Interviews

Jamie Waller thinks we should all appreciate unsexy businesses more

7 min read

16 February 2018

Former editor

Having cut his teeth in the debt collection world and then moved into finance, Jamie Waller knows a thing or to about the more under-appreciated industries operating in the UK.

He’s been a serial entrepreneur and now helps other businesses flourish through his investment company Firestarters. However, in a world which he believes overly celebrates tech startups and the ability for a CEO to raise money, Jamie Waller gives Real Business his thoughts on what really counts – namely profit.

Jamie Waller, please tell us a little bit about your entrepreneurial background

My first business was a window cleaning business when I was just 17. I had a car sales yard by the age of 18 and at 22 I started a debt recovery business which I later walked away from due to a shareholder dispute.

At 24 I was into business number four, I built it up and then sold it in 2016 for over £30m. I then formed a fintech business and sold that in 2017 for nearly £10m.

Since early 2017 I have been building my investment business, Firestarters. I am now an investor in over 12 businesses which together have a combined turnover of over £100m.

Why did you decide to go into the debt collection business?

The government was introducing red route and congestion charging and this was going to create lots of work for the industry. It seemed like a no-brainer. It is like those today who are advising on GDPR. The government introduces a new compliance theme and a number of businesses are created overnight.

Were you worried about its negative connotations?

Of course, I was but I was previously a car salesman so I was used to that. I knew that facing the negativity head on would prove profitable and that’s what I did. I stood up and said “I am here to change the industry”, and it worked.


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What were the biggest challenges to getting your business to a point where you could sell them?

Profits. Anyone can build a business that sells stuff and does not make a profit. That’s not clever. What’s clever is building a business that makes the shareholders a return. It’s a shame most current entrepreneurs don’t understand this.

What have you found is the hardest part of exiting a business?

I haven’t. Business is business to me, no emotions whatsoever.

Why didn’t you want to go back and start another company after Hito?

I did! I launched an investment company called Firestarters, which helps early-stage businesses grow. I am now as busy as I was at Hito but help over 12 companies grow rather than just one. It’s amazing and I love it.

What do you look for when making growth equity investments?

A business model that can scale, an entrepreneur that has grit and understands the importance of profit and a good gut instinct that the investment is the right thing to do.

How does being an investor compare with starting and growing your own companies?

It requires a different skill set. I now need to advise, teach and assist – rather than do. It has been a learning curve for me but I love a challenge and my passion for business is what gets me up in the morning. I also get to work from anywhere in the world rather than in an office. Right now I am 2,200m up in the French mountains while skiing for a month. Work-life balance is really important to me.


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Why do you think it’s important to support what you call “non-sexy” industries?

Because the world has gone mad on sexy apps, sexy social channels and sexy businesses. Just look at the host of annual business awards and you will see that the majority of the winners are business to consumer brands and the next big tech vision.

What’s wrong with being a successful cleaning company, a coffee shop or a building firm? These businesses employ UK citizens, pay UK taxes and more importantly understand the basics of business and profitability. I love unsexy businesses and personally find profit very sexy.

How has being an entrepreneurial success changed from when you set up your first business to now?

Entrepreneurs are celebrated now when they raise money. Just pick up the business tabloids and see what I am talking about. “X” raises £4m, “Y” raises £20m – and so on. It’s crazy behaviour. Entrepreneurs (if you can call them that) are spending 90 per cent of their time fundraising and burning investors cash. Real entrepreneurs are building businesses not bank balances through investment.

When I started out you put your money on the line, your house and your time. It keeps you very focused when you have everything to lose and it massively increases your chance of success.