There’s nothing more valuable than experience
For Jamie Waller, founder of JBW, Hito, SMYL and Firestarters, leaving school at 16 and realising he needed to make money was a great lesson and gave him a head start in entrepreneurship. He has spent his life building 'unsexy' businesses. He talks to Smith & Williamson's Hall of Fame about his experiences.
Jamie Waller’s school career ended at 16. It was the mid-1990s, he was dyslexic and teachers were unsympathetic, seeing it as simply a weakness or not being as good academically. This led to a stark choice: find a job – going up against people leaving education with higher qualifications – or finding something to do himself.
There were early signs that entrepreneurship would be the right path. Aged 10, he was running a tuck shop and fixing bikes for money – he had a natural drive to sell to other people. After school, he started a window cleaning round, followed by a second hand car business. When Transport for London painted double red lines outside his car showroom, he had to pack up shop, but it gave him the idea for his major business venture.
He realised that Transport for London was putting infrastructure in place to start fining people, but had no plan in place to collect it. At 21, he started JBW, an outsourcing debt collection service business.
As it turned out, starting early was a notable advantage in entrepreneurship: “What was important (and often overlooked today) is the head start it gives you – those who take the traditional route are two, four years behind when it comes to experience in the workplace. There’s nothing more valuable than experience. When you’ve been busy running a business for six years, it does give you an edge over those that have been in education and are just starting in the workplace.”
Having set up JBW in 2004, he ran it through to 2016. In 2010, he got to a pivotal point and realised he had to change the way he was doing things – he was making £4m in revenues but losing £400,000 per year. Putting his earlier educational experiences aside, he enrolled on the Cranfield School of Management Business Growth Programme. This helped him turn the business around - Jamie sold the majority of the business in 2016 for £24.5m and the remainder in 2017 for £8.75m.
This was the first of his ‘unsexy’ businesses (Jamie has subsequently written a best-seller ‘Unsexy Business’ about running just this type of business). He believes, in the world of entrepreneurship, people have forgotten those solid, need-to-have businesses, focusing instead on ‘cool’ businesses.
“At awards events, there’s often an almost tick box approach: favouring glamorous B2C businesses. But there are B2B businesses that are good, honest businesses – they’re delivering amazing things and delivering shareholder value, but they are overlooked because they’re not in the latest ‘buzz’ category.”
He started an investor fund focused purely on these unsexy businesses. Firestarters was, he says, a “personal mission to change that perception and drive the industry to recognise businesses in a transparent, ethical and inclusive process.
“Because profit is vital – but it seems to be forgotten. I honestly believe that the bubble of 2008/9/10... we are doing it again, now with start-ups. We’ve made it so tax efficient that it’s appealing to start, but difficult to grow, and I think we’re heading to our next big financial disaster. That’s not to say it’s wrong to encourage start-ups, but we need more due diligence.”
That said, he hasn’t been exclusively focused on tough and gritty business. He highlights No. 1 Rosemary Water as his most unusual investment. He was an early investor and admits it sounded like a crazy idea to bring an entirely new health product into the Coca-Cola space. “Reason one for backing it: I was drunk at the time and joked that I heard rosemary is good for a hangover. My friend said, “Have you heard about this new product?” Immediately, I looked it up, realised I’d actually had dinner with David [Spencer-Percival, founder of No.1 Rosemary Water] and he was someone I greatly respected. So that was it. I was in!”
Alongside No.1 Rosemary Water, Jamie has also recently set up a digital technology company with the founder of the mobile parking payment application, RingGo, named SMYL (Speak My Language). SMYL has a mission to improve the way the world communicates through email. A big mission, but we would expect nothing less from Jamie.
Today, he has achieved a balance that wasn’t necessarily possible when he was running JBW. He is focused on deal-making, which he loves, and sees real job satisfaction in helping businesses succeed. It also allows him to spend time with his family. He even has a boat called ‘Balance’ to remind him of its importance.
It has also allowed Jamie to do charity work. As a child he was involved with a charity for disadvantaged children, The Imps, and it had a major impact on his life. “It meant that, unlike others on my street, I got to see other people and see different walks of life for myself. I’m a huge believer that you can get people out of a tough start in life by inspiring them. That’s why I set up the Jamie Waller Foundation – through this, I am personally involved with the Imps Motorcycle Display Team and the Prince’s Trust Enterprise Scheme.”
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