Zu is probably one of my most perfect friends to be part of this blog. Not many people in their early 30's have already been serial entrepreneurs and continue to see their career as having multiple stages ahead. Brimming with ideas, drive and enthusiasm, Zu represents what I wanted Masters of Many to convey - that you can achieve things in multiple industries by using a core set of skills. We sat down to talk about her career to date and what she hopes the future will hold...
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to date?
I never really thought about whether I wanted to be an entrepreneur or not. When I left University I went to work for L’oreal on their graduate trainee scheme, working in London, Paris, and New York on global strategic work. They were really good at giving me confidence and I saw an opportunity to do something for myself, so I set up my first online cosmetics business in 2008, Zuneta, specialising in luxury beauty brands. It was challenging, as luxury brands weren't ready to sell online, so a lot of our time was spent convincing them of its value. When I started it was just me. By the time I sold the business in 2013 we were 30 people.
I then met Claire, who had started a smaller site called Love Lula, which was all about organic beauty products and we joined forces. We were able to grow the business much faster, as organic was a niche that the retailers weren’t tackling, but the customers were increasingly keen on. We learnt a lot about digital in both businesses, which paid the path for what I do today.
I started to do some consultancy and I was approached by Unilever to help them move into premium beauty, advising them on what retailers they should be working with and the premium brands they were acquiring.
My next business, Neokin, was an opportunity I identified through Zunetta and acquiring customers through content. My colleague Katey, who I set up the business with, and I spent a lot of time talking to brands and agencies and working out whether the time was right for a new kind of communications model. We found that the market in the UK was far behind the mindset in Asia, or the US and instead people were asking us for strategy over and above the bigger content ideas we had. I still believe it’s going to be a big topic for the future, but it wasn’t quite right at that time.
Through my consultancy I met someone senior at Boots and today I’m working with them to re-think their customer experience with a full focus on omni-channel. I met two guys Simon and Warren as part of this, who have a long and lovely history in the agency world. I’m now a partner at their agency, Seven Seconds Limited, which they created to take advantage of the fact that there aren’t a lot of options for big scale companies to work out how to be more relevant in digital today. We set up incubators for these brands, helping them test and learn before investing too much and completely changing how they operate which is obviously terrifying for businesses of that size.
When you first worked for yourself, what made you take the leap to do things differently?
For me it was really that beauty of youth where you don’t really think about the consequences – I was 27 years old and just thought “I can do this, I don’t have a family to feed, I’m in a lucky position where I can just go and try something”.
Then you start working for yourself and realise how tough it is. I think that working for yourself is the best MBA you can possibly do because you learn about so much, and about such varied elements of the business, from marketing to operations to sales. I really enjoyed that part of it. It’s definitely not for everyone – it’s pretty tough and lonely to work for yourself, so think about it a lot before you go for it, but the rewards are huge.
And now you’ve made the transition to working back in-house for an agency, what drove that decision?
The agency is still very young and new, but the fact that we’re in partnership with BBH (a larger agency) it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is still a start-up, and it’s more corporate in some senses. It was a big decision to take at the beginning – there were a lot of things I needed to persuade me – it was about negotiating the right kind of deal for myself.
The reason for me going back in and doing it that way was having a group of mentors, which I haven’t really had since I was 27 years old. There’s never a time when you can’t or shouldn’t be learning from someone. I felt like it would be good to work with people and learn from other people. I’m learning a lot at the moment, which is really exciting and it’s great not to be doing it all yourself for a change.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress when you started Zuneta?
There were two key times – when we first broke even, which was about a year in – and I could pay myself, hire some staff, and we thought – this is happening! The second stage was just before we sold. We had a big warehouse in Manchester, a big team and everyone had clear roles and things were starting to run smoothly. It had taken a long time to get to that calmer state! Running your own business is a ride – some days you wake up and you think ‘bloody hell, this is what I’ve created’, and other times you wake up and it’s just a huge weight on your shoulders, but it’s worth it.
How often did you feel like the business wasn’t going to work?
It's ups and downs. You have to be honest with yourself about what you want out of the business. I meet people who love to tell me that their business is doing great, but if you ask any entrepreneur how their business is doing, their honest answer should be ‘it’s tough’. You have an expectation of where you want the business to go, and then the reality of where it’s actually going. So whilst you might have a profitable business, I had expectations of what I wanted it to achieve, and it’s never enough in comparison to those expectations.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs?
You need to stay focused. There are the things you want to do, things that make you money, and things that help get you to where you want to be in the future. I had to make the decision about doing things that keep your CV relevant (not something that particularly drives me, and I think is a challenge for entrepreneurs generally) or chasing the things that I find interesting. You have to be honest with yourself – what do you need right now, money or building a business and then be focused on that.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
If I get the fear I try and get some down-time immediately and spend some time not thinking about it. Sometimes bad things happen, but when they do, good luck is just round the corner. As long as you’ve got yourself, and your health, what’s the worse that can happen? I’ve definitely had periods where I was earning very little, and you compare your situation to being in a career with a six-figure salary – but I’d be bored doing that.
What’s the best compliment you’ve been given?
When people say that they look up to you, or that you’ve inspired them, that’s a delightful compliment. Although yesterday I have to say I felt very smug – my mum had seen some old friends of hers, and they said “we saw your daughter on the cover of the Sunday Times Business section”, and that was always my one ambition in life to get myself on that front cover – so I’ve done it now, I’ll have to think of something else!
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
I’m very much a live in the moment person. I want to be sitting in a rocking chair when I’m old and feel like I’ve given life a good go and done as much as possible. It’s about taking each day as it comes.
Where would you like the rest of your career journey to get to?
In the future I would like to feel like I was someone who embraced the opportunities that my generation was given – which I believe is digital. I want to help brands and retailers take advantage of the area. That’s why I started e-commerce sites, that’s what we were trying to do with Neokin and it’s what I’m doing now with Boots.
How do you organise yourself?
I’m really bad at writing up plans and putting things in the diary – L’oreal were always sending me on training courses to put structure to my day. I know how I work and what works best for me – if something comes on to my plate I like to just crack on and get it done. Also as I’m getting older, learning to delegate is pretty crucial.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I’m one of those weird people that always carries around a little black notebook – I’m quite old school in that sense. When I think of something I just write it down. For me if an idea comes to you and you keep thinking about it, that’s when I know that it’s an idea that I want to follow up on.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
Ikea! I love everything about the business, I think it was revolutionary and disruptive. Obviously Uber and Air BnB, both such simple solutions and ideas, but Ikea is the one I really wish I’d developed.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a marine biologist, but I never got into sciences as I was moved around schools a lot when I was younger. One day I still plan to do it and I’ll work with shark conservation. I have gone as far as looking at what course I could do and how involved a marine biology course is. However, I’ve also practiced one of my new things I’m trying to do, which is saying no, and just as I was about to sign up for an online course, I decided I already have a lot on my plate, but it’s definitely something I’ll come back to.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
Don’t worry about it too much, the right things will find you. Just try stuff – I worked from a young teenager as I wanted my own money and by the time I got to university and everyone else was focused on plans to travel, I knew I wanted a job straight away. I wanted to be independent and comfortable as soon as possible.
How do you treat yourself?
For me it’s all about having an adventure – and particularly those that involve adrenaline. I’ve done all sorts of things like going to North Pole as part of a race, cage diving with Great White Sharks, and my next one at New Year is snorkelling with killer whales and hump backs, which I’m really excited about. Taking myself fully out of my comfort zone is what I enjoy doing.
Finally, what’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Finding a good mentor that really understands you is important. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t get stressed about everything. Choose the things you’re going to worry about and take home– you can’t worry about everything!
Find out more about Zu’s current ventures at http://sevenseconds.com and http://www.neo-kin.com