1. What were you doing before becoming an entrepreneur?
I ran my own consultancy advising small businesses on how to commercialise and optimise business online. Prior to that, I was the business manager for a number of leading UK consumer information websites. I also spent the early part of my career at Reuters managing major customer relationships for online business and financial information and technology. So my background is very much entrenched in running online businesses.
2. What inspired you to launch Upper Street?
My sister Katy, who is also my business partner, was the inspiration behind UpperStreet.com. She lives out in the Far East so it’s always been tricky for her to find the individual shoes she really wanted, and that came in her size. She started getting her shoes made for her when she got married and it became a bit of a habit for her. When I saw the beautiful heels she’d designed herself, I was green with envy, and thought how this would be a wonderful online business so that women all over the world could design their own unique high quality shoes.
3. Are there challenges for female entrepreneurs?
I don’t think that being a woman has made being an entrepreneur challenging for me, perhaps the opposite. The qualities that make a strong entrepreneur include having a clear vision of the future and determinedly pursuing that dream, being able to find a way around problems, spotting and nurturing talented resource, building a network of contacts, managing finances, learning from mistakes and multi-tasking, all things that women are generally really good at. These feminine traits are what make great managers and leaders, and indeed men need to adopt these skills to also be successful in today’s world.
I do think that women often underestimate their potential, both personally and for their business, and there needs to be more support available to open our eyes on this. UpperStreet.com is fortunate enough to be part of the ASTIA business accelerator program (www.astia.org), which is a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting high-growth potential, women-led businesses. This aims to redress the balance that only 4% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses. I do think women need to learn new more skills to get access to capital; it’s still a very male-dominated environment.
4. What needs to change about entrepreneurship in the UK?
I believe the main issue we have here in the UK is that we have a culture that doesn’t value entrepreneurship as much as it should do. As a nation, we can be quite tentative and cautious in our approach; we’re a risk-averse lot in the main, routed in public services, and also suspicious of those who are ‘self-made’. There are too few inspirational entrepreneurs for those starting out to look up to. I would like to see more support and encouragement for those individuals who are looking to make a difference and set up their own business – both from institutions such as the banks, government and educational establishments, but more importantly from friends, family and society. We should be celebrating entrepreneurs!
5. What is the best piece of advice you've received?
Go with your gut feeling – it’s nearly always right. Especially when you’re making decisions about people.
6. What advice do you have for start-ups, particularly in the online/fashion arena?
My advice would be, don’t underestimate how much energy, time and resource you will need to build a consumer brand. Focus on building relationships in the industry with people who can help you understand its nuances, find the right resources, and also who you can partner with to reach new audiences more rapidly. We’re a premium, experience led business, so finding the right brand to align with is absolutely crucial so that we build long-term value.
7. What do you wish you had known when starting up?
There is so much we didn’t know when we started, and in a way I’m kind of glad I didn’t know those things. For example, if we’d have known how complicated high quality shoe production is and how challenging it would be to turn the model on it’s head and make shoes piece-by-piece, then I’m sure we’d never have started this business! Being an entrepreneur often means taking that leap of faith, you will never have all the information you need.
8. How has the Dell/DWEN network helped your business?
I was very lucky to be invited to the DWEN annual conference in Delhi this year. It was a rare opportunity to take a step out of the business and be encouraged to think again about strategic issues. We will undoubtedly look to scale our business further internationally in the coming years, and through DWEN I have made some fantastic connections with other female entrepreneurs from around the world, who I have no doubt will be extremely helpful on that front. It was also amazing to have the chance to get a better understanding of doing business in India, and an insight into the consumer fashion market.
Image of Julia at top of page: the sorority.org