Hayley Parsons is the founder and chief executive of Gocompare.com – one of the country’s best-known price comparison websites. Adam Aiken spoke to her and tried to find out some of the secrets of her success.
What was your background before you struck gold with Go Compare?
I left school as soon as I could and started working in the insurance industry, and I have been in the industry for my whole career.
Although I began as an insurance broker, I joined Admiral in the early 1990s when it was launching. I spent 14 fantastic years working for Admiral, and I was given the opportunity to work on a number of exciting start-up projects. I’ll always be grateful for that.
One of the projects I took on at Admiral was the project that eventually became Confused.com. We started work on that concept in 1999 and we took it to market in early 2002. But I worked on a number of different start-ups at Admiral, and I just got to the point when I felt it was time to do something for myself.
But why did you decide to go for a price comparison product?
I care very much about the customer and what’s right for the customer. I felt at the time that neither Moneysupermarket.com nor Confused.com were necessarily putting the customer first – nor were the insurance companies. It had got to the point in the insurance industry that all that mattered was getting to the top of the price list. The only thing that the comparison sites showed was the price.
So all the insurance companies needed to do was strip out the level of cover from their policies to get to the top of the list, and all that customers were doing was buying the policies on price.
I didn’t think that was good enough, and I realised that price comparison sites needed to do more. So the thinking behind Gocompare was to launch a comparison service that allowed customers to buy the right products at the right price.
Obviously, price is always a factor, but customers also have to understand the level of the insurance cover they are buying. If they want to buy the cheapest policy with all the covers stripped out, that’s absolutely fine, but they need to know that that’s what they’re buying.
So I had two drivers – the time was right for me personally to move on, and the market was in a position where it was ready to move on.
Did you realise how big the market would become?
One of my main jobs at Confused.com when we were launching, was going out to talk to insurance companies and brokers and trying to convince them this was going to become the new distribution model.
I truly believed it was the future, although trying to convince them that this was the case was probably the toughest job I’ve had in my life. It was about perseverance. I kept knocking on their doors to try to persuade them I was right.
We also tried to make it so they had nothing to lose by giving it a go. We developed technology that meant we did all the work at our end so the insurers didn’t need to put in any of their own IT resources – and if they didn’t gain any sales then it wouldn’t cost them anything.
The first major brand to embrace what we were doing and start paying us some income was Norwich Union. If Norwich Union hadn’t made that decision, would we be here today? Who knows?
So what were the risks you faced?
I loved every second while I was working for Admiral, so the hardest thing for me was leaving everybody whom I had spent 14 years working with. I was leaving people that meant the world to me, but I suppose that was less a risk and more just the personal sacrifice of what I was leaving behind.
But once I’d made the decision to do it, I never wavered. I knew that if it all went wrong I would be able to find another job, so I didn’t think it was a huge risk.
What was also hard was having a team come with me and knowing I was responsible for their livelihoods from then on. It was a huge responsibility and I had that cold sweat come over me when I handed my notice in – two friends were coming with me and I remember looking at them and thinking: “I’m responsible for these two guys for the rest of my life.”
What lessons have you learned?
I am a great believer in luck and timing, but I stick by my principles and I always try to be a good decent person and apply that across everything I do.
A lot of success in my business is based on friendship and trust. Liking somebody and trusting somebody are two of my main values for me.
The other big thing in all of this is being brave. When there are moments that scare the life out of you, they make you stronger. Sometimes you have to go by your gut feeling and do what you believe is the right thing to do.
How do you feel now that your business is a household name?
I never forget where we have come from and what we’ve achieved. I’ve got 200 people here now and there isn’t a day when I don’t look at everybody on the floor and think how proud I am of what everyone is doing.
I’ll never forget what we’ve done and the sheer hard work and passion that everybody’s put in. I’m very grateful, and it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling when I think about it.
We genuinely have that passion to save people money and we never lose focus on that, whatever else is going on. That’s one of my main values. I try to do right by my staff here and I try to do right by the customer. If you get those two things right, then the rest of the business takes care of itself.
So what comes next?
I am very open and flexible about what the future might hold. I am generally a happy person – I’m very happy and content within my business and my job, and very happy and content with my home life.
Before I’m the boss of Gocompare, I’m a mother of two little boys. Whilst Gocompare is important to me, so are my husband and my family. Overall I have a great life. But it’s still hard work and I am constantly working on my relationships in work and at home. That’s what this business is built on – that personal touch.
Nowadays, what do I bring to the business? Mainly it’s my personality. I’m the glue that holds everyone together. I’ve got a great management team in place, and the truth is that they make most of the day-to-day operational business decisions. So, although I’m the person that holds it all together, I’m not the person that dictates everything that goes on in the business.
And what is your advice to budding entrepreneurs?
Quite often when I speak to people – and I do get a lot of calls and emails – and they tell me what their idea is, I feel they are desperate to be an entrepreneur and have their own business, but their idea isn’t too sound and they should be very careful about what they are looking to invest in.
There are a number of people who are destined to do something themselves, but they need to have weighed up the risks and know what their worst-case scenario is. It’s very important to understand that.
A couple of years ago, someone was talking to me about this idea they had. I really didn’t buy into the concept at all and I didn’t buy into their drive or capabilities, either. They were looking to sell their house to finance it. I told them they had to be very careful because I was worried they didn’t have the capability of making it work.
Understand first what your worst-case scenario is, and then work everything back from that basis.
So you’re saying you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur just for its own sake?
Yes. It worries me that some people desire it so much. But on the other hand, I really admire some people as well. There are a couple of people I know who try and try and try, and fail and fail and fail, but they keep going. And you know what? Some of them get there eventually.