Elena Betes, the head of Penguin Portals, a network of comparison businesses within Admiral Group, knows what it’s like to live through difficult times as an entrepreneur.
Her first Spanish business, which she set up in emulation of Confused.com, struggled for lack of capital and scale; a second in Germany went bankrupt in the financial crisis of 2008.
Having come through those experiences and subsequently successfully run Admiral’s Spanish comparison site for more than a decade, she is well qualified to give tips to entrepreneurs looking to set up their own businesses in the challenging times post-Covid.
Her journey as an entrepreneur started when she was a young MBA student in Spain in the early 2000s. Two incidents in particular left a lasting impression on her. Her father was made redundant at the age of 53. Then the company Elena was working for, Arthur Andersen, was forced out of business as a result of the Enron scandal. Unsettled by the thought that working in a corporate her destiny would be in someone else’s hands, Elena decided instead to set up her own business.
Her first idea was to go into the hotel industry, and she decided to get some experience of the business by joining a large hotel group at the bottom. But a few days cleaning rooms convinced her she was wasting her time.
“A lot of entrepreneurs without experience have these fantastic ideas about how they’re going to change the world, then when you get into the operation you realise it wasn’t so fantastic, or wasn’t feasible,” she said.
Becoming an entrepreneur
Elena realised she wanted to set up a business that would help people. She was inspired by Confused.com, which was already operating in the UK, and how it helped people, who didn’t necessarily have any financial education, save money on their insurance.
As a young woman with no business experience she couldn’t get any money from the banks, so she borrowed from family and friends.
“People don’t realise, when you are starting a business, it’s really scary to spend the money of your family and friends. Everybody says be a risk taker, but you have your heart in your mouth. You have this huge investment in technology, is it going to work or not?” she said.
The company grew, although it was still making losses, and Elena joined a group who were willing to give her capital to set up another site in Germany.
“You gain confidence in yourself when somebody takes a bet on you, you get better. Someone is giving you money because they trust in you. It makes you more of a risk taker,” she said.
But then came the 2008 financial crisis, and the capital supply dried up. On the day the company was declared bankrupt, Admiral’s co-founder and then CEO Henry Engelhardt came to visit Elena in her London office.
“He said, you tried in Spain but didn’t have the scale, you tried in Germany, why don’t you try again with us? I had been trying this business model and using Confused.com as my goal. I thought, I cannot say no, I need to get in and understand how this business model works and try it again,” Elena said.
So she returned to Spain with her one-year-old child, and set up Rastreator.com, Admiral’s first overseas comparison site business. It was a success, and was followed by other businesses in other countries which have now been brought together, along with Confused.com, under the Penguin Portals umbrella of which Elena is the CEO. Although part of the Admiral group, Penguin Portals operates separately, and each of its constituent businesses such as Confused and Rastreator has a very large degree of autonomy to operate according to local conditions.
Success at Rastreator
Elena attributes her success at Rastreator to a number of things.
“I wasn’t the same any more, the learning I had gone through had made me completely different. I had been tried and tested, I knew what to do, I knew what I had to do when things went wrong,” she said.
“The second reason was, when someone bets on you, it’s easier to take risks. So you are more risk averse when you are by yourself than when you have somebody who has experience trusting you.”
She describes her position as being a corporate entrepreneur within Admiral, and says she feels very supported in that role.
“Admiral is a company built by entrepreneurs; they really give you space, and that is necessary for entrepreneurs. You should not be afraid of failing, you should be afraid of not learning from failure,” she said.
Being at Admiral also meant she no longer had to worry about capital, which gave her more time to concentrate on the business.
“The problem with being an entrepreneur is that half of the time you’re focusing on getting the cash you need, and half the time you’re focusing on operations. When I landed in Admiral, 100% of my time was focused on the business, on the customers. This makes a difference because you have more time,” she added.
So what advice does Elena have for new entrepreneurs? She said:
“The first lesson is, it’s not easy. It’s all about preparation and working hard. Check that you are ready for this hard work, that you have a high level of energy and motivation, because it’s not going to be easy. A lot of people may not have the resilience to change and change as needed.
“When you are starting out get operational experience. If you don’t have it, there are a lot of people that have been retired. They are amazing, they have knowledge, they are in society and we don’t use them. Of course, they’re not going to work 24 hours, but they want to come back and you should listen to them.
“You should know where you are headed when you want to be an entrepreneur. You really have to be willing to do everything, and be familiar with the concept of what you want to achieve.
“Sometimes on the way you forget why you started. It’s really important to come back to it and say, I started for that reason, so I’m not going to do that other thing. As an entrepreneur you do everything you do to make your dreams happen, and you should not throw away your dreams. When you have investors putting pressure on you it’s not easy.
“So be clear why you started because otherwise you won’t inspire people to follow you. Surround yourself with people that know what you’re trying to do, that believe in it and want to do it.”
Elena Betes has travelled a long journey from her first days as a struggling entrepreneur in Spain to leading Penguin Portals’ comparison platforms for financial services business in the UK, France, Spain, Mexico and India. Plans are well advanced for the launch of another comparison site later this year. The next stage of the journey will be worth watching.