Posted on May 18 2016
This week's inspiring Wednesday Woman is Victoria Peppiatt who, just a few months after giving birth to her second baby wound down her creative agency and launched a tech-start-up - Phrasee. Here's her story:
Newnham: What were you like growing up and what were your interests?
Peppiatt: I can’t deny I was always pretty feisty. Mum brought me and two of my sisters up on her own and there were no shrinking violets in our house! I had a male best friend too. Ben and I used to do absolutely everything together growing up, which meant it would often be me and a whole load of his friends, so I've never felt uncomfortable being the only girl. At my all-girls school, I loved music and spent a lot of time playing the flute and joining every choir, orchestra and chamber group. I’ve always been a people person and someone who likes to get things done.
Newnham: Having set up a successful creative agency what made you start a business in the technology sector and how did you go about it?
Peppiatt: The Pink Group was my project with Spencer, my husband, and we had 11 very successful years as a creative and branding agency, and many happy clients but it was definitely a lifestyle business.
Parry, my business partner, had been a Pink client on and off for eight years, and every time he moved companies, he commissioned Pink to do some work. Then one day he told me about this idea he was working on - from the moment I heard about Phrasee I wanted in. Phrasee’s a clever piece of software that uses artificial intelligence to optimise your marketing language. It generates millions of different ways to say the same thing, and keeps testing your market to find the ones your audience likes best – so customer engagement, the follow-on click, is way more likely.
I knew it was definitely going to sell – and it has. Parry and Neil, the brains behind Phrasee, developed the software but didn't have expertise in branding, design or user experience, so that’s where I came in. We launched in February 2015, got our first client in July and have since gone from strength to strength signing up clients such as Virgin, House of Fraser and Nectar. The Pink Group is no more, and my role at Phrasee is to get clients on-board and run the business. It’s a brilliant co-founding team - our skills match perfectly.
Newnham: What have been the biggest challenges to starting a new business and how have you overcome them?
Peppiatt: Managing the ups and downs: it can be a rollercoaster. One day you think "God, this is hard" and have a complete wobble, and the next you are pumped with adrenaline when all your hard work pays off and something utterly brilliant happens. And the highs are beyond anything you've ever experienced, so it's all worthwhile when that happens.
Building a strong team quickly: it’s important to get the right people in as the core foundation and that means you have to take your time hiring and get the rest of the team and/or others involved. For us, staff need to have the skill set to do the job brilliantly, but also be a Phrasee fit, which means having a positive, can-do attitude.
Getting investment: This is much harder than you think right at the very beginning, when you have no clients. It’s also very time consuming, but you need money to grow fast when you have an innovative product or idea. You just have to keep at it and work your network.
Newnham: How have you found working in what is perceived to be a male dominated industry and how do you think we encourage more women into tech?Peppiatt: I’ve never experienced sexism in my business, and if I did I would certainly handle it face on there and then! What women bring to something that’s very tech driven is that slight humanity. Boys can just end up having a massive geek-off when they start talking tech and clients need a human to help them make sense of it all; they don’t necessarily want to hear about the algorithms. You have to be able to talk to humans in words they understand, especially for clients who aren’t tech-savvy. We designed the platform to be really simple and people don’t need to know what’s going on in the background, they need to know what it does and how it can help them. And that’s where I come in.
Women are really needed in tech because we’re users of it. It’s important there are women in the industry who understand what we need, and if a female coder applied to Phrasee for a job, of course we’d consider her, but sadly we don’t get applications – it’s so male-dominated as an industry. But you can’t just function with tech geeks in the tech sector, because you need people to run the business and develop relationships with clients, and that’s the expertise I bring, along with the creative know-how that contributed to building the platform. That understanding of the creative process that needs to go into that user journey is essential. It’s the matching of usability and technology. And it’s something I believe many women can bring to technology.
My advice is just don’t be fearful. You don’t have to understand every area of every business, and it’s OK to make mistakes. From my childhood, I’ve always been quite outspoken, which comes from living in a busy and loud house. I’ve never been backwards in coming forward, or in saying, “I don’t understand’. And I sometimes ask myself "Do I need to know this to do my job well?" And if the answer’s no, I focus instead on what matters.
Girls need to know they can do any job as well as a man, and not get put off by sexism, fear of failure or lack of knowledge. You can learn what you need, but also identify and focus on what you’re good at. So don't dwell on it, just do it! If it's something you're passionate about and really want to do, it makes absolutely no difference whether you're male or female.
Newnham: Who have been your biggest role models?
Peppiatt: My mum. A single mum who worked all through my childhood in the very male dominated industry of project management for building sites and restaurants. She was dealing with builders and contractors all day, and is brilliantly persuasive in getting people to do what she wants (a good sense of humour is vital!). She’s confident in giving instructions in a male environment, and me and my sisters are just the same. She’s the queen of everything, the one who does all the wiring of plugs, all the DIY, who’ll take the Hoover apart if it’s broken – and then fix it.
My mother-in-law - she worked her way up from being a nurse, to then go on and build and then sell one of the largest nursing agencies in the UK. She's taught me that hard work and determination really do pay off.
Two other role models are women I met through a great networking group called Sister Snog. Natasha Rawley who runs ADDS, which does archiving and storage. Her business world is unbelievably male dominated and her sheer determination and focus on building her business is amazing. And Laura Thomson, who runs Phenomenal Training - she's taught me to always be true to yourself, and not let others affect your decisions in life and business - focus on what you want and where you want to go. She taught me to be honest and genuine, and that if something doesn't feel right, that's normally because it's not right. Both are a real inspiration and I feel lucky to have met them.
Newnham: What advice, if any, would you give a younger Victoria?
Peppiatt: Jump at opportunities that come your way (I wouldn't have closed Pink and started Phrasee otherwise) and don't be afraid to try new things... when it comes to work and business, I'm a bit of a believer that everything happens for a reason, so if something doesn't work out then focus on what you've learnt and move on. Don't dwell - it's all a learning curve and you're never going to get everything spot on first time!
With thanks to Nashon Cohen for the introduction