Hayley Parsons: Founder of Go Compare
Gio Compario, the small-screen star of “Britain’s most annoying TV ad” is known throughout the country. But less is known about Hayley Parsons, the founder of Go Compare which the Welsh entrepreneur eventually sold for £190 million.
Here Hayley talks to Be The Spark about her early career and how a desire for ‘something new; something different’ sparked a revolution in the insurance industry.
“My entrepreneurial spirit was showing through even at that early age”
My dad wanted me to set up a hair salon when I left school. He wanted me to be self-employed, my mum wanted her own hair stylist, and I didn’t have plans to go to university, so I thought, “Why not?”
I wasn’t the strongest pupil in school and used to bunk off, or ‘mutch’, on occasions. I’d get the inevitable phone-call home from the head teacher, asking why I hadn’t been in lessons, but I would intercept the calls and pretend to be my mother on the phone. I knew how to talk to people, a skill that would play a big role in my success in adulthood. I could take the initiative and wasn’t scared to put my neck on the line. I think it was my entrepreneurial spirit showing through even at that young age.
I left school at 16 and the very next day had an interview for a job at an insurance brokers near my home in Cwmbran, South Wales. It wasn’t my plan to go into insurance, but the job was my ticket to adulthood and independence.
“I knew I had the knowledge and experience to make it work”
I worked hard in my new job, but always had my eye on a more customer-facing position that would get me speaking to people about their requirements and insurance policies.
After two years at the brokerage I was headhunted by another insurance company, where I took on a job as a branch manager. Around that time, I had a friend who worked for Admiral as it was growing into an important force in the industry. Admiral wanted to set up its own insurance brokers which was a side of the business I already knew well. A year after becoming a branch manager, I applied for a job with the Welsh firm and got a position in its tele-sales team.
The job was great, but it wasn’t enough for me. 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 was so much fun and we made a huge success of it. We were insuring high-performance cars and my job was to underwrite the policies. We would be arranging cover for groups that usually paid the highest premiums. It was exciting work – a big change from Admiral’s normal business environment.
“Confused basically turned the insurance market upside down”
The business we built at Admiral was fantastic, but it was outsourced in 1999, just as the idea for Confused.com came along. Essentially a start-up firm under the umbrella of Admiral, Confused had a solid foundation when it launched in 2002. It had taken a long time to develop the technologies and the concept behind the new company, and the project is the hardest thing I have ever worked on. But the five years of blood, sweat and tears paid off, and led to me being appointed head of insurance, relationships and partnerships.
The most challenging aspect of the job stemmed from the fact that we were essentially changing the distributing model of insurance. I had to persuade the other insurance companies that this was a new way of doing business, that soon everything would be online and that they should come on board. The message was disruptive for the industry 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 now gone from a shop on the high street, to the telephone and now it was online.
The development of the technology was the 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.
As rewarding as my time was at Confused.com, I still wasn’t the boss. My success had convinced me that I was ready to take that final leap and work for myself. It was a hard decision to take, because it meant I would be splitting from Admiral which had been such a big part of my life. But business was business; I knew I had to move on.
“There was scope for something new – something different”
I’m not a person who likes to sit still. When I was at Admiral I was always keen to learn as much as I could, progress and move on. I always knew that when I came to the point in my job at which I could learn no more, I would have to look for more. That’s what I did with Admiral – and it led to the biggest learning curve of my life.
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. Through my work at Confused, I knew that there was scope for the comparison site model that we had developed to evolve further, and I had established a wealth of working relationships that would help me do this.
There were only two other competitors in the market, so there was still scope for something new – something different.
The comparison site model wasn’t consumer-focused enough; this knowledge was all I needed to fight against the status-quo and launch a new company. I knew that there was so much more information the consumer could be receiving before they made those all-important decisions to buy policies.
I knew how I wanted the website to look and work, and it all revolved around being transparent about what the consumers were getting for their money.
The first step was to have a chat with one of my best friends who had expressed an interest in coming on board with me. A few phone-calls and a few days later, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a prospective investor, and a conversation in which I was offered £1.5 million in funding.
Another good friend joined me to take care of the IT side of the business, and that was it – we were on our way.
We all knew how we wanted to improve the insurance market, but we lacked a clear plan about how we would make it happen. We also lacked an office; those early days were spent working from home on my kitchen table and expanding the team slowly as our ideas and methods developed.
For the first few months we focused on the new technologies we would be using to platform the new business. Like all start-ups encounter, there were plenty of hurdles along the way: we had great programmers, but they weren’t necessarily experts in setting up computer networks. Through our contacts we got in touch with a person who was setting up another IT business at the time, and persuaded him to join us. That time saw us pool our resources, drawing on all the means at our disposal to help get the firm off the ground.
“It would be fantastic to be there when another Go Compare gets created”
In December 2014, after eight fantastic years building the company up from nothing, I decided to leave Go Compare; it was finally valued at £190 million.
I am still very proud of the company which started at my kitchen table, and which has achieved so much in such a short period of time. It’s now a leading price comparison business in the UK and that’s a credit to all the wonderful, hard-working people we have in Newport where the firm is based. I certainly wish all those connected with the business the very best for the future.
Since leaving the firm, I’ve turned my attention to mentorship and investment in start-ups by helping to create Inspire Growth Wales. Alongside other leading Welsh entrepreneurs, I’ll be giving financial support and mentoring to new businesses in Wales in the early stages of growth. We’ll hopefully be helping the long term health of the Welsh economy in the process.
I’m excited to think we may be able to get some of Wales’ future FTSE listed companies off the ground, and I can’t wait to get the pitches and listen to some of the business ideas out there. It would be fantastic to be there when another Go Compare gets created.
Aside from the insurance business, you can be sure I’ll still be out on Mill Lane and Caroline Street in Cardiff – aka Chippy Alley – when the Welsh rugby team is playing. I did that ten years ago and I still do it now.