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Giles Andrews Puts on an Entrepreneurial Passion Play

by Guest on November 22, 2012

Raoul Boström, a London Business School alumnus, writes about Giles Andrews and the passion he carries for his work as the co-founder of peer-to-peer lender Zopa.

Speaking for just over an hour, to the TELL Series audience at London Business School, Giles Andrews referred to his “passion” for his work at least half a dozen times. He started with his brother’s advice. When Mr. Andrews was considering his options after graduating from Oxford, his accountant brother tried to persuade him to follow a more interesting path, to ignore orthodoxy and build his career around that for which he had a passion. So he set out to become a racing driver. Even when that proved impossible, he persisted with his automotive interests, beginning to buy and sell cars in London’s East End. He made his first fortune in the 1990s teaming up with a group of bankers to aggregate car dealerships throughout the UK. He drew, from this personal story, the oft-repeated lesson: “do what you have a passion for – you will always do it better than anything else”.

Yet later, discussing his current venture, peer-to-peer lender Zopa, Mr Andrews told us that he is now “passionate about credit and risk, something new I’ve learnt about”. This seems somewhat paradoxical: he is advising us, at once, to work on that for which we are passionate, but, also, that we might discover a passion for that on which we are working.

So what comes first, the passion or the work? For Mr Andrews, passion led to work with his car dealership business Caverdale and then work led to passion with Zopa.

For everyone else? It seems an important question to ponder – especially for the half of the audience made up of students, many of whom are uncertain how to build their careers.

MBAs and other graduate students suffer this uncertainty acutely, returning to school in their late 20s having not yet discovered their passion – and fearing they never will. In each new class at London Business School – as I’m sure at any other university in the UK – the number of students seeking to become entrepreneurs starts high, then dwindles with each business idea that doesn’t quite click and with each dollar added to student loans. The reality of small failures and large debts is compounded with the popular idea that education does not drive entrepreneurial success.

PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel kicked off the latest round of debate – quite literally, in (virtual) pages of the New York Times – about the value of college education, providing 20 aspiring entrepreneurs with $100k over two years to drop-out of college and pursue business ventures. Other high-profile tech founders have expressed similar views, such as Hunch and Flickr founder Caterina Fake who wrote a blog post in 2010 entitled “Want to be an entrepreneur? Drop out of college”. The notion that education is unnecessary for entrepreneurial success can, of course, be substantiated with a list of drop-outs who have gone on to build billion dollar business: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey etc. etc.

Yet the numbers, at least in the US, tell a different story. Scott Shane points to numerous studies to back up his statement that “Statistically speaking, entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful if they graduate college than if they don’t.”

Which brings us back to Mr Andrews. As well as his Oxford degree, he has an MBA from INSEAD – earned in the years between founding his two successful ventures. Did it make a difference? He certainly talks like an MBA. He spent 15 minutes discussing “value innovation” – an idea pioneered by his INSEAD professor Chan Kim – and how various companies, including business school case study darlings Southwest Airlines and Cirque du Soleil, as well as his own Zopa, succeeded by cutting out parts of the value chain.

It seems as if he learnt a lot from his time at business school that helped him turn Zopa from an eccentricity into a mainstream financial business. Yet it’s impossible to listen to him speak without believing that there is another factor in driving his success that is at least as important as education.

The deliberateness and the analytical edge that come with Mr Andrews’s education seem carefully balanced with the curiosity and the energy that come with his attitude towards life, an attitude that can direct “passion” toward anything from classic cars to consumer lending. Those students most likely to follow in Mr Andrews entrepreneurial footsteps will surely be those who are able to strike a similar balance.

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