Rajendra Hariprashad is the owner of Ena’s Driving School based in New York City. The company offers courses and driving lessons to help customers learn to drive and earn their license to drive a car, truck, motorcycle, bus or tractor-trailer. The business started as a very small family operation and has grown steadily to now employ 25 people.
How did you get started with your business?
I was in the Marines. Everything where I was stationed in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was far away. I knew a couple of Marines who didn’t have their license. I had a car and a license. I said, “I don’t want to drive you all over the place, and I can’t have fun!” So, I taught them to drive just so they could be designated drivers and help out. I thought that was fun.
When I came out of the Marines, I saw driving schools around the area. I saw old cars and older guys teaching. It just clicked. I said, “Why don’t I start a driving school and do the same thing?” That’s where it started.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
There was no way I was going to get a loan. I had just come out of the military and I was unemployed. I was actually on unemployment. My parents had some money saved up, so I used my parents’ money. I sold my car that I had in the Marines and bought a car for the driving school. Everything started small. It was basically family funding. I just started with one car and lessons.
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When I started, I didn’t have all the people coming in that I expected. On Fridays, when my mom was finished working her job, she would come to the office and pay my secretary and give me some pocket money for the week, cause I didn’t have any money – We didn’t make enough money for the week. That went on for a good five months. And then the business started picking up.
Who was your first customer?
I advertised in the local papers. The first person walked in because they saw the sign that was in front of the office.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
A lot of trial and error. I can honestly say that the point where I am right now is because of a lot of trial and error. I tried something, it didn’t work, I never tried it again!
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
Listening to all the so-called experts. Everyone came by and said they were an expert on this part and that part. At the end of the day, I ended up losing thousands and thousands of dollars. I spent a lot of money on advertising that didn’t work out. All the extra stuff for the phones, too, that I don’t think I’ve ever had to use. After that, I said, “I’m running the business with my cell phone and the office.” I kept things really tight after that, and it grew slowly.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
I am the one who is actually on the road, so I deal with all the customers personally. Because of being very nice to the customers and giving good customer service, people started referring their friends and family. Up to now, the majority of the people we have are from referrals.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
I do get to set my own schedule, but I work a whole lot longer hours. Sometimes, even at night, I go home and read emails. I still prefer it this way than any other way.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
Employees. It’s hard to find the right help. If you find the right help, keep them happy year after year, especially if you don’t raise your prices. There’s always someone coming out with lower prices, so you have to be on top of your game.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
If you’re starting a business, you know it’s going to be stressful, but I never knew how stressful until things started one after the other. You need more time in the day to do everything.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
I’ve always liked Bill Gates; I always follow him. I also like Michael Bloomberg.
What I’ve Learned
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
If you like what you’re doing, it will never feel like a job, it will always feel fun. I’ve started a few businesses, and I notice that if I don’t really like one, I kind of leave it alone a little bit and sometimes the business slows down. You always have to pay attention and love what you’re doing. If you don’t love it, it’s not going to work.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
Advertising is one of the biggest things I lost money on. If I had known more about advertising, it would have been great. Advertising 13 years ago was completely different than it is now. When we started, I did the local newspaper and lost money. The only thing that worked for me at that time was physically handing out flyers. Now, that doesn’t work. The perfect advertising I use now is Google AdWords. It pays itself off.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.