Comtek: Askar Sheibani
Why the Comtek founder didn't listen when he was told his business idea would never work
When I came to the UK in 1972, I couldn’t speak a word of English and knew no one. My origin is Azerbaijani Iranian. But I loved being adventurous. I was a risk taker, so I wasn’t frightened to go from one part of the world to another. I had a creative mind, a competitive streak and loved facing tough challenges. When people say I can’t do something, that’s a challenge for me.
I focused on my education, qualifying as an electronics engineer at Liverpool Polytechnic. Although very poor, I managed to get a job, but realised I couldn’t reach my true potential in the electronics industry. There was a lot of discrimination back then. In many organisations there are politics that stifle you rather than motivate you. I realised the only route for me was starting my own business.
I’d identified a niche area and wanted advice. I realised that many large organisations were sending their hardware products all over the world to the manufacturers for repairs. There wasn’t anywhere in the UK which was able to repair many different products in the same place. By repairing products locally, you could reduce costs and turnaround time, not to mention lowering carbon footprints in the process.
I went to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and showed my plan to a senior business consultant. “It won’t work,” he said. “British businesses prefer to send products to the manufacturers. That’s how it is. You’re a very good engineer. My advice would be don’t leave your job, don’t take the risk.”
I approached my bank for funding. Again, they hadn’t seen anything like it before so they thought it was too risky and not viable. But I knew it could work, so I bought myself a second-hand shed for £50. I put it in the back garden, wired it up and set up a small workshop.
Many of my friends thought I was crazy to leave my job, especially as I had a young family. People said that if you start taking away business from the big manufacturers, they’ll destroy you. But I’ve always believed in our ability to achieve a lot more than we are led to believe we can. I learned how to do sales, bookkeeping and logistics, as well as doing all the engineering work.
Some 12 years later, the secretary of state for the DTI invited me to sit on the Ministerial Advisory Board. There I was, ironically, advising the same department that didn’t even want me to begin with.
My advice to anyone who wants to start a business is, no matter how many barriers there are, how many people try to de-motivate you, how many people say it can’t be done, it can be done. If you’ve got the passion, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.
Comtek is now a £10m-turnover, highly profitable business, with bases in England, Wales, Holland and Germany. It has completed more than two million repairs for customers, such as BT, Orange, Siemens and IBM, preventing 85 tonnes of toxic materials from going to landfill. Comtek is shortlisted in the Green Business of the Year category at this year’s Fast Growth Business Awards.