Sarah Willingham: 'I'd never have done Dragons' Den if it weren't for my husband'

SLICE OF LIFE: The serial entrepreneur on early starts, work-life balance and cooking a good curry.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 21 Feb 2017

Entrepreneur Sarah Willingham made her name managing restaurants before striking out on her own in 2004, when she bought the Bombay Bicycle Club. After turning that into the country’s largest Indian restaurant chain, Willingham sold her stake in 2007, later setting up personal finance site Let's Save Money.

She also discovered a penchant for TV, appearing in Raymond Blanc’s the Restaurant and later taking a seat on Dragons' Den, where she is shortly due to make her final appearance.

In the first of a new series of off-duty profiles, MT spoke to Willingham while she was catching the Sydney sunrise, to find out what makes her tick. Life isn’t all business, after all.

Early starts and pie charts

My favourite time is walking downstairs at 5am to a still and empty house, which is very telling of the fact that I have four small children. We’re a family of six extroverts, but I’m borderline, I need a little more solitude. Our home in Berkshire is open plan, and for many years I tried to work while I was with the kids, but I ended up doing both badly. Now I am strict that I can’t mix the two ever. I took the emails off my iPhone and got rid of my voicemail. When the kids come downstairs, I close my MacBook. That leads to real quality time.

Some people would look at my life and think oh my God, she never stops, it’s a nightmare. The universe conspires to make you have too much in your life. What’s really helped me is that my husband Michael [Toxvaerd, a fellow serial entrepreneur] and I start the year mapping out how we want to spend our time in a pie chart. That makes us sound like complete freaks, but we're not! You quickly realise that all those things aren’t possible, so you’ve got to be honest with yourself and prioritise, and I’ve ruthlessly prioritised family.

Behind every great mumpreneur...

I’ve sold businesses way before their time and said no to things that would have been a lot of fun to allow Michael’s career to prosper for a year or two when it’s his turn not mine. The last two years, because I’ve done Dragons' Den, that’s been a lot for Michael. While I’ve been away in Manchester filming all those weeks, he has to carry all the weight at home, which means he has to let a lot of work commitments slip.

The media celebrate women who manage to have a career and a family, but if my husband hadn’t wanted to go on the same journey as me, I couldn’t do what I do or have the balance I’ve had, because I would always choose the kids. I’m a mum and that’s my default, which means I would never had done Dragons' Den or taken on so many businesses.

Around the world in 365 days

My best ideas always come on holiday. When I decided to do the BBC I was sat on a sunlounger in Egypt; when we decided to do websites that was in the Maldives. We’re taking a year to travel the world at the moment. It’s something we’ve dreamed about for years. Hotels are a nightmare for us, so we stay in apartments or use Airbnb. In British Columbia we stayed in the middle of nowhere with no electricity, chopping wood and lighting fires every day. Now we’re learning to surf in Byron Bay. I want to bottle this moment.

Thank you for the music

I’m still a kid of the 80s, so I like the Smiths, the Cure and the Stone Roses, but we’re also listening to Spotify playlists that reflect the part of the world we’re in. Right now there’s a lot of surfing music.

I used to play piano but I gave up at grade 3. I can play Fur Elise, Moonlight Sonata and the Entertainer now and that’s it. I’m rubbish. My mum is amazing, she plays piano beautifully. She said you’ve really got to do your practice, but she gave up trying eventually. It must have been too painful - I know that now, I’ve got four kids – but I wish she’d just forced me.

At the end of the day

We get into Netflix box sets like Narcos, but I rest by going to the kitchen. If it’s been a really heavy week, I’ll put on my Nana’s pinny and cook a lamb curry from my Bombay Bicycle Club days, the sort you can leave in the Aga overnight. If I want to celebrate, I’ll open a really good bottle of Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque, but if I wanted to party I’d go to London Cocktail Club [where Willingham is an investor]. Nobody parties like those guys.

Sarah Willingham's 5 top tips for entrepreneurs

Image copyright: Will Ireland Photography


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