Welcome to the latest in an ongoing series of entrepreneur interviews for The Small Business Blog. These short Q and A sessions are conducted by myself and will feature some of the most exciting figures in the business world.
Our newest interviewee is Chris Cole, managing director of Make It Cheaper, a company that provides a cost-saving service for other SMEs. Having floated his first company, recruitment consultancy Hydrogen, he joined friend Jonathan Elliott to start Make It Cheaper in 2007. Since then, they’ve taken the company from a one-room operation to a business with over 130 employees. Make It Cheaper has now saved UK SMEs more than £300m and had consecutive appearances on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
It all happened in the eighties. I experienced my father losing his job in 1981 and decided I wanted to be in control of my own destiny. Some of my friends’ fathers worked for themselves and I wanted to drive the cars they drove. I wanted to live in Dallas, not EastEnders – and I knew wealth was attainable because my Grandfather had told me stories of people who started successful companies after the war, when times were even more difficult. So, I left school at 17 years old and started selling sandwiches made in my kitchen. I eventually moved into recruitment, setting up Hydrogen Group with some friends, and 10 years later we floated on AIM with a market cap of more than £60 million.
What compelled you to start Make It Cheaper?
We knew that gas and electricity were – and still are – typically among the five biggest overheads for SMEs – and that the odds were stacked against them getting those utilities at a good price. We felt that we could act as the middleman between businesses and energy suppliers and provide a service whereby businesses could not fail to get themselves a favourable deal and minimise the damage that paying for energy does to their P&L. We started with energy but always intended to increase the number of saving opportunities we could provide – and since 2011 we’ve saved more than 7,000 SMEs money on non-energy products, namely telecoms, broadband, mobile phones, chip & pin and business insurance.
What have been the biggest obstacles in running your company?
Running a company is about challenges and opportunities. I think a successful entrepreneur is able to spot more right than wrong opportunities, knows when to cut their losses, is able to learn from mistakes and move on. I think having the tenacity to overcome challenges is critical. No single obstacle stands out – I suppose they vary from sector to sector, company to company. If I had to pick one then I think there are times when the employment law landscape seems to hinder those who want to succeed and contribute – and help those that don’t. I think what’s more important is to learn how to make more good decisions than bad, and to get on and execute your vision.
Name one thing you have learnt while in business, and from who.
I’ve been very lucky because I’ve met many good people and had great mentors. I think the phrase that has stuck with me most is from Charles Dunstone, the founder of Carphone Warehouse. He told me, “my job is to be unreasonable and to make people realise how much they can achieve.”
What are your business and personal goals?
Make It Cheaper is on a mission to save businesses £1billion, globally, by 2018. We are on track at the moment, having passed the £300 million mark. I want to build a business that I and my team can be proud of because it’s seen as a force for good in its sector. I want to enjoy time with my family and help my kids understand that generally you get out of life what you put in. Specifically, I am working through a list of 50 things I want to do by the time I’m 50. Next stop is the British & Irish Lions rugby tour in Australia, with some skydiving, cage diving and sailing thrown in!
Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs?
Set a vision, because if you don’t know where you are going, who else will? And why would people work with you in the early days if they can’t see the bigger picture? Know what you stand for, because then the moral compass of your business can guide your decision-making. Be clear what benefits you offer your customers and be able to articulate them. Finally, I learnt something valuable from a guy who built up his oil and gas company to be worth over £1billion and it happens to be something that chimes with Make It Cheaper’s proposition. He said turnover is vanity, cash flow is sanity and profit is reality – so know your numbers and control your P&L.
Big thanks to Chris and Make It Cheaper for taking the time to participate!