Posted on September 23 2015
Serial entrepreneur, investor and sharing economy expert, the incredible Debbie Wosskow is this week's Wednesday Woman. You may recognise her from this week's Girls Can Code which aired Monday night on BBC3. She is the founder of Love Home Swap, the world’s largest online travel club, and previously founded three other businesses; Mantra communications agency which she sold, Maidthorn Partners, an advisory and investment boutique, and Insportive, a sports company.
Newnham: What were you like growing up and when did you get the entrepreneurial bug?
Debbie Wosskow: Growing up, I was a major bookworm, perfectionist geek and all round girlie swot. I’m the eldest of a large family of strong women. I have never been around people who went to work every day for someone else.
My mother and my grandmother both ran their own businesses – and that definitely sets the tone in terms of what you see and what you know. No-one in my family has a typical ‘job’ – and we were definitely brought up to think about business and embrace the idea of working for ourselves.
Newnham: What led you to starting Love Home Swap and how did you make it a reality?
Wosskow: I’ve always traveled for work and life – and then when I had my children, I realised that staying in hotels had become a nightmare. I’d also spent all the money I’d made as an entrepreneur on my home in London. And so, after a particularly bad and expensive family holiday, when my children were tiny, and inspired by the film The Holiday, the idea for Love Home Swap was born. Imagine a world where you could swap your home with people like you around the world – and stay in fantastic homes rather than cramped hotels?
I’m always a do-er and someone who likes action – and so within two months I had persuaded my brother to join me to help build and launch the prototype site and take it to market. We seed funded the business ourselves to get the company started until we reached sufficient scale to raise venture capital funding. I’d always recommend this as the route to go for other entrepreneurs looking to start up their own business. I had raised my first round of venture capital investment for Love Home Swap by the end of that year, 2011.
Newnham: What are some of the main setbacks you have faced running your businesses, and how did you overcome them?
Wosskow: This stuff is hard. It requires grit. The staying power matters more than the initial enthusiasm that comes with the idea. We have faced so many setbacks, and if I had three pieces of advice to share they would be:
1) Don’t listen to anyone and everyone who tells you it will never work. That’s an easy thing to say. Seek out people who will motivate and support – but also tell you the truth.
2) Develop a thicker skin. Things go wrong every day. Not everyone will like the business and you. Get over it and move on.
3) But be prepared to evolve. The idea you begin with will develop and change. The thing that makes our business really work is our Points system – that allows people to earn points through having people stay in their home and trade this out to go anywhere in the world. It took us 18 months before we realised this is what the site needed and it required a change in business model and product. It was scary but it has made the business what it is today.
Newnham: You are an advocate for women in tech ~ what more do you think we need to be doing to attract, and keep, more women in tech?
Wosskow: We need to encourage, support and skill-up female founders.
When I started my first business aged 25, I couldn’t read a P&L. It’s not just about encouraging women to study STEM subjects; it’s about helping women to learn about business. And we also need, in no particular order:
- A crèche in Tech City
- Better female investor groups
- A crowdfunding site by women for women
- Women who succeed have a responsibility to also pay it back by investing in other women
Newnham: What / who inspires you?
Wosskow: I have an amazing group of women who are fellow travellers and who I have met through work and life. The strange thing about being an entrepreneur is how far away it can take you from your own peer group – school and university friends – because you don’t have a typical "job". You’re not thinking about promotions or pay rises. Meeting women who get that – Alex Depledge (Hassle), Emma Sinclair (Enterprise Jungle), Sarah Wood (Unruly), Tamara Lohan (Mr and Mrs Smith) and the rest – absolutely changes your life.
Newnham: And what advice would you offer other women looking to start their own business?
Wosskow: Do it early. Starting my first business at 25 meant I had nothing to lose. Remember that the whole debate about glass ceilings and women on boards goes away if you’re the boss. And more generally, in terms of life lessons:
* Get up early
* Sweat every day
* Never burn a bridge
* There is always a way
* Be prepared for the long haul
If you feel like every day you have tried to be the best you can be, then that’s a reason to bounce out of bed the next morning.
Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time, what one piece of advice would you give a younger Debbie about running your own startup?
Wosskow: Try and have a bit more fun! You’re going to be doing this for a looooong time….