But then he likes a challenge. Aged 17, he handed back the keys to the #40,000 car, a birthday present from his father, so no-one could claim he had it easy when he started his first business. At 21, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest self-made millionaire.
Cars are one of his passions. Outside his modest office building near Manchester’s trendy Salford Quays stands his pride and joy – a recently-delivered special edition Bentley Continental.
When he talks about business, he is the consummate head of the multi-million pound RS Group, and an advisor to the government and one of the country’s five Ambassadors for Entrepreneurship. It is only when he talks about cars that you remember he is still only 24. ‘There are only two of these models in the world, one in black, the other in yellow. And I chose yellow,’ he says with boyish glee.
This youthful exuberance is carried over into his zest for his work, instilled at an early age working in the family manufacturing and importing business. He also admits to getting bored easily and needing a challenge to drive him on. That is why he sold his initial success, fashion retail chain Miss Attitude, to Knickerbox-owners Klesch Capital Partners for a reported figure of #22m just four years after he founded it.
And that is why he has just launched a telephone and internet-enabled service for SMEs. The company, alldayPA.com, offers a 24-hour back office service, including data storage, personal organiser facilities and unlimited email addresses and web storage space. It will open a call centre soon, providing its customers with a 24-hour call answering and dictation service.
Singh says his aim is to provide small businessmen and women with the support usually only enjoyed by the biggest companies but without the massive overheads. Customers are charged only for the services they use.
‘How many times has a small businessman not been able to respond to a critical call or was so bogged down that they forget to call back? I want to give every new business the luxuries I have now. If Reuben Singh could do it again and had alldayPA, Reuben Singh would definitely had less heartache and probably would have been further on.’
Apart from speed, small enterprises will benefit from improved customer perception, he says. ‘alldayPA customers will perceive that the company has people and gives a professional service.’
The idea for alldayPA came soon after the sale of Miss Attitude. A five-month round the world trip began with a week in New York and he was then due to meet some friends in Los Angeles. He took what was supposed to be a short detour to Silicon Valley and ended up staying a month.
‘My holiday lasted only a week and a day and I lost #50,000 in pre-booked flights and hotels,’ he says. So instead of relaxing in the Bahamas, he immersed himself in Silicon Valley, picking up as much as he could about emerging technology. When I came back I decided to launch something aimed at small businesses. I was asking how the internet could help small businesses.’
Over the next 18 months, he provided #3m in seed funding, installing a blue chip management team and at one point employing 200 people to develop his idea.
So was he nervous about launching a technology company just as the market has gone flat? ‘I could have taken alldayPA to Nasdaq or Techmark and raised #30m, #40m or #50m 18 months ago. But I didn’t want to launch something that would fall flat. I wanted to create something of good value. I am never going to get involved in something that has only one leg.
‘When I got involved in fashion, I also got involved in retail. Now I’m in IT, I have also got involved with the service industry. We are giving each customer an individual telephone number so we have become a telecoms company as well.’
He is relishing the challenge of making alldayPA a success and he believes he is entering a market similar to that when he set up his first company at 18. He created the Miss Attitude retail chain in 1995, at a time when high street stores were closing. The business soon diversified into construction, an industry also in the doldrums, because builders were difficult to find.
‘We were expanding at a rate of one store a week when people were shutting 10 stores a week. We were buying half-finished buildings so we moved into construction,’ he says.
By the time Miss Attitude was set up, he was already a business veteran.
His early life was built around his parents’ company, joining his mother on trips to suppliers in the Far East from the age of 12 and as a child often staying at its offices until 11 at night while his father and mother completed their work.
He was being groomed to join full-time once his education was complete, but that was too easy for the teenage Reuben Singh. ‘I didn’t see the struggle to get the company where it was, though I knew no matter how much money you had you must work hard – my father worked 20 hours a day.
So at 16, I told my father I was going to start my own company. He flipped and wouldn’t talk to me for a while. Though I have in-bred eastern values – I have my religion; I am a practising Sikh – I am British-born and I don’t want to be dependent on anyone.’
This individualistic streak runs deep. ‘The only reason I ever did anything was because someone told me I couldn’t. When I gave back the BMW, I had decided that whatever I did, people would say, “so what. You can do anything because you have your father behind you.” I wanted a Ferrari, to be able to buy it and say it was mine.’
The Ferrari has now been replaced by the Bentley and his contacts run into the highest echelons of government. On his wall is a picture of him with Tony Blair and Cherie Booth and he sits on the DTI’s Competitiveness Council and the Small Business Council.
‘When I was first invited to Downing Street I took it as a compliment but I didn’t realise the part I could play in the mechanism. I am not a politician, I don’t understand politics and I am not interested in getting votes. I am interested in giving young people the ability to do better than I did.’
He is passionate about this, but he acknowledges experienced business people are important in helping young entrepreneurs. He points out the average age of his board is 46. ‘I would be the first one to say that letting a 24-year-old run a business on their own is a big mistake, but not letting a 24-year-old run a business is an even bigger mistake,’ he says.
‘You have to achieve a balance between the energy of youth and the experience of age. I think it is complete rubbish when people say that young people can’t run companies. I was in a position where if I made a wrong move I could lose between #1m and #20m. A 19 or 20-year-old living with that grows up quickly.’
He is prepared to back up his belief in youth with his own money. He has set up a venture capital fund, Dream On Attitude, to invest no more than #25,000 in entrepreneurs aged up to 25. ‘This country needs to recognise entrepreneurship. There are people out there with better ideas than mine but where are they? They are out on the football pitch trying to be David Beckham.
‘We have to get kids interested in business. How do you get a kid interested in football? You teach them how to play but you don’t have to take them to Wembley to do it. Why not teach kids to make money by getting them involved in the school tuck shop or involve them in the school’s financial decisions. You don’t have to act on what they decide.’
The dotcom boom then bust dented the financial institutions’ confidence in young entrepreneurs but he believes this is short-sighted. ‘They didn’t invest in young people, they invested in a fashion and business is not about fashion,’ he says.
‘UK banks don’t listen to accountants, lawyers and entrepreneurs. I went to the US to set up a business and found an accountant who took me to a banker. The banker trusted the accountant because he knew he had better business acumen. Then the accountant introduced me to a lawyer. Accountants can act as FDs for small businesses, but if I said to my banker here that my accountant was coming along to a meeting, he would say, “what’s wrong?”.’
He gives about 30% of his time to public commitments but the remainder will be devoted to building up alldayPA in the UK. He then hopes to expand into Europe before going on to the US. ‘I have got to the point where I need something else other than money to push me on,’ he admits. ‘Today it’s not the “I want” but “I want to build”.’
As if this sounded too mature, suddenly the ambitious young man returns.
‘But if I had to be truthful I want to create a multibillion dollar company before the age of 30. I want to beat Bill Gates and get my second listing in the Guinness Book of Records.’
Don’t bet against him. It will only make him more determined to prove you wrong.
– Seamus Ward is a freelance journalist.
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