What's the best way to promote your car leasing business? With a wonderfully nutty website, a nuclear rocket truck, and a Routemaster bus, of course. Graeme King met the entrepreneurial Ling Valentine.
It is one of those businesses that needs to be witnessed first hand, to help understand the scale - or rather the lack of scale - at play.
Ling Valentine sits at her desk in what used to be the dining room of her three bedroom terraced house in Low Fell, Gateshead.
With her husband Jon, this is where Ling has built the online empire that is Ling's Cars, or LINGsCARS.COM to its ever growing online fanbase.
The room has now been completely taken over by the business, with lino put down on the floor and Ikea tables and shelving lining the walls.
Ling sits in front of two PCs, dividing her time between researching deals for her customers, chatting to them via her website, and adding daft - but very funny - new features to the site.
It is a classic online business in utilising the reach of the world wide web, the vast swathes of information which can be posted on a website, and the efficiency of electronic communications.
There is no product as such, despite the millions of pounds worth of cars which Ling deals in each year, for she is simply the conduit between her customers, finance companies and car dealerships - so it's effectively her time that she sells.
While the business is clearly a labour of love for both Ling and Jon, and the humour to be found on the site comes from a wacky blend of their two minds, Ling operates the business nearly single handed, though she is looking at taking on a salesperson next year.
Jon spends most of his time on his "day job" in the real world car dealership known as Carshock, though some of the eccentricity to be found in Ling's Cars can also be found in that business too.
What shines through in meeting Ling is that she loves her job, works extremely hard at it, and the personal and professional partnership between she and Jon is at the heart of the business's success.
Ling, 33, was born in LeShan in China and grew up there until she went off to university in Guangzhou. After her first degree, she made a huge move - taking herself half way round the world to Finland, to continue her studies.
She says: "I studied one year in Finland and met my husband while I was there. I was a bit bored of my life in China, and I like the atmosphere of freedom in Finland, so I decided to move away.
"My mother's friend's son went there, and recommended the university. It was the best place in the world for wood technology, and it was also free to attend because education was free for everybody in Finland.
"Jon and I met on the internet in a chat room. I came to England for a short trip, and met him properly while I was here. We fell in love and decided to get married.
"That was at the end of 1997, and I came to England in 1998 - I have been here eight years now."
Ling says it was never part of her plans to come to the UK, mainly because the image she had of the country from growing up in China was not up to date.
She says: "I never thought of coming to England. In my imagination I thought the culture was old, and life was a bit boring. But it's totally different to what I thought.
"I also think people in western countries never really see the real China - the people living in remote parts of the country who never see the outside world.
"I did know quite a bit about the US, and it was in my plans to go there to carry on my studies, but then I met Jon."
When the couple married, Ling came to live in the UK and having dropped out of her Finnish studies - partly because the course was conducted in Finnish, which proved a little challenging - moved on to get a masters degree in environmental quality at Bournemouth University.
She says: "We then went to London when Jon got a job there. I went for a job in insurance or finance, or something, got down to the last 10 out of 200 applicants, but I wasn't really interested. So I got a job in sales admin, which was quite an easy job, but it helped to improve my English.
"We moved up here in 2000, and I started selling contract hire cars for Carshock. But quite soon I wanted to run my own business. I could see the future, and I wanted to work for myself."
Ling launches into a critique of exactly why buying a new car does not make any sense - and why the world should wake up to the joys of contract hire.
She says: "With house prices, the values do not go down, generally. But with cars, after two to three years, they can be worth nothing. So I thought contract hire would be the future."
And despite - or maybe because of - her rather zany approach to her business, Ling's Cars is thriving, and Jon and Ling are forecasting they will have handled deals for cars worth around £16.5m this year, up from around £10m last year.
The business gets a commission of around 1% on every deal it does, which gives Ling's Cars a healthy turnover and profit margin, but nowhere near the huge margins traditionally enjoyed by more conventional car dealerships.
Ling says: "We have had around 380 letters from customers, and we have published a lot of them on our website.
"Dealers have massive overheads, and sometimes they are desperate to move cars - and there's always going to be a number of those dealers. They need cash flow."
But why has Ling's Cars ended up as the bizarre blend of cheap cars and offbeam humour that it is today?
Ling says: "Originally we started a normal business. But we had been using computers for a long time, and looked at different websites.
"I don't think many businesses understand the web - most of them sold products from a boring site, with a boring attitude. So we thought, why not be different, and do different things? Because I am Chinese, and female, I am different - you don't see another one in this business. I am unique, so why not build that into the website?
"We started to change the website, with humour, giving away bank notes, the Mao books, and our individually wrapped Polo mints - as they are sold in China. It's just anything we can think of.
"If customers moan, they get Chinese baby food, and they do usually get the humour of it. Most of my customers come back, and we get a lot of recommendations.
"With personality, I think people enjoy it more - our customers really enjoy the site. They go to look for a car, but spend the whole day looking at my website."
One of the real coups of the Ling's Cars phenomenon has been the publicity generated by Ling's self styled "Nuclear Rocket Truck" - a provocative image at a time when China is emerging as a new superpower.
She says: "The nuclear rocket truck has got up people's noses. We imported it from China, and I think it was quite a brave thing to do.
"The website was doing well, but we wanted to do something to propel it into the news. It had to work, or it would have been a lot of money spent on nothing.
"We got kicked out of Sedgefield, from our site next to the A1(M), so we have now got it on Saddleworth Moor, next to the M62. We get so much business from it, it's amazing. I even got a customer asking if they could rent it for a day, just for fun."
Another triumph for the Ling's Cars marketing machine is her latest acquisition - a bright red London bus.
She says: "We spent £14,000 on buying the bus, and converting it, and now we take it to places like Catterick Sunday market in North Yorkshire, and we get quite a few customers coming to ask about the business - and most people have not heard about contract hire. But apart from the bus and the rocket truck, our costs are very low."
Alas, despite her valiant attempts to entertain the car driving public, it seems Ling is not universally popular with the motor trade. She has had several run ins with rather po-faced manufacturers and dealerships who like to promote their cars in a rather more sombre, and restrained manner than Ling likes to indulge in.
Occasionally they try to exact revenge, but she sees this as a compliment.
She says: "I sometimes have people from the motor industry coming on the site trying to annoy me, asking me for quotes for stupid things, and some get quite aggressive. They really hate me, but that means I'm doing good."
Does Ling have any concerns about playing up to a slightly stereotyped notion of a Chinese woman abroad? Not at all.
"It's just our idea of bringing a bit of fun to the business. I see it a bit like that comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar, who plays up to being an Indian guy on television, playing a role," she says.
"What I do is showbusiness to a degree. It's always good to find some new ideas for the site - if we left it the same, people would get bored."
* Born: 1973, Leshan, China.
* Education: 1992-1996 Jinan University, Guangzhou - BSc in Applied Chemistry.
* 1998-1999 Bournemouth University - MSc in Environmental Quality.
* Employment: 1999 Admin clerk - EMTS, Whetstone, Middlesex.
2000-2006 Managing director, Ling's Cars.
What car do you drive?
A BMW 320.
What's your favourite restaurant?
Tai Pan on Westgate Road, Newcastle - we just went there this week.
Who or what makes you laugh?
Motor dealers, because they are so stupid. They spend a fortune on showrooms and pass costs to their customers.
What's your favourite book?
The Mao book.
What's your favourite film?
Kill Bill, directed by Quentin Tarantino.
What was the last album you bought?
I don't really buy albums, I listen to all sorts of music off the internet.
What's your ideal job, other than your current one?
I love to eat food, so I'd be a food taster or food critic - for Chinese food.
If you had a talking parrot, what's the first thing you'd teach it to say?
I wouldn't teach it to speak, I would eat it. I once ate swan.
What's your greatest fear?
I worry about my family in China. I worry that if I say something about the government, they will do something to my family. Like when I was talking about Google being censored - I went to talk about it on the BBC.
What's the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
In business, always attack, always make a stir.
Worst business advice?
Everyone always tells me to be reasonable, to compromise and back off.
What's your poison?
What newspaper do you read, other than The Journal?
Not really newspapers, but I read a lot of news online. I like BBC sites - a lot of news about China.
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
I had a part time job in a noodle bar in Chengdu. I was paid about 14 RMB - around 90p per week.
How do you keep fit?
I play table tennis at Cramlington Table Tennis Club, and I play badminton occasionally, and go to the gym.
What's your most irritating habit?
I'm always online. I spend too much time working.
What's your biggest extravagance?
My London bus. We spent a fortune on it.
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with/admire?
Mao. Not so much identify with, but he inspired the idea behind the business, using my Chinese identity - like giving away Chinese bank notes to customers, and copies of the little red book.
And which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Michael O'Leary from Ryanair, Steve Jobs from Apple - I love my iBook, Carlos Ghosn of Renault Nissan, and Ferdinand Piëch of VW. My favourite is Michael O'Leary - I have his book about Ryanair, but I admire all their companies.
How would you like to be remembered?
I hope people remember me in comparison with other people in the motor industry - they are so boring, but I bring entertainment into the motor industry. A lot of people call me "mad Chinese bird" but I don't get offended.
'Ling's greatest hits - the best of LINGsCARS.COM'
- "Free Cash Money - blatant bribery from Ling! Click HERE to receive FREE Chinese money. Everyone always says `no free money!'. Now Ling gives 10 visitors per day free cash, just for visiting site! Free cash is a real Chinese Ren Min Bi (people's money - also known as Yuan) new uncrumpled banknote. If you look carefully, you see there are actually six different languages on banknote, showing China is more complicated place than you think at first, with many minority peoples."
- "You should seek truth from facts. Two sayings which match my philosophy are: It does not matter if a car is black or white as long as it gets you to the shops (thanks to Deng Xiao Ping).
"People of Britain, you can trust me (thanks to Tony Blair).
In a comprehensive spotter's guide to different types of speed camera on UK roads, Ling also helpfully includes:
- KODAK DIGITAL CAMERA
What are they? A device to take photos of friends and family.
Where will I see them? In Dixons and on holiday.
Who owns them? Everyone.
How do they work? You press small button and light enters camera and gets converted to digital image by damn clever Chinese electronic bits. Are you so stupid?
Will I be fined? For having picture taken by Kodak camera, no. For being stupid, yes."
- "CALLING ALL VISITORS! I am human being, not robot! Office hours: Mon-Fri 9am to 6pm ... after 6pm I drink Baileys!"