Adnan Ebrahim is the founder and CEO of Car Throttle, the largest community of social car enthusiasts.
After starting the website as a simple blog from his university bedroom back in 2009, Adnan has grown the company to a community of more than 13 million petrolheads across all of the main social media platforms.
He has overseen the company’s growth from a one-man team to more than 20 employees, raising more than £1.6m in investment along the way.
We sat down with Adnan to chat about Car Throttle’s explosive growth and discover some of the lessons he has learned on his journey.
Adnan, thanks for speaking to Human Window. Could you tell us a little bit about how you started Car Throttle and your journey up to this point?
I started Car Throttle from my university bedroom back in 2009. Prior to that, I had a blog called Blogtrepreneur when I was 16 years old. That blog was basically about me learning about the internet – how to generate traffic, how to sell advertising… I ran that for two years, and just before my 18th birthday I sold it to an American media company.
I’d always had this big passion for cars. I think I’m not alone in thinking that most young boys my age would sit down and watch Top Gear on a Sunday night.
At that time, in 2009, there wasn’t really much online [about cars]. You had a couple of videos here and there. Top Gear were recutting TV content and putting it on YouTube, but there was nothing really for this new social millennial generation. So the idea was, can we build a Top Gear for the Facebook generation?
How did you deal with the uncertainty that comes with starting your own business?
It wasn’t easy! (laughs). I think a lot of the early traction helped to take away some of those nerves associated with running a business. I’ve said this a couple of times, but my mum was always a bit skeptical of me going into business straight away without me having actually worked for anyone before. I never had a job and I still have never technically worked for someone.
When we started to get more recognition, we would get some press cars coming through. The first one I got was a Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart – and it was a 1.5 litre turbo warm-hatch.
I think people started to realize, at least on my personal Facebook, that this wasn’t like a joke project and that I had just decided to bum around at home for a year. A big manufacturer had sent us a car to review and it just legitimized it more.
I always said to myself that it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve tried to stick with that as long as possible, because realistically, what people say and what people think shouldn’t have a bearing on what you do.
Most of the time, it’s just about how you feel about a particular business. Getting that legitimacy through, and seeing the growth in the early days… the first video that we did with Volvo got over 100,000 views. Those little indicators certainly helped to make me realize that this was actually something that could work.
The growth of the Car Throttle Facebook page was a big part of your business back then – how did that happen?
We start off with the blog. It was WordPress and really simple, and a YouTube channel. The YouTube channel struggled to get traction. We tried a lot of different types of content, some weird stuff! What changed was that we were trying to get traffic to these YouTube videos, and we were experimenting with all kinds of traffic sources and trying to rank on Google for certain keywords.
At that time, Facebook was starting to take off and gain traction with pages, whereas before that it was all about personal accounts. Alex [Kersten], who is now our head of video, contacted this Facebook page called Car Memes, and the guy who ran it basically said, ‘if you pay me £5 for a link, I’ll post a link to one of your Car Throttle articles on the page’. The first link got posted and I think it got like 10,000 concurrent users and crashed our shared server, which obviously wasn’t capable of holding any kind of traffic whatsoever.
And then we paid for another link and the same thing happened again. We thought, ‘there’s something here, so let’s do regular linking from Facebook’.
Every time we would link from Facebook, we would get this massive spike in traffic. It became clear that Facebook was a necessary part of our strategy.
To kick start it, we decided to acquire that page, Car Memes. The founder of that page, Gabor [Szedlak] was a student in Bristol. We said, ‘let’s acquire the page, you’ll have a full-time job after uni, and you can spearhead our marketing’. He did that, and he was responsible for that very early doors Facebook growth.
We went from 100,000 fans to 1,000,000 fans in a couple of months. I hadn’t seen a time like it before. It was like the early cowboy western days of Facebook where you could grow a page really quickly without any ad spend.
Social media is a huge part of your business. It obviously has its pros and cons, what are your general feelings about it?
It’s a really good question. I’m conflicted, I think is the right way to put it. On one hand, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the power of those platforms. The rise of Facebook and Instagram has created a whole new generation of businesses that have thrived off this platform. That’s great, and obviously there is a communication element there that is also great – being able to maintain contact with people that you probably wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
The guilt that I feel is that we’ve helped to basically create addictions. All of these young car fans, and obviously we’re not alone – media itself is complicit in this – we’ve helped to decrease their attention spans. We’re helping them to press refresh on an Instagram feed, we might be helping them lead to a lesser sense of self-worth because of all of these nice flashy supercar images that we post of us going, ‘look how great our lives are’.
I think that’s my general feeling of social media, which is it’s all very vapid. Everything is quite self-obsessed. And from a business point of view, that’s amazing, because it builds your influence, and you can build an audience of people that want to follow you.
But on a deeper level, I do think that this is giving rise to a whole new generation of people with mental health issues, people with anxiety and self-doubt. I don’t see that going away unless the platforms themselves change and how people use those platforms change.
In the case of Instagram, it’s just not going to change. That platform is all about showing off in its core form.
So I’m conflicted, I don’t know what the solution is. Platforms like Snapchat could have been a good solution had they not got killed off by Instagram Stories and Facebook. It’s a blessing and a curse.
So how do you balance that on a daily basis?
We have to boil it back down to what it is that we’re providing people [with]. Actually, when you go right the way down, you provide them with happiness, because what we do is entertain people.
Every day they can come onto our social media feeds and see a piece of funny, cool, informative content. They can laugh or share that piece of content with someone else, so they’re gaining more knowledge. At its core, we’re helping people lighten up during the day. Or on a Friday evening when we release a YouTube video, they can watch along with Alex, our host, have a laugh at the random things he’s got up to that week and feel good about themselves.
That’s how I reconcile it, because we get emails and messages from our users (who we call CTzens) and they say things like, ‘you really helped me in my life, I was going through something difficult and I was able to log on to Car Throttle or the YouTube channel and actually enjoy myself and take my mind away from it. So thank you Car Throttle because you helped me in a difficult time’. Those are the things we really live for.
What’s the key thing you’ve learnt on your journey about growing a business from scratch?
So many lessons learned! (laughs). Really, the first thing is that good things come to those who wait. And I know that’s slightly cliche, but as many people describe, creating and running a business is a very extreme rollercoaster.
The highs are very high. For example, you close a big deal, you meet someone amazing – we’ve had some really cool ones, we drove alongside Lewis Hamilton, we’ve been to 10 Downing Street, we’ve worked with brands like Mercedes-Benz and Nissan.
But the lows are very low. I’ve said this before, but back in 2016 we had to pivot the business and it meant that I had to make half the team redundant, and trying to deal with getting rid of 11 or 12 of your friends, it’s difficult. Going through a fund-raise where you can’t quite pull it off is difficult. Not having a product that really hits the point is difficult. Having a video that flops is difficult.
But if you look at it as a long-term horizon, the longer you’re in the game, the more success that you have and the more opportunities that you have to win. The people that quit first are the people that will never see that upside. The people that progressively slog it out – for a good cause and with the right mission and growth potential – things come your way, things land into your lap.
But you’ve got to work hard. Running any business is hard. For people that think it’s an easy ride and they’ll make a film about you like The Social Network, it’s just not going to happen.
Every single founder I know has been through the struggle, and the struggle is real!
How important is it to sometimes take a step back and take stock of what you’ve built?
I find that difficult personally (laughs). I’m so geared towards looking to the future that most of the time I don’t stop to look at what we’ve achieved.
Again, I change my mind about this mentality. On one hand it’s not healthy, but I’ve been using a lot of apps like Headspace, and they help to ground me again, and I read a lot.
But I feel that if I lost that drive, that motivator of ‘I need to do something next’, that possibly I wouldn’t be as successful, and I wouldn’t feel like I’m working towards a mission. Over the last couple of years, I’ve managed to strike this healthy balance between looking ahead but removing the expectations and the reality gap.
When you first start, you have these delusions of grandeur, that in two years’ time you’re going to be as wealthy as Mark Zuckerberg and your companies are going to be on Forbes. When that doesn’t quite happen – because it only happens to a handful of people in our generation – you start to create this reality versus expectation gap, which contributes to your unhappiness.
If you remove the expectation but still have this healthy drive towards wanting to achieve, suddenly everything you do is great, because there’s no benchmark to compare it to. That’s what I’ve managed to do over the last couple of years – which is to remove that expectation peg.
You’ve recently set up an eCommerce side of Car Throttle. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Obviously, car enthusiasts spend a lot of money on their cars. Prior to a year-and-a-half ago, we hadn’t really monetized that community of users. We had T-shirts and merchandise but never anything more than that.
So, we decided to see what we could do, and it was as simple as the team buying some things from China like keychains and selling them to our community. From keychains it became cleaning products, from cleaning products it became car gadgets and from car gadgets it became car parts.
Now if you go to the Car Throttle shop – we have three, UK, US and rest of world – we have around 60,000 SKUs. They are products all the way from brake kits, to turbo kits, to wheels, to sticky track tyres. If you wanted to modify your car, you could purchase pretty much anything you needed through the Car Throttle shop.
That’s on top of the gifts we have for petrolheads, which are very popular around Christmas time and Valentine’s Day.
It seems like being an entrepreneur these days is ‘in vogue’. Do you agree that some people may not be prepared for the reality of what it’s really like?
I think it can be glamorized. Most of the success stories you see in the newspapers, that nice double-page spread in the Evening Standard… You see that and you don’t know all of the other BS that has happened to get to that point.
Last year, we had three pieces of press, back to back. I had people coming up to me and going, ‘I can’t believe it, you’ve made it, it seems like you’ve gone from zero to something in the space of three weeks’. I was like, ‘this doesn’t feel any different to how it was. All you’ve seen is a snapshot of what’s happened in the last seven years’.
From an external perception, entrepreneurship is sexy, it’s glamorous, because you only ever show the cool sides of it.
What I think is happening more and more now is that entrepreneurs are not afraid to be vulnerable. Everyone in the ecosystem has become a lot more acutely aware of just how difficult it is.
I agree on the whole, I think entrepreneurship can be glamorized. But I think it’s changing and I’m glad it is. We shouldn’t be afraid of talking about our fuck-ups and failures, because those are what made us. Without those, you stop learning and that’s it. You should always be learning and not be afraid of fucking up.
That’s another piece of advice I’d give – make as many mistakes as you can, because that’s what separates you from the not-so-good ones that are too scared to make a mistake.
If you could go back, knowing what you know now, what’s the main piece of advice you would give to your 18-year-old self?
That is a tough one! (laughs). I think a couple of things. Firstly, are you sure you want to do this? (laughs). There are a lot of easier life options than doing this!
The biggest piece of advice I would actually give is, whatever happens happens. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to achieve, because all it does is contribute to you wanting more.
Try and enjoy the journey. It’s kind of a car cliche. But we’ve hit so many milestones in the life of this business, and I’d like to think that I’ve enjoyed nearly all of them.
But there were definitely some times that we just rushed through to the next target. Half a million YouTube subscribers, a million YouTube subscribers, two million Facebook fans… After a while, the numbers are just numbers and they just keep rolling on and on. We try to have a healthy balance in the team of celebration.
But it’s also just the personal growth. To take some time to celebrate how far we’ve come as people within the team. We have a great working relationship. We have regular company socials and that’s actually the main part that I love.
Make sure sure that you’re always working with people that you like. Life’s too short to work with dickheads, basically! Don’t waste your time with surrounding yourself with people that don’t make you happy.
That’s the one thing I’m really grateful for at Car Throttle. Everyone on the team – we have a good laugh. Every day there’s laughter – and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because that’s what makes coming into work and being in this world 24/7 so enjoyable.
So I’d say don’t take yourself too seriously, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Enjoy the ride and enjoy the journey.
Where’s the best place for people to stay in touch with you and your company?
My Instagram is @adnanr35, because of my R35 GTR car (in case people wonder why I’ve got some weird letter and numbers after my name).