The 26-year-old entrepreneur talks discounts, bracelets and making millions
Grand as it may seem, it is possible to compare Sir Richard Branson to a Made in Chelsea star. Richard Dinan got to talk entrepreneurship with Sir Richard not so long ago when they caught up at the wedding of Branson’s son, Sam, in South Africa.
As Dinan recounts: “He had started a magazine at 16, I did at 16. We’re both called Richard! I’m a big admirer of his, and of course his empire is something a lot of entrepreneurs aspire to.”
Besides that, you can’t ignore the hair, with both Richards sporting blonde manes that a lion would envy. Dinan has a maverick air similar to Branson, revealing that he built a watchtower, after coming out of a relationship, in his parents’ garden. He boasts of his car collection, including a Gullwing Mercedes and a luxury Mercedes SLS AMG.
Not for nothing does the 26 year-old Dinan describe his life as a “dream world”, where “anything is possible”. Richard Assheton Dermot Dinan does come from aristocratic stock, being the son of Lady Charlotte Curzon and Captain John Dinan, an executive headhunter. His grandfather, Francis Curzon (a.k.a. Earl Howe), won le Mans. His cousin, Cressida Bonas, is Prince Harry’s girlfriend.
But we’re here to talk business, not background. Dinan has two major projects underway – his Phantom Card membership discount scheme and the Senturion Key.
I’ve come to Dinan’s Fulham headquarters to check out his operations. I’m initially struck by one thing in the expansive 3,000 square foot complex: there are only two people in, with no sign of Dinan.
Luckily, Dinan’s long-time business partner, Alex Nall-Cain, is on hand. Sharply dressed, the 28-year old was once named Tatler’s “Babe of the Month”. He’s also the son of Lord Brocket, infamous for being sent to prison for burying his Ferraris in an insurance fraud. Nall-Cain tells me how they moved Phantom Card from St James’ Park down to Fulham as the property prices meant they were “operating the world’s most expensive call-centre…we had no reason to have such a fancy office with marble floors, concierge and views over London”.
Suddenly, Dinan arrives! Dashing in from a boxing lesson, the bouffant entrepreneur, still sporting his jogging bottoms, launches into the tale of how he started his discount card scheme.
Starting with £400 of personal investment from Dinan, the pair managed after three months to raise £55,000 from two Australian investors, and a further £1m six months later from the Swiss fund Everest Wealth.
What on earth possessed them to take on other discount firms, given Groupon and Taste London would have their own plans to offer deals? Sheer confidence. “When you see a business and you know you could do it better. We had a pretty strong feeling that everything about our competitors we could do better,” says Dinan.
Phantom Card enjoyed a boost in signing an advertising deal with Flybe Airlines. The Phantom Card has been advertised on the back of every seat of their 77 aircraft for nearly two years, with passengers facing an image of Dinan and Nall-Cain posing with the card. They initially had to pay Flybe a fee for the promotion but have managed to move up into a profit split, with cards being sold on-board.
The personal inclusion of “Richard from Made in Chelsea” has a social media benefit, as Flybe passengers take photos and send them on to Richard on Twitter after spotting him. “I get these messages and I just retweet them, promoting me, Flybe and Phantom Card in one!” he laughs.
What are Phantom Card’s other promotion plans? Dinan and Nall-Cain are rather shrewd in deciding on TV advertising as the focus.
Nall-Cain says: “The worry for a lot of companies is that the TV advertising is a big expense when you could go into a magazine for a couple of hundred quid and take out a page. You could blanket London for a grand with flyers! The reality is if you blanketed London, you’d be lucky if sold two cards!
“If you blanketed London with flyers, you’d be lucky if sold two cards!”
They put out a “viral” advert, which is certainly attention-grabbing. Like their Flybe ads, Nall-Cain and Dinan both feature in the video too – but in this case in a cameo background shot.
Brash in style it may be, but you can see the spin Phantom is trying to put on discounts: it’s cool to get things cheap.
Phantom Card Viral Advert
People seem to have bought the message, with the pair saying Phantom Card is on track to have one million members signed up to its discounts by the end of 2014. According to the pair, it is also posting an annual turnover of around £750,000.
The card works with you having to buy a year’s pass for £40, or pay £2 per deal. You can arrange and pay for the deal through your phone or online. “You don’t have to wait five days to get one. Here it’s instant,” Nall-Cain adds.
Have the pair made any mistakes in getting the business off the ground? The only one they freely admit is how they went about designing their website and phone app to access Phantom Card discounts.
— Lisa Donnelly (@LisaDonnelly33) April 9, 2013
Nall-Cain says: “This app took 10 to 12 hours to create and for that it cost £17,000. If you put this and our website together in the cost, we could have had a top in-house web designer for a whole year, easily! It’s expensive, untimely and just a pain in the arse to be honest!”
From riches to riches?
Dinan can safely be called a millionaire, although he won’t put an exact figure to his net worth, being terribly British on the subject of money. You can get an idea from his car collection and the references he drops to things like “my house in France”.
It’s tempting to brush off his success due to aristocratic heritage. But the pair quickly slap down any idea that they relied on their parents’ wealth for success.
“I absolutely promise you I’ve never received more than £100 a week from my parents.
“I’ve never received more than £100 a week from my parents….it’s the same as a benefit…the minimum benefit you can get.”
“I know that’s quite a lot, but it’s the same as a benefit! It’s £100 a week, the minimum benefit you can get. From that to having hundreds and hundreds and hundreds at my disposal is a satisfying leap.”
Powerfully put, but I shy away from pointing out that the minimum benefit may be off the mark, with job-seekers’ allowance at £56.80 for under 25s and £71.70 for those above that.
Despite the pair’s rush to burnish their self-made credentials, they are respectful of people who’ve had financial backing from their parents.
“It’s not a criticism to them but I see also people who have a lot of money at their disposal who work f*cking hard too. I think it’s a mindset. You see people who come from nothing and they’ve done so well,” says Dinan.
Made in Chelsea: mixing business and romance
With Dinan busy building up his businesses, some may wonder why he chose to join the Channel 4 reality TV show “Made in Chelsea” in 2012.
He set tongues wagging in the press with his romancing in series three, culminating in him whisking a girl by helicopter to dinner in a restaurant specially emptied out for their hot date.
Dinan is all too aware of his lothario reputation: “In the first series I got heavily into the relationship side of things. That was a good experience but I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. I think I wouldn’t want to become too involved in that, I want to keep the business part down.”
Why did he sign up to the show if he wants to be known for his business? “I love working for myself. In the beginning when things weren’t going so well, I thought if things don’t turn around, I’m going to have to get a haircut and ask my friends if they know anyone who has got a job going. I know this is what I want to do.”
“I thought if things don’t turn around, I’m going to have to get a haircut…”
Dinan points out that he has gained more followers than many businesses on Twitter, with a personal audience of nearly 43,000. His Twitter account was given a valuation of $50,000 by an American analyst, and Dinan boasts that he has “more followers than Flybe, and that is because of the show and it’s definitely an asset.” (In fact he has more than twice the followers of Flybe, which has 14,000.)
Social media savviness aside, wouldn’t Dinan find his Made in Chelsea role, with all the inevitable media gigs and party invites, hamper his ability to do business?
He fires back: “Why would I want to go to them?” Realising the danger of talking himself out of future invites, Dinan clarifies that it’s the ones about business he likes: “A lot of them are hair competitions. All the business ones are great and you do meet much more people, which is always a positive.”
Wth Dinan’s business ventures taking off, how long does he have left on the show? The first episodes of series five of Made in Chelsea have lacked Dinan’s presence, and the website doesn’t list him among the main “guys”.
He admits that he has “moved out of Made in Chelsea a lot”, musing that “a lot of people keep going back because they want more, it’s addictive.”
Dinan develops an unexpectedly business-laden analysis of his involvement: “The first series I did was series three; I really went for it and got the experience. But a lot of them don’t have exit strategies, it’s just keep going, keep going!”
“I’m trying to make a LOT of money. [My ventures] are definitely not for these young people that watch Made in Chelsea.
“There’ll be another TV show after that, and another after that. It’s a cycle!” But Dinan is refusing to confirm how long he’ll stay on the show as “that is between me and them [the producers]”.
Dinan freely admits his business interests aren’t for the Made in Chelsea audience, saying: “I’m trying to make a LOT of money I don’t think these young people that watch Made in Chelsea are going to go, ‘There’s a bracelet that opens my car door!’ It’s definitely not for them.
Senturion: “it has to work every time”
Alongside the Phantom Card’s world, the pair’s latest project – the Senturion Key – is a real leap. Especially when it’s handled by their company with the hard-core title “Asset”, a.k.a “Armour Surveillance Security Equipment and Technology”.
The product came onto the scene in a Made in Chelsea show, with Dinan seizing the opportunity to show off his new product on the show: “I was like f*ck yes! If I said no, it might not happen. We got a design mocked up because you have to say yes, there is no ‘no’!”
Cue a madcap dash to get Senturion in TV-ready form, with Dinan resorting to last-minute DIY with a metal bracelet bought from Portobello Road.
With theatrical flourish, Dinan recounts: “We drilled a hole in it and I looked in my Sky TV box for the blue Sky thing in it and stole the LED from it and was like this could open my car! I knew that I’d have to do the catching-up later.”
But now the pair have the finished article, after spending “a lot of money” on 3D printing, weighing, testing, feasibility studies and checking the bracelet antenna is working.
Nall-Cain grumbles: “You’d think making a bracelet is easy… there’s a book written on the size and shape of the human wrist! The poor b*stard who actually did this had to read the book before even starting with the metals that the signal can go through and the rubbers with the right density.”
Dinan is evidently proud of his new product, saying he’s going to have his office fitted with Senturion-friendly locks. “I’m so fed up, it has ripped a hole in the leather seat in my car!”
What about the target demographic? Despite the ramshackle first look on Made in Chelsea, Senturion is geared for the tip of the top as a bespoke product.
After some initial beating about the bush, Dinan lets on that the bracelets would be for “more of a Hublot market”, referring to the makers of the world’s most expensive watch, the “$5 million”.
By way of explanation, Dinan adds that Yale locksmiths will come over to install two locks for you and “we pay for that”. It’ll be in the “rough region of about £1,600”.
“We’re talking the rough region of about £1,600. Watches aren’t much more expensive!”
What’s the potential behind Senturion? Dinan says he’s “talking to some very big funders who are interested” and has “a few other designs in the pipeline”.
Dinan’s “doom and gloom” on British politics
Straying onto politics, Dinan scowls: “I don’t really want to get into the doom and gloom on my thoughts on British politics, I get so depressed”.
Obviously he likes the London Mayor, who is a “character” and “refreshing”.
Dinan goes on to sketch a rather libertarian outlook, preferring to keep to his wealth and his “island”. “I’m not sitting there trying to work out what politics are going to affect my own fortune.”
I remind Dinan that he is quoted in the Evening Standard as “a fan of the Prime Minister”, which seems to set him off on talking politics.
The Made in Chelsea star has watched Prime Minister’s Questions, which he relishes as Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “weekly beating”.
“I do enjoy Miliband’s weekly beating…”
In an impassioned mini-speech on the woes he feels businesses are feeling, Dinan does reveal an unexpectedly harsh view about his staff relying on his firm’s “infinite massive bottomless pit of money”.
“There is this thought process today which I really resent that if you’re an employee, the big nasty companies owe you salary…they owe you money.
“If we’re not busy, [the staff] are gone. And I’ll be pretty ruthless about it. If we don’t need you, you’ll have your set warning but you are out of here and I’ll be just as ruthless as the government are with us.”
“Because I know how ruthless they are with me, I am so ruthless with who we employ. They say, ‘Oh I deserve security,’ – well, we deserve security!
“What do you think we do? We’ve just been handed by some force a company and a bit of money that you pay these people with… it’s not the case! We are working as well, what about us? You didn’t give me warning, well we were not given warning but we weren’t paid anyway!”
Dinan’s fury about taxes spurs me to ask if he would back the message of a party like UKIP, who major in calling for “low taxes”. As soon as I mention UKIP in asking the question, Dinan is nodding along in recognition, but his answer is rather more cautious.
Does it interest him? “UKIP does….”, he pauses. “You know what, I don’t want to say this in an interview but…. So I won’t!”
I jump in and ask him to finish that sentence. Dinan squirms in answer: “It’s not UKIP, I think the more of an island you become in business, I want to rely less and less on politics and law and what I’m handed by the government”.
Dinan hints that he could move elsewhere: “I want to be totally my own person and I will not restrain myself just to England. If you start to succeed here, politicians are almost driving you away.”
Where would he move? “I don’t know but we’ll see. I’m absolutely South Africa mad – it’s like England 50 years ago.” So it’s not a tax flight? “I think it’s just the way of life”.
“The more times you go around the racetrack, the better your time”
Dinan may be gloomy about British politics, but he’s upbeat about his future doing business here.
Needless to say, he and Nall-Cain find the Senturion project “quite exciting”, with Dinan saying there are a “lot of adaptations” possible. “It’s not just a one-off”.
Meanwhile, Phantom Card is set to keep growing, especially thanks to the “huge data mine” about their customers they’re sitting on.
The other reason for Dinan’s optimism is a ruthless confidence matched with a Branson-like “screw it, let’s do it” attitude. He’s not afraid of admitting his first entrepreneurial ventures, like “Ammunition” magazine at the age of 16, ended up failing as he “couldn’t keep up the upsurge in sales”.
But with such failures, Dinan portrays himself as a quicker, more agile entrepreneur. “Now I can register a company in 10 minutes. That is basic stuff. You want a web designer, we’ve got ones we like, ones we don’t and ones we know.
“We can get what takes some people six months [to get] when they start a business,” Dinan beams. “We can get it – pow! – now. We don’t want to waste time. We can accelerate now.”
Nall-Cain concludes: “As they say, the more times you go around the race track, the better your time!”
In Dinan’s case, you know he’s got a lot more fuel in the tank.
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