Female Founders: 'I never have a plan B'
Debbie Wosskow co-founded AllBright, a funding and support network, to rectify what she says is insufficient investment in and support for female business founders in the UK. In a new FT series, we ask her what she’s learned from running her businesses.
Executive Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Edited by Richard Topping. Filmed by Richard Topping and Liam McCarthy. Still images by Bloomberg and Getty.
Debbie Wosskow has founded several businesses, including Love Home Swap, which helps people swap their houses for holidays. She sold the business last year for $53 million, and in 2016, she co-founded AllBright, a funding, education and support network for female entrepreneurs. The Sheffield native is now based in London. So Debbie, can I take you back, right the beginning and ask what motivated you to found your own business? Why did you want to do that?
For me, I'm from a family of entrepreneurs, and in particular, the women in my family have been successful entrepreneurs. So my grandmother built up a chain of sweet shops and off licences. My mother ran a printing and packaging business. And for me, entrepreneurship, I guess to some extent, is not just in the DNA, but it was all I'd ever seen. I didn't really know people who had jobs, and so I set up my first business at 25, and since that time, I have rendered myself completely unemployable.
The big thing that you learn in your first business is that cash flow is absolutely everything. And actually the first business that I set up was called Mantra it was a marketing agency, and it was a brilliant first business to have, because you learn about people. You learn about the thing that's still my daily obsession which is I check the company bank account every day.
Now, Ms Wosskow is using her experience to help rectify what she says is insufficient investment in and support for female business founders in the UK. So how is AllBright going to help future female founders?
The data looks a bit like this. Only 2.17% of all capital in 2016 went to female CEOs. Only one in six of people in senior leadership positions in the UK are women. Only 14% of angel investors in the UK are women. So we're not at the table.
And if you try to unpack the why it's complicated. So one in 10 women in the UK say they want to start their own business, but they don't. A third of those people say it's because they don't have the skills required to do so. 70% of them say they don't have the network required to do so, and about the same number of women said that they need spaces to work which are tailored and catered for women's needs. So for that reason, we have a grand hypothesis at AllBright, which is that it's about network, skills and confidence, and that's what you need to do to bring about change.
So you need to create a new girls' network, if you like, or a network of girl gangs, which is how we think about it, so women supporting other women. Indeed, part of the inspiration behind AllBright is the famous Madeleine quote about there's a special place in hell for women who don't help other women, and that was always the project title of this initiative. And then we loved the name so much that we put another 'l' in it, so she didn't sue us copyright over her own name.
Oh, right so it's for Madeleine Albright, brilliant.
So network matters, skills matter, confidence matters.
I shall ask you a very unEnglish question. Are you making money in your current business? And is there a point at which you will stop, because you've made enough money? Is that one of the things that drives you?
It is a driver. That's because in my world, there's a direct correlation between money and success. So if I'm building businesses and they're not making money for me or my shareholders, I'm not doing it properly. So to that extent, I have been very different by that.
When I was much, much younger, my mother said to me, that I liked nice things-- which I do. I have a very extensive shoe wardrobe-- and so I better work hard in order to be able to afford them. So that's always stuck in my head. So I think money is important, but I think for this, my fourth business, for AllBright, it's combining profit and purpose, and for me, that's the thing that matters.
I don't think I could ever entirely sit within the not for profit world, because that's not really how my brain works in terms of measuring success, even though I'm on boards of charities and a theatre board, which I love. But AllBright for me, is the ultimate business to be doing at this stage in my '40s, because yes, it's about making money. We're building a business that we see as being really valuable. We're also helping other women build businesses which deliver a return for their investors, which is often us, and we're building an ecosystem that we think will bring about change, and so that really does get me out of bed.
The AllBright Club has launched at an opportune moment with more attention being paid to flexible working and other policies to help women advance in their careers.
We're definitely in a market where there's a lot of potential for growth. I think that I would always like to do more and to it bigger. Our venture capital fund is really small. Thinking about what we might do with that, how we might partner with government on that and others. How can we bring in more money to back female-led businesses? The killer stat in that being that women deliver better returns than men, on average 35% better returns.
So forgetting passion for a moment, the economic argument on that is very strong. So frankly, I think there's enough to do to keep me out of trouble for a while. I'm that's definitely my plan A and B, C, and all the rest.
What skills and characteristics do you think you've most needed in running a business, and how would you describe your management style?
Doing what I do, and have done for the last 20 years, is just massively hard work, and not only is it hard work, you have to get a kick out of it.
I'm going to interrupt you then and ask you what time you get up in the morning.
It's early, I'm afraid, at 5:20, which isn't for everybody. But for me in particular, I can't chase the day. There's just too much to do, and I'm much more a morning person than I am an evening person. So to get out early, to get on top of things early, I also have a very aggressive exercise habit which happens at 6 o'clock in the morning, mostly involving boxing. I've always wanted to be a yoga person, and I'm just not at all, and I need to hit things.
And the most important thing is about grit, and that's what I look for in anyone that I hire, in my investors. Are they with you for the journey? Because that will frequently be hard, difficult, you'll have weeks on and when nothing goes your way, where often it's boring. These are things that people don't talk about. Do you have the grit required to stay with it, to stick with it? And I think demonstrating that, teaching that, encouraging other entrepreneurs and young female entrepreneurs to learn grit, because I think it is learned. It's incredibly important.
Oh, so you think it can be learned? Because I wanted to ask you whether it's difficult to find people with grit.
I really believe that entrepreneurship can be learned, and actually, if you look at many of the female business leaders or entrepreneurs that I know, they're all very different from one another. And it's easy to characterise it as a certain female way of doing things. I just don't think that's the case. I think that you can learn grit. I think you can learn to be resilient.
And what advice do you wish that you'd had that you didn't.
One of the things I think that women, and young women in particular, really struggle with is caring a lot about what other people think. My business partner, Anna Jones, my business partner in AllBright, and I look at each other at least three times a day and say rhino hide. And that's how we feel because people won't always like you. They won't always like what you're doing. They won't always like your business.
It's much, much easier to tell someone that what they're doing is going to fail rather than to support them in helping it to succeed. So please, for women out there, develop your rhino hide, because I think we waste a lot of time caring about what other people think about us, and one of the great joys of getting a little bit older is you care a lot less.
Still a good tip for me. I shall remember that phrase.
Is there a business person or a company that has inspired you?
Going back to my family, actually, my mother and my grandmother who between them had a lot of children and ran businesses. I've seen the way that you can do that. I've seen the way that you can absolutely normalise that. I think for women you have to see it to be it, and I've seen it my whole life. So what I do for me seems very normal. I think about that with my children, and what's normal to them.
And do you have a plan B?
I never have a plan B. I'm amazed when people do. Plan A is always the plan.