In the Spring 2019 issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine, Steve White spoke with Go Compare founder, Hayley Parsons OBE, looking back at her early life and the road that led her to launch one of the best-known insurance comparison websites.
Some get into enterprise through formal education, some stumble upon it after trying other jobs. Others, like Welsh entrepreneur Hayley Parsons, are simply destined to be in business.
Cwmbran-born Hayley had no plans to go to university, but she did have clear long-term goals and was going to do things her own way, as she explains: “I didn’t have any big ideas about building a career, but my brother and I certainly had ambition. When we were younger, his dream was to own a flash BMW or Range Rover and mine was to own a red Ferrari. To be fair, we actually made it happen, but you could never have predicted how we’d do it.”
Hayley admits to not being “the strongest pupil in school” and had a tendency to “bunk off on occasions”. Far from putting Hayley back into line, phone-calls home from the head teacher only fired up her resourcefulness, innovation and tenacity.
“I would intercept the calls and pretend to be my mother on the phone. I knew how to talk to people,” she recalls. The talent would play a big role in Hayley’s later success – that initiative and willingness to put her neck on the line; the entrepreneurial spirit bubbling up, even at that early age.
“My mother always said that I was quite stubborn, determined and pretty independent. I just knew that I wanted to earn my own money and pay my own way. There seemed to be no point in telling me what to do, that was for sure.”
Upon finishing school at 16, Hayley secured a job at a nearby insurance brokers and picked up her ticket to adulthood.
Rising to the top
Settled into her vocation, Hayley’s drive for a more customer-facing position won her the promotion that would teach her fundamental skills in an industry that she would eventually drag into the 21st century.
“Back in those days you would calculate insurance rates using rating guides – it wasn’t computerised like it is today, so you’d have to be very precise to get everything right, policy and price.”
Subsequent headhunting led to a tip-off about a company named Admiral that was becoming an industry force. Hayley jumped ship to the Welsh firm’s telesales team, and into a new role that, while rewarding, also brought a dream into sharper focus.
“The job was great, but what I really wanted to do was set up an insurance brokerage for the company itself. I knew I had the knowledge and experience to make it work, so I kept knocking on the directors’ doors, asking for their approval. After lots of nagging, my perseverance paid off and I was allowed to start developing a concept we could launch as an in-house insurance brokers.”
The new role involved insuring high-performance cars and arranging cover for groups that paid the highest premiums. It was fun and exciting work – “a big change from Admiral’s normal business environment and we made a huge success of it,” Hayley says.
All the while, the drive to work harder and reach the next level created new opportunities which would allow Hayley to leverage her rapidly developing skillset. Opportunity knocked in the form of Confused.com, a start-up under the Admiral umbrella.
Revolutionising an industry
Confused.com took “five years of blood, sweat and tears to establish”. The insurance sector was ripe for development and modernisation and the increase in digital marketplaces and technological advances allowed this to happen. It brought the insurance comparison model to life and allowed customers to search online for insurance, rather than using their local broker. But the industry needed someone to champion and drive this model – someone with the right skills and knowledge to read the shifting market landscape and argue the case for change.
“I had to persuade the other insurance companies that we needed to re-model the distribution of insurance; soon everything would be online and that they needed to come on board.
“The message was disruptive and did not go down too well. Also, I knew that customers would have to be helped and guided through new buying habits for insurance. The process of buying a policy had gone from a shop on the high street to the telephone, and now it was online.
“Technology was a springboard for the early success of Confused. But there was also a great attitude in the Admiral Group, which always embraced new ways of operating and thinking about how insurance could work.”
Taking the leap
Hayley had helped build Confused.com to the great success it was, but she still felt that the insurance industry could deliver improved results for customers through a more sophisticated site. So she quit her job and fulfilled a lifelong desire to work for herself and build a business from scratch.
“I woke up the day after resigning, knowing that I had to make this happen. I had the drive, passion and knowledge to make it work. I knew the comparison site model could evolve further, and I had a wealth of working relationships that would help me do this.”
With a little help from her friends and using the kitchen table for an office, Hayley’s team put together a more consumer-focused comparison site model. Before long, a conversation with an investor led to £1.5 million in funding and Go Compare was born.
After eight fantastic years building the company up from nothing, Hayley left Go Compare in 2014, at which time the firm was valued at £190 million.
The departure put her name in the headlines, but consumers had long been familiar with her marketing genius through an infamous moustachioed ‘Italian’.
“We needed something different. I wanted an annoyingly catchy song and a name that would get stuck in everybody’s heads. Gio Compario and his singing really helped us to nail that. I didn’t care what anybody else thought of the campaign – I just loved it and still do.”
“Gio – aka opera singer, Wynne Evans – has since become one of my best friends. If we’re ever out on international day in Cardiff he has to suffer a fair amount of having ‘Go Compare’ sung out as people recognise him in the street, but he doesn’t mind. He loves Gio as much as I do.”
Lessons learnt in business
Today, Hayley nurtures the UK’s future business talent, investing in businesses from start-ups to more established businesses and mentoring entrepreneurs, and also through her membership of the Inspire Growth Wales investment consortium.
With no formal business training, how and where did this icon of British business acquire
the skills to succeed? Similar to many leaders, self-confidence and an ability to learn on the job are cited among cornerstones to education.
“I trust and go with my gut; if it feels right, then it probably is right, but if it goes wrong, don’t dwell on it – learn and move on,” she explains.
Understanding human behaviours and how relationships work has also played a pivotal role, whether it’s creating an iconic advertising campaign, or dealing with people on a daily basis.
“I’ve learnt not to put awkward conversations off; always be open and honest, deal with issues as soon as they arise and manage the situation as soon as possible.
“Those who have helped you get off the ground may not be the people you need ten years down the line. An awareness of how role requirements can change is important if you’re to have the flexibility to go with the flow. Difficult decisions could mean falling out with friends and colleagues, so it’s important to handle situations with care and respect. Always treat people as kindly and fairly as you would expect to be treated yourself.”
Now with two boys of her own, Hayley is better placed than most to pass judgement on pathways into enterprise, but feels entrepreneurs are mainly born with attributes that help them become business people.
“It’s a question of nature, rather than nurture. [Entrepreneurs] have specific traits; we can be difficult or simply an absolute pain in the ass. We like having things our own way, we’re determined, and we keep going no matter what.”
“I worked my backside off for five years to put myself in a position which would allow me to realise my dreams, and almost everything else had to go by the wayside. That’s the kind of determination you need as a starting block to success in business. It was also a lot of fun and at the end of it all I’ve managed to get the freedom and choice of how I live my life from now on,” she adds.
As for the value of school and education, Hayley is characteristically pragmatic.
“School wasn’t for me, but getting a good education is essential for budding entrepreneurs. More than learning about the three Rs, school is about also interacting with other people, gaining confidence and learning about yourself. It was where I found my drive, determination and diligence.
“My boys know the importance of hard work; they’ve seen their mummy do it all their lives. They know that with passion, determination and a bit of bloody mindedness they might also, one day, be able to buy their own red Ferraris.”
You can take a look at a full, digital version of the spring issue of the Great British Entrepreneurs Magazine here.