Tamara Heber-Percy founded award-winning travel website and boutique hotel booking service Mr & Mrs Smith with her husband in 2003. The business now has 900 hotels on its books, more than 100 employees and offices in Melbourne, New York and Singapore.
The Mr & Mrs Smith website gets almost a million clicks a month, and Tamara Heber-Percy has recently launched Smith & Family, a website focusing on child-friendly getaways.
Speaking at MT’s Inspiring Women networking event at the Soho Hotel on Wednesday evening, she explains why she started her own business and how she manages working with her husband.
Why did you decide to set up the business?
Mr & Mrs Smith was born of frustration, as my now-husband and I would always end up staying at really rubbish hotels. Ten years ago we went to the Lake District and stayed in what the brochure promised would be an amazing hotel. But the minute we walked through the door, it had the whiff of OAP rather than VIP. My partner and I wrote down what we thought should be in a hotel guide. It’s not about how many stars a hotel has – it’s about how it makes you feel. What the service is like, do they serve good cocktails, for example.
We wrote everything down and pitched it to lots of publishers but every one of them turned us down. They said the market was saturated and no one would need another guide book. So we decided to publish ourselves, and we raised the money from friends and family and by re-mortgaging our house.
We found the only independent distributor in the UK and begged him to take us, because book shops like Waterstones only talk to distribution houses and not publishers direct. The publisher said he’d give it a go but we’d probably only sell 5,000 copies.
In September 2003, the book went on the shelves and was an instant hit. We sold 25,000 copies in the run-up to Christmas, five times the number predicted.
What’s it like working with your husband?
It’s brilliant - I’m extremely proud of what he does. Mr & Mrs Smith’s brand looks and feels how it is because of him. And it’s sexy to see him so successful! A lot of women don’t get to see that part of their husbands. We share the excitement of the business, and it also means I can sound off at him at home and he understands where I’m coming from. The only downside is it can take over our lives. But we’re trying not to do that - having kids helps.
How did you make the transition from books to online?
It’s difficult because you can’t create the touch and feel of a book on a website. We try our best to look different. While everyone else was going for websites with white backgrounds, ours is dark. And Mr & Mrs Smith has always been about the images, so we always put lots of those on the site. We always try and take some shots where the beds are a bit messed up. We try to make the hotels feel more real and less corporate.
How to you manage that elusive work/life balance?
I don’t think I do really. I don’t think you ever stop feeling guilty about not spending every moment with your children. Mr and Mrs Smith has been like another child in a way. It demands a lot of my time. But working for myself means I get flexibility and I work around my children.
We made the decision to move the company headquarters five minutes from our house in Chiswick. It means I don’t have to commute, and I can spend the morning with my children before they go to school and still be at my desk by 8.15am. I leave the office at 5.55pm and get home by 6pm to bath the children and put them to bed. It means I get that quality time with my children every day.
What advice would you give to other young female entrepreneurs?
It’s hard to start a business today as a woman, but try and think about the long term. You may not want children now, but if you do want a family in the future, think about how you’re going to structure your life around the business and how it can work for you. If you’re setting up a business which will require you to travel a lot, that’s going to cause a lot of friction for you later with your family. So planning a flexible business will really help later on.
What needs to change?
This country needs to continue to do more to encourage entrepreneurs to build businesses. That’s the way people will get employed, and I don’t think the government currently does enough to encourage it. Businesses also need to be flexible and understanding. It’s not just about rules or home working. It’s about giving women flexibility and understanding that people may have to leave the meeting on time.
How have you managed to stay independent for so long, and not be tempted to sell?
We never built Mr & Mrs Smith to flip it and sell it. We wanted to build a business to last where we could have a long-term relationship with our customers. We have been approached by a buyer, but I just don’t think we’re ready - there’s too much excitement around the business at the moment.
We’ve only recently created Smith & Family, and I want to see that flourish and really come into its own. Families stay longer and spend more money so it makes sense for the business too. We’ve also just launched a new partnership with British Airways, and there’s so much more I want to do.
That’s not to say never though. One day I want to run my own hotel. My husband and I have been critiquing hotels for 10 years now. There has to come a time where we stand up and see what critics think of our own hotel.