Podcast: Encounters with success – Holly Tucker MBE
In this episode we speak to the Founder of Not on the High Street and Holly & Co about how the small business community have responded to the pandemic.
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Richard: Holly Tucker, MBE, welcome, and thank you very much for your time.
Holly Tucker: What a pleasure to be invited. Thank you very much for having me.
Richard: Let's start with Holly & Co. What are the origins of the project? What was your decision to put yourself out there in front of other entrepreneurs as a mentor or a cheerleader?
Holly Tucker: Well, truth be told, I promised my husband never again, and for all very obvious reasons, anyone married to an entrepreneur it's quite an up and down existence. But there was a point in time where I just knew that the birds eye view I had had over the 5,000 small businesses at Not On The High Street, watching them go from literally the kitchen table through the stages of growth to the point where we had 900, million pound businesses was one I couldn't ignore.
And I was told, people said to me, that the information, the knowledge that I have, was like no other, and that I needed to use it for good. And that, I suppose, was the start. Even though I'd said 'Never again,' I slightly now realise I have no other existence. I will continue to be an entrepreneur, I've said I'm going to retire at 90.
And when you realise that you can help people, it is an absolute honour to then be able to build a business doing just that. And so, Holly & Co was born, which was to help become a virtual cheerleader for the small business community and I felt that there was nothing else like it out in the wide world.
I'd seen small businesses grow and, yes, they have Not On The High Street as a fantastic sales partner but actually what I realised is that founders of small businesses, they needed a home, they needed a place to exist, a bubble to exist within, where they could meet other small businesses, travel on the journey together, but also just be lifted by creativity, inspiration, practical advice, and potentially someone being vulnerable who's been there and done it before, sharing their journey.
And so, that's the premise of Holly & Co. Co standing for community. Collaboration. Congregation. There's a load of Co words which I'm very happy with, with the brand, and it's very much the premise of the book, Do What You Love, Love What You Do.
Richard: What you're doing with Holly & Co then is a natural extension of the marketplace that is Not On The High Street? Is that right? It is a part of your relationship with those businesses where you were providing a sales channel.
Holly Tucker: Yes. Not On The High Street was launched in 2006. I started dreaming it up in 2005 with my business partner, Sophie, and that was very much a place that, in 2006, remember we didn't have smartphones practically. We were one of the first marketplaces in the world outside of eBay and Amazon, and we were trying to help small businesses that were being kicked off the high street find a new high street, so to speak.
And that's where Not On The High Street was born, and so, as I said, that's 2006 that that all started. And then I've really continued that love affair. I found my community, I found my space in this world, and I suppose Holly & Co is the journey continuing where now it's about, I suppose, the umbrella of a small business's lives.
From a podcast that I've created, Conversations of Inspiration, to publishing my book, to daily Instagram, to IGTV lives every day, to campaign Shop Independent, which is a campaign that we run twice a year now, The Independent Awards, and the list goes. We're literally creating a world for them to exist in.
Richard: Can you tell us a little bit about the experience of doing that through the pandemic, and what part it played in what you were offering and trying to do with Holly & Co?
Holly Tucker: Well, Holly & Co will be 5 years old next April and, I would say, during lockdown 1, well the second it was announced, within 48 hours I created a sub-brand called SME SOS. I understood how alone that this community would feel, whether they should continue selling, how they were going to market themselves, and I put myself out on the first IGTV live I'd ever done-,
Richard: Can you just tell people what IGTV is?
Holly Tucker: So, I basically went live on Instagram and said to the community, 'I'm going to be here every single day during this lockdown.' Now, I didn't actually realise how long it was going to go on for, but I did a live every day for 4 months, and all my friendly entrepreneurs that I know, that I've had on my podcast, they all jumped on to my lives to help people understand that they too were going through this and what would their advice be.
Richard: To some extent, this was about dealing with rules, about the practicalities of a changing sales landscape. As well as just inspiration, what-,
Holly Tucker: Everything. Yes, we're firstly saying that you're not alone. Okay. We all don't know what's going on here. But, together, we're going to feel better together. We're going to share our learnings. We're going to share our experiences. A lot of small businesses, they didn't even think that they should be selling their products because how crass for them to be selling their wares as this was all going on. Similarly, we were talking to the likes-,
Richard: Why? Because they felt that the emergency was such that their business didn't have a place anymore?
Holly Tucker: Absolutely. And I would say that that was the common denominator. And a lot of them have turned to me and said that, actually, what I did, creating this platform for them to tune in every morning, so I work start with breaking news, I would demystify the government and what was coming out, I would let them understand what furloughing is, I'd let them understand what grants and funding there was that they could get through. But I was demystifying it. I was making it human.
And then I would have the likes of Joe Wicks, or Fearne Cotton, or the founders of Leon, or Thomasina Miers, or lots of people, come on and say how it was affecting them in their industry. And what it made the community feel that, from the likes of representation from Dell Technologies coming on, saying, we don't even know how to plan our marketing to, as I said, Joe Wicks doing what he was doing, this community understood that everyone was in a pivoting moment in their lives, that we had to be chameleons. And so it was creating language, it was creating the permission to do things that they just wouldn't have had if we hadn't created it. And it was possibly one of the hardest amounts of work I ever produced because, we take ourselves back, I was alone. I was by myself creating 2 to 3 hours’ worth of content every single day, and it has extraordinary for Holly & Co.
I would say it's been one of the largest growth periods so far that we've experienced, and has really cemented the brand that we're going to be there for them whatever happens throughout this journey of building their businesses.
Richard: Can you generalise about the experience of entrepreneurs in the last 18 months? For some sectors it's been quite positive but clearly not for others.
Holly Tucker: Absolutely. It's been a mixed bag. If we think in June, more businesses started up than ever before so one of the most unbelievable things has been a lot of people being put in circumstances where they've lost their job or someone has lost their job in the household. Or they have to have a part-time side hustle because they need to make ends meet. So what I'm seeing is that we've got a huge amount of people interested in this space. I have 150,000 followers, a huge engagement in that community, and to understand how it's been for all of them, I have to say that what I mentored them through this period of time is, we all face near-death all the time, in a business sense. Because as an entrepreneur, you are continually looking around the corner, what's coming up. So the muscle that had been worked were very strong muscles to be able to cope with a situation, such as this pandemic.
So actually what it was about was honing in to those skills of becoming the chameleon. As I said, pivoting. Adjusting. Moving with speed to the direction that the community is showing them or their sales are dictating. So a lot of businesses that I was speaking to were having Christmases every day in terms of sales levels, and yet they had furloughed all of their staff. Or you were dealing with small businesses having to let people go and what they did was they coast through trying to reserve their cash through this period of time so that they could time out to the other side.
Now that was when didn't think we would have lockdown 2 or 3, but it has been ultimately a period of time where I think a lot of the businesses, certain people that I'm connected with, and that's a lot, have used this time to strengthen their business. A lot of them have gone and done things that they never would have done before. Using social media as a sales platform, creating websites which I thought possibly everybody had, but a huge amount of people still hadn't tackled Online.
So actually I think the small business community, if they survived it, absolutely will have come out stronger but also they've used the muscles they had already, and I think that was an amazing moment when we were talking to some of our big partners, such as Dell, Royal Mail, and NatWest, that they were vulnerable enough to let these small businesses know they couldn't even plan the future. So I think it was a levelling up. Small businesses didn't feel so small.
Richard: Can you talk a little bit about your own experience of difficulty in the past, in the early years, of Not On The High Street when you, I think, mentioned elsewhere that you had to turn to your parents to remortgage their home. The business was achieving sales, but it was running out of cash. Is that the kind of example you mean of the muscles that you develop from near-death experiences?
Holly Tucker: Yes, near-business-death experiences. I call them the war scars and I think anyone who's listening, who has a business, understands that. That's what you collect. And certainly Not On The High Street, many times, nearly didn't exist, and nothing more true than in 2006 when we thought as all best entrepreneurs do that we had a contingency amount of money. And then we realised with our beautiful naivety that we were building a technology that eBay hadn't even managed to build in America.
Richard: What was that technology? You went from a business that came off a kitchen table, and effectively became a marketplace number 3 alongside Amazon and eBay.
Holly Tucker: Thank goodness no one told us at the time. Absolutely we would have probably downed our tools there and then. We were building a multiple partner basket which basically meant you could checkout with multiple small businesses and only put your card details in once. Now, if we go back in time, at that point in time, Amazon still sold books. You had eBay, where you'd sell your socks that your grandma gave you, and the title would be 123 Grandma Socks, and somehow people were buying it. And so we had to bring up an entire community to the world of selling online, and so we decided we didn't want customers to checkout multiple times, so we built a basket that could handle that. I think we were at the same that America launched it for eBay. eBay America. And we launched it in Sheen, as you said, south-west London, and it was an incredible moment.
But if I go back to that time, we actually educated the entire small business community what I meant, because people still thought that they could take a picture of their products on their bed, with bad lighting. I remember people asking me, did they need a computer and a printer to sell online? It was an incredible moment. We were educating an industry, then taking them through that journey whilst we were also trying to stay alive. We were knocking on the doors of venture capitalists. We were being told that their wives did the shopping and that women starting craft sites wasn't their thing. And this was when, we think, only 1% of capital goes to women now in the VC world, think what it was back in 2006.
Richard: Was that the crunch point at which Not On The High Street nearly did come to nought? What was it that got you through that period, not only in terms of money from various sources, but sheer determination?
Holly Tucker: Firstly it was my Egg credit card cheque book because we weren't paying ourselves, we were paying our staff with that. And it was also, now as a more confident female business leader, I can say that my instinct to call Not On The High Street my second child, I had one which was a human, called Harry, he was 3 months old, by the way, when I started Not On The High Street. And Not On The High Street was my second child, it was my business baby, and I think that that maternal, paternal instinct you have for your business, if a car ran over your child you'd lift the car, if someone's going to try and take down your business, not on my watch. And it was that absolute mother lion protection that we had over this concept, over the fact that it was going to help thousands of people and businesses that we knew we had to survive. And so that led us to making sure we survived, and we did. Whatever was thrown at us, we did.
Richard: There must be some cases though, especially when the world is changing at the pace at which it is, where a business concept just isn't going to work.
Holly Tucker: Yes, absolutely, and I say to people you have to let go with love. But when it came to Not On The High Street there was no doubt it was going to work. As we couldn't afford the heating, I was buying the URLs for the entire globe. The concept of making sure that people could shop with small businesses, curated small businesses being the important word, we turned away 99% of small businesses that applied, I knew was going to be the future. And I knew that we were going to look for beautiful, crafted products and innovative ideas. And I also knew that small businesses couldn't survive on the high street and so they needed someone to scoop them up and do something about it. But absolutely, sometimes things don't work out.
But in my point of view, Not On The High Street was, Holly & Co will, and for small businesses it's about understanding that an entrepreneur's journey, a true entrepreneur, they try things, they fail, and they pick themselves up, and they just do it again. They just do it in a different way. From that failure they learn. And these are some of the pieces of advice that I am trying to give to this community who, ultimately, have been brought up in a way of thinking about business that I'm trying to change.
Richard: You've spoken elsewhere about the 4th Industrial Revolution, people having multiple jobs. You use this intriguing phrase, 'They will multi-hyphenate their entire existence.' What does that mean?
Holly Tucker: Well, from my experience and understanding this community so well, and understanding the types of people in this community, and knowing how many more there are out there, we have a phrase at Holly & Co, 'Dream, Dabble and Do,' because I'm trying to change up the language. How ghastly to be called an SME? So, when you put all the doers out there, how many dreamers are out there who have not plucked up the courage to go for it. And so I think that, absolutely, there is a small business in probably all of us, and that as we are entering this new period of social change, but also that we're talking about things such as mental health more than ever, we're talking about our planet more than ever, we've understanding potentially our time better than we ever understood it.
Richard: What do you mean by time?
Holly Tucker: Well, on my 40th birthday I worked out I had 29,000 days on this planet, on average, because I love efficiency and I realised then actually it was more of worse news. I had actually only 14,000 days left. I actually think we are becoming, as humans, more aware of our mortality, our existence, certainly during this pandemic. And so I think, 'life is short,' now means something potentially more than it did. So you've got people saying, You know what, I've always had that idea, I'm going to go for it.
Richard: And that, I guess, is what feeds into the title of your book, Do What You Love, Love What You Do?
Holly Tucker: Yes, well, that's it. We don't have time to not do what we love, and actually if we want to feel like we're not working a day in our lives that we have a whole life, not this ghastly, prehistoric notion of a work-life balance. You just have a full life. And if you have a 360 life where your work is mixed in to the beautiful patterns of your world, surely that's what creates happiness. And so, for me, Holly & Co had to be created, a little bit like Not On The High Street had to be created, to scoop up those small businesses. Holly & Co has to be created to scoop up not only the businesses of today, but the huge amount of founders that will be born tomorrow.
And so, 'Do What You Love, Love What You Do' was that book where I'm going, Okay, shall we just give business a bit of facelift because it's not grey and boring. We have another phrase at Holly & Co, 'Bring colour to grey.' Shall we just rip up the rule book slightly? Potentially you don't need to have a business plan unless you're raising money. What you need is a phenomenal direction, an anchor that you place in the future that you bring the rope back and you hold on to, and a very robust financial plan, and plan. But it's not back in those notions that, This is the way you do it. And I think it's been liberating for a lot of people, certainly women.
Richard: What else needs to change in the world then to facilitate this and make it happen? If there is a new shift that is coming from people themselves to take control and find a business within them, how does the rest of the world have to adjust to accommodate and help that and benefit from it?
Holly Tucker: Well, at Holly & Co we have 5 missions which I think are summaries of what we need to do as a society. 1 of them is to help everybody do what they love, love what they do. Number 2 is to help people vote with their money. So, if we want to actually create change we have all the power that we need to create change in our pockets. 3 is to help women start businesses at the parity of men. That would actually pump in, I think, 250 billion pounds into the economy within 3 years. 4 is to help the next generation actually understand what the entrepreneurial journey is. Our children are not being educated in a way that is going to set them up for the freelance economy of the future.
Understanding this notion that you should be born an entrepreneur, no, unfortunately everyone will need entrepreneurial skills. And actually entrepreneurial skills are phenomenal life skills. And 5 is to save the independent high street. As we all get on technology more, our homes become the churches that we used go out to, we need to make sure that we protect our home towns, our communities, that we feel human, that we belong to places and people. And so those 5 things at Holly & Co is what I'm going to be doing until I'm 90. To help create noise. To help create energy around the subject.
Richard: Tell me about funding. You've cited the extremely low figure about VC funding going to women-owned businesses. That sounds like you're describing something that is a million years out of kilter with the change that you're painting there.
Holly Tucker: Yes, but I'm not actually advocating for people to go and get venture capital money. I'm saying, 'What can you do yourself?' Because I think that when we look to the government, hence why when I look to change the education system, I will be circumnavigating government. When I look to raising money, how can you raise money in a way that is not then going through the land of VC? Actually it's all about the people and bringing power to them. Where there is a will, there is a way. If it's going to take you a few more years to grow, then take those few years to grow and make sure that you're in control of what you're growing.
We do have to also remember the businesses I'm talking about, I'm not talking about Silicon Roundabout, I'm not talking about the businesses potentially that would want to go and raise VC money. I'm actually talking about the backbone of Britain. I'm talking about the 6 million small businesses out there that are on a journey, that prop up our economy. And it's a small percentage that will go to VC worlds, but actually I'm talking about the rest of them.
Holly Tucker: And that is where I think the power is and that's where I am very, very excited to help them figure out what their journey is going to be to what I now call to 'Live a Good Life' business. A 'Good Life' business is what I've replaced with SME, it's a business that actually understands that picking up the kids in the morning and the evening, being able to take August off, is actually in balance with their ambition and their profitability and the growth of their company, that actually some of us aren't building a world to try and buy Necker Island, a lot of people want to exist in a happy environment and I believe building business creates happiness.
Richard: And then in a way I guess something similar, your point around education, is it the case that you did get an E in Business Studies, by the way?
Holly Tucker: Yes, I only realised that last year, I thought it was a D for the last 20 years and then because my son is about to get his GCSEs I did ask my mum and she said 'No Darling, you got an E.' And I thought 'Oh God, it gets even worse.' But yes, you know I-
Richard: It does highlight your point isn't it that the education system as it is isn't people up to become confident entrepreneurs.
Holly Tucker: No, absolutely, and you know I have my own podcast, I've interviewed 130 incredible entrepreneurs from-, everybody basically, and when I look at what the common denominator is there is none of what they built is due to their education. It was actually due to their spirit, it was due to the vast-, I would say 50% of them were dyslexic. There is this really outdated way that we're looking at things and it's why I'm super passionate, as I stabilise Holly & Co, to be able to take on another challenge such as kids, which is an enormous challenge, is to try and implant 'The cookie cutter system is not necessarily for you. You can achieve when you get an E in Business Studies. You can be dyslexic, actually you can have any of the challenged and in the future this will be sought after.' You know, different ways of thinking now is incredible, that actually you don't need to go to university necessarily, you can start a business.
So, this month, at Holly & Co, we always celebrate 'kidpreneurs' over the summer. We're trying to highlight the fact that you can start from a young age, that parental guilt is a completely wasted energy when you're bringing up the next generation in the house where you're running a business, what phenomenal skills you're giving your children. This isn't happening in their day-to-day at school. So we've got to ditch the guilt, we've got understand that we're prepping the next generation, and we've got to also help our children understand the fact that we've been taught for hundreds of years the same way and yet our world has sped up faster than ever, that we've got to do something about it, and so I'm looking forward to that challenge.
Richard: Well what does it mean for existing businesses? You've talked elsewhere about creating personas for business and how the businesses of the future are likely to have that sense of personality.
Holly Tucker: Well, I think businesses and the future-, as we get busier, as there's far more available to us, I believe that the future will be the absolute personal connection you have with a company. You know I remember being told Not On The High Street was far too emotional because, of course that phrase was used because I was a female leader. Actually, fantastically, it was an emotional business. It meant we had something which was un-Excelable (sic). That's my phrase which means you can't put it into a data sheet. That is the emotional commerce that I believe is the future, where we're going to be relying on less brands but brands that we absolutely have a connection with, and who better than founders of small businesses to create those brands of the future. And, always, I talk to small businesses, they have to have purpose, a purpose beyond what they actually create.
Now I know now we're talking about this all the time, but actually many many businesses still don't have a reason for existing outside of the commercials and the utilitarian nature of the company and so this is something I believe will be the future, and again why I believe the future is going to be there for small businesses because I think small businesses can capture their purpose. They can lead us in the our, the business world is going to be so powerful, the small business world, when it comes to our planet, it's going to be very powerful when it comes to raising children in a different way, it's going to be very powerful about work-life balance but the new form, the 'Good Life' businesses. And so I think that founder-led companies are going to be what it's all about. Hence Holly & Co.
Richard: When people turn to you, do you think-, to what extent are they just feeding off the amazing energy and positivity that you have? You have a nickname from your youth I gather, which is 'Hurricane Holly', you've been referred to as the 'Human Espresso', which captures that sense of energy. What is it about you that is such a magnet to other business founders?
Holly Tucker: Well, you know, it's very lovely for you to say that. I've been called the 'Mum of Small Businesses' or, you know, I think it's that I've realised that my place on this planet is to serve and that I truly believe in people and their dreams. But you know, I meet people on the street everyday, if I go on holiday I'll find them in the deepest areas of Africa, I love looking at people's worlds and their dreams and helping them go for it, and yes, I have this energy but it's all because of my enthusiasm and passion for making things happen, helping people being unlocked into what their future happy life is.
And so, and hopefully also my own battle scars, the fact that I am vulnerable, I will talk to people in a way that they don't expect because they can relate to me rather than being a sort of a-, potentially the personas that we see on TV that bring up our small businesses with women in power suits and it's all about what you can't do, and I actually want to concentrate on what people can do and so that is what I hope I bring this world, I bring the people that I meet and if I'm honest with you I feel that it's the best existence. The amount of energy I receive, the fact that I'm the happiest I've ever been in my life is all down to those dreams and those people striving and I just have just admiration, every single day, as I said, I don't work a day in my life anymore.
Richard: That's fantastic to hear. We've spoken about Not On The High Street. There were other chapters of your life before. Many successful, some less so. What chapters are you looking forward to ahead in the life of Holly Tucker?
Holly Tucker: Well, I would say, if I could possibly have today, everyday. If I could keep my entrepreneurial enthusiasm to build, if I manage to build Holly & Co, not into an empire but into a beacon of positive amplification, if I'm able to-, my son is 16 now, he was 3 months old when we started Not On The High Street, if I can get him off to uni, which he wants to go to, I will feel that my entrepreneurial journey hasn't damaged him in some way, that will be a really big tick in my life. But I suppose what I'm looking forward to the most is really having a place where I can change hundreds and thousands of people's lives. It's an absolute privilege, and so, you know, every day for me is an adventure and so I hope I get to have, as I say, today, many many more times during the rest of my life.
Richard: Holly Tucker, it's been such a pleasure talking to you, thank you very very much indeed.
Holly Tucker: Well thank you so much, you've been very kind.
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