Interviewing Cas Paton is a little like seeing a glimpse into the future, when we suspect his name will rank alongside great British entrepreneurs and businessmen such as Dyson, Branson and Sugar. At just 29, he has already had a successful and somewhat varied career. In 2006, he launched Bournemouth-based OnTop Media, a web design, web development and ecommerce solutions company, and this month sees the soft launch of his latest venture. The OnBuy Marketplace will go head-to-head with Amazon and has already attracted top brand names thanks to its simple pricing structure, customer-friendly approach and determination to succeed as a very British company. A self-confessed workaholic, Paton is determined to give his young family the start he never had and, once he has made his money, plans to embark on his next big adventure as a philanthropist. Alison Dewar met him at the OnBuy Marketplace offices in Basingstoke to find out more.
If there is such a thing, you would say Paton is a born salesperson. Growing up in Manchester, by the age of 12 he was working in a clothes shop at weekends, before graduating to a jewellery store and then a spell as a door-to-door salesman.
He left school at 16 and a year later joined the Royal Navy to train as an aircraft engineer. He was quickly identified for officer pilot training and, because it required a degree education, he was released to go to Bournemouth University, where he studied law. He never did complete his degree – within two years he had started his own business and from there his entrepreneurial skills have seen his business portfolio grow year-on-year.
So many ideas in so little time, who has inspired you?
I had a very entrepreneurial uncle who had his own business, he had a nice car, he had everything he wanted and he was respected in the business world. I wanted to be like him. I knew I had to acquire an ability to sell, so I did everything I could to improve my skills.
Going from the navy to university must have been a culture shock?
My childhood goal was to be in the military and probably become a pilot, so the fact I was selected for pilot training meant I felt I had achieved that, even though I didn’t actually do the course. Someone said that I had no education, so when I went to university I chose law because I thought it would be quite challenging. In fact, I didn’t find university challenging enough – the military life had given me the discipline to keep pushing, to optimise your time. I was a few years older than everyone else, I was used to long hours and lots of physical activity, so I found there wasn’t enough to fill my day.
Is that when you began your first business?
I had been doing web design for companies since I was 14, so while I was still at university I launched the web design and web development business. I needed to push myself. Starting my own company meant there were no limits and no rules.
I had just £80 in my pocket so I registered the company, signed an accountant and built the website. I had my first phone call within 24 hours and sold a system for £2,500.
Between work and university I was doing 90 hours a week so I soon had to make a decision – to either finish my degree or focus on the business. I was already making about £40k a year, so in 2007 I left university and the following year opened my first office. I had met my wife at university and she came to work with me. Within four weeks we had to move to bigger premises and by 2010 we had 16 staff and new offices in Bournemouth town centre. The business now turns over around £500,000 a year.
You’ve clearly branched out since then.
At university I also met Simon Lennon, who’s now our technical director. In 2008, Simon had come up with the idea of building an ecommerce software solution when he was studying for his BSc in Computing. From there, we realised that if we had 100 clients using our systems already and they all put their products onto the online marketplace then it would be a great place for them to sell. That’s when the OnBuy Marketplace idea began.
Now we have OnCommerce which is the solutions provider and OnRecycle is our recycling business.
You’re now part of the Centerprise International Group, how did that happen?
Centerprise International was a client of OnTop Media and one day its owner Rafi Razzak asked me what else we were involved with. He was impressed with what we were doing with OnBuy and wanted to invest in the business. We knew that for the launch we would need external investment and since they’ve been on board things have escalated rapidly.
Rafi “sold” Centerprise to me, their pride and their commitment; we liked the fact they were large enough to support us but small enough to be dynamic and hands on. They really care about the investment they have made. There’s no doubt we would have got there without them, but they certainly multiplied the opportunity.
Can you really go head-to-head with online giants such as Amazon?
The sky is the limit for OnBuy, we’d really like to give Amazon a run for their money and I think we can. We want 5% of Amazon’s market share in five years, which would be in excess of £100 million. We have a number of USPs – we don’t compete with the retailers to sell their own products and I think the fact we are a British business, paying UK taxes and boosting the UK economy means people will want to sell with us and buy with us. We’re investing in Britain and I want us to be seen as the John Lewis of online marketplaces – a brand that people rely on and trust.
Have you got any big names on board yet?
We’re already talking to brands including Reckitt and Benckiser, Alliance Healthcare and WorldStores. The potential is huge and we’re very excited about our soft launch this month. This is five years’ worth of ideas; we want to build up gradually, make sure the system is stable and sign up sufficient sellers before we do our major launch, complete with TV advertising, in September 2014.
How does OnRecycle fit?
We’re active recyclers and I think green credentials are essential to a business. Typically, when you buy a new gadget such as a phone, the old one often ends up unwanted in a drawer, but in fact there is a value in that old technology, even if someone doesn’t actually want to use it, the components can be re-cycled. OnRecycle enables customers to get the best price for their old gadget and recycle at the same time. The plan is to integrate it into OnBuy so we merge the ability to dispose of the old item at the same time as buying the new one.
Your uncle was an early inspiration, who inspires you today?
I’ve always admired Richard Branson for starting something from nothing and more recently Rafi has been a major influence. He invested in me personally as well as the business, and has taken time to mentor me in areas where I needed support. I’d like to do the same for someone else one day, to give young entrepreneurs the chance to do something.
Do you ever stop working?
When I do have any time I spend it with my family, my son is only eight months old and everything I do is for my family. Running a successful business isn’t about pride or ego, it’s not about money, for me it’s about providing security for my family. I come from a working class background and that’s what gives me my ambition and drive – I want my son to stay grounded and share those values too.
I’ve also just designed and am building my own house, which is something I’ve always wanted to do and I also love cars, but they need to be used, not kept in the garage.
So what happens next?
I’ve just turned 29 and ultimately, I would like to be able to walk away within the next five years if I choose to. By then I will have put in place the processes and the teams to ensure the business can run without me every day, then I can concentrate on coming up with the ideas. I see myself as a strategic thinker and that’s what I want to do more of.
I would like to think that if I am successful I will be able to spend a lot of time doing things to help people. I believe you get to a point where you only need so much money, as long as you are financially secure, then there is a lot you can do.
I really admire the actor Don Cheadle for his humanitarian work and I have a real desire to support projects which give people the help that they need. I’m not looking for personal recognition, I would prefer to do things anonymously, but as a British company there are plenty of opportunities to support people in Britain in a variety of ways. That’s my next ambition.
Cas Paton – OnBuy