Interview: Charles McGregor on his 90s startup

By Steph Pickerill

Charles McGregor started his first business in the early 90s, just a 28 year old. His fibre optic network business, Fibernet, went on to become a fully listed stock exchange company.

The reasons for starting your own business are as varied as the ideas themselves. So why did he start his own business? Motivation came from a few years of experience in industry. After graduating he went to work for 6 years, having studied business studies and banking. Those years of experience, the chance to ‘brush up against real life,’ provided the background he sees as key.

The decision to break from the regular and become self-employed, effectively in competition with his previous employers, was motivated by a number of factors.
The business started as a partnership, the joint aspiration of Charles and a friend who also worked in the industry, with mutual agreement that they could ‘quite arrogantly, do a better job than their employers.’

Age was a big factor, and this had a lot to do with youth and mindset. ‘The risks involved at that age seem relatively small. If it doesn’t work, I’ll get a job’. The freedom that comes with youth allows for the kind of independence that is so essential to taking the risk of starting your own business. ‘It is a decision taken very much for yourself, before the responsibility of making decisions for a family’. At the time of starting out, he sold his own house to raise funds. ‘I put in all I had, financially.’

That’s not to say that the risks aren’t there, while the personal decisions seem relatively easy to make, ‘it is very scary’ working without the support network provided by an established business. Inspiration came from the prospect of ‘an exciting adventure’.

The realities of starting out are, to use a cliche, a learning curve. ‘Nobody gets it right completely and it is definitely harder than you think it’s going to be.’ Also, looking back, the ambition was not as well thought-out as the success would suggest. ‘I’d love to say we had a grand, well-crafted plan’ but ‘we learnt as we went along.’

Any secrets to success? Charles is modest. ‘We were enjoying ourselves, that’s the best way to be.’ This ethos spread to the structure of the business in those crucial first five years. We did the jobs we loved’, he says. Getting the right people to work for you is key. ‘You have to give them prospects, a career path, even as a small business there must be ambition to retain good employees.’

And entrepreneurship? As lots of entrepreneurs do, Charles appreciates that ‘not all entrepreneurs are the same,’ but there are some aspects of his character that, looking back, seemed to fit the mould. He was head of school, something he now looks on as a sign of future leadership roles.

Charles speaks humbly of his startup experience and, since selling his business, has gone on to aid others in theirs as an investor and mentor.

‘I would do it all again, it’s extremely scary but very exciting.’

And is this generation startup? ‘I think that comparing this generation (ie yours) with those gone before where working hard and creatively for one company for a whole career meant stability, security and a rewarding pension was the expected ‘norm’ has now all but disappeared and has pushed today’s generation to start up their own businesses because the relative disadvantages are much closer. Couple this with the much improved environment, social acceptability and optical spectre of reward, both in job satisfaction and financial, then this is Generation Start Up.’