Shape up Your Business

Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish, notonthehighstreet.com

Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish

This is a searingly honest and practical book that will be invaluable to women looking to build a high-growth business. Anyone thinking of starting or getting a business off the ground will find it useful too. It includes helpful reflective exercises and quite a few cautionary tales.

Sophie Cornish and Holly Tucker built notonthehighstreet.com from their kitchen table in 2006, taking it to a turnover of almost £44 million today. From the beginning, the business model – an online sales platform for creative British businesses – demanded scale and high-growth. While the turnover sounds impressive, most of that goes to partners who sell on the site. Notonthehighstreet.com’s income comes from the commission on those sales and needs to cover management, development and a massive marketing budget. Sophie and Holly found that “As we grew bigger and more successful our costs went soaring up – further than we could predict. Further than we could afford.”  After exhausting all other sources of funding they turned to venture capital and have now completed their fifth round of financing.

A book and a business for women

The venture capital model has driven the business hard, and this book shares what that meant to them as evolving business women and as mothers. The book isn’t labelled ‘for women’ but inside the writers acknowledge that it is primarily aimed at women. That’s down to their holistic approach and also the fact that their customers and partners are also mostly women.

The success of notonthehighstreet.com is to a great extent down to Holly and Sophie’s outstanding marketing abilities. And there is lots to learn about how to place emotional connection and customer empathy right at the heart of the business and build an authentic brand.

They have integrated a thirty-day challenge into the book, so every section ends with a practical reflection and exercise. We used some of the exercises to review Prowess’s development and they were excellent. A coaching approach is integral to the book – including an exercise on how to be your own coach for a day. Both authors acknowledge how important their own coaches have been to their personal growth and business success. And the book follows a similar path, focusing initially on personal development.

Tough choices

Both Sophie and Holly are incredibly open about just how tough some of the choices they’ve had to make have been. Their personal stories run through the book and are both powerful and harrowing.

Holly’s diary shows a typical 12-hour day work schedule. In addition, Holly admits that she is ‘relentlessly “on”‘. She checks email and social media and sends a text to her PA last thing, before she goes to sleep. Holly has one hour in the morning strictly reserved for spending time with her son. “But the reality is, I’m getting dressed, doing my make-up and looking at my iPhone (my PA emails me my list for the day).”

While Holly continues to thrive under pressure, Sophie’s personal circumstances changed and that kind of schedule lost its appeal. “More times than I can bear to think of now, I’d get a slightly bleak text from Honor, at eight or even nine o’clock, asking, ‘Is there any food for us?'” she writes. The tipping point was meeting someone who worked for a charity for neglected, depressed middle-class children in her area; she knew that her current situation couldn’t continue.

Sophie has now taken a step back from day-to-day management of the company to be more available to her teenage children. Childcare has been an ongoing issue for both Holly and Sophie. Both have supportive partners who’ve taken the lead parenting role on at times, but getting the balance right for everyone in the family hasn’t been easy.

Business lessons

There are a huge number of business lessons in Shape up Your Business, here are just a few:

Innovation.  Notonthehighstreet.com now supports over 4,000 small businesses in the UK. Most of them are led by women. It has marvellously disrupted and revitalised the traditional craft fair. When Holly and Sophie started in 2006, it did indeed seem “highly improbable that consumers would pay for goods that historically they needed to touch and feel first”. Sophie and Holly had the vision and courage to disrupt that industry early and to do it well.

Visualisation. For Sophie and Holly a clear up-dated vision is crucial and, of course, the book includes visualisation exercises. “In the early days, the visualisation just kept on coming, unstoppably.” [When times get tough…] “It’s most important to keep that vision full of colour. It’s what will help you get there.” Holly uses visualisation daily to think through her to-do list, thinking through how she will complete each task.

Sales. Holly is a self-confessed natural saleswoman. “Be it your business or the bank manager, you should always be in sales mode. It gets you places faster and people appreciate passion.” Here are a few of the key points from her masterclass on selling and pitching:

  • Be credible. If you’re selling to someone, they want to know why you are worthy of their investment (whether time, money or employment). Ensure you have worked out the answer to this, first and foremost.
  • Stick to the truth. No fudging, no hiding. If there’s an elephant in the room, someone will ask you about it – be prepared to give the right and honest answer.
  • Take knocks – but keep coming back. Tenacity gets you everywhere.
  • Don’t understand the word ‘no’. Any so-called obstruction is just a problem to be solved.
  • Don’t dwell. Move forward. This skill will help you quickly overcome anything thrown at you, however unexpected.
  • Know it. Whether pitching your business in order to hire the right person or selling a product – it equals sales.
  • Be yourself. Always. But know who you are first.

Shape up Your Business is one of the most honest business books I’ve read. While it’s essential reading for anyone looking to build a high-growth business, it will also be useful to anyone looking to start or establish a business. Click here to order your copy.

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