Posted on April 11 2018
Today, we catch up with Jo Wimble-Groves, tech entrepreneur, writer, blogger (aka Guilty Mother), professional speaker, and STEM ambassador. In this interview, we discuss how she got started and grew her multi-million pound business, overcoming adversity in the workplace, and the importance of giving back. Here's Jo's story:
Newnham: What were you like as a kid / how would your friends and family have described you?
Wimble-Groves: I asked my dad this question. He said that he just remembers me smiling all the time; that I was a happy and confident kid. He also commented that I used to change my clothes loads of times in a day which drove him crazy. I still change my outfit about three times before I go out now!
Newnham: How did you and your brother get started in business together and what was it like starting so young?
Wimble-Groves: My brother, Richard, noticed a gap in the marketplace for a company which was particularly focused on providing mobile phones for businesses. This led to us founding our company, Active Digital.
Starting a business at a young age has plenty of pros and cons. On a positive side, we had bucket loads of energy and enthusiasm, working all hours to get the business going and promoting the brand to anyone we could. As a negative point, in the early days, we often struggled to get financial backing and investment, so we often had to sell some of our personal items to raise funding to operate the business. Some banks were reluctant to support young entrepreneurs as we didn’t have any assets to support a bank loan or an overdraft. In today’s world, there are many ways for young entrepreneurs to secure startup funding, but they were just not around for us back then.
In 2018, Active Digital now operates from offices in Kent, London and Dublin. We provide smartphones, tablets and apps to business customers, many of whom are VIPs in the world of music and sport. We turnover £3.5m per annum and employ 25 people in the UK.
Newnham: What was the opportunity you saw and how did you grow the business?
Wimble-Groves: In the late nineties, the mobile industry was booming. We’ve seen so many independent mobile phone shops come and go over the years but focusing on the needs of business customers was the right decision for us. They were the customers that were getting used to having mobile phones integrated into their workforce and we sensed a real value for a ‘personal approach’ to customer service. Choosing a consumer sector route could have restricted our longevity in this industry.
Although the telecoms industry is crowded, we are still hitting customer service levels our competitors struggle to reach. We regularly benchmark ourselves at industry level through awards and accreditations to ensure we keep ourselves ahead of the curve. As a family business, we have won an award for customer experience every year for the last decade. This proves that in business, you are not just saying you are doing a good job, but an independent panel of judges are backing it up and endorsing your company credibility. We now have a globally recognised customer experience, which the team are very proud of.
Newnham: What were some of the earlier obstacles you faced with the business and how did you overcome them?
Wimble-Groves:There have been plenty of obstacles but I think, at the time, my biggest barrier was my age, even though I didn’t want it to be. Being a young entrepreneur, I often felt frustrated that some people wouldn’t take me seriously... It’s a funny thought that when you are younger you crave to be older, and when you’re older, you spend so much time reminiscing about when you were younger.
It’s taken me a long time to grow into my own sense of self. Perhaps that just comes with time and experience. Understanding and growing into my own strengths as well as embracing my flaws.
Newnham: There is always a lot of talk about women in tech and the challenges they face. How have you found the industry and what advice do you have for other women starting out?
Wimble-Groves: As I alluded to earlier, I felt frustrated that many people didn’t always take me seriously as a business woman, even though my brother and I had worked so incredibly hard to get to where we did. Perhaps I was just blessed with a baby face, but I often tried wearing power suits to make myself look older, and I shouldn’t have needed to do that.
When you don’t win a pitch or secure a contract, many of us take that sense of rejection personally, but I’ve learnt over time that often, it’s not personal. I deal with such a variety of people in my work that I now understand the more experience you have in dealing with difficult people or situations, the more confidence you gain in addressing it. I’ve learnt that you don’t have to be bossy to be a good boss and instead you should focus on being an authentic and honest leader.
For women starting out, I would say that it’s a fantastic time to be a woman in tech or a woman in business. I was recently reading in The Independent how the number of women that went into business rose by 45% over the last decade, compared to just 27% amongst men. In the UK, women in the South-East are the most likely to start their own business. If you are about to dive into your own business venture, do it with passion and confidence. Don’t let other people put you down, just follow your gut and give it a go! Women hold the key to reviving the world’s sluggish economies and narrowing the gender pay gap.
New data from McKinsey Global Institute, suggest that if women participated in the British economy to the same degree as men, our economic output would be 26% or £600bn a year.
I wish being a female entrepreneur was no different than being a man. But, as we’ve seen in the press, the gender pay gap is now widely talked about. Why should a woman be paid less than a man to do the same job? It’s not right. Carrie Gracie’s open letter to the BBC was very powerful. At least these issues are being discussed and powerful conversations draw change. As a woman, I was often outnumbered at tech events which in the past, used to feel intimating, but now I leverage my power as a female to stand out – not to blend in.
Newnham: What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career?
Wimble-Groves: I’ve learnt several valuable lessons along the way.
Firstly, I’ve learnt that believing in yourself is not a cliché - it’s an economic strategy. We talk about the subject of confidence all the time, because it’s a vital component in personal growth.
No matter how old you are, we can consistently improve ourselves. In fact, working on yourself could be the most important relationship you will ever have. How much time have we wasted thinking about what other people are doing, when it was more important to focus on what we are doing?
And although everyone is on a personal journey, when stepping up your career, I have learnt that it is important to surround yourself with people who raise you up. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, and motivate and encourage you to succeed, whatever success looks like for you. Success doesn’t necessarily mean financial.
Newnham: You now do talks and inspire others - who has been your inspiration and why? What's the most impactful talk you have heard?
Wimble-Groves: Even though Active Digital remains a key passion for me, after twenty years business experience, I wanted to explore a deeper side of what this is all for. I felt an overwhelming need to give back and share my story and experiences with other women, mothers and schoolchildren, so they could take something from what I have learnt. I spent so much of my adult life learning from others, and more importantly, learning from my mistakes - so it's time to share.
Using these experiences, I developed my skills to become a professional speaker, and am an advocate for women in business and helping our new generation gain confidence and relevant skills. This has allowed me to work with clients and schools including speaking at Microsoft and The University of Kent to name a few. I hope to inspire our next generation to build confidence, skills and understand that strengths and flaws lie in us all. If we’re going to grow a pipeline of future leaders, we’ve got to support one another and share what we’ve learnt.
In regards to listening to impactful talks, I love to listen to TEDx Talks as a guilty pleasure! One of my favourite TED talks of all time is author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on why we should all be feminists. Her small but mighty book is very powerful. I would highly recommend that everyone reads it. I aspire to deliver my own TEDx talk one day.
Newnham: Totally agree. We actually gave this book out at our IWD event. What advice - if any - would you offer younger Jo just starting out?
Wimble-Groves: Whatever you want to do, do it with passion and confidence. Be authentic, find your strengths and grow them over time. Don’t worry if you make mistakes along the way as that’s all part of the journey.
Not everyone will like your idea or point of view, but if you believe in it, then that is what is important. Surround yourself with positive people, push away the negative, and work with the people who bring the best out of you.
And, like I was as a kid, remember to smile... Things will always be OK.