Written by Sarah Biddlecombe
Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter
Looking for advice on how to start a business? Here, three successful women share the one piece of advice they wish they’d had when starting out, from how to be brave to how to build your own brand.
Most of us have an idea for our own business, whether it’s an invention we’re sure could make us millions, or a social startup we believe could help countless others.
But it’s no secret that far fewer women than men actually go on to launch their own businesses – only one in five businesses in the UK is run by a woman, while just 9% of funding for start-ups is going to female entrepreneurs.
But if you’re seeking motivation to take the leap and get started on a new business or side hustle, look no further. Facebook has released a new book, called Make It Work, as part of its #SheMeansBusiness programme, crammed full of inspirational advice from successful businesswomen on how to get started as an entrepreneur.
Below, three of these women share the one piece of advice they wish they’d had when they started out in business.
‘Having a strong network makes it easier to be brave’: Rosie Mazumder, founder of Cake Masters Magazine
Rosie Mazumder gave up her job as a banker in the city to pursue her business, a cake decorating magazine called Cake Masters Magazine. The business started life as a Facebook page, where Rosie shared content from her monthly cake decorating classes, as well as what she and other members were whipping up at home.
However, after she started publishing her content in a printed pamphlet, the magazine grew into what is now the biggest-selling cake decorating magazine in the world. It’s stocked in over 80 countries with an annual awards ceremony, dubbed the ‘Cake Oscars’, and her active Facebook community now has nearly one million members.
I remember so vividly being on my lunch break, taking a call from Pyrex – the glass kitchenware company – who told me they wanted to advertise in my little magazine. It was 2013 and I had a really good job in the city that I’d worked so hard for, and was on track for a head of department role – which was something I desperately wanted to achieve. But I suddenly thought, ‘I don’t think I should be here anymore.’
I grew up in a typical Asian family where creativity was not something that was really encouraged. Education was really important and the pressure was on to achieve. After getting good A-levels, I studied economics at university, trained at an accountancy firm and started work as a banker. Then one weekend I took a cake decorating course and loved it. I loved the satisfaction of looking at this cake and thinking ‘I made that!’ I took it further, training myself up and then running my own cake decorating classes in a village hall once a month. That’s about the same time that I started a Facebook page, Cake Masters, where I posted bits from the class and what I was getting up to at home.
Because my online community were asking for all my content in one place, I pulled together a five-page downloadable PDF and printed a few copies to give to people. This then resulted in a regular magazine being produced and printed, that was being noticed by brands like Pyrex. I’ve never not had Pyrex in my kitchen cupboard, so when I took that call it felt like a watershed moment. It took a while to sink in.
As I went to hand in my notice, I was terrified. My boss just said, “What are you doing? You’re at the peak of your career,” and this made me stress about whether I was making the right decision to quit.
But when I left the building that day for the very last time, I could feel a weight lifting off me. I knew it was the right thing to do and I was ready to be brave and start a brand new chapter in my life.
The next major time I was terrified was the following year – 2014 – when we hosted our first Cake Masters Magazine Awards. I had never been to an awards show before. I’d just seen the Brits and the MTV awards on TV, so I created my own version of them, with a big, custom-built stage, nomination videos, spotlights, goody bags – you name it.
By this point my husband, Yawar, had also left his job to run Cake Masters Magazine with me, we were putting on this event together. We had 250 people coming who had all paid £50 a ticket, as well as sponsors who had paid thousands. We walked into the venue the night before, looked around, and our hearts sank. It was a really bad conference room with weird lighting and disgusting chairs. This was not what we had envisaged and we said to each other, “What are we doing?” This was not the standard of event we wanted to execute and we were moments away from calling it off. We didn’t have any confidence in ourselves.
But Yawar is a problem solver, and he found a lady online who would come and cover all of the chairs. We fixed the lighting and the next morning when we walked in – the day of the event – we suddenly realised we could do this, and if it all went wrong, we would take it as a learning curve. It was actually a huge success and we’ve done them every year since – they’re now even called the Cake Oscars by others in the industry! I remember watching the awards that first year feeling like a guest at my own event, watching everything unfold and feeling so proud. It’s really important as an entrepreneur when you’re often racing around at 100 miles an hour to take a step back and really appreciate what you’re doing. What makes it easier to be brave is to have a really strong network.
Setting up your own business full stop is brave – the world is uncertain. But each time you do something that scares you, you get a bit braver, and a bit more confident. Now I’m at the stage where I go, ‘I can do it’, and know whatever it is, I’ll find a way and find the right people to help me.
I do have a lot of women talk to me and say that they’re not brave enough to take that first step. I advise trying to do your business alongside your day job as long as is possible – it gives you a financial safety net. But when you’re ready, it’s about taking that leap and knowing that it’s OK to fail, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know.
‘Having a personal brand is crucial to success’: Karen Blackett OBE, CEO MediaCom UK
Karen Blackett started her career in advertising as a planner/ buyer at CIA MediaNetwork in 1993. She worked her way up through various companies and roles to join MediaCom, the largest media agency in the UK with clients including Sky, Coca-Cola and Centrepoint in 1999 as a director. She was appointed chairwoman in 2010. Karen received an OBE in the 2014 Birthday Honours for services to media and communications. The following year she became the first businesswoman to top the Black Powerlist.
When I started out in my career, I just assumed that if I worked hard then someone would magically recognise that and promote me. It was a real awakening when that didn’t happen. I remember looking around in my early 20s and seeing people who were just not as good as me getting promotions – people who hadn’t worked their socks off like I had.
I was working with brands and coming up with strategies about how to communicate them and I realised it was time to work on my own personal brand and use it to take control of my career. When you’re one of few, such as the only woman in a role, or the only ethnic minority, it’s especially important to think about how you communicate who you are and what you are capable of.
I came across the work of the late Peter Drucker, a well-known management consultant and author, who suggested that there are four questions that are helpful to ask yourself:
• What am I good at?
• How do I tend to work?
• What are my values?
• What is my contribution and how do I plan to be judged?
When I was considering what I was good at, I realised that I had an area of core expertise – media strategy and planning and buying – but I had a lot of supplementary experience too. In my early career, instead of aiming straight for the top of a department, I zig-zagged around in roles and areas to help plug areas of expertise that I felt I needed and learn more.
So, that first question for me is that I’m good at trying out different things. When you’re thinking about your values, you need to make sure they are not just a list of adjectives that could apply to anyone. Lots of people say things like integrity, and that may well be true, but you need to be more specific. It helps to think about a time at work where something bad happened and it caused a really emotive reaction in you; the opposite is probably something that you value.
When you’ve worked through all the questions, it can lead you towards what we call an ‘endline’ in branding – which is you in a nutshell. I know that I like to be the person in charge, that I like to lead large, diverse teams, and that I like to coach people. I also know that I love the creative industries and that whatever role I choose, as a single mother, I have to have a blend of work and home life in there. So my endline is ‘head performance coach.’
Once you’ve got your personal brand clear in your head, it’s important that you then communicate it effectively. As women, we often find it difficult to talk about ourselves. We don’t like to boast or draw attention to ourselves. But what I know from my day job is that a brand without any marketing stays on the shelf – something I’d been in danger of when I was younger. You need to get the message out. Obviously, I don’t walk into meetings and say, “Hi, my name is Karen, I’m the head performance coach”, but it’s a way of framing my brand in my mind and making sure I insert it into every single touchpoint of my working day, from how I act in meetings and at conferences to what I share online. These are all ways of demonstrating your personal brand.
The final thing you need is cheerleaders: a bunch of people who can talk about you and your personal brand in rooms that you’re not in. How you get those cheerleaders is through creating connections. You need to make sure that your network is broad and varied and not limited to one industry, because that’s where you get diversity of thought. I think networking can sound a bit grubby and I don’t know anyone who enjoys walking into a room where they don’t know a single person. But it is important to talk to different people at conferences, events or dinners and try to find mutual ground.
The work on your personal branding doesn’t stop. Every year I go back to my personal brand and fine tune it, based on what I’ve experienced and learned the previous year. Your personal brand is constantly evolving, and I think it’s key to your success.
‘Not all entrepreneurs wear suits’: Grace Beverley, entrepreneur, founder and director of B_ND, TALA, and Shreddy
Grace Beverley began posting photos on social media during her A-levels to track her exercise progress and, as her followers grew, she started her digital business selling downloadable workout plans. In 2017, while studying music at Oxford University, she started B_ND, a company making vegan-friendly resistance bands, which has since expanded into wider workout equipment.
In May 2019, she founded her sustainable style brand TALA, selling items including sports bras and leggings made from 92% reused materials, including plastic bottles and factory offcuts. Then, in October 2019 she launched her third brand, Shreddy, a workout app, which has seen 107.7k downloads and 52k monthly active users. Last year Grace won ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ and was also named as one of the ‘top 20 most exciting entrepreneurs to watch’ at the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
My business started and grew out of social media. I had announced to my social media followers that I was going to do a January fitness challenge, creating workout plans and offering email support, but the response was overwhelming. There was no way I could offer that level of personal help whilst studying. So instead I created downloadable guides and sold them for £35 each. My now business partner approached me to support the online element and within two days I had sold 1,000 guides, which was incredible.
Throughout university I kept growing my business. At Oxford you’re not meant to have a part-time job, so this was my way to support myself. But it was tough. I had a lot of seminars, lots of essays and I had to fit my business around that. I worked all hours of the day and night from my university bedroom and just before my finals I made the slightly mad decision to launch two more brands.
The guides were incredibly profitable, because once you’ve produced one, the marginal cost (the cost of producing an extra item) is nothing. But moving out into physical products – gym merchandise and clothing – made me feel like I had more of a business.
I graduated in June 2019 and moved into an office with my team that September, and with that came a big step change. I had a slight crisis of confidence. I thought, now that I had an office and wasn’t just in my bedroom, I should present myself in a certain way or people wouldn’t take me seriously. Normally, I like getting my nails done, or wearing casual clothes, but I thought perhaps I should buy a wardrobe full of suits to look the part. It was stressing me out and it really didn’t help with imposter syndrome, which I think we all feel at times, because I felt like I had to play a part rather than be myself.
Because I started off as an influencer, people in meetings can often think that I am my brand. It can sometimes feel like women are judged because of what they post online, in ways that I don’t think men are. Men seem to be applauded for their new expensive car or pair of shoes, but when a woman goes shopping, it’s seen as frivolous. But actually, I spend an awful lot more time thinking about the ins and outs of the business, such as investment and my team, than I do about clothes.
These prejudices can be really noticeable in external meetings. People often assume I’m the face of the brand, rather than the owner of a business. I have an older, male business partner and we have been in meetings where he is addressed by the men in suits across the table, rather than me. He will turn to me pointedly and say, “Let me talk to the director of the company about this…”
It is hard being a young woman in business, and learning how to navigate these moments has been a huge learning curve for me. I used to get really, really irritated when I was ignored or underestimated in meetings. Now I just continue as normal. I think, ‘let them have their preconceptions about me, I’m just going to on with my job’. The success of the business speaks for itself. Part of that thinking has trickled down into the way I dress. Unless I’m going to a very smart office, I will wear the clothes that I normally wear and not stress about it anymore. I’ve got to the point where I think how I look is someone else’s issue, not mine. If they don’t take me seriously, then that’s their problem.
I’ve really appreciated the support from my business partner, and I think it’s really crucial to find people who believe in you and what you’re doing. I’ve met mentors through social media; when I share aspects of my business story online, I’ve found that people reach out to me. I’ve also changed who I follow on Instagram to other female founders, because I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who have the same headspace as you, and the best way I can do that is through social media.
You can read Facebook’s Make It Work; Lessons From Life In Business here
Images: iStock, Unsplash
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