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Insights from Three Founders on Life in the Times of Covid

founder stories Mar 26, 2024
Two people are screaming with excitement on a rollercoaster; one appears thrilled, the other somewhat scared, against a sunny, blurred background suggesting high speed.

What was it like trying to start, run and grow a business in the middle of a global pandemic? As the kids say, IYKYK (If You Know You Know). Four years on from the global lockdowns that changed the course of history forever, here's the story of how three founders survived and thrived in the times of Covid...

Charlotte Morris, CEO of Dazzle & FizzFrankie Cotton, Founder of BRICK and Katy Murray, Founder of Catalyst Collective, joined us for our final Town Hall of 2020.

On the agenda? How can we change the discourse around women and entrepreneurship in 2021 and leave the #girlboss in 2020 where it belongs?

We discussed the need for women to stop playing small and for all of us to re-evaluate the role social media plays in our lives - both as entrepreneurs and individuals.

The stakes are high for women as we head into the next normal. According to the International Monetary Fund, three decades of economic gains for women in the workplace have been lost because of the pandemic.

Here at Inspiration Space, we want diversity to be the driving force behind the economic recovery, creating a more diverse and equitable version of UK PLC along the way.

Keep reading for highlights from the conversation...


Liana Fricker (IS): I want to start tonight by opening the floor up to Charlotte. Have you been in business for ten years?


Charlotte Morris: Yes. I originally started Dazzle & Fizz back in 2011. It was very much a freelance project at the time. And then, in 2013, we became a Limited Company.

I bootstrapped the business from less than £50 - which was in my bank account; it wasn’t even an investment, through to the leading luxury event planner for Ultra High-Net Worth (UHNWI) clients.

And about two years ago, I’ll be honest; I got bored. I thought, ‘I can wheel out a £50K three-year-old party with my eyes shut - there must be more to life than this.’

So, I spent around 18 months working out the magic formula of Dazzle & Fizz that we could take and apply to more scalable business models.

This led to our first financial investment round, which was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

I felt like going from a confident salesperson to having to learn how to sell again - it was a whole different dialect. We closed our seed round in January 2020 - the timing, mate.

We were supposed to be scaling into corporate and live public events, and then COVID hit.

So my first instinct was to say, ‘Well, look, I've got the magic formula; we found out the magic formula 18 months ago; how can I apply this to the new world?’

And that's what we did with Vesta. But it sure as heck hasn't been that easy.


IS: If you had three words to sum up 2020, what would they be?


Charlotte: What The F**K?! At the beginning of the year, we had a very profitable and buoyant company with excellent corporate and domestic clients.

We had just closed a pre-seed round. We were launching an event at the end of 2020 with 20,000 people coming to the Savoy Hotel in London.

I had 12 full-time staff in my office, brand new offices, and a warehouse. For the first time, we had bloody infrastructure. It's like everything was going great, guns. And overnight, that was all taken away from me.

And now it’s me, my business partner, and another full-time staff member. We’ve had to let everybody else go, which was heartbreaking.

And also, I'm one of those people who found it hard enough in the first place to take on investment.

So then I felt this tremendous sense of guilt. Thinking, ‘Shit, I've promised all this to these investors, and we're going to do all this stuff. And all the money is just disappearing.’

I’ve had to learn so many different things. To say that I knew nothing about tech is an understatement. I was the butt of everyone’s jokes - I couldn’t even use Excel.

I’ve gone from that to spend from 8 am to 8 pm speaking about EdTech and LTV (Customer Lifetime Value) to CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) ratios.

Not only do I now talk about them, I bloody understand it, which is the thing that surprised me the most out of all of it.

I had to dig deep, soul search and accept that the admin vortex, that is me, actually isn't a good quality for a CEO, and I need to put that to bed.

So, along with my CFO, I led the CBILs (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme) application, which was hell on earth. I made the UKRI Innovate UK grant application, which, by the way, is over 10,000 words.

And a few other grants, all of which we got. I had to become very organised and very good at filling in forms, all my worst things to do on the planet.

Liana: Something that ‘gets my goat’ about the stereotypes around ‘women in business is whenever I speak to a woman, and they say, ‘The numbers just aren’t my thing.’

And I always think to myself, ‘You would never hear a man say that.’


IS: Even if the numbers weren’t their thing, you never hear men admit to that. So I would say that's what annoys me the most about being a woman in business today. What's the thing that annoys you the most?


Charlotte: That's a great point. Many studies show that men invest in men based on concepts, ideas, and possibilities.

VCs invest in women rarely, but if they ever do, based on facts and numbers. So if you don't have your shit together to the nth degree, you aren't going anywhere.

I learned that the first time I raised [money] and got to the point where I'd memorise my spreadsheets to such a level that I knew what I was doing in two years on a Tuesday in March and why I was spending 42 pounds.

Even if you want a profitable business, not a scalable one, you've got to have a handle on your numbers.

Now, that doesn't mean you need to be an accountant. You don't. I have an accountant, and I have a CFO.

But you have to understand the documentation when it gets sent to you weekly or monthly.

And not just a high-level understanding, a deep understanding; otherwise, you're not going to be able to steer the ship. The hobbyist aspect of ‘women in business frustrates me the most.

Because I think if women are positioned in a place of having small businesses with small revenues, small profits and small opportunities, then we're always going to stay that way.

Only 2% of women in the US scale a business over $1 million - and that’s bonkers.

There must be more ground and scope for women to pursue more significant opportunities.

And that's not to say that our businesses can’t still fit in with our lives. They absolutely can.

But I think it's more a mindset; we must go for the broader opportunities and take more significant risks.

Forget this fear of failure rubbish. There is no failure, only learning. And at the end of the day, anyone who cares about you and loves you will never see anything you do as a failure.

They're there to support you. And anyone who does see you as a failure, then they're not worth your time.


IS: When do you think back to when you started and where you are now? What's one thing you thought you were ‘supposed’ to do as a businesswoman that you don’t do now?


Charlotte: Dress up! When lockdown started, I did loads of videos to communicate with our audience.

I was getting messages from business associates and clients saying, ‘Charlotte, darling, you need to look more Gucci, but frankly, you look H & M.’

For about a millisecond, I took that to heart. And then I thought, well, I’m me - whether I’m wearing lipstick or not.

So these days, I pitch in a hoodie and dungarees, and you know what? The pitches don’t go any different.

If we got rid of all the minutes and hours we spent worrying about how we look, we’d have more time to focus on the business.


IS: What's one trend or opportunity that’s come out of the pandemic that you think is here to stay?


Charlotte: Edtech, which is a space that I've been looking at, has a compound annual growth rate of 16.1% per annum, which far exceeds most other sectors.

Sex Tech is also super hot right now - but it’s not exactly on brand.

I also think that something is fascinating about how the neurodiverse community can be more included in society thanks to tech.

My son is severely autistic, and one thing we’ve found with Vesta is that technology can ultimately democratise playtime.

Kids with a range of abilities and verbal skills play together on an equal playing field because all social norms deemed disruptive in a live, offline environment don’t matter online.

I spoke to Maxime Tuchman, the Founder of Caribu, which is Zoom for kids, and they found the same thing.


IS: Frankie, what three words sum up 2020 for you?


Frankie Cotton: Hardest Year Yet. I started my first business in 2017, so this is my third year of business.

And each year gets progressively more challenging; I’m not going to lie. It’s not the trajectory that I was expecting. And so, when I look back at the first year, I think, ‘Gosh, I had that easy.’

I run a growth marketing agency called Let’s be Frank [now BRICK], and in my first year, I won clients easily, turned over six figures a year and had a great network.

Now, I find the buying signals from clients have changed, and it’s harder to predict. It’s the weirdest situation I’ve ever experienced before.

I hope 2021 is different and people are more committed to the long term because this year has been challenging.


IS: Why did you become an entrepreneur in the first place?


Frankie: I don't know; I think it's just who I am. And our influences dictate many of these things - my maternal grandfather ran his own business—my dad and stepdad.

And I think I was always one of those people in the working environment who was pushing at the ceiling above.

So even when I was working as Marketing Director at a tech company, I was pushing against the ceiling, and it just got to the point where I couldn't do it anymore. And I had to take the leap and create something different.


Liana: Because of lockdown, we’re all online like never before. When you interviewed me on ‘Women on Top’, I told you what I thought about social media, particularly Instagram.


IS: What do you think? Especially about the brilliant 3-part series on the convergence of entrepreneurship and influencers and the fallout.


Frankie: Well, to explain the elephant in the room, for those of you who don't know, there is an influencer called Sarah Akwisombe, and she runs a business called No Bull Business School.

She was creating a lot of momentum this year by talking about getting to 1 million pounds in revenue and using this goal to find clients for her coaching and courses.

Essentially, she was selling what she was doing and passing that knowledge and that experience on to others. So, using this considerable number to say, ‘I can help you achieve this big number.’

This is a bubble I’ve been seeing for several years now, particularly on Instagram.

It’s this faux feminist bubble that draws women in to support women, but ultimately, as long as these communities keep selling to each other, there’s a market cap, and no one is progressing forward.

We’re not out there, for instance, taking money from men. Or and or creating something disruptive.

I’m not saying that these communities aren’t valuable - when done thoughtfully, they can be. But some capitalise on women’s insecurities.

I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and Sarah was the first, but I think any number of people could have taken the bait and gone down the same route.

Unfortunately for her, she’s become the story, mainly how she handled it, which didn’t put customer service first.

But I don't think it was necessarily just about her. I think the environment Instagram creates and the conflation and convergence of influencers and entrepreneurship are damaging.

What's been unique about writing these articles and this conversation is the number of women who have reached out and said, ‘I thought I was the only one who thought this was awful and damaging my mental health. I was feeling so ashamed. I felt like the odd one out.’

Hundreds of messages like this are coming to us. So we knew we had done something and represented many people who felt silenced or didn't have a voice because their platforms were more minor.

And so that was an exciting part of the last couple of months.


IS: How can we change the discourse around women and entrepreneurship in 2021?


Frankie: That is an excellent question, and my answer is this: At the moment, there is this idea that entrepreneurship means you have to be a social media influencer.

These two things are converging. And I think that is far more damaging than we think because we often only look at the upside.

The easiest way to grow your business is to develop a personal brand. You take a video of yourself talking on Instagram, and it gets more engagement because that's how the algorithm works.

So you think more eyes are better for business which isn’t true because you could be damaging your reputation.

We've seen some high-profile businesses, female-run businesses like The Wing and Manrepeller, that have collapsed this year.

The two things in common are that the Founders and leadership team were social media influencers.

We have an issue where we put women on this pedestal, and then we have this Tabloid hangover of criticising women, which society generally does.

Therefore, as a woman, if you're putting yourself forward as the face of your business, you are leaving your business open to many risks.

And I think as CEO of your company, you need to consider your number one job is to protect your business.

And ultimately, there are other people out there who are social media influencers and can represent your brand.

Then, if they do something wrong, you can end the contract. You can start working with other people as your business evolves.

If you leave the door open for anybody and everybody to see various aspects of your life, I think that that can only end badly.


IS: What’s an opportunity or trend that you think is here to stay?

Frankie: One of the things I’ve seen, anecdotally from my own experience, is that doing business online is fantastic.

And I don’t just mean meetings online. But I mean working or transacting with people you’ve only met online.

It’s a different landscape - you see investors writing multi-million-pound cheques, having never met the person in real life. I think there’s a speed and efficiency that was a bit lost before.


IS: Katy, what three words would you use to describe 2020?


Katy: Riding the Coronacoaster. The sense of turmoil and unpredictability and how we’ve all had to grow our resilience and agility as business leaders so we can navigate that and, somehow, not freak out.

What have the past nine months been like for you as an entrepreneur working online forever, watching everyone else pivot in real-time?


Katy: Back in March [2020], everything shifted online, and I said, ‘Well, not everything works brilliantly online.’ We have to be thoughtful about how to bring our business best online.

The community space seems to have worked and given people a sense of belonging during the lockdown.


IS: How have you been creating space?  In this new world, everything seems to sort of merge into one. We use the same tools for work as we do to socialise. We live, eat and work in the same place.


Katy: It’s a mishmash of boundaries, for sure. I have a notice on the door to my office that says, ‘You are now re-entering your life.’

Because my world has been Zoom calls with clients, workshops and training events, I’m always talking on camera.

And then I have to ‘go home to cook tea for the kids, there are pants on the floor, and I’m exhausted. There’s no commute to decompress - my commute is opening the door.

So, that sign has helped me transition because I was barging out and kind of, you know, spilling it over everyone, and they gave me some feedback that this was less helpful.


IS: What do you think we can do to change the discourse around women and entrepreneurship in 2021?


Katy: I think there’s something about who our role models are. Who are we putting on these pedestals? Who are we aspiring to be like? I see this as a representation piece.

Let’s broaden it in every direction, size, colour, and background. Social media is just one layer - it’s not the whole story.

Let’s break out of the boxes and shift the narrative of who and what success is. Success can be however you want to define it.

Find your people, and remember, your people can’t just be made up of people who look like you. Otherwise, you’re in an echo chamber and replicating all the problems that can come with that.


IS: What does ‘Unshakeable Ambition’ mean to you?


Katy: First, it’s about asking yourself, ‘Who am I, and what do I bring to the world?’ And I’m in my mid-forties and still answering that question.

Then it’s about permission - permission to be ambitious. You can dream, have goals and make that happen rather than playing small.

We can play as big as we want to play. There’s something in stretching out the tent of what we can expand into.

A lot of my work in coaching is about this. It’s like putting on a coat that might be too big for you, but you wear it with confidence, grace, style and panache.

And ‘unshakeable’ - that’s about resilience. We’ve all been shaken this year. At times that means we're in a heap on the floor, and there's emotion, and it's good to feel it.

Or it means I'm going to get up, and I'm going to keep persisting, and I'm going to reach out, and I'm going to take action, even though it feels imperfect.

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