©2017 by Tartle Ltd

Startup story: 'You need a degree to do our job' - words that led a plucky kid from a mining town to success

June 29, 2017


It was 1996 and 17-year-old Nathan Nagel was in Slough. If that wasn't bad enough, he was also bleeding in the street. A drug dealer had set a dog on him after Nathan had knocked on his door in the hope of selling the homeowner gas and electric.


He said: "I wanted to run away but I knew if I didn't make any sales that day, I couldn't afford to feed myself, so I patched myself up and carried on knocking with a bloody leg."


Nathan started life in "shitty" Mansfield which, decimated after pit closures in the late 80s, had never recovered. Crime was high, and ‘opportunities’ were factory work or the dole.


He left school at 16 and fled to London where he began his working life as a self-employed door-to-door salesman, living a nomadic life in B&Bs. Only Nathan, whose entrepreneurial nous was already shining through, signed up to sell products and services for four different companies.


"I knew that if someone didn't want new guttering, they might be tempted to buy kitchenware, DVDs, or utilities so I'd knock once and always find something sell them," he said.


On his rounds in London and Berkshire, which would last three years, he clocked several young women in sharp suits getting into expensive cars and wondered what they did. When he finally plucked up the courage to ask one, the snotty response was: "I'm a drug rep for Pfizer, but you need a pharmaceutical degree to do this job."


That did it. Indignant and determined, Nathan faxed off applications to all the pharma companies he could find, and despite lacking a degree, or even A-levels, one company – which had a trainee programme – said if he could pass their graduate level entrance exam within 12 months, they'd take him on.


He said: "I'd sell during the day, and study for the exam at night. The fact I'd left school so young didn't seem to hold me back. It was Mark Twain who said 'never let schooling get in the way of a good education'. I knew I was bright, so I decided to teach myself."


His studies paid off and Nathan passed his exam aged 20. True to their word, the company hired him as a cardio-vascular specialist in metabolic medicine. By 23, Nathan was running his own team, and by 26 he was an international manager.


Later, upon being made redundant following an acquisition, he used social media to set up an oncology pharma services business from his laptop. He started by connecting 30,000 oncologists, R&D directors and scientists from all over the world via a LinkedIn group.


"I would email pharmaceutical firms and ask what they needed doing, whether that was headhunting interims, or undertaking research studies. I'd then call on the pool of global talent in the group and pull together the best brains for the job, making a 30% margin," he said.


"At one point, I was project managing some the world’s most brilliant cancer scientists to write a report on brain cancer."


After that, Nathan turned his hand to venture capitalism, before co-founding a biotech company in association with Oxford University and a Professor of Neuroscience. He recalls: "It was one of the highlights of my career. They didn't care about my lack of qualifications - only that I could deliver. With the team’s connections, I was able to go to House of Lords for meetings and networking, something I never dreamed I’d do."


Nathan was later headhunted to be an interim MD for a liver disease company in the USA. ‎Back in the UK now, he is a board adviser to growing SMEs. He continues to self-educate, and is now working towards becoming a Chartered Director with the Institute of Directors.


When asked where he wants to be in five years, Nathan, now 38, is looking forward to marrying fiancée Francesca and to undertaking a portfolio of non-executive director positions to support SMEs.


Nathan's nose for an opportunity and lack of fear is a running theme when you look at his career background. He's a furious networker, and canny at self-PR. It helps he's also great fun and delightfully potty mouthed.


When I asked who inspired him, he said: "I can't think of anyone. I've had to succeed all on my own out of necessity. It was that, or find a really rich older woman to marry, but that didn't sound like much fun."



Tartle Media will be featuring more stories of inspiring entrepreneurs. Please follow our LinkedIn page for the next instalment.


Emily connected with Nathan Nagel through the Institute of Directors' network for under 40s, the IOD99.





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