Dinesh Dhamija – Founder of Ebookers – @dinesh_dhamija
Interview by Ninder Johal
I clicked the mouse, the laptop lit up into action and suddenly Dinesh appeared on the screen – armed with a beaming smile.
Whilst I would preferred us to have met in person, the lockdown had forced us to revert to the digital approach.
Dinesh is immediately engaging with a broad smile and you could tell that this was a ’people person’ – he was relaxed, self-assured and dressed smartly in a mustard colour shirt – as anybody would be, who had scaled a travel business, floated it on the American NASDAQ and exited with a hefty pay cheque.
With the niceties out of the way – I asked him how being the son of an ambassador, he ended up being an entrepreneur. He recalled the early days where in his words ‘his father was short on salary but high on perks.’ Early stints at IBM and other jobs whilst the Labour government was in power, had taught him, that if he was going to earn serious money, then self-employment was the only route. The personal tax regime was simply crippling the prospect of a comfortable lifestyle.
A stint at selling insurance door to door in the early 70’s taught him both resilience and a sense of self-reliance, so it was not a surprise when he and his wife took a small space in a tube station to sell airline tickets. Money was tight but with a healthy 30-day credit from the airlines they made it work.
‘It was a continuous battle with competitors selling cheaper tickets and we made plenty of mistakes whilst we learnt our trade’ he confesses. But he argues that entrepreneurs should not delay opening a business just because they want everything to be perfect – learning is part of the journey.’
Entrepreneurs need to be flexible and take advantage of opportunities he continues, as he recalls Harvey Goldsmith asking him one day to sell ‘Box office’ tickets. Despite never heard the term, Dinesh admits being swayed by the generous fees paid and commissions offered to selling tickets.
Despite growing slowly and steadily – a trip to the US was the turning point – the internet was kicking off and Dinesh instantly saw the application in the UK. With software developed Ebookers was launched and within a few weeks the sales started to roll in. It was amazing he recalls vividly – the algorithms were sorting out all the bookings and payments and ‘my phone was pinging every time a sale came in’.
I asked why the trip to the US to raise monies?
Dinesh replies somewhat philosophically – ‘We were growing quickly but if I was to consolidate our first mover advantage, then we needed lots of cash – the appetite in the UK was not as good as the States and so off we went to Silicon Valley. We needed the money primarily for marketing in order to preserve our leadership position. The extra cash was needed as we wanted to scale to sell in the EU and not just restrict ourselves to the UK.’
The business mushroomed quickly with some members of his workforce resenting the threat of ‘machines’. We discussed the interesting parallel with AI and robotics and the uncertainty around job creation and disruption with technology. You cannot halt the progress of technology and society was the retort.
Scaling at speed meant that he had to change his leadership style and what he did day to day. He recalls growing such a speed they did not have time to train everyone and so lots of mistakes were being made – the speed of growth was phenomenal such that they had no choice, He remembers having to concentrate on two key tasks – one of recruiting the best and secondly ensuring that he was always at hand to keep the investors up to date with the plans of the business.
So why exit – was it something he had planned for?
His wife had now left the business and wanted to sell the business. Whilst he admits they were still spending a lot of money on marketing; it was obvious that the competition was outgunning them 5 to 1. The ‘writing was on the wall’ and an exit was inevitable.
He had always been a great networker and made sure that he was on good terms with all of the operators in the marketplace. Selling the business was not difficult because there were only a few operators who could buy a billion-dollar turnover company and it was certainly not going to be a brick and mortars business.
Was it hard to let go after the business was sold, I asked – ‘surprisingly no’ he admits – ‘it was a business decision based on numbers and not on emotion’
With the current pandemic – does he have any advice for the those operating in the travel business – ‘cut your cloth accordingly is his response – go back to basics and tough it out because it will all work out in the end’.
This advice is borne out of having to contend with the dot com crash, SARS and 9/11 where his personal valuation dropped by $710 million in a short few days.
How did he feel about losing so much money? I ask. Dinesh shrugs his shoulders ‘out of my control just like COVID 19. You just have to get on with it’.
Why the move to politics and why the Lib Dems?
‘I was a Cameron supporter, but Cameron shifted to the right to appease UKIP and as Nick Clegg was Deputy PM – I sided with the Lib Dems’.
So how do you feel about the Brexit deal? I asked – ‘I am British and a Brexiteer now – so I shall have to go with the decision and make the best of it.’
And now with Brexit dusted and done – where next? Back in Business – he has raised millions for his projects in Romania with green projects and also spends time on mentoring.
And as we sign off – he remembers that he has a book due to be published soon…. I will be first in the queue……