Raj Bhakta is used to falling on his face, says Businessweek. After being fired from the US version of The Apprentice, he ran for Congress as a Republican in Pennsylvania. His campaign included an advertisement about border security in which he crossed the Rio Grande on an elephant in front of a Mexican guitar band. He lost the election, resoundingly. But his latest venture, WhistlePig, a rye whiskey bottling company, has proved a success.
Bhakta (pictured centre, with baby) runs the business from his farm in Vermont, where he has an oak woodland for making barrels and 1,300 acres of rye grain fields. Rye whiskey is usually blended with corn whiskey, but WhistlePig is pure rye and sells for up to $1,000 per bottle.
Sales have grown from $1m in 2010 to $10m last year, but Bhakta has fallen out with his business partners, who want to remove him as manager because they want to sell and he doesn’t, he claims. “It’s a rank and dirty gangster move,” he says. “I’ve drunk too much. I’ve partied too much. I’ve been guilty of… womanising… I’m trying to make a stand because this company is something I believe in.”
The punk who made £760m from Brexit
Hedge-fund tycoon David Harding, the brains behind Winton Capital, has given over £50m to charity in the last decade. Yet he hates the concept of “giving back”. “It implies that everything I am doing to build the company is ‘taking’,” he tells the Evening Standard. “I mean what kind of an attitude is that, that building a great British company is taking from society? It’s a mad outlook.”
Most of Harding’s donations have been to institutions specialising in science and maths. He has given £20m to Cambridge University, where he studied, and £5m to the Science Museum to fund a maths gallery. Money has also gone to Westminster Abbey, Kew Gardens, the Globe Theatre and the controversial project to build a “Garden Bridge” across the Thames.
Many of Britain’s oldest institutions turned to donors after the global financial crisis, Harding says. But they did it “terribly reluctantly” – and that irks him. “Many British institutions are just so grand that the idea that they should demean themselves by talking to the nouveau riche is painful… they can’t conceal their contempt for the person who they are trying to shame into giving them money.”
Slender, with wispy hair and a jutting chin, Harding was a pink-haired punk fan in his youth, eschewing academia in favour of making money. He joined a stockbroker and got into futures trading, creating algorithms to trade on his behalf. Now, he is worth £1.3bn, and Winton manages $34bn. Harding gave £3.5m to the campaign for Britain to stay in Europe, but he can live with the result. After the Out vote, market volatility rocketed. In a few days’ trading, Winton’s algorithms made £760m.
How I turned a parlour game into big business
Jo Smedley had been happily working for the NHS as a therapist, while writing as a hobby, when her church youth group wanted to host a murder mystery game. So Smedley wrote a script. It was “a huge hit” with family and friends, so Smedley ended up writing a new one every few months. It is now a multinational business.
“I never considered selling them”, she writes in The Daily Telegraph, but her friends were web designers, so they built a website to market the games. Orders poured in and the venture began turning a profit immediately. Smedley reinvested everything she made to help it grow and soon found herself running ever larger events. Her company, Red Herring Games, is now ten years old. But there have been setbacks, including bogus sales agents, terrible trade fairs, a burglary, a flood and a cash-flow crisis. “There were lots of tears, frustration and despair.”
However, things are looking up: she recently began supplying Amazon and demand in the US is extremely strong. The key to Smedley’s success is “customer care”, she says. “It’s far cheaper to retain a customer than it is to get a new one. Anything you can do to make them feel special and rewarded will keep them for life.”
Condé Nast’s very public wardrobe malfunction
“Whisper it quietly”, says James Gillespie in The Times, but fashion magazine Vogue and Anna Wintour (pictured), its influential editor-in-chief, are being put through a very public “wardrobe malfunction”. Sales at online fashion retailers, from Asos to Net-a-Porter, have rocketed, and Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast – the American publishing giant behind Vanity Fair and The New Yorker – wants a piece of the action. So after two years of planning and at least £75m of investment, it launched Style.com earlier this month.
Style.com is the biggest “sideways move” Condé Nast has ever made, says Mark O’Flaherty in the FT. With 300 million users worldwide, Condé Nast’s websites are used by close to 4% of the world’s adult population. Customers also trust its taste, so the new venture seems an obvious step: anyone flicking through Vogue.com can now instantly “buy the collection”, if they spot a dress they like.
But Condé Nast needn’t worry about discounts or unsold stock: its site will simply direct orders to suppliers, leaving them to make the deliveries. As such, it’s just trading off its reputation for having an “insane obsession with fashion”.
However, “writing about dresses is a good deal easier than selling them”, says Gillespie. Wintour has claimed that Style.com will “revolutionise” fashion retail. Yet it looks more like a rip off of other businesses launched several years ago. “People have been shopping online for years… Vogue has turned up very late to the party.”
What’s more, many fashion houses appear to be playing hardball: Prada, Versace, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and Jil Sander are all absent from Style.com – even though all supply Net-a-Porter. With her contacts and clout, it is surprising that Wintour has struggled to lure brands to the site. Less than two weeks after the launch, it’s early days – but the fashion world is cattily watching.