Piers Linney: breathing fire into opportunity

Written by
Mary Appleton

02 Sep 2015

02 Sep 2015 • by Mary Appleton

With stints in law, banking and technology under his belt, self-made entrepreneur and former Dragon Piers Linney is no stranger to career success, but it’s been a constant fight against the system, he tells Mary Appleton. In this exclusive interview, the TV star explains why he’s now turning his focus to help others from similar backgrounds achieve their dreams.

Until recently, Piers Linney was a familiar face on BBC’s Dragons’ Den where he decided the fate of would-be entrepreneurs convinced their latest innovations will change the world of business. But while success and fame is synonymous with the tech entrepreneur, it hasn’t always been like this. 

“I’ve turned up to appointments before and been given boxes to deliver,” he laughs. “Or I’d be sitting in meetings as the CEO, waiting to start and people would ask me when Piers was arriving. It’s the double-take effect. People didn’t take me seriously – no one expected me to be me.”

As a self-made businessman of Caribbean heritage from Lancashire, part of Linney’s mission is to break down barriers for talented young people with similar backgrounds to him and help them access work opportunities. 

“I’ve been involved in many careers but the system didn’t work for me. I didn’t take no for an answer and managed to achieve, but not everyone has that confidence and innate ability. It’s so important that everyone has equal access to  opportunity – so they have the potential to be all they can – and I want to do something to help that happen.”

"People would see the name Piers Linney and expect a posh white kid to walk into the room. They would look past me”

Forging a career path

Born to an English father and Barbadian mother, Linney grew up in a small mill town called Bacup in the east of Lancashire. He credits much of his entrepreneurial spirit to his mother who came to England in the 1960s to be a nurse. “My mum was enterprising. Because of her colour she couldn’t work in a bank so she came over here. She did all sorts in the community, like setting up a health centre and local slimming club.”

His father, having grown up in working-class Manchester, was a Cambridge graduate. “But in those days, you went and then you came back home again,” says Linney.

“I was always quite bright, I just couldn’t be bothered learning exam technique,” he confesses. So as a result of his laissez-faire attitude to learning, Linney failed his 11+ and in later years, would have to retake both his O-levels and A-levels.

But then things changed. “There came a point where I knew I needed to step up and change the game for myself,” he says, so he “knuckled down” and won a place at the University of Manchester to read accountancy and law.

While he admits he never had a career path, he’d always had a desire to work in the professions. “My drive was always to be in business. Everyone where I came from worked in manual labour.So when I said I wanted to be in business, no one could help me. They said ‘you should be an accountant’. I thought law was interesting so I did a law degree. I ended up at law school with no idea about what being a lawyer was about,” he recalls.

When it came to getting a training contract, Linney applied no less than 68 times to law firms before he was offered a place. “I always wonder what would have happened if I had only applied 67 times,” he says. “It was incredibly frustrating but I was determined. It was so hard to get through the door. Looking back, a mixed-race kid from a mill-town comprehensive school who had failed O-levels and A-levels coming to the city wanting to be a lawyer was a big ask. My CV wasn’t great.”

He was offered a job with SJ Berwin but it wasn’t long before he got itchy feet. He asked a friend who suggested he try investment banking as that was what he was applying for. “I didn’t know anything about it. I bought a book called Investment Banking and started to get this pink newspaper called the FT.”

Having decided on this new career, Linney’s experience of the application process mirrored what happened when he’d approached the law firms several years earlier. “I applied to Credit Suisse but didn’t even get a response. My friend got an offer on their graduate programme. I was rejected from all the banks.”

In a bizarre twist of irony, Linney was eventually offered a job by Barclays de Zoete Wedd, shortly before its acquisition by Credit Suisse. “So I ended up working for Credit Suisse in a more senior role when they wouldn’t even consider me for their graduate scheme. I performed, made money and did well. But my innate ability was missed by the system,” he adds.

Tackling unconscious bias

It is as a result of these experiences that, in part, contributes to Linney’s vehement belief that the recruitment and selection process in the City is seriously flawed.

“Often talent isn’t recognised because the system and processes are so archaic. People would see the name Piers Linney on my application and expect a posh white kid to walk into the room. They would look past me. It’s human nature – even a name triggers images in your mind based on your pre-disposition to unconscious bias.”

One of his biggest bugbears is that he never meets himself. “In technology, banking, finance and law, it’s typically male, pale and stale. The only person I meet in the City like me is working at 2am with a hoover.”

Part of the problem, he says, is there’s a huge disconnect between talent – particularly from certain backgrounds – understanding opportunity and being inspired so they can aspire. “Anyone should be able to do anything,” he declares. “FTSE 100 boards and those in ‘top jobs’ all look the same. Until the top of society looks like the bottom, you don’t live in a fair place.”

A lack of access to careers information and workplace experience makes it hard for young people to learn about careers. “How are you meant to make informed decisions about what to do if you have no idea what it is?” he asks. “Three years ago, 70% of jobs in my business didn’t exist. Teachers are good at teaching – they haven’t been at the coal face learning what the opportunities are, so this is where businesses need to get involved and give something back. We’ll all be fighting over the same talent pool in five years, so it makes sense.”

"In technology, banking, finance and law, it’s typically male, pale and stale. The only person I meet in the City like me is working at 2am with a hoover"

Workinsight.org the Uber of work experience

“Many careers will be obsolete in 15 years,” he says, “so we have got to look at what the economy needs and the talent we have got – and connect the dots. We can’t keep pushing people through the same sausage machine and expect to get the right outcomes.”

Linney’s solution? A digital platform he is developing – workinsight.org – to offer opportunities to young people who can experience the workplace in bite-sized chunks. “I want to reduce barriers for people like me so they can fulfil their ambitions. I’m a rare case – a lot of people would have given up with the amount of rejection I faced. I want to give something back to ease the path of people from my background.”

The idea is to connect young people and those seeking work – from all backgrounds – with employers who can offer day or half-day ‘insights’ so they can find out about the business.

“It’s the Uber taxis of work experience,” he laughs. “The software and cloud technology interfaces with a phone app and website to bring physical experiences to people looking for work.

“Demand for work experience is going through the roof. Research tells us if you have experience, you’re more likely to find employment. But the issue is that, at best, supply is stagnant.”
Crucial for Linney is that there’s no selection criteria on workinsight.org – one of his  frustrations is his belief that the current work experience system is largely built on nepotism. “Most employers often tend to give work experience to people they know, but you’ve got a narrow pool there and you need to access talent beyond your own social network, so to speak. And those who cast the net wider are more likely to find gems.

“[Workinsight.org] is about your community and your interest. Employers open their doors and let anyone in. We’ll build in dashboards so you can get real-time feedback on demographics, compliance, quality and whether [young people] have turned up so you can make appropriate interventions when necessary.”

He says the resource commitment on the employers’ part is low, and the ‘fear factor’ for the young person is reduced as they are short experiences rather than lengthy placements. Linney wants the business to be scalable – and offering bite-sized insights will help with this. He’s keen for the business to be profitable by charging employers to partake in the scheme – and hopes to use the cash generated to invest in ‘hard-to-reach’ communities and tap into a wider talent pool. “We won’t get everyone but can make a difference by designing something scalable,” he adds.

After leaving the City in 2000 to set up his internet company, Linney has been involved in businesses across technology, media and telecommunications sectors as a founder, investor and adviser. In April 2007, with his business partner, he led the buyout of a mobile voice and data reseller, which became a sector leader. Via four acquisitions, a leading cloud computing service provider business was created and the mobile business sold in 2011 to focus on the cloud opportunity. Outsourcery floated on the Alternative Investment Market in May 2013 valued at £35m.

So what is his approach when recruiting for his own business? “We pick people who are tech experts. I don’t care if they have a degree. If you understand what we are doing, you can add value to our business and fit our culture then a degree doesn’t matter.”

Changing the nature of recruitment

Meanwhile, on a macro level, Linney agrees that recruitment processes have to change. “Do you start with a CV or a FaceTime chat? There’s no excuse for not looking someone in the eye now,” he suggests. “You can’t expect to find gems by sifting CVs. If someone got a 2:2 at university and you immediately discount them, how do you know they weren’t acting as a carer during their degree, showing incredible leadership skills?”

However, he is clear that not all of the onus lies with employers. “It’s not just about reaching down into the talent pool, it’s also about the pool wanting to be pulled up so they can get a better understanding of industries and opportunities,” he says.

“We’re verging on a talent crisis. There’s going to be a shortage of skilled labour, particularly in the creative industries – the fastest-growing employment sector in the UK economy – so we [business] need to man up and do something brave.”

And Linney is no stranger to bravery. Throughout his career, he says he’s tackled whatever has come over the horizon but it’s all been off his own back. “I managed to blag my way into careers – once I got through the door I was very good. But the problem is that the system looked at where I had messed up, it wasn’t looking at me and what I could offer – it shouldn’t be like that.

“Business is hard work, but I learned to never take no for an answer and battle on. It’s the nature of an entrepreneur. Beating your competition to death in a gutter with their own severed arm – it’s bloody awful,” he jokes. “But I’ve always had a vision and an end game and done whatever it takes to get there.”