Not many people ignore the advice of Sir Richard Branson, self-made billionaire and one of Britain’s top entrepreneurs.
But Caroline Plumb did.
Aged 21, in her final year at Oxford University, Plumb was agonising over whether to start her own business or take a job as a strategy consultant with McKinsey. When she spotted Branson in a restaurant, she decided to ask him what he thought. ‘I caught his eye, beckoned him over and said: "If you were me, what would you do?" He said, "I’d probably take the job, to be honest."’
But Plumb went for gut over guidance, turning down the corporate career to start FreshMinds in 2000 with her fellow uni student Charlie Osmond.
The company started out matching undergraduates and MBA students to short-term project work, a sort of TaskRabbit for businesses. It quickly morphed into a recruitment firm and insight and innovation consultancy.
‘We wanted to give our own venture a shot but there was very little support in the early noughties,’ says Plumb. ‘No accelerators. No incubators. No Entrepreneur First. I remember going to the careers office at Oxford and asking them for advice on starting a business – and they drew a complete blank.’
Plumb, a softly-spoken engineer, also wrestled with the fact that she wasn’t a ‘typical’ entrepreneur. ‘The role models back then were showmen like Alan Sugar. They weren’t relatable or aspirational to me. It took me a few years to realise that’s not the truth about entrepreneurs – and it’s certainly not a requirement.’
She proved that you don’t need to be brash to build a business. Today, FreshMinds employs 80 people, has been named as a Sunday Times Top 100 Place to Work, turns over more than £10m, and counts Amazon, Starbucks and Google as its clients.
As the business grew, so did Plumb. ‘In the early days, I was involved in absolutely everything from running payroll to ordering stationery. I had to transition very quickly from co-founder to manager to leader. I’d never had a boss – yet suddenly I was one.’
Osmond stepped back from Freshminds in 2013 to start Triptease, a direct booking platform for hotels, and Plumb became CEO. Her toughest moment came the following year.
‘We had six senior directors. Within a period of six months, two went on maternity leave (myself included), two were diagnosed with breast cancer and the other two lost parents. It was a continuous run of crap. When you take senior people out of a business that’s based on relationships and client work, it becomes very difficult and stressful.'
Plumb’s maternity leave with her third child was cut short. She took her son Harry to a board meeting when he was just nine days old. ‘Thankfully he slept through it. He didn’t add much,’ she quips.
At the end of 2015, Plumb decided she was ready for a new challenge. She spent the following year fine-tuning the management team, setting a succession plan and scaling down her time at FreshMinds by moving to a non-exec role. (Like Osmond, she’s still a shareholder.)
She was also awarded an OBE for her services to business and charity, and went on a Female Founders mission to Silicon Valley as part of the Mayor’s International Business Programme. ‘Being part of that tribe of female entrepreneurs inspired me to think I could build another business,’ she says.
That business is Fluidly, an intelligent cashflow engine for SMEs. ‘I know what a headache it is to chase debtors for payments, manually forecast cashflow and constantly wonder what next month’s bank balance will be. So I launched Fluidly in October 2016 to get it sorted.’
Based in Holborn, Plumb has pulled together a team of technologists, engineers, data-scientists and machine-learning experts to help her build the software and has raised £2m in a seed funding round led by Octopus Ventures, one of Europe's largest venture capital teams.
Plumb, who turns 40 this year, says she’s even more ambitious second time round. ‘I have a stronger appetite for risk now. I want to build big, scale fast and go global. This is going to be a rocket-fuelled ride.’
Caroline Plumb first appeared in Management Today’s 35 Women Under 35 list in 2003, alongside Dido Harding, Karen Blackett and Martha Lane Fox. This year’s list is open for nominations. Enter yourself or a friend/colleague here.