Half way through his law degree, Matt Kingdon realised he wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer. “A successful lawyer needs a good memory, to be accurate and be interested in precedent – I was none of those things.” So he finished his degree then joined Unilever’s graduate-training programme for marketers.
His seven years at the firm taught him a lot. In particular, presiding over the “disastrous failure” of a washing-powder launch gave him experience of how things can go wrong. He also realised that large organisations find it difficult to be innovative and move quickly.
In 1992, he and a colleague, Dave Allan, decided to set up a consultancy to help large multinationals do just that. “We were 28, we had no money, no debt and no responsibilities. It felt like we had a brief window to do whatever we wanted.”
First, though, they needed cash. The pair quickly raised £10,000 each from their parents and set up their new firm, ?What If!
They then began scouting for contracts. Pretty soon afterwards they were offered the chance to pitch for a project that would involve launching three soft drinks for Cadbury Schweppes across Europe.
They had just had the weekend to prepare their pitch and decided to take drastic action. “We hopped into Dave’s old Volkswagen and took a ferry to Europe. We then spent the weekend driving around Europe, stopping off at shops, buying local soft drinks and cataloguing the different prices.”
When it came to delivering the pitch on Monday morning, the exhausted pair shocked the prospective client with their extensive knowledge of European soft drinks. “We won the contract, which was worth about as much as the money we had put into the firm. We were delighted.”
Buoyed by the success, Kingdon and Allan continued to add customers. They established a network of European immigrants in London and used them as the basis for focus groups for new launches. “It was hard work. We had no holiday for two years and just paid each other £500 a month.”
In 1996, with business booming, they decided to hire some new senior staff. “They were more experienced than us and so we paid them higher wages. People might think that’s strange, but we didn’t want our level of experience to be a cap on the business.”
Then, in 1999, they gambled by opening a new ‘training and transformation’ service. “Customers liked how we worked and they wanted us to teach them how to work in the same way.” The pair ignored warnings that the training arm might cannibalise their other business, and it went on to account for 50% of sales. By 2000, they felt ready for international expansion. Over the next few years they added branches in China, America and Australia.
By the mid noughties, however, it was time to step back. “We had created a large business and we realised that we could structure a management team that would be excellent at running it.” That freed them up to work with clients again. Kingdon has written several books since and made a name as a public speaker.
Now 50, his latest book, The Science of Serendipity, is just out. As for ?What If!, it generates annual sales of $50m and is targeting more expansion in Asia and Latin America. Not a bad use of the seed capital provided by his parents all those years ago.