Explores the world of female entrepreneurs, their impact on the economy, and their unique approaches to leadership and running their businesses
Date: 28:05/13 Duration: 00:22:48
In this podcast two women, Naomi Timperley, Co Director of Enterprise Lab and Director of Social Media Boom and Claire Mason, Founder and Managing Director of Man Bites Dog, share how they started up their own businesses and Claire McCartney, CIPD Adviser, Resourcing & Talent Planning, discusses what her research has highlighted.
View the full podcast transcript
Philippa Lamb: Martha Lane Fox, Delia Smith, Victoria Beckham, they might not appear to have that much in common but what they do share is business acumen and a capacity for sheer hard graft. Of course they’re all household names but more and more women are becoming entrepreneurs and the Office for National Statistics has reported a 20% rise in self employment amongst women since 2008. Today I'm going to be talking to two very different female entrepreneurs about their motivation, their strategy and the blood, sweat and tears it takes to run a successful business. I'll also be hearing from Claire McCartney, she's the author of recent CIPD research exploring the behaviours behind successful entrepreneurs of both sexes.
Naomi Timperley’s first business venture was called Baby Loves Disco and this is how it happened.
Naomi Timperley: I was a stay at home mum for four years and one day I was researching party ideas for my daughter online and a website called Baby Loves Disco popped up and it looked amazing. I had a look at it, looked at all the YouTube videos that were attached to it and I thought, ‘Do you know what that would be so cool in Manchester.’
PL: So describe it for people who don’t know.
NT: Basically it’s an event for parents and children from six months to seven years. Baby Loves Disco take over a venue, usually a nightclub, childproof it, set out healthy snacks, juice boxes, a chill-out area, get a great DJ, not playing kiddie music, playing classic disco, so it’s the sort of stuff that you and I used to dance to when we had a social life and it’s a three hour event and it’s sort of spread across the US, literally by word of mouth, the mummy word of mouth, to 27 cities within two years.
PL: So huge in the States?
PL: And you negotiated with the people over there to bring it over here?
NT: Yeah I basically just sent them a really innocent email and just said, you know, “I'd love to bring it over to Manchester,” and they came back to me the next day and said, “If you want to do it you’ve got to try and prove yourself to us.” So I did. We launched in September of 2007 - it was just amazing, before we’d even launched the events we had a two page spread in the Times Knowledge supplement. Then BBC Breakfast came, and then we had BBC News Online and then Reuters got hold of the story and it went worldwide. Suddenly I was doing radio interviews with South African radio stations, New Zealand, Irish, the story just went everywhere and it sort of snowballed from there.
PL: One minute she was a busy mother, next moment she was heading up a fast growing British business, it wasn't exactly planned.
NT: I never would have thought that I would start my own business - it was almost by accident.
PL: Naomi grabbed hold of an opportunity as it passed but for many other women being an entrepreneur is a long held goal. Claire Mason, founder of PR consultancy Man Bites Dog was initially inspired by her father.
Claire Mason: I think his first business was a book business. He's pretty dyslexic but he actually wrote a book on mountain bike trails in the Peak District as a result of going mountain biking with my brother and finding there were no trails books. So it started off with a mountain bike trails book which me and my sister were the sales and marketing team for. So age 14 I had my worker bee, my little sister, Natalie, aged 10, to manage and we sold a lot of books to country bookstalls, W.H. Smith’s and local teashops and I think we shifted about 4,000 books in the end. ((laughs))
PL: Did you really? That's extraordinary.
CM: Which was extraordinary and we had to do lots of reprints and then we all went on this amazing family holiday to America, so I think it just gave you this view from the coalface how easy it was to actually set up a business.
PL: Claire started Man Bites Dog eight years ago and since then the company’s won a clutch of big named clients, plenty of plaudits and a string of awards. Nowadays the workforce is 20 strong but for Claire the idea to start out on her own simmered away for a while before she actually took the plunge and left her job in global PR.
CM: It just occurred to me that I was 30 and that if I didn’t do it now I probably never would. I had no responsibilities and it really felt like the right time to do it and I was also very much encouraged by other women I knew who were pestering me to do it and an entrepreneur friend of mine who runs a company called Monex. Now he was a real inspiration and I actually used his office to make calls and really set the ball rolling for the business and he actually called me every day for about a month and said, “Have you handed in your notice yet?” persistently to really make me do it.
PL: Wow! How difficult was it to actually get it off the ground?
CM: It was surprisingly easy to get it off the ground actually. I always feel guilty when people ask me was it a terrible struggle, because I think that we correctly identified a real need in the market for someone who could really specialise in turning these intangible businesses into thought leaders. So it was a surprisingly easy journey and from day one the phone just rang, clients recommended us to clients who recommended us to clients and that's still our primary source of growth is word of mouth.
PL: The old adage that it’s 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration, remains as true as ever though and even after light bulb moments it takes a great deal of work to make an idea into a successful business. Baby Loves Disco was popular amongst young mums in Manchester and London, so much so that the Dragons Den producers persuaded Naomi to pitch to the dragons.
NT: It was an amazing experience. We were in the den for an hour and 45 minutes. I was terrified for the first ten minutes and then you just sort of, it’s just a TV show isn’t it? And confidently went in thinking that all the dragons would invest in us but actually the only person we got an offer from was Debra but she wanted 40% of the business and we weren't prepared to go for that.
PL: Interesting so you turned her down?
PL: Quite a radical decision?
PL: The right one?
NT: I definitely think so for me it wouldn’t have been the right thing for me personally.
PL: There are now 1.27 million self employed women in the UK, 20% more than in 2008 and the CIPD’s Claire McCartney has been looking into the growth in female entrepreneurialism.
CMc: We’d say that entrepreneurial spirit is really alive and actually offers a chink of light in a very depressed market. There's research to show that on average individual entrepreneurs contributed £130,000 to the UK economy in 2012.
PL: That's not bad is it?
CMc: Not bad at all and there's also research by Ernst I Young to show that they actually grew sales by on average 20% and had a significant boost to employment over that period as well.
PL: Where’s that energy coming from? Is this bright people who’ve been turfed out of jobs or is it people just fed up with the way they’re working?
CMc: I think there's probably a combination of those things. So we know that more people are working part time sometimes through choice but sometimes not through choice but also people perhaps at that stage where they’ve learnt a lot from corporate organisations and are prepared to go out there and run their own business and do things the way that they want to.
PL: So what’s driving this rise? Well according to Naomi one big factor is the difficulty of combining motherhood and work and the fact that there simply isn’t much high level part time work to be had.
NT: I know so many amazing, talented women who, after having children, could not go back to their day jobs more so, so you find lots of women I would say in the last five years have sprung up kitchen table businesses.
PL: So there's a pool of experienced, intelligent, talented women...
NT: Oh yeah.
PL: ...who can't find part time work…
NT: Yeah, yeah.
PL: ...on a level that they’re accustomed to working at?
NT: And do you know what there is so much wasted talent out there. I know so many amazing women and talented women that do not get the opportunity to go for jobs because they won't even get to an interview stage.
PL: But this certainly isn’t the whole story. Lots of women are running their own businesses for exactly the same reasons as men, because it’s a challenge, because they want to be their own boss, because it’s fun and because they simply want to see if they can hack it. Here’s Claire Mason again.
CM: I think it’s the most irritating thing in the world that as soon as people find out you're a woman entrepreneur they think you run a lifestyle cupcake business ((laughs)) not that you’re working….
PL: ((laughs)) I can see how that would be annoying.
CM: …you know working with chief execs all over the world. So yeah it’s so irritating and I think the idea that women start a business just for lifestyle is just crazy and anyone who knows me will tell you that's absolutely not true, it’s 24/7 100% commitment to this business and I think it’s very annoying that people take women business owners less seriously and somehow assume that they’re just downsizing.
PL: Claire McCartney’s research has identified ten tenets of entrepreneurial behaviour, the behaviours that entrepreneurs both male and female share. She talked us through the highlights starting with purposeful profit.
CMc: The entrepreneurial leaders that we spoke to seem to be wanting to do their business in a different way, so being responsible to the people that they work with, the communities, their employees and the local environment. So an example of that is A Suit that Fits and they work with tailors in Nepal and they’re very keen to support and enhance their traditional skills but also put back into that local community.
The second tenet that I wanted to highlight was this one part entrepreneurial equals 20 parts of reach and impact. So entrepreneurial organisations aren’t held back by perhaps their size or by their resources but actually clever use of social media, smart networking and also multiple strategic alliances mean that they are able to punch far above their weight so organisations like Little Dish who focus on healthy meals for children have set up some really interesting strategic alliances with Barnardos and also Nickelodeon for instance and that really helps them.
The third tenet that I wanted to share is around having a deepened deliberate co-creation with customers so it’s not just a one sided communication strategy but actually they’re actively involving their customers and their clients in shaping their business strategy and their sponsorship.
And the fourth tenet I wanted to highlight is around ensuring that there's headspace for innovation so no matter how busy organisations are they understand the importance of securing space for employees to be innovative.
PL: The fifth tenet is about making failure an advantage.
CMc: So often entrepreneurial organisations might well make mistakes and have some failures along the way. They don’t seem to brush those under the carpet but actually highlight the learnings from the failures. One of our organisations, the US State Department Office of eDiplomacy set up this online fail fair system where participants can come in and share their learning from some of the mistakes they’ve made along the way.
PL: Decoding the behavioural differences between men and women is an industry in itself - anyone read Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? But do women actually behave differently to men when it comes to business?
NT: Yes I do think that men and women work in a different way. If you went to a networking event I would say about 70% of men before you’d even said hello would throw you a business card and tell you about what they’re selling. Women network in a different way so it’s all about building relationships up, you can't ever expect to get business from somebody straightaway it’s about building a relationship.
PL: This chimes in with Claire McCartney’s findings.
CMc: Female entrepreneurs seem to be much more focused on a personal relationship approach to marketing so they’ll get their business through word of mouth and referrals and also through smart networks as well. In terms of the types of business female entrepreneurs are likely to go for the things that they’ve got experience in and the areas that they’re interested in.
PL: Claire Mason sees a big male/female divide in entrepreneurialism.
CM: If you look at the data there are definite differences, women aren’t starting businesses at the same rate as men, the under-representation of women owned businesses in big supply chains of major corporates and the government is crazy. I think we've got something like 16% of the businesses by value and we represent 4% of the supply chain, that's just crazy.
So there's clearly a problem with scale. So I think that women owned businesses perhaps don’t scale up as much and in research that we've done ourselves we've found that women owned businesses tend to be smaller, they tend to start locally, then go national and then go international, which creates huge problems because how many of them will fail to totally change their business model each time they scale, whereas if they started a business and went straight to national or straight to international it would be more likely to grow.
So there are clearly these differences in the data but in terms of my friends the two differences I've noticed most is propensity for risk and this is also borne out in the data. So it’s far cheaper to insure a woman owned business because they take less risks but also if you look at women and business loans and so forth women take out far less capital as well so if we want women to scale their businesses to employ more people we have to look at women’s appetite for risk and whether that's something we can increase. I think also that fear of failure that women often have I think that's something that I definitely share with a lot of my entrepreneur friends and it gives you a tremendous sense of drive but it also has a downside in terms of your confidence.
PL: So do you think there's something to be said for the thesis that women limit themselves?
CM: I think so. I think we want to be perfect. We want to be successful. I see it in my team where women will not apply for a job until they’re 100% perfect in their current role, so you really have to push women a bit harder than men whereas men might be willing to apply for that job when they’re 70% of the way there.
PL: But according to Claire McCartney there's evidence that demonstrates that slower growth and less borrowing can give female run businesses the upper hand in the long term.
CMc: Yeah I think there's some research which suggests that actually female businesses are more sustainable because they’ve got their eye on the long term and yes less likely or less wanting to carry debt. Some female entrepreneurs also have more of an incremental growth strategy rather than going for high growth and that's more sustainable, or it seems to be more sustainable in the long run.
PL: I asked Naomi Timperley for her top tips for budding female entrepreneurs.
NT: You don’t need a lot of money to start a business.
PL: Yeah I mean that's a key point isn’t it?
NT: Yeah I do think it depends on what type of business it is though. I know people that have brought products to market so obviously that is more expensive but if you’re talking about a service we started Enterprise Lab with less than £100.
PL: Did you really?
NT: Yeah. And the ironic thing is is that people assume that we are bigger than we are but we still work remotely from home but we can work nationally and we've worked internationally.
PL: Claire Mason also started on a shoestring and deliberately so.
CM: I had a £600 overdraft personally which we didn’t fully use. Our clients were incredible, I think everyone talks about how big corporates don’t pay small businesses but if you talk to those big corporates they will often pay you in advance and be very sympathetic to your plight as a small business.
PL: They paid you in advance?
CM: They paid me in advance yeah ((laughs)).
PL: I've not heard of that before.
CM: And so they knew they were getting a brilliant service and competitive advantage through that so they were really willing to help support me grow the business. I think often starting a business with no capital whether it’s the business you’re going for or it’s like a tester business is a really good idea because I see entrepreneurs start businesses with capital and they can often waste it whereas if your business has to make a profit from day one you will have a very robust and sound business model. So I think starting with no capital can be a good way forward.
I think going straight for national and international clients, going for the big guys straightaway - don’t wait - because you'll never consider yourself worthy enough to actually do it. So I think actually start from day one, be cheeky, knock on doors, it doesn’t pay to be shy, actually get out there and tell them why your business is successful and also be authentic, there's no point in pretending to be a big corporate, I think actually being authentically yourself and really letting clients into your business is a great way forward.
PL: The other key message to wannabe entrepreneurs is about boundaries, running a business often ends up being a 24 hour, seven day a week job. This was the case with Naomi but she's made a real effort to change that.
NT: I've learnt lessons hard. I remember when I first started Baby Loves Disco every time available was spent promoting the business etc. because you have to do that and nobody else can do it for you. I remember my four year old daughter emulating me being on my laptop and on the phone and I said, “Who are you talking to?” She said, “I'm talking to Sandra,” who was the PR lady, and I thought, ‘This is not right.’
PL: She’s heard too many of these conversations.
NT: Yeah I was like, I can't work like this any more. So I now work smart and work during the time that I've got available.
PL: The most pressing challenge for Claire Mason is to grow but to grow without losing the X factor that's made her agency so successful.
CM: Finding the right people is probably our greatest challenge. We call it the ‘dog particle’ so ((laughingly)) whenever we interview someone they can be amazing on paper, they can have all the right competencies and experience but are they a dog? ((laughs)) It sounds a little insulting but to be a dog in our culture is very important.
PL: So you call each other dogs?
CM: We call each other dogs and that's partly about being the dogs and being the best and being really excellent but it’s…
PL: And being a pack?
CM: Being a pack, being part of a team and really wanting to change the world and change our clients’ businesses and that's a very hard thing to recruit for and it’s very hard to bottle.
PL: As you say there's that difficulty and then there's the classic difficulty that you turn into an SME that you’re getting bigger, so all those things that you perhaps did spontaneously that were really fun, and I know you’re very big on having a fun working environment and all that stuff that we can imagine based down at Brighton, how do you hold onto that without making it institutionalised or proceduralised as get bigger?
CM: I think you can but it’s about your people because if you have a critical mass of people with that dog particle in the business then you can replicate that but it’s about light touch processes. So to give an example we are currently putting in place more processes but we can't just drop in a process we have to innovate every process and bend it to fit us as well. So just something as simple as an induction process if you really run your values through that induction process it’s going to be quite different than any other induction process you've seen before so for us bringing HR as a profession into our organisation is very challenging because we need to find exactly the right person who really thinks about it strategically, how it fits our business, and someone who can innovate processes in the same way that we innovate processes for our clients.
So my staff would walk over hot coals for a client so if we have someone coming in to look after our HR and processes I expect the same level of service from that person, I expect them to really get to know us and really do whatever it takes to make that process fit our culture and help us grow that winning formula.
PL: The government is keen to see more women economically active but is it actually doing enough to promote and enable them? Claire McCartney.
CMc: I think there's a lot of work that the government’s doing around entrepreneurship in general and providing support to people who want to be entrepreneurs. I think there's more that can be done, people that we spoke to said that they would really value one centralised information support outlet, at the moment they’re kind of searching everywhere for information and that's not that helpful.
I think the other thing thinking about female entrepreneurs sometimes their growth strategies are more incremental and the government seems quite focused on high growth businesses so I think there's more that could be done to support the incremental growth strategies that actually are very valuable to our economy.
PL: Meanwhile Naomi’s entrepreneurial career is going from strength to strength. She sold her stake in Baby Loves Disco and she's now got two further entrepreneurial projects underway.
NT: I started getting asked to help people with their social media. I thought, ‘Do you know I'm going to start charging for it,’ so I did! So I set up a very small social media consultancy called Social Media Boom which has been going for just under two years. I love Twitter. I actually met my business partners for Enterprise Lab on Twitter and we started chatting and decided that there was something missing, there's obviously lots of other enterprise educators out there and people that encourage employability and we wanted to do something a little bit different so launched Enterprise Lab in November 2011.
PL: Tell me about Enterprise Lab what exactly is it?
NT: Well basically we create enterprise opportunities, real life experiences and problem solving scenarios that empower young people to create economic opportunities for themselves. So we work with schools, colleges, universities, councils to bridge the gap between education, employment and enterprise.
PL: Claire Mason is clearly relishing the fact that her hard work is paying off at Man Bites Dog but is she keen to start all over again with a different venture one day?
CM: That's a really good question actually. I think I have such a passion for this at the moment and I get so involved in my clients’ businesses as well that I think this is all consuming and overwhelming but who knows whether I would ever have another business one day. I think what’s been really exciting is how it’s gone from being my business to being ‘our’ business, something that I started is now something that everyone else is really proud of as well.
PL: That's it for this month. Next time we’ll be discussing coaching and how effective it really is. Join us then.
Explore our related content
Examines the world of youth enterprise and the development of creative business ideas and innovative offerings
Exploring the practices that help entrepreneurial organisations to flourish
Examines the effect of the rise in self-employment has offset around 40% of the loss of employee jobs since the recession began