To celebrate International Women’s Day, we thought we’d ask some of our fellow sisters in business to share their experiences with us. These women are all carving out their own definition of success and running their companies, their way.
We hope you find their responses fascinating and inspirational in equal measures…
It’s a bit of a longer article than normal, but it was all such good stuff – once we all started talking business there was no stopping us!
Natasha Gupta is founder of Blue Feather Design Studio, helping people weave artwork into their dream homes…
Antoinette Oglethorpe runs her eponymous company specialising in developing leaders and leadership teams for fast-growing companies…she is also one of InnerVisions ID’s wonderful clients.
Rachel Miller of All Things IC helps companies communicate internally through personalised consultancy and training…
Sapna Pieroux is the founder of InnerVisions ID – helping entrepreneurs to look great and communicate clearly.
- Tell us a bit about yourself…
Natasha: Always a London girl, I now live here with my husband and two children. I love seeing new places and meeting new people so will be out as much as I can – you will often find me at the bar with a JD in hand!
Antoinette: I was born in London studied at Newcastle and that’s where I live now, married to a wonderful man who I first dated in 1988 when we were both students there. I have no children of my own but am very proud of my 22-year-old stepson. My interest is people! I am eternally fascinated by why they do what they do.
Rachel: I live in Hanwell and am married to Jon. We have a daughter, five and twin sons aged three. Family and work occupy most of my time, but I relax by building Lego kits. I have a whole bookshelf in my office for my models and enjoy their creativity.
Sapna: I’m married to Andy – who runs his own IT consultancy – and we live in London with our two boys, aged seven and five. I love art and design (graphic, interior, fashion…), music, film, good food and wine. I exercise to offset the damage! A perpetual student, I rarely go a year without doing a course of some sort.
- Describe your career history before you started your business
Natasha: I’d been told I couldn’t have children, so my husband and I had grand designs for a life of travel. However a month after we wed, I found I was expecting! I left my job in Corporate Pensions to be a stay-at-home mum.
Post-natal depression debilitated me until I found a creative outlet in origami. My husband encouraged me to turn my hobby into a business. In two years I sold loads of my origami books and raised over £2,000 for charity.
It got to the point where I needed to either expand the origami business or stop and re-evaluate. I chose the latter and four months ago started Blue Feather Design Studio. I couldn’t be happier!
Antoinette: After graduating I wanted to stay in Newcastle. I landed a great job at P&G, testing whether the washing powder really did get those stains out! I soon realised I was more interested in people than powders so I took voluntary redundancy to move into training and development.
I then became Training Manager for Prontaprint – and hated it – so after much consideration decided to move back to London. Just married, I moved to Accenture, where I blossomed. I then became International Training Director for Avanade, an Accenture joint venture with Microsoft.
I next moved to XL, an insurance company. It was OK but by this time, I was divorced and dating my old boyfriend from uni. We got engaged and moved back to Newcastle to be closer to his son who lived with his mum in Scotland.
That was when I decided to go it alone.
Rachel: I started out as a journalist in 1999. I then worked in-house for companies including Visa, Novartis, Tube Lines and Visteon as an internal communication (IC) specialist, before creating the Head of Communications role at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd in 2009. I’ve also worked agency-side, running internal communications for L’Oreal, GSK, and Sky.
Sapna: I studied Graphic Design at Newcastle, then a post-grad in Marketing as I realised that most designers couldn’t communicate with what they called ‘suits’ and vice versa! I knew that if I could bridge that gap, it would give my future design agency an edge.
Fate interrupted, and I got offered a marketing job in local radio (my first employer, John Raglan, is still a friend and also now a client!). Not what I’d planned, but I figured I might get to meet Robbie Williams, so why not?! I loved working for Metro Radio Group – and created the marketing department’s in-house design function – for seven stations across the northeast and Yorkshire. I eventually left to gain more design agency experience but I missed the buzz of radio!
I went back to media and spent 20 years at Chrysalis radio, emap, The Telegraph, Trinity Mirror Group and O2 Media – bringing brand messages to life creatively with sponsored content and promotions across radio, TV, online, mobile, print and events. I met loads of celebs (yes, including Robbie) and loved it.
- Tell me about your business
Natasha: Blue Feather started in October 2017, to help people weave artwork into their dream homes. I have a fantastic team of architects, structural engineers, construction teams, craftsmen, and artists. Having a reliable team of contractors is vital for me to provide a high-quality service with great attention to detail.
Antoinette: In 2012, I set up Antoinette Oglethorpe Ltd. figuring my name was probably my best asset in this era of Google Search!
Since then we have evolved from a more general training company to one that specialises in developing leaders and leadership teams for fast-growing companies, typically with a turnover of £10m to £100m and a headcount of 100 to 1000.
Mostly I work on my own but I have a team of associates to draw on.
Rachel: I launched All Things IC in January 2013, so have just celebrated five years of being my own boss! I help companies communicate internally through personalised consultancy and training.
I’ve worked with clients including London Zoo, BBC, O2, Which?, Jamie Oliver Group, Harrods, Heathrow Express and the Guardian. It’s often senior-level counsel and coaching for Comms Directors and auditing an organisation’s internal communication. I could also be advising on restructures and organisational change, mentoring, leading team days or being a motivational speaker and trainer.
I love the variety of working with tiger keepers or engineers, train drivers or journalists.
I have contributed to best-selling PR books and teach monthly Masterclasses on internal communication, social media, crisis communication, personal branding and more. My blog is nearly nine years old and I practice Working Out Loud #WOL to help others learn.
My Executive Assistant, Louise, joined me this year and is a fellow mum, working flexibly around her daughters. I have an extended team of contractors to help me with content creation, auditing a company or running focus groups. I also rely on my accountant, designer and my children’s nanny.
Sapna: InnerVisions ID started trading in October 2016. It soon built organically via word of mouth and recommendation. We specialise in branding – helping entrepreneurs look great and communicate clearly – neatly bringing my design and marketing/media/advertising experience together.
Alex started with me two years ago on social media and marketing. We’ve recently hired Jade to do our social media as Alex wanted to move onto other things within the business. I have also hired Esme recently to help set up systems for our growing team – all contractors for now. We are all mums, juggling flexible hours around the kids. We work from home although we have team meetings in town. I also have other designers, web developers, animators, photographers, and copywriters as well as my accountant, business coach, life coach and excellent, supportive friends for emergency childcare – oh and I also refer to my husband as “my IT department”!
- What led you to start your own business? Was it a certain trigger point or a natural progression? How did you actually make the transition from employee to entrepreneur? Did you have to retrain or take any courses?
Natasha: I have always had a passion for design but working in the financial world with a great salary was not easy to give up. However, work/life balance and corporate politics meant that I always knew that it wasn’t really for me! I spent a long time learning and studying aspects of design before feeling ready to start my business though.
Antoinette: I always thought that one day I would like to go it alone but it was relocating to Newcastle that was the trigger. My kind of role (Global Training Director) didn’t really exist up there at the time.
Rachel: I created All Things IC when my daughter was seven-months-old because I wanted to work for myself and create a different environment for my family – it was terrifying but liberating.
I’d been blogging since 2009 and my readers kept asking if they could work with me. I’d been thinking about going solo and spent my last two in-house roles trying out techniques by working as a Consultant internally.
I’m constantly learning and evolving. I spent a lot of time last year analysing the way I work, my own personal branding and appointing a marketing mentor. I’m a Chartered PR Practitioner and Fellow with the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and invest in continuous professional development annually. I’m also a Fellow of the Institute of Internal Communication and member of the Public Relations and Communications Association and Institute of Directors.
Sapna: I actually never thought I would leave media – I loved it! But after the PND I felt too fragile to go back into the high-pressure, long hours and heavy socialising I’d previously thrived on. I decided to stay at home with my babies, completed another degree in Interior Design – I even got a first! Meanwhile, I’d been helping friends and family with their branding as they set up their own businesses. My husband’s brochure was seen at an entrepreneur event and he came home that day with seven business cards of people who wanted me to work with them. I then realised my new career had been staring me in the face all along…
I knew what I was doing in terms of design and communications, but I had absolutely no idea how to run a business, so I enrolled in a course to help me. I aim to do a couple more courses this year – forever the student!
- Were there any big or lucky breaks that – or people who – helped you?
Natasha: My Zumba instructor! After hearing my story she asked me to speak at a business seminar early last year. Although at this point I was still creating books and not following my dream, that seminar ended up being a springboard into the business world. I developed many contacts and became a mentor to other women who’d had a similar journey to me and were struggling to turn it around.
Antoinette: When we decided to move North and I decided to set up on my own, I contacted my friend and mentor, David, who had been so instrumental in my decision to move to London many years earlier. He invited me to be a partner in his consultancy firm which was a great “soft landing”. I had the opportunity to focus on client delivery and learn from that experience while he won all the work.
Rachel: I believe you gain more when you give and operate my business in that way. Providing access to 1100+ articles for free has led to every new client inviting me to work with them.
I’ve often unwittingly accompanied professional communicators throughout their career: they may be regular blog readers or heard me speak at conferences. Then when they’re in a position to need help, they invite me to work with them. So being consistent and generous in sharing my knowledge has helped me grow my business.
Sapna: Through the course I made so many connections, who have each in their own way helped me – there are too many to mention here but they know who they are and I have thanked them all personally. In turn, I have now been asked to help others starting out via a programme called Shifts to Success, something I’m incredibly proud and yet humbled to be able to do.
- What successes are you most proud of?
Natasha: After the feeling of complete inadequacy, I am most proud of coming through the other side. I have learned and am continuing to learn so much, but I feel proud of believing that I was able to do it! In 2012 I won a prestigious award for designing a headboard for Savoir Beds. That was a pretty epic moment!
Antoinette: I have been self-employed for eleven years. For five of those, I have been running my own company. It has been a rollercoaster and I’ve had good years and bad. But I have never had to ask my husband for money!
Rachel: Personally, I’m most proud of my children, it’s a privilege to watch them develop and discover the world. Professionally, I’m proud to hear practitioners doing brilliantly as a result of work we’ve done together. I offer 1-2-1 coaching and I’m delighted to hear when their campaigns have gone well or they’ve been promoted as a result of our work.
Sapna: Like Natasha, I’m proud of ‘coming through the other side’ and building a business and life around our family. I’ve created a fulfilling career, I have great clients and a growing business. I was published last year in a collaborative book, so I’m now officially a no 1 Amazon author – and was asked to be Brand Mentor for Shifts to Success. Yet I still do the school runs, attend plays, endure sports days, am taking a parenting course, am a class rep and spend time on Fridays reading with the children in my younger son’s class. I recently turned down a paid speaking gig in December in case it clashed with one of my boy’s Christmas plays/assemblies. That freedom is pure gold to me.
- What do you love about running your own business?
Natasha: The flexibility to govern my own hours and dedicate time to my children. I love that I am doing something I am truly passionate about and I can model this to my children. I want them to be able to follow whatever they are passionate about and thrive as a result!
Antoinette: I love the freedom, the autonomy, and the challenge. I am tested on a daily basis which I find invigorating. I’m still working out how, but I feel my business is the vehicle through which I can make a difference to the world – my legacy.
Rachel: So much! I love the autonomy, mental stimulation and ability to adapt and evolve my offering to help practitioners solve problems. I also love being able to design a business that enables me to make the important family commitments like sports day and assemblies.
Sapna: Everything above! I also love that I can write a blog post on the beach or design from my garden on a sunny day.
- What do you hate about running your own business – if anything?
Natasha: At the beginning, the hardest thing is to be a “jack of all trades”, although I have started to outsource a lot, its hard work being; a social media manager, accountant, website designer, administrator, designer, mum, wife and a party animal! I wouldn’t say I hate it, as I am glad to have learned about all aspects of the business. Now when I outsource I can set the standards and know I am not being unrealistic!
Antoinette: Sales and marketing. I’m not bad at converting leads once I have them but getting enough leads and getting the commitment from clients is an ongoing hassle.
I often bemoan the fact that my associates are not beholden to me; they obviously all have their own businesses and I have no control over whether they are available to work for me or not!
Rachel: There is a lot of admin particularly if you work in the way I do, with multiple clients each week. However, since appointing my Executive Assistant Louise, I’m able to work on rather than in my business, which is hugely liberating.
Sapna: I don’t really ‘sell’ as my business comes through word-of-mouth and my conversion rate is high, but if I want to grow the business, I’ll need to. I’ve sold before, but it’s not my comfort zone and this time I won’t have a cool media brand to hide behind. I’m also not great with systems and admin – a typical creative! – so I’m getting other people to help me with that.
- Are there any difficulties you’ve had to overcome or situations you’ve had to juggle whilst working for yourself? How did you do it? How did you cope?
Natasha: Having to cancel meetings when the kids are sick is tough, I hate disappointing people but know that the kids are my ‘why’ so it will all work out! I have been incredibly lucky that everyone I have worked with to date has been amazing, clients and contractors alike. So when I face any difficulty, I am always honest and pretty much 100% of the time they help me work it out!
Antoinette: See answer to question 8. My other biggest challenge is geography. We live in Newcastle but most of my clients are in London. It’s exhausting. My husband and I are apart too much. And it’s hard to be responsive to clients when it takes six hours of travel and considerable expense just to have a coffee!
Rachel: As a director of a limited company I had to pay myself maternity leave when I had my twin sons, and then claim it back. So despite having two newborns and a two-and-a-half-year-old, I had to find a way of making money to fund that payment. Introducing job adverts to the All Things IC website was the way I did that.
Sapna: Again, it’s juggling the kids with client needs. I am upfront about when it’s the holidays – and I work only ‘skeleton’ hours then. I won’t take any new projects on at the beginning of summer as I want to enjoy time with my kids. I do sometimes have to put them into holiday club, but I’m lucky my husband can do his bit too!
- What would you say is the secret to your success so far?
Natasha: Hard work! I know exactly what my limitations and my weaknesses are. If there is an aspect of the business I struggle with, I will spend hours learning until I understand. If after that I still don’t get it, I have an amazing network of women that I know I can turn to. Sapna is one of those amazing women that continue to inspire me!
Antoinette: The fact I’m still here after 11 years! I put it down to determination and resilience. I’m also pretty intelligent which is not always enough but doesn’t do any harm.
Rachel: I listen to my network constantly and take time to invest in relationships and my own professional development.
Sapna: Awww, thanks, Natasha – back at you! ‘Success’ I think is very much in the eye of the beholder. I think I’m succeeding in building the kind of business I and others would want to work for – but we still have a long way to go. I’d say success is delighting our clients – which ultimately means more business.
11 What kind of strategies or tips do you have for
Natasha: Vision boards – I truly believe in this, if there is something that you truly want and it’s staring you in the face, it will sure as hell motivate you to go get it!
Antoinette: What legacy do you want to leave? (Sorry. Showing my age!) What do you want to be known for/remembered for?
Rachel: I believe what happens outside is reflected outside, so the more I invest in my own learning and development, the more I can serve my clients. I love what I do, which keep me continuously motivated.
Sapna: Like a lot of creatives, my self-motivation can go up and down with how inspired I am feeling that day. However, I’m also pretty self-motivated to do a great job for others – I love happy clients and it fuels me to do more.
Natasha: Don’t leave anything until tomorrow! Find a system that works for you and stick to it. I have Excel spreadsheets for everything. If for example, I have a pile of expenses to log, I try and do this daily, any longer and it either gets forgotten or lost, plus it takes seconds to do!
Antoinette: Less is more. What is the LEAST you need to do today? In other words, if you only do one thing, what is the ONE thing that would make everything else easier or unnecessary (read The One Thing by Gary Keller)
Rachel: I have a daily planner I’ve developed and now share with clients. It helps keep me on track and accountable.
Sapna: Lists! I have a list of what needs doing every day and it gets updated. I am moving towards getting a proper project management system in though as I need to be more on point with this as the team grows and projects get bigger.
Natasha: Time slot everything!! I give myself half hour/ hour pockets in the day for personal stuff like sorting through the laundry to things like writing a blog! If I have a deadline I find it makes me a lot more productive!
Antoinette: Outsource anything that costs less than your time. My best friend’s mother taught me that when I was in my twenties when I was moaning about housework. She made me work out how long it took me (ages!) and the equivalent cost based on my wage. It was then a no-brainer to invest in a cleaner.
Rachel: I set alarms on my Apple Watch to nudge me to the next task. I listen to podcasts and audiobooks while I work to maximise my time. I recommend online accountancy systems as you can then snap and save receipts on the go and create invoices via your devices.
Sapna: I’m with Antoinette – outsource for all those time-sucking jobs that you either hate or someone can do better. I have a cleaner, an accountant (along with XERO accounting software – like Rachel I find it invaluable for my expenses), social media, another designer who does my client brochures…Heck, I even ‘outsourced’ my husband cooking three times a week with Gousto which was a massive decrease in my ‘mental load’.
- Avoiding procrastination
Natasha: No idea – ha! I am a master procrastinator but as above, I find if I set myself deadlines I am a lot more likely to #GSD than procrastinate!
Antoinette: Eat that Frog by Brian Tracey
Rachel: Procrastination is the thief of time. When you run your own business, time is money, so work out how much it costs you to procrastinate and you’ll be less likely to do it!
Sapna: I’m still working on this one – I think I’m going to read that book, Antoinette! But, like Natasha, a deadline usually puts a rocket under me.
Natasha: A meal or a drink with friends, lots of drink…and maybe cake!
Antoinette: Go out with your partner or family. If you’re at home watching the TV, the likelihood is you’ll have one eye on the TV and one eye on the IPAD. If you go out and leave the gadgets at home you’ll focus on each other.
Or do something that requires your TOTAL concentration – rally car driving, scuba diving, etc.
Rachel: Try and find something that distracts your mind from work. I am a huge Lego fan and enjoy making the expert models, although I often find I solve client’s conundrums while I’m putting them together.
Sapna: I love working out – that’s ‘my time’ and it gives me more energy for life. A meal and wine with my husband and/or friends. Cuddles and laughing with my boys. Occasional treatments and spa days with friends! Like you, Rachel, downtime is often when creative inspiration hits me.
Natasha: I buy jewellery or cake, or both, topped with a glass of JD 😀
Antoinette: Champagne. Always champagne 🍾😀
Rachel: Celebrate every client win, even the small ones. To be invited to work with an organisation is an honour and I mark every one. I wait until I’ve signed about five new clients and then buy an expert Lego set.
Sapna: Gosh, I don’t think I celebrate enough! Well, not formally, i.e. I don’t have a set ‘thing’ I do. But Andy and I will share our wins with each other over dinner and wine. That makes me sound really boring by comparison to you lot!
- Work-Life Balance
Natasha: I refuse to work weekends and evenings, ok so this doesn’t always happen but I am certainly working on it! Having your own business makes it tough to switch off, but I have set certain boundaries such a not answering any calls after 6pm which I refuse to budge on!
Antoinette: Love your work and make it part of your life. Then you don’t need to balance.
Rachel: It’s hard to retain a balance, particularly if your household has two entrepreneurs running their own companies and three small children. But we preserve family time on the weekends and I choose not to travel, so I can be present at bath and bedtime.
Sapna: Again, I’m with Antoinette – my work/life boundaries are very blurry, as are Andy’s, but I don’t worry about it – if my kids, friends or husband need me, I’m there. I work a bit at the weekend, but I’ll rest a bit in the week. I too draw the line with clients contacting me out of hours though. I love what I do and it doesn’t feel like something I ‘need’ to switch off from – although I can do that too!
Lastly – are there any last words of wisdom you can share with any other women who are thinking of starting their own businesses – or who have just started out?
Natasha: Just do it! Women are natural masters at juggling a million life balls! Surround yourself with like-minded people and eliminate negativity and anyone that doesn’t believe in you! Branding is key and once you know what direction your business needs to take, talk to Sapna to help you get a killer brand!
Antoinette: Find mentors and talk to successful business people who can share their real-life experience and advice. Do not get blinded by the online start-up “gurus” and “experts”. There are a lot of charlatans out there.
Rachel: People hire people, so take time to understand and communicate your personal brand and be confident in your own abilities.
Get comfortable talking about money and charge what you are worth. If you set the bar low when you start out, it makes raising your rate to what it should be a lot harder in future.
Ask for help and know it’s ok to not have everything defined at the start of your business, view it as an iterative process and enjoy it.
Sapna: Again, these ladies have said everything I would say (and thanks, Natasha, again!). I would never have thought to leave my job but I had to stop work for three years. Now I wish I’d started my business earlier. So I’d say don’t delay if you’re thinking that it’s for you. Perhaps test the market by working on your business out of hours – I know lots who have done this, then got to the point of income – or confidence – where they felt able to make the leap.
Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us all – hopefully, it will inspire other sisters in business too!