Mike Welch is founder of Blackcircles.com, an innovative company that allows the public to buy tyres at competitive prices over the internet and on the telephone. Blackcircles.com partners with hundreds of garages nationwide to provide a full purchase and fit service.
Q: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
A: Yes and I believe you a born an entrepreneur. You have ideas and see opportunities and feel a deep frustration at the way other people are doing it or have a lack of patience at the speed other people are implementing. At some point that bubbles over and you decide "right, I’m going to have a go myself."
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Blackcircles.com?
A: It started when I was 16 years old and working as a tyre fitter in Liverpool. I had the chance to do some of the buying of tyres and could see from the margins being made on tyre sales that there was a great business prospect.
Six months later I was launching a mail order tyre business thanks to a £500 grant from The Prince’s Trust and a mobile phone. What I was doing caught the attention of Sir Tom Farmer who offered me the role of Kwik Fit’s Head of e-Commerce. I knew a chance to work with a guy like Sir Tom didn’t come along every day and I was more than happy to take him up on the offer.
For the next few years I built up and launched Kwikfit.com – as well as their other international sites – and even spent some time working with Ford in Detroit before deciding to go it on my own again and launching Blackcircles.com in 2001.
Q: Why do you think Blackcircles.com appeals to people?
A: Essentially it is the price customers pay for their tyres or servicing and the convenience of having the work done at their local garage at a time they have selected. All of this includes a strong people element that you don’t see very often with online retailers.
So many of our innovations have come directly from customer feedback and I think people find that reassuring
We give people the opportunity to make savings on tyres and other motoring essentials, but we also deliver a customer-focused service. We are always trying to adapt the way in which we do things so that the customer feels safe and secure when using us.
So many of our innovations have come directly from customer feedback and I think people find that reassuring. The fact that we take onboard what they have said and we do something about it shows that we genuinely care about making their shopping experience that much simpler.
Q: What are three challenges you’ve faced when setting up Blackcircles.com and how have you overcome them?
A: When I first started there were quite a few challenges, but the three main ones were gaining credibility, securing a cash flow and signing up garages to our network of tyre fitters.
The first two were hard to establish and in many ways both are linked to each other. Once we started making a name for ourselves as a reliable and easy-to-use service, the credibility began to rise. The more this increased, the more motorists would shop with us.
As for building up the network, at the start it was simply a case of getting a copy of the Yellow Pages for every section of the UK and making contact with garage owners. Again, once we started making a bit of a stir in the tyre retail industry signing up good quality garages became easier.
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give an entrepreneur currently starting up a business?
- If there are resources available to you – grab them with both hands. Running a business is a hard, yet ultimately rewarding experience. Any form of help making it a success will seem like a godsend. Don’t expect aid to just fall on your lap though. More often than not, you will need to get out there and find it.
- Make connections wherever you can. Business owners that succeed in their goals tend to be great at networking. Having friends in other areas of business can make your life a lot easier. When you meet other business owners you are presented with a golden opportunity to share your experiences, success and setbacks. Hearing other people’s stories as well as telling your own is invaluable- it really can open your eyes.
- Be ready to adapt your plans at a moment’s notice. Not many people are comfortable with this, but you need to be able to roll with the punches in business. No matter how well you’ve done your research or, how strong your business plan is, you will need to deal with external factors that are out with your control.
Q: What are your thoughts on home/work life balance?
You must find time to relax and switch off – which is very hard when you own a business.
A: You must find time to relax and switch off – which is very hard when you own a business. I can’t count the number of hours of sleep that I had to sacrifice at the start of Blackcircles.com. Back then I was pretty much a one-man show so it had to be done. Now though I have a great team which means that I can relax a bit more. Even take the odd holiday or two!
It’s during these down-times that I now find I come up with new ideas or solutions to problems. You need to find that a balance that works for you and that allows you to enjoy life outside of the business; otherwise you could find yourself burning out.
Q: What makes a good product?
A: That’s a tough question. There are a number of factors, but in my opinion I think if you’ve got something simple that is able to change the way we either do or think about something, then you are onto a winner.
The best products out there are the ones that make our lives easier, safer or more fun.
Q: What’s the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
A: There are so many plus points. I suppose what really makes it worthwhile though is that feeling of satisfaction when a new project works out or that burst of adrenaline when you nail that new deal/contract/pitch.
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur?
A: Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to switch off, but at the same time that can also be one of the hardest things. I mean, owning a business isn’t so much a job as it is a lifestyle choice and when you are that committed to something it is hard to take a step back.
Q: What’s next for Blackcircles.com?
A: We have quite a few irons in the fire. The recent partnership with Tesco to create Tesco Tyres has given us a great boost and already we are scoping and planning more expansions. Watch this space!