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Michael Hayman MBE: Vanguard or avant-garde?

This article first appeared on The Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School on Tuesday 28th March 2017.

What does it mean to be the vanguard? Taken at face value, it’s the leading part of an advancing military formation. There to deploy first, take risks and cover ground quickly. The term originates from the medieval French ‘avant-garde’. Those who push boundaries, are experimental, radical or unorthodox. But while ‘vanguard’ might be a term more comfortably used by the high command, and ‘avant-garde’ by artists, in my mind these phrases capture the essence of the entrepreneur.

Many people wonder what makes entrepreneurs tick. Are they in it for the money? The status? Perhaps power? Well, these may be key drivers for some, but for the majority that I know – business is a tool to try and effect change.

When I co-authored Mission: How the Best in Business Break Through, I was struck by how many of the entrepreneurs we interviewed saw business a means of addressing a big problem. Take John Mackey, the founder of the US grocery giant, Wholefoods, or Paul Lindley, the founder of the baby food business Ella’s Kitchen. Both entrepreneurs with a desire to address the issue of diet and food.

Today they both sit as leaders of hugely successful, established businesses. But there was a time not so long ago, when they began their journeys seeking to push boundaries, to do something radical – and to do it quickly. The vanguard in them had a sense of an enemy in mind: bad food with high-sugar content and obesity. A problem that needed to be confronted and business was the tool.

At the same time, there was a strong sense of the avant-garde. Both have revelled in the position as challengers to established orders and have experimented with business models that proved they were no mere fad or niche interest.

It’s this combination of leadership and boundary pushing that makes our entrepreneurs so crucial to the future commercial fabric of Britain. It’s where we find some of our strongest reserves of innovation and growth potential. The chancellor’s spring budget pledge to invest £270 million into the development of disruptive technologies is proof enough of that.

Our entrepreneurial zeal has never been stronger. But with over 80 firms an hour registered in Britain today, it’s sometimes easy to take the existence of founder-led firms for granted. We have seen a huge advance in business formation over the last 10 years but it’s a fragile asset and it needs to be nurtured.

Business deaths remain at frighteningly high levels in the UK. And data from the Office of National Statistics show that these levels are increasing. The number of UK business deaths increased by 2.1 per cent from 247,000 to 252,000 between 2014 and 2015.

It’s easy to be blasé about statistics, but think of it as a quarter-of-a-million stories of lost hope and dreams, and you soon look at these figures differently. The very existence of the entrepreneur is a triumph against the odds.

I was involved in research that showed only one in three UK startups make it to their third birthday. No surprise then, that I once heard Carphone Warehouse founder Sir Charles Dunstone, make a joke to an assembled audience that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to be, “I got away with it.”

But get away with it they must. The government has placed a bet on our economic future and it’s a bet on global trade. That Britain in a post-Brexit-era will stimulate an unparalleled uptake in businesses selling abroad.

The Government’s ‘Exporting is GREAT’ slogan is a rallying cry to business: “The demand is out there. You should be too.” For that to work we will need to stimulate the vanguard and the avant-garde. Our entrepreneurs will make the critical difference. Advance!

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Chapter 1 outlines the concept of mission and how the breakthrough brands of today have succeeded by building a mission that inspires belief, generates a following and instils a purpose beyond profit.