You need a compelling view and set of values
Inspired by the oil barons of 80s television, Chris Cole found the entrepreneurial bug early, building a £67m business by his early thirties. He is now seeing similar success with his latest venture, Make it Cheaper. He tells his story to the Smith & Williamson Hall of Fame.
For Chris Cole, corporate life never had much appeal. Like many children of his generation, he watched his father’s loyalty to the corporate world repaid with redundancy. He also watched 80s blockbusters Dallas and Dynasty and decided a life where he called the shots looked a whole lot better.
That was fine in theory, but it took him some time to decide which industry he wanted to be in, plus he had just been expelled from school. His first enterprise was a sandwich business. “I started flogging sandwiches to local shops, but my mum and dad looked at my health and safety practices and decided that it probably wasn’t a good long-term option.”
Chris went to college, encouraged by a friend of his father, who was sales director for Cadburys. “I got myself through college and started to look properly at which industry to go into. I went into advertising and, initially, I loved it. But then it started to go in the wrong direction and I didn’t like what I was being asked to do for clients. I joined the graduate Sales and Marketing scheme at Johnson & Johnson. I learned some really good stuff, but it didn’t feel quite right for me.”
His next foray was in recruitment. This stuck and within a few years he had founded Hydrogen Group, which listed ten years later for £67m. He describes himself as the ‘sales brawn’, alongside two other partners. Early on, a conversation with a fellow entrepreneur taught him the importance of establishing a key point of differentiation.
“That was a good lesson. The world had enough recruiters, but we wanted to look at areas of candidate scarcity and solve the problem for clients. We want to act in the right way for all our customers. We wanted to ensure candidates were getting a good deal as well as clients. That meant looking at candidates and treating them well; that is our point of differentiation.” There were also differences on pricing, and Chris sought to establish a good, strong performance culture, ensuring everyone was incentivised to push hard and make the company succeed.
After Hydrogen listed, Chris did two years of a lock-out – a period of time where large shareholders are restricted from selling their shares. While there were upsides of being part of a listed company – it brought different rigour and standards - he was only in his mid-thirties at that stage and enjoyed building businesses. Listing forced a shorter-term view and he felt there were people better to take the business forward.
His next business was Make it Cheaper, now ten years old. He says: “We set it up recognising that small businesses often didn’t get the best pricing and were not well-serviced by utility companies. There was no market dynamic or price comparison. Small business owners were working hard to build their businesses and ending up wasting money that they had worked hard to earn.”
The business helped small businesses get better purchasing power and make decisions about how to source energy, telecoms, insurance and other business services. This is a service readily available to households, but there had been nothing similar for businesses. It was a significant hit, appearing on the Virgin Fast Track three times. Today it has staff around 300-strong, with £30-35m in revenues. ECI Partners recently took a stake in the company, which has helped it to run faster.
Chris has now worked with a number of small business and believes that having a clear point of differentiation is vital: “Why should customers work with you? Why should people in your team work with you? You need a compelling view and set of values. From there it is about working hard and sticking to that vision.”
He also believes business owners need to keep an eye on the spaghetti: “You get new processes all the time as you grow. You need to make sure they are scalable.” Above all, people will make the difference between success and failure: “Go and get the best possible people. A good performer outperforms an average person by 1000% and it certainly doesn’t cost you that much more. So we have always tried to get the best people and reward them properly.”
More success stories