Entrepreneur, investor and ‘master dealmaker’ Richard Hughes delivers masterclass at the University of York.

31st January 2020

Entrepreneur, investor and ‘master dealmaker’ Richard Hughes delivers masterclass at the University of York.

Inspired by successful stockbrokers celebrating their wealth on TV, 19 year old Richard Hughes began his career working for a stockbrokers firm in his native city of Manchester.

From there he worked hard for years securing finance and investment for a series of firms until 2002, when he founded his own investment firm, Zeus Capital.


He is also well known as one of the founders of internet retail giant Boohoo.com which has grown from a first sale of £37 to turning over £1.2 billion annually today.

He starts his talk by telling us that he wasn’t afraid of hard work and that nothing good comes without sacrifice, but that if you’re willing to work hard and sacrifice enough anyone can get what they want, “I’m proof of that” he says.

Boohoo is one of the most recognisable online fashion retailers, and Richard explained how it grew to become the internet giant it is today. “Boohoo is essentially about the right gear at the right price” he says.

Traditional fashion retailers price items based on what their market can afford, but with Boohoo, Richard says, they knew the cost of production and worked out pricing from there. This strategy is a huge part of their success, along with diversification to include new brands into the Boohoo groups, opening themselves up to new markets.

After his talk we sat down with Richard to ask him a few questions about his career and the lessons he’s learnt along the way.

What parts of the business are you looking at when you’re considering investing in a business?

When you’re looking to invest in a business, what you want to see depends on the stage they’re at. If it’s an older business you want to see stability, good cash flow and stable assets. For companies looking to grow, it’s their position and the size of their potential market.

For any business that is looking for investment, the most essential thing to implement is a strong management team. Strong teams are critical to the success of any business and as a leader you should be surrounding yourself with people better than you. Some people are intimidated by the idea of hiring smarter people than them, but if you do it right there’s no risk to it. It does take bravery to have people who will give you honest feedback, but you need that to grow and be better. Get yourselves some non-executive directors that will push you and challenge you. You need to always be accountable to someone, it helps keep you honest!

In terms of building and growing a business, what skills do you think are essential for successful management teams?

One of the biggest risks for start-ups is always running out of money. A lot of start-ups don’t look enough at their route to market, if they want to succeed, they must have a clear idea of the applications. When you’re so close to the business it’s hard to take time and consider it from a distance. I always say it’s a good idea to get off the bus and look around you and give yourself time to think. The ability to do that, to take time to step back and consider, is a great skill to have.

You also need to ask why. If nobody questions things, nothing ever changes. You need to really understand why things are done the way they are, why do we use that supplier, why is that the process? You’ll never find a better way of doing what you’re doing if you don’t ask. Never be afraid to look stupid for asking questions, if you don’t understand something, keep asking questions until you do.

You also need to be able to make the most difficult decisions first. It can be hard to do but if you forgo hard decisions, you’ll regret it in the long term. Don’t keep people around that aren’t helping or supporting your growth. Getting rid of people is something that scares people but if they’re not helping you, why are you keeping them around?

You’re very honest about your experiences and what they’ve taught you, what would you say is the mistake that has taught you the most?

There was a deal we were trying to do in America years ago and we decided to try and replicate our UK structure in the US but really, we should have either paid someone to do that for us, or just licensed the product. It cost us some money, but it also gave me the opportunity to recognise where the true value lies in the company we were looking at.

We’ve had problems and things that haven’t gone to plan but if you learn something from it then it’s not really such an issue.

What would you say are your top rules for doing business?

When you’re young, it’s easy to be cocky and flippant, especially if you’re successful early on. If you do it right, over time you should build up good karma which will come back to you. When you go through dark times, and every business does, you will realise that you need the support and you only get that by building a good relationship and doing business in an honourable way. You don’t need to ‘shaft’ people to be a success.

You do need to be brave to succeed; you’ve got to be willing to take risks and make sacrifices. You’ve got to have balls to invest, but don’t go wild. Don’t forget that you can lose things as quickly as you gain them so never risk what you can’t lose. Make compromises in certain places. Lavish lifestyles can be nice but if the money runs out – which it can – you could lose it all, so live the life you can afford. Most of all, time means more than anything. Time is a commodity that you can’t buy so make sure you’re careful with how you spend it.

What are the major challenges or threats you see for online retailers and e-commerce businesses?

You need to remember that everything goes through trends, the most valuable asset 10 years ago – bricks and mortar shops – isn’t worth much now. There will always be the next ‘big thing’ so you need to learn to compete with yourself to make sure you’re focussing on developing your own brand and not getting stuck behind someone else.

For us, our market sets the fashion, but we make sure we test things well and we’re always watching the market, we’re constantly evolving.

Sustainability is certainly a popular topic at the moment but for us we think it presents us with more opportunities than it does challenges. People will always want to feel good about themselves and Boohoo is about helping that happen.

You’re clearly someone that loves their job, but if you had to start again from scratch what career would you pick?

Besides football you mean? I think my job today is my real, true passion. I was lucky enough to get in at the right time and honestly, it’s easy to be successful if you’re willing to work hard enough. I’m lucky to love my job but I’m sure I’d be driven and hard-working in any job I had to do.

So what are Richard’s top tips for success?

  • You don’t miss what you never had
  • You can’t teach hunger
  • A good work ethic will trump everything else
  • A fear of failure will help you succeed
  • Always act with integrity
  • Goodwill is a boomerang
  • If it doesn’t kill you, it will certainly make you stronger
  • Money can’t buy you happiness but it can buy you freedom
  • Anything is possible if you want it enough