There is no doubt that stories of business success motivate and inspire other entrepreneurs.  But, the real gems of business wisdom lie in the history behind the person and the business.

At our March Breakfast with an Entrepreneur event, guest speaker Martin Dowling provided the audience with an honest and sometimes raw insight into the growth of his Star Car Wash business, that has gone from a start-up to a successful organisation with a footprint of more than 60 sites across Australia, turning over $36 million a year.

Martin’s business journey really began at the tender age of 21 when he was required to step up and manage an office product business following his employer’s sudden illness. While the organisation had an annual turnover of $2 million, Martin was soon to discover that it was broke and that he needed to come up with an urgent strategy to save the business.

Whilst the pressure would have been immense, he is a firm believer that it was the best learning experience he ever had as he ‘doubled down and renegotiated terms which gave him and the business breathing space’.

Maybe it was this early experience that lead Martin to remind the breakfast audience that “you never start a business without knowing where you’re going with it in terms of how you’ll create money and value”. He is also a strong believer in strategising and determining how you are going to build your business without borrowing money.

Martin also believes that you need to have strong relationships with four key people: your banker, lawyer, accountant, and doctor; and you should know them well enough that you can pick up a conversation with them where you last left off.

Whilst this successful entrepreneur said there was a time when he felt like quitting, he believes he just didn’t have a choice because he had reached a point where if he walked away the business at that time would have been worthless. The tipping point for him came when he was $5 million in debt and had run out of equity.

Tracking the numbers and setting up systems to monitor a growing number of sites proved crucial in getting the business back on track and keeping it there. Martin believes that “front log numbers are crucial and they need to be measured and reported as push data”.

In an interesting insight, Martin revealed that Star Car Wash didn’t employ anybody other than admin staff.  He found the best model for his business was to employ a manager at each site who took 50% of the revenue, increasing their buy in to make the site a success. “I looked after the person who looked after the staff,” Martin said.

Martin was also open about the impulsive decisions that he made in the business as well as the impact that building the business had on his personal life including his subsequent Bipolar diagnosis.

Key business tips that the audience took away with them include:

  • It’s really important to keep track of the numbers in your business
  • Never set a business up that relies on you. It should rely on the people who are in business working with you, otherwise it’s just too overwhelming
  • As the business grows you need to compartmentalise your life. For your mental health you need to ensure you take a step back.
  • Don’t try and do everything because you will lose focus on what you actually want to
  • Develop a trusted network of business advisors that you can rely on as a sounding board
  • Build a business that is scalable

The next Breakfast with an Entrepreneur will be held during May.