For the third in of our series of interviews with Yorkshire business leaders and entrepreneurs, we spoke to Justin Whitson. Justin was brought up in Eccleshill and at the age of 34, he sold his first market-leading business in a multi-million deal. Now, as CEO and Founder of leading global vehicle hire company, Fleetondemand, Justin is on the path to owning Yorkshire’s first unicorn business…
Hi Justin, could you tell us a little about what you were doing prior to starting your business?
Prior to starting Fleetondemand I had founded and created my first market-leading business Nexus. I had sold this company in a multi-million deal at the time of the financial crisis in 2008, so I started investing in commercial and residential property in the UK and overseas. I also created my own technology investment company called Venturelab. In 2011 I began building the new technology that sits behind Fleetondemand. Although I was only 34 at the time of exiting Nexus, that didn’t stop me from moving straight into building new businesses. I then brought Fleetondemand to market in 2012.
What inspired you to launch Fleetondemand?
First and foremost, my ambition. I wanted to go bigger and better. Mobile web and apps were just emerging, and I saw an opportunity in the market that nobody else was doing. My previous technology and company only focused on the UK domestic market, so I challenged myself to do it all over again and go international. It’s not easy but you continually seek inspiration in all areas. Starting again you have to go back to basics and continue learning, being inspired by scaling up, people, employment and seeing customers actually benefiting from what you’ve created. I like to inspire everyone in our business to fulfil their own ambitions and allow everyone to become micro-entrepreneurs in their own right.
In just five years, Fleetondemand has built three technology platforms. Could you tell us a bit more about these?
We started with a new global car rental platform in 2012 which has gone on to become the most widely used platform for companies to hire vehicles globally for their employees. We also built a second technology platform in partnership with The RAC in the UK which underpins around 8,000 RAC business customers. In 2016 we had our breakthrough initiative and saw that the way people are moving, both as business travellers and as consumers was changing. Usership instead of ownership is the trend where we subscribe to everything these days so why not subscribe to transportation? We call this mobility as a service, a kind of Netflix for commuting and travelling. We started building our global mobility platform, Mobilleo, which allows cities globally to combine all modes of transport into one single app and ticket. It works the same way for companies as well, so travellers no longer have separate apps for trains, tube, buses, bike hire, scooters, taxis, car club and car rental. Mobilleo connects them all in one app via subscription or pay as you go.
What would you say have been the biggest challenges you have faced as a company and how did you overcome them?
As an entrepreneur, you face challenges every day. It’s how you react and overcome them that’s important. When I started Nexus at 26 years old, I thought sales meant cash. I soon realised that wasn’t the case when I had half a million pound in aged debt sat on my balance sheet all of a sudden and hadn’t been paid. But I reacted, quickly learned and went out and found the solution.
Your ambition is for Fleetondemand to be Yorkshire’s first unicorn business in ten years. How achievable do you think this is?
We believe with the global appeal of mobility as a service the market opportunity is huge. Every city globally is looking to clean up and reduce emissions. Mobilleo helps this by making public and private transportation services in cities smarter and cleaner. Our belief is that we can become Yorkshire’s first technology unicorn as we continue to scale in the next few years.
Your entrepreneurial journey has been impressive, to say the least. What advice would you give to a young person thinking of starting their own business?
The best bit of advice I can give is that, as an entrepreneur, you face many challenges and have to make countless decisions every single day. You are often stood at a crossroads every time and often have to act quickly using your skill and instinct to choose the right answers.
The key to being a successful entrepreneur is learning from your mistakes. Don’t bury yourself or be afraid to get things wrong occasionally. Pick yourself up, keep focused and get back to the crossroads to put things right. Once you’ve mastered this, I believe most of the time you can get things right and become a leader as well as an entrepreneur.
You’ve won numerous industry awards and accolades over the years but what is your proudest achievement to date?
I’d say my proudest achievement to date is seeing how many people have built successful and rewarding careers that have blossomed from the companies I’ve created. We continue to employee people from all backgrounds and encourage ambition, satisfaction and success whatever that means to our people.
It’s one of the most satisfying things about business success when you bring people with you on that journey and it makes me proud to see those people and their families being part of the business’s success over the years.
You are most certainly one of Bradford’s success stories. Despite having a fascinating history and being home to some of Yorkshire’s most successful business, Bradford city has had a rather negative reputation over the years. Do you think attitudes towards the city are changing now?
I am immensely proud of my background in Bradford. Bradford was a wonderful place to grow up despite its problems. I look across my friendships and wider group of people I know and its incredible how many of my friends at age 15 are still my best friends today. Bradford has a solid heart and people need to love it and what its stands for again.
When I’m back in town and driving down Wakefield Road approaching the city centre there is something about the smoke and skyline that reminds me that I’m home. Bradford needs to reinvent itself. A bit like being an entrepreneur you have to keep reinventing and moving forward. I think that’s what Bradford needs to find it’s USP again and reinvent itself, as it is a great place with great people.
What can we expect from Fleetondemand in 2021?
We have a clear plan to execute in 2021. We will be launching in five European countries during the course of the year, continuing to recruit both locally and overseas and keep moving forward despite the unknown impact of Covid. There’s a great saying I often use: “It’s not which way the wind blows it’s how you set the sails.”We’ve set our sails well heading into 2021.
Finally, what book do you believe all business owners should read?
I would recommend that any business owner should read ‘Confessions of an advertising man’ by the legendary David Ogilvy. His book inspired me to think creatively, be innovative and disruptive in my chosen market to gain an advantage. It also covers lots of important subjects like people management, corporate ethics, office politics and good business practice in general.
Justin has been nominated for The Inflexion Entrepreneur of the Year Award at the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards. The winners will be selected in a virtual ceremony online, on 10th November. Join in here: https://www.nationalbusinessawards.co.uk/en/virtual.html