When I started up in business almost 50 years ago, the word entrepreneur wasn’t really known. Then, as the years passed and it became more widely used, it still wasn’t understood. There was a sense of disdain and dismissal about entrepreneurship. But this has gradually changed, to the point when there are few more lauded career paths than striking out on your own and embarking upon the life of an entrepreneur. One of the key markers of this progress has been the Fast Track 100, which I attended to celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table ranks Britain's 100 private companies with the fastest-growing sales over their latest three years. But it does more than that: it checks the country’s entrepreneurial pulse, and highlights the best and brightest talents emerging from the UK. There is no doubt that entrepreneurs are the job makers and innovation stimulators of the world, and this year’s list is testament to that. Combined, the 100 companies more than tripled their workforce to 19,300 over the past three years, adding 14,000 jobs. They grew their sales by an average of 67 per cent a year over three years to £3.3bn, making a combined £355m profit in 2015/16.
But it is the people behind the numbers that make Fast Track really interesting. A lot has changed over the years. The first cohort of Fast Track 100 entrepreneurs in 1997 were described by The Sunday Times as ‘Thatcher’s children’, alluding to the rapid change in social attitudes in Britain to entrepreneurship in the 1980s. Fast-forward to 2016, and the young entrepreneurs leading the way are embracing digital and social media. There is no better example than Gymshark, which tops the list, designing and selling gym clothing to millennials.
But some themes remain the same. All great businesses are also consumer champions, spotting the areas the big boys are letting down their customers and moving in to provide disruption, competition and superior service. There are countless examples over the years, from Carphone Warehouse in the first year, to Innocent Drinks and Hotel Chocolat, and BrewDog in the latest year. Many of these businesses are in the food and drink sector. We have found from Virgin StartUp, our not-for-profit company providing government-backed loans for entrepreneurs, that this is one of the fastest-growing areas for new entrepreneurs. Fast Track backs up this finding, especially when it comes to eating out. Over the last two decades, British households have increased the amounts they spend eating out substantially, with high-street restaurants from Carluccio’s to Nando’s to Bill’s making the list over the years alongside food-to-go and food-on-the-go brands like Patisserie Valerie, Graze and Pure.
One trend it is particularly exciting to see is the growing presence of female entrepreneurs. In the current climate, it has never been more important to champion and celebrate female leadership. The number of companies co-founded/founded by women has risen from seven in 1997 to 11 in 2016, but female entrepreneurs remain under-represented. As I wrote recently, if my daughter Holly were 16-years-old again at this moment, my advice would be to tell her: "Never mind the bollocks." Do not let others define you. Keep working for what you believe in. And do not give up.
Great examples of female entrepreneurs who have thrived after featuring in Fast Track include Chrissie Rucker of The White Company, Sarah Tremellen of lingerie retailer Bravissimo, Cath Kidston’s eponymous founder, Rosemary Squires of Ambassador Theatre Group, Monica Vinader’s eponymous founder, and Lily’s Kitchen’s founder Henrietta Morrison.
Some of the themes that emerge from Fast Track events have a much wider impact and influence many businesses. That’s certainly the case for me. Firstly, many years before we launched Virgin StartUp, I used to bang on about the idea of government loans for entrepreneurs, not just students, at Fast Track each year. Secondly, I attended the first Fast Track 100 awards dinner in 1997 and heard everyone enthusiastically discussing the mobile revolution. It was one of the things that encouraged me to set up Virgin Mobile, now a global business in 12 countries and counting.
More than anything, Fast Track has given a voice and profile to lots more entrepreneurs. When I started there were very few of us: Anita Roddick and I were probably the only two anybody knew. Now there are a whole host of fresh faces coming through that could make the Virgin of the future. Whether it is online or in person, communities of entrepreneurs are continuing to grow across the UK and around the world. Now everyone knows what an entrepreneur is and – more importantly – many, many more of them want to join the club, and change business for good.