Ex-City lawyers go green
Most people are aware of the dangers of climate change, yet how many people put their money where their mouth is? Tom Pakenham and Jonny Goldstone left City firms to set up greentomatocars, "London’s environmentally friendly private hire car service" (aka green minicabs). Starting with just five Toyota Prius hybrids in March 2006, they now run a fleet of 24 cars, with more on order. Business is booming and they already have an impressive client list. We spoke to Jonny and Tom to find out how they got here…
mtl: Hello Jonny and Tom, now start at the beginning with your legal careers.
Tom: I had always wanted to run my own business and had been advised that law was a good grounding to have. I trained at Slaughter and May, qualified into the IP/corporate department and left after six months to set up greentomatocars. It is just as important to find out what you don’t want to do in life, so I have no regrets about doing law. I just felt that as a lawyer I was never going to create anything new or different.
Jonny: I had an amazing training contract at Clifford Chance, which included a seat in Madrid and quite a bit of international travel. I qualified into the corporate department feeling very positive. However, after a year I was unnerved to realise that I didn’t want to do it in the long-term. Part of the problem was that the work was pretty much going to be the same from then on – I knew what was in store and it didn’t appeal.
I struggled to leave as I thought I needed firm plans before resigning, and obviously it is hard to know what else to do (let alone have the time to plan it). However, the longer you stay, the harder it is to leave. When I finally left Clifford Chance, I still wasn’t certain what I was going to do next. I had vague notions of being a chef or a photographer as those are things that I really enjoy. Handling a career change in this way certainly leaves your options open!
mtl: So where did greentomatocars spring from?
Tom: As well as wanting to set up my own business, I was also interested in running a "green" business, and I was constantly thinking about what I could do. The idea of green taxis originally came from my mum!
I spent a month researching the concept and then handed in my notice to Slaughter and May so that I could concentrate on it full time. I rented out my flat, went to live at home and was initially based from there. At that stage I discussed the idea with Jonny but he wasn’t ready to leave Clifford Chance. However a few months later he resigned, spent some time driving around the USA and came to join me in running the company in October 2005. By that point I had already spent a year researching the environmental considerations and planning the business in theory.
We spent the next six months preparing for the launch in March 2006. We worked on the business model, found an office, Jonny spent time driving taxis (which I had also done) to get a feel for the industry, we ordered the cars, set up the website, recruited drivers, set up the control system for the cabs, prepared the literature… the list goes on. I sold my flat and we put the money into the business ourselves. We didn’t want to be bank-rolled or to have to rely on grants. We are now getting offers of outside investment though, so that we can expand more quickly.
Graduated from Cambridge - History
CPE and LPC at BPP
Joined Slaughter and May
Set up greentomatocars
Graduated fromCambridge - Law with French Law
LPC at College of Law
Joined Clifford Chance
Set up greentomatocars
We launched with 5 cars. We worked very long hours and the first three months were the hardest of my life. We had no staff in the office, so we were answering the phones, running the control system for the taxis and even doing some of the driving ourselves. All the time we were trying to grow the business. As it grew we took on more staff and now we have three administrative staff, seven employees who answer the phones and allocate bookings, and 24 drivers and cars.
We are trying to prove that you can do business in a new eco-friendly way. We aren’t political about this message as there is a place for activism and many unsubtle ways of trying to change people’s views. We just want to offer a genuine alternative to our non-green competitors. greentomatocars is environmentally friendly at no extra cost to the client, while still offering outstanding customer service.
mtl: And how are people reacting to greentomatocars?
Jonny: There has been loads of interest from the start and we had press interest before we even launched. We had planned to run five cars for the first six months but after two weeks we ordered five more.
Start-ups are obviously vulnerable but we are doing better than we could ever have hoped at this stage. Although we do cash work and we have quite a few accounts for individuals, the majority of our work comes from corporate accounts, and this is increasing all the time. Our clients include Sony BMG, Fox, Nike, Innocent, BSkyB, UBS and also the Prince’s Trust. Our goal is to be a major and established player in the market and also to help clean up the minicab industry (in more ways than one). We plan to grow at a steady rate and we are taking it step by step.
mtl: What was the hardest part of the transition from being a lawyer?
Tom: I often wake up very early worrying about work because of the risk and responsibility of managing over 30 people. Sometimes we have to deal with difficult people who will let us down and this has been quite a wake-up call. At our level in a law firm you live in a bubble, insulated by partners and support staff. However, to balance the stress is the excitement of building something new and knowing that we really care about what we are doing. As a lawyer you are a means by which someone else achieves something. Now we are the ones doing something new and positive. And ultimately being your own boss, and being able to come and go as you like, is very rewarding.
Jonny: I think going from doing what you are told to managing other people and having to deal with their issues has been the hardest thing for me. There are obvious challenges in being the boss – training staff, communicating with them effectively, hiring and firing them...
We put in 10-12 hour working days. We have taken a pay-cut from our legal jobs but we take out enough to live on quite happily, though we have fewer holidays now. We have certainly learnt how difficult it is setting up a business but also how fulfilling it is. When I get up at the start of the day now, it really doesn’t feel like going to work. It is more like having a project to do and we can’t wait to get back to our desks and carry on with it.
I no longer hope for Friday evening on a Monday morning. Also I no longer try to forget work the minute I leave the office. I am always thinking about it. And what I do and say at work matters and that is empowering.
mtl: How has your legal background helped you with your business?
Both: Our legal background definitely gives us confidence in dealing with people in a business capacity and being lawyers gives us credibility. It also taught us about the importance of treating staff well. Our training helped our organisational skills, our attention to detail and our thoroughness in thinking through processes. And it taught us about needing to cap legal fees! And it also made us better at arguing with each other!
mtl: Do you miss being a lawyer?
Jonny: I don’t miss it. I get my fix of being pedantic by correcting an email every so often! And we frequently have to think about legal issues anyway. I did enjoy it to an extent though and wouldn’t be totally against the idea of going back to it if I had to for some reason.
mtl: Do you have any tips on running your own business?
Both: It is very hard work running your own company – not necessarily in terms of hours but in intensity, the concentration required and the emotional side of things. The highs and lows can be extreme. However tempting, don’t rush into things. Have the right foundations in place before you launch your business. Do things in the right order and don’t get too far ahead of yourselves. Be restrained and over-prepared. Don’t expect it to be easy - we have a lot more responsibilities than when we were lawyers. But being your own boss is great!
mtl: Thank you Tom and Jonny and good luck with greentomatocars. Finally though, what is the story behind the name?
Jonny: Well the "green" bit is obvious. We also wanted it to sound "fresh", as opposed to the usual names for minicab companies. The "tomato" part was suggested by a friend as part of a word association exercise. Then it just kind of stuck. A lot of people ask us about it!
You can find out more about the service offered by greentomatocars and book one of their eco-cabs at www.greentomatocars.com
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
Send this feature to a friend