Millionaire entrepreneur turned investor, Jamie Waller had humble beginnings. After quitting school at 16 without any qualifications, facing bullies, and struggling with dyslexia, entrepreneurship was Waller’s solace and saving grace.
His teachers said he’d never amount to anything but Waller proved them wrong, ten times over. Waller started his business empire with a £1,600 bank loan for a window cleaning business and then went into debt recovery.
Now he’s worth over £40 million. Here’s his story.
What does your business do?
Firestarters is a £13 million investment fund for early stage businesses. Our sweet-spot is businesses with a turnover of £2 million to £20 million that require both cash and expertise to scale. In the first 6 months of trading we have invested over £5 million in ‘bread and butter businesses’.
As seductive as the world of tech and flashy apps appear, there’s little stability and is therefore not an attractive investment prospect.
I want to work with traditional businesses that everyday people use. Dry cleaners and dentists are not ‘sexy businesses’ but they are the backbone of the British economy and have stability to flourish with a bit of guidance. That’s what excites me.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I set up, managed and sold businesses myself over 14 years and during that time faced many issues raising finance for growth. Bank debt is difficult to get and in some cases Private Equity is not suitable for the opportunity or the entrepreneur. Firestarters aims to bridge the gap between PE and banking debt by providing growth equity along with expertise.
How did you know there was a market for it?
It’s no secret that SME’s need help and support to grow so for me, there was an obvious gap in the market to fill. Having said that, I am not doing anything revolutionary but hopefully it will boost some brilliant British businesses.
How did you raise funding, and why?
Part of being an entrepreneur means taking calculated risks and that’s why I decided to use £13 million of my own money. I always think you should lead by example and hopefully this makes me a stronger prospect because I’m personally more invested and have risked my own wealth to grow other people’s businesses. Looking ahead to next year, I am considering extending the fund to external investors.
Describe your business model in brief.
Firestarters invests cash and time for equity in SME’s that have a proven business model that can scale. Initial meeting through to investment normally takes three months and along with providing a cash injection, we also invest our time.
The first eight days are spent strategizing and planning and then we commit two days a month for further support.
The aim to is to get a return on our investment within three to five years.
Your lowest point was…
I’ve not yet experienced any low points in this particular business (Firestarters) but like many entrepreneurs I’ve faced challenges throughout my career. In my previous company, securing debt recovery contracts from the government, I was once held at gun-point. It certainly wasn’t my best day in the office but I don’t see the point in getting worked up when things go wrong. Dust yourself down and move forward.
Your highest point was…
Convincing people about the value in not so sexy business models and securing a publishing deal for my first book: Unsexy Business. I can’t disclose too much at the moment but watch this space.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
I left school at 16 without any qualifications and teachers telling me I’d never amount to anything. I had an enormous amount of self-belief and I don’t think I’d be where I am today without it. If you are confident, work hard and have grit and determination, success is yours for the taking. Just graft!
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
In five years’ time, I would like to have exited at least 10 of my Firestarter investments and be operating a new investment fund of £500 million. I am hugely ambitious and want to keep striving to achieve more and more. I guess that’s why I’ve been so successful as an entrepreneur.
If you weren’t an entrepreneur, you would be…
An RAF Pilot. It’s the thrill of the risk and the speed of operation that makes both these jobs attractive.
If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently?
Yes, there’s lots I would do differently, but I don’t tend to waste time thinking about the past. I learn from my mistakes and move on. Never look back.
What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?
Business is just business – don’t get emotional. Also, consistency always wins. In terms of a life philosophy, I’d probably say, life is wonderful and should not be wasted.