I was introduced to Sophie by a colleague, who insisted that I had to interview her because she was a force of nature, and a real protagonist for a more flexible approach to work. I wasn’t disappointed, as despite having come from what for many is quite a traditional background in communications, Sophie’s career has had some seriously unusual twists and turns. That has now come to fruition in her leading an agency that embraces much of the current thinking about remote and flexible working, an output focus rather than bums on seats, and quality of life rather than work obsession.
I caught up with her to find out more:
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to get to this point..
I am CEO of The Caffeine Partnership, a strategic consultancy that works to stimulate business.
I started my career conventionally in multinational corporates, working P&G and Coke and then went into consultancy with Interbrand. The deviation in my career and the choices I made were driven by personal circumstances. I’m married to a diplomat, so I’ve been overseas for two periods of time, which has changed the shape of what I do.
The first time, I worked for an ad agency, Leo Burnett in Dubai. I had a fantastic time, but I knew when I came back that we would be going overseas in 3 years. I was also pregnant.
I decided to start my own business, so that I could run it from overseas. Soon after my first baby, I set up an ecommerce site, inspired by my experience of having a baby and what that was like for a new mother. It was called babeswithbabieslondon.com and was a premium gift and new mother and baby site.
I set it up in 2006, just as ecommerce was taking off. I started the business from scratch, I hadn’t done anything like it before. Initially it was from my back bedroom, and then a warehouse. It was doing really well in the 3 years we were based in London, and then we moved to Tallinn in Estonia. By then we had a 3-year old and a 10-week-old.
We had set everything up from the start so that it could be run from everywhere. We really believed in the idea of a ‘feet on the ground’ sensible business, but with head and business in the cloud.
I ran that business for 3 years from Tallinn, which was a very e-enabled place. However, I had two young babies, and it was the credit crunch, which was particularly challenging.
One of our most important success factors was exceptional customer service. It was important that our customer service team were very, very good. We created a team of people that lived and worked in different places, connecting them as a really strong team. I had incredible women with real skills who were able to balance the needs of the business with their real lives. Our Financial Director was a single mum, who paid all our invoices in the evening, with no effect on her productivity.
We called it ‘sexi-flexi’! It was a terrible name, but it stuck. We had time sovereignty and everything was results based. We learnt to overcompensate for not being in the same office, and to be very efficient.
I returned from Estonia, and eventually sold the business to Quintessentially, and I eventually went to work for them in a different capacity.
I then decide to take a role with Caffeine. They have been going for 10 years as an independent strategic consultancy. From the start, it has worked such that everyone has time sovereignty. The team have all either run their own businesses or been on a board. It’s a team of grown-ups who have huge flexibility. One was commuting between Russia and Brighton.
We all travel a lot and work intensely, working at a senior level with people. We need to be able to manage our energy. We aren’t in an office, and we are not 9-5 and that gives everyone a lot of energy and motivation and allows us to focus on giving our clients what they need. They often want us to be in their offices.
The people at Caffeine are all at different life stages. One of our team has a 22 and a 24-year old and now has a new baby, so flexibility for him is super important. Our creative designer is an avid cyclist and triathlete, so for him spending 2 hours a day commuting isn’t a great use of time when he wants to fit in cycling as well. What we therefore do is to build the sense of team in different ways. We get together in different locations.
Part of our premise and why we do well with clients is delivering at speed. We work fast and intensely, so managing our time is important and gives a different shape to the way that we work.
We consult with small and big organisations, with what we refer to as ‘impatient leaders’. Some of what we do is work with them about managing their own pace – to think smartly and condense strategic thinking into certain time periods. We encourage them to think slightly differently about business, so the fact that we work differently helps with that
Our team are very loyal, motivated people, who are treated like adults. Next week one member is working from where his dad is having an operation. Our systems are set up so that everyone can work wherever. We’ve talked a lot about setting up a coffee shop for Caffeine and that’s still part of the plan.
I’m also co-chair of a business commission for Hammersmith and Fulham borough, where I live. That’s been fascinating, understanding all the businesses in the area and how they work.
I’ve also been writing a book, which is coming out in February next year, called ‘Super-Fast’. It’s all about how leaders lead in a world that is moving at speed. I’ve interviewed a lot of different people who are pace setters in their organisation. A more sophisticated understanding of the ways that people work is definitely a driver for businesses attracting and retaining great talent. How you manage energy in a smart way and create ways of working for your team that fits with what motivates them is so important. When they are at their best, with a life that fits with the work that they do, they work at their best, because they are energised. The more positive experience you have of life, the better you are able to deliver work.
What made you take the leap to do things differently when you started working for yourself with the ecommerce business?
I was actually very happy with the concept of working for someone else, as long as they’re smart. It was really just needing to do something that would fit in with having children and working overseas. I do like the freedom to test and learn that you get from being in a more entrepreneurial environment. When you move jobs and do things differently, sometimes it makes it hard to go back.
I’ve been with Caffeine for 2-years now and it’s been a good fit, as the values marry with how I like to work. We work with ‘vigour and rigour’. We are considered and analytical, but also like to see how things work and develop, which ticks the entrepreneurial box for me.
What made you sell your business?
We needed investment and spent time looking for a suitable investor, and at the time it fitted with what Quintessentially were doing and there was a luxury opportunity to develop the business.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress at Caffeine?
I’m an impatient person, so everything takes longer than I want it to, but I was lucky enough to be working with a group of people who were keen to see the business grow. They had brought me on to help it expand, so I was working with people who were open to trying new things. We have amazing clients. We work with highly intelligent, impatient leaders, who really want to make things happen, which is both invigorating and challenging!
Is the remote side of the business something you push as a benefit?
We don’t mask it, but we also don’t push it when first talking to people. It’s not an issue or a negative, it’s just that we are more interested in them at first. Occasionally, some people outside the business worry for us that it holds us back. However, it feels irrelevant to a client. If we are talking to leaders about smart ways they can work and different ways of working, then being able to use some of our ways helps them manage their energy and their work.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs (the agency, the book…)?
Choosing to focus, pausing and making choices about what you don’t do is as important as what you do do.
We coach leaders on their ‘to don’t’ list – the things you won’t prioritise. I also do that personally as a mother, e.g. what are the things you want to be there for? I’m a rubbish baker, so I’m never going to be the mum who gets het up about cupcakes. In business, there is definitely a point where you have to say no. I spend a lot of time meeting clients and people we work with, so I also politely say no to other coffees and slots in the diary.
I also work on what energises you. The type of people you spend time with that are tonics, and the way that you look after yourself in health for example. I’m a terrible at burning the candle at both ends. I like early mornings, but also late nights and a quick drink.
Work life balance is a blend, and I’m lucky that the type of role I have isn’t linear and I have some flexibility to fit things around it. However, I still work very long hours and have to be sensible about that. One of my resolutions is to be lazier, to find short cuts and do a lot of things less, and consciously not say yes to everything.
Do you get the fear, and what do you do to spur yourself on?
Of course, I get the fear! Writing a book takes so long to finish and there are demons in my head constantly. You’re not doing anything interesting if it’s not testing you and making you a bit afraid.
My advice is to surround yourself with people who can help you through it. I have 2 daughters – 12 and 9 – and one of the things I encourage them to do is to see things as practice. You don’t have to be perfect at everything. If you try things you learn and you develop yourself. When you view things as opportunities to learn or get experience, it’s fine.
Breaking it down into bite size chunks is another good method. For example, writing a book is intimidating. Planning out the chapters and having fun with the titles is fine. Interviewing 100 amazing people, that’s fantastic. It hits the pleasure principle of small, manageable chunks. You tick things off and you get a high.
How do you define success?
Success is a sense of progress. The feeling that you’ve helped people get to where they want, whether it’s our clients, my team or seeing my gorgeous kids progressing and having a good experience in a world where there is a lot of pressure for them.
That’s not at all linked to a classic way of working. You can stimulate business, or people in short sharp micro learning ways. There is so much out there to learn, discover and practice as leaders, businesspeople and humans – so we are achieving success to get that sense of progress.
How do you start your day?
I am, embarrassingly, a morning person. It's very unfashionable although often useful. I start the day normally with a cuddle with my girls and three mornings a week I do a boot camp in my local park. Although I'm not a particularly athletic person, being outside first thing and exercising makes such a difference to my energy and my mood. I'm back by 8 for the school run or for meetings.
How do you organise yourself? Any useful tools / tips? Essential apps on your iPhone you can’t live without?
I'm a sucker for anything that helps me do things faster or remember things as I'm easily distracted. Our team use Slack to communicate, which is fast and fabulous and makes us feel less remote. We use Trello to organise ongoing projects. I've tried a million 'to do' apps and am still looking for The One.
I organise myself by being as military as possible with my diary (helped by an amazing EA I have to say) where home things and work things are all clear. I try and make sure I block thinking time/working time/writing time for the book I'm working on as well as meetings.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I have a great team for idea-bouncing and a group of people who help as an informal 'advisory board' to talk through ideas. My business partner Andy and I also have walking meetings, that really help energise you and give you ideas.
Single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
You can do anything. But you can't do everything.
To find out more about Sophie, and the innovative ‘The Caffeine Partnership’, check out www.thisiscaffeine.com