Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background/career path?
I graduated with a degree in English Literature in 2001. I’d dreamt of being a journalist my whole life, but after three years of university I couldn’t face picking up a pen again. I fell into B2B media sales for a large publishing house, which was tough but taught me buckets about the commercial side of business. But I missed writing and was chuffed when one of the Editors offered me some work experience writing press releases. Three years later I was managing a re-launch.
I moved into editing an international trade association magazine but was almost fired in my second week for writing an exposé on one of our members. I tried various things after that – PR, Branding, even Project Management – but couldn’t find anything that married my love of words and business. That’s when I met my now business partner, and The First Word was born.
Tell me about your agency. What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
We’re a B2B writing and training agency based in London. Our mission is to banish blah, bull and bunkum from business writing for good!
We train and coach people to become better writers at work. Everyone thinks they should be able to write well because they were taught to do it at school or at uni. The reality is often quite different! We help people to write clearly, concisely and in their own voice. We also write all sorts of copy, from web and marketing to customer service and corporate communications. Our client base is really diverse, which keeps things interesting.
Like lots of good ideas, it started in a pub. Neil and I were working in a branding and communications agency, running writing training as a sideline project. He’d worked as a writing trainer before and understood the big difference it made to people’s confidence and productivity at work. We were putting the world to rights over a beer or three one night and it grew from there.
We set up the business at around the same time as the 2010 banking crisis hit. People told me I was mad leaving my job just as the recession was taking hold but I knew I had to give it a go.
I cold-called companies for six months and nothing happened. Then the phone rang – someone senior at Barclaycard had picked up a marketing postcard we’d sent them in the style of a personals ad, and wanted to talk. After a few meetings, they gave us a big contract to help them transform the way they write to their customers. That was a great day.
What do you think are the most important issues for developing your company culture?
Honesty, always looking for better ways of doing things and saying ‘thank you’. We’ve just done our ‘Happiness at work’ survey to understand what’s most important to our team. We asked them to give us their warts and all take on working life at The First Word. As nice as it is to get warm and fuzzy feedback, you can’t make things better until you know what’s broken. The results have been really helpful in shaping our business over the next 12 months.
We also talk a lot about doing the right thing – by our clients and each other. We try to be as helpful as we can to our clients but we’d never agree to cutting corners or doing something we know won’t work. It’s important to be able to say ‘no’ and offer an alternative solution. Our team knows we trust them to make those sorts of decisions with our full backing.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a woman in business?
At 21, I was selling advertising in the construction press in a heavily male-dominated environment. As a woman, you went to meetings in a skirt and lipstick – full stop. I learnt that confidence and knowledge were power, but wore them like armour.
Since running my own business, I’ve learnt that being vulnerable, showing empathy, and not having all the answers all the time are good things. We’re all human and we all have our good and bad days – that’s what makes us relatable. I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome in the past. It’s interesting how men just don’t feel self-doubt in the same way. I quizzed some male friends about this recently and the consensus was that they were too busy getting on with ‘important sh*t’ to put themselves under that sort of pressure. I definitely think there’s something in that.
The Wow Company’s recent survey of 471 agency owners across the UK has the figures as female 27% – male 73%. Can you share your thoughts on this?
I’m not surprised by the ratios. One of the big issues here is juggling agency life with family commitments. I’d already been in business for a few years when I had my daughter but I don’t know I’d have had the energy or inclination to do it in reverse. Those early agency days were pretty all consuming.
Fortunately ‘traditional’ roles are being turned on their heads and we’re seeing more and more men splitting parental leave with their partners. A friend is taking six months off with his new baby and it’s something he wouldn’t have thought was possible in the past. I’d like to think these figures will look different in 3–5 years’ time.
My other thought is how many women do actually want to run their own agency? When I tell women what I do, the usual response is: “I could never do that”. Is it a question of limited ability or just limiting beliefs? I’d guess it’s not the former. I tell them that if I can do it, anyone can.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
I’m not part of a community but we took part in brilliant mentoring programme called Innovating for Growth, run by The British Library. It’s a three-month programme of one-to-one sessions with entrepreneurs and specialists, covering everything from branding and marketing to product innovation and IP. Our lead mentor Uday was a tough cookie and asked some big questions about our purpose in our first meeting. It changed the face of our business entirely. I’d encourage any fledgling agency or small business to apply!
I also have my own network of female business owners, directors and freelancers that I chat to regularly. I actually find it helpful to talk to people, men and women, outside of the agency world. The challenges of running a company (culture, growth, getting paid) are the same wherever you go. My husband is a Director of an engineering consultancy and though our worlds couldn’t be any more different, he’s always got a refreshing take on things.
Do you feel as a female agency founder, they offer the level of support you need? Do you need additional support that isn’t currently available?
I don’t feel I need support that’s specifically tailored to women. There are lots of brilliant resources out there for business owners in general. I’ve found LinkedIn and business blogs really helpful for articles, advice and problem solving.
What other female founders inspire you?
I love what Tessa Cook and Saasha Celestial-One are doing over at Olio – what a brilliant idea to help solve the problem of wastefulness.
What do you think makes a great agency?
One where people laugh every day, and feel proud to put their name to their work.
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
Have a very clear idea in your head of what you’re trying to do. That’s your North Star – use it to guide every major decision you make.