In 1992 Simon Dolan, then aged 22, tired of his job with an accountancy firm and left to find other work. But finding a new role in the struggling UK economy was tougher than he’d expected. Finding himself “out of work and with no money”, Dolan (who is now 46) rapidly realised that “the only thing that I knew was how to produce a set of accounts”.
Out of “pure desperation”, he put an advertisement in the local paper, offering his services for £99. Three weeks later, a lady called him and paid him to do her books. Securing his first customer helped pay for more advertisements, which brought in more clients for his firm, SJD Accountancy.
Increased advertising and word of mouth from satisfied customers meant that SJD quickly gained a following from “one-man companies” – mainly self-employed contractors, such as IT workers and business consultants.
Dolan admits that he didn’t realise it at the time, but he had carved out a niche for himself, which in turn enabled him to target his marketing much more effectively to the sorts of customers who would hire him. He was also an early adopter of online advertising – while a few of his rivals also had a website, Dolan’s marketing efforts on the SJD site were “far and away better than anyone else’s in the sector”, he reckons.
The business grew rapidly and by the time SJD was sold to a private-equity group in 2014 it had 14,500 clients on its books and a turnover of around £20m. By then Dolan had already spotted his second business opportunity – Jota Sport. It all began when his wife bought him a lesson with a racing car driver as a present.
To this day, says Dolan, he doesn’t know why she chose racing, but he quickly fell in love with the new hobby, to the extent that he wanted to take part in professional competitions. After talking things over with his tutor, he learned that Team Jota had a spare driving slot. Dolan quickly became the team’s main driver and took it over, rebranding it Jota Sport.
As many people have found out the hard way, racing is an expensive sport, one that requires constant infusions of capital from wealthy patrons in order to remain at the cutting-edge of technology. Dolan wanted to ensure his team could continue to compete, but without it becoming a huge drain on his own resources, so he spent a lot of time getting sponsorship from various companies – notably from Russian gas giant Gazprom.
All his effort paid off spectacularly two years ago when Dolan and the team’s other two drivers came first in class in the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race, one of racing’s oldest, most prestigious contests.
When Dolan took it over, Team Jota had just a handful of full-time employees. Now it has more than 40, working across three divisions: the racing team, an engineering company that sells its services to carmakers, and Jota Aviation. This latter division was started when Dolan learned that one of his partners owned a tiny aircraft that was used to ferry mail.
Dolan invested in buying some bigger planes that the company could lease out when they were not being used to ferry team members and parts around the world. These include aircraft such as the 95-seater British Aerospace 146-200. Clients include other airlines and even football teams.
Given his success, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are few decisions that Dolan would have made differently, even given the benefit of hindsight. In fact, he believes that too much experience can be a hindrance, not a help: “the more you know, the more likely you are to convince yourself that something is impossible”.
Indeed, he credits his success to the fact that his youthful inexperience made him take risks that wiser people would have been too afraid to embrace. However, there’s one piece of advice that he’d suggest any young entrepreneur bears in mind: “don’t borrow too much”.