When Ninh Hao found herself sharing a car with our founder and CEO for a two-hour trip from London to Manchester, she couldn’t help herself. She wanted to tap into his knowledge and wisdom, and understand what it takes to become an entrepreneur and be good at it.
What would your advice be for people out there with an entrepreneurial itch, but struggle to come up with the big idea?
Coming up with an idea is the easiest part of the entrepreneurial journey. Coming up with a commercial solution is the hard part.
At the age of 5, my dad taught me how to play chess and I very quickly became a competitive chess player and participated in tournaments all around the country. I love chess because it’s the ultimate problem-solving game and helped me develop a set of skills, where I see everything as something that can be solved or improved.
JustPark started the same way. I was driving around San Francisco with a friend on our way to a baseball match. We were about to miss the game, because we simply could not find a single parking spot available. There were, however, lots and lots of empty driveways – the solution was right there. And so, the first JustPark HQ was created in my parents’ attic.
For the budding entrepreneur, imagine you had a mental notepad, and every day when you go about your day, note down how many things you come across that are frustrating or inefficient.
And think, is there an idea that could make that just a little bit easier? By the end of the day, you will have 2 to 3 pages of ideas. As I said, finding the correct solution is the hard part!
Half of the solutions I come up with are rubbish, but you need the bad ones in order to come up with the good ones. 95% of the solutions aren’t going to be commercially viable, but you have to start somewhere.
What would you tell young people who might not necessarily want to start a company, but are still trying to figure out what else they want to do?
Start-ups and maybe scale-ups are still the answer in this case – try an internship or work placement at a start-up.
When we hired JustPark alumni, Jeyda (now founder of Handlebars), we didn’t have a job spec. The title said ‘junior entrepreneur’ which sounds like a naff title, but we wanted someone who didn’t necessarily know what they wanted to do.
It had to be someone who wanted to roll up their sleeves and get stuck in though. We made her spend 2 weeks in each of the departments in Business Development, Customer Support, Marketing and finally Product. In the end, we decided together where she was best utilised.
If you can find an internship structured in a similar way, it is the best way to learn – especially in a start-up environment where you get thrown in the deep end very quickly which you might not get in a corporate environment.
Yes, start-ups are riskier, and you don’t get formal training in the same way you might with a big corporate company, but you don’t need training if you’re still trying to work out what you want to do with your life. You just want to get a feel for what you may enjoy and excel at.
I joined JustPark because of the Glassdoor reviews. They all raved about the JustPark culture. What, in your opinion, has contributed to the culture we have today?
Firstly, it hasn’t always been good. There are high points and low points, but one thing I definitely got right was investing in a company chef – it all starts with food.
If you’re a JustPark client, you probably will have heard of our legendary chef, Julie, who cooks lunch for us every day, breakfast on Mondays and cake on Thursdays.
When we first implemented daily company lunches, it brought the whole team together and developed really strong social bonds amongst us. It gives people the opportunity to interact with colleagues from all parts of the business and creates an understanding for other people’s work.
We also have an annual retreat. The first retreat was in Northampton with 9 employees and the one last year, 2019, was in Mallorca with 99 employees. I wanted to instil a collaborative and enjoyable environment where people can have fun whilst working, and where they enjoy coming into our office every day.
Lastly, we really empower relatively junior people to step into senior roles. We will show someone the trust to do it and let them have all the support and tools they need to accomplish it. It’s important to me that the whole senior management team is approachable, and I feel that we have a pretty flat hierarchy in the company which helps a lot.
You’re the founder and still the CEO. On our journey transitioning from a start-up to a scale-up, you have hired a hugely experienced senior management team. How has it been to share the control of your company with other people?
I wish I hired an experienced senior management team earlier. Before Oren Peleg (Executive Chairman), Paul Herdemian (CFO), Lewis Tasker (COO) and Joe Bull (CMO) came onboard, we had really smart, ambitious leaders in the company, but we sorely lacked experience – especially on how to scale a business. Experienced leaders bring fresh perspectives and have seen the start-up-to-scale-up journey before, which is hugely valuable.
What would you tell your younger self? Is there anything in particular you wish you would have known back when you first started JustPark?
Get a co-founder. Find someone who has a vision and complementary skillset. Yes, you have to give up a large part of your company, but boy, you’ll move faster, you’ll make less mistakes, you’ll have more fun and it’ll be better for your mental health.
Doing it alone is really hard. Starting a company is a journey you would want to share with someone else. If you find the right person with a complementary skillset, it also means that you can focus on what you are good at and enjoy doing.
Another piece of advice is, don’t try to solve every customer’s problem, which was incredibly difficult for me to grasp early on. Focus on getting the product right for 95% of the users – not the 5%. I used to spend days and nights getting features right for 5% of our users, because I felt personally responsible for every customer who has had a bad experience using our product.
Back in the early days, when I was doing everything, I would know the top 200 customers by name, and in 30% of the cases I would remember their user ID by heart. I was so obsessed with keeping everyone happy that I lost focus on the bigger picture.
Finally, for someone who believes they’re ready to take the jump as an entrepreneur, what advice would you give them?
Understand what you’re getting yourself into because it is a lifestyle choice. You don’t switch off. You will dream and have nightmares about your business. It’s not for everyone. You probably need to have a bit of an addictive personality.
There will be a lot of highs and lows, and a lot of self-doubt, which you will have to learn to deal with, but it will come with time. You will win some amazing deals, but you will also lose plenty and these will hurt.
This is why mental health is such an important topic to discuss. Imagine spending 3 to 4 years throwing your blood and guts into something and your investor pulls out in the final hour. Or a supplier doesn’t pay you on time, and so on, and so on.
What I’m getting at is: some things are out of your control. Especially when you’re young and naïve. I mean ‘young’ in business with little experience. So, the best advice, apart from taking care of your mental health, is surround yourself early on with a good team that you trust.