You have to hustle, be opportunistic, but also get some luck at the right time.” —Sir Charles Dunstone

As Stephen Barter, co-chair of the EMEA Cabinet of Chicago Booth’s Global Advisory Board and chairman, real estate advisory for KPMG, noted when introducing Dunstone, this is a man perfectly placed to shine a light on “the good times, bad times, hard work, and luck it takes to be a successful entrepreneur.”

Indeed, all those bases and more were covered during a fascinating journey through Dunstone’s career—from leaving school at 18 and the early Carphone Warehouse days trading from a Marylebone Road flat, right through to merging with the company’s onetime nemesis Dixons.

“I was only 25 when we set up Carphone Warehouse,” Dunstone revealed. “All I had was an idea that mobile phones could be more transformational for small businesses than the big corporates most companies were targeting. We didn’t have any money, but we were lucky to be in a fast-growing marketplace and were completely stubborn about where we were going.”

This twin sense of fortune and focus was a theme of the evening. As Dunstone explained: “Every entrepreneur needs extraordinary resilience, determination and optimism. You have to hustle, be opportunistic, but also get some luck at the right time. As we found, growth is very forgiving, even when you make a mistake.”

But what about finance? As Jack pointed out, no matter how disruptive or entrepreneurial you are, surely it’s impossible to grow a business without capital.

“Yes, but between founding the company and floating it, I actually only ever put in £6,000,” Dunstone told us. “We got used to being very lean and operating on limited resources. Plus, it wasn’t as easy to raise cash back then as it is now.”

Indeed, in a world of low interest rates and economic and political instability, today’s investors are increasingly willing to accept risk to chase returns. That plays into the hands of cash-hungry startups, although Dunstone has a word of warning here too.

“You have to be mean with your equity. Nowadays, many entrepreneurs give away too much of their business too early. Don’t rush your growth either. The more expenses you take on, the further away the day you’re in profit gets.” As for the hallowed IPO: “It’s a great way to get money off the table but it changes your business completely and can cause some pain.”

It’s a typically inspiring but pragmatic message from a man who really has been there, done that and got the mobile phone. As one attendee, an executive at a large public company, said: “It was invigorating to hear Sir Charles’ story and be reminded of the hunger you find in smaller, growing businesses.”

As for that question of why a billionaire goes to the office rather than the beach every morning: “It’s overcoming the obstacles you encounter running a business. That’s what makes life worth living.”

Besides, you might even get a knighthood.

The Takeaways

“As an aspiring entrepreneur, it was great to an insight to the mindset of someone like Sir Charles and hear about some of the tangible decisions and obstacles he had to tackle along the way.” —Lalit Kolhe, Consultant

“It was very interesting to hear Sir Charles’ path to creating his business. Being able to see things differently isn’t necessarily the key for every entrepreneur, but I think it’s what makes the very top ones like him so successful.” —Gilberto Atondo Siu, ’10

—By Booth Staff
October 24, 2017