Case study

Entrepreneur — Simon Dolan

Simon Dolan left school without any qualifications but through hard work, drive and a strong sales focus, built a number of successful businesses. Here he offers some expert advice for entrepreneurial-minded students

Why did you become an entrepreneur?

I was expelled from school at 16 without any real qualifications, but really excelled at asking awkward questions. I was good at maths and always had a job - for instance, a paper round and selling cheese on a market stall - so the passion to succeed just developed from there.

What ventures are you currently involved in?

Currently, I've quite a wide range of investments. They're not all within the same field, so that keeps things interesting. I have the Jota Sport motor racing team - we won the LMP2 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in 2014, which for me was a personal highlight.

There's also Jota Aviation, a specialised charter operator, plus a couple of technology companies: field management software company Oneserve and career verification platform APPII.

Finally, there's London PR agency, the PHA Group, as well as ContractorUmbrella for contractors seeking work, and my new accountancy firm Dolan Accountancy. After selling my previous firm a few years ago, I saw that there were improvements that could be made to make clients' lives easier and hence the new venture was born.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Go for it. If you've an idea you believe in, go out there and sell it. Selling is no longer considered a core skill for business, but you need this to push your idea forwards.

I'd add that sometimes the best ideas for entrepreneurs aren't always that exciting, but they can yield rewards. You also need to be realistic - you're not going to make a fortune overnight, it's a long game so you need to understand that you'll have to work flat out at the start. However, that could build your success for years to come.

What are the top three skills needed to be an entrepreneur?

The ability to sell is often dismissed these days, but I believe it's a core skill required to be a successful entrepreneur. Sales isn't just about the obvious - like selling your product - it also comes into play when you negotiate terms, hire staff and even down to PR.

Resilience is another vital skill - you'll get knockbacks and receive negative feedback. Take this as a positive and look honestly at the feedback to see if there's anything you can take from it to make your business idea even better. Essentially, you're a boxer defending your business idea in your corner. So get back up and come out stronger.

You need to be passionate and have the drive to succeed. Nobody is going to make your business idea a success, but you. You need to be self-motivated to get out there and sell, take in those negative comments and just keep going.

How do you generate new business ideas?

I've become known as the 'Twitter Dragon' as I've invested in various businesses based on pitches delivered within the 140 character limit. So far I've invested approximately £5million.

The businesses are varied and not in one particular niche. I know the accountancy market well, so after taking a break, I wanted to get back into this field and start again - but only better.

I tend to invest in businesses I find interesting, so the Jota Sport race team was an obvious one for me - as I love fast cars. I'm also involved in a couple of technology ventures - Oneserve and APPII, for example. I believe this is a market that will only grow in time.

What sacrifices have you had to make to be successful?

There's no replacement for hard work. A good idea doesn't turn into an overnight success without lot of hard work, and that means it can affect all areas of your life.

I built my accountancy firm up over 20 years, so it was a gradual thing. I feel very fortunate that I have a very good team I trust, so I always made sure I wasn't a slave to the office and spent quality time with my wife and two boys.

What are the five key elements for starting and running a successful business?

  • The idea
  • The execution of the idea
  • Sales ability
  • Team - you must have a strong, trustworthy team.
  • Passion and drive

There's no magic formula, you need a good mix of all the skills and be prepared to work hard.

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