I’ve been sticking my blackberry in everyone's face this week, showing them an actual series of actual emails I exchanged with the famous Stelios of Easyjet. I’ve talked to a few business leaders in the last few years, but never have I bagged a CEO into my phonebook and started up email banter.
It says more about Stelios than me. He’s truly approachable. He hangs out with the masses. He travels on public transport. He even flies other airlines than Easyjet: he calls it "market research”.
So how did Stelios and I become email buddies, and what snippets of information can I pass along for aspiring entrepreneurs? It was a hot Saturday night in May in Dubai. I’d flown in from London that morning, donned a party frock (had to compete with the Russian girls) and headed to the chichi Buddha Bar with friends. The place was heaving. So much for the financial gloom in the region. Expats were moaning that Dubai’s gone broke, that it’s bank-rolled by its oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi, that construction is faltering, tourism is dropping away and property prices are tumbling. But people were still dropping 200 dollars a head for (excellent) sashimi in the crowded and lofty restaurant by the Marina. Including Stelios and his entourage who were at the next door table.
I’m not very good at recognizing famous people, but fortunately I had my celebrity-spotter friend Cameron with me. He made some kind of pincer movement at Stelios and shoved him in my direction: the poor guy didn’t have a chance to politely escape. I bounced up and babbled about reading an article recently on him and Cass Business School. Coincidentally, Stelios was in Dubai to speak at a Cass conference at the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) the next morning. I asked if I could go and he said: “Yes, it starts at 10am, meet me at 9.45am”.
To cement the deal I sent Stelios a quick message from my blackberry and we started a little discourse across our tables. I glanced over at him a few times through dessert. A serial entrepreneur and a serial blackberry addict. He obviously likes to be connected, to stay in touch. And he certainly understands the dramatic impact of the blackberry: he attributes the failure of one of his businesses - EasyInternetCafe – to the evolution of hand-held email devices. People didn’t need high street internet shops once they could get online so cheaply from a mobile phone.
I roll out of bed at 9am on a Sunday morning, Day 2 of my supposed holiday weekend, and hailed a cab to the DIFC. The event was pretty flashy, attended by the current MBA and EMBA class of London’s Cass Business School – all on a four-day trip to Dubai. There’s a write-up of the talk on the Cass website: but here are five insights from a serial, and successful, entrepreneur:
- Only take risks you can afford to lose.
- There’s nothing wrong with copying a good idea.
- Airlines create brands.
- A well-run business shouldn’t have to choose between profits and environmental responsibility. When you’re all cramped up on an Easyjet flight, think of it as a favour to the environment.
- The current crisis is more like a super-tanker than a speed-boat. It will take a while to turn around.
For someone who toyed with the idea of naming his airline StelAir (before he settled on Easyjet), Stelios was surprisingly self-deprecating and down-to-earth. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye as he was whisked off to a site for a possible EasyHotel in Dubai. But we’ve stayed in touch on our blackberries and maybe I’ll see him, if not in Monaco where he lives, then in London, where he’s dipping his toe back into property investments.