David Martell: My eureka moment in an M25 traffic jam

Inspiration for a new business can come from the most unlikely of places. And for David Martell - founder of traffic reporting service Trafficmaster - Britain's congested roads provided the spark.

Serial entrepreneur David Martell spent his honeymoon drawing up a business plan. "My wife didn't mind, she was sitting on the beach with me, helping me work it all out." The former accountant had just sold an air charter service that delivered English-speaking newspapers to Europe and was eager for a new challenge.

His inspiration was a traffic jam the couple had suffered en route on the M25. "It had just been built and already there was congestion. I am a very impatient person and hated being stuck in the jams." His brainwave was to place sensors along roads that could tell if a road was congested and alert drivers.

When he got back to Britain he put the idea to old school friend and business partner Ian Williams. The pair agreed to invest some of the proceeds of the sale of the air charter firm "it went for a couple of million" into developing a prototype. "I designed the basic concept and hired some engineers to make the details work."

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By 1990, Martell was ready to take it to the government. "It was good timing. Thatcher's government was very keen for a private company to invest in the roads."

A test scheme around the M25 was agreed, but Martell needed more money. He convinced a venture capitalist fund to give him £600,000. "The government test made us more credible." Following the test, Martell's firm, Trafficmaster, was granted a ten-year exclusive licence on all of Britain's roads.

His first product, the TrafficmasterYQ screen, listed major roads and flashed to indicate traffic hotspots. Next, Martell brought out an automated telephone service for traffic updates. "As the technology improved with advances such as wireless calls, we were able to improve our service."

Midway through 1994, with sales at £1.5m, Martell decided to float the business on the stock exchange at a valuation of £29m. The extra capital allowed the firm to invest in more sophisticated gadgets and improve its network of sensors.

Martell also boosted sales through a series of partnership deals with motoring groups such as the RAC and AA, who sold his kit to their members. "The breakthrough moment was when Vauxhall started including our devices in their cars." By the late 1990s, the firm was valued at around £500m as investors jumped into technology stocks. The bursting of the dotcom bubble hit Trafficmaster's share price, but Martell responded by expanding into the fleet management industry.

Yet by 2004, "I was bored of doing the same thing for almost 20 years". He stepped down as CEO to look for "a new business in low-carbon motoring". But how to break in without competing directly with the car manufacturers?

By 2006, he had hit upon the answer charging up electric cars. Martell and Williams teamed up once again on funding. By 2009, they had developed charging stations that could be installed in houses or public places, such as car parks and streets.

The new firm, Chargemaster, now has two lines of business. One sells charging equipment to local councils, power companies and supermarkets. The other is building up a network of charging points that electric car users pay to use. Martell is confident that "the future of motoring is low carbon. Soon electric cars will be a lot more common."

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the Forbes.com London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.