Talking entrepreneurship… with Alec Dobbie

Often, stories about entrepreneurship focus on extreme examples of companies going from nothing to stratospheric overnight.

The startup bubble makes it easy to envision the classic Silicon Valley path which sees millions in investment in your idea on day one and no looking back, but the growth journey for many companies is about being realistic as you strive for success, overcoming challenges and getting back up when you take a knock.

At FanFinders, we began life with starting capital of £1500 and now have over 4 million parents signed up on our self-coded data platform, employ 28 people and operate in two continents.

In the first of our series delving into the realities and motivations behind entrepreneurship, we put a few questions to our CEO and Co-Founder Alec Dobbie:

What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?

I sold toy matchbox cars. I collected them from car boot sales and put them up on top of a stone wall outside of my parents’ house and tried to sell them to anyone who wandered down our cul-de-sac. I guess you’d call it a ‘pop-up’ shop now. As you can imagine, it doesn’t get too busy down a cul-de-sac in Lancashire, so I think what ‘demand’ did appear may have been created by my parents ringing people up.

What were the personal ambitions behind launching FanFinders?

Beyond the quest to reduce data list-selling, spamming and to put the power of controlling where their information goes in the hands of mums, I was motivated to build a working environment that was actually nice. Enjoyable and fun, but productive. Which is an atmosphere that suits me too.

When did you begin mapping out the business?

Day one. You obviously have to test out things, but you already have it in your mind where you want to be after a year or two. That said, your idea of where you’re going to be a in a year isn’t realistic, because you will hit a few bumps in the road. You may think the path of gold is in one direction, but when a business is young, it gives you an opportunity to pivot and try a new, better idea. There’s no point in writing huge 5-year business plans, especially in digital, because you don’t always know what the future holds and what you might discover along the way.

The most exciting minute of your entrepreneurial journey so far?

Your Baby Club reaching 1 million sign-ups. It’s significant when you’re in a country of over 65 million and you get over 1%.

What’s the secret to day-to-day productivity?

Learn to really use your time. Outside of the 9-5, it’s about those extra moments when you get up early, check emails and respond to problems quickly. It’s doing stuff in a timely manner, so you never end up with a pile of tasks and not enough time to complete them all.

What’s the most inspirational entrepreneurial book you’ve read?

Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. There is a lot in there about losing your ego and concentrating on the important things, not just ‘you’.

Do you think people are ‘born entrepreneurs’ or made?

People are made into entrepreneurs by their experiences. In theory, anyone can do this. You are more likely to succeed if you can learn from failure. If you’re not put off by setbacks and can accept the things you’re doing might not work or that it may be a while before something sticks. It’s often a fear of failure that stops people doing it.

How hard is running a business?

It’s really gratifying and good, but it is hard too. Especially when you take that step beyond the initial group you started the business with and employ people. Suddenly, you’re aware that you have someone else’s mortgage, rent or kid’s dinners relying on the business. Being responsible for other people’s wellbeing can be mentally draining if you don’t manage it correctly.

Do you think being an entrepreneur has made you a better person?

It makes you tougher and more resilient as a person, yet also more caring. It’s a bit like parenting: you love your kids forever but you still occasionally have to make them do things they see as incorrect, like eating broccoli or doing their homework. In a business, you have to be able to have tough conversations with people if it’s not working but at the same time, you have to care about those that are working for you.

Read more from the ‘Talking Entrepreneurship’ series by checking out our chats with Neil Stephenson and Adam Gillett.