National Business Awards Entrepreneur finalist focus: Car Loan 4 U, James Wilkinson

Tell us about your business.
My partner Ryan Dignan and I realised that the way finance was offered to customers didn’t give them the best deal. They didn’t get choice or transparency, and sometimes the experience of applying there at the dealership wasn’t positive. We wanted to disrupt the industry and offer a new, customer focussed finance service. So we set up Car Loan 4U to offer finance before customers went to the dealership, so they could shop knowing they had finance secured. As this was a completely new model, we had to persuade lenders to change their systems to give approvals to customers before they had a vehicle. We knew that combining this with excellent customer service would give people a much better, hassle free car buying experience that they’d value. That was in 2005, and initially it was just us with a small presence on Google picking up business from people who’d been declined at the forecourt. Our model worked, and now in 2014 we have over 200 employees with a fantastic customer satisfaction rating (98% of customers would use us again) and we’re continually improving our technology to deliver a world-class customer experience.

How did you fund your business?
My partner Ryan and I self-funded Car Loan 4U for 8 years, literally with £70,000 of credit card and personal debt until we started to turn a profit. It was scary and stressful at times but we always believed in our vision. In 2013 we decided to start looking for investment, because we decided that to really disrupt the market on a big scale we needed to raise funds, so we met with a selection of investors. It was a long process, to make sure that we found the right investor who believed in what we were doing and had tech and digital expertise to help us shape the business. It led to Scottish Equity Partners investing £8 million in us, which was secured at the start of this year. This was one of the most exciting moments in our history, and will allow us to push the business to the next level. Looking back it’s quite an achievement that we built an £11.5 million business on £70,000 of personal debt.

What is the biggest challenge entrepreneurs are facing?
From my experience, the practical bits like getting funding, finding premises, hiring staff etc have not held us back. We never considered these challenges, and for us they weren’t. I believe this is because we had an idea which addresses a problem. We were never trying to copy something else, we weren’t adding to an overcrowded market – we were disrupting a market and creating a new service. If you believe in what you’re doing and have a clear vision, it’s easier to get others to buy into it. People want to be part of a success story and make money, if you have a plan to do that and you know your market size and what you can do, others will believe in you. So the challenge is getting that initial idea and inspiration, finding a solution to a problem and creating a unique proposition.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
Don’t do it because you want to run a business. Do it because you have a vision, an idea or a passion that you believe in. For me and Ryan, it was a belief that the car finance market lacked transparency and wasn’t serving customers as well as it could, and needed to be disrupted. We saw the shift to online buying and that customers were becoming savvier about comparing deals, but there was no opportunity for them to do this with car finance. We wanted to change that and dedicated ourselves to it. The early stages of starting a business can be hard, you need to have that end goal in mind, that passion to change something or offer something brilliant, to give you the motivation to keep going. You need to make an impact and a difference. Just don’t exist. Know what you want to achieve from the outset and if it’s achievable based on things like market size. Decide, do you want a lifestyle business to support your family? Or do you want to be huge? If so, be prepared to take risks and think about what you could achieve if you couldn’t fail.

How do you think we can encourage entrepreneurialism in young people to create a generation of entrepreneurs?
One of the most helpful things for my journey as an entrepreneur has been joining Vistage, to interact with other business leaders and experts. I think if young people could have similar groups for interacting with genuine entrepreneurs, with the chance to ask questions, listen to experience and be inspired by real stories, they will benefit hugely. They’ll realise that it’s achievable for them, and also learn how to plan and overcome practical obstacles, and hopefully discover their identity and vision as an entrepreneur. If we could make groups like Vistage more affordable or available to young people I think it would help us nurture the next generation of leaders.