Describing himself as ‘theoretically retired’ David Poole (MBA 1998) has never been so busy. And that must be saying something given he has an Imperial MBA, a PhD from SOAS, University of London and managed an incredibly successful marketing consulting firm; “famous for our creativity and strategic insights, winning every major domestic and international award for our work.”
He has just published his first book entitled ‘Entrepreneurs and SMEs in Rwanda’ influenced by his experiences of providing support to businesses in Rwanda. This sparked his interest in the country's efforts to kick start economic development through entrepreneurship and SME sector creation. He chose to write a book to share his key insights as he felt the findings had “serious implications for other developing economies”.
Tell us about your book
The book deconstructs myths around entrepreneurship and SMEs, and explores how a more free-market capitalist approach to the economy has failed to address the economic challenges facing countries like Rwanda. I researched many accomplished and aspiring entrepreneurs, to identify the factors associated with successful entrepreneurship, which uncovered the unintended consequences of the entrepreneurship and SME development prescription.
What is the background as to how your book came about?
After selling my business to a US listed group I went back to university and completed an MSc in Development Studies at SOAS. By an odd twist of fate, I subsequently found myself leading a team of volunteers teaching business skills to handicrafts enterprises in Rwanda. This led me to explore the government’s ambitious economic development plan, Vision 2020, which in turn led to a PhD at SOAS that sought to explain the reasons for the mismatch between the government’s economic plan and real enterprise landscape that had emerged.
What lessons from Rwanda’s entrepreneurial journey can be applied to the wider world?
I think there are implications for both developing and developed economies. The book exposes the policy myths around entrepreneurs and SME development in Africa and reveals the counterproductive consequences of the policy. Based on false premises, the Rwandan enterprise paradox is an unsurprising outcome and the lessons learned have implications that go way beyond Rwanda.
Although the narrative journeys explored in the book are located in a low-income economy, they expose the mythology surrounding entrepreneurship more generally and resonate completely with the behaviour and attitudes of entrepreneurs in developed economy contexts.
The majority of people, who have never tried to start a business, have absolutely no concept of what really drives an entrepreneur or the characteristics associated with success. The book thoroughly debunks a whole range of myths about entrepreneurship.
Looking back at your time at Imperial, how did it influence your career?
I launched my business, DP&A, on April Fool’s Day 1991 – an ironic nod to the fact that it was probably the most foolish thing I had ever contemplated. Four years later it was proving to be reasonably successful but I was concerned that my primary skills were in marketing. I was increasingly asking myself whether I had a broad enough set of business skills, or whether I would ultimately have to hand over the reins to someone else. Following advice, I embarked on the Imperial MBA.
Throughout the programme I acquired a wide range of highly relevant skills that helped me to drive the business forward.
One particular insight had a dramatic effect. In the early stages I knew every client and was intimately involved in developing strategies for their businesses. As the client base expanded, this became increasingly difficult. I found I was trying to be involved in everything and consequently spreading myself too thinly across both my business and the client base. The MBA helped me to realise that there was no one best way to run a business and that creating hierarchical management structures merely gave the illusion of control.
There was one particular light bulb moment when exploring organisation theories and metaphors. I realised that my business and my own role could also be seen metaphorically and I came to use the idea of a circus (please don’t laugh!). Instead of trying to be at the centre of each and every act, my evolving role had to be that of circus ringmaster. I had already recruited immensely talented people and my job was now to create a supportive context in which they could perform to the maximum of their ability. My function was to guide and support their personal development and challenge them to go to even greater heights. It was a turning point for the business. We were soon the largest and most respected independent business in our sector. Without Imperial this would not have been the case. We were famous for our creativity and strategic insights and were known throughout the industry as the best place to work, renowned for training and developing people.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time at the Business School?
I was surrounded by an outstanding cohort of fellow students and initially felt quite apprehensive about whether I was up to the intellectual challenges the MBA would present. The gradual dawning that I could not only cope but was in many ways already on the right track was incredibly motivating.
One memory really sticks out. During the entrepreneurship modules we were analysing a case study on why one business didn’t go to plan. The overall class feedback was that it was due to poor planning, but I disagreed. I remember getting really agitated about the idea that you could plan, in absolute detail, for every eventuality - what I now know is the need to act contingently. You can never forecast and plan for everything you will encounter when starting a business. At some stage you have to stop planning and just ‘get on with it’. The problems will present themselves soon enough, and when they do you can take remedial action to fix them. I remember using the analogy of building a boat. You can spend all your time trying to figure out where the boat might leak, but you will never find them all. At some point you just have to put the boat in the water. The leaks will then show themselves and you can plug them.
Above all this helped me realise and confirm the fact that an entrepreneurial journey was the right thing for me.