“Keep the faith. The best opportunities come when crises occur”

Nicko Williamson has sage advice for stressed-out entrepreneurs. “Stay calm, look at the bigger picture and try not to fret over short-term issues,” he says. “If something goes wrong, it’s not the end. The next chapter is waiting to be written. You will go again.”

The 36-year-old co-founder and CEO of WeFlex has found himself in two major entrepreneurial crises over the years, so he knows what he’s talking about. More on those later. But first, let’s look at how Nicko came to co-launch WeFlex, a company that offers car hire and car finance to self-employed Ride-Hailing drivers.  

In many ways, WeFlex sprang from Nicko’s first business, Climatecars – an environmentally-friendly car service that provided a green alternative to black taxis and minicabs. He created Climatecars in 2007, aged 23, and sold the business in 2015.

“I launched Climatecars pre-iPhone,” he says. “The premise was to replace the traditional taxi service with something more eco-friendly. It was B2B, so we were getting banks, law firms and the like to shift away from black cabs and into our hybrid vehicles. At the time, it was fresh, different and at the cutting edge.”

In 2013, Nicko alongside a couple of co-founders began to research the viability of a business that connected customers directly to minicabs via their phones, thus removing the need for the middleman minicab companies. The idea looked like a winner and the fledgling ride-hailing business – christened Bounce – gained traction. He says: “I was the co-founder of Bounce. I stepped back from Climatecars and began to work flat out on it. We built the brand and the technology, signed up more than 1,000 drivers and had several thousand customers. We raised £1.7m in equity financing with our second funding round of just over £1m.”

But suddenly, disaster struck. The rug flew out from underneath Bounce and there was no soft landing.

Nicko explains: “Uber – who until then had been offering luxury limo-style services started to offer what now know as Uber X and announced a $1bn fundraise. Uber suddenly became the best-backed start-up ever. For us, it was a major ‘oh s*!t’ moment. We’d only just closed our second funding round which was minute compared to Uber’s raise. We’d hit our milestones, had excellent momentum and built a strong tech team. But how could we compete?”

In short, they couldn’t. And, after a couple of months, Nicko and the Bounce team took the tough decision to quit. They shut down the business, sold all the tech and returned the remaining funding to investors. 

Nicko says: “It was tough – incredibly challenging. But in hindsight, it was without doubt the right decision. Uber was so well funded that there was no way of competing. It was a ‘what can you do?’ type thing. Sometimes in business, the market dynamics completely shift, and all you can do is suck it up. And actually, once we’d accepted that, it was a relief. It meant we could move on. We shut the business in an orderly fashion. We stayed in control and we minimised the fallout.”

Nicko’s Uber crisis was not in vain, however, because it led to his latest venture WeFlex, proving the adage that as one door closes, another opens.

“My confidence had taken a hit, so I took the summer off,” the entrepreneur says. “But soon a new idea came along and I began to have conversations with some more seasoned entrepreneurs. They had validated the decision to close Bounce and said that my new business idea sounded promising. So, I started to get encouraged again.”

Nicko’s new plot was to provide vehicles – via finance and rental contracts – to Ride-Hailing drivers working for the likes of Uber. The business would be aimed squarely at Ride-Hailing drivers and so would offer greater flexibility, unlike traditional car-finance deals. It would be called WeFlex. 

So, WeFlex began to emerge phoenix-like from the ashes of Bounce. Assisted by an initial equity funding round of £400,000 and aided by Nicko’s Climatecars track record, he netted an immediate £1m finance facility with Toyota Financial Services.

The car-finance company began to grow, with Nicko and his team applying the tough lessons that they’d picked up over the years. “This launch was a lot less scrappy,” says the co-founder. “When you’re young and you launch a business, everything is scrappy because you’re trying to make it work and save money. But right from the start at WeFlex, we set ourselves up properly in terms of structure and regulation. We haven’t cut corners, and we’ve focused on compliance, risk management and data. That’s given us a firm foundation.”

And that firm foundation was needed when Nicko faced a second business challenge in September 2017. Just like before, it came out of the blue.  

He says: “I got a call saying that Transport for London had not renewed Uber’s operating licence. It was completely unexpected and potentially deadly as at the time most of our customers were reliant on Uber for their income. If Uber couldn’t operate, we – at that time – were out of business. We spent all day on the phone to lawyers trying to find out the legal position and called all our investors and lenders to explain what was going on. Our then-Chairman, Richard Munton an ex-Partner at Cinven, set the tone by remaining completely calm. His key message to us was, ‘The key thing is to establish the facts and react appropriately. There’s absolutely no point in panicking.’”

And with words that will resonate with many people today, Nicko continues: “Sometimes you will be thrown a curveball that fundamentally changes your business, or even means game over. But, that’s life. All you can do is establish the facts, stay calm and react appropriately.”

CLIC’s final word

Our interview with Nicko Williamson took place before the current coronavirus crisis but his advice contains some very pertinent and hopeful lessons. Yes, curveballs happen; business ideas do sadly disappear; crises are inevitable. But – and here’s the upside – these bolts from the blue, despite appearing to be destructive at the time, often, given time, create bigger and better opportunities.

So, no matter what situation we find ourselves in, and however tough life seems to be right now, Nicko’s story reveals the value of remaining calm, rolling with the punches and making tough decisions based on hard evidence. By doing those things well, it’s possible to turn would-be negatives into thrilling new positives.