From school dropout to business empire: First-hand tips

In this piece Jamie Waller, CEO and founder of Firestarters, discusses his personal rise from school dropout to successful entrepreneur.

Like many kids, I struggled to engage at school and found academia a challenge. Not only because I wanted to be out in the big world earning money but as a dyslexic teenager, my teachers just ‘didn’t get me’.

I was deemed ‘a disruption’ and told I would never amount to anything and for a while, I suppose I believed them.

At 16, I had enough and quit school without any qualifications. My parents were horrified but unlike my teachers, mum and dad could see the grit and determination in me to succeed and, so they supported my decision.

Fast forward 22 years and I have built, managed and sold many businesses worth tens of millions of pounds.

So, how does a school drop-out build a successful business empire?

Starting out

During my first year of work I turned my hand to everything from demolition to cleaning to nightclub security and bricklaying. I knew I wanted to run my own business but determining the right sector was tricky.

In the late 90’s it was not simple. The internet was primitive and the main source of research for business ideas was print. I would buy the local and national press and read the classifieds. It was in the South London Press that I saw an advert to buy a local window cleaning round and at the tender age of 17, I bought my first business!

The bank loaned me £1,600 which was a mixture of personal loans and credit card debt and within a few weeks I was in business. Within, 12 months the turnover had tripled and I sold the business for £6,000.


With £6,000 generated from the window cleaning business, I invested in a fleet of used cars. Spending between £75 and a few hundred I purchased over 25 cars and started my next business in car sales. During my time as a window cleaner I had made a contact with some disused land. I agreed to continue to clean his newsagents’ windows in return for discounted rent. The site was in South London on the Woolwich Road.

My initial outlay was minimal with £400 spent on one month’s rent and the remaining going towards a Portacabin, a hand painted billboard sign and a selection of used cars. I negotiated hard.

Within a couple of months I was selling a few cars a week, employing two other people and making around £2,000 a week.

The business was now making money and I was paying myself handsomely. What I now know is that I should have taken a little to live off and invest the rest back in the business as you never know what’s around the corner.

Funnily enough for me, something quite major was around the corner, Transport for London introduced red route parking restrictions across all of London, causing my business to go bust within weeks.

I closed up shop and flogged the remaining stock directly from the streets of South East London which turned out to be a lucrative and low-cost business model. For a couple of months, while selling from public land, I had no overheads and was building a pot of money, ready to inject into my next business idea.

A lightbulb moment

Parking restrictions meant people were being fined. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people were failing to pay and needed chasing to settle their debt. I soon had a new business idea; debt collection for government departments.

Not having a clue where to start, I got myself a self-employed position as a collector with an existing business. After a short period of learning the ropes, I was in business.

My first million

With the loan of an office, a laptop and a mobile phone I started my first collections company and before long, I was winning lucrative contracts. Within the first year and at 22 years old, I made my first £1 million of turnover. Unfortunately, a shareholder dispute brought this relationship to an end and in month 13 I was again unemployed and starting all over again.

At 4.10am the morning after resigning from my position as shareholder and director I set up my second collections company and called it JBW Group.

I spent years building this business and slowly changed perceptions of the industry, with a professional, transparent and credible approach to collections. We built a brand and operated with integrity to establish mutually beneficially debt resolutions for our Government clients which was supporting the UK economy.

12 years after launching, I sold the business for over £30 million.

Six days post sale, I formed a fintech business (Hito) using £1 million of my personal money from the previous sale. Nine months later I sold this business for over £9 million.

Two weeks after selling Hito I launched – a £13 million investment fund to support early-stage businesses looking for growth funding; a business I still run today.

Back to school

Despite my business success, it occurred to me on several occasions that I didn’t have a single qualification to my name. Not that it mattered but I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of doing so.

During my career I applied to three business schools and secured a place at each one – Cranfield School of Management, Stanford University and the London Business School. All schools played a large part in my success.

The key messages

We regularly debate whether entrepreneurs are born or made and in my case, I would say, it’s a bit of both.

Without doubt a less fortunate upbringing in East London gave me the hunger to succeed. It’s what I did with that hunger however that made me who I am today. I took early risks with bank debt, I learnt to sell to expand my business fast, I moved onto another opportunity when I saw something better and I took failure head on, closed a business and saw an opportunity to move on. After my first real success of running a business with £1 million of turnover I was still not feeling comfortable and again, threw in the towel and started again. It’s this grit and determination that I reward my success too.

I have entrepreneurial spirit in abundance and the buzz for business constantly running through my veins but I’m not afraid to learn and embrace personal development. Business Schools played a valid part on my success and gave me the confidence to grow. I would recommend that personal development plays a part on all entrepreneurs ongoing business plans.

After all, no one is perfect.

Five top tips for building your own business empire

  • Do something you love and are passionate about. It then won’t feel like work and you’ll put more into it! This could just be business and does not need to be something sexy like sport or fashion
  • Make money and re-invest – don’t overpay yourself and leave the kitty short in those early days
  • Take measured risks – sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t – but embrace the entrepreneurial spirit in yourself and roll the dice again and again. If you do not lose from time to time the buzz of winning would be meaningless
  • Don’t be afraid to build your business and sell it. Business is business so don’t get too attached or be clouded by sentimental judgement. Sh-t happens remember and some very successful companies are here today, and gone tomorrow. Bank some wealth on your personal journey
  • Watch out for externalities. Government regulation is a common business killer like Red Route parking restrictions or national minimum wage increases. It’s your job as the leader to see these things coming and plan ahead.

And please remember you’re never too old to learn – go to business school and constantly self-develop.

Jamie Waller is CEO and founder of Firestarters.

Further reading on business empire

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel

Ben Lobel was the editor of from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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