Business Leader recently interviewed Heather Frankham, founder of Origin Workspace and Bud Systems, chair of Paragon Skills, advisory board member of Coach Call, committee member of Prince’s Trust and director of BPEC, to talk about her business journey.
Can you give our readers an overview of your career so far?
I started life as a sports and maths teacher, spending three years teaching in a primary school, and then a year in a secondary teaching sport, whilst completing a masters in exercise and health science.
From there I had various jobs in order to pay the mortgage. For example, I started teaching aerobics in the evening. I then became more involved in the fitness side and was asked to coach aerobics courses.
I was then approached to look into the Redwood Lodge Fitness Club facilities in Bristol. They were refurbishing their gym, as David Lloyd was opening down the road and they were worried about losing members. As part of this process I advised them on upgrading their facilities.
While I was teaching aerobics at the venue, the Director of Leisure questioned me about what was needed. He then asked me to oversee the whole regeneration project. This was an amazing opportunity for an ex-teacher.
It was an exciting early career in business. Following this, I then set-up Lifetime in the mid-1990s, which was an apprenticeship and skills training business that helped over 1,000 people deliver training to the fitness and hospitality sector. I then sold the business in 2016.
What was the career plan when you started?
My parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer – so when I was a PE teacher, I think they were disappointed. I ended up wanting to go into the leisure industry because it was an exciting time with a lot of growth and innovation within it. I fell into the training side of it due to my history, and it then evolved into a lifestyle business. Lifetime grew slowly – it took about ten years to reach 20 staff, but then five years later, we were around 400. It was a phase of rapid growth.
Your business journey has seen you work as a sole trader, right through to leading a scale-up into an established company employing over 1000 staff. What have been the main highlights and challenges?
The most difficult part was the growth from one to thirty staff at Lifetime, as you do not have the professional infrastructure in place. I had never run a business, my family had never run a business, and we were not well-networked in Bristol. I had to learn as I went along.
Managing finance and cashflow was also a huge challenge, as at the end of every month, we had the same worry of not knowing if we had enough cash to pay salaries and bills. During that time, I re-mortgaged my house three times – and luckily the house prices were going up. If they didn’t, the business would not have survived.
During that time my mum also died, so it was a difficult time for me. I didn’t know if the business would continue, and we nearly closed. She left me £10k and I spent £1k of it on a holiday – something I would never normally do. I went away to St Lucia on my own, with six books – though I only ended up reading about six pages. I met some amazing people, and on the way back I realised that I needed to do my best – if it goes wrong, then it goes wrong.
Luckily things started to change, and although we had the same challenges, I put the rest of the money into the business to keep it ticking over. We had a lucky break when the funding changed. We used to get paid a month and a half after the end of the month – this was then changed to half a month after delivery. It created that window of opportunity for the business to grow. It helped our cashflow issues. I also took an MBA through the Open University to help with creating a strategic plan. The combination of these two elements helped to make the business a success.
Have the different roles and challenges made you a better businessperson?
Absolutely. There were different phases of the business. We went from trial and error, to trying to stay a step ahead, to creating a future-proof strategy. We had four different board of directors, as the business kept outgrowing the capability of the people in there. That made me question – when do I run out of capability? What you then realise is that you need to bring good people in. I learnt to never be frightened to employ people who are more capable than you in certain areas of the business.
Considering what you know now, what advice would you give to yourself starting out?
You must be resilient and learn to take the knocks when things do not go to plan. It is important to take a little bit of time to reflect. That is the best time to pull your team together, and to project positivity to the team on the direction of the business. Reflection means that you can direct your energy into the right areas of the business. This means that planning and talking to your team can mean that they buy in to the future. To successfully scale-up, you need to take them on the journey with you.
What is the future vision for Origin Workspace?
It is all about creating a community. When I was at Lifetime, there were two things that made it successful – tech and culture. Having that energy in people and support structure is increasingly important if you are looking to scale. That is what I want Origin to be – to create this incredible community atmosphere in the building. By having this, it encourages these businesses to take the right risks, while having that support there for them. The community then create an eco-system of support for these businesses, and then we facilitate that.
You’re also an investor – can you tell readers what you look for when investing?
There are two main points to consider. Have they got the right product market fit? And, is the market big enough? There are some fantastic ideas that often come up, but the size and access to the market has often not been thought through. But for the right investment, you need to have the right people. You need to get on with them, especially in the early stages. They have got to want more than a cheque at the start of the business.
As an investor, you do not want to be held at an arm’s length, especially if they are to need follow-on investment and guidance. The success of the business is built up over a length of time, and it is more about establishing a relationship together. Success is built on that association, not just the funding. The more open you are, the more likely you are to be able to solve any issues that a business can face. Solving problems together will lead to success as a team and often it is achieved a lot quicker as well. Entrepreneurs who are open to support and advice, as well as funding, are the ones I want to invest in.