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

Describe your background and journey into the business world

My initial dream when I left school at 16 was to try and make it as a professional footballer, but although this didn’t go to plan, it gave me a good grounding at such a young age.

Luckily, I’d always had a passion for business and in 2006 started up Car Loan 4U when I was 24 alongside Ryan Dignan. With the way the internet was growing, we believed that there was a huge market opportunity for us to expand the business to offer car finance online, but we had to stick to our conviction that it was going to take off.

How did you fund your business?
We started Car Loan 4U only on personal debt; we had no outside funding and at one point, we’d taken out a combined £76,000 on personal credit cards. When we set-up the business, it was as a means to make a living and we were quite naive, but in hindsight, this also worked in our favour as we were fearless. I think when you don’t have too many commitments at a young age you take the approach of having nothing to lose, but ultimately our fearless attitude proved the springboard for the company’s growth.

How are you managing the challenges associated with starting up your own business?
Like every business, you are always going to encounter challenges, but our aim is to always come away stronger. For us, the prime example was in 2008 during the recession when we were still in the early stages of establishing Car Loan 4U.

In this respect, we knew that we needed to change our business model to suit the market and while a lot of companies were making redundancies, we thought it was a good time to make our employees feel secure and continued to recruit people who had unfortunately been redundant elsewhere. We wanted to make sure that we came out of the recession better prepared than any of our competitors to take advantage of the market.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
The key piece of advice I would give to others is to know what you want to achieve before you set out. On top of that, you need to have a clear defined strategy that all the company are aligned with. I am a great believer of having the company’s values, vision and strategy embedded into the culture and this has definitely been a key success factor for Car Loan 4U.

I also think there’s a key link between a happy workforce and happy customers. When I tried to make it as a footballer, I played for some terrible managers in the lower leagues who used fear as a means of managing. From an early age, I knew that wasn’t how I wanted to manage people; listening, support and encouragement are the only way for me.

How do you foster innovation throughout your business?
I’d say that my train of thought on innovation at the company has been to constantly recruit people that are better than me. It sounds like a novel approach, but this has really helped us to be successful by getting the right people across the board to help us achieve our goals.