Founders Diaries: "Know who to trust and be confident when pitching" says WhoCanFixMyCar.com's Alistair Preston
11 min read
12 June 2018
Founder Alistair Preston shares the ups and downs of running his fast-growth business, WhoCanFixMyCar.com, including what to watch for when seeking investment.
Founder: Alistair Preston, WhoCanFixMyCar.com
Turnover: Precise numbers are confidential but we are generating circa £3m of turnover for our garages each month.
In a sentence
WhoCanFixMyCar.com (WCFMC) is the biggest online marketplace in the UK connecting drivers with locally-rated independent garages, mobile technicians, franchised dealers and fast-fit chains.
Your business model
We have over 11,500 UK garages registered on our platform. Drivers come to the platform to post inquiries for servicing and repair work. Drivers then compare quotes and reviews before choosing a garage and booking online. We charge businesses a modest annual subscription fee which allows them to be visible on the platform and provide quotes to drivers. The garage that receives the booking then pays a small commission. If a business is paying lots of commission it means their workshop is full of our drivers – there is practically no wastage in the business model.
Your business legacy
WCFMC was the first business to actively bring garages online in big numbers. Via our platform, thousands of garages have been able to reach and build relationships with customers that they ordinarily would never have reached. Those garages have built hugely positive, highly visible track-records on the platform that will protect and provide for them so long as WCFMC is in existence. We hope to be remembered as the first business to do this fairly and at significant scale.
How do you measure success?
Our success is measured by the number of drivers posting work on the platform as well as successful bookings. We are currently receiving circa 60,000 requests from drivers per month.
Growth plans for the year
We are focusing on continuing our current UK growth rate, having doubled volumes since the end of 2017. We will serve our millionth customer in the first half of this year and will likely be processing a further million drivers in 2019 alone. We have some great strategic partners in the supply chain with international interests and there is appetite from them to recreate our activities overseas – watch this space.
How did you fund your business
The business was launched thanks to a small group of angel investors who we know well. This allowed us to set up the platform, build the network and establish proof of concept. Subsequently we raised further funding via a boutique private equity house, Active Partners in London.
The core platform has undergone significant iterations through its short life. Looking back, moving to a responsive platform (looks and behaves like an app on a mobile phone) gave us far better conversion on both sides of our marketplace – today we see 80% of drivers use the platform from a mobile or tablet. Similarly, the platform took another big step forward when we evolved our garage-facing trading platform, allowing it to handle larger volumes as the business scaled. Volumes have grown 10x since then and we are looking to further future proof the platform’s usability to handle the next uptick in demand.
In five years…
We want to become the ‘go to’ place for car servicing and repairs in the UK. We’ve made a good start and will hopefully finish the job in the five years (or even sooner!). Historically there has been a huge amount of inertia in the automotive/mobility sector.
Your highest point was…
We held our second annual Garage Awards Dinner in February this year. We had over 200 people there from all over the space: garage owners and their families, technicians, sponsors, strategic partners – it was a great evening. Seeing how proud the winners were made us realise how far we had come with the platform.
Your lowest point was…
We were fundraising a few years ago and were invited to present WCFMC to a high profile, Mayfair-based VC. The pitch went well and the senior partner hosting us took pages and pages of notes whilst quizzing us extensively around the inner workings of the platform. We also shared an extensive investment deck and financial model in good faith. I followed up afterwards, but heard nothing back on email or by phone, despite me chasing repeatedly. Unbeknownst to us, this investor had already agreed to fund (€5.9m) a direct WCFMC competitor who were entering the UK from Scandinavia.
The news hit the tape a few weeks later and I remember it really knocking the wind out of me. It was a real lesson in knowing who to trust and being confident enough to directly ask a potential funder whether they had any conflict in your space. We had no choice but to roll up our sleeves, with no significant investment, and out-box that competitor over the next 18 months until they packed up and went back to Scandinavia.
What would tell your younger self
I was very lucky in my previous career (financial markets), things worked out well for me, so I have no regrets there. But looking back at the beginning of our WCFMC journey, I would tell my younger self to be prepared for a lot of ups and downs and that successful businesses are not delivered overnight, they take A LOT of hard work and focus.
Your policy wish list
With regards to safeguarding competitiveness in our industry, we would like to see continued freedom of choice for UK drivers in terms of where they can repair their car in its warranty period. The existing legislation (EU Block Exemption) expires in 2023 and I do fear the UK will be even further away from any renegotiation when the Brexit process is fully calcified.
Your biggest piece of advice to other entrepreneurs
Make sure you understand your market size, its pain points and whether there is room for your product. If the market is crowded, it will be difficult to break in. If the paint points aren’t acute enough, then the product’s ability to make a difference will be limited – I often see new products launch that are ‘nice-to-have’ but just aren’t going to revolutionise a market, therefore take up is poor and ultimately, they struggle.
My weakness is, and has always been, cars. I currently have a 2002, low-mileage, S54 Z3M Coupe in Laguna Seca Blue – I keep in storage and it’s gone up in value since I bought it two years ago – sadly the same can’t be said for the other 12 cars I’ve owned over the last 12 years!
What would make you a better leader?
Leading by example and delivery one’s own results is fine, but only to a certain point. I think making time to carefully manage a team in an early stage business is extremely important. It’s easy to keep thinking of yourself as a start-up but then suddenly you have 35 people in the business who look to management for feedback and support. We recently carried out an extensive and formal appraisal process and it has been incredibly helpful in sharpening the mind around proper leadership.
The one app you use the most
It’s much maligned and a bit cliché but LinkedIn has been a useful tool in opening doors and facilitating introductions with some great customers and partners over the last few years. There is a lot of drivel on there, but every now and then it turns up something worthwhile!
A day in your life
Given the early-stage nature of WCFMC, it feels like I am still a few years away from having anything resembling a traditional daily routine – the only constant is that the days are usually very long! I am usually office-based with our marketing team in London, other weeks I am in the car on the way to see customers and partners all over the country often staying overnight. This industry, like so many others, is driven by relationships and regular face-to-face contact with our key customers and partners cannot be understated.
On your reading list right now
It might sound strange but I don’t tend to read a lot of leadership or entrepreneurial books as my mind would start to race and I would struggle to unwind outside of work! But one book I did fall into was Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs. The peaks and troughs of his accomplishments blew my mind and was made even more poignant given you knew the ultimate ending.
On your watch list right now
Tough one…Rocky IV and Friday Night Lights.