This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
Tell us about your business, how did you come up with the idea?
I founded a design agency called White Bear just over six years ago. We help our clients in a number of ways. We help start-ups achieve investment through creativity, clarity and storytelling. We help scale-ups build future-proofed brands with clear propositions to disrupt and gain market share as challengers, and finally, we help large corporations stay relevant and respond to the disruption with creativity.
My background has always been in design, having graduated studied a Visual Communications degree in Ireland over 12 years ago. I have always had a passion for creative problem-solving. From a young age, I watched music videos and MTV Awards and always wanted to be the person bringing that energy to life. I even applied for a job in Pixar at the naïve age of 14… needless to say they didn’t bite!
I spent a number of years working in professional practice as a branding designer however I always knew this was a means to an end, trying to gather as much experience as I could before I set up my own agency. Why limit what I can achieve by building my bosses dream when I could be off building my own was my ethos. So, I quit my last employment post with just a laptop and a small amount of savings, moving my pens, pencils and notebooks to my living room where I set up camp for a year before I moved into my first studio. I found I got the same buzz from new business, taking risks and meeting people as I did from creativity with design so being an entrepreneur was made for me.
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
As I mentioned, I always wanted to do my own thing and build a business. There were two moments that I think really made me think. First one, I was sitting in a beautiful studio I was working at in Sydney when the founders decided to make a visit. Retired for a number of years they were a lovely couple in their 80s taking a tour around the world to all of the agency offices they set up. They happened to have set up 17 studios around the world starting with their first one in London and their newest one being the one I was working in, in Sydney. I was just so full admiration for them, and they really helped me formulate the dream I have of building multiple agencies globally so I too could go and visit them full of pride in my dotage.
The second moment was less rosy. This time I was working in London. In a review, I was told negatively that I was too ‘Tenacious’ and that I should try and be more like a male colleague of mine. When I raised the point that I was being ambitious just like him, it was apparent to me that it was acceptable for him to be tenacious but not me. So it was then that I decided that when I eventually do set up an agency, I will take my tenacious energy elsewhere and funnel it all into building an agency that nurtures hunger and bravery and supports women in their careers.
What were the initial challenges you came up against and how did you overcome them?
The challenges weren’t just initial! They are continuous, but sure isn’t that what keeps us enthused and stops us getting complacent? So, if I think back, some of the initial challenges were firstly building credibility. I was a sole trader who wasn’t allowed to share her big brand work (understandably) due to NDA’s and contractual issues, so this was a big hurdle.
Secondly, I was living in London, and I was Irish. My whole pool of connections and doors to knock on were in Ireland, so I really had to start from scratch. People often ask me why did I set up in London if that was such a challenge, and I guess the answer was simple, I LOVE London. It inspires me, it’s a global hub for creativity, and I honestly believe you can build your biggest and wildest dreams in London. Not saying you can’t in Ireland I just have a particular obsession with London. So, I began hustling for work, my attitude was never saying no to a meeting and show up at the opening of an envelope, and your determination will make things happen.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
I guess the cocky side of me always knew I was onto something it was just the matter of having the opportunity to showcase that and that can be difficult. It takes getting the right client, who wants to be brave and do something creative and the right timing where they’re product or service Is ready to be famous. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince or in my case that magic case study I could shout from the rooftops about.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
White Bear has always been self-funded, I have never had a loan or even a credit card (apart from my mortgage). That was the way I was raised, never buy what you can’t afford, so we have always been humble in terms of our spend. That’s not to say we never would and actually as we’ve grown and developed, we have become somewhat the experts in investment. Working closely with start-ups and scale-ups, we have realised that we have a special talent in helping our clients achieve investment through creativity, design and branding. I’m proud to say every brand we have created looking for investment has achieved it. In the past few years, we have helped our clients raise upwards of £40 million.
What has been your best investment?
My best investment is investing in great people. My team is second to none, I trust them all 100% which is really important to me and actually one of White Bears core values along with Bravery, Purpose Driven, Hunger and Enterprising. Each member of our team brings a different strength and together when our powers combine, we’re stronger than captain planet (sorry for the 90’s reference).
I also made the decision to invest in getting an awesome Non-Exec Chairman, Felix Velarde. He has successfully grown a number of agencies, and while we were smaller than his normal agency, he took us under his wing. Having someone who has seen all our challenges before and walked on the road we’re now embarking on was so important to us in giving us the confidence to scale.
And more significantly and a giant family investment for us was my husband, Dave, joining the business just over a year ago as a partner. For the first five years, I ran the business with Dave, like my shadow, fulltime employed living vicariously through me but secretly dying to be an entrepreneur too. We stay up late talking about the business every night after he finished his job, and he was an invaluable confidant with his experience as an accountant and having a background in consultancy. I had built the business to a stage where we could safely transition to us both being fulltime White Bear employees and while it was only a year ago it feels like Dave has always been my business partner as well as life partner, now it’s just official. His strategic and business insight was exactly what we needed to take the business to the next level so I can safely say that has been our best investment.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
Yes always, I’m always making mistakes that’s what you learn from. The more painful, the more likely you won’t forget them.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
My experience has been a very positive one. I love what I do, and I love being an entrepreneur. I have found huge support from peers when I started, as I would say I would attend the opening of an envelope to network and get my brand out there. But what did change was when I started a family, I couldn’t socialise as I once did, I wasn’t in the pub after events building relationships, I was at home with sleepless nights more concerned about nappy rash than negotiations. It took a number of years to work out how I could make the business work for me with my new mama life and also nurture it to go too. I also feel there is a lacking in female mentors, and I personally haven’t found one. If anyone out there is up for a challenge and wants to help, I’d love one!
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
Success in running your business is directly related to the amount of uncertainty you can deal with. Building a real business takes time, blood, sweat and tears. We’re not a fully funded tech business that will explode overnight; we’re more old school putting in the hours, building a brand and growing awareness and delivering top quality creative that we’re proud of. If you expect your business to be the next Twitter overnight, you will be continuously disappointed. They are the exception, not the rule.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
As a role model and leader in a creative industry, I have much admiration for Bob Iger and how he transformed Disney over the past 15 years. From successfully acquiring Pixar, Marvel and Lucas films putting Disney back on the map in terms of top-notch creative content to embracing innovation in an organisation that is very antiquated and launching Disney Plus. However, as I mentioned, female mentors are lacking, in my opinion.
With the future in mind, where would you like to be/where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I would like to continue to grow our team creating work that we are really proud of and working in partnership with our clients over a long term. Over five years I would like White Bear to become the go-to agency for disruptive creative work for Start-ups, scale-ups and large corporations who know they need to ‘mix it up’ in order to stay relevant.
Can you tell us one of your goals for 2020?
To come out of the global pandemic as a stronger business than we entered it. I can already see this happening, we have put in so much groundwork over the past three months growing our Future Unicorn community, starting our ‘Get Ahead of the Herd’ webinars and offering free brainstorms to businesses who may need to pivot, innovate or evolve. We have been doing all of this free of charge, trying to share as much knowledge and experience as possible and in the past few weeks the phone…I mean zoom, has been hopping, so I’m feeling confident.
What can our readers do to support your business?
Referrals are how we get 80% of our business if you hear of someone wanting to get investment, build brand loyalty and credibility, increase sales or launch a new NPD we’d love to hear from them. If you’re an entrepreneur join our Future Unicorn slack group where we’re building a tribe of creative, disruptive brands.
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
Lost and Founder – Rand Fishkin
The e-myth – Michael E. Gerber
Robert Iger – The Ride of a Lifetime, Lessons in Creative Leadership from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt
Pitch Anything – Oren Klaff
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
If you don’t like risk and uncertainty don’t do it. It will be too painful. If you thrive off the unknown and make opportunities happen, what are you waiting for? Being an entrepreneur is the best job on the planet.
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About your author
Leah Williams is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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