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Perfume, Parenting & Multi-Million Pound Empires

11/02/2019 By Claudia Cohen

La Fosse Associates is proud to sponsor the third series of the hugely successful Secret Leaders podcast, which features interviews with key figures from the UK’s tech and creative industries.

This season, the Secret Leaders team a series of live events, each bringing together 2 brilliant guests to discuss the ups and downs along the way to building their companies, and how they are trying to change the world for the better.

In the first of these, host Dan met perfumier extraordinaire & founder of Jo Loves, Jo Malone CBE, and Mumsnet Founder Justine Roberts, to talk about success down to a good sense in business, a good sense of smell, and a good pair of trainers – while sharing a few tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Visit Secret Leaders for more information about the podcast or subscribe here.

With 1.2 billion page views and 8 million user posts per year, Mumsnet is the UK's biggest network for parents, allowing users – who have included Gok Wan, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband - to pool knowledge and share experiences pertaining to their DD (Dear Daughters) and DS (Dear Sons).

What's more, Mumsnet was started in 1999, making founder Justine Roberts a pioneer of the online social community (to contextualise quite how innovative this was, Tom Anderson was still four years off founding MySpace, and Mark Zuckerberg – well, he was 15.)

Meanwhile, 'English Scent Maverick' and synthesthesiast Jo Malone CBE is a household name down to her eponymous fragrance empire, which she sold to cosmetics giant Estée Lauder in 1999 in a rumoured multi-million dollar deal. Since then, she's managed to keep busy – namely by founding Jo Loves, an international fragrance brand based in London.

Four plastic jugs and a saucepan

But life hasn't always been plain sailing. Born on a council estate in Bexleyheath, Jo was initially set on the track of entrepreneurship by necessity. 'From a young age, I had to work to support my family - I was the one who would look in an empty fridge, then work out a plan for how to fill it. Fighting for survival made me resilient - running my own businesses felt like the way forward.'

In part due to the pressures of home life, it took a long time to diagnose Jo's dyslexia, and at school she was told she was stupid. 'I left at fifteen without a single GCSE and started working full-time.' Jo's first job was in a flower shop – a place she feels she was attracted to due to her synaesthesia, in a foreshadowing of the perfume empire to come.

Fast-forward a few years to Jo at 22 – married and running an embryonic Jo Malone London out of four plastic jugs and a saucepan in her kitchen. 'I typed up every label on a type-writer – misspelling everything. But those days were magical.'

And how about funding? 'None. I went to the bank to ask for a hundred-pound overdraft. They wouldn't give it to me. I'm still with the same bank now – and I've never let them forget it.'

"What, you're in an internet business?"

Mumsnet started in rather different circumstances. 'I quit my job in the city when I became pregnant with twins, and after a stint as a sports journalist, I decided to start an internet business. I didn't necessarily think of myself of as an entrepreneur – it was more about satisfying my own user need.'

Justine also had difficulty raising funds in those early days. 'One investment house said they would love to invest. They just wanted to change one thing – me. They had a fantastic, childless young man they wanted to take over Mumsnet.' Justine chose to look for funding elsewhere. 

Then, the dot.com bubble burst – and no-one would fund anything. 'Everyone went from asking 'What's your internet business?' to 'What, you're in an internet business?!' People were genuinely writing columns about how the web was over. But, people were finding Mumsnet helpful - so it kept going.'

School plays and diversity of speech

In fact, the elimination of board influence may have been a blessing in disguise – both have certainly built companies according to their own values. Jo also has always sought to build businesses that encourage and support people to be involved in their families, something Justine is also completely on board with. 'If you work at Mumsnet, you never have to miss a school play (unless you want to…)  There's no absenteeism – it's all about outcomes.'

Another key tenet is that Mumsnet as a forum is built around diversity of opinion. 'Today, it’s more important than ever to seek out opinions different than our own. Of course, there should be moderators for extreme situations, but preserving freedom of speech needs to be paramount.'

Lessons learnt...

So, looking back at their success, what would they have done differently? 'I would have taken myself more seriously.' Says Justine, 'Meaning proper trademarking and shareholders agreement. And I would have realised earlier that every internet business is really a tech business, and you can't over-invest in tech.'

For Jo, 'starting again' with Jo Loves has been one of the hardest things she has done in her career. 'The first time round, it was like jumping out a plane with no parachute. The second time, you're thinking a lot more and trying to draw on past experiences – when you really need that entrepreneurial spirit to kick in so you can take risks.'

However, she would still always have started another business. 'I would have done some things differently, but mistakes are part of life – they can be more valuable to you in building a business than making the right move.'

And any wisdom to impart?

Jo is campaigning to change the national curriculum.  'We need to inspire an entrepreneurial mindset in children from the beginning. I want every child to know how to create and build, and never feel second-best for not getting particular grades.'

And for current entrepreneurs, rather than future ones? 'There will be uncomfortable moments starting a business, but keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don't quit on a bad day.'

And Justine? 'Try and become famous for something people actually use. Don't waste too long on your appearance – there are more important things to be doing. And get a really good pair of trainers – you're probably going to be late everywhere.'

Where to next?

Find more advice, insights, and intelligence from the UK's Secret Leaders, or get in touch with Claudia Cohen via email or call on 0207932165.

View our current live roles here.

Tagged In: Culture, Private Equity
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