Jim Venables: The personal touch was my key to success

While competitors used the internet as a way to stop talking to their customers, Jim Venables made his fortune by taking the opposite approach.

Jim Venables' first business "wasn't a massive success". But it taught him some important skills that he would cash in on later. In 1990, after leaving college at 19, he worked in jewellery marketing. "Over a couple of years I built up a network of a few thousand people that would sell jewellery through catalogues or party planning." Venables realised he was a pretty effective networker, but he wasn't making much money. So, he set his sights on recruitment instead.

In 2000, after spending a few years as a recruiter, Venables felt more than ready to start his own business. He and his business partner Andy Haywood an ex-colleague pooled together £30,000 of their own money and founded Internet Sales People.

They focused on finding employees to work in sales positions for internet providers. "The first few months were great. We built up some good clients and hired extra staff." Unfortunately, in 2001 the dotcom bubble burst and Venables' clients stopped hiring. But even as the recruitment activity slowed, the pair realised that they had already stumbled across a business model that would really fly serviced offices.

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"When we were looking to set up our recruitment business, we found that landlords didn't really want to take on the risk of giving a two-man company their office space. In the end we had to get a serviced office." Unlike traditional office space, which is let by a landlord or agent, serviced offices are fully equipped and re-let with more flexible leases. The broker that arranged it offered them a commission if they could find other businesses that needed workspace.

In 2001, Venables and Haywood decided they could make this their full-time business. "There were a lot of similarities instead of filling job vacancies we were filling empty offices." Despite the difficult conditions "the September 11th terrorist attacks and the dotcom crash made things a bit tricky in 2002" business went well. So they stopped their recruitment efforts altogether and launched their new firm, Officebroker.com.

"A lot of our competitors were obsessed by e-commerce and the web, and trying to use the internet as a way to stop talking to their customers. We decided we could add value by using it to connect our customers with an expert."

The approach paid off. Their new website scored highly in most search engines and their insistence on spending time with customers helped them win and retain business. Despite being based to the north of Birmingham, the pair then made another key decision to win business in London.

That is paying dividends now as "the London market is performing much better than the rest of the country". They also quickly moved away from small start-up businesses and looked for larger clients. "Now there is probably not a big company in Britain that we haven't helped over the years."

By 2007, sales hit 2.4 million, so the pair opened branches in Australia and the US. "In hindsight it was a bit of a crazy thing to do. It was expensive and a big distraction." Nevertheless the business has kept growing. In a recession he believes people still want office space "but they want more flexibility on price and time". With sales last year of £6m, Venables, now 41, has so far been proved right.

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a NCTJ certificate in journalism.


After working as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries, and a spell at ITV, James wrote for Television Business International and covered the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. 


James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. 


He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.