Survival tips not just for an assault course

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
Physical and mental skills are put to the test on a team-building course for would-be entrepreneurs

Getting bitten by Scotland's most savage beast is just one of the delights for 20 aspiring entrepreneurs on a tough weekend in Aberfoyle. "Let's walk and see what they're doing," says Gary McEwan, former UK entrepreneur of the year. "If we stay in one place, the midges will eat us alive."

The guided tour around Dounans Outdoor Centre takes in four groups of youngsters, most in green midge-masks, engrossed in challenging activities among the pine trees. Walking on wires, tackling the assault course and teetering on towers of plastic crates looks like fun. But what's it got to do with business?

"They're learning about themselves and each other - fast," says Mr McEwan, who was appointed chief executive of Enterprise North East last year. "First thing tomorrow morning, for instance, we'll blindfold them and get them crawling through the assault course. And just when they think it's really hard, we'll make it harder by pushing their faces in the mud. Why?

"Well, in business, when things are as bad as they can get, there's always somebody who'll put the boot in. So what do you do? You get your head down. You keep moving forward. You come out the other side - eventually - and you have a shower."

Not all the lessons on this three-day event for selected youngsters from the north-east are quite that harsh, says Laura Dorward, 17, as she swings from a rope looped over a low branch, having fallen from the top of the crate-tower her team had been building. "That was scary," says the former Grove Academy pupil breathlessly. "When you're up there, it's all leaning towards you. But my team was encouraging me, looking out for me. I'm surprised how fast you get to know people. This one's a leader. That one's quiet but stable. It's fascinating. I've done team-building at school but there's more purpose to this."

There is indeed, says Gary McEwan, who started his first business at the age of 16 - selection boxes for dogs, put together from chocolate drops, dog biscuits and cling-film - and sold his fourth and most successful, Associate Freight Training, at the age of 28. "That was the first business I put a lot of planning into, got an adviser for and prepared a plan. That support structure worked for me and since then, I've been trying to provide it for other people.

"I could always make money when I was at school, but that wasn't recognised. So I want to support young people who are entrepreneurial and have leadership qualities, but haven't been encouraged to develop them."

The ultimate purpose of all this team-building is the preparation of a business plan each team will put together to present to a Dragon's Den- type panel. "We have to imagine we own the Dounans Centre," says Ayla Iridag, 17, also ex-Grove Academy. "Then we work out what we'd do to develop the land and what materials we need. I was managing director in my last year at school on Young Enterprise. I discovered I enjoyed the stress. So I'm the MD in our team. Others are good at marketing, production, being creative or physical. We've all got different skills.

"The hardest part is overcoming your fears. I didn't realise how high the flying fox was till I got up and had to jump. But the team supports you and are going, `You can do it'. You get a real sense of achievement afterwards and realise you could do it again if you had to."

Facing fears with the help of colleagues is an essential lesson for anyone starting a business, says Mr McEwan. "They've all got things they find scary. That gives them limitations, which we want them to learn, that they put them on themselves. They can get further or higher with their team encouraging them; they can exceed expectations."

Stevie Taylor, 17, is expecting to win, he says. "Our team's in second place now, but we'll do it. We built a raft yesterday and ours fell apart when it hit the water. But me and this girl kept on rowing, even though it was in tatters and we were wet and frozen. We got round."

At Aberdeen College studying electrical engineering, Stevie wants to create a company making environmentally-friendly computers. He says: "There are so many harmful chemicals in computers. But there was a study showing these can all be replaced. I've talked to oil companies who seemed interested, but it takes a lot to start a computer company. So I'm here to learn all the skills - marketing, working with people, building teams, business planning - that I'm going to need."

After just one day together on this course, those skills are falling into place, says Ayla, who's going to study law. "We're all different in age, experience and where we come from. But we're going through the same things together. We're doing things we don't want to do and telling each other, `It's OK, I'll do that with you'. So last night, when the girls got together in the dorm, it felt like we'd known each other for ages."

Suddenly, there is a blinding flash of lightning and a crack of thunder, and Dounans Centre and its occupants are drenched by huge raindrops from a summer sky. It's enough to dampen anyone's spirits. But there is always a bright side in business. "It'll keep the midges down," says one young entrepreneur.

Gary McEwan won the Queen's Award for promoting enterprise in 2006

Enterprise North East:


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