‘I was embarrassed to tell friends about my business’
“I’ve always been fascinated by the internet for as long as I can remember.
“I spent my teens online, building communities and businesses, growing up in suburban Surrey.”
At 30, Adnan Ebrahim is now a seasoned tech entrepreneur.
He founded the website Car Throttle, an online community for car enthusiasts, from his bedroom as a student having demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit from a young age.
Speaking on A Million by 30 with Sean Farrington on BBC Radio 5 Live, he says the first time he saw the financial potential of the internet “was after I started flogging these popular wristbands back in 2005-6 to my mates at school”.
Adnan explains that “on eBay, they were going for ten times as much as in real life. I created my first auctions and started shipping these wristbands out of my house.
“I would get my mum to run down to the shops and buy as many as she could.”
He says he made “pretty good money for a school kid”.
At 16, Adnan got into blogging after an unsuccessful venture selling iPods.
“I got stung quite badly. I lost a couple of thousand pounds… it turned out to be a fake seller.”
Blogging would turn out to be far more lucrative. He loved cars, so he started writing about them. But to begin with, he kept it a secret.
“I’d come back home from school every day, write some articles, publish. The next day, see how it did, check the traffic… see how many pennies I’d make from the AdSense clicks.”
Adnan could see he had the makings of a successful online business idea when the pennies became “ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred… to a couple of thousand dollars a month”.
He sold the business at 18 having kept it under wraps from his parents until he needed the requisite legal papers signing.
“It was strange, but I liked the fact that no one else knew what I was doing. It was like a second life that I had online.”
He also delayed telling his friends about his success.
“No one knew. Aside from my family, I hadn’t told any of my friends. I had kept it fairly under wraps.
“I was a bit embarrassed that I had created this second life that no one else knew about. I had been writing and blogging – I was a bit afraid about what people would think about it.”
Even once he’d left school and gone to university, where he launched Car Throttle, he chose not to share this part of his life with his friends.
“I didn’t tell my flatmates until the second year of living with them… they had no clue I was doing it.”
Journalist and author, Trevor Clawson, has been writing about tech startups and fast-growth companies for more than a decade. He says this degree of secrecy isn’t uncommon among budding entrepreneurs.
“There are a number of reasons why they might choose to keep a low profile – at least in the early days,” he says.
“Fear of criticism can be a factor. When you’re developing an idea, it’s not necessarily helpful to have it critiqued by friends or associates who may not really understand the concept – especially before it has been fully developed.”
Adnan says it took “quite a while” before he realised his business was interesting enough to share with his friends:
“I just thought it was a bit geeky and people wouldn’t really connect with it.” He says attitudes toward tech ventures were different then to what they are now: “I think digital lives were seen as a little bit murky.
“A secret part of my personality existed online and that wasn’t something that I was willing to share with the rest of the world back then.”
He says he remembers clearly the moment he opened up to his flatmate about Car Throttle, but it wasn’t the “unveiling the Batman” moment he was expecting.
“I said, I’ve got something really big to tell you. I’ve got this website. And I remember him going ‘so what?’ it just wasn’t a big deal to him.”
Adnan remembers when the word “million” started to emerged on his spreadsheet.
“The million number started to come quite quickly, in 2013, 2014, both in terms of the valuation of our business, in terms of hitting our first million pounds in revenue, hitting our first million subscribers on YouTube, having our first million fans on Facebook… we were really gathering pace.”
He sold Car Throttle in 2019 to Dennis Publishing, having built an audience of more than 15 million followers and 2.5 billion video views.
Douglas McCabe, an expert in tech and publishing media, and the chief executive of Enders Analysis, says that while the business isn’t the most valuable car news title in terms of revenue, its reach and audience has big appeal.
“It offers a new audience, with 60% of customers aged under 35. Its social reach is particularly valuable, being roughly 14 times and 17 times greater than Auto Express and Car Buyer – two of Dennis’ car titles.”
Adnan was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in 2020.
He says that while he doesn’t regret the decisions he made earlier in life – even the mistakes – he wishes he’d been “more aggressive about opportunities”.
“I think when you’re that young, you have a lot of inferiority complexes,” he adds.
Ben Laker, leadership professor at Henley Business School, says young business leaders are often afraid to own their success: “Entrepreneurs don’t recognise the person being talked about as successful, as themselves.”
Adnan is now chief executive of a mental health startup MindLabs, co-founded with business partner Gabor Szedlak, to “make the world a happier place”. And he has some advice for budding tech entrepreneurs.
“It’s not an easy route to success, there are a lot of hurdles along the way. You have to realise that you’re going to make mistakes and that’s completely normal.
“Persistence is one of the main things that you need. A lot of the time it’s hard – there’s just no other word to describe it.”