Currently located in Las Vegas, Nevada, Jesse Willms is the owner of several vehicle history websites, which provide free vehicle history information. Using his websites, you are able to check the history of a used car and see if it has been in an accident, if it is reliable, if it has had any recalls, what consumers think about it, and how they have reviewed it. It started out as a concept in 2015 but it has turned into a successful site with about four million people using it monthly to get free vehicle information.
He was interested in business from an early age. When he was 15, he started reading a lot of different books on business, with an interest in biographies and stock investing books, but he was open to reading virtually any book he could get his hands on. Willms was really fascinated by famous investors like Warren Buffet and others that had gained a lot of wealth. Since he was reading so much, he began a business by selling books online when he was 16. Initially, he did not feel the effort was worth it since it took a lot of time and resources to make a small amount of revenue. However, this experience taught him valuable lessons which he then used to sell computer software online. Jesse Willms enjoyed selling items online so much that he quit school at 17 to pursue his passion for e-commerce.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
I was inspired by companies like Credit Karma. I was amazed how they got into this area and made credit reports completely free and created a business around it. It is a business model that is a lot better for consumers and where one could make money on the advertising.
We saw a market where big companies were charging for information. We realized that if we provided the information for free and relied on advertising for income, it could be a better model and consumers would save a lot of money. Instead of paying $40 for a report, they could get it for free and the car manufacturers, like Honda, Toyota, and Ford, could advertise with us. We provide exposure and brand advertising for those car manufacturers. Consumers can also find information about the local car dealers in their areas as they are looking at the free information on our website.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I always start off by answering emails and keeping in touch with everyone. We have 25 writers to help improve the user experience on the site. I meet with the heads of each team; we have teams responsible for content, development, and products. I spent a lot of time seeing how things are going and seeing where I can be helpful, but then getting out of their way and letting them do their thing, but always available to help.
I also spend a portion of my day recruiting and looking at the future state of this business- considering what the vision is, planning the vision, and looking at who we need to join the team. I am the one that focuses on recruiting and getting the right staff on board to make the vision possible.
How do you bring ideas to life?
My goal is to help with the vision and help with the direction of the company. I want to find the right people and share the vision with them. I want to find people with different skill sets who are really strong in their areas and then collectively work together to make the vision a reality.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am really excited about self-driving cars. I see it as something that is ultimately going to make the roads much safer. Also, I don’t really like driving to work each day. If my car would do it for me, I think that is amazing. So, I’m very excited about that.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Every day I spend at least an hour reading or listening to audiobooks. I am continuously learning. I pick different topics, especially ones that I am not very good at, and try to learn more about them. I find consistently doing that each day makes you a better entrepreneur.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to listen a lot more, look for where I am wrong, and not to be so overconfident. Finding the right people and listening to them and always asking: What are my blind spots? What could I be making a mistake on?
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
I am such an advocate for Las Vegas being a great place to live. When I talk to people who are just visiting the strip and getting a very limited perspective of the city, they don’t realize that Vegas has so many nice areas that are outside of the entertainment, gambling, and drinking scene. It is a great place to live, and there is more to the city than gambling and the nightlife.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
After we get out of school, usually learning drops off for us. But continuously learning is so important, whether it is taking courses, reading books, or finding mentors. I really see a direct correlation with success and how much people continue to learn. I really take a focused approach to learning the areas that can help me in my business or where I do not have formal training.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
As companies get bigger, they seem to have more bureaucracy and more layers of approval. If you hire great people and trust them, you need to do everything you can to get out of their way and trust them to make good decisions in their area of responsibility. Sometimes mistakes will be made, but they will quickly learn from them and correct them. Innovation can happen much quicker when you don’t have all the layers of bureaucracy.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest setback was in 2012 when I had to pay a pretty large fine to the federal government for advertising practices. We had a very successful business, but I learned that we were not focused enough on the product we were selling and really making the product right. I learned to really put the product and the customer experience first. We had a free trial offer, but a certain amount of our customers that did not understand how the offer worked. We did not do a good enough job making it clear to all of our customers how our billing model worked. But things should be really clear to a customer, so they know exactly what they are getting. If you take care of your customer, the profits will come naturally.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
People want to do things remotely. I think there is a huge opportunity in the area of telemedicine. I think of companies like Airbnb that have made it so easy to rent out homes, a service that did not exist 10 or 15 years ago. I think some sort of equivalent for telemedicine would make it very easy for people to connect with doctors and get medical advice without having to leave their home. This would meet the needs of a lot of people.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
That would be the money I spent on my Fitbit. It keeps track of my heart rate and how much I am walking each day. I try to get to about 10 miles each day by walking around the office, hiking, and doing different things. I do not always make it, but it really keeps me motivated so I don’t just sit at my desk all day.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
One thing that comes to mind is Audible. I use Audible on my phone to listen to different books. I also use it to listen to podcasts. It keeps me learning each day.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
I recommend No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer. It talks about the Netflix culture and how many ideas are counterintuitive to how we do them currently in most big companies. What I learned from it is how you can create a company of high performers and really trust them to do what they think is best. Moving away from the typical culture of bureaucracy, approvals, and micromanagement.
What is your favorite quote?
This is a Steve Jobs quote that I heard when I was pretty young, and it always stuck with me.
“I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself, if today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do today? Whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
- I have had a lot of learning experiences in my life and I think I am a much different person than I was 10 or 15 years ago. Life gives us a lot of tough lessons, but I have learned from them. I am a person that is excited to make new successful businesses and I’m constantly evolving.
- When people ask me for advice, I encourage them to take action. People can think too much, and it holds them back. Don’t wait for the stars to align. They never seem to. You’ve just got to go do it.
- When I am not actively learning, seeking out new ideas, or asking questions of myself, I get overconfident and start thinking that I know everything. I think as entrepreneurs we start hitting pitfalls and plateauing and ultimately declining in our success. I am always looking for better ways of doing things.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.