How I built a multi-million pound business despite dropping out of college

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He launched his business on the darkest, wettest day of the year – with no stock, no customers, and no management experience.

But with MI Supplies, Alex Ingham has built up a flourishing workwear firm, selling everything from hard hats to flame-retardant bodysuits, with a £2.3 million turnover – and the 43-year-old from Yorkshire says he learnt it all from business books and mentors. Here he shares his story plus top tips for others wanting to turn a great start-up idea into reality.

I hear your old school teachers might be surprised about your current success

“I was ‘requested to leave’ my college course due to severe non-attendance and the pretty dire effort I put in… So possibly! Instead, I embarked on a career in the workwear industry all my life – starting off working for three different companies from the age of 16, earning about £45 per week, then moving onto one of the larger ones in 2005.”

Your career was motoring along – so what made you want to quit life as an employee and start your own thing?

“I’d just turned 30 and thought ‘my time will run out soon!’ (my wife thought I had a mid life crisis)… I really wanted to live and die by my own decisions, not the say-so of a corporate giant. Then, I read Clive Woodward’s autobiography, Winning!, and its discussion of people, teams and performance. It really inspired me – I wanted to run my own company.”

What were the next steps?

“There were 12 months of planning – it began with visiting the big four banks, to be told by three of them that the business wasn’t viable… When one said yes, though, I had some funding and started hunting for affordable industrial estates, and thinking about first customers, sourcing stock, working out how long the cash would last… There were lots and lots of nights of planning without actually knowing what I was doing.”

Was it successful from day one?

“Well, on the day I took the keys for the unit, it was December 21st – the shortest day of the year, and it was pouring with rain. It seemed to be dark all day long… And the unit had no lights or electricity, plus when I walked around, I quickly realised the paint hadn’t dried on the floor. My decision swiftly sunk in: I’d gone from a cosy job at a national company with a brand new car every two years to being wet and freezing cold in a dark warehouse, covered in paint, with an 11-year-old car sat outside. I did wonder for a while what I was doing.”

Then what happened – how did you get your first customers?

“Once the premises were up and running, I got on the phone and got in my car and asked companies if they would give me the chance to explain how we were looking to do things differently. Thankfully, three or four companies took a risk on a completely new business. We then had orders coming through to manage. From there, we just looked to grow organically and spread the word slowly to more companies. We now deliver to over 900 business sites and over 1000 website customers every month.”

What about money – how is the business funded?

“I took a small investment from a bank and a local growth fund at the start, but since then it’s been self funded, with profits reinvested in the business monthly, trying to make it a more efficient and a nicer place to work.”

To what do you attribute your swift growth (revenues are set to approach £4 million in 2018, with 11 staff members)?

“Big moments included using a mentor, a local business coach, who taught me a huge amount about how to look after staff, profit, cashflow and also get a work/life balance. Attending a 9-month university course. Another great help was the Leading Growth one at Teesside University. Both made me think differently, plan, and dream big and bold. Two years ago we moved out of our original premises and bought our own much bigger building – that gave us more capacity to grow and helped give our customers the confidence of a decent company going places.”

How did you deal with worries about competitors?

“The mantra is, if we can offer a better service we will be more than okay. Jeff Bezos from Amazon says “our customers are loyal to us right up until the second somebody offers them a better service”. We need to remember that all the time. We are always, always, trying to do things better for our customer and our number one priority is customer service.”

What’s next?

“We are looking to grow different areas of our business (B2B) and we’re aiming to launch in Germany too.”

What are your top tips for others thinking of starting a business?

“Plan for the worse case scenario. Our worst case was: if we go bust we’ll need to sell the house and downsize. Once we knew that was the worse case scenario I was pretty relaxed about things.

Read books: I recommend the “E-Myth” by Michael Gerber, an awesome book about running your business and how you should run it like a franchise. And always involve people and listen to advice. Use people’s brains and listen. Get help, get good staff and sure as hell look after them – they are your greatest assets. Keep planning. Keep growing. If you don’t grow, you’ll die. Dead simple. Oh, and watch the cash.”

Lucy Tobin is a senior writer at the Evening Standard, author and blogger.

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