Going All In
The early days of CitNOW
I had an unexpected call recently from my good friend John. He wanted to congratulate me about being brave enough to follow my convictions, starting the automotive video business with Mrs H.
I reminded him that we’d only met many years before in Aarhus (the second largest city in Denmark and John’s home) because he was a business owner, entrepreneur and my Danish distributor for the company I worked for at the time.
I probably never told him then, but I would happily have traded places. He was in control of his own destiny. He ran an efficient, lean business, with never more than two or three employees, a 5-minute drive from his home. He represented a small number of mostly, US software companies, all with innovative offerings, often for the Mac. It meant he could afford to have lean times with one company, take a few wrong turns, while other software continued to sell well. Having a number of market opportunities, allowed him to hedge his bets.
Why are you doing that?
John was less than impressed when I first told him about CitNOW. His first reaction was why would you do that, when the technology is already available for free? But the automotive market are not all as tech-savvy as John and as I also discovered, the technology wasn’t really the point.
In all the years I sold CitNOW, I can count on one hand, the dealers which turned around after my presentation and said they’d do it themselves. Of that handful, at least a third recontacted us later, either because they’d been told to or the good vibes had travelled from a source they trusted. The rest are still telling themselves they have video, they just choose not to use it. And that was the issue I always faced. Every dealer has to take a small leap of faith at some point, introduce a new process and insist that everyone sticks with it. Easier said than done.
Those halcyon early days
There is a picture of me in the kitchen of our rented linked detached in Winnersh, taken by Mrs H. which I can’t find now. I’m sitting at our dining table with an open A4 folder. There are some handwritten notes on my pad, there’s a pen, a phone and I have a broad grin on my face. It was taken in 2008 at the start of the banking crisis, an almighty recession unfolding and our business only a few months old.
We were surviving on a small retainer with Honda UK to manage their TV channel. It was just enough to keep us afloat as we started to explore the idea of live video presentation from dealer to customer. My test dealer was Honda Holdcroft in Stoke-on-Trent. I spent well over a year making at least one return trip a week testing and retesting. When it was working satisfactorily, the rest of my time was spent cajoling the new but mostly used car sales team to use it.
I also did my own live presentations to other prospective dealers. They’d often be going really well, the managers at the other end, not quite believing what they were seeing. But then the picture would freeze and they’d ask me whether that was normal? My heart sank a little as I explained the need to reconnect. We’d be back up and running in a couple of minutes, but the vagaries of broadband or early stage software had hindered my case, at least a little.
It became a revolving door. I managed to sign-up a steady stream of dealers on a 90-day pilot, each paying £200 per month. If they didn’t like it, we’d remove the service after their 3 month trial was over, no questions asked. They left nearly as quickly as they’d arrived. But slowly, we built a small dealer base, who got virtually no support.
What made me go all in?
For many, the position I describe might seem uncomfortable. Better to return to the relative safety of the advertising industry where I’d come from, with all the benefits that brings. But I’d never been truly satisfied.
The truth is my roller coaster ride didn’t feel uncomfortable to me at all. It was part of a journey I was already signed up too, which had been programmed in from a young age.
My father was born in 1923, left school with no qualifications and ended up a buyer of delicious ingredients like cold-pressed lemon oil from Sicily and peppermint oil from Seattle. He worked for a big multinational in the food and flavours industry and his career chimed brilliantly with the rise of the graduate. I watched as my more than capable Dad failed to make the senior management role he wanted and deserved, passed over in favour of much younger greenhorns with degrees in history and sociology.
I’m a massive fan of education, although the irony is not lost on me about the suitability of the new bosses he trained. I also knew that part of my father’s failure was his own lack of belief, ambition and fear to try, taking a different path if the current one was not an option. It was a situation amplified by my mother’s growing disappointment and commentary from the dugout. She was frustrated with her under-performing husband and her inability to reinforce his backbone.
It didn’t take me long to realise that most of the companies I worked for were badly run and inefficient. Unlike many, I wasn’t grateful for my job and I evolved into a bit of a cold-blooded mercenary, moving on quickly when their promises of training, development and progression were really just words for the interview.
I also learnt to embrace failure, painful as that was. My first company was a disaster, with £15,000 of Mum and Dad’s hard earned cash gone inside 3-months, the company gone with it.
What a fool I’d been. I was reminded every month thereafter in my new job, the one where I met John, there is a price to pay, as my standing order went out to pay my debts. That and my Ford Orion, baggage on a 36 month lease, constant reminders of extraordinary poor decision making. Lessons were learnt.
The pain lasted a while
My one regret was waiting too long before I started my next business. The decision was eventually made for me when I was made redundant after 7 years with an ad agency in London. It might not have worked for everyone, but it was the push I needed. I never returned to paid employment again, despite my next company going into administration as well. That had been a very different experience, wrangling with big company broadcasters, one of which finally crushed us.
It was out of the rubble of the second, that the third, CitNOW was born. I drove thousands of miles a year in an old Vauxhall Corsa with no radio going dealer to dealer, thinking a lot and planning. Some days I was selling, others I was training or trying to save a situation and eek another month or two of licence fee with a dealer who was struggling to get started.
I knew I was in a high risk situation, but we were also stable. There was enough coming in to survive with our low overheads. Our product development was limited to one day a fortnight from a small Scottish consultancy. It was all we could afford, and with that we slowly crept forward.
We also knew that the consumer loved it when the dealer made a personal video for a distance sale on a used vehicle. The challenge was set. All we needed to do was overcome a few obstacles and make it happen.