Motoring

Having sold his previous two, Sebastien launches third auto business with Dorset Business Angel backing

(L-R) Jim Legg, Mike Barnett, Paulo Carvalho, Louise Sanders, Sebastien Duval, Adam King

By Sam Pither [email protected]

Published: September 18, 2023 | Updated: 18th September 2023

There are not many people who can say they’ve successfully set up, sold and exited two businesses by the age of 40.

One who can is Sebastien Duval, a Dorset born and bred entrepreneur who now returns as CEO of his third business, Honk Honk, an auto marketplace which aims ‘to make selling your old car and buying a new one as easy as any other online purchase’.

Honk Honk launched in September 2023, having secured an initial seed investment of £560,000 including £340,000 from Dorset Business Angels, which connects investors and entrepreneurs through its pitch events.

Sebastien’s journey into the auto trade started while working in Christchurch at the Kings Arms Hotel, where he met co-founder Adam King, who suggested he try door-to-door gas and electric sales as the money was good.

“I quickly discovered that sales were my forte,” Sebastien explained.

“In 2003 I eventually moved into car sales, working for ‘Wood of Bournemouth’ selling Minis and BMWs, progressing to sales manager and then brand manager.

“In 2010 I went to Loughborough University and studied for a master’s degree in strategic automotive retail management. I quickly learnt that there was far more to the automotive industry than selling cars on the shop floor.

“I co-founded my first business, AUTOi with Adam King and Mike Barnett, creating a dealer digital vehicle appraisal system, which we sold on to carwow in June 2021.

“We also created another brand in 2016, called Wizzle. It used the dealership technology for appraising vehicles, allowing the public to use and then sell back to the network of dealers that we had on AUTOi. Again, we sold out to carwow in 2021.

“We learnt so much whilst running these two businesses. I was contracted to carwow as part of the sale, finally exiting in May 2022.

“We went through a lot of names before coming up with Honk Honk for our new business, deciding that it was fun, catching and memorable. We found out that the URL was available at a relatively sensible price too, so we went for it.

“At Honk Honk we decided that we wanted to go full end-to-end cycle, not only allowing the general public/consumers to sell their cars to dealers but also allowing dealers to sell their inventory back to the general public.

“We also arrange finance and provide buying and selling support and home collections and deliveries. We launched on 1st September 2023.

“The launch has been staggered, initially launching just the selling part of the journey of cars to dealers. We plan to launch the buying part of the journey (dealers to consumers) in January 2024.

“We intend to stay as lean as possible, get to profit as soon as possible and surround ourselves with an outstanding and experienced team while having lots of fun in the process. Our ambition is to sell out in 3 years.

“We launched with 5 staff, all co-founders, with 6 co-founders in total; Sales Director Louise, Chief Brand Office Mike, Ops Director Jim (soon to be my brother-in-law!), Paulo, Chief Technology Officer, and investor Adam King.

“We all worked together previously at Wizzle and AUTOi, get on really well, know and understand our different roles and motivate and inspire each other. We intend to end our first year of business with a team of 14 and aim to recruit locally, this is extremely important to us.

“We first pitched to Dorset Business Angels back in 2016 and have been amazed by the support received. We were supported by DBA Chairman Don McQueen and two other business angels, Tim and David, whose involvement and investments in AUTOi and Wizzle made such a massive impact on our journey.

“We wouldn’t have made a success of the businesses without their help, support and guidance, it was critical to our journey and outcome. We were operating in a really saturated market and quickly burning through a significant amount of the money from the initial investment raise with them.

“We were trying to compete with start-ups with multiple millions invested in them. The Angels got us to focus on key KPIs such as maximising the amount of throughput that we achieved in our journey.

“Another of our biggest focuses was on being extremely efficient – more efficient than the competition. We would have quarterly board meetings with the angels, but we knew that they were always there at the end of a phone if we had a problem in between those meetings – we used that all the time!

“Don, Tim and David are all Bournemouth based as well, so our relationships were highly convenient, and it was easy for them to pop in regularly and chat.

“Their support went far beyond the money side of things, and it was as much about the advice and support throughout the journey. We were always totally honest and transparent with our investors, even if difficult conversations needed to be had.

“As a result, our relationship with them flourished and there was a lot of trust between us, that really helped.

“They were teaching us as we went along, they didn’t skirt over items and they made sure that we understood everything and that everyone was on the same page. That was particularly apparent in the selling process. They were always incredibly patient too.

“The level of trust that built up is evidenced by the fact that our original 3 investors are now part of the team of 11 in the most recent DBA investment. As part of our recent seed investment, we raised £560,000, of which £340,000 was raised through DBA.

“Don McQueen is the lead investor, which means that he organised the new investor meetings for the group of 11, put across our aims and then collectively captured the thoughts of the investors and reported back to us.

“There is so much depth of support and specialities within the DBA investment team – some are already helping in a variety of ways; we have a digital online specialist, someone helping with our content and user journey and much more.

“We’re looking forward to challenging times ahead but making our mark in the sector. We believe that our offering is different.

“A lot of new entrants that have come into the sector have tried to compete with dealers but in fact, they’re the lifeblood of the industry and we recognise the need to support the dealers with both buying and selling.”

DBA Chairman and Honk Honk Investment lead Don McQueen advised, “I was super involved in Wizzle and AUTOi. Sebastien is very easy to work with, he’s a great listener and never afraid to take advice from his angel investors and always doing so willingly.

“As a result, the relationship flourished and is a reason why we are prepared to invest again and bring on board a much larger team of angel investors.”

Angel Investor Max Wright added, “I wished I’d been involved in the original Wizzle investment. I’ve followed the Wizzle journey ever since and have been very impressed at Sebastien’s skills and abilities, as well as the rest of his team.

“When I heard that Seb was going to start another company in this arena, I jumped at the opportunity to invest and get involved. I’m very happy to offer my entrepreneurial skills to the team and look forward to seeing what lies ahead for the business.”

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