There are some business truths all successful entrepreneurs know. These life lessons are hard-won through experience but, learning them is what will take you and your business to the next level.
As CEO of Cazana, the UK’s most popular car checking service, there are six key life lessons that have got me where I am today.
1. There is no one career path
If you’d asked me ten years ago where I’d be in a decade, there’s no way I would have described what I’m doing now. I built my career in business turnaround and pharmaceutical industries – and attempted to keep my rusty classic cars on the road as a hobby. I never thought the two would, or could, merge.
A few years ago I noticed the rapid rises in classic car prices, I wanted to better understand price movements to make savvy investments when buying cars, so I started using classified ads to create my own personal pricing index. This rapidly snowballed into a vast database with over 10 million price movements per year and ended up forming the zygote of Cazana.
What this merging of experiences taught me is that you shouldn’t compartmentalise your life. The skills and knowledge you’re developing outside of clocked-on work hours are just as important as the ones which write your paycheck. And one day, they could too.
I’ve also seen the benefit in bringing skills and techniques from another industry to a sector where they haven’t been used before. There’s no point having imposter syndrome, feeling like you aren’t legitimate, just because you didn’t always belong to a particular field. It’s actually this different background which will be to your greatest advantage, giving you a unique perspective and edge, which can help elevate you above the competition.
2. Don’t turn down opportunities
The new can be scary – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. When presented with an unexpected opportunity, successful entrepreneurs won’t be afraid to test its plausibility and consider it as a serious option. Of course, that’s different to being naive, and business can’t rely on moments of serendipity alone. But true entrepreneurs know that it’s taking hold of chance meetings and ideas which can make all the difference.
This lesson has definitely played itself out in my business experience. At the very start of Cazana a friend moved to begin a car dealership. The knowledge I’d built up of the auto market meant we soon realised that luxury saloons were retailing at a much higher price in his local market than in the UK. This was a perfect opportunity to test out my market data. We began exporting cars to markets where they were worth more and this venture proved highly successful. And it was the first step towards Cazana, as I discovered that my part-time hobby could become my business.
Don’t be sceptical or wary of the fortuitous: it’s not idealistic or foolish to try and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. As long as you properly understand the market you’re entering, and all the associated risks, don’t automatically discount yourself from a new adventure.
3. Don’t let setbacks set you back
It’s natural to face setbacks in any business or career but these don’t have to spell total disaster. Instead, use the experience to refine or re-angle your business plan or reveal new areas you should explore: no experience is wasted.
Setbacks aren’t something I’ve escaped in my business career – but I’m actually thankful for them. Without some dead-ends on the road to success, you won’t know you’re heading in the right direction.
In the early days a setback came in the year we lost two cars in a container at sea. This wiped out our profits for the business but it didn’t wipe out my belief that there were great opportunities in the collecting and provision of vehicle pricing data. Instinctively, I continued to collect my classic car data – that’s why Cazana’s database has over 8 years of historic vehicle movements tracked. It was this data, coupled with my experience selling cars, which allowed me to form Cazana. If it wasn’t for that setback, I simply wouldn’t be where I am now.
Although setbacks aren’t pleasant, they’re not the end of your world. It’s natural to feel disheartened when faced with disappointment or loss, but don’t let this devastate you. Learn from any mistakes and realise that moments of ‘failure’ are also opportunities for change and growth – two things every business needs.
4. Where there’s a need, there’s a way
As any true entrepreneur knows, you succeed where there’s a real need for a product or service. In fact, providing solutions to problems is what business is fundamentally about.
My classic car hobby identified the problem of the sheer lack of data available to both car buying consumers and the car industry as a whole, and not just in terms of classic cars. We’re in a world where everyone has pricing comparison data at their fingertips for consumer goods, electronics, hotels, flights – yet nothing existed for the car market.
My identification of this need, and provision of the solution, is one of the reasons Cazana’s website now attracts over 1 million visitors a month.
When identifying a need to cater to, make sure it is a continued one, experienced by enough people to make your business financially viable. Ask around to see if others are frustrated by the same problem – if they are, that’s a clear indicator you have something. And make sure it’s in an area you can have a real interest in, because even working at your passion can be extremely hard work.
5. Don’t limit yourself
This may be the hardest life lesson to take on board. Believing in the potential of your business and what it could mean for others will not only keep you thinking creatively, but it will be invaluable on the path to growth. Although realism should be your anchor, don’t let preconceptions and misconceptions prevent you and your business from achieving full potential.
For example, in our early ‘bootstrapped’ days, I was sceptical about the benefit external funding could bring to our business. It wasn’t until we had a few hundred thousand customers visiting the site each month, that we started having conversations with VCs such as Origin Capital and Passion Capital and quickly found the backers we’re lucky to have on board today. The right investors bring much more than just capital – our investor team provide valuable advisory input on how to best support our rapid growth. If I could change one thing however, it would be to have sought this support earlier as I’ve found having the right VCs on board can radically change your business for the better.
Learning not to limit myself is a continual process, as Cazana thinks and plans for the future. We’re in an age of exponential growth for technology, innovation and opportunity and the possibilities have never been greater. A horizon is only the limit of our sight – so think beyond it.
6. Don’t get complacent
My final life lesson is that there will always be life lessons to learn, and you need to keep your eyes open to them. Complacency is the death of a business. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time where I will sit back and say ‘we’ve made it’ – but that’s a good thing. In any field, keeping up with the latest trends and developments will mean you become a market leader, not a one-time fad. What are your competitors doing and how can you learn from their successes and mistakes? What market shifts can you see and what are the (however indirect) knock-on effects? These are the questions all successful entrepreneurs ask themselves.
It was this life lesson that I practised most recently, whilst on a special trip to America, organised by the Lord Mayor of London. Cazana is the most popular car checking service in the UK, but I’m not one to rest on my laurels. Refusing to become complacent led to this trip and the signing of our first US partnership, which will greatly increase our overseas revenues.
The essence of business is movement, transferring good and services across vast networks with increasing speed and ingenuity. If you or your company starts to get stagnant you’re simply going to be left behind. Although I don’t have fears for that at present. By the end of this year, Cazana will have data in 40 countries worldwide. What began as a garage hobby is now a global business.
Find out more: Cazana