‘When we built the business, it was one of the first online marketplaces in the world’

Holly Tucker MBE

Merry Christmas from Business Leader! Today, we are revisiting our latest front-page interview with notonthehighstreet Co-Founder Holly Tucker. Holly is an entrepreneur, Sunday Times Bestselling author and founder of Holly & Co. In this interview, she talks about what it was like building one of the UK’s most recognisable retail businesses, and gives her views on building a personal brand, leadership, and life.

Holly, you lived abroad when growing up – that must have helped you to build character?

Yes, it did because at the age of seven we move to Holland as a family, and I lived in Antwerp (Belgium) and Amsterdam (The Netherlands). It was a colourful childhood, and all my friends were from different countries, and I’m sure I learnt some fundamental life skills because of this experience.

You then worked in advertising for your first job roles before setting up your own e-commerce business – notonthehighstreet. What made you want to do this as e-commerce was in its infancy, and there wasn’t an online marketplace like this in existence?

There is a notion that naivety is a bad thing, but that’s not always the case, because it means that you run the business with no preconceptions to how it should look or appear. It was like this with notonthehighstreet and we knew there was a gap in the market and we just went for it.

What inspired the idea in the first place?

When we built the business, it was one of the first online marketplaces in the world. This was a time when Amazon sold books and eBay sold socks. I was running fairs and physical markets at the time, and I could see how the internet could act like another town hall roof and give these businesses a new marketplace.

I started to curate small businesses that were looking to meet discerning customers but were being kicked off the high street; and it just felt very, very easy to do. It felt like this should have been invented before. The fundamental idea is to give people the ability to be able to shop with fantastic small businesses.

That naivety led us to having quite a rollercoaster ride in that first year, because we were trying to find people to build the technology and create this online marketplace.

You must have made some mistakes along the way?

I clearly remember the days before we launched the business. The concept of the single basket checkout where you could check out with multiple businesses hadn’t been invented. So that wasn’t even in existence. I think eBay were about to launch it in America, but it hadn’t hit the market.

We were telling the press that we were investing in this technology, but it was all completely new, and I remember launching the shopping site with no checkout on the first day. And yet we were in the Daily Mail with so much publicity.

A week later though we built the technology that eBay hadn’t even launched in America and again, it was the understanding of what the consumer needed and what the small business required that inspired us.

How did you know not to give up on this idea despite the challenges and the uncertainty of going into an untested market?

I loved what I was doing, and I was a consumer too. If you don’t have these two things, it’s always going to be very hard to build a successful business. We just had to keep going and maybe it was that naivety again, but I wasn’t prepared to ever give up. I compare running a business to raising a child, and I would never give up on either.

For us, we knew we were building an entire small business community that was desperately required and that we were changing the landscape for the better. I think that keeps you going as well.

You have been critical of the funding landscape and how it is not diverse enough. Can you tell us about your experience of raising money when scaling notonthehighstreet?

It was 16 years ago that we started raising money and I think still only 1% of venture capital money goes to women. If this is the change that people keep talking about, then goodness knows what it was really like when we were looking for funding. This is a really important point to make because there is still so much positive change that needs to happen.

It certainly was an incredible journey being two women back in 2006, raising money for a shopping site because we had comments such as ‘my wife does the shopping’ and ‘I don’t believe we need a crafts business on the internet’.

What they didn’t realise was we were going to change the face of retailing in the UK.

And what about the actual process of raising money – what advice would you give to business leaders?

I would like to put raising money on that list of stressful things alongside death, marriage, divorce or moving house. It takes it out of you, and my main advice is to seek advice and have people in your business who know the space.

It has changed now for the better in that there is much more information and resources, because when I first went to my bank manager, he didn’t know what an entrepreneur was. But this change is also a challenge because there are so many funding options available too – it can be hard to navigate. I raised six rounds of funding at notonthehighstreet but I’ll be going down a different route with my current business Holly & Co.

I am a fan of crowdfunding because I love the idea of the community it creates and how it empowers people and investors.

From your experience of growing that business, what are your thoughts on building a leadership team and when the founder needs to relinquish control as a business scales?

You can’t build your vision or the unthinkable by yourself. What I have realised over the last 20 years, is that your place is best held at the helm. You are then freed up for most of the day-to-day operations, except for the fundamentals, such as hiring, strategy and marketing.

Your job is to be the captain of the ship, looking at the horizons and having the bravery to direct people into the new lands that you’re going to discover. To help you to do this, you must bring on phenomenal people because you can’t do this on your own.

My advice is to be aware of plausible idiots that are looking to bulk up their credentials and CV by having said they’ve worked in an entrepreneurial environment. What you need is people who are willing to stay with you on your journey and who are vested in the passion and mission of the business.

Finally, I would say that ‘It’s better to have a hole than an asshole’. This is a brilliant saying, because if you hire the wrong person, it might take a year to realise this and have the courage to remove them from the business and in this time, they will have caused you lots of stress.

When growing a business, how important is personal brand and what advice can you give to leaders around this?

In the future, the personalities behind a brand are going to be paramount. I think that we are already swamped by brands vying for our attention. Certainly, when you consider climate change and the situation we’re living in today, I think that customers need to connect with people, and they need to understand that person behind the brand. I think if you’re a founder or an entrepreneur, and you haven’t done this, this is one of the biggest opportunities for your company.

You mentioned climate change; leaders surely must be careful of ensuring they don’t just pay lip service to important issues?

This is where honesty comes in, because we are only human beings and there is only so many hours in the day. It’s important to lay out what you’re going to do, what your passions are, what good you’re going to do for the world, for your consumers, for society, for our community, and make it clear that you’re unable to do everything. Be authentic, honest, and humble.

You now run Holly & Co and advise lots of aspiring entrepreneurs. What are the key marketing channels you are looking to utilise to grow this business?

I’ve gone back to basics with Holly & Co. We built the business through Instagram, and social media is important. Creating original content for our website is a key strategy too. We always ask ourselves, what would we do if Instagram went down tomorrow? What would our strategy be then?

I also approach marketing from the perspective that having 1,000 true followers or 1,000 true fans or 1,000 true customers is better than having 100,000 people passing you by. For us, it’s about the emotional connection we have with our customers too, because we make 33,000 decisions every single day as humans and I’m looking to build ways that we get truly into the psyche of our consumer and that just takes time because there are no silver bullets.

Fundamentally, it’s important to embrace all marketing channels and I also believe in the classics. I would also question whether social media will be here in 40 years and what it will look like if it is?

You’re a happy, positive, and enthusiastic person – what makes you angry and upset?

Being able to see the future and not being able to articulate it, is something that is more of a frustration for me.

People who say ‘it is what it is’ do make me frustrated too because I believe we all have the power to build our own futures and we need to take responsibility for what is happening in the world; and right the wrongs that we want too.

Business is far more powerful than any government could ever be. And I do believe that it is time for businesses really to put some of our issues at the forefront of their strategies, so we need to do that and not accept what is happening.

Moving onto another subject – past recessions have inspired lots of people to set up new businesses. Do you see that happening again?

Yes, I do. 400,000 businesses were started in June this year, which is a record-breaking amount. A survey I read also stated that 39% of people in current jobs are going to quit within the next 12 months, which is not great for an employer, but suggests a start of a business revolution is happening.

What advice would you give to somebody looking to start a business?

There is never a good time to do it and you just must go for it. It’s all encompassing and it’s a phenomenon. You can be clever about it though – can you cut down your hours in your current role or could you work part-time initially?

A final thought Holly?

Remember that we only have 29,000 days on this planet. I worked out when I was 40, I had 14,000 days left. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. It’s our duty to go after whatever we visualise.

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