Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I am the founder of a design agency called Top Left Design, a business I have had since 2002. I have a bit of an unusual family background – I was born in Israel, I lived in South Africa for 7 years from 1985, before arriving in London in the summer of 1991. I always went to American International schools in all these different countries so I speak with a pseudo American accent.
My family is mainly in the film industry but I always wanted to forge my own path.
I finished school and then went to an American university in London and did a degree in Visual Communications (kind of like graphic design/commercial art). In 1996 I met my now husband there at university, and we’ve been together now for 21 years (married 14). We have no kids (by choice) and I have always enjoyed work – running a business is quite all consuming and my employees are kind of like my kids. Though I am aware of the differences!
What’s your background/career path?
In my final year at university, I entered the Royal Society of Art Student Design competition. For the project, I create a 3D virtual world with different rooms each with a strange effect – the upside down room, the psychedelic room, the room where everything vibrates. This won me 1st prize and that prize was work experience with Pearson Entertainment. I worked at the Financial Times, Future Publishing (in Bath) and then for 3 months at Penguin Books. It was at Penguin Books that I learned how to design and build websites (using an early form of HTML – this was in 1997!), we designed and built websites for each book. Because of this extensive work experience, I got the first proper web design job I applied for and was headhunted to work at an internet company 6 months later. I worked there for 3 years, and watched as the company grew from 13 to over 75 staff, merged with several other agencies and got bought out by a large Finnish telecoms company. In the end, the company floated on the stock market, the “dot com bubble burst” and in a dramatic final day where the liquidators came, the company ceased to be.
I pursued freelance website design work, had no experience in sales at the time, so I I joined networking groups like BNI, and Toastmasters (for public speaking) and learned along the way. After 4 years I hired my first employee, and now there are 7 of us.
Tell me about your agency.
My aim was always to “clean up the internet” – always frustrated me how wonderful people and companies could have such poor websites, and further down the line, poor online social profiles.
We’ve been predominantly working with small businesses over the years helping them with branding, design, blogging, websites, social media and content marketing. I do a lot of networking, speaking and training, and people recommend us and our clients come back for new projects.
We specialize in bespoke design – meaning we avoid templates and themes. We also spend a lot of time consulting with our clients, teaching them not only about how to structure websites, gather case studies, communicate online, express their personality, represent their brand, and communicate effectively online.
We have 2 coders – Tom and Domas, who live in Lithuania and are “pixel perfect” front end specialists who are able to bring into reality our designs using HTML and WordPress.
We have 2 designers, Tamlyn and Amy (both South African, one based in London) who are both extremely efficient and organized, and work directly with clients. Amy’s been with the company for 10 years, and Tamlyn for 8.
We also have a project manager, Charlotte, who is our newest hire (I met her at a Christmas party) and she has been a really amazing addition to the team and keeps clients in the loop on projects.
And then we have Elisa, who takes care of us, manages the finance and HR function, and books us on our team trips. We aim to take 2 a year – and so far have been to France (ski trip generously donated by one of our favourite clients, Snowbizz), Lake Garda in Italy, Spain for a yoga festival, The Highlands, and Bulgaria. Next trip will be another yoga festival, in Bulgaria.
What is it you do and what prompted you to start up your own?
It was circumstance. Where I had a job before, and I really liked it, that business closed down (the dot com bubble thing). I tried 3 things: getting another job, freelancing and contracting. Contracting seemed a waste of everyone’s time. I’d finish a design, send it to people to review, and they’d take 2-3 days to reply. Meanwhile I felt my time and their money was being wasted – I had more to offer!
The thing that worked out the best was freelancing, it gave me a bit more control over my destiny (while you cant really force people to buy from you, you can certainly get out there more!)
It also suited my working style to have many projects going on at one time – I like work to be quite fast paced, with multiple projects, where I can keeping things moving forward. I like people and learning about different businesses. And, reluctantly, I had to learn to “sell”, something I thought wasn’t natural to me as a designer.
What do you think the are most important issues for developing your company culture?
Of course there is good culture and bad culture in businesses. I feel certain my company has the good kind. So, what’s important to me is to give my team a chance to have their say, pitch in their ideas, and affect change is to me important. I have a monthly 121 with each person in the team, and this means we can properly talk about what’s working, and what’s not.
It also stops any surprises happening, and means that when people have left, I get plenty of notice, a proper handover and they work hard to leave things in good shape.
Naturally, the founder’s personality is the basis for a company culture. As the founder, I would choose certain types of people to hire. People who I liked and wanted to spend time training. They would learn the “TLD Way” of doing things, and I could feel no shame in insisting they label their folders, name their files and Photoshop layers a certain way, and write emails in a helpful way including all the links for ultimate convenience.
More recently we’ve gone through a formal facilitated session with Julia, who did an amazing exercise to help us identify 4 clear company values which we printed on postcards and talk about all the time. This was so helpful – here’s a blog post about this: https://www.topleftdesign.com/blog/2016/07/tld-company-values-4-postcards/
I also had to transition from being one of the designers to letting and over time, allowing my designers to do all the design work. Now I rarely work on designs, and my time is spent in sales, relationship building, management, consultancy and the business strategy.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a women in business?
I cannot say that I have had any real experiences of being treated in any negative way as a woman business owner. Challenges? Who knows – perhaps if I played golf there may have been some lucrative business I could have won. Perhaps if I liked going to the pub, I could have developed business connections that way. I have talked to men and they do seem to benefit from these two things. But this isn’t really a female/male thing, more a personality thing. Who knows if we have lost pitches because I am a woman, I really don’t think so. In a way because it’s a bit more rare in our industry it may even gain some people’s attention.
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?
In my experience, women business owners tend to keep their businesses smaller. I have talked to and met many male agency owners and they seem to take bigger risks. This is what I have noticed over the years. Of course, there are exceptions but I have seen many female business owners stay small, avoid risk, stop themselves from raising prices, hiring staff and committing to office space. I have been making my way through all these milestones but perhaps at a slower pace and a smaller scale. Some of my male counterparts tend to have bigger clients, larger teams, higher pricing. Others have quit this type of business model entirely.
Do you have a mentor, or are you a member of an agency owner community?
No, I have been along to a couple of meetings/events, but not joined any. Am a member of many networking groups and peer advisory groups, including the Entrepreneurs Organisation accelerator program. So, I hang out with and make friends with other business owners a lot, just not necessarily with the same business model or offering.
I do believe there is great value in learning from peers and I listen to several podcasts from people in our industry.
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 do yes, but I couldn’t pinpoint what the difference is in support needed. I will be interested to see how the other female industry owners answer this question!
I think the support is all out there for the taking, if I just ask the right questions to the right people.
What other female founders inspire you?
No one in particular, unless I made it up to answer the question! But Marie Forleo inspires me as a speaker/coach who has an amazing online profile and teaching style about her.
What do you think makes a great agency?
The people within the team is most important. Aside from the obvious talent, high quality work and level of service, a great agency creates a supportive working atmosphere, with a good balance of work and team support/bonding. A great agency has a strong conscientious work ethic, an understanding that we can always do better, a genuine love for our craft. Add to that being efficient and organized, measuring our progress on the important numbers, good communication, and each person genuinely caring about the company’s progress and making a difference for our clients.
What would be your one piece of advice to future female leaders?
On a practical level, one of the best things I did was to improve my public speaking – and by doing so, I have opened so many doors and opportunities.
Also, watch the numbers – don’t be afraid to talk about and learn about money. Numbers are very revealing. We all need to make money to be able to make a bigger difference in the world.
One more: Take the leap sooner than later. Women generally underestimate themselves (of course there are exceptions). Where you feel you don’t have the confidence, push yourself to improve. You’ll learn from mistakes, and move forward. Don’t waste any time making yourself feel bad if you didn’t do as well as you wanted – just say “What can I do better next time” and go for that!