SEE CAROLINE PLUMB SPEAK AT THE FUTURE OF WORK CONFERENCE ON 23 JUNE
Some people grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur. I wasn’t one of them. I always wanted to be a scientist (well, post-10; before that I wanted to be an astronaut or She-Ra). In fact, the idea didn’t even occur to me until I was at university – and only then due to a particular combination of serendipitous circumstances.
My undergraduate years coincided with the peak of the dotcom boom, when being an entrepreneur suddenly became a fashionable and potentially very lucrative career choice. I also happened to be on the same course as a guy called Charlie (my future business partner), who was more of your classic ‘start a rival tuck shop to undercut the school tuck shop’ sort of person. In our final year at Oxford, we started running some networking events, along with a few other engineer friends. When that went well, he and I started kicking around the business idea that would later become FreshMinds.
Even then, I hesitated to take the plunge. I’d also been offered a ‘proper job’ by one of the big consulting firms; as an impoverished student, there were several thousand reasons to be attracted to that idea.
While I was agonising over what to do, our whole course got taken out for a slap-up dinner at Le Petit Blanc by another big consulting firm. Towards the end of the evening, I spotted Sir Richard Branson enjoying a quiet meal on the other side of the restaurant. Who better to provide a balanced view on my dilemma than one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs, I thought? So (in an uncharacteristic and probably wine-related move) I decided it would be a good idea to catch his eye and beckon him over. Even more remarkably, he actually came.
Once I’d got over the shock, I said to him: ‘So, Richard: if you were me, what would you do? Take the job with [big consulting firm]? Or start my own business?’
‘Er… I’d probably take the job, to be honest,’ he said.
Which is a great illustration of a vital business lesson: ask lots of people for advice – but don’t always take it.
A few years later – after ignoring Sir Richard’s very sensible answer and starting a business straight out of university – I was asked by (then chancellor) Gordon Brown’s office to speak at an enterprise event at the Treasury. I talked about the importance of entrepreneurs building support networks, and the fallacy of ‘going it alone’. We contacted everyone we could think of to ask for advice or connections; those who could help were almost always happy to do so.
This led to other speaking slots; and a few years ago, I was asked to become one of the UK’s Business Ambassadors. This involves going to places like India, Singapore and Brunei to talk about talent, innovation and Britain’s professional services industry, sometimes as part of a full-on trade delegation, with the prime minister or a cabinet minister leading the charge.
I’m biased, but I think the ‘GREAT Britain’ campaign is fantastic. And whatever you think of David Cameron, he’s a very impressive salesman for it. He has no qualms about openly giving it the hard sell, day after day. Which is exactly what you need your CEO to be doing.
By some accounts, his predecessor wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about this sort of thing. But contrary to the public perception, I always found Brown to be incredibly personable. One day I was invited to a reception in Downing Street; and my mother insisted that I take along a pair of booties that she’d knitted for his new baby John. (I tried to argue that it wasn’t consonant with my Important Businesswoman persona; as usual, she wouldn’t take no for an answer.)
So at the event, I awkwardly offered up these booties to the second most powerful man in the country – and he insisted that we deliver them in person immediately. When his PPS pointed out that it was quite bad form to ditch his own reception, he reluctantly told him to take me instead. We spent the next hour chatting to the nanny and playing with the baby until the chancellor finished up and joined us to play trains.
I’ve read interviews with Brown where he talks about how parenthood softened him and changed his priorities (although those who worked for him when he was prime minister might beg to differ).
As a mother of three now, I agree with this to some extent; it does help your sense of perspective. But parenthood also brings a whole new set of practical challenges. Running a house/family is absolutely a full-time job – so even though my husband and I both work four days a week, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything perfectly.
I’ve come to accept that when you have a busy job and small children you have to figure out what work-life balance works for you, and not compare those choices to anyone else’s. So my new philosophy is just to believe that my best will be good enough, and try not to waste too much time feeling guilty about anything.
I think the main thing my parents gave me was the confidence I needed to choose my own path. I would never have taken the plunge to start my own business if they hadn’t been so incredibly supportive of the idea. Hopefully I can do the same for my children.
Fortunately, my six-year-old daughter has decided that she’s going to be a fire-fighting astronaut. I can get behind that plan very easily.