Welcome to the first-ever episode of the Impact Unltd Podcast!
In this episode, we sit down with Kevin Byrne, the founder of Checkatrade. Checkatrade is a household name in the UK and has helped fight the prevailing issue of rogue traders in the country.
Founded in the midst of a local disaster, the journey has been anything but easy. Kevin has since sold the business and continues to explore business projects.
In the training, we explore topics such as:
And so much more.
If you’d like to explore any further training, then feel free to check out our range of free courses here: https://www.impactunltd.com/training
Well a very special welcome to what is the first, the inaugural episode of the Impact Unlimited podcast. I'm so honored that you join me on the show today. And I'm so excited for you to hear the content that we have. We're pulling out all of the stops and we're launching big. Today, I'm interviewing Kevin Byrne. Kevin is the founder of Checkatrade, one of the UK's leading companies; he founded it in the midst of crisis, it's an incredible story, I know you're going to love it. As we dive into some deep stuff about you as an entrepreneur, how you can grow, and how that growth in you is going to allow you to build companies and businesses that impact the world and solve people's problems, it's going to be a good one. Let's dive right into it.
Hey, what's up and welcome to another episode of the Impact Unlimited podcast. This is the show where I sit down and interview industry-leading experts with an aim to equip you with both the skill sets and the mindsets to become an impactful entrepreneur. So if you want to become a better leader, build bigger businesses, get more done in less time and create an impact in the world, then look no further and let's get started. Awesome.
Well, welcome to the show today, Kevin. Such an honor to have you on. It's a real privilege. I really appreciate taking the time to come on. For the audience that might not know you yet, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Ben, it's an honor for me. Thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to tell a little bit about my story. And hopefully, there are a few nuggets there for people, who knows? My story, I was born to mum and dad, of course. But as an individual, I was actually a really big surprise. My mum had three kids. Very quickly, she had a clap swim, and had some surgery and was told she can't have children. And nine years later, she goes to the doctor with a bump, not knowing what it was - it was me. I grew up in the far east in the Middle East. My dad was a policeman in the area. He retired through ill health when I was quite young, I think was about probably about 10 and moved back to the UK. And from there, I found it really, really difficult as an individual to cope. My dad, at a young age, I think, again, I was about 10 at the time, had an operation, and sadly they need the test put them into a coma. And we were told that he might not come out; if he did, he'd be a vegetable. He did come out, he wasn't a vegetable, but he lost 20 years of his memory. So I lost my dad when I was 10 which was really, really tough. And then I lost him again through death when I was 20. But so I didn't really have a very good education, I really struggled at school. I was one of those guys, Ben, and I'm sure everybody would recognize this - one of those guys that are young lads that were dragged to the school gate by their mum, screaming. I don't want to go being passed over to a teacher; that was me. And I hid behind my mum basically up until I was about 18, 19, 20. Even very shy and very insecure. Hey, it's just my story. I'm sure other people will have equal or even greater challenges that I've had. Since I have no education, I had no choice at the age of 16 but to try and get a job - I got a job locally in a newspaper and that brought me out of my shell a little bit. You know, it also led me down the route of drugs as well. Your world lemmings to a certain degree. Who's the head lemming in your life? If he's a good guy, you'll probably be alright. If he's a bad guy, you're probably going to do quite so well. And I ended up on drugs and all sorts of stuff and years of bad, bad period, about two or three years.
And then, how long ago was it? Obviously, the main topic of our conversation today is going to be this incredible company that you've built, and, you know, dig into sort of the lessons from that, but obviously, a tumultuous kind of upbringing, and then just talk to me about when you actually started your business, because that was similarly a challenging time, right?
It was a challenging time. I don't think it was challenging for the nation; it was more challenging for the community that I was in. And the real reason why I wanted to do it, but the reason why I've told you a little bit about my start is you don't have to have degrees to be successful. You don't have to have a great education. You don't have to have an A level in this. You don't have to go to business school. I didn't do any of that. I just had an idea and passion, but this is basically how the company started. It was way way back before the internet; there wasn't one before the internet. It was 1998 and I was about 35, I suppose, perhaps just nearly 36. At that point, I've been bumping along the bottom of life. You know, hand to mouth, never really having a holiday, going out for a meal. You know that just couldn't happen and I've got young kids around my feet, etc. But I always had this philosophy of you got to work hard, and you got to do the best you possibly could. But at that point, nothing would really gel for me. And I think 35 is a bit old to start a company maybe, I don't know.
Anyway, I'm living on the south coast of England. I'm living in this fishing village called Selsey Bill. And there's only one road in and there's only one road out. And I think it was around about the seventh or the eighth of January, there's a tornado. It wasn't the great storm everybody remembers roughly random at that time. It was a very isolated tornado in Selsey - it touched down, it carved about a quarter of a mile of devastation and then it rose. And he calls about 10 million pounds worth of property damage. So because that's quite rare, it ended up on the 9 O'Clock News, the 10 O'Clock News. And over the next two or three days, white vans started to appear. And there were scousers, there were Irish accents, there were Liverpudlian accent scousers, and there were Geordies, and it was every accent you could possibly think of from some of these guys just knocking on people's doors. And basically people that were victims of the weather, were now being victims of these road trades. A typical example would be someone knocks on your door, you got a hole in your roof and they'll say, we'll help you and they'll put the tar pour and that will keep the water out. And the local building merchants, when you take cash because of the influx of trade. So that'ss 600 pounds worth of materials. So they'll hand over 600 quid, never to be seen again. And of course, people were just being ripped off by overcharging. But my dad before he died and after he left the military was a Trading Standards Officer. So I grew up with that kind of field as well. A Policeman Trading Standards Officer. So you can imagine, my life was "Don't stare." He used to come home with all these types of stories about double glazes and all that kind of stuff. And now I'm hearing about these people are being ripped off in their own homes. And I couldn't understand then. And I still don't understand it now because it although there are things to safeguard people a lot more than the word 20 odd years ago. It's still happening today. I can go into Saints Brees, walk away with a bottle of wine, unpaid for, and get arrested. I can go into someone's house, I can take a deposit, wreck their house, never to be seen again and get away with it.
So it's obviously a massive motivation for you was helping those people and you know, your community.
It's not all it was. I had a family to feed. And I've always wanted to make a difference. And I was sort of bouncing along - cleaning carpets, working behind bars, at a window cleaning round. I was doing freelance graphic design; I was doing everything that I possibly could to try and feed my family. So, you know, there has to be a big motivation for any guy with a young family.
Absolutely. We talked about impact and making an impact. And often I say, you know, sometimes the biggest impact you can make is in raising healthy kids, in having a strong family. It doesn't have to be a global monstrosity of a business. It can be just that first business of keeping your house in order. So, now it's good, good to hear. But it's interesting because your journey, what you're talking about there, I think would resonate with so many people - trying this, trying that, doing something here and there. But obviously it was this business that really then began to take off. So tell us a little bit about when you really start to realize that this was a business that had some legs in it.
Wow. It was quite some years. I've got a good friend of mine that even after running this for several years, probably four years. He came to me and he says, "Kev, can I speak into your life?"
"No, yeah, here we go. Go on then."
"You're miserable, your wife's miserable; you don't have a family. Kev, go and get a proper job. You're flogging a dead horse."
And that was like, "He's right. I am miserable, my wife is miserable, we don't have family holidays, just can't afford it. I'm working all hours. And what's something missing here? Because I'm not making it successful. And even at that point, I've gone through quite some turbulent elements within the business; I didn't know the difference in VAT between cash and accrual, basic stuff when you're running a business and that may be put me out of business. My first business partner, I was drawn to them because they were very successful but they were very worldly; good people but very worldly. And in the end, I knew that I couldn't work with them because I just felt I'd unequally yoked myself with them. So I actually said, "Look, this is not working, you can have the business and I'll start again."
After three years, I gave the business away to them and started again, down you know, where I am down south and I renamed it Checkatrade at that point. So, it's a really tough time and really searching about "Is this really going to work?" But I knew instinctively it was an issue. And I knew instinctively that this was a problem in the UK that needed to be solved.
And that's it; that's a problem that needs solving and that's massive.
And the bigger the problem you can solve, the more successful you will be in monetary terms.
I think it's gonna be so encouraging for so many people to hear because it's easy for me and other people to sit back and you know, Checkatrade is a national name now. It's like I listen to talks on the radio some of the time and I listened to, you know, you hear the jingle on the radio all the time. And it's so synonymous with the industry. And so it's easy for us to sit here and think, "Wow, what a success! Kevin Byrne built this company, what a success he is." But not realize those you mentioned four years at the start. I'm sure there are many challenges that we can get into beyond that. People don't see the story; they see the end product and they think it must be easy for you.
The amount of people that come to me says, "Oh, I had that idea before you did, what you did"; But there were quite a few defining moments that changed me. And I say that purposely changed me.
Definitely, I think it's so right what you're talking about how you know, the business can only grow as big as we grow. Talk to us about you know, as the business was scaling, what were some of the challenges may be with people or with the structure of the business, some things that really began to as well as growing yourself, how did you grow the business side of it, as well alongside that?
Dealing with every situation confronts you as you go through your business. I talk on this quite a lot, not recently. But in the past, I've talked about this quite a lot. I think there are certain aspects within the business that are fundamental and these are not things that I've read in books. These are things that I've come to understand. I'll give you a very brief illustration.
So imagine you've got a successful company on one hand, but on the other hand, the team is becoming more and more demotivated. They're seeing new things put into place which don't really fit what they've always believed in. And their working environment is degrading. What's going to happen to this great product over a period of time if this team is demotivated and going downhill? What's going to happen to this product? It's going to come down. So let's turn the table, let's imagine this mediocre product or service, but the team is really motivated. And they're appreciated by their employees, by their boss; there's integrity in that business now. They're being understood this fantastic vision and they're trusted. What's going to happen to this service or product over a period of time? It's going to have what's more important.
Today, what's more important - is it the product and the service, or is it the team? It's the team. So many people focus on the product and the service disproportionately. Of course, products and services are important but if you ain't got a great team, you ain't got nothing. So I understand very clearly today that people need certain things. And I'm not talking about business-wise, I'm not talking about between nine to five; I'm talking about in their life. People need appreciation. I put a lot of effort even before I realized what I was doing, I was doing it anyway. I really appreciate people, you know.
When I used to work for Selsey Press many many years ago, when I came back to Selsey when I was about 20, I worked for a company for 12 years. And I used to look at the boss there. And I used to think I'm treading water. But you know, I'm building your dream, not really my dream. I'm building your dream and I never forgot that. So whenever anybody worked for me, I used to spend some time with them individually, and I used to look them in the eye. And I used to say "Thank you for giving me a slice of your life. Thank you, you're building my dream right now. You're probably treading water. So I want to thank you for doing that for me. And one day, if you get to a point where you want to build your own dream, come and talk to me; if I can help you, I will."
I think it shows it shows a level of security in you, that you're willing to have those open conversations because I think a lot of people would just try and push that issue away, you know, not even talk about it.
So I could talk on half an hour on each of these subjects but appreciate is a big thing in people's life; integrity level is a big thing in people's life.
I used to say to my sales team:
"If you exaggerate, if you lie, if you manipulate, if you're a woman and you're talking to a male tradesman, I don't want any sexual innuendos or anything kind of seductive going on here. If we cannot survive by telling people the truth, we don't deserve to be in business."
I used to say to my customer support team:
"If you've got a complaint from a tradesman, gauge the truth the best you can, put yourself in their shoes and if you think that we've done a bad job, and they need to have their money back, I'm empowering you to give them their money back."
"Me? I'm just someone on the phone."
"No, I'm empowering you to do it. And no one's going to tell you off if you do."
Are you building a level of integrity that is ticked? Being understood in people's life is massive. Most people, even right now, have got something going on with a colleague, with a friend, with a relative, where you're feeling there's a dispute and you're not being understood. If there's something going on in your company, you can take that person to one side and just say, "Look, you're not firing on all cylinders at the moment. Is there something I've done to upset you?" And then shut up. It will start to come out. I've learned some very good things, very good techniques. When we say the word technique, but I suppose on this occasion, you can use it. You listen to what people are saying to you. And if you keep quiet, they'll start talking. And you try to empathize, you try and put yourself in that person's shoes the best you possibly can. Someone could be saying, "Oh Kev, you did this, and then you did that." And you might want to scream at them. No, I didn't do that. You listen, and you take note and you know. And then once they've finished, you repeat back to them what they believe has happened. You don't say "No, you're wrong!". You repeat back even if you want to scream at them.
Once they feel understood, their whole demeanor will be. "Ah...He understands." Now unless they're a Jeremy Kyle type of person, they'll be much more likely to listen to your point of view once they feel they've been empathized and understood; it just solves so many issues.
The fourth thing I talk about a lot is vision. Another word for vision is the expectation. And it's huge. It's huge in people's lives. And at first, you don't get it. But here's a very, very simple analogy. In the next 12 months, provided a lockdown disappears next month, are you planning on having some kind of break in your family? Well, guess what? You and the rest of the world that have said yes, they'll be looking on the internet. They'll be looking at the budget. What can we afford, what we can't afford? Do we need one place? You'll be planning it and your actions and your behaviors will flow to make it happen.
Are you planning on going into space next year? Guess what, you're not looking at spacesuits on the internet and the effects of weightlessness on your body. You're not budgeting for it, why? Do you need to have that? No, you're not expecting it. There's a big difference between that would be nice and I've often used this example, "Kev, are you going on safari?" "I hope to, one day." Guess what, I'm not planning it.
If someone says we care for you, I can detect Checkatrade into the Northeast. Absolutely. I'm expecting it to happen so my action and my behaviors will flow to make it happen. So my challenge to everyone that might listen to this is what are you expecting to happen? I know these are difficult times to use those things. But what are you expecting to happen in the next 6 months to 12 months? Guess what? Your actions and your behaviors will flow to make it happen. And when I learned that, I'm thinking, Well, what am I expecting? I've got this pokey little business, which is employing two or three people down on the South Coast. I've already given it away once, I'm starting to try and build it again. I'm bouncing around the bottom of life, what am I expecting? Okay, go get pictures to reflect what you want. You've got to change from where you are to where you want to expect. Wouldn't it be great to be national? So I went out and bought some big pictures of the UK. And working in one room, it was a shed at the bottom of my garden. So I put a picture on all the four walls of the UK. And I wrote above it, "I'm national." You won't believe it at first. But if you keep looking at it and you keep declaring it and you keep that dominant image before you, you will start to move towards the most dominant image you allowed to reside in your head. I'm going in there. I'm going to be national. Anyway, after a period of time of writing it down and looking at it consistently, you start to think, well, if I'm going to be a national, what do I need to do? And slowly but surely, your expectation starts to build and as your expectation builds, your actions, your behaviors start to flow to make it happen. It's really simple stuff. But whoever's listening to this, 98% of them one day, it'll change their life.
I've always liked the quote that says, "Your dreams will conform to your reality. But vision makes reality conform to it." You know, if you just have a dream, I'd like to do that one day, it's never gonna happen. But if you have a vision, it forces your reality to conform to it, because it's red hot inside of you, and it changes the way you live and act. It's clear for me just in this short time, digging into it with you that what a lot of people see as the keys to business success, they get in the weeds and look at the strategies that are here today, gone tomorrow. But everything you're talking about is top-level stuff. It's you, it's your vision, it's your values, all of this kind of stuff. And, you know, these are the keys to success, or they've at least been the keys to your success, that's for sure.
Let me go back to appreciation, integrity, understanding a vision. There's a fifth one, which is called trust; trust people. Give them a job, ask them to take some time out; ask them what are your ideas on improving this? Take some time out because you've been doing this job for eight months now, two years now, you must have been some ways on this could be done better. You know, take some time out, and I really want to hear that. But then, if you say that, you've got to go with what they say. Then they'll own it.
And I know that's one of my challenges is having that trust to be able to think, okay, you know, you can do this as good as me. Not that I do anything amazing, but you know, that's my baby, as I mentioned, and then handing that over to someone as a challenge, right?
I'd be shocked that I found that most people could do things better than I can. So if I could just crystallize that, those five things, if you've got appreciation at work, integrity at work, and just you being understood at work, you've got a vision of work, and you've got trust at work. But you haven't got those things at home, where are you going to want to be? At work or at home? You're gonna want to be at work. People become passionate. And, you know, I've often said this, my team would have walked over hot coals for me. Why? Because I've walked over hot coals for them and they know it. And when you've got a team like that behind you, this mediocre product or this mediocre service is going to go national. But the biggest one of all of those is the vision, you've got to get the vision into you as the business leader. If you haven't got it in you, how's it gonna get into your team? I had to convince myself to get myself to an expectation that we're going to be national. And once it's a genuine expectation, it just flows out of you. It just flows out of you into your top team, into all of those that are on the coalface doing all the hard work. Vision is huge within people. Without a vision, people get sick.
Obviously, that vision has produced in your life something like I said before, a national scale. And just obviously conscious of time and wrapping up in a few moments but we just would love to hear, towards maybe the end of that journey for you because it's a fascinating story, and there are so many challenges, and you've built this incredible business. But you know, just a couple of years ago, you actually sold the business. And so I would just love to hear and, you know, as we sort of closeout just some thoughts around that, like maybe anything specific you did to prepare the company for an exit, the emotions involved in selling a business. Talk us through that, because I know there'd be a lot of entrepreneurs listening and their dream would be I'd love to sell a business and you've done that. But it may not be as they expect it to be - the whole experience.
I never wanted to sell the business initially. I had a couple of business partners, my brother, and I've already mentioned Richard, my brother is 10 years older than me and Richard, I think about eight years older and I certainly am not putting the blame on them in any way, shape or form. This is something that I allowed myself to feel, they didn't put this feeling on me. I just want to make that clear. So I don't want people to think I'm blaming anyone. But they're older. And when we had shareholders meetings, they sound posh, but they weren't posh really. Even we were a national brand. I didn't have a board, I had nothing. It was just me making decisions with my team. But as they were shareholders, we used to meet up once a year and the topic used to come up. It wasn't labored on but it's kind of, "Where are we?", "How are we going to realize somebody from this?" And I allowed that to take control of me. I felt that I've got it is a fault is I want to put people first should that to my own detriment. And I'm thinking well, okay, how can I achieve that but we were approached by a national brand, this is about four years before I sold this national brand, everyone would know its name, it's a huge brand. And I won't give the name because I've been threatened to be sued if I voice it out publicly. But they came to me, they wanted to partner with me. And it was like, "Wow, this national brand wants to partner with me?" And so we had some meetings, and at the end of one of the meetings, they said, "Oh, we're going to partner with you. Would you be open if you could sell a few percentage to us?" I said, "I'm not interested. I've got two partners that want to retire. So I approached them and they said, "Yes, Kev, that would be great." So it ended up the 40% was being sold. And I was going to be left with 60% which was great. And then they said
"Well, no. We want all the business."
"So I told you at the beginning, I'm not interested."
"But look what you could achieve. You wanted to solve the road trade problem. Don't you think, with our brand with you at the helm, you could solve this, you could solve it all."
And I said, “I can. I think I could.”
And they gave me a very attractive exit package over a three year period as well. So I said yes. They didn't keep their word. They continue to have meetings with us extracting as much information as they possibly can. I'm saying that
"Where's the legals in this?"
"Oh, it's coming, Kev. It's coming"
The legals finally came, and they weren't what we agreed on so I told him to take a hike. But that set that whole roller coaster is setting the company into place. Now I've got two business partners that thought they were going to walk away with a lot of money and now they're not. They weren't particularly interested in keeping the business. But for me, it was my baby. And I wanted certain things in place. So I'm now thinking I've got to sell it for the sake of my business partners. It's not that they put that on me. I allow that to come upon me, myself. So I took someone on board that helped me tremendously. His name's Rupert Rawcliffe, a tremendous guy. If anybody ever is thinking of selling their business, they need to talk to Rupert. I'm sure they can get hold of me one way or another through Facebook, I can introduce you to him. He says, "Kev, this is what you need to put in place. This isn't how you need to present your company."
Fortunately, I've learned through Bob Harrison, many years before, employee people are more intelligent than you. And I took that on board. So I had a really good team that had built a really good foundation for the company and there really wasn't a great deal on more that I had to do to make it attractive. You know, we were profitable; we had great historical data and projections. And our company handbook was done by an incredible HR lady for us. She started her own business now called, "Star People", I believe. So I have all that in place. But from that point, I was pitching to other entrepreneurs with money, to big corporate companies. And I just said, "No, no." People were putting huge amounts of sums on the table and I'm going "No, no." And then an American company approached me. And I say to them, "Look, I want this in place, and if you can't say yes to all of those, go away. And they said "yes, yes, yes, yes" And one of them was looking after my team. And we spent nine months of due diligence. And they were certainly ticking off all the boxes - looking after my team. Look, we need to address that and in the end, "Okay, we can't put that into the contract." So it's finished then. Okay, if we put in lottery size, Euro lottery size, money on the table, you can't say no. So why? If you can't put that into some form of contract in any way, shape, or form the deal's finished. And I walked away from that deal. And that was distress. When you're saying no to your own lottery winning is just incredible, but they wouldn't look after my team for a while.
I love that Kevin is they said, you can't say no, you know, as if you have to say yes to the money, but to you, there's something more important than the money.
My team was more important. So I said no. And at that point, I'm going, "That's it. I'm sorry, business partners." Again, they weren't having me for this. I'm not going to do this anymore. Maybe I can get something in place, we can buy your shares out over a period of time. Yeah. And one of them took that and the other one didn't. So then I got contacted by another company. And again, I'm going to set enough of this and now I'm not interested. Again, Rupert said to me, "Well, why don't you put the big questions to them, Kev? And put some conditions in place as well." So we did. And they said, "yes, yes, yes". As history with you went through today, I wish I hadn't done it.
Someone said to me a long time ago, they said, "Kevin, why would you want to sell your business if it's successful, and it's fulfilling lots of things in your life?" And I look at that now and I think, "why didn't I listen to him? Why would I want to sell something that's a big part of my life that is paying all my bills, where I get a huge amount of satisfaction from and fulfillment from?"
I miss it so much, Ben. I genuinely wish I hadn't sold it. I believe that there were things that were pushing me to sell it but they're all coming from me. And I just wish that I hadn't allowed this roller coaster to take over my thought processes. And I just wish I had taken more time out to go to one side and go, "Kev, is this really the right thing? For you for your family?"
Hey, I'm blessed more than most people in the UK. I've managed to buy all my kids a house. We haven't got mortgages. You know, we're blessed financially like you wouldn't believe. And this is really, really corny and so many people will just get it's really not about the money.
Life is not about money. It's about having a good marriage. It's about having healthy kids. It's about having health throughout, it's about having that appreciation, integrity, being understood that vision and that trust all ticked; it doesn't matter how much money you've got. If those things aren't ticked, you're miserable. So true. I am a bit miserable to a degree because the vision is gone.
And I think that's such an interesting thing for entrepreneurs to understand and realize because as we've mentioned already on the show is people have this dream, this idea of what selling a business would look like, and how much purpose money could create in their life. But money isn't gonna create that purpose in your life. So it's really good to hear from you, obviously, someone who's walked that journey, really say that quite clearly.
If I would say to someone, really question yourself as to why you're building a business. If it's just for money, if it's just for the luxuries of this life, you have to understand that once you get to that point, they won't mean anywhere as near to you as what you thought they would. I can go all over the world, buy whatever I want. But the thing I want most is a great relationship with my wife and kids.
It's so true. I mean, even as trivial as you know, you get a new phone, a new car and it's like exciting for a few days. But then it's just normal. You know, it just becomes normal and there's something more that needs to drive us all and that's what I've absolutely loved about hearing from you. And I think that's obviously a massive key to why you have been successful because you've built something that's lasted over time because it's not just been based on tactics that change and you know, getting one up on anybody, but it's about being consistent, having values. I really appreciate everything that you've shared with us today, Kevin. It's an honor to have you on. Is there anything else that you'd like to sort of say to the audience before we finish?
People would say to me, "Kev, what is the number one thing in building a business?"
"I'd say people and visionary, those two things. Look after your people, make sure you've got a vision."