John Ayton MBE

John Ayton MBE, Founder, Brands of Tomorrow

John Ayton MBE is an entrepreneur and investor in the luxury industry, he founded the Walpole Brands of Tomorrow programme in 2007.

“It’s been a fascinating journey starting with a number of false starts and then a big success at Links of London – but it took over 15 years from the time we started Links to the date we sold it in 2006. Since then I have invested in and chaired brands as diverse as Bremont Watch Company, Annoushka jewellery, Orlebar Brown and Grind Coffee. I have worked with other entrepreneurs in these ventures – and in the case of Annoushka again with my wife – and have enjoyed every minute. Entrepreneurs are energetic determined and inspirational – life enhancers – and the type of people I love being with.

Needless to say the huge change in the last 25 years has been the development of the internet. Whilst luxury has been slow to move it is the ability to get close to our customers on a real time basis that is transforming our industry.

The starting point for a new luxury brand used to be department store distribution – it is now social media and a company’s own website. Acquiring your own customers is so much more valuable than selling through third parties.

At Annoushka we don’t do wholesale. We sell through our own stores, our own department store concessions and Annoushka.com. The business is as a result simpler, the brand better communicated to the market place and the brand experience undiluted. These changes are very exciting and with clever marketing make it possible to create very large consumer businesses very quickly.

At a time when the alternatives look less appealing, with job security declining and rapid change in the labour market, I would really encourage anyone thinking of starting a business to give it a go. But be cautious, start carefully before embarking on a full time venture. At Links of London Annoushka and I worked on it for two years alongside quite demanding jobs before doing it full time”.

In order to be a successful luxury entrepreneur what are three pieces of advice you would give?

Establish a good network of other entrepreneurs doing similar things who you can call upon for advice and support. One of the reasons I founded Walpole Brands of Tomorrow in 2007 was not only to give early entrepreneurs access to good advice but also a support network amongst their peers. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely furrow to plough!

On the same theme I believe great companies generally evolve from strong partnerships. I started Links of London with my wife Annoushka our relationship being the bedrock of this success. We had highly complementary skills, Annoushka as a designer and myself as a businessman and former lawyer. It is rare that designers can succeed without business help at the earliest stage and vice versa.

Don’t be intimidated by naysayers who will tell you it can’t be done!

What are the most important lessons you have learned along your journey?

At all times focus on cash-flow well ahead of a problem. Sounds bonkers but take investment or borrow from the banks when you don’t need it – it’s much more difficult to get cash when you need it!

What are the watch outs along the way?

Don’t believe your own BS! In a world of extreme self-promotion maintain a sense of proportion and humility. The most successful entrepreneurs are practical, down-to-earth and sensible.

When you were started out who was your biggest inspiration? And what did they tell you that helped make you a success?

We were very fortunate at Links of London that we had a very supportive shareholder who made electric motors. He was fascinated by the process by which we made jewellery. We opened in New York at the time of 9/11 and lost our shirts. Our shop was empty for four months. We needed additional finance quickly and the banks were not lending. Mr Clark stepped in and loaned us the money on very favourable terms. He wanted to support us not wishing to take advantage of our distress. I have tried to apply the same sense of fairness in my own investing seeing beyond an immediate crisis.