My first boss: Martin Warner, 'UK's Elon Musk', on his business career
In 2015, Martin Warner achieved a $55m (£46m) holy grail exit with his 3D printing venture Bot Objects, just 17 months after launching. Dubbed the ‘UK's Elon Musk’, Warner is now founder, chairman or CEO of four different businesses, including Flix Premiere, the leading independent film streaming service, air logistics software company Parcel Fly, and aviation focused R&D firm pioneering electric urban air mobility, Autonomous Flight.
I grew up with very little and my family did as much as possible to give us a stable life. I needed to figure out my university track so I left school at 16 and started with National Westminster Bank working in the old machine room, did a few months of foreign exchange at Thomas Cook, and then finally landed at this strange place in Croydon, South London, called the National Association of Fire Officers.
I didn’t know back then that trade union's didn’t make money. But I took the job as I was keen on software development and the role had a day release on accounting. It was my first proper job, and my boss was Richard Phythian, a middle-aged Scot and lead fireman who had gone up the ranks to become general secretary.
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He was curious about people and could see that the late teen sponge in front of him was hungry. He always knew what he wanted to get and what I deduced was that it was always a test. It was about how I would react or what my answer would be. It was a thoughtful approach in how to understand your audience.
He shook my hand on the first day and said, "You will do well here, boy". I started doing admin, he kept checking in and I felt secure. I realised straightaway that it was special as I was thinking about the way I would apply myself to the job. I would go back the next day and I would talk to him about it and he would listen. For a confident man who was like a prophet to the union members, he was one of few words. Yet he had charisma and savvy to control a union.
Richard would ask me what I found interesting about the job and what it would take to go the extra mile. "Do you feel confident about the direction you’re going in?" he once said. It was an interesting question. Being a semi introvert, I thought about what he was saying but he was the right boss for me at the time. He made me feel motivated and prompted me to ask questions about myself that I would never have thought of.
He also gave me the skills I needed and I was able to build a finance and technology career as I went from administrator to network manager. He eventually had to retire as general secretaries were being pushed out. As quickly as he found me, he left me.
It took four years to get my accounting qualifications and Richard sponsored me with evening and day release, which led me from union to banking at JPMorgan. This was also unheard of back then and I don’t recommend trying to navigate it as a career path, but I think I was able to take advantage of both timing and opportunity.
I had started in the accounting department at the travel operator Mark Warner and become resorts’ controller where I was responsible for hiring accountants. We had some ambitious staff but slowly they seemed to all transfer to Merrill Lynch. Before too long, I had an offer from them but instead I joined JPMorgan as a securities accountant.
Richard had said a lot of things to me but one of them was, "Son, you’re a little bit impetuous". I had to look the word up but it stuck with me through JPMorgan, as you had to be forceful in such an aggressive bank. Richard had given me three valuable lessons. Firstly, to talk less. Secondly, if I wasn’t sure of something, I should clarify. "Don’t go and elaborate and let your passion get the better of me," Richard had said. Thirdly, not everything requires an answer, which countered what he just said. But he replied, "In politics, in management and when you have to particularly have to cover your arse, sometimes saying less is more."
He taught me to document everything. From early on, that was key business process management for me. I now teach it as a subject at Entrepreneur Seminar as a lot of people don’t think enough about process. More than 300,000 people have completed the programme in the 23 years I've been running it, and I still do two live sessions a month with the community.
I haven't seen Richard since he retired. But he got the best out of me, and I believe he would have expected me to take some of his advice and do something with my life.
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I'm now an educator, inventor, film producer and investor. At Autonomous Flight, we have been going for nearly seven years and we are going to see electric aircraft across cities, no question, as the technologies and applications around wind dynamics and electric motors are now understood. There’s nothing not known about it, we just need to complete the testing stage.
As the first British electric aviation company to enter the Urban Air Mobility race, last month we revealed our ‘next generation’ electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, the Y6S Plus.
It takes a lot to certify an aircraft and millions of dollars before we get there, but it’s an exciting space. We may be 18 months away from getting certification with the first aircraft that passengers can use, before we can begin to consider services – I also have a software platform called Parcel Fly that’s the brain behind delivering parcels by drone to your back garden or front yard. Over the next 10 to 15 years there will be tonnes of things going in the air.
Martin Warner is founder and curator of Entrepreneur Seminar, the leading online learning and mentoring programme on Entrepreneurship.