Posted on December 09 2015
This week's Wednesday Woman is the incredible Holly Tucker MBE, award-winning entrepreneur and founder of notonthehighstreet.com . Holly has also recently been appointed UK Ambassador for Creative Small Businesses. Read how she got started, and what inspires her here:
Bardega: Can you tell us a little bit about what you were like growing up?
Holly Tucker: I was referred to as ‘Holly Hurricane’, so I think that pretty much sums me up! From as young as I can remember, I was in far too much of a hurry - a hurry to grow, a hurry to build, and a hurry to live. I had a passion for life that far outweighed my years.
I used to love nothing more than dreaming up, at first, imaginary businesses such as the travel agency I’d set up in my parent's’ living room which included all of the brochures I’d “borrowed” from the high street; or the beauty salon my best friend and I set up while on holiday, where we’d give adults terrible manicures and pedicures, and worthless massages, all for the princely sum of £1.
I carried that love of entrepreneurialism throughout my childhood years and, as I grew into a teenager, I started the first tuck shop at school, actually turning a profit. That only spurred me on and my entrepreneurial spirit blossomed. When I was 15, I was eager to break into the working world and earn some invaluable experience; I was so hungry for it. So, during the summer, while all of my friends chose to sunbathe in the park, I nailed myself a work experience placement with Publicis, one of the leading advertising companies in the world. Enjoying the maturity of it all, I did the same thing for two more consecutive summers, until I was 17 and on the verge of adulthood.
I literally couldn’t wait to be in control of my destiny; I felt I had something to say.
Bardega: What gave you the idea to start up notonthehighstreet.com with Sophie Cornish, and how did you turn that dream into a reality?
Tucker: In 2002 I decided I wanted to be more creative, so while working full-time I started designing unusual floral arrangements, which led to a love of creating unique wreaths.
I loved the feeling I got from immersing myself into the design and creation process, and I became pretty damn good at it (if I do say so myself!). My only hurdle was working out the best route for selling them. Sadly, in my local area of Chiswick, the independents were being forced into closure in favour of the larger chains. I remembered thinking that there must be some kind of local Chiswick Christmas Fair, especially as it was “that” kind of neighbourhood with lots of little families, but there wasn’t! It was then that I had a real ‘lightbulb’ moment, realising that this is was what I should do - start the first Christmas Fair. Better still, I knew if I started it I could get a free table for my wreaths. It felt too easy!
So, after finishing my long days at work, I’d go home and start working through the night, contacting the brilliant small businesses I’d met personally, or found through browsing magazines, trying to sell them a stall at my first Fair. Eventually I had enough businesses and so I booked the local Town Hall, hired a number of tables, hired staff to help out on the day, printed the leaflets, placed the ads, and generally worked extremely hard to pull off an event with 150 stalls single-handedly. My hard work paid off, it was a great success! Even though I sold out of my wreaths, I knew the energy I was witnessing in bringing these two groups of people together (the curated stall holders and the local customers) was my future.
My wreaths were delivered and so was my resignation! I set up ‘Your Local Fair’, running events for a few years across affluent areas in West London. Some were great successes, but all were at the mercy of the free availability of the local Town Halls, sporting fixtures and the weather.
The last Fair I held was in December 2004; I was heavily pregnant with my son and I’d already decided that I needed to have a serious think about what was next, as something wasn’t quite working for me with regard to the Fairs - the concept was there but, up to that point, I just hadn’t seen it.
I’d had my son, Harry, in the January and needed to return to work immediately so as to be able to pay the mortgage. 8 weeks into being a new mum, I started freelancing within the publishing world but, after only 3 months of doing that, I knew my calling was to help small businesses; I had an inkling I couldn’t shake off. This time though, I knew I couldn’t go it alone; I needed someone to share the load and to bring different skills to the table - a yin to my yang.
I got in touch with Sophie (in what is now quite a famous email), who was a boss of mine during my years in advertising when I was only 17. I asked if she’d be interested in setting up an online business, bringing together all the small and independent businesses who weren’t on the high street under the roof of one website. Within 24 hours, Sophie had said said yes and the rest, as you know they say, is history.
Bardega: Being an entrepreneur can be difficult, especially in the early years of the business. What has been the biggest obstacle you have faced and how did you overcome it?
Tucker: Biggest obstacles? That’s a hard one... In the beginning, I felt every moment of every day was an obstacle. Trying to set up a business as a marketplace in 2006 was not easy.
The entire SME community only knew about Amazon and Ebay, as these were the only marketplaces in existence online at that time. We had to educate the community - being asked if you needed a computer and printer was a question we were familiar with! Sophie and I didn’t originate from retail or engineering backgrounds, so this was no small task and we had already nearly exhausted the contingency money we’d allocated. So, like many, lack of money was our greatest obstacle during the early years. We didn’t pay ourselves a salary for the first year of trading, and we had to pay our staff their salaries by writing cheques from our credit card accounts - not advisable!
Grants were very hard to come by and took a lengthy amount of time to obtain. We’d already received a small loan from the bank, so resorted to packing up our bags, getting on a train with our presentations, walking the city streets of London and meeting men in suits at various venture capital firms, pitching as though our lives depended on it (the harsh reality is that our livelihoods were dependent on a successful outcome).
In the end, literally the night before Christmas, we were fortunate enough to meet a gentleman named Tom Teichman, who ran the venture capital firm SPARK ventures (he was also the one who wrote the first cheque backing lastminute.com). He told us he recognised when an entrepreneur had ‘the spark’ and, in backing us, he had unknowingly saved our bacon.
Today, you don’t have to give away so much of your business so early on, as there’s now a world of support set up for SMEs, which wasn’t available 10 years ago. I’m a huge fan of crowdfunding - a novel way of raising funds, whereby you pitch your business idea online and anyone can choose to back you, investing anything from a few pounds to hundreds of thousands of pounds. I would have loved to have raised money in this way, as it gives you far more flexibility. A couple of businesses that are great in this sector are Crowdcube and Seedrs.
Bardega: You’re an advocate for women entrepreneurs - what advice would you give to women looking to start their own business?
Tucker: I’ve been asked this question many times over the years and I sometimes feel a bit of a fraud, because the answer I’ve always given, has been that I’d give the same business advice to all entrepreneurs, irrespective of sex. I have, however, been thinking more about the answer I give to this question over the past year and it’s actually become more obvious to me in that how I deliver my response makes all the difference. To be more specific, if you’re asking me for solely for business advice, it’s definitely the same response for men as it is for women, but I would stress the point that if you were to ask me if the support you needed differs depending on your sex then my answer would be yes.
In my experience (and most likely the experience of all the women I know who run businesses), one of the most distinct necessities is emotional and practical support. Having the ability to talk through your experiences and issues with people who understand and empathise - those who can (and will) listen to the utter nightmares of juggling childcare while balancing a business, or who are just there to support your family life is crucial.
It’s no joke trying to run a business while being the family leader, whilst also not trying not to ‘lose’ yourself. Women really can do it all, but that ‘all’ is mostly too much. If you’re a mother, you can’t delegate the emotional role you play within the family; you have to take on that role along with all the others - main gifter, main shopper - basically the CEO of the household. The business, which can now be considered a new child (because it takes the same patience and nurturing), can’t be looked after by anyone else during those first few years, so what you ultimately end up with is an unhappy business, founder and family. It’s for that reason that a first-class support network is vital.
So, in summary, my advice is to really understand what business, emotional and practical support you have, need and can get. Don’t feel guilty or afraid to ask other people to help. Invest in employing people on a salary (if you can) at work and at home to get all jobs that can be done by others done. At the same time, you’d rather have a hole than an arsehole, so choose wisely and trust your gut instinct. Understand and appreciate that it’s better to have quality time (no mobile phones, tablets, computers or other gadgets allowed) with your children rather than quantity of time - also remember that feeling guilty helps no one, so try hard to ditch that emotion. There is a ‘rule of three’ - your business, your family and yourself - and, at any point in time, you can only prioritise two out of the three. More often than not, it will always be ‘you’ who is the one left out. Don’t try to chase balance - there’s no such thing.
Bardega: What/who inspires you?
Tucker: It’s not that people don’t inspire me, I’m a big people person, but for me, whenever I see something ‘unique’, or come across a ‘never-been-seen-before’ idea, it drives me wild with excitement - this is what fuels my inspiration. It’s like a drug to me, or an obsession to continue to seek out the very best (obviously full of imagination), always looking for that product or idea that takes things to the next level. So I suppose it’s a beautiful mixture because there are individuals with incredible stories, behind those ‘unique’ products and ideas - the artists, the makers, the creators that inspire me.
You’ll never find me happier than when I’ve got a few hours spare, to scour through the notonthehighstreet.com site, discovering new products and experiences, or when I’m walking the lanes of Brighton, finding hidden boutiques full of undiscovered treasures. Identifying the next ‘big’ product and, thus, the creation of a new small creative business is what fuels my fire. So much so that I actually had to move house to accommodate all of my purchases over the years, as my last house (somewhat of a shrine, showcasing all of my finds) just wasn’t big enough!
Bardega: You have recently launched Instadvice, which we love, can you tell us about more about it and what is your mission?
Tucker: Earlier this year, I changed my role at notonetghighstreet.com, stepping away from my CEO position and day-to-day running of the company, instead opting for the new role of Chief Inspirator - doing so allowed me to focus more on the creative side of the business.
I very quickly realised though just how much I missed the community of SMEs I’d built up over the last decade. I’ve mentioned previously that small businesses and their imagination is what fuels me - like an addiction, they are my drug, and so I wanted to reconnect and get them back into my bloodstream. I wanted to engage with their creativity and provide them with support - I finally feel like that is what I’m doing.
I’ve so many war wounds and battle scars, and have developed an encyclopedia of knowledge, not only in setting-up an online business like notonthehighstreet.com, but also in witnessing the struggles and accomplishments of thousands of businesses I’ve helped over the years. I knew that if I shared my knowledge and wisdom, I could help, even if only a little. So, having more time due to my role change meant I was able to channel my thoughts and that’s when I decided to set-up #instadvice, as a way of providing instant advice, guidance and tips to small creative ‘busy’ businesses and start-ups in the UK, offering my tips and daily dose of inspiration in the most creative fashion possible.
I try to bring colour to grey at every opportunity, so I always endeavour to ensure my posts truly capture the imagination, pleasing and exciting the eye and, in turn, the mind. All artwork for #instadvice is created bespoke, in-house. It’s a real labour of love, but one that provides the most satisfaction.
Bardega: Finally what advice, if any, would you give a younger Holly?
Tucker: If you asked me now, looking back at my younger self, I feel I lacked self-belief. I’ve always been my own worst critic, giving myself the hardest of feedback. As I’ve already proclaimed, I was (and still am) always in a hurry, so you can appreciate why I felt like anything I did just wasn’t good enough, and certainly nothing was fast enough.
I’d like to tell myself to breathe and to believe more. I suppose it’s easy to say that now, because you could say the only reason notonethehighstreet.com was able to grow and has become such a success was due to the impatience and future vision during those early years. All I can honestly say is that it was tough building something that had never been done before and, boy, I’m glad those first stages are well and truly over!
I’ve taken the lessons I’ve learned on board while building holly.co. I now try to take more time over things I love to do, remembering that the building part is certainly the most exciting bit of business. I’m also now kinder to myself and, now and again, allow myself to think I’ve done an ‘okay job’!